Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 1.3

Human Rights
Many issues currently debated in discussions of Islam can only be fully understood by applying the principles of God’s oneness and measuring out. Foremost among these issues is the topic of human rights. To speak of human rights, one must first speak of the human being, for what the human actually is determines what his or her rights are. When understood in terms of the measuring out, the human being is nothing but a manifestation or reflection of God’s names and qualities that God has measured out in a precise amount. Whereas other creatures manifest only some of the divine names and qualities, human beings have the capacity to perceive all of the divine names and qualities. This is alluded to in the Qur’anic account of the creation of the first human being, Adam عليه السلام:

God taught Adam the names, all of them. (2 : 31)

As the names of all things are produced by God measuring out portions of the divine names and qualities, what Adam عليه السلام was taught is how each and every part of creation reflects some aspect of the divine itself. Such knowledge is accessible to all human beings when they live in accordance with their true nature. While on the one hand, this is a great honor, on the other, it entails a great responsibility.[1]

The human being is both a servant (‘abd) and a vicegerent or representative (khalifah) before God. As a servant, the human is completely passive towards God, receiving what is measured out without opposition. As a vicegerent, the human is active towards creation and his lower nature, ordering that which is below in accord with that which is above. To maintain the rights that derive from our position as vicegerent, we must first fulfill the responsibilities as servant. Several verses of the Qur’an make it clear that the first responsibility of the human state is service: We have not created jinn and humanity but to serve God. (51 : 56)

The Arabic word for service (‘ibadah) also means worship. The purpose of human existence is therefore service to and worship of God. When the human serves and worships, he or she stands in perfect passivity before the divine, reflecting the divine names and qualities like a still body of water. But when the wind of conceit (hawa) blows within the breast, the waters undulate and the reflection is distorted. When the reflection is distorted, one is unable to find the proper balance between servitude and vicegerency and thereby seeks to be active when he or she should be passive and passive when he or she should be active. This results in a distorted perception of the divine names and qualities and their proper relations.

When we cannot see the proper relations, it is difficult to recognize the rights of others, not just humans but also plants and animals. The Arabic word for right in this context is haqq, which means truth, true, reality, real, right, or due. The fact that the word for right and the word for truth or reality are the same demonstrates that the rights due to all of God’s creation do not derive from a mere “social contract” but rather from the very nature of existence. Indeed, the True or the Real (al-Haqq) is one of the names of God. God has measured out from His own Right a right for each and every existing thing. As vicegerents of God, we have the responsibility to recognize these rights. But if we do not first take the divine right into account, then we have ceased to see the manner in which the relative right is viewed in relation to the Absolute, then we are able to recognize the proper balance between the rights of all created things -not only those of human beings.

From an Islamic perspective, the current debates regarding human rights render humans as absolute, while forgetting the rights of both God and His creation. This feeds a fundamental imbalance in our understanding of all rights and leads to egregious errors; for example, the global environmental crisis results from an inability to recognize the rights of plants, animals, and even water and air. We now see, perhaps too late, that the failure to recognize these rights may result in our own extinction. Until we return to a holistic understanding of rights, we will continue to abuse the rights of some in the name of the rights of others; we desperately seek to find the proper balance, which can only be achieved through steadfast recourse to the Absolute Right -God.

Given that each and every existing thing receives a measure that is unlike that of any other thing, one cannot speak of rights in an absolute manner. Some have rights that others do not; for example, parents have the right to obedience and respect from their children, while children have the right to nourishment, guidance, and discipline from their parents. To insist that parents and children have the same rights in relation to one another would undermine both the family and the societal structure. We see the adverse effects of such a destabilization in today’s society.

Gender and Equality
The fact that all rights are not absolutely applicable to each member of society is of fundamental importance for understanding gender relations in Islam. Muslims recognize that all men and women are equal before God but that for each gender God has measured out different qualities. The female receives a greater measure from the names of beauty, while the male receives a greater measure from the names of majesty. The female thus differs qualitatively from the male in some ways, and the male differs qualitatively from the female in others, such that they coexist in a complementary relationship. The manner in which each gender realizes its true nature therefore differs. As God says,

The male is not like the female. (30 : 36)

The difference in genders is not simply biological. It is a sacred sign, a manifestation on earth of the complementary relationship between God’s names and qualities. When viewed as such, the cooperation between male and female is not only a social necessity; it is a means of spiritual realization. God says,

Among His signs is that He created
spouses for you from your selves,
that you may dwell in tranquility with them,
and He set love and mercy between you.
Surely in that are signs for people who reflect.
(30 : 21)

The implications of the male-female dichotomy are of such fundamental importance in Islam that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Marriage is a half of religion.”[2]

Given the incomparable spiritual efficacy of healthy gender relations, Muslims seek to establish a society that allows for the different dimensions of each gender to be fully realized. In this way, our inherent gender differences lead to complementarity rather than opposition. Men and women, therefore, have different rights over each other; for example, the man must provide for all material needs of the household, while, according to several schools of Islamic thought, the woman must tend to the maintenance of the household. In general, the man is more responsible for those activities that pertain to the public sphere, while the woman is more responsible for those activities that pertain to the private sphere. This is not, however, an absolute division. When the Prophet Muhammad’s wife ‘A’isha رضي الله عنها was asked how he conducted himself in the home, she answered, “He served his family; he would sweep the floor and sew clothes.”[3] Likewise, Muslim women are able to work in the public sphere, holding professional positions of importance and influence. Medieval Islamic history provides many examples of influential female scholars and jurists, though this tradition has been forgotten in most parts of the Islamic world during the modern period. In traditional Islamic civilization, however, the public sphere is not privileged over the private sphere as it is in modern civilization. To be a mother in in fact the position of greatest honor.

When someone asked the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم who had the most rights over him, he replied, “Your mother.” The man repeated the question twice, and each time the response was the same, until the fourth time, when the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم responded, “Your father.”[4] Forgetting the rights of the mother is among the most prevalent signs of the End of Time because it marks a complete inversion of the rights of mother and child. This is why in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم listed it first among the signs of the Hour: “… the slave girl will give birth to her mistress.”[5]

Like Western civilization, Islamic civilization has lost the complementary balance between the male and the female. In many lands, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم have been misconstrued by men who seek to make women submit to the male ego rather than divine principles. But current attempts to impose the crude egalitarianism of secular Western society upon the Islamic world are closer to cultural imperialism than gender justice. The Qur’an and Hadith contain the necessary remedies for the gender inequalities Muslims now confront. Muslims do not need to endure the pornography, rape, prostitution, and other gender injustices endemic to the secular social experiment in order to overcome their own gender injustices. They must instead turn to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم who said, “The believer whose faith is most complete is the one whose character is the best; and the best among you are those who are best with their wives.”[6] That Muslims would forget this dimension of his practice was among his chief concerns, such that he stated it in his last sermon in Mecca and in his final public address.


[1] The greatest scholar al-‘Izz b. ‘Abd al-Salam discussed how a human may manifest many of the names of Allah in his book, Shajarah al-ma’arif wa al-ahwal.
[2] Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allah al-Hakim al-Nisaburi, al-Mustadrak (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1990 CE / 1411 AH), 2 : 175, no. 2681
[3] al-Bukhari p. 126, no. 676
[4] Ibid., p. 1078, no. 5971
[5] Muslim, p. 65, no. 8
[6] Ibn Majah, p. 283, no. 1977


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