Next are personal rights pertaining to one’s life, property, personal choices, and so forth. According to the principles of Islam, which have no always been followed any more than have those of Christianity, every human being has the right to life and the possession of property unless he or she commits crimes, as a result of which society takes away certain or all of these rights. Human being also have the right of choosing their personal way of living in such matters as what form of livelihood to engage in, whom to marry, how to raise their family, where to live, and so on. Of course in every society there are external constrains, including economic ones, that do not always allow these rights to be fulfilled according to one’s wishes, but the principles are there. For example, in contrast to many pre-modern societies, Islamic society allowed each individual according to the law to learn and practice whatever profession he or she wanted and in practice could follow.
Likewise, according to Islamic Law both men and women have the right to choose their spouse. Now, in practice there have often been family pressures and economic and other considerations that have limited this right, especially for many women, but the social pressure exerted by many families has had nothing to do with the rights accorded by Islam to both men and women to choose their mates freely. In this matter, again, the situation in the Islamic world has not been very different from that in various Western societies until quite recently and in many cases even today.
In speaking about personal rights, one must remember that the thrust of the message of Islam is not only to give rights to human beings to perform this or that act, but especially to encourage them to lead a good life in every way possible. If certain personal rights such as sexual promiscuity have been taken away in Islam it has been done in light of what religion considers to be the attainment of the good, which is the goal of human existence and the purpose of human rights. From the religious point of view, not only must rights follow obligations, but they must themselves be conditioned by various “thou shalt nots” in order to guarantee the rights of others and also the right of our immortal soul to be protected against the tendencies toward evil that each of us bears within himself or herself.
As for legal rights, which include the right to equality before the law and the right to a trial and self-defense, they are defined and in principle defended by Islamic Law itself. They include the right to be treated equally before the low, right to a fair trial and self-defense. In traditional Islamic society, where the Divine Law was widely applied, these matters were handled according to extensive procedures developed by Islamic jurists. Since the nineteenth century in numerous Islamic countries many if the laws as well as court procedures have come to be based on European models, while the judiciary has at the same time lost much of its independence. Needless to say, in many instances tyrannical governments have prevented the legal rights of many from being upheld, and consequently today there is a great deal of pressure by Muslims within various Islamic societies to allow everyone to live according to the rule of law and to have the legal rights of all members of society respected. When we speak of legal rights in Islam, we do not therefore mean simply what is going on in the Islamic world today, but the teachings of Islam itself.
By Mehar Nawaz