Human Rights in the Quran 

By Dr. Riffat Hassan

The Quran affirms the fundamental rights that all human beings possess.

The Quran is the Magna Carta of Muslims. A large part of its concern is focused on freeing human beings from the bondage of traditionalism, authoritarianism (religious, political, economic), tribalism, racism, sexism, slavery, or anything else that prohibits or inhibits human beings from actualizing the Quranic vision of human destiny.
This vision is embodied in the following classic proclamation:

{And that to your Lord is the final goal } (An-Najm 53:42).

The Quran affirms the fundamental rights that all human beings possess. These rights are so deeply rooted in our humanness that denying or violating them is tantamount to a negation or degradation of that which makes us human.

From the perspective of the Quran, these rights came into existence when we did. They were created by God (just as we were) so that our human potential could be actualized.

Not only do these rights provide us with an opportunity to develop all our inner resources, but also they hold before us a vision of what God would like us to be — what God wants us to strive for and live for and die for.

According to Muslims, the rights created or given by God cannot be abolished by any temporal ruler or human agency. Eternal and immutable, these rights ought to be exercised, because everything that God does is for a just purpose.

Right to Life

Sanctity and absolute value of human life are upheld in the Quran. God says in the Quran what means:

{And that you slay not the life, which Allah has made sacred, except for the requirements of justice. This He has enjoined you with, in order that you may discern.} (Al-An`am 6:151)

The Quran points out that, in essence, the life of each individual is comparable to that of all humankind and should therefore be treated with the utmost care:

{For this reason did We decree for the children of Israel that (for) whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though they slew all humankind, and (for) whoever keeps it alive, it is as though they kept alive all humankind. } (Al-Ma'idah 5:32)

Right to Respect

God says in the Quran what means,

{Verily we have honored the Children of Adam.} (Al-Israa' 17:70)

Human beings are deemed worthy of esteem because, of all creation, they alone chose to accept the trust, one aspect of which is freedom of the will. God says in the Quran what means,

{Verily We offered the Trust unto the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they shrank from bearing it and feared from it, and man undertook it; indeed he is unjust, ignorant.} (Al-Ahzab 33:72)

All human beings are to be respected and their humanness is to be considered an end in itself.
Human beings can exercise freedom of will because they possess the rational faculty that distinguishes them from all other creatures. In the Quran, God says what means,
{And when your Lord said to the angels, "I will place a vicegerent in the earth."} (Al-Baqarah 2:30)

God declares that humans have been made "in the best make":

{Indeed We created man in the best make. Then We render him the lowest of the low, except those who believe and do righteous deeds: They shall have a reward unfailing.} (At-Tin 95:4–6)

Human beings have the ability to think, discern right from wrong, and do good and avoid evil.

Thus, on account of the promise contained in being human (namely, the potential to be God's vicegerents on earth), all human beings are to be respected and their humanness is to be considered an end in itself.

The right to seek justice and the duty to do justice are greatly emphasized in the Quran. God says in the Quran what means,

{O you who believe, be upright for Allah, bearers of witness with justice, and let not hatred of a people incite you not to deal justly. Deal justly — that is nearer to piety, and be careful of (your duty toward) Allah; surely Allah is Ever-Aware of what you do.} (Al-Ma'idah 5:8)

And again, in Surat An-Nisaa', the importance of upholding justice is emphasized:

{O you who believe, be maintainers of justice, witnesses for Allah, even though it be against yourselves or (your) parents or (your) near relatives, whether (the case be of) a rich or a poor, for Allah is nearer unto both (than you are). Therefore, do not follow (your) low desires, lest you deviate, and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely Allah is Ever-Aware of what you do.} (An-Nisaa' 4:135)

In the context of justice, two concepts are used in the Quran: adl (Arabic for justice) and ihsan (Arabic for goodness and perfection). God says what means,

{Verily Allah enjoins the doing of justice and the doing of good and the giving to the kindred, and He forbids lewdness and abomination and wickedness.} (An-Nahl 16:90)

Both concepts are enjoined, and both are related to the idea of balance. However, the two concepts are not identical in meaning. Justice is defined by A.A. Fyzee, a well-known Muslim scholar, as to be equal, neither more nor less. Explaining this concept, Fyzee wrote,

In a court of justice, the claims of the two parties must be considered evenly, without undue stress being laid upon one side or the other. Justice introduces the balance in the form of scales that are evenly balanced. (Fyzee 17)

