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Islamic Documents on Human Rights

Author: Andrea Di Fabio, M.A. student in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance, University of Padua

One of the most important outcome originated from the increasing debate on Islam and human rights and the gradual emergence of “progressive Islam” is represented by the elaboration of specific documents on human rights, within the Islamic world. Over the last decades, three main documents on Islam and human rights have been issued by both nongovernmental and intergovernmental organisations, namely: the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (1981), the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004).

Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights 

The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1982 by the Islamic Council of Europe, a private nongovernmental organisation affiliated with the conservative Muslim World League. The organisation was established in 1973, with headquarters in London, in order to bring together Islamic statesmen and scholars to discuss contemporary issues facing Muslims living in the West and to coordinate the work of Islamic centers and organisations in Europe. Frequent meetings throughout the 1970s continued into the 1980s, when the Council's most famous documents was published.

The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights rooted human rights in the law of God and restated fundamental human rights using the language of Islamic jurisprudence. It addressed several issues such as privacy, torture criminal cases, marriage, inheritance, divorce, and economic activities, freedom of religion on the basis of traditional Islamic law. The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights provided an useful starting point: it was the first official political statement of Islamic exceptionalism in the realm of human rights. However, the Declaration was deeply criticized because of the use of an ambiguous and equivocal language and translation in English that masked many of its overt religious references. Actually, in its original Arabic, the Declaration seems to endorse some Islamic considerations that often limit rather than enshrine human rights as outlined by international norms.

Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam was adopted in 1990, after more than a decade of debates and works, by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. This intergovernmental organisation has a membership of 57 states and attempts to represent the collective voice of the Muslim world, protecting its interests in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various peoples of the world. The Organisation was established upon a decision of the intergovernmental summit which took place in Rabat, Morocco in 1969. The Cairo Declaration is not a legally binding document; it represents the summa of Islamic legal orientations on human rights that member States should follow, without prejudice to national sovereignty. The Cairo Declaration includes a preamble and 25 articles.

The preamble reaffirms the civilizing and historical role of the Islamic community, which “God made the best nation”, in terms of human rights. It asserts that fundamental rights and universal freedoms in Islam are an integral part of the Islamic religion. No one, as a matter of principle, has the right to suspend, violate or ignore them in as much as they are binding divine commandments, which are contained in the “Revealed Books of God” and were sent through the Prophet. Therefore, all the rights and freedoms contained in the Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia, the only legitimate source of reference for the explanation, clarification and application of human rights. Article 1 maintains that “all men”, since they are created by God, “are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the grounds of race, color, language, sex, religious belief, political affiliation, social status or other considerations”.

The Declaration contains the following rights: right to life, right to dignity and personal honour, gender equality (even if man is conceived as the only responsible for the family, in accordance with the traditional Islamic teaching), right to parental education of children, right to mobility, right to work (not trade rights), right to education, right to property, prohibition on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, freedom of opinion. All these rights and freedoms should be understood in light of Sharia.

Arab Charter on Human Rights

The Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted in 2004 by the Council of the League of Arab States. A first version of the Charter was issued in 1994, but no member State ratified it. Consequently, the Charter was updated in 2004 and finally came into force in 2008 when seven member States ratified it. The League of Arab States, or Arab League, is an intergovernmental regional organisation of Arab countries in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Middle East. It was created in 1945 by six members, namely: Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia. Currently, the League has 22 members. According to Article 2 of the Pact of the League of Arab States, the League's main goal is to “draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries”.

Unlike the previous declarations, the Arab Charter on Human Rights is an intergovernmental legal instrument subjected to ratification by member States and it mainly reflects secular and moderate orientations of some Arab countries. In fact, while the Cairo Declaration stressed the primacy of Sharia, the Charter puts much more emphasis on the “Arab culture” in order to find affinities with the human rights paradigm. It includes a preamble and 53 articles.

The preamble maintains that the Arab nation and culture conserve and preserve universal values, such as human dignity, rooted on God, and underlines that the Arab homeland is the cradle of religions and civilizations. Contrary to the Cairo Declaration, the document lacks of continuous references to Sharia, except for the mention of eternal principles of “fraternity, equality and tolerance among human beings consecrated by the Islamic law and other divinely-revealed religions” in the preamble. Human rights are conceived as universal rights without distinction on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religious belief, opinion, thought, national or social origin, wealth, birth or physical or mental disability. The Charter affirms the adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the two International Covenants on Civil and Political and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Cairo Declaration. The Charter recognizes all civil, political and economic, social and cultural rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. Moreover, it establishes a treaty body, called the Arab Human Rights Committee, to supervise the implementation of the Charter by member states.

The Arab Human Rights Committee consists of seven members state nationals who are independent and impartial. In accordance with Article 48, state parties undertake to submit reports on the measures they have taken to give effect to the rights and freedoms recognised in the Charter and on the progress made towards their enjoyment. The Committee considers the reports in the presence, and with the participation, of the State party in question. Having considered the report, the Committee issues final comments and recommendations which will be included in its annual report to the Council of the League of Arab States.


In conclusion, the two intergovernmental documents are the most significant ones. They reflect the orientations of Muslim and Arab countries, respectively, in terms of human rights. It is important to note that the effort to integrate the human rights paradigm is more evident and effective in the Arab Charter. In this document, there are not explicit dissonances between human rights and the Arab cultural framework employed. On the contrary, the attempt of the Cairo Declaration to appear, at the same time, open to human rights and faithful to the principles of Sharia, produced ambiguous and uncertain results. Nevertheless, the Cairo Declaration represented the first vital intergovernmental attempt to reach a compromise between the Islamic claim to the revealed truth and the need to harmonize with the modern human rights culture.

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