Transcript of a talk by Iman Khalid Lathif on human rights under Islam, given in the American Corner of National Library on 3rd August 2010. The event was organised by Maldivian Network on Violence Against Women.
It is said that towards the end of his life, Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) found himself in a situation where he was speaking to his companions. It was the day of Arafa and month of Zul hijja, and the companions of the beloved of Allah were standing on the plane of Arafa and he needed to speak now to over 120 thousand of the men and women who were his companions. So he needed to speak in a way he could uniquely say something that would resonate within each and every one of them individually, but also speak knowing that his words would last beyond that immediate gathering and that those people would take what he said to every person that they spoke to.
And so the Prophet (pbuh), sitting there with these men and women beginning to speak to them, knowing also that his days in this world were limited, and He points into the direction of the city of Mecca, from there to the plain of Arafath, and he ask the question of his companions, “what city is this?”
And the companions know that it’s the city of Mecca, they know that it’s the city that they are very familiar and close to, but they don’t say anything out of deference to the prophet (Pbuh). And he says “ is this not the city of Mecca?”
And then he poses the second question to them, “that what month is this?” And they know they are in the month of Zul hijjaa they know they are in the most sacred and auspicious month but again they don’t respond. And the Prophet (pbuh) says “is this not the month of Zul hijja?” And then he poses a final question , “what day is this?”
And they are there on the 9th of Zul hijja, they are there on a day that is known as the day of Arafa. A day that is truly most sacred on the Muslim calendar that in another hadeeth the Prophet (pbuh) says, that “the entire hajj is Arafa.” It is the most important and sanctified day. When he asks them again they say nothing and he says “is this not the day of Arafa?”
And then once he has told them and he has reiterated for them the importance of the day of the month and the place that they are, he says to them “that know this, the rights that you have over one another, the bonds that you have amongst yourself as brothers and sisters, the way that you treat one another these are more sacred than this day, and this month and this place.”
And it becomes an underlying element for us to understand the Islamic paradigm and its view on human rights. This idea that humanity is so elevated is what we share amongst ourselves, not the differences in terms of our ideologies, theologies and our creeds and cultures.
Islam and human rights
Saying that, we share a commonality in our humanness that transcends any of these socially constructed differences that we most definitely need to distinguish, we need to dignify and we need to respect.
But more often than not, we see a gross violation of human rights. We see that in the Muslim world, all over the world, there are people who don’t know how to honor the rights of individuals.
They don’t honour the rights of those in their most immediate proximity, as well as the ones they have been entrusted to serve.
And this is a sharp contrast between what we are taught through our tradition and what we are taught through our law, and what we actually see taking place. If we look into our paradigm, and if we look into what our traditions tells us, our sharia tells us to even honor the rights of animals.
Treatment of animals
We see that there is so much that is written. The Prophet (pbuh), he gives us insight into the manner in which we are supposed to care, and treat those animals that we are going to slaughter for the purpose of eating, and how they have a rights over us as well.
That on one occasion the beloved of Allah allihi salaam, he sees a man who was about to slaughter an animal for the purpose of eating it. And this man he is sharpening the blade by which he will take this animals life right in front of the animal. And the prophet (pbuh) he reprimands the man and he says “why are you torturing the beast?”
On another occasion Umar bin Khattab (ra) who is of the Asharamul Bashara, he is somebody who is of the Khalifa Rashidhun (Rightly guided Caliph) he sees a man who is about to slaughter an animal and this man has his foot on the face of the animal. And Umar comes and starts beating this man, and he says “why do you not give this animal its right?”
That is the right that animals have in our law, those that we are going to slaughter for the purpose of consuming. And if we can take that even as a starting point for us to understand how we are meant to treat one another as human beings, do we think we honor?
And there are many things we can look into for insight as to what Islam says about this idea of human rights.
Pursuit of justice
We have to understand that the pursuit of justice is something that is most important in our tradition. That is something that comes to us with a divine imperative that we find in the Quran. And for anyone who has gone to the Friday prayer service, the Juma prayer service, this verse is recited all over the world on that day.
