Dignity & Rights: An Islamic Perspective

In seeking to democratize thinking about ethics, recent posts have covered Islamic perspectives on justice and equity, this book covers the Islamic perspective of dignity, from the book "The Dignity of Man: An Islamic Perspective" (1999) by Mohammed Hashim Kamali. A few notes:

"Islam's perception of human rights is not premised on the individual verses nation-state framework. The nation-state itself represents a superimposition which has little claim to authenticity in the authoritative sources of Islam, namely the Qur'an and Sunnah. The Qur'an and Sunnah lend support to the creation of a political order and leadership that takes charge of community affairs and administers justice. But the main actor and audience in all this is the individual, not the state." (p. xii)

"World cultures and traditions tend to differ not only in the value-content of human rights but in regard to many other variables that influence the place and priority that is given to those rights. The western tradition posits freedom in order mainly to avoid the outcome of a despotic of government, while Islam emphases virtue as a goal for both the individual and society. The west emphases individual rights and interests, while Islam gives priority to collective good in the event which the latter conflicts with the interest of the individual." (p. xv)

"Dignity in other words is not earned by meritorious conduct; it is an expression of God's favour and grace. Mustafa al-Sibai and Hasan al-Ili have similarly remarked that dignity is a proven right of every human being regardless of color, race or religion. Ahmad Yusri has drawn the conclusion that 'dignity is established for every human being at the moment of birth'. Sayyid Qutb has similarly stated that dignity is the natural light of every individual. The children of Adam have been honored not only for their personal attributes or status in society, but for the fact that they are human beings." (p. 1-2)

"It is a basic right of all human beings to live a life of dignity, complemented by peace and comfort and the freedom to pursue what brings them happiness and perfection through all lawful means. A Muslim only worships God as his sole creator and sovereign and humbles himself to no one else. The creation and enjoyment of beauty, good health and a clean environment are seen as complementary to the defined lifestyle of Islam." (p. 8)

"Another manifestation of the dignity of man in Islam is its insistence on the essential equality of every member of the human race. All are equal in the eyes of God regardless of race, color and religion. No man has a claim to superiority over another, and there is no recognition in Islam of a class or caste system, a superior race, or a chosen people or any related concept. Man's inherent dignity is sacrosanct and the only ground of superiority is recognized in the Qur'an is God-consciousness [taqwa]" (p. 45)

"Islam's perception of human dignity is predicated on the unity of the origin of mankind, and its basic quality in regard to the essence of humanity, rights and obligations." (p. 102)

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Equity and Fairness in Islam

One of the courses I have taught across three continents is ethics. Most textbooks (nearly all) are exclusively eurocentric (other than brief nods to other peoples and traditions existing). An interesting conversation we have in class is engaging with how different ethical theories consider equality and equity. In "Equity and Fairness in Islam" (2005) by Mohammad Hashim Kamali provides a useful (albeit legalistic) perspective from Islamic ethics. A lengthy set of notes for interested students in particular:

"there are basically two types of istihsan namely analogical istihsan and exceptional istihsan. The former consists of a departure from obvious analogy [qiyas jali] to a hidden analogy [qiyas khafi], whereas the latter consists of making an exception to the normal rules of Shari'ah in particular cases. In both eventualities, the jurist relies on his personal opinion [ra'y] and carries out ijtihad on that basis for the purpose of avoiding the rigidity and hardship that are feared from strict conformity to existing law." (p. 76)

"The origins of istihsan can clearly be traced back to the Companions especially the decision of the Caliph 'Umar al-Khatab to postpone the prescribed punishment of theft during the year of famine on the ground that applying the normal rules under such conditions would fail to obtain justice and may even amount to oppression. The Caliph is also on record as having made two different decisions concerning a case of inheritance, known as al-mushtarakah [discussed below], the second of which set aside the normal rules of inheritance and provided a solution that seemed equitable and just under the circumstances. The facts of these decisions leave little doubt as to the historical origins of istihsan." (p. 17)

"Another example is when someone sees a goat that is without its owner and has suffered an injury that is likely to cause its death, and with a view to prevent its loss, the observer slaughters it at his own initiative without the owner's permission. The normal rules would make him liable for consumption by the owner, but not liable under the rules of istihsan based on maslahah." (p. 41)

