Human Rights in Islam

by ‘Allamah Abu al-’A'la Mawdudi

The Islamic Approach:

The first point I would like to clarify at the very outset is that when we speak of human rights in Islam we really mean that these rights have been granted by God; they have not been granted by any king or by any legislative assembly. The rights granted by the kings or the legislative assemblies, can also be withdrawn in the same manner in which they are conferred. But since in Islam human rights have been conferred by God, no legislative assembly in the world, or any government on earth has the right or authority to make any amendment or change in the rights conferred by God. Nor are they the basic human rights which are conferred on paper for the sake of show and exhibition and denied in actual life when the show is over.
The charter and the proclamations and the resolutions of the United Nations cannot be compared with the rights sanctioned by God; because the former is not applicable to anybody while the latter is applicable to every believer. They are a part and parcel of the Islamic Faith. Every Muslim or administrators who claim themselves to be Muslims will have to accept, recognize and enforce them. If they fail to enforce them, and start denying the rights that have been guaranteed by God or make amendments and changes in them, or practically violate them while paying lip-service to them, the verdict of the Holy Quran for such governments is clear and unequivocal:
Those who do not judge by what God has sent down are the dis Believers (kafirun). 5:44 The following verse also proclaims: “They are the wrong-doers (zalimun)” (5:45), while a third verse in the same chapter says: “They are the evil-livers (fasiqun)” (5:47).


The first thing that we find in Islam in this connection is that it lays down some rights for man as a human being. In other words it means that every man whether he belongs to this country or that, whether he is a believer or unbeliever, has some basic human rights simply because he is a human being, which should be recognized by every Muslim. In fact it will be his duty to fulfil these obligations.

1. The Right to Life
The first and the foremost basic right is the right to live and respect human life. The Holy Quran lays down:
Whosoever kills a human being without (any reason like) man slaughter, or corruption on earth, it is as though he had killed all mankind … (5:32)
Do not kill a soul which Allah has made sacred except through the due process of law … (6:151)

The Prophet, may God’s blessings be on him, has declared homicide as the greatest sin only next to polytheism. The Tradition of the Prophet reads: “The greatest sins are to associate something with God and to kill human beings.”

‘The Right to Life’ has been given to man only by Islam. You will observe that the people who talk about human rights if they have ever mentioned them in their Constitutions or Declarations, then it is clearly implied in them that these rights are applicable only to their citizens or they have been framed for the white race alone. This can clearly be gleaned by the fact that human beings were hunted down like animals in Australia and the land was cleared of the aborigines for the white man. Similarly the aboriginal population of America was systematically destroyed and the Red Indians who somehow survived this genocide were confined to specified areas called Reservations.

2. The Right to the Safety of Life

Immediately after the verse of the Holy Quran which has been mentioned in connection with the right to life, God has said: “And whoever saves a life it is as though he had saved the lives of all mankind” (5:32).

3. Respect for the Chastity of Women

The third important thing that we find in the Charter of Human Rights granted by Islam is that a woman’s chastity has to be respected and protected under all circumstances, whether she belongs to our own nation or to the nation of an enemy, whether we find her in the wild forest or in a conquered city; whether she is our co-religionist or belongs to some other religion or has no religion at all. A Muslim cannot outrage her under any circumstances. All promiscuous relation- ship has been forbidden to him, irrespective of the status or position of the woman, whether the woman is a willing or an unwilling partner to the act. The words of the Holy Quran in this respect are: “Do not approach (the bounds of) adultery” (17:32).

4. The Right to a Basic Standard of Life

Speaking about the economic rights the Holy Quran enjoins upon its followers:
And in their wealth there is acknowledged right for the needy and destitute. (51:19)
The words of this injunction show that it is a categorical and unqualified order. Furthermore this injunction was given in Makkah where there was no Muslim society in existence and where generally the Muslims had to come in contact with the population of the disbelievers. Therefore the clear meaning of this verse is that anyone who asks for help and anyone who is suffering from deprivation has a right in the property and wealth of the Muslims; irrespective of the fact whether he belongs to this nation or to that nation, to this country or to that country, to this race or to that race. If you are in a position to help and a needy person asks you for help or if you come to know that he is in need, then it is your duty to help him. God has established his right over you, which you have to honour as a Muslim.

