Source: Muslim Sunrise Fall 2017
Human rights have been defined. Yes, they were defined very precisely and agreed upon in 1948. We don’t need to redefine them anymore and reinvent the wheel, period! These have been defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.1 We can, however, attempt to gain higher understanding of human rights and discuss and reinterpret them, as the human condition evolves over the decades and centuries to come.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10th, 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.2
This leads me to the second part of the title of my article, ‘the Just Law.’
Trevor Noah (born 20 February 1984) is a South African television and radio host, and comedian. He is known for his role as host of The Daily Show on the American television network, Comedy Central since September 2015. His unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. He described his story in a recent best seller: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.
The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No 55 of 1949, was an apartheid law in South Africa, which prohibited marriages between “Europeans” and “non-Europeans”. It was among the first pieces of apartheid legislation to be passed following the National Party’s rise to power in 1948. Subsequent legislation, especially the Population Registration and Immorality Acts of 1950, facilitated its implementation by requiring all individuals living in South Africa to register as a member of one of four officially defined racial groups. It also prohibited extramarital sexual relationships between people of different races. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act of 1968 updated the original legislation to invalidate interracial marriages involving a South African citizen that were contracted in other countries.
Law comes in numerous colors. Capital punishment, for blasphemy and apostasy, is suggested by medieval scholars of Islam, as part of how they describe ‘the Islamic Law.’ Many Muslims sympathize with this understanding of Islam, for countless historic, social and cultural reasons. I however, would rather be guided by justice and rationality. I believe that justice is one of the most fundamental guiding principles of Islam. Anything unjust, at any level, cannot be Islamic – no matter what the weight of evidence on the other side. This is the litmus test that I use to decide anything Islamic or otherwise. There are at least 75 verses in the holy Quran telling us that Allah is just and will not even do an iota of injustice to His creatures. He wants us to be just to our fellow beings, in an attempt to acquire His attributes in the limited spheres of our lives.3 4 5 6
How do you differentiate a just and an unjust law? To answer this question we go to Martin Luther King Jr., as he beautifully addressed this question in a letter he wrote from an American jail, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He wrote:
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.7 8
Likewise if a law is unjust, it cannot be Islamic. The Muslims would have no choice, but, to oppose it with wisdom. In the history of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, we have similarly opposed the unjust laws enacted against us in Pakistan in 1974 and later in 1984.
Every law that is attributed to Islam should be closely examined on the touchstone of justice and benefit to humanity at large. If some teaching or law is not just in the present day context then regardless of the past religious or other history, it cannot and should not be attributed to Islam. This is the fair and balanced perspective I want to leave you with today.
3 The Holy Qur’an, (4:125)