"The basic intent of istihsan is to ensure harmony between the letter and the spirit of law, but it's application is confined to cases and situations where a conflict arises between the letter and spirit of shariah due mainly to the factual peculiarities and circumstantial anomalies of particular cases" (p. 3-4)

"The juridical meaning of istihsan reflects its literal meaning in that the term refers to juristic preference, exercised by a qualified jurist and mujtahid, consisting of departure from an existing rule or principle of the law in a particular case, in favor of a different ruling that is considerably preferable." (p. 11)

"istihsan has equally strong grounds of identity with the masajid it should, in fact be evident from our discussion of istihsan throughout this presentation that the evidential basis, rational and purpose of istihsan are almost identical with those of masajid al- Shari'ah. Istihsan can thus be seen as an instrument of consolidation that can link up the major themes of the usul and the masajid into an organic unity." (p. 123-124)

"the Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali jurists have considered istihsan a valid proof, the Shafai, Zahiri and Shi'i 'ulama' have rejected altogether and refused to give it any credibility in their formulation of the legal theory of the 'usul al fiqh'." (p. 5) 

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Classifications of Knowledge

Looking to explore different epistemic and ontological vantage points? One option is Osman Bakar's "Classification of Knowledge in Islam - A Study in Islamic Philosophies of Science" published by the Islamic Texts Society in 1998 (first published by the Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1992). The book examines classifications (different types; of knowledge, of knowledge seekers, of methodologies) based on the works of three classical scholars in the Islamic tradition.

In the Forward, by Seyyed Nasr, the hierarchical classification of knowledge is focal to Islamic ontology, asking: "How can an Islamic education system accept a situation in which there is no hierarchy between the knowledge of the angels and of molluscs or between the method of knowledge based upon reason wed to the external senses and knowledge which derives from the certitude (yaqin) derived from heart-knowledge?" (p. xiv) 

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Charity in Islamic Societies

Amy Singer's book on Charity in Islamic Societies (2008) covers a wide range of topics related to charitable giving (zakat, sadaqah) and charitable institutions (awqaf), providing canonical and historical examples of them. In particular, I was interested in the parts on endowments / foundations / trusts (singular waqf, plural awqaf). Singer describes them as "specific endowed properties, the revenues of which were designated in perpetuity to sustain defined beneficiaries; the properties or capital of the endowment were managed by a specified succession of managers..." (p. 93). Quite remarkably, the author explains that "By the nineteenth century, large amounts of property all over the Muslim world belonged to endowments, including an estimated 75 percent of arable land in the area of today's Turkey, one-fifth in Egypt, one-seventh in Iran, one-half in Algeria, one-third in Tunisia, and one-third in Greece. At the end of the eighteenth century, an estimated 20,000 waqfs in the Ottoman Empire had a total annual income equal to one-third of annual government revenues, and perhaps including as much as one-half to two-thirds of arable land." (p 186). What Singer describes as the "moral economy" presents a picture of a very different socio-economic structure, one that might be unfamiliar, even unimaginable, to contemporary readers. 

This book came to my attention when I came across a report that spoke about the history of charitable foundations and trusts in Muslim contexts. The report refers to a "reliable source", which is Singer's book. However, Singer does not provide the primary data to support these facts. One has to keep reading to find a footnote and explore the sources to identify where the data might come from. One of the footnotes leads to 2001 paper by Kuran, but it too is a secondary source, referring to other papers for support (5 other publications). In the Kuran paper, the amount of land listed is 1/8th in Egypt, not 1/5th. Singer may have been adding another source, but if she was it is unclear which. Three references in the Kuran paper are to dated Encyclopedia references (1936, 1961, 1973), which are not known to be sources of primary data. Of the two remaining sources, one is a country-specific paper (about Egypt, form 1968) and the other is an article on the Ottoman Empire (from 1939), neither of which appear available online. Given the apparent inaccessibility of these sources (which may not be the origin of the primary data either), it seems some discussion about the primary data supporting these claims would be useful. I have not yet been able to track the origins of the primary data for these facts. The journey to look into these interesting facts is a reminder for us all to find original sources, and cite them accordingly. 

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