5. Individual’s Right to Freedom

Islam has clearly and categorically forbidden the primitive practice of capturing a free man, to make him a slave or to sell him into slavery. On this point the clear and unequivocal words of the Prophet (S) are as follows: “There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgement. Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats this money” (al-Bukhari and Ibn Majjah).

6. The Right to Justice

This is a very important and valuable right which Islam has given to man as a human being. The Holy Quran has laid down: “Do not let your hatred of a people incite you to aggression” (5:2). “And do not let ill-will towards any folk incite you so that you swerve from dealing justly. Be just; that is nearest to heedfulness” (5:8). Stressing this point the Quran again says: “You who believe stand steadfast before God as witness for (truth and) fairplay” (4:135).

This makes the point clear that Muslims have to be just not only with ordinary human beings but even with their enemies. In other words, the justice to which Islam invites her followers is not limited only to the citizens of their own country, or the people of their own tribe, nation or race, or the Muslim community as a whole, but it is meant for all the human beings of the world. Muslims therefore, cannot be unjust to anyone. Their permanent habit and character should be such that no man should ever fear injustice at their hands, and they should treat every human being everywhere with justice and fairness.

7. Equality of Human Beings

Islam not only recognizes absolute equality between men irrespective of any distinction of colour, race or nationality, but makes it an important and significant principle, a reality. The Almighty God has laid down in the Holy Quran: “O mankind, we have created you from a male and female.”

In other words all human beings are brothers to one another. They all are the descendants from one father and one mother. “And we set you up as nations and tribes so that you may be able to recognize each other” (49:13).
This means that the division of human beings into nations, races, groups and tribes is for the sake of distinction, so that people of one race or tribe may meet and be acquainted with the people belonging to another race or tribe and cooperate with one another.
“Indeed, the noblest among you before God are the most heedful of you” (49:13).

In other words the superiority of one man over another is only on the basis of God-consciousness, purity of character and high morals, and not on the basis of colour, race, language or nationality, and even this superiority based on piety and pure conduct does not justify that such people should play lord or assume airs of superiority over other human beings. Assuming airs of superiority is in itself a reprehensible vice which no God-fearing and pious man can ever dream of perpetrating. Nor does the righteous have more privileged rights over others, because this runs counter to human equality, which has been laid down in the beginning of this verse as a general principle. From the moral point of view, goodness and virtue is in all cases better than vice and evil.

This has been exemplified by the Prophet in one of his sayings thus: “No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. Nor does a white man have any superiority over a black man, or the black man any superiority over the white man. You are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from clay” (al-Bayhaqi and al-Bazzaz).

8. The Right to Co-operate and Not to Co-operate

Islam has prescribed a general principle of paramount importance and universal application saying:
Co-operate with one another for virtue and heedfulness and do not co-operate with one another for the purpose of vice and aggression” (5:2).

This means that the man who undertakes a noble and righteous work, irrespective of the fact whether he is living at the North Pole or the South Pole, has the right to expect support and active co-operation from the Muslims. On the contrary he who perpetrates deeds of vice and aggression, even if he is our closest relation or neighbour, does not have the right to win our support and help in the name of race, country, language or nationality, nor should he have the expectation that Muslims will co-operate with him or support him. Nor is it permissible for Muslims to co-operate with him.


We have discussed the human rights in general. Now we would like to take up the question of rights of the citizens in an Islamic State. As these rights are more extensive than the general human rights which have been described earlier, they need separate treatment.

1. The Security of Life and Property

In the address which the Prophet delivered on the occasion of the Farewell Hajj, he said: “Your lives and properties are forbidden to one another till you meet your Lord on the Day of Resurrection.” God Almighty has laid down in the Holy Quran: “Anyone who kills a believer deliberately will receive as his reward (a sentence) to live in Hell for ever. God will be angry with him and curse him, and prepare dreadful torment for him” (4:93).

