Universal Declaration of Human Rights

by Aziz Mamuji

 In December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30 articles of which focused on respect for human rights and basic personal freedoms. The unanimous adoption of the resolution was preceded by considerable debate; and the final proclamation of an individual’s personal, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights was understandably hailed as an exceptional historical achievement which would have everlasting repercussions for mankind. Interestingly, it took the United Nations a further 28 years to ratify the declaration into two human rights covenants, both of which helped to formalise the need for universal respect for personal and social freedoms.

Yet, over 1400 years ago, mankind had witnessed a much more significant and, given the circumstances prevailing at that time, an extremely profound declaration of rights. The revelation of the Holy Qur’an, which for Muslims is the true and final word of God, bestowed and promoted personal and communal values which human society till then had not fully appreciated. This unique Book continues to guide and influence millions of faithful followers all over the world. It is an emphatic endorsement of human prerogatives, setting the basis for an equitable society in which both individual and communal rights are unequivocally guaranteed. But the Holy Qur’an is not simply a code of ethics or a series of directives which are to be taught and blindly obeyed. Its message is much more fundamental and its aims have a far deeper meaning, dealing essentially with a person’s inner self. The values it propagates are absolute and timeless, and the principles therein are not relative to any particular circumstance. Throughout the Holy Qur’an, however, the need to constantly reflect on the meaning, significance, relevance and practical application of its timeless message is repeatedly stressed.

The fundamental covenants of the United Nations Declaration are, in fact, clearly enshrined in the Holy Qur’an, which with philosophical and practical justification proclaims the rights to life, liberty, personal security, fair trial, individual privacy, education and social equality. And more importantly, it propounds the freedom of movement, thought, religion, opinion and expression.

The main doctrine of Islam is that the purpose of existence of man, as of all other creatures, is the submission to the inimitable laws of God. But whereas nature in general obeys God’s laws instinctively, man alone possesses the choice to comply or to disobey. The consequences of man’s action are judged by God, He being the creator and the real law maker in this universe. There is, however, no compulsion in Islam, and man is encouraged to reason, to seek, to question and to judge. This naturally generates a moral struggle, manifested by man’s constant endeavour to comfort and satisfy his inner self, and then to look beyond himself to utilise his many potentialities for the sake of others. This is a far-reaching responsibility, which according to Islamic theology is a vital purpose of our existence.

The Holy Qur’an leaves no doubt about its concern for the dignity of human beings. It encourages social service in terms of alleviating suffering, helping the needy and caring for the weak. Again, the aim is not simply showing mercy or doing a good deed because it is required of us to do so, but rather the integration of man’s many virtues towards making himself a balanced personality and in turn helping to create a fair society. As explained (17:70), Allah honours mankind; has given it superiority over other creatures and has granted it special favours. On the other hand, all human beings are equal and everyone gets the rewards or otherwise for what he or she has done (3:195).

One of the more fundamental liberties, which man always strives for, is the right to free thought and expression. In proclaiming these liberties, however, the UN Declaration does state limits by recognising societal obligations, the rights of others and the concern for morality, public order and general welfare. These, of course, are not unreasonable restrictions. The Holy Qur’an also recognises the need for such social norms to be respected, but it remains singularly certain about the value it places on expression. In Sura Al-Rahman (55:4) the emphasis is clear. Man has been given intelligent speech; the powers to communicate; the capacity to comprehend and the ability to explain. And the parable (2:253) further amplifies this vital message by highlighting differences of opinion, and the right to differ.

Clarity of expression and sanctity of thought are desirable virtues. The Holy Qur’an itself is devoid of ambiguity and reveals (12:1-2), that its verses are intended to make everything clear; that they are explicit and comprehensible, so that one may adopt them with reasoning. By this same token, the person most dangerous in society is the hypocrite or the ‘Munafiq’, who expresses things quite differently from what he or she actually believes and whose actions are more likely to be tinged with ulterior selfish motives.

On a more social level and within the realms of a just society, expressing oneself and conversing call for certain etiquette to be respected. The Holy Qur’an asks that there be no dubiety in speech; that the language used be common and understandable; that conversation remains free from falsehoods and artificiality, and that the speaker’s manner be reserved and restrained. These virtues are, of course, faultless !

Islam seeks to establish a society in which everyone can walk freely and have complete physical, mental and spiritual freedom. The only restrictions would be those placed by the Divine Laws. If human beings earnestly make the effort to endorse, practice and propagate the rights, guidance, wisdom and values bestowed upon them, then society would continue to evolve and benefit from the boundless munificence which Almighty Allah has placed at our disposal. Let us then, during this holy month of Ramadan, rededicate ourselves to reading about, understanding and practicing with more earnestness, the call for a fair and peaceful society which the Holy Quran guides us towards. The creation of a blissful and universal united nation may then become that much easier.

Aziz Mamuji is an Architect-Planner by profession. He is also the principal co-ordinator of the Kuwait Group of the Friends of SOS Children’s Villages in Pakistan