It is universally accepted that Islam accords equality of status and rights to all human persons, irrespective of their origin or affiliation. The dignity that God has bestowed on humans as claimed in the Quran is general, not confined to male members of the Muslim Ummah. Quran’s emphasis on Adam and Eve being the common progenitor of all mankind, binds peoples of all races, tribes and communities and nationalities together in fraternal relations. The basic tenet of the human rights ideology that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” thus gets fully affirmed by the Quran and the Prophet’s farewell sermon from Jabal-i-Rahmah in Arafat.
However, the Quran does recognize and validate the existence of collectivities like tribes and communities, sharing common features that serve the purpose of group’s socio-cultural cohesion, though not necessarily constituting the basis of independent political entities. Islam rejects with a vengeance any claim to superiority or inferiority by birth or by virtue of belonging to any race, ethnic group, class, caste or religious fold or gender. Though uncompromising in asserting the absolute verity of the basic tenets of Tawheed and Hereafter and individual human accountability to God, the Quran unequivocally commits the Prophet and Muslims to recognize the right to equal freedom of conscience to all persons.
The issue of equality of status and rights of women and of non-Muslims and dissenters has, however, been problematic in Muslim societies and countries past as well as present. To understand the problem contextually, one has to take into account the fact that the value direction of Islam under God’s Revelation had to deal with time-space bound social-cultural specificities of the first addressees and subsequently of other peoples and civilizations. The obvious example of the status of ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ during the Prophet’s time is illustrative of the compromise between the Islamic ideal and the real, which should make us concede the possibility of evolution and progress in realization of the value of equality.
Women’s status and rights as human persons and vicegerent of God on earth are the same as those of men. The exemption from certain rituals during certain periods, like menstruation, is no sign of her inherent disability. It is just part of God’s Will for women, which she has to obey. If the woman conceiving the human child in her womb and male incapacity to do so does not render males inherently disabled and inferior to women, men cannot claim any superiority per se. On the contrary it is mother-hood which is exalted far higher than fatherhood in Islam. To derive from biological differentiation of roles of men and women any differentiation in civil, political and social, economic, and cultural rights can be traced not to the Quran but to male centred and hegemonic patriarchal social structures, which were rampant even during the early period of Islam. It is this tendency of conservative Muslims to idealize even the social practices of early period of Islam which makes Indian Muslims consider that the more they approximate to Taliban model the truer Muslims they would be. It is well that the Iranian Islamic scholars and the Revolutionary Iranian regime and Shias have been generally practitioners of the balanced path in relation to women’s rights.
It must however be admitted that in the domain of the family there is a valid functional differentiation of roles and rights of men and women. Qawwamiat of men is no charter for male domination, but a responsibility devolving on men to maintain the family and the accompanying prerogative to enjoy certain privileges. Even in the limited sphere of the family, women are entitled before or after marriage to get such terms written into the matrimonial contract, which put reasonable restrictions on the exercise of male’s prerogatives, and can get her own rights clearly stated relating to fairness of her treatment and modalities and terms and rights in the event of breakdown and dissolution of marriage.
The Islamic law of inheritance is not based on any arithmetical notion of equality but has sociological perspective of equity derived from kinship and rights and obligations. But it is not true that in every case female share has to be less than male share. In some situations male and female relatives are entitled to equal share and in certain situations women get higher then male share deriving from relational pattern. There is however scope for rationalization of the system not in terms of formal gender equality, but in terms of equity in changed socio-economic pattern of the family.
Similarly the Quranic provision of two female witnesses, in lieu of one male as witness to any business transaction, is not based on any inherent disability of women. It is based on varying empirical social reality. In some cases it is the woman who alone can be a witness; in certain situations men and women, even as husband and wife, are treated at par as witnesses.
Women’s economic independence and rights have never been in doubt. But the problematic areas are her right in matrimonial property and her post-divorce rights. Muslim conservative opinion in India has been coloured by an amalgam of non-contextual understanding of practices of early Islamic period, and by the Hindu Indian ethos. Moreover the habit of literal application of juristic opinions, disregarding the social context and the value direction of the Shariah, has given rise to a situation where representative body of Muslim Ulema in India has accorded Islamic legal sanction to irrevocable triple divorce, though the same Ulema have pronounced the act as haram.
No heed is paid to the evolution and refinement of the idea of justice, so pivotal in Islam, that modern humanism has brought into worldwide currency, of which males, including jurists, are beneficiaries in areas of their interest. For example they never renounce ‘terminal benefits’ guaranteed to all employees at the end of a period of service, on the plea that no such provision existed in earlier periods of Islam on the issue of just wages.
It is this deductionist, literal non-contextual understanding of Islam that makes certain Muslim sections of ulema, and countries even deny right to equal participation of women in civil and political life.
Minorities : The very fact that in much of even present-day literature on rights of minorities under Islam, traditional terms like Dhimmis etc. are still used to designate the status and rights of non-Muslim citizens of Muslim majority countries needs review of the entire perspective. Hindus, Christian, Buddhists and other non-Muslims in Pakistan and Bangla Desh, like Muslims in India owe their minority status to numerical inferiority caused by changing boundaries of the States, not to conquest or to any treaty or agreement. As citizens, members of all identity based minorities including religious minorities must be guaranteed equal civil, political, economic and cultural rights, along with the right to preserve their identity. On the latter count Islamic-Muslim theory and practice has been very clearly pro-multiculturalism. Since the Prophet’s time non-Muslim treaty partners enjoyed complete autonomy in religio-cultural matters.
The only disability that classical jurists would make non-Muslims suffer from relates to holding key-positions of the State and right to preach and propagate non-Islamic religions among Muslims, leading to conversion from Muslim fold to other religions.
In a democracy it is the will of the majority that prevails, subject to guarantee of basic human Rights to all citizens and persons. In a Muslim majority country, if majority of the people want to have State’s ideology to be based on Islam, they can legitimately exercise their right and enforce their preferred socio-economic system without making any permanent Constitutional provision depriving non-Muslims to hold any key-office.
As Islam guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, Muslims cannot exercise this right to freely preach their religion which may lead to conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, whereas denying the same right to non-Muslim religions where Muslims constitute majority and wield power. How to make Muslims so firm in their belief that they voluntarily opt to remain in the fold is one issue. It is quite another, that any one born to Muslim parents cannot ever exercise his or her right to choose his religion other than Islam. That will amount to Islam like Hinduism being treated as a race or an ethnic community and not faith, which is essentially a matter of individual choice.
Apart from these problematic areas, Muslims as standard bearers of Islam have to devote their intellectual and political energy on considering afresh the following issues related to right to equality:
(i) What constitutes inequality of status and enjoyment of rights in Muslim societies?
(ii) What are the historical and contemporary sources of institutionalized systems of inequality based on race, gender, class, tribe, sect and caste-like occupational groups in Muslims societies?
(iii) What are its socio-economic, cultural and political parameters? What needs to be done to make hierarchical caste-like stratification and tribal and sectarian divisions of Muslim societies make way for egalitarian social order?
(iv) How to ensure equality of opportunity right from the womb to all subsequent stages of life to all human persons?
(v) What should be the role of the State in the mission of equalization of opportunities?
(vi) What civil society initiaves are required for equalization of opportunities?
(vii) What special measures are required for making minorities and other disadvantaged groups enjoy equal rights in reality? For example how will modern Islamic affirmative action programme be shaped?
(viii) How to ensure that social diversity gets reflected, as for as possible, in most institutions in Muslim majority countries?
(ix) How are conflicting claims of equality, freedom and justice to be reconciled?