Human Rights in Islam: Rights and Responsibilities

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ImageHowever, in Islam, rights and responsibilities are inseparable, and one cannot be assigned a right without also accepting some responsibilities.

Human Rights and Responsibilities

Much of the discourse on human rights fails to pay enough attention to the human responsibilities along with the rights. However, in Islam, rights and responsibilities are inseparable, and one cannot be assigned a right without also accepting some responsibilities.

In fact, while there remains much disappointment with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, there have been calls for the need to at least establish a document of "a Universal Declaration on Human Responsibilities", if not completely rework the UDHR. (This has been discussed in detail in an article by Dr. Javad Zarif, who teaches human rights and international law at the University of Tehran.)

In the article "Human Rights in Islam: Natural Role-Based Rights", I outlined through the works of scholars like Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari how rights in Islam are not distributed as a result of gender, but rather the roles the gender can play (keeping in mind the focus on the domestic society, as the civil society makes no gender role differentiation). In a domestic society, a man and a woman do not have identical capabilities and needs, and therefore do not have identical rights and responsibilities (however, they are equal, though not identical, which will be discussed in more detail in a subsequent article).

Related Article: Human Rights in Islam: Natural Role-Based Rights

To recapitulate from the last article, human rights in Islam are derived from natural rights. Similarly, human responsibilities in Islam are derived from natural responsibilities. In order to establish a natural right, the authority for such is a natural capability. Again, the difference in the natural rights between the genders, however, is not simply due to the gender itself, but it is due to the role the gender has the ability to play – such as husband, father, mother, wife, daughter, brother, and etc; this is in contrast to the way rights are defined based on gender in secular Western philosophies.

In addition to rights that a particular role commands, (s)he must also take on a set of associated responsibilities. These rights and responsibilities may not be identical for different roles of a domestic unit, but nonetheless result in a "well-balanced civilization".

In Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence, as it pertains to the domestic society, a good example of a right and responsibility is in the economic relationship of the roles of a husband and wife. For example, a wife has a right to financial support from her husband.

According to the book Islamic Laws by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani, "it is obligatory on the husband to provide whatever the wife needs in her life, like food, dress, and accommodation…." This means that she is thereby released from any obligation to work and to earn her own living – although she may still choose to do so.

In exchange, however, she has a responsibility to guard their home when he is away and remain "obedient to him in matters in which she is required to obey him" per their marriage contract (e.g. prenuptial agreement).

Each role in the domestic relationship, therefore, has a set of rights that it can claim, but in order to do so, it must fulfill its responsibilities. It would be the same philosophy in the civil society. For instance, an individual can claim welfare from the state, but if (s)he commits a crime, then (s)he has violated his/her responsibility to the state to remain law abiding and thereby gives up his/her rights.

While the American and European philosophers left out the concept of responsibilities in the UDHR, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), which is based on the Qur'an and Hadith, did not. For example, Article Nine of the CDHRI states: "The seeking of knowledge is an obligation, and provision of education is the duty of the society and State", and "Every human being has a right to receive both religious and worldly education from the various institutions of teaching." So, it is not just a right that every human should be allowed to seek knowledge, but actually in Islam all individuals have a responsibility to do so.

In recent years, the world has started to feel the difficulties of not pairing rights and responsibilities. While the right to land and property was deemed fundamental, today we realize we must bear the responsibility of utilizing the land responsibly and not committing excess; otherwise, deforestation and green-house gases can cause global warming and destroy life.

The distribution of these intricate rights and responsibilities is intended to define the "well-balanced civilization" that has been envisioned in Islam and thus form a cohesive domestic and civil society bonds.

Of course, we must remember the distinction between a Qur'anic society and an Islamic society. While there should be no distinction between the two, media coverage of false pre-Islamic practices committed by some Muslim societies today in the name of Islam gives the impression other than that of a just and equal religion. The Qur'anic society however, is of the well-balanced nature of the Qur'an itself and the related Hadiths, and excludes any contradictory practices done by Muslims or Muslim nations. When the Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence are put into practice correctly, and the human rights and responsibilities have been identified and enforced, the well-balanced civilization can then be fully realized.


Sayedeh Kasmai-Nazeran studied her Masters of Science degree at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Her focus is on dialogue mediation, peacebuilding and human rights in Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. She has also moderated and participated in many interfaith dialogues. Her most recent paper is entitled "Islamic Feminism: Women's Rights in the Shi'a School of Thought". You can read more about Sayedeh at her website

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