In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Rights

Islamic Studies Human Rights
Abdulkader Tayob
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0036


The study of Islam and human rights looks at the relationship between a specific culture and way of life on the one hand and a set of universal values and legal instruments on the other. Agreements and charters on various aspects of human rights were presented and adopted by the United Nations, which was established soon after World War II. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was followed by other agreements and instruments on economic and social rights; on the rights of children, migrant workers and their families, and other vulnerable groups and individuals; and against racial and gender discrimination. In the discussion on Islam and human rights, Islam was represented by states and in public debate. At the formal level of the United Nations, Islam was represented by specific Muslim states and their legal and religious institutions. Since 1948 and particularly after the 1970s, the relationship between Islam and human rights has increasingly been debated by religious scholars, secular intellectuals, activists, and ordinary Muslims.

Aftermath of World War II

Discussion on the relationship between Islam and human rights is dominated by Islamic law and its particular contradictions with human rights schemes. The seminal Khadduri 1946 essay seems to have set the framework for thinking about these contradictions. However, Khadduri also reflected on the possibility of change in Islamic law through the influence of modernizing movements. Some of the regional studies on these modernizing developments are important for understanding the meaning and breadth of modernization and Islamic modernism (Hourani 1970, Mardin 1962, Ahmad 1967). These studies shed light on the extent and degree of political modernization promoted by intellectuals, a process in which human rights would, directly or indirectly, play a role. A related issue raised by a few Muslim intellectuals in the postwar years was the right of Muslims to establish ideological states. Most Muslims were part of broader national movements for liberation, and they themselves did not think too extensively about the right to form their own states. However, some were already expounding such ideas within the framework of the quest for national sovereignty (Hamidullah 1973).

  • Ahmad, Aziz. Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857–1964. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

    A comprehensive account of Islamic modernism in the Indian subcontinent from the 18th century. It documents the leading figures who promoted a distinctive modernist approach to individual freedom, justice, community, and nation.

  • Hamidullah, Muhammad. Muslim Conduct of State: Being a Treatise on Siyar, that is, Islamic Notion of Public International Law, Consisting of the Laws of Peace, War, and Neutrality, Together with Precedents From Orthodox Practice and Preceded By a Historical and General Introduction. 6th revised and enlarged ed. Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1973.

    First published in German in 1935 and translated into many languages. The book was clearly written within the framework of the United Nations and the sovereignty of states. Hamidullah proposed the right of Muslims to found states on the basis of their distinct ideology (Islam). His argument was followed by other thinkers.

  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798–1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

    First published in 1962, Hourani documents the extensive development of modern Islamic thought and secular movements in the Arabic world.

  • Khadduri, Majid. “Human Rights in Islam.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 243.1 (1946): 77–81.

    DOI: 10.1177/000271624624300115

    The concept of human rights is not alien to Islam, in which the “Koran is [the] constitution and the bill of rights of the Islamic state.” There were several limitations of rights in the premodern Islamic legal framework, however, particularly against women and non-Muslim groups, but Muslims in the 1940s appeared to be progressing toward their resolution in the process of modernization

  • Khan, Muhammad Zafrullah. Islam and Human Rights. Islamabad, Pakistan: Islam International Publications Ltd., 1989.

    First published in 1967, this is a statement in support of human rights by the Pakistani foreign minister, who represented his country at the United Nations in 1948. Human rights were legal instruments, but human beings needed to “to deepen … consciousness of the duties we owe to each other at the moral and spiritual levels” (p. 14). This was something that religion and culture could contribute.

  • Mardin, Serif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. Princeton Oriental Studies 21. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

    A study of modernization in the Ottoman Empire, as a counterpart to Ahmad 1967 and Hourani 1970 on the Arab and Indian traditions.

  • McDonough, Sheila. The Authority of the Past: A Study of Three Muslim Modernists. Chambersburg, PA: American Academy of Religion, 1970.

    An important monograph on ethical approaches pursued by Indian modernists (e.g., Khan, Iqbal, and Parwez). More recent reformist positions still draw on some of these arguments.

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