Human Responsibilities and Rights in the Shari’ah: An Advanced Primer

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Posted Aug 21, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Human Responsibilities and Rights in the Shari’ah: An Advanced Primer

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

The Shari’ah is the high level framework of universal principles in Islamic jurisprudence derived through intellectual effort to understand the meaning and coherence (nazm) of the Qur’an and of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad as recorded in the Hadith.  This higher framework is the subject of ‘Usul al Fiqh or the Principles (Roots) of the Fiqh.  The system of specific laws, rules and regulations, which must reflect and conform to the highest principles, is called simply Fiqh.

The fiqh includes not only the set of punishments or hudud specifically mentioned in the Qur’an for deterrence and with strict evidentiary rules for application, but many man-made rules and punishments that have developed in various cultures to which Islam as a religion spread.  For example, the contention of some Muslims that a husband may beat his wife, or that an adulterous should be stoned to death, or an enemy should have his throat slit have no solid basis in the Qur’an, hadith, Sunnah, or Sirah.  Such punishments are strongly condemned by the great Islamic jurisprudential scholars, but remnants of such cultural practices survive even today.

The higher guidance that should guide the understanding and applicability of the fiqh was spelled out by two of the greatest Islamic scholars, Shamsuddin ibn al-Qayyim (who died in 748 A.H., 1347 A.C.) and his mentor Imam Ahmad ibn Taymiyah (d. 728).  Ibn Qayyim wrote:  “The Islamic law is all about wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife.  It is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good.  Thus any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, common good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to the Islamic law.”

This introductory essay defines the highest level framework, akin to constitutional principles, and introduces various schools of fiqh or schools of thought (madhahib) that have been established by leading Islamic scholars or Imams, namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Ja’fari, and Zaidi.  Regardless of the school(s) of thought one may follow, the discussion of the universal human responsibilities and rights culminates in what is the essence of Islam, i.e., truth, love, and justice.

I.  The Foundation for Human Responsibilities and Rights in Islam

In classical Islamic thought of the third through seventh centuries, A.H., human responsibilities and the human rights that result from fulfilling them were systematized in what is known as normative law, that is, in norms or general principles.  The entire field of Islamic normative law is a product of ijtihad or intellectual effort to understand the Qur’an and Hadith.  Over a period of four centuries, the greatest and wi