By Riffat Hassan, Ph.D.
Though the Universal declaration of Human Rights is called “Universal”, it “was articulated along the lines of historical trends of the Western world during the last three centuries, and a certain philosophical anthropology of individualistic humanism which helped justify them” . The basic assumptions underlying the Declaration were a) of a universal human nature common to all the peoples, b) of the dignity of the individual, and c) of a democratic social order .
In the decades since the Declaration, the term “human rights” has become an integral part of both political and popular discourse, particularly amongst Western, and Western-educated, persons. Until very recently most of this discourse has been in largely secular terms. In fact, it is frequently assumed, as well as stated, by many advocates of human rights, in both Western and non- Western (including many Muslim) countries, that human rights can exist only within a secular context and not within the framework of religion. Underlying the stance that the concept of human rights is fundamentally secular, and, therefore, outside of, and even antithetical to, the worldview of religion, is – of course – a certain view of religion in general, or of particular religions. In Muslim countries such as Pakistan, for instance, it is often remarked by secular-minded proponents of human rights that it is not meaningful to talk about human rights in Islam because as a religious tradition, Islam has supported values and structures which are incompatible with the assumptions which underlie the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What needs to be pointed out to those who uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the highest, or sole, model, of a charter of equality and liberty for all human beings, is that given the Western origin and orientation of this Declaration, the “universality” of the assumptions on which it is based is – at the very least – problematic and subject to questioning. Furthermore, the alleged incompatibility between the concept of human rights and religion in general, or particular religions such as Islam, needs to be examined in an unbiased way .