Abdullah ibn Masud (ra), he says that “this is the most comprehensive verse in the Quran.” And its translation is that ‘Allah’s angel he commands, he enjoins to the calling of justice to the doing of good and the preservation of ties between your kith and your kin, and he forbids that which is wicked, that which is trangressive and that which is not in a place which you are treating things in the way in which they are meant to be treated, and he says that he admonishes you, so that perhaps you might reflect.’
But the whole verse is talking about a code of morality, it’s talking about an understanding of ethics, rooted in an understanding of the individuals where we merely don’t tolerate the differences that exist amongst us, but we really understand that definition of tolerance to a point that we move it to a celebration of the diversity that exists among us as human beings. And it doesn’t happen all the while.
In the instance where Prophet (pbuh) is speaking to his companions, that we alluded to in the beginning of the conversation, he goes on to impart advices now to them, that he feels are the most important.
He gives them an insight to certain things, and he knows he only has a certain amount of days left with these people. Think about what kind of attachment he must have to them. That for some of them, he has spent 23 years of his life with them. And he has dedicated his life to this, and now he has moments, and he wants to leave them with something that is important.
Just like any of you might find in a situation where either you are leaving from a place or you know someone who is leaving. You want to give them some words of advice, before they leave from you and you might not see them for a long time.
So the Prophet (pbuh) gives them different advice in this conversation and each and every one of them has to deal with honoring the rights that people have over you.
Understanding the importance of maintaining the social equity, understanding the importance of taking on social injustice and not letting anything that is oppressive take place in front of your eyes, without dealing with it in a systematic and well thought out manner.
Finance and usury
The first thing he says to them, while they are standing there is that, ”for those of you who have debt, because of interest owed to my uncle Abbas (ra) the brother of my father, know that no one has to owe him anything anymore.”
That he wipes out these debts that are based off these principal usury primarily because the understanding of interest in our dheen is that it is something that is haram. But what he is saying even more, twofold is important for us to reflect upon.
He is saying that we will dismantle this principal that causes a social inequity here in our community because its utilisation leads to a financial inequity amongst the different classes that has different socio economic realities where we are.
Because divulging the principal of interest will allow those who are of the elite to get a little bit more into their pockets at the cost of those who are from the lower classes, to have to give of the little that they have in the first place. And when he says this he doesn’t say that any of you all who have this owed to you don’t take it anymore, but he says my family, whatever you owe to them forget about it. He is not saying that you go and do this. But he says whatever you owe to us, you don’t owe it anymore.
And that’s a sign of true leadership. He’s not expecting somebody to do something that he won’t do for himself. And this is a question that is posed to us in the Quran as well, ‘That why do you say that which you do not do.’ But he is showing to the people that this is how important it is and I am going to take it on my family, before I expect any of you to do it.
And so the first principal is one of financial rights. Ensuring that we might not be able to ever have everybody at a level playing field, and this is not what the purpose of Islam is. There are those who are wealthy and Allah has blessed them with their wealth, and they are fully free to enjoy their wealth. And we see that their provisions and principals are well for us to maintain a social equity.
Of the few obligations that we have, one is the giving of a certain percentage of your wealth at the end of the year to certain categories of people who are poor and destitute to ensure that they are able to enjoy certain things, just as you would be able to enjoy them. The giving of Zakat is mandatory upon anyone who has a certain threshold of wealth and this is one of the reasons for it. Maintenance of financial equity becomes important.
Tribal retribution and retaliation
As he goes on, he says that any kind of retribution, any kind of practice that involves one clan or one family seeking some kind of vengeance for a murder or death that had taken place, this is something that you will not be able to do any longer as you were able to do in the days of ignorance.
That the way Meccan society was built – it was built through a principle that was called Assabiah. A tribalism, a certain kind of clanism, where if you came and did something to my family regardless of whether I like the person or not, just because they were part of my family, I would come and make sure something happened to your family.
