Human Rights in Islam
April 7, 2008
al-Uzma Sayyid Ali Husaini Khamenei
Supreme Leader of Islamic Revolution
Delivered on the occasion of the 5th Islamic Thought Conference 29-31st
The issue of human rights is one of the most fundamental human issues and also
one of the most sensitive and controversial. During the recent decades, this
problem was more political than either ethical or legal.
Although the influence of political motives, rivalries, and considerations have
made difficult the correct formulation of this problem , but this should not
prevent thinkers and genuine humanists from probing into this problem and
ultimately obtaining a solution.
In the West, though the issue of human rights was raised by the thinkers of the
post-Renaissance period, it is only since the last two hundred years or so that
it became an issue of prominence among the political and social issues of the
Western society and an issue of fundamental significance. Perhaps, when we
examine the causes of many social changes and political upheavals, we will find
the marks of its presence and its principal ideals.
During the last decades this emphasis reached its climax in the West. With the
formation of the UNO after the Second World War and the subsequent drafting of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a concrete model came into existence
as a result of this emphasis that can serve as a criterion and basis of our
judgement and analysis of the ideals voiced in this regard during the last two
hundred years and especially in the last few decades.
We Muslims, of course, know it very well that if the Western world and the
Western civilization have paid attention to this matter in the recent
centuries, Islam has dealt with it from all the various aspects many centuries
back. The idea of human rights as a fundamental principle can be seen to
underlie throughout Islamic teachings. And this does not need any elaboration
for a Muslim audience.
That the verses of the Quran and the traditions handed down from the Prophet
(SA) and the Imams of his Household (AS) , each one of them emphasizes the
fundamental rights of man something which has caught the attention of men in
recent years- is known to Muslims, and there is no need for the scholars to be
reminded about this fact.
However, I would say , that today it is big responsibility on the shoulders of
the Islamic society to make this reality known to the world , and not to allow
those essential teachings of Islam to be lost in the storm of political clamor
and ballyhoo. There were some questions which can be raised in this regard, and
to answer them is my principal aim today.
Of course, in the course of the conference you scholars would carry on useful
and profound discussions on various aspects of human rights, which will itself
serve as a source of information for the Muslim world and enlighten them about
the viewpoints of Islam in this regard. The first question is Whether the
efforts made during the decades since the Second World War, in the name of
human rights have been successful in their purpose or not. The addresses, the
assemblies and the sessions held in the United Nations, and the claims made
regarding human rights have they succeeded in bringing men closer to their
genuine rights, or to at least the major section of the deprived humanity?
The answer to this question is not so difficult; for an observation of the
present world conditions is enough to prove that these attempts have not been
successful till now. A glance at the conditions of the underdeveloped societies
of the world, who form the major part of the human population, is sufficient to
reveal the fact that not only the major part of humanity could not achieve
their true rights during the last fifty years, but the methods of encroaching
upon the rights of the deprived nations have become more sophisticated and
complex and more difficult of remedy.
We cannot accept the claims made by those who claim to be champions of human
rights, while the bitter realities of the African and Asian nations and the
hungry millions of the human race are before our eyes, and watch the constant
spectacle of violation of the rights of several nations. Those who have been
outspoken in advocating human rights during these last forty years, have
themselves grabbed the most fundamental of human rights from the people of the
It is with their connivance that certain governments and regimes that deny men
their most primary rights have managed to survive. The dictators of today’s
world and also the despots of the last fifty years in Asia, Africa and Latin
America- none of them could have established and preserved their dictatorships
on their own without reliance upon the big powers. These big powers are exactly
those who have coined most of the slogans concerning human rights; it is they
who have brought into being the UNO, and even today the UN is at their service.
The economic poverty, hunger and loss of life in several countries of the world
are of course the result of intervention, repression, usurpation on the part of
the big powers. Who has caused Africa, the land of plenteous resources to see
this day? Who has kept the people of Bangladesh and India for years and years
under exploitation, and, despite their natural resources and great
potentialities, has brought them to the point that today we hear people die of
hunger in those countries? Who has plundered the wealth and resources of the
Third-World countries, and has brought about hunger, poverty and misfortune for
these nations, procuring sophisticated technologies and immense wealth for
We see that the organizers of the United Nations Organization and the principal
drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and those who even today
shamelessly claim to be the supporters of this declaration are the real authors
of those misfortunes. Otherwise there is no reason as to why Africa, the land
of exuberance and bounties, Latin America with its natural wealth, and the
great India, and many other Third- world countries should have lagged behind
and remained backward in spite of sufficient man-power and natural resources.
