Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics

By Ann Elizabeth Mayer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
International Human Rights: The Historical Background

The Contribution of Western Civilization

To understand the contemporary problems of accommodating human rights within an Islamic framework, it is necessary to review the development of international human rights concepts. The human rights principles utilized in international law came from the West and are of relatively recent vintage. Although one can find ideas that anticipate human rights concepts in Ancient Greek thought, the articulation of human rights principles -- though not labeled as such -- came much later. Certainly, the development of the intellectual foundations of human rights was given an impetus by the Renaissance in Europe and by the associated growth of rationalist and humanistic thought, which led to an important turning point in Western intellectual history. This was the abandonment of premodern doctrines of the duties of man and the adoption of the view that the rights of man should be central in political theory.1 It was during the European Enlightenment that the rights of man became a preoccupation of political philosophy, and it was then that the intellectual groundwork for modern human rights theory was laid.

Eighteenth-century British and French thinkers put forward the precursors of modern human rights ideas and had great influence on the rights provisions in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, and on the Bill of Rights that was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. These, along with the Fourteenth Amendment, of 1868, have in turn had great influence on subsequent rights formulations, as have the concepts of the 1789Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen, developed at the time of the French Revolution.

Common to the British and French philosophies that contributed to the production of rights doctrines was the idea that the rights of the

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