Justice was described in similar terms by Abul Kalam Azad (1888–1958), a noted writer and famous translator of the Quran:

What is justice but the avoiding of excess? There should be neither too much nor too little, hence the use of scales as the emblems of justice. (Witte)

Lest any one try to do too much or too little, it is pointed out in the Quran that no human being can carry another's burden or attain anything without striving for it. God says in the Quran what means,

{Or has he not been informed of what is in the Scriptures of Moses and (of) Abraham, who fulfilled (the commandments), that no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another and that man shall have nothing but what he strives for?} (An-Najm 53:36–39)

As individual merit is part of justice, the Quran teaches that merit is not determined by lineage, sex, wealth, worldly success, or religion. It is rather determined by righteousness. Righteousness consists of both right faith or belief and just actions or deeds, as clearly indicated by Almighty Allah:

{It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward the east and the west, but righteous are those who believe in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the Prophets, and give away wealth, out of love for Him, to the kinfolk and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for (the emancipation of) the slaves, and keep up Prayer and pay the poor rate, and the performers of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in time of conflicts. Such are they who are true (to themselves), and such are they who guard (against evil).} (Al-Baqarah 2:177)

And elsewhere,

{Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.} (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Surat An-Nisaa' clearly distinguishes between passive believers and those who strive in the way of God:

{Not equal are those of the believers who sit still — other than those who have a (disabling) hurt — and those who strive in the way of Allah with their wealth and lives. Allah has conferred on those who strive with their wealth and lives a rank above the sedentary, and unto each Allah has promised good, but Allah shall grant to those who strive a great reward above the sedentary.} (An-Nisaa' 4:95)

In the spirit of justice, just as special merit is considered in the context of rewards, special circumstances are also considered in the context of punishments. For instance, for crimes of promiscuity, identical punishments for a guilty man or woman are prescribed in the Quran.

However, the Quran differentiates between different classes of women. For the same crime, slave women were given half of the punishment, while Prophet Muhammad's wives were warned of double the punishment given to a "free" Muslim woman.

Here, it is self-evident that the Quran upholds high moral standards, particularly in the case of Prophet Muhammad's wives, whose actions had a normative significance for the community. However, such a distinction also reflects God's compassion for slave women, who were socially disadvantaged.

While justice is constantly enjoined in the Quran, the Quranic context goes beyond this concept to ihsan, which literally means restoring the balance by making up a loss or deficiency. Understanding this concept necessitates the understanding of the nature of the ideal "Ummah" or society envisaged in the Quran.

The word ummah comes from the root umm (Arabic for mother). The ideal "Ummah" cares about all its members, just as an ideal mother cares about all her children, knowing that all are not equal and that each has different needs.

While showing undue favor to any child would be an unjust act, a mother who gives a disabled child more care than the care she gives to other children is not considered unjust. In fact, such a mother exemplifies the spirit of ihsan by helping to make up for the deficiency of a child who is unable to perform some or all the basic tasks of daily life.

Thus, ihsan is the embodiment of sympathy for the "disadvantaged" segments of human society, such as women, orphans, slaves, poor and infirm people, and minorities.

Right to Freedom

Islam is deeply concerned about liberating human beings from any kind of bondage. God is aware of the human tendency toward dictatorship and despotism. Thus, in the Glorious Quran, which Muslims believe is the word of God, we can read what means,

{It is not (possible) for any human being that Allah should give him the Book and wisdom and prophethood and then he should say to humankind, "Be my servants rather than Allah's," but (he would say), "Be you faithful servants of the Lord by virtue of your constant teaching of the Book and of your constant studying thereof."] (Aal`Imran 3:79)

The right to freedom includes the right to be free to tell the truth.

The institution of human slavery is of course extremely important in the context of human freedom. Slavery was widely prevalent in Arabia at the time of the advent of Islam, and the Arab economy was based on it. Not only did the Quran insist that slaves should be treated in a just and humane way, but also it continually urged the freeing of slaves.

In the context of treating slaves humanely, God says what means,

{And serve Allah. Ascribe nothing as partner unto Him. (Show) kindness unto parents, and unto near kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and into the neighbor who is of kin (unto you) and the neighbor who is not of kin and the fellow traveller and the wayfarer and (the slaves) whom your right hands possess. Lo! Allah loveth not such as are proud and boastful.] (An-Nisaa' 4:36)

By enjoining Muslims to free the prisoners of war (either by an act of grace or in return for a ransom), the Quran virtually abolished slavery, as most slaves were prisoners of war.