Because you have no right to come and do something to my family, I am going to make sure I get what is owed to us. Even in those instances if my family member was in the wrong, there was nothing that would make a difference. I would still stand up for them, because we are of the same clan. This was the way they protected one another, this is the way that they maintain their ties and it had its advantages, and it had its disadvantages.
Because your lineage dictated your protection in the community, and if you were somebody who did not have that kind of noble lineage, you were somebody whose rights were violated all the time.
Bilaal bin Rabah (ra), who some of us might know. He was the first muezzin in Islam. He was somebody who was a black slave in Meccan society. The people were able to beat Bilaal and abuse him, because he had no ties to any clan that was there. No one could stand up for him; no one would protect him because Assabiah put him outside the fold of any of that protection.
So we have instances where Bilaal is tied up and dragged through the streets to be made an example of, that this is what would happen if you became a Muslim. They would take boulders and put it on Bilaal’s chest, telling him to recant his understanding of Islam and no one would be able to stand up for him until Abu Bakur purchased his freedom. But he doesn’t have a father or a mother in Meccan society. He doesn’t have a grandfather, he doesn’t have a great grandfather. And that principle of Assabiah, it had that flaw.
And so hear the Prophet (pbuh), he is saying that for those of you who have this issue because someone has unjustly murdered, someone had committed some kind of homicide, we will now take that into a different realm.
It’s not that you as the common person will go out and carry out of your own justice but you will ensure that there is some kind of civility, some kind of due process, some kind of understanding, that goes through a court system by which we will begin to enact a more just and civil way of living. And again he starts with his own family. Again he starts with one of his relatives. Again he makes mention of something that is owed to his people, to his clan. And he says “that is forgiven, don’t worry about it.”
Interpretation for self-interest
He then goes on to make mention of the Islamic calendar which was observed by the Meccans and he specifically cites a practice that Meccans would undertake to avoid doing things that they prohibited to do in four specific months.
That there were four months that were considered sacred on their calendar and within those months you weren’t allowed to do certain things. And the utmost of those were the undertaking of battles and war.
And so what was habitual among the leaders of the Meccans that they would just move those months around in the calendar so that they could do what they wanted to do and not have their affairs disrupted by the prohibitions that were put upon them if those months were actually observed.
And we see that there is a problem with this religiously. That we can’t decide when we want to do something and when we don’t want to do something, if we are told we have to do something at a certain time then we have got to do it.
But more importantly we see the problem in this issue, is that those who are in the socially elite, those who are commandeering a certain authority and power, with their whims they were deciding how the society would run. It wasn’t the common man, it wasn’t the slave, it wasn’t the servant, it wasn’t the person who was working in the market for 10, 12 hours a day who was making the decision, that now we will not have the month of Rajab, when we would usually have because it would cause undue hardship on my affairs.
But it was the small group of people who ran the society that were saying was going to change the month around, so that we can still do what we want to do. And there is an injustice in this.
Power and authority comes with a great responsibility. And you can’t play around with the way the society functions, just so you can get out of it, what you want to get out of it. Despite what it will do to the people who are there. And so the Prophet (pbuh) he is telling these men, he is telling these women, “be mindful of the authority that has been given to you. This responsibility that you are endowed with, and don’t utilize it to your own advantage. To your own self interest. But put yourself in a place where you understand your accountability to the people that you serve.”
And then he continues on and he says that “you must honor the rights of your women.”
Very specifically, very explicitly he makes mention of treating women with the respect that they deserve. And we see that this becomes a huge issue within the Muslim community. That you want to understand and reflect upon why we do what we do, and how come it wasn’t done when we were being told not to do it.
We have instances all over the world where Muslims and the Muslim community are mistreating their women.
And it becomes very confusing for a global society, whether they are Muslim or not, to understand where Islam starts and where culture stops. A lot of cultural practices become confused with Islamic practices because it’s Muslims that are carrying them out.
We see a deprivation of educational rights, we see a gross amount of domestic violence, we see issues with honour killings, we see forced marriages in abundance, we see female genital mutilation. There are all kinds of things that happen that are gross violations of women’s rights.