Today, the system of political domination of capital and power prevails in the
world, and there is no doubt in it that this system of dominance of capital and
power is controlled and steered by the same people who the fathers of the
Declaration of Human Rights. Under their wheel of capital, power and machine we
see the nations of the world being crushed and struggling helplessly. The UN is
the most outstanding product of the efforts made for human rights, yet what has
it done in the past for the nations of the world, and what is it doing today?
What active role could the UN play in solving the basic problems of nations and
in relieving them of the calamities that befell them? In what instance did the
UN emerge as a deliverer of the oppressed from the oppressor? At what point
could the UN persuade the big tyrannical powers to refrain from making unjust
demands? The UN has even lagged behind most of the nations in this regard.
Today, despite all those claims, we are witnesses to the Apartheid regime in
South Africa and to many instances of racism and racial discrimination in the
advanced countries themselves. Therefore, it is clear that the UN despite its
being the most outstanding example of the endeavor for human rights, has not
done anything in this regard. It has intervened in international problems in
the role of a preacher or priest. The Security Council is one of the principal
organs of the UN, and functions as the main decision-making body; in it the big
powers have the right of veto.
That is, every decision that is taken in the UN and in the Security Council
against the real agents who handicap the nations, the same agents themselves,
the big powers, are able to veto it. The United Nations and its organs,
agencies and organizations, whether they are cultural, economic or technical,
all of them are under the influence and domination of the big powers. The US
pressures over its cultural agency like the UNESCO and others are known to
everyone. Since a Muslim was the chief of the UNESCO who desired to maintain
his own independence as well as that of the agency, you witnessed how the US
subjected the UNESCO to pressures during these last two years.
Consequently, we feel that the UN as the most significant outcome of the
endeavor for human rights has proved to be an ineffectual and impotent element,
which has been created as a consolation for nation that has no practical
benefit. On account of the interference on the part of big powers, in cases it
functions as their feudatory. We do not of course reject the UN; we believe
that this organization ought to exist, and it must be reformed. We ourselves
are its member.
However, what I mean to say is that after all that effort, after all that
clamor and the hopes that were attached to this organization, you can see how
inadequate and ineffectual this organization has remained in securing human
rights in the world today. Hence, the answer to the first question has become
clear. We can say that the efforts made for procuring human rights and the
claims made in the name of human rights through the last several centuries and
especially during the last few decades did not bear any fruit; they have failed
to secure human rights.
The second question is whether, basically, these efforts had any sincerity?
This question is of course historical in nature and may not have much practical
value. Hence, I do not intend to discuss it at length. It suffices to mention
here that, in our view, these efforts were not sincere. It is true that there
were philosophers, thinkers and social reformers among the exponents of human
rights, but the arena was dominated by politicians.
Even the efforts of those thinkers and reformers were taken into the service of
the politicians. If, in the annals of history thinkers, sages, apostles of God,
mystics and men are seen to raise the cry for rights of man, today when we
behold politicians and statesmen to raise this cry vociferously, we are
justified in serious doubting their sincerity. Look around and see as to who
are those who plead the case of human rights . The ex-president of the US
projected himself as the defender of human rights during his election campaign,
and won the election on account of it.
In the beginning, from some of the speeches he made and steps that he took, it
appeared as if he was serious in his intention; but we have seen that
ultimately he stood by the cruelest, the most barbaric and tyrannical of
rulers, and the most adamant opponents of human rights in this region. He
supported the Shah and the tyrants of occupied Palestine and other infamous
dictatorships of our days. Even now those who plead the case of human rights ,
the statesmen and politicians who vociferously voice their support for human
rights in conferences and international forums are not more sincere than their
We do not find any signs of sincerity in their efforts. Those who drafted the
Declaration of Human Rights, and at their fore the USA, their aim was to extend
their domination and hegemony over the world of that time. Their problem was
not to safeguard the rights of men, the kind of rights that they had violated
during the war, They are the same people who have wiped out tens of thousands
of human beings by an atom bomb. They were the same persons who in order to
fight a war which had nothing to do with the Asian and African nations had
recruited the majority of soldiers from India, Algeria and other African and
We do not believe that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin and their like had the
smallest consideration for human rights in the true sense of the word and were
sincere in forming the United Nations and drafting the Universal Declaration of
human Rights. Accordingly, the answer to the second question is also clear: No!
