RIGHTS IN EARLY ISLAM



Before talking about rights in Islam, we must begin by identifying the individuals and groups who held authority and power and the system that allowed them to gain such things.  Tribal councils governed early Arabs.  The tribal councils were formed by men of social and economic high-standing.  Elements like wealth, health, age, and lineage were factored in as the Arabs and other ethnic groups who inhabited that Arabian land decided on their leaders.  Historical evidence shows that religion then, played a major role if it were not one of the strongest social control mechanisms of that time.  The emerging of Muhammad as the religious and political figure thus should not be a surprise to no one of that community.  But it is naïve to talk about Muhammad’s power and authority outside the religious context.  In fact, Muhammad himself did not give that much credit to his personal genius and political savvy; all credit is due to God as we are told over and over.  Whatever good happens to us is from God and God alone, but whatever bad strikes us, it is from us and from Satan we read.  This system of accreditation remained the most powerful message up until today.  So at this stage, Muslims looked at the world through the Qur’ánic lens.  Before we examine the Qur'án then, a brief review of the events leading to the establishment of the Qur'ánic state is thus in order.
Before the emergence of Islam, the dominant civilizations of the seventh century were the Byzantium and Sassanian empires.  The former ruled the world west and northwest of the Arabian Peninsula, while the latter controlled the northeastern lands.  Neither of these powerful civilizations directly ruled over the Arabs, but they had allies who formed some sort of a buffer zone that protected them from raiders and thugs as well as from any advances by one of the supper-powers.  As to the Arabs themselves, they lived in tribes and large families known as clans that insured their survival.  Additionally, for clans to further their influence and protect their interests, they entered into alliances with other clans resulting in forming powerful umbrella organizations capable of protecting the trade routes and ensuring the transfer of goods across the desert.  In Mecca where Muhammad was born and raised, Quraysh was the powerful governing body that was formed out of clan leaders like the Háshimites; Muhammad’s clan.
Muhammad was born to Abdullah and Aminah in Mecca, both died while Muhammad is still at a very young age (Abdullah died before Muhammad was born).  His grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, and later his uncle Abu Talib adopted him and raised him along with his other seven children.  By the time he reached the age of twenty, Muhammad already became a trustworthy and successful merchant trading using the capital of a rich widow known as Khadíjah whom he married when he reached the age of 25.  For the next twenty years, or so, Muhammad solidified his reputation politically; as the peacemaker, and personally; as al-Amín (the trustworthy).  During the days he was not traveling with the caravans, he would go into seclusion in a cave near Mecca and meditate.  By the time he was forty, and while in the cave known as Hira, we are told that a heavenly being came to him and ordered to him to “read.”  Muhammad, who was an illiterate, was surprised and frightened.  After a short exchange between the two, Muhammad learned the first four or five verses of what will be known as “al-Qur'án” and thus begins his new career as the Messenger of “The God.”  For the next ten years, Muhammad preached the message of God to Quraysh:  He insisted that what he was saying was revealed to him directly from God.  This new message was by all measures a revolutionary one.  Slaves, religious dissenters, and women; became the immediate beneficiaries of this new worldview, and constituted the bulk of the early converts.  His pre-revelation reputation and newly found authority afforded him an important political role that could be considered the most important event in the Islamic history, if not the world history.  By the turn of the tenth spring since he declared his Prophetship, he met some tribal leaders from the city of Yathrib who were returning to pilgrimage to Mecca.  It was reported that he had previously spoke with these same leaders a year or two before.  This time though, these leaders converted to the new religion and invited him to come to Yathrib.  With the pressure from Quraysh augmenting, and with the death of his wife, Khadijah, and uncle, Abu Talib,  who had provided him with political protection and financial support, migration to Yathrib seemed to be the sensible thing to do in order to reach new audience and secure a safe haven to his followers who were routinely persecuted by the tribal council and the masters.  On July 16th of that year, Muhammad arrived in Yathrib which will be known from that point on as “The City of The Prophet” and later simply as “The City” (al-Madínah).  This timeframe marks the establishing of the first Islamic state.  Muhammad would then rule for more then a decade, and before his demise, almost the entire peninsula would accept the newly found religion.  What stands out during this time period is the fact that throughout these later years, Muhammad constituted the sole religious and political authority who determined the proper way for living an Islamic life.  But at no point in time, did Muhammad take credit for the achievements, he was simply the Messenger of God, and that is how he wanted his followers to perceive him and tell his story to the next generations of Muslims.  He was no genius, he was no king, he was simply a Messenger with a message, and that message was the Qur'án.  In other words, if we were to look for human rights principles at this stage, the Qur'án will be the document to study.  Not only because it constituted the sole single authoritative document of that time, but also because it will be considered by the generations of scholars to come as the main and prime source of law.  In what follows, we will present a near-exhaustive translation of Qur'ánic verses that contained some reference to issues that are considered today essential features of the body of human rights principles.  Issues from the nature of man, to the kind of relationship between God-man and man-man, to the status of slaves, women, religious minorities, employment, immigrations, contracts, penalties, governance, and other notions; and any reference to them in the Qur'án will be provided herein.  This translation will not be bridged by any commentaries or notes; rather, we would like to let the reader study them as untouched as possible in order to put it in the proper context.  There will be ample opportunities to introduce commentaries, criticisms, and defenses in the chapters to follow.

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