The Prophet (pbuh), he repeatedly tells these people “you have to honor the rights of your women.”
Because they are coming out of a society which itself didn’t honor the rights of the women. Female infanticide was practiced in abundance. Men wanted to have sons; they didn’t want to have daughters. They would bury them alive when they were given the blessing of a young woman in their household, they would just put them into the ground.
You had so many things that were happening that were problematic, but Islam comes to rectify that situation.
And we see as it expands that it becomes a gross misunderstanding of how to treat women. And our conversations on gender have to expand to a place where we begin to really understand what gender means in our religion and how it can infuse itself what is deemed to be culturally normative within a specific context.
So in the United States, we understand gender a little bit differently, than they do in Pakistan. And it’s now for us to make a determination that one mode of understanding is correct or incorrect, because Islam fully allows us to cater to our own cultural identity. And it gives an air of permissibility to allow for diverse cultures to still be who they are, but that permissibility doesn’t necessarily get to the status of being a normative practice.
So just because its allowed doesn’t mean it’s the norm. And this is a point we have to understand cause a lot of our stereotypes of those who act in a certain way it becomes because we are looking from the point of outside in.
And we think somebody is mistreating in ways they are not mistreating and our focus then doesn’t get to the places that we need it to be. Domestic violence is haram. You can’t beat and abuse your wife. Female genital mutilation is haram. Islam guarantees a certain level of education for every single person whether they are male or female.
There are certain things we have to start looking at much deeper and our conversations have to reflect that. And one of the things we need to do is that have the conversations not about what it means to be a woman in Islam but we need to start conversations on what it means to be a man in Islam.
Because there are not a lot of conversations that speak about positive masculinity and we lack role models and figures for our young men, who can teach them how to actually be men the way Islam teaches you how to be a man. It’s an important point for us to reflect on.
The Prophet (pbuh) when he is a child, he is not raised by a father figure. His process of socialisation during a very important part of his development as a young boy comes with the absence of a father.
His father Abdullah dies before the Prophet is born into the world. And so he is raised not by a man, but he is raised by four women.
There is a woman by the name of Aimina, who is the mother of the Prophet (pbuh), there is a woman by the name of Thoiba who is the emancipated slave woman of the prophet’s uncle, who was so ecstatic at the news of his nephew’s birth, that he frees this woman and says go and nurse my nephew.
Thirdly there is a woman by the name of Haleema Saudia. Iit was a custom at that time when a child was born that the Meccans they would send the child to live with the Bedouin tribes because it would toughen them up, and it would immune them to certain diseases.
It was their custom, so when the Prophet (pbuh) was born, he is sent to live with this women Haleema Saudia.
And then fourthly there is a woman by the name of Umn Ayman Baraka who when she is 16 years of age, she is taken as a servant in the household of Abdullah, who is the father of the Prophet. She is an Abasynian woman, she is a black woman and she is arguably the only companion of the Prophet who is with him from the day that he is born until the day that he dies.
And she is so unique, towards the end of the conversation we will bring her up again. But we want to understand that the Prophet (pbuh), who we believe is being divinely guided and prepared for the latter part of his life.
When he is learning about trust, and when he is learning about love, and he is learning about very very important emotions that children learn when they are younger, every time he turns to someone to understand and deepen those values, there is one of four women who are meeting his needs.
How, when he is going to be older, will he be able to violate the rights of any females, when these women play such a central role in his upbringing? And that is the starting point for us to understand the way women’s rights are understood. What is the role of the mother, of the daughter, of the sister in your household?
Your children when they understand the way women should be treated, how they are seeing women treated all around them? What example are you instilling within them so that they can understand what it means to respect a woman regardless of whether she is Muslim or not?
And here the Prophet is saying treat your women with respect and be mindful of them.
And then he continues on and he says, “understand that all of you are the children of Adam.” And he says a hadeedh that is very often quoted. He says that “know that not any of you, that no Arab among you has superiority over a non-Arab, know no non-Arab has superiority over an Arab, know no black has superiority over a white, know no white has superiority over a black, except by the performance of good deeds, and what we would define as the consciousness of the divine in our lives, this thing of thaqwa.”