The Prophet has also said about the dhimmis (the non-Muslim citizens of the Muslim State): “One who kills a man under covenant (i.e. a dhimmi) will not even smell the fragrance of Paradise” (al-Bukhari and Abu Dawud).

Islam prohibits homicide but allows only one exception, that the killing is done in the due process of law which the Quran refers to as bi al-haqq (with the truth).

Along with security of life, Islam has with equal clarity and definiteness conferred the right of security of ownership of property, as mentioned earlier with reference to the address of the Farewell Hajj. On the other hand, the Holy Quran goes so far as to declare that the taking of people’s possessions or property is completely prohibited unless they are acquired by lawful means as permitted in the Laws of God. The Law of God categorically declares “Do not devour one another’s wealth by false and illegal means” (2:188).

2. The Protection of Honour

The second important right is the right of the citizens to the protection of their honour. In the address delivered on the occasion of the Farewell Hajj, to which I have referred earlier, the Prophet did not only prohibit the life and property of the Muslims to one another, but also any encroachment upon their honour, respect and chastity were forbidden to one another. The Holy Quran clearly lays down:

(a) “You who believe, do not let one (set of) people make fun of another set. (b) Do not defame one another. (c) Do not insult by using nicknames. (d) And do not backbite or speak ill of one another” (49:11-12).

3. The Sanctity and Security of Private Life

Islam recognizes the right of every citizen of its state that there should be no undue interference or encroachment on the privacy of his life. The Holy Quran has laid down the injunction: “Do not spy on one another” (49:12). “Do not enter any houses except your own homes unless you are sure of their occupants’ consent” (24:27). The Prophet has gone to the extent of instructing his followers that a man should not enter even his own house suddenly or surreptitiously.

4. The Security of Personal Freedom

Islam has also laid down the principle that no citizen can be imprisoned unless his guilt has been proved in an open court. To arrest a man only on the basis of suspicion and to throw him into a prison without proper court proceedings and without providing him a reason- able opportunity to produce his defence is not permissible in Islam.

It is related in the hadith that once the Prophet was delivering a lecture in the mosque, when a man rose during the lecture and said: “O Prophet of God, for what crime have my neighbours been arrested?” The Prophet heard the question and continued his speech. The man rose once again and repeated the same question. The Prophet again did not answer and continued his speech. The man rose for a third time and repeated the same question. Then the Prophet ordered that the man’s neighbours be released. The reason why the Prophet had kept quiet when the question was repeated twice earlier was that the police officer was present in the mosque and if there were proper reasons for the arrest of the neighbours of this man, he would have got up to explain his position. Since the police officer gave no reasons for these arrests the Prophet ordered that the arrested persons should be released.

The injunction of the Holy Quran is very clear on this point. “When- ever you judge between people, you should judge with (a sense of) justice” (4:58). And the Prophet has also been asked by God: “I have been ordered to dispense justice between you.” This was the reason why the Caliph ‘Umar said: “In Islam no one can be imprisoned except in pursuance of justice.” The words used here clearly indicate that justice means due process of law.

5. The Right to Protest Against Tyranny

Amongst the rights that Islam has conferred on human beings is the right to protest against government’s tyranny. Referring to it the Quran says: “God does not love evil talk in public unless it is by some- one who has been injured thereby” (4:148). This means that God strongly disapproves of abusive language or strong words of condemnation, but the person who has been the victim of injustice or tyranny, God gives him the right to openly protest against the injury that has been done to him. This right is not limited only to individuals. The words of the verse are general. Therefore if an individual or a group of people or a party usurps power, and after assuming the reins of authority begins to tyrannize individuals or groups of men or the entire population of the country, then to raise the voice of protest against it openly is the God-given right of man and no one has the authority to usurp or deny this right. If anyone tries to usurp this right of citizens then he rebels against God. The talisman of Section 1444 may protect such a tyrant in this world, but it cannot save him from the hell-fire in the Hereafter.

