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Human Rights and Islam
Mar 1, 2008

Question: What is the Islamic stance on human rights? How does Islam regard the killing of a person?

Islam is a universal religion, and the significance it gives to rights is inclusive of all creation. The comprehensive Islamic perspective on the safeguarding of rights benefits not only people, but also animals as well.

Concerning this issue, it is easy to provide many examples dating right back to the time of the Messenger of God, peace and blessing be upon him. Once, while resting on his return to Medina after a military campaign, some Companions saw a bird’s nest and took the chicks out. The mother bird appeared at that moment, and upon seeing her chicks in their hands, she started circling above them in the air. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, was worried as soon as he became aware of the mother bird beating its wings in grief and ordered the Companions to return the chicks to the nest (Abu Dawud, Adab, 164). The Prophet’s concern in this incident alone is enough to show that Islam is an all-embracing system that has unequivocally guaranteed the fundamental rights of every living creature; such an all-inclusive concept of rights is beyond the reach of any other system.

As attested in an authenticated hadith, one who dies while protecting his life, intellect, property, lineage, or religion is considered to be a martyr. Accordingly, striving peacefully for the preservation of these basic rights is also accepted as a form jihad. Today, indeed, it is a fact that the preservation of these five universals has established the principles of Islamic canon law and the foundations of the modern law on human rights. First and foremost, Islam calls on Muslims to preserve the religion. Muslims are also responsible and accountable for upholding all other universal principles.

Consequently, Islam approaches human rights in accordance with these basic principles and holds every human being accountable for preserving and maintaining these inalienable rights.

It is only in Islam that human beings are favored with being the vicegerent of God on earth and in which they are delegated to make use of the resources through the vicegerency that has been granted to them. And again, it is Islam that recognizes the right to free enterprise and free activity alongside the right to security and to maintain a family. Islam, therefore, recognizes the inalienable rights and the true dignity of every individual, and guarantees human beings all their rights in perfect compliance with human nature.

For example, the Qur’an explicitly asserts that taking the life of one human being is the same as taking the lives of all of humanity: “He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind” (Maeda 5:32). It is impossible to see this degree of sensitivity on the issue of rights in any other religion or in modern law. Islam takes the issue so seriously as to equate the killing of one person with the killing of all of humanity. The Qur’an draws our attention to the event that took place between the two sons of Adam, whose names are mentioned as Cain and Abel in the Old Testament, and informs us of the recompense awaiting the first murderer in human history in the following verse: “His carnal, evil-commanding soul prompted him to kill his brother, and he killed him, thus becoming among the losers” (Maeda 5:30).

In another chapter, the Qur’an emphasizes that the eternal punishment of hell is the recompense for one who kills another unjustly: “Whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, to abide therein. And the wrath and the curse of God are upon him, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for him” (Nisa 4:93). It should be noted that Ibn Abbas and some scholars of the Tabiun (the generation that followed the Companions) deduced from the word halidan being used in the verse that eternal punishment is the recompense of the murderer, the same as that for those who deny God. This signifies Islam’s stance on human rights, which has evolved out of such essentials.