Human Dignity and Justice   /   Fall 2007   /    Essays

The Clash of Universalisms

Religious and Secular in Human Rights

Abdulaziz Sachedina

Voting ballots organized and arranged for counting in Afghanistan. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Moral Foundations of Human Rights11xResearch for this essay and for the forthcoming book, Islam and Human Rights, from which this essay was adapted, was conducted under the Carnegie Scholar of Islam program.


In the last three decades, especially since the early 1970s—when the social and political upheavals in the Muslim world occurred and the rise of militant religiosity among some Muslim groups began—there has been sustained interest in the foundations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its compatibility with Islam. A number of books and articles in Arabic and Persian, written by some prominent traditionalist interpreters of the Islamic revealed texts—like Muhammad al-Ghazali among Egyptians and Ayatollah Ja’far Subhani Tabrizi among Iranians, to mention only a few—underscore the attention and interest the international document has attracted among champions of Islamic tradition. The major thrust of Islamic critique of the Declaration, however, is its secularism and its implied hostility to divergent philosophical or religious ideas. The secular foundation of the Declaration is deemed epistemologically insufficient to account for the derivation of inherent and inalienable human rights. Perhaps the sore point in the secular human rights discourse, as far as Muslim theoreticians of rights language are concerned, is the total dismissal of anything religious as being an impediment to the modern development of human rights.22xIt is worth reminding ourselves that Christian assessment of the Declaration is founded upon an entirely different set of concerns that arose from its reaction to the liberal paradigm, which was based on radical individualism and was derived from the historically situated political and social discourse of seventeenthcentury philosophical thought. In his introduction to Human Rights and the Image of God (London: SCM, 2004), Roger Ruston traces the development of Christian-Catholic criticism of the liberal paradigm of human rights since the Universal Declaration in 1948. While there are some common themes that unite Muslim critics with their Christian counterparts, for Muslims the major problem with the liberal paradigm has been its hostile attitude to religion per se and its enormous confidence in secularism, which has failed time and again to deliver justice in Muslim countries that adopted its presuppositions for their reconstruction of modern Muslim societies. It is not only Turkey that institutionalized secularism through constitutional politics and is now faced with internal challenges posed by Islamic cultural revival; Algeria also stands out as another unmistakable example of secularism enforced from the top by a colonial power that failed to deliver a democratic political system, justice, and the fair distribution of national wealth to its citizens.

It is a mistake to think that Muslim thinkers, even the most traditionalist among them, are against the need for universal human rights to protect human dignity and human agency in the context of a nation-state today. Even the staunchest opponents of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who regard the document as being morally imperialistic and culturally ethnocentric, concede the fact that human beings have rights that accrue to them as humans.33xIn his book on human rights, the prominent traditionalist scholar of Egypt, Muhammad al-Ghazali lends qualified support to the international document as something that must be respected by Muslims because some of its “foundations” are also enunciated in the Qur’an. For Ghazali, like other traditionalist scholars in the Muslim world, Islam provides the norms that are culturally legitimate and applicable within the Islamic world. As such, an alternative declaration of Islamic human rights is appended to the translation and discussion of the international document. See Huquq al-insan: Bayn ta’alim al-islam wa i’lan al-umam al-muttahida (Human Rights: Between the Teachings of Islam and the Declaration of the United Nations) (Alexandria, Egypt: Dar al-Da’wa, 1422/2002). This trend in traditional human rights scholarship has undermined the legitimacy of the universal declaration in Muslim eyes. The only way to lessen the negative influence of this trend is to engage traditional scholars in exploring the metaphysical foundations of the human rights declaration and demonstrate the common moral ground that is shared by world religions in upholding the norms that undergird the international document. By denying any normative foundations for the human rights declaration and insisting upon its secular thrust, the opportunity to stimulate conversation with the actual representatives of Islamic tradition is lost.

Human rights language is modern, firmly rooted in a secular liberalism that safeguards and promotes citizens’ rights and that demands privatization of religion from the public sphere to allow the development of a politics independent of religion. This secularization of the public sphere is absent in Islamic juridical and theological anthropology. Human beings are not conceived in terms of compartmentalized individuals who can separate the spiritual from the temporal in their persons and keep the former from interfering with their everyday lives. Consequently, the secularism that undergirds the Declaration does not translate into an Islamic idiom without raising serious questions about the relationship of religion to the state. More importantly, the overriding emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, with an independent moral standard that transcends religious and cultural differences, to claim rights without considering the bonds of reciprocity runs contrary to the Islamic tradition’s emphasis on the community and relational aspects of human existence.

Ongoing Muslim criticisms of the Declaration as being prejudicially anti-religious and politically hegemonic are founded upon a rejection of the universal claim of secular morality. These criticisms can be best tackled by looking at the philosophical and metaphysical issues undergirding the international document that can find resonance in Islamic philosophical theology. However controversial, I believe that a frank exchange about the universal moral foundation of human rights will provide a corrective to Muslim perceptions about the intended secularist bias of the Declaration. Engaging traditional Muslim scholars in rethinking their anti-Declaration stance and challenging them on their own terms to recognize that Islamic revelation and the Declaration share a common moral terrain to protect individuals from oppression will aid the overall goal of the universality of the secular document in garnering support for its implementation in the Muslim world.

Without engaging those who disagree with these universal principles and their cross-cultural application, universal human rights will lack the necessary legitimacy and enforcement in the Muslim world. As long as the moral and metaphysical foundations of human rights norms remain unarticulated, they will be easily dismissed as yet another ploy to dominate Muslim societies by undermining their religiously based culture and value system. Moreover, since the rise of Islamic political consciousness in the post-colonial age, Muslim authorities, for various reasons, have found it legitimate to dismiss compliance with some articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by labeling them as “imperialistic” or “culturally Eurocentric.” As it stands, the Declaration is viewed as being insensitive to particular Muslim cultural values, especially when it comes to speaking about individual rights in the context of collective and family values in Muslim society.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).