Islam, Universal Human Rights, and Cairo Declaration


Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them — Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty. (Al Quran 22:40-41)

Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (She was Firstly Lady of USA: 1933-1945)


By Rafi Ahmad

The religion of Islam, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and contemporary Muslims exist in unease, tension and conflict with respect to one another.

The term Islam conjures up many images – some real, some imagined. Islam seems to lurk in the vision of the spiritually blind, who preach hate and violence. It dwells in the imagination of those who vilify it. It thrives in the ideals of those who sincerely believe that Islam is all peace and surrender.

But when Islam becomes a mere phrase misapplied to and misappropriated by the acts and ideologies of some, then, in reality, it ceases to be Islam.

So where is the true Islam to be looked for? Where is the moderate Islam to be found?

Our response is that the true and moderate Islam exists in the message of the Quran, in the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be on him) and in the teachings of Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, The Promised Messiah and Mahdi.


There is the question of jihad versus militancy. We, the moderate Muslims, believe that in Islam the only legitimate war is one of self-defense. Muslims are allowed to take up arms only when they become victims of aggression or oppression. But the Quran stipulates the preconditions under which peace should be pursued and amnesty can be granted. At the very side of some seemingly stern stances of self-defense in the Quran, there invariably exist exhortations to forgive and forgo and invitations to peace and reconciliation.

There is jihad with its multiple connotations. One tends to agree with the view of Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, that a majority of these Muslim jurists most commonly interpret jihad to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim political power or hegemony [9]. The presumption behind this dangerous interpretation is that the call for militant jihad will continue, interrupted only by uneasy truces, until the entire world either accepts Islam or submits to Muslim rule.

When we confront history – and confront it we must – it is impossible to deny that certain strains of medieval and contemporary Muslim thoughts are diametrically opposed to the pristine values taught by the Quran.

When jihad is used as an instrument to justify diabolic militancy, a moderate Muslim argues that the true jihad calls for waging war against the demons (nafse-ammara) inside [1].

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

We, the moderate Muslims, believe that the Quran contains the first and foremost universal declaration of human rights in the history of mankind.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands as a milestone towards the goal of freedom, justice and equality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1948. It contains the broadest consensus of contemporary civilization on the subject of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains all the important traditional political and civil rights, such as equality before the law; the right to a fair trial; the right to own property; freedom of opinion and expression; and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The UDHR Article 18 states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. [3]

The broad values and standards laid down by Islam clearly endorse the spirit and purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as explained in the book, Islam and Human Rights, by Hadhrat Zafrullah Khan, President of the International Court of Justice [4].

Islam upholds freedom of conscience and thought and it teaches respect and tolerance for all religions, for the Quran majestically proclaims that “There must not be any coercion in matters of faith.” [2:257] That is, there should be absolutely no compulsion or constraints in the matters of belief or disbelief.

Nonetheless, a common Muslim view is that the apostate, who held the faith of Islam and then abandons it, commits an unforgivable crime. And according to a significant majority of Muslim jurists, the apostate must simply be put to death.

Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmed, Khalifatul-Masih IV, in his book Murder in the Name of Allah, forcefully argues that apostasy is not considered a crime in the Holy Quran, and that it deserves no punishment. [2]

Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI)

In the year 1990, more than fifty Muslim countries decided to offer a parallel declaration of an Islamic conception of human rights – a corrective to UDHR. With this objective, these Muslim countries, under the aegis of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, passed the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. And thereby, the Muslim world came to a political consensus on certain issues of doctrinal matters.

In the Cairo Declaration, the rights of women and of freedom of religion stand out for their glaring limitations. Although the Cairo Declaration prohibits forced conversion from Islam, it does not provide complete freedom of religion. The CDHRI Article 10 states:

Islam is the religion of true unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of pressure on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to force him to change his religion to another religion or to atheism. [6]

The above is the only statement CDHRI makes about freedom of religion. This concession granted by CDHRI stands in a stark contrast to the right granted by Article 18 of UDHR. The Cairo Declaration refuses to give us the most fundamental of human rights – the freedom of conscience and the right to change ones religion or belief. The Cairo Declaration is deafeningly silent about the right of a Muslim to renounce Islam in favor of any other religion or atheism. CDHRI effectively bans apostasy. And consistent with their declaration, very few Muslim countries allow in their lands open missionary activities by non-Muslims. But this should come as no surprise to anyone; after all, the belief in death for apostasy and freedom of conscience cannot coexist together.

According to Dr. Ann Mayer of Wharton School of Business, the Cairo Declaration considers the religious, civil and political rights in the Universal Declaration as excessive and applies Islamic sharia to restrict and reduce them. Needless to say, it is the Muslim jurists who define the Islamic sharia. [7]

In 2002, the United Nations published an “Arab Human Development Report”, which noted that the Arab region has the least freedom compared to six other key regions of the world in areas that include civil liberties, political rights, and independence of the media, and religious freedom”. [8]

This culture of intolerance, corruption, and despotism gnaws at the social fabric of the Muslim world, and explains its failure in creating a truly Islamic state. A moderate Muslim is the one who publicly and categorically rejects this culture.

Arnold Toynbee, one of the most preeminent historians of our time, proposed two general categories of contemporary Muslims. Borrowing from Jewish history around the time of Prophet Jesus, he labeled these Muslims as Herodians and Zealots [5]. According to him, the Herodian is the modernistic, indifferent, barely religious Muslim who imitates the West, whereas the Zealot is the puritanically orthodox Muslim, who retrogresses to the past in order to deal with the unfamiliar. Toynbee also alludes to the fact that the Ahmadis defy these categories and observes that Ahmadiyyat has a great potential of developing into a global spiritual movement.


Among the contemporary Muslims, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is unique for the positions it takes on many issues that have profound relevance in the world today.

Today, there is only one Muslim Community, which – privately and publicly, individually and collectively, consistently and categorically – rejects and has always rejected militancy and intolerance.

Today, there is only one Muslim Community that fully embraces the teachings of the Quran and thereby endorses the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, there is only one Muslim Community that can be truly called moderate.


Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, Islam International Publications.
Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Murder in the Name of Allah, Luttenworth Press, Cambridge, 1989.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, Islam and Human Rights, Islam International Publications, 1967.
Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial and the World and the West, Meridian Books, 1967.
Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam:
Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Universal Versus Islamic Human Rights: A Clash of Cultures or a Clash With a Construct, Michigan Journal of International Law (15,307), 1994.
Arab Human Development Report, The U.N. Development Program, July 2002.
Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, The Modern Library, New York, 2003.

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NOTE BY THE EDITOR: Not a new article, but of course still valid.

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