He is saying that it’s not about what country your are from, what your skin colour is, what your ethnicity is, what your nationality is, but what he is saying is that it’s a little bit deeper than that.
That your understanding and your testification of la ilaha illa allah puts you in a place where you seek to transcend the socially constructed differences and you look at the values that connect you, based off this principal that you are just men and women.
And if you look for a reason to find differences amongst yourself and then you define relationships based off those differences, and those definements puts you in a place where you elevate yourself by denigrating somebody else, because of where they come from in this world. Then you are doing something that is in violation of Islam’s understanding of human rights.
That you are giving as to being in a way without condition or qualification and you just provide support to whoever is in need of it.
The companions of the Prophet (pbuh) were not all Arab, they were not all from Quraish. Bilaal bin Raba is a black man. Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, he is a slave. Suhayb ar Rumi, he is said to have blonde hair and blue eyes. Salman al-Farsi, he is Salman the Persian. Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, he is a man who comes from the tribe of Al Gaffar. He is of a tribe that is known as being hostile tribe of criminals and looters, that when he comes into the city to find the Prophet, and the people hear where he is from they don’t want to speak to him at all.
But when the prophet sees him coming over the horizon he says, that let it be Abu Dharr. Because it’s not about where you come from, it’s about how do we get you to the place that we want you to be at. And if we are going to keep you away or exercise an air of exclusivity based off of the land you come from, this is problematic.
The paradigm that is Islamic in nature revolves around a paradigm that is divine in terms of gatherings. And if we contrast gatherings that are divine in nature to gatherings that are human in nature, we see that the stark difference is one of exclusion.
For example I work at NY University in the United States. I used to work at Princeton University which in our country is a very very prestigious university. The way Princeton gets its reputation, the way it gets its prestige, is not necessarily about who it lets in, but more importantly who it keeps out.
You have to have a certain grade, you have to have a certain credential, you have to have certain extracurricular activities, so that the name of Princeton can remain what the name of Princeton means when people hear it.
And our gatherings are like this as well. That we define who we are, based on the company that we keep. And so if we let in people the society says we shouldn’t interact with, then they are going to have an understanding based off our social circles. But when we look at the gatherings that are divine in nature and we contrast them to our gatherings, we see that the best of the people are allowed entrance into those gatherings.
But not only are the best of people allowed into those gatherings, the most wretched of people are allowed into those gatherings. And it takes nothing away from the majesty of the divine. Nobody goes into a mosque and says how is it that this person from the street is allowed entrance into this place. No one says why God let that man from that country into Mecca to pray here at the Kaaba. But anybody is allowed in, because it’s not about keeping people out, it’s about figuring out ways to let them be where you are.
That woman Umm Ayman Baraka (ra), she is a black woman. When the Prophet is a child and he is crying and he is in need, his eyes open and he sees this woman whose skin color is different from his own, and he lets this be something that carries him forth throughout his time in this world. He lives in Mecca, he is born in Mecca, he goes to the place of Banousab outside of Mecca when he is about five years of age, and he goes to Medina which is a very long journey at that time.
And the city of Medina is substantially different from the city of Mecca in terms of its cultural practices. That the Prophet’s father is buried in Medina, so when he is a child he asks his mother quite often, ‘where is my father?’
Because he is still a child the way that any child is a child. And so she takes him to this place to see his grave, but he is not situated in any one place. He is being taken from people to people and place to place as a young person, and this is having an effect on how he is going to be able to engage diverse audiences.
And so this woman Umm Ayman Baraka, he doesn’t make a point to chastise her because of her skin color. But he appreciates diverse people and he interacts with her in a way that he demonstrates this. A most important example with her in how he seeks to honor her rights and not distinguish her based off her skin color comes when his own close companion Zayd ibn Harithah needs to be married.