We do not believe that the efforts made by the politicians and the most vocal
advocates of human rights were sincere at all. The third question, which is the
most basic of them all, is, what was the reason for the failure of these
This is the point to which more attention should be paid, and I shall discuss
it briefly here. I believe it is the most basic point, because whatever has
presented in the name of human rights is done within the framework of a
defective and crooked system, a system of dominance which is repressive and
tyrannical. Those who have created the UN and have drafted the Universal
Declaration of human rights, and those who most vehemently and vociferously
plead for it today, regrettably the majority of them are statesmen and
politicians who believe in the system of dominance and have accepted it. The
system of dominance means that a group of men dominates and should dominate another
group of men .
The system of dominance is backed by the culture of dominance. Today the world
is divided into two groups: one is the group of those who dominate and the
other is the group of the dominated. Both the groups have accepted the system of
dominance, and the big powers believe that this system should be maintained.
Even those who are dominated have accepted the system of dominance and have
consented to its continuity.
This is the biggest flaw in the existing world situation. Those who do not
accept the system of dominance are those individuals or groups who are not
satisfied with the social order in their countries or with the social and
political state of world affairs, and rise in revolt against this system. The
revolutionary groups who revolt against the global status quo or revolutionary
governments are very few in number and are constantly subjected to pressures
The most illustrative example of it is the Islamic Republic of Iran , which has
rejected domination in all its forms, and has not accepted anybody’s
domination. The East as well as the West are the same for it in this respect.
It does not give any priority to the powerful of the world or to its rich,
while making decisions. The whole world is witness to the kind of pressures it
had to face during the period of the last eight years since the Islamic
Republic of Iran was established.
It was subjected to political as well as military and economic pressures, and
the pressures of world-wide propaganda launched against it . The cause of such
pressures is clear. It was all done for the reason that the Islamic Republic
has taken a clear and independent stand against the system of dominance. If
some progressive governments have resisted Western and US domination, in majority
of cases, there were observable signs of acceptance of and surrender to Eastern
Of course, all of them are not the same in this regard. Some of them have
completely surrendered themselves to the Eastern bloc and the USSR while some
others show signs of independence in some cases. But if there is a government
and a society that has never yielded to any pressures, it is the Islamic
Republic, which has totally rejected the system of dominance.
Wherever in the world there is any pressure, high-handedness and unjust demands
made upon a certain nation by a big power in the world, we have made clear our
stand and have openly and bluntly expressed our definite views without any
reservations. But the majority of the world’s nations have accepted this system.
You can see that unfortunately the governments of the same countries which are
subject to domination do not have the moral courage and guts to resist and
oppose the domination of the big powers and fight them, while in our view it is
quite possible. We believe that if the poor countries, the countries that have
been under domination and in spite of their resources have been forced to
fulfil the unjust demands made by the big powers- had they wished to stand
against them, they could do so. No miracle is needed; it is sufficient that the
governments should rely upon their own people.
Unfortunately, the weakness of will to resist, and more than weakness the
treachery on the part of heads of some states in some cases, did not allow them
to rise against the system of dominance. This system of dominance prevails over
the world economy , culture, international relations and international rights.
Naturally the issue of human rights has been posed within the framework of this
system of dominance and developed in the background of this system and its
As a result the very persons who strive to secure freedoms, opportunities and
means of welfare for their citizens in European countries in the name of human
rights, they bomb and kill human beings in other countries by thousands. What
does it mean? Does it mean anything other than this that in the view of the
culture of domination which prevails over the world, human beings are divided
into two categories: the human beings whose rights are to be defended, and the
human beings who have to rights whatsoever and it is permissible to kill,
destroy, enslave and subjugate them and to seize their belongings. This system
is prevalent all over the world and the conception of human rights is also the
product of such a culture.
This is the framework of the system of rights in the world of today. Within
this cultural and legal framework the superpowers constantly widen the gap
between the weaker nations and themselves, and exert more and more pressure on
them. The greater the rate of advancement in technology and its speed
accelerates, the more are the weaker countries and nations threatened and
subjected to mounting pressures. No one asks the big powers today as to what
right they have to put greater pressure on other countries and nations than
ever before with their greater advancement in technology and industrialization.
Today the satellites launched into the space by the big powers are moving in
their orbits around the globe, and gathering minutest details and probing into
the secrets of other countries. Why? What gives them right to do that?
