By Dr. Samer Rashwani
Scholars have explored the moral dimensions of human rights for decades. There’s a consensus that human rights are an essential feature of any just and moral society, as well as being universal, inalienable, and indivisible. Many scholars also make the case that human rights should serve as the foundation for ethical and legal discourses. Our time has aptly been described as an ‘age of rights’ in which rights-based morality is consistently promoted. The language of rights seems to occupy the whole spectrum of moral and legal language. Human rights are used in many circumstances to replace ethics and are taken for granted in a way that somehow constitutes another way of ‘doing ethics’.
On the other hand, philosophers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Amartya Sen contend that such an approach not only undermines but also operates against a range of other morally significant human relationships and attitudes. These include community, solidarity, care, compassion, and benevolence, all of which play an essential role in our lives. They argue that focusing on individual rights can lead to a fragmented society in which people are less likely to feel a sense of obligation or responsibility to others. It has also been argued that the concept of rights is a product of historical circumstances that risk turning morality upside down if it encourages self-righteous claims and a sense of entitlement.
Recently, human rights have evolved into a field of study with an interdisciplinary framework, integrating insights from disciplines such as philosophy, ethics, politics, education, psychology, anthropology, and bioethics. The interplay between these disciplines and human rights, understood as a moral framework, is becoming a thriving field of research.
Professional ethical codes already include elements related to human rights and social justice. However, some scholars argue that human rights and social justice are not to be contained as simply “elements” but as a foundation upon which these codes are developed and understood. One such example is the role of human rights in the medical field, where medical professionals are obligated to respect the human rights of their patients, including the right to privacy, informed consent, and dignity. This relationship is underscored by ethical codes, such as the World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki, which sets standards for medical research involving human subjects.
Another example is the relationship between human rights and business ethics. Many companies have adopted policies that outline their commitment to respecting the human rights of their employees, suppliers, and customers and avoiding actions that may violate them. This relationship is governed by international standards, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provide guidance on how to align business operations with human rights. The relationship between human rights and ethics can also be seen in many other areas, such as environmental ethics, criminal justice, and education.
Human rights and ethics, particularly from an Islamic perspective, have also been a topic of discussion and study among Islamic studies scholars and related fields for several decades. Many have explored the concept of human rights in light of the Qur'an, Hadith, and other Islamic religious texts. They have sought to identify ways in which Islamic ethics and values intersect with the idea of human rights. There has also been significant discussion among Muslim scholars and thinkers about the compatibility of Islamic law and human rights norms and the role that Islamic ethics can play in developing a comprehensive theory of human rights.
To help shape and guide contemporary debates, the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE), based at the College of Islamic Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University, is convening its 10th international conference on The Interplay of Islamic Ethics and Human Rights. The event will gather renowned experts on Islamic studies, law, politics, anthropology, and bioethics to revisit the moral foundations of human rights and explore novel avenues for exploring their intersection and interplay between various disciplines. The conference is not concerned with worn-out questions about the relationship, compatibility, or reconciliation between conventional international human rights and Islamic law. Attention will instead turn to fresh and profound discussions about the interplay between Islamic ethics and social, economic, and political rights. Case studies will focus on the rights of refugees and survivors of mass atrocities, including their psychological and mental health; as well as bioethics and related concepts, such as human dignity, respect for human vulnerability, and personal integrity.
The Interplay of Islamic Ethics and Human Rights will also reflect the intricacy of human rights as both moral and legal concepts, a reality that continues to spark complex discussions among philosophers, legal experts, political scientists, and religious scholars. Such multifaceted interplay between the various moral dimensions of human rights raises questions that cross multiple disciplines, such as the development of a sound Islamic rights-based theory of morality. These issues, and more, will be approached from various angles, such as theological ethics, Islamic legal theory, jurisprudence, philosophical ethics, literature, political ethics, applied ethics, and Islamic bioethics. A multi-disciplinary approach is essential for uncovering common and conflicting principles and practices across various fields, disciplines, and cultures.
Dr. Samer Rashwani is a scholar of Quranic studies and Islamic intellectual history. His teaching and research concentrate on the trajectories of Islamic scholarship on the Quran from the early centuries onwards; and investigate new hermeneutical approaches to the Quran. Currently, he is Senior Researcher of Master of Arts in Applied Islamic Ethics at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Islamic Studies.
The Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics’ (CILE) 10th International Conference on The Interplay of Islamic Ethics and Human Rights took place March 15 - 16 2023 at the Auditorium, Minaretein, Education City, Doha.