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Written by Louay Safi   
Mar 18, 1999 at 02:00 PM
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Human Rights and Cultural Reform
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            While it is quite legitimate for individuals to advocate their moral views so as to persuade others of their value and their enriching effects on social life, it is contrary to dignity and justice for one moral point of view to justify its legal enforcement on the ground of moral superiority.  In the absence of a universally acceptable moral authority, moral superiority can only be established by moral persuasion.  Such persuasion can take place through cross-cultural dialogue.




The recent interest in studying the compatibility of Islam with human rights came as a result of the increasing reassertiveness of Islamic beliefs and values in Muslim societies in the last three decades, a phenomenon widely studied under the rubrics of Islamic resurgence, Islamic revivalism, or Islamic fundamentalism.  The reawakening of religious consciousness in Muslim societies has been most visible in the political sphere, and has led to the increasing demand by Islamist groups throughout the Muslim world for the reconstruction of the political and legal systems so as to bring them into accord with the rules of Islamic law (Shari’a). 

            But while the various groups and individuals advocating the return of Islam as a source of public norms, are united in advancing this common goal, they are disparately divided in their varying visions as to what constitutes an Islamic public order.  The diversity in orientations and visions of Islamic advocates complicates the task of scholars and writers interested in examining the phenomenon of Islamic resurgence and assessing its social impacts and political ramifications.  Faced with the overwhelming complexity of Islamic reassertiveness, some scholars chose to ignore the differences that separate various Islamic groups, opting for a simplistic approach in which the more radical views are taken as representative of Islamic resurgence.  This approach is more popular among international-relations specialists because, it seems, it coincides with the-worst-scenario analysis favored by national security analysts.[25]  The problem of this approach, though, is not only that it reinforces prejudices and distorts realities, but it also prevents the development of effective foreign policy and undermines the ability of American policy makers to influence developments in the Muslim world.

            The bulk of scholars devoted to studying Islam and the Muslim world have managed, however, to convey the complexity of Islamic resurgence by grouping the variety of views and positions into a number of major trends.  A wide range of terms has been used by various authors.  The classification list includes such terms as traditionalists, radicals, fundamentalists, modernists, moderates, liberals, etc.[26] Still, the picture which emerges out of an honest and faithful efforts to depict reality at a specific historical moment can be as misleading and deceptive as the picture of an acrobat taken few moments after hitting a springboard.  The acrobat appears forever suspended in the air.  A person unfamiliar with the gravity force, say a citizen of an eternal spaceship, would fail to realize that what he observes is a rare moment in the life of human beings; even a person familiar with the law of gravity would be at loss to determine whether the framed acrobat is moving upward or downward.  Determining the dynamism and direction of cultural reform in Muslim society, and the positioning of Islamic forces in the course of societal change, is essential for understanding whether an Islamic political and legal reform is compatible with human rights.

            Unfortunately, most of what has been written by human rights scholars on Islam’s compatibility with human rights overlooks the question of cultural dynamism and

reform direction.  Thus we find that an insightful and penetrating work as Mayer’s Islam and Human Rights succeeds only in revealing the tension over the issues of political reform and human rights, but not its direction.  Her conclusion, therefore, appears ambivalent, if not perplexing. “[T]he diluted rights in Islamic human rights schemes examined here,” she argues, “should not be ascribed to peculiar features of Islam or its inherent incompatibility with human rights.”[27] Islam seems to be the source of both liberation and restriction, of both reformation and stagnation.  The question thus arises as to where does Islam stand in the context of cultural change?

            To begin with, we should recognize that the drive for Islamic reform has intensified as a result of the realization by Muslim intellectuals that developmentalism ideologies, advocated by Muslim ruling elites, have not led to any meaningful political or social progress in Muslim societies, but have instead resulted in the entrenchment in power of a self-serving ruling class whose main goal is to maintain a lavish lifestyle.  In post-colonial Muslim societies, ruling elites have worked hard for, and succeeded in, creating for themselves and their cronies islands of plenty in the midst of oceans of poverty.  Many Muslim intellectuals, alienated by the high-handed strategies of developmentalism, became convinced that the only viable political and legal reform is one rooted in the moral commitments of the Muslim community. 

Since its inception in the middle of the nineteenth century, Islamic reform movement has rejected the traditionalist interpretations of Islam, and embarked on an ambitious reform project, aiming at relating Islamic beliefs and values to modern life.[28]  The works of Afghani, Abduh, and Redah ― the founders of what has been termed the reform school — present us with an unmistakably egalitarian and liberal discourse, emphasizing openness and tolerance.  Early reformists rejected the anti-intellectual approach of traditionalist jurists, and advocated a rational and critical reading of the works of classical Muslims. They rejected, for instance, the restrictive role assigned by traditionalist jurists to women, emphasizing the importance of women’s education and social participation.  Indeed, as early as the 1930, Muhammed Rashid Ridah not only did advocate the right of women to education and social participation, but also their right to political participation.[29]  Similarly, al-Kawakibi attributed cultural decline of Muslim society to denial to women the right to education, and stressed the importance of their public involvement for their ability to provide proper guidance and sound upbringing for children.[30]

            While reformist scholars were, and continue even today to be, outnumbered by their traditionalist counterparts, they have exerted a profound and far-reaching influence on contemporary society.  Their impact can be seen in the increasingly more open views adopted by leading figures within the traditionalist schools.  Several influential and widely respected jurists within traditionalist circles are on record in supporting democracy, human rights, including the right of women to compete equally with men for public office.[31]  The views they express today, and teach in public, and in shari’a departments of traditional Islamic colleges, would have been sufficient for them to be branded as heretics just a century ago.  Leading scholars of the Azhar University, such as Muhammad Abu Zahra, Mahmoud Shaltoot, Muhammad al-Ghazali, and Yusuf al-Qardawi, have been emphasizing equality between men and women, and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

            The views of reformers continue to mature in the direction of recognizing human dignity and reciprocity in society.   Most recently, Fahmi Huwaydi, a leading journalist in the Arab World and respected Muslim reformist, addressed the question of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in a book entitled Muwatinun La Dhimiyun (citizens not dhimis).  Huwaydi rejected the dhimmi classification of non-Muslims as a historically relevant concept, and demonstrated, by referring to Islamic sources, that non-Muslims in a Muslim political order enjoy full citizenship rights on par with Muslims.[32]  The views advanced by Huwaydi is supported by the views of the founder and leader of the main Islamic opposition in Tunisia who stresses that non-Muslims enjoy equal citizenship with Muslim majority.[33]  Al-Ghanoushi also advocates the right of women to participate on equal footing with men in public life.  “There is nothing in Islam,”  he writes, “that justifies the exclusion of half of the Muslim society from participating and acting in the public sphere.  In fact, to do this is to do injustice to Islam and its community in the first place, and to women [afterward].”[34]  Similar arguments for gender equality can be seen in the writings of leading Shi’i jurists including Murtada Mutahiri, Muhammad Khatami, and Muhammad Mahdi Shamsuddin.[35] 


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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