Today, most of the communications between people on the global level,
especially those between statesmen and heads of states, and political and
scientific communications are accessible to those who possess sophisticated
technology. Why? Does anyone ask them? Does anyone raise any objection? Since
the US has launched those satellite and possesses the means of gathering and
benefiting from intelligence, it is given the right by all to obtain that
Doesn’t the eavesdropping on the communications between the world’s people
amount to a violation of their rights? Does anyone put this question to the US,
USSR, UK, France and Germany? When this question is raised, will anyone affirm that
such a question should be raised? No, everyone says to himself: they are strong
so they can do it ; they are capable of doing it, so they must use the
opportunity. Today, the problem of atom bomb and the use of nuclear weapons is
an issue all over the world.
The superpowers themselves raise it because they are afraid of each other. They
wrangle over it and each tries to dupe the other by limiting the nuclear
arsenals of its rival while equipping itself with more and more. But, have the
smaller countries ever thought of opposing the makers of nuclear bombs, by
declaring that unless these bombs are destroyed and defused and unless peace of
mind is restored to humanity, which is exposed to the nuclear danger every
moment, they shall not have any relations with them, nor any trade nor any
cooperation in any matter? Have the Third-World countries, the non-aligned
nations and other countries of the world- have they ever thought of making use
of some kind of leverage against the race for nuclear arms? No. If you suggest
this idea to them, they will say that it is an advanced technology, they
possess it; they can , and so must produce such weapons.
It means that they have accepted the logic of dominance. The absence of balance
in the present world conditions has equally been accepted by the oppressor as
well as the oppressed nations. The culture of dominance has been imposed on the
minds. When we denounce the East and the West in international fora on account
of their acts, we clearly perceive the astonishment of heads of the states and
representatives of countries.
They consider it something odd and rash, whereas it is a natural stand by an
independent nation. All the nations and states should behave in a like manner,
but they don’t. The conclusion that we draw is that today the prevalence of the
culture of dominance has become the biggest evil. It is something which has
been greatly detrimental for the weaker nations, and encouraged the big powers
to violate human rights.
Whether it is the US’s aggression against Grenada, or the massacre of
defenseless Lebanese civilians by the US supported Israel, or the ruthless
suppression of the black population- who are the real masters of the land- by
the government of South Africa, which is backed by the US and some European
governments- all these violations of human rights are easily tolerated.
But when a frustrated individual infuriated by this state of affairs in some
corner of the world does something, if an explosion takes place or something
happens, it is deplored as an act of terrorism. But the US’s aggression against
Libya, the bombardment of the residence of the president of a country and the
violation upon its territory, is not condemned by the world.
Whenever there is a mention of terrorism, mostly that which comes to the minds
of people is some desperate act of a youth, a victim of oppression fed up with
life, from Palestine, or Lebanon, or some African or Latin American country,
rather than the acts of such big powers as the US, the UK, and others. This is
nothing but the result of the culture of dominance, the culture that
unfortunately dominates human mentality all over the world.
I n the culture of dominance, words also acquire peculiar connotations that
suit the suit the system of dominance. For instance, ‘terrorism’ is defined in
a way so that the US’s aggression against Libya, or its intimidation of
Nicaragua or the invasion of Grenada, etc. does not come under the definition
of ‘terrorism’. This is a big flaw in the present state of affairs.
Therefore, the failure of the attempts made in the name of human right- even on
behalf of those who are sincere and earnest- is on account of the nature of the
framework within which they want to lay down and declare the rights of the
human beings- something which is not possible. This framework is to be broken
and the system of dominance to be condemned. States, nations and countries
should resolutely reject the unfair and unjust domination of the big powers so
that human rights may be understood, pursued and restored.
Lastly, the fourth question: what is the remedy? In our view, the answer is
return to Islam, and recourse to Divine revelation. This is a prescription
equally valid for Muslims as well as for non-Muslims. For this, the Islamic
societies do not have to wait for anything. Return to Islam, revival of the
Quran and of Islamic mode of thinking in society, recourse to Islamic sources
(the Quran and the Sunnah) in legal matters -these are the things and that will
enable us to understand the meaning of human rights and help us to identify the
those rights and guide us in our struggle to secure them.
For the purpose of securing human rights, it is necessary once and for all to
give up giving advice and lecturing, since they are of no use. The Quran says:
“Take by force that which we have given you.” (2:63). God Almighty has granted
these rights to mankind, and they should secure these rights by force. The
Islamic nations should resist the unjust demands and dominance of the big
powers by relying upon the Islamic ideology.
These are not the words of an idealist who speaks about Islamic issues and
Islamic ideals from the corner of a theological seminary. These are the
utterances of a revolution which has gone through experiences and has felt the
Our revolution is