6. Freedom of Expression

Islam gives the right of freedom of thought and expression to all citizens of the Islamic State on the condition that it should be used for the propagation of virtue and truth and not for spreading evil and wickedness. This Islamic concept of freedom of expression is much superior to the concept prevalent in the West. Under no circumstances would Islam allow evil and wickedness to be propagated. It also does not give anybody the right to use abusive or offensive language in the name of criticism. The right to freedom of expression for the sake of propagating virtue and righteousness is not only a right in Islam but an obligation. One who tries to deny this right to his people is openly at war with God, the All-Powerful. And the same thing applies to the attempt to stop people from evil. Whether this evil is perpetrated by an individual or by a group of people or the government of one’s own country, or the government of some other country; it is the right of a Muslim and it is also his obligation that he should warn and reprimand the evil-doer and try to stop him from doing it. Over and above, he should openly and publicly condemn it and show the course of righteousness which that individual, nation or government should adopt.
The Holy Quran has described this quality of the Faithful in the following words: “They enjoin what is proper and forbid what is improper” (9:71). In contrast, describing the qualities of a hypocrite, the Quran mentions: “They bid what is improper and forbid what is proper” (9:67).

7. Protection from Arbitrary Imprisonment

Islam also recognizes the right of the individual that he will not be arrested or imprisoned for the offences of others. The Holy Quran has laid down this principle clearly: “No bearer of burdens shall be made to bear the burden of another” (6:164). Islam believes in personal responsibility. We ourselves are responsible for our acts, and the consequence of our actions cannot be transferred to someone else. In other words this means that every man is responsible for his actions. If another man has not shared this action then he cannot be held responsible for it, nor can he be arrested.

8. The Right to Basic Necessities of Life

Islam has recognized the right of the needy people that help and assistance will be provided for them. “And in their wealth there is acknowledged right for the needy and the destitute” (51:19). In this verse, the Quran has not only conferred a right on every man who asks for assistance in the wealth of the Muslims, but has also laid down that if a Muslim comes to know that a certain man is without the basic necessities of life, then irrespective of the fact whether he asks for assistance or not, it is his duty to reach him and give all the help that he can extend. For this purpose Islam has not depended only on the help and charity that is given voluntarily, but has made compulsory charity, zakat as the third pillar of Islam, next only to profession of faith and worship of God through holding regular prayers. In short the state has been entrusted with the duty and responsibility of looking after all those who need help and assistance. A truly Islamic State is therefore a truly welfare state which will be the guardian and protector of all those in need.

9. Equality Before Law

Islam gives its citizens the right to absolute and complete equality in the eyes of the law. As far as the Muslims are concerned, there are clear instructions in the Holy Quran and hadith that in their rights and obligations they are all equal: “The believers are brothers (to each other)” (49:10). “If they (disbelievers) repent and keep up prayer and pay the Ipoor-due, they are your brothers in faith” (9:11). The Prophet has said that: “The life and blood of Muslims are equally precious” (Abu Dawud; Ibn Majjah). In another hadith he has said: “The protection given by all Muslims is equal. Even an ordinary man of them can grant protection to any man” (al-Bukhari; Muslim; Abu Dawud). In another more detailed Tradition of the Prophet, it has been said that those who accept the Oneness of God, believe in the Prophet- hood of His Messenger, give up primitive prejudices and join the Muslim community and brotherhood, “then they have the same rights and obligations as other Muslims have” (al-Bukhari; al-Nisa’i). Thus there is absolute equality between the new converts to Islam and the old followers of the Faith.

10. Rulers Not Above the Law

Islam clearly insists and demands that all officials of the Islamic State, whether he be the head or an ordinary employee, are equal in the eyes of the law. None of them is above the law or can claim immunity. Even an ordinary citizen in Islam has the right to put forward a claim or file a legal complaint against the highest executive of the country. The Caliph ‘Umar said, “I have myself seen the Prophet, may God’s blessings be on him, taking revenge against himself (penalizing himself for some shortcoming or failing).” On the occasion of the Battle of Badr, when the Prophet was straightening the rows of the Muslim army he hit the belly of a soldier in an attempt to push him back in line. The soldier complained “O Prophet, you have hurt me with your stick.” The Prophet immediately bared his belly and said: “I am very sorry, you can revenge by doing the same to me.” The soldier came forward and kissed the abdomen of the Prophet and said that this was all that he wanted.