Zayd used to have such a close relationship with Prophet (pbuh) that at one point he was considered to be adopted by Mohamed. So much so that he was called Zayd ibn Mohamed. And then revelation comes down that says in your adoption process, can’t assume the natal identity of any individual. That a person is always going to be the son of their father and their mother. It doesn’t say that we can’t adopt people, but it says that we can’t assume their natal identity.
And so when the revelation comes, Zaid bin Mohamed is Zayd ibn Harithah. But he is still close to the Prophet.
And when Zayd’s time comes to be wed, the Prophet (pbuh) weds him to this woman Umm Ayman Baraka, who’s black. They have a son by the name of Osama bin Zayd who the Prophet (pbuh) loves very much. That he would take his own grandson Hassan bin Ali and take this young boy Osama bin Zayd and put them both on his knees and he would pray Ya Allah be merciful to them as I am merciful to them.
There is no doubt that he loves Osama. Osama is half black and half Arab. He is the product of a multicultural household. The Prophet is not advocating for a separation of cultures, but he is looking to bring people together. And this is something we want to think about. Osama is also not mistreated by society because he is different in his background. At the year of 18th he is appointed to be the General of the Army and given a most important position and a most important responsibility. And so he is saying honor the rights you have amongst each other as people, don’t be prejudiced, don’t be racist.
Don’t put yourself in a place where you think you are superior to someone just because of the country you come from.
And these are some of the principles that we understand within our tradition and human rights in Islam. And there are lots of other things that are more nuanced and more specific but because of time we can’t go into.
Really what it comes down to – and it might sound very elementary and it might sound very simplistic – you just have to treat people nicely. You have to understand that everybody has a right over you, and everybody has a right to live according to their natural course of living, and we seek to confine and restrict and force people to be something that they are not, this is what is problematic.
Not everyone will fit into our archetype or our stereotype of what we believe is proper. And we have to let people go through certain realms, where we can still be a source of support for them, despite the fact that they might be a little bit different from we are.
I pray that Allah ta’ala Allah’s angle grants you success in all of your endeavors and he grants you to continue to do the strength to do all of the work that you are doing. But you have to keep reminding yourself why you do what you do.
You have to let that be the motivation that you go out there and you understand that you can in fact make a difference in the society, because even if you can change the situation for one then you have made a very very drastic difference that can lay down the foundation that can bring down the change for many.
And so Insha Allah continue to do the work that you do and allow for yourself to grow and develop as people who are in position of authority so that your own personal development will benefit not only but will benefit the people that you will serve.
We have a story that I shared last night with a group of students at the faculty of education about a man who is a known author, and this man he seeks to get his inspiration for his work by going out into the world and looking at nature taking his inspiration from there.
And so this man goes to a shoreline to get some inspiration for his current project and as he is walking down the beach he sees a figure in the distance that looks like its doing some kind of dance. And so he becomes a little bit intrigued and he goes to see what this figure was doing. And as he gets closer he sees that its not doing any kind of dance but is picking something up off of the ground and throwing it into the sea.
And when he gets even closer he sees that the shoreline has been covered with thousands and thousands of starfish. And that there is a young boy who is picking up the fish and throwing them back into the water, so when he gets close to the boy he asks him, what are you doing? And the young boy he says I am throwing the fish into the water. And he says why are you doing this? And he says they have washed up onto the shore with the tide and if I don’t do so, they will become dehydrated and they will surely die.
And the man says to the boy after he looks up and down the shoreline and sees thousand and thousands of these fish that there is no way that you will be able to get all of them back into the water, what is the point of what you are doing? What difference will it really make? And the young boy looks at the man, he looks back down at the ground he picks up one of the fish, throws it into the sea and says ‘it made a difference to that one.’
So if you can make a difference even for one then try to make a difference even for one. Insha Allah that one will find himself or herself in a place where they can impact and affect many.
Iman Khalid Latif is the Executive Director and Chaplain for the Islamic Center at NYU. At the age of 24, his dedication to working across the boundaries of faith and culture lead to his appointment as the youngest chaplain in the history of the New York City Police department. In 2009 Imam Latif was named one of the 500 most influential Muslim in the world by Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talaal Centre and the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center.