{And afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens.] (Muhammad 47:4)

In fact, the Quran does not explicitly state that slavery is to be abolished. However, it does not follow that it is to be continued, particularly in view of the numerous ways in which the Quran seeks to eliminate this absolute evil.

A book that does not give a king or a prophet the right to command absolute obedience from another human could not possibly sanction slavery in any sense of the word.

The greatest guarantee of personal freedom for a Muslim lies in the Quranic decree that no one other than God can limit human freedom.

{Or have they partners (of Allah) who have made lawful for them in religion that which Allah allowed not?] (Ash-Shura 42:21)

This guarantee also lies in the following statement:

{Judgment rests with Allah alone.] (Yusuf 12:40)

The Quranic proclamation that,

[There is no compulsion in religion] (Al-Baqarah 2:256), guarantees freedom of religion and worship. This means that, according to the Quranic teachings, non-Muslims living in Muslim territories should have the freedom to follow their own religious beliefs and traditions without intimidation or harassment.

A number of Quranic verses clearly state that the responsibility of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was to convey the message of God, not to compel anyone to believe in it. The right to exercise free choice in matters of belief is unambiguously endorsed in the Quran.

{And say, "(It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all)," so let those who please believe, and let those who please disbelieve.] (Al-Kahf 18:29)

In the Quran, the right to religious freedom is recognized, not only in the case of other believers in God, but also in the case of unbelievers in God (if they are not aggressive toward Muslims).

{And do not revile those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they wrongfully revile Allah out of ignorance. Thus unto every people have We made their deeds seem fair; then to their Lord shall be their return, so He will inform them of what they did.] (Al-An`am 6:108)

This right to freedom includes the right to be free to tell the truth. The Quranic term for truth is haqq, which is also one of God's attributes. Standing up for the truth is a right and a responsibility that a Muslim may not disclaim even in the face of the greatest danger or difficulty.

{O you who believe! Be you staunch in justice, witnesses for Allah, even though it be against yourselves or (your) parents or (your) kindred, whether (the case be of) a rich man or a poor man, for Allah is nearer unto both (than you are). So follow not passion lest you lapse (from truth) and if you lapse or fall away, then lo! Allah is ever informed of what you do.] (An-Nisaa' 4:135)

While the Quran commands believers to testify to the truth, it also instructs society not to harm those testifying to it.

{And have witnesses when you sell one to another, and let no harm be done to scribe or witness. If you do (harm to them) lo! it is a sin in you.} (Al-Baqarah 2:282)

Right to Privacy

The need for privacy as a human right is recognized in the Quran. The Quran also lays down rules for protecting an individual's life at home from undue intrusion from within or without.

{O you who believe! Enter not houses other than your own without first announcing your presence and invoking peace upon the folk thereof. That is better for you, that you may be heedful.] (An-Nur 24:27)

In this verse God directs the Muslims to high politeness by ordering them not to enter other people's houses directly without a permission to keep and respect their privacy. Moreover, Islam considers the privacy among the members of the same house.

God says in the Quran what means,

{O you who believe! Let your slaves, and those of you who have not come to puberty, ask leave of you at three times (before they come into your presence): Before the prayer of dawn, and when you lay aside your raiment for the heat of noon, and after the prayer of night. Three times of privacy for you. It is no sin for them or for you at other times, when some of you go round attendant upon others (if they come into your presence without leave). Thus Allah maketh clear the revelations for you. Allah is Knower, Wise. And when the children among you come to puberty then let them ask leave even as those before them used to ask it. Thus Allah maketh clear His revelations for you. Allah is knower, Wise.] (An-Nur 24:58-59)

In these two verses, God orders the movements of the house members inside the house as a respect of each one's privacy.

Slander, Backbiting, & Ridicule

In the Quran, the right to protection from defamation, sarcasm, offensive nicknames, and backbite is also recognized,

{O you who believe! Let not a folk deride a folk who may be better than they (are), nor let women (deride) women who may be better than they are; neither defame one another, nor insult one another by nicknames. Bad is the name of lewdness after faith. And whoso turneth not in repentance, such are evil doers. O you who believe! Shun much suspicion; for lo! some suspicion is a crime. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You abhor that (so abhor the other)! And keep your duty (to Allah). Lo! Allah is Relenting, Merciful.] (Al-Hujurat 49:11–12)

The Quran also states that no person is to be maligned on grounds of assumed guilt. It warns that those who engage in malicious scandal-mongering will be grievously punished in both this world and the next. God says in the Quran what means,

{When ye welcomed it with your tongues, and uttered with your mouths that whereof ye had no knowledge, ye counted it a trifle. In the sight of Allah it is very great. Wherefore, when ye heard it, said ye not: It is not for us to speak of this. Glory be to Thee (O Allah) ; This is awful calumny. Allah admonisheth you that ye repeat not the like thereof ever, if ye are (in truth) believers. And He expoundeth unto you His revelations. Allah is knower, Wise. Lo! those who love that slander should be spread concerning those who believe, theirs will be a painful punishment in the world and the Hereafter. Allah knoweth. Ye know not.] (An-Nur 24:15–19)

God urges throughout that human beings should treat one another with sensitivity and compassion for He says in the Quran what means,

{Allah does not love the public utterance of hurtful speech unless (it be) by one to whom injustice has been done, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing. If you do good openly or do it in secret or pardon an evil, then surely Allah is Pardoning, Powerful. ] (An-Nisaa' 4:148–149)

Acquiring Knowledge

The Quran puts great emphasis on the importance of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge has been at the core of the Islamic world view from the very beginning. The following verses were the first revelation to be received by Prophet Muhammad:

[Read in the name of your Lord, Who created .He created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is Most Honorable. He Who taught (to write) with the pen — taught man what he knew not.] (Al-`Alaq 96:1–5)

The following verse is asking rhetorically if those with knowledge can be equal to those without knowledge,

{Say, "Are those who know and those who do not know alike? Only those of understanding are mindful.] (Az-Zumar 39:9)

God exhorts believers to pray for advancement in knowledge,

{…and say: My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.} (Ta-Ha 20:114)

According to the Quranic perspective, knowledge is a prerequisite for the creation of a just world in which authentic peace can prevail. The Quran emphasizes the importance of the pursuit of learning even during times of war. God says in the Quran what means,

{And the believers should not go out to fight all together. Of every troop of them, only a party should go forth that they (who are left behind) may gain sound knowledge in religion and that they may warn their folk when they return to them, so that they may beware.] (At-Tawbah 9:122)
This article was first published at It is republished here with kind permission.

Right of Migration Under Oppression

According to Quranic teachings, a Muslim's ultimate loyalty must be to God, not to any territory. To fulfill his prophetic mission, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) decided to leave his place of birth, Makkah, and emigrate to Madinah.

This event of Hijrah (emigration) has great historical and spiritual significance for Muslims who are called upon to move away from their place of origin if it becomes an abode of evil and oppression where they cannot fulfill their obligations toward Allah or establish justice.

In a powerful statement, we read in the Quran what means,

[ Verily, (as for) those whom the angels cause to die while they are unjust to their souls, (the angels) shall say, "In what state were you?" They shall say, "We were weak and oppressed in the earth." They shall say, "Was not Allah's earth spacious that you could have migrated therein?" As for such, their abode is Hell, an evil end of a journey, except the weak and oppressed among men and women and children who are unable to devise a plan and are not shown a way.

As for such, it may be that Allah will pardon them, and Allah is Pardoning, Forgiving. And whoever migrates for the cause of Allah will find much refuge and abundance in the earth, and (for) whoever forsakes his home, a fugitive unto Allah and His Messenger, and then death overtakes him, his reward is then incumbent on Allah, and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.] (An-Nisaa' 4:97–100)

Enjoying the Bounties of God

Muhammad Asad said,

By declaring that all good and beautiful things of life (i.e. those which are not expressly prohibited) are lawful to the believers, the Quran condemns — by implication — all forms of life-denying asceticism, world-renunciation, and self-mortification.

The Quran, which regards physical phenomena as signs of God, greatly differs from the spirit of classical Greece with its contempt for sense-perception.

Some of the most memorable verses in the Quran point to the insight and wisdom that can be gained by reflecting on the myriad manifestations of God's creative activity all around us.

The Quran, which Muslims believe to be the word of God, tells Muslims that monasticism was not prescribed by Allah,

[Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But monasticism they invented. We ordained it not for them. Only seeking Allah's pleasure, and they observed it not with right observance. So We give those of them who believe their reward, but many of them are evil livers.] (Al-Hadid 57:27)

Although they are to remember that the Hereafter is more important than life on earth, Muslims are told to reject the negative view that it is wrong to enjoy the beauty of God's creation and His bounty.

God says in the Quran what means,

[Say, "Who has prohibited the adornment of Allah, which He has brought forth for His servants, and the good provisions?" Say, "These are, for those who believed during the life of this world, purely theirs on the Day of Resurrection." Thus do We detail the revelations for a people who know.] (Al-A`raf 7:32)

The right to develop one's aesthetic sensibilities, so that one can appreciate beauty in all its forms, and the right to enjoy what God has provided for the nurture of humankind are thus rooted in the life-affirming vision of the Quran.

Right to Sustenance

The Quran points out that every living creature depends on God for sustenance. In the Quran, a cardinal concept that underlies the social, economic, and political system of Islam confirms that the ownership of everything does not belong to any person, but rather to God.

The Almighty says in the Quran what means,

[And there is not a beast in the earth but the sustenance thereof dependeth on Allah. He knoweth its habitation and its repository. All is in a clear record.] (Hud 11:6)

Because God is the Creator of all beings, every creature is given the right to partake of what belongs to Him:

[He it is who hath placed you as viceroys of the earth and hath exalted some of you in rank above others, that He may try you by (the test of) that which He hath given you. Lo! Thy Lord is swift in prosecution, and lo! He is Forgiving, Merciful.] (Al-An`am 6:165)

[He it is Who hath made the earth subservient unto you, so walk in the paths thereof and eat of His providence. And unto Him will be the resurrection (of the dead).] (Al-Mulk 67:15)

This means that every human being has the right to a means of living.

Those who hold economic or political power do not have the right to deprive others of the basic necessities of life by misappropriating or misusing the resources created by God for the benefit of all creatures.

Right to Good Life

The Quran upholds not only the right to life but also the right to a "good life." This good life, which is made up of many elements, becomes possible when a human being lives in a just community.

According to Quranic teachings, justice is a prerequisite for peace, and peace is a prerequisite for human development. In a just society, all the aforementioned human rights may be exercised without difficulty.

In such a society, other basic rights also exist, such as the right to a secure place of residence, the right to protection of personal possessions, the right to protection of covenants, and the right to free movement.

God says in the Quran what means,

[Divorce must be pronounced twice and then (a woman) must be retained in honor or released in kindness. And it is not lawful for you that ye take from women aught of that which ye have given them; except (in the case) when both fear that they may not be able to keep within the limits (imposed by) Allah. And if ye fear that they may not be able to keep the limits of Allah, in that case it is no sin for either of them if the woman ransom herself. These are the limits (imposed by) Allah. Transgress them not. For whoso transgresseth Allah's limits: such are wrongdoers.] ( Al-Baqarah 2:229)

And says,

[O ye who believe! Fulfil your undertakings. The beast of cattle is made lawful unto you (for food) except that which is announced unto you (herein), game being unlawful when ye are on pilgrimage. Lo! Allah ordaineth that which pleaseth Him.] (Al-Ma'idah 5:1)

The Almighty also says,

[Come not near the wealth of the orphan save with that which is better till he come to strength; and keep the covenant. Lo! of the covenant it will be asked.] ( Al-Israa' 17:34)

Other Rights

Because the teachings of Islam embrace every aspect of human life, the Quran contains many references to human rights. It is therefore difficult to mention all these references in a short summary.

In the foregoing account, reference has been made to human rights that figure in the Quran and continue to be of ongoing interest and importance in contemporary Muslim societies. In addition to the rights mentioned earlier, reference may also be made to the following rights:

1. The right to social and judicial autonomy for minorities

2. The right to protection of holy places

3. The right to return to one's spiritual center

There are indications from across the Islamic world that an increasing number of Muslims are beginning to seriously reflect on these teachings of the Quran. They are becoming disenchanted by capitalism, communism, and Western democracy.

As this reflection deepens, it is likely to lead to the realization that the supreme task entrusted to human beings by God (of being God's vicegerents on earth) can only be accomplished by establishing justice, which is regarded in the Quran as a prerequisite for authentic peace.

Without the elimination of inequity, inequalities, and injustice that pervade the personal and collective lives of human beings, it is not possible to talk about peace in Quranic terms.

It is important to note that there is more Quranic legislation on the establishment of justice in the context of family relationships than on any other subject. This points to an implicit assumption in the Quranic legislation. If humans can learn to justly order their homes so that rights of the children, women, and men living inside these homes are safeguarded, then they can also justly order their society and the world at large.

In other words, the Quran regards the home as a microcosm of the Ummah, or the worldwide Muslim community, and the world community and emphasizes the importance of making it "the abode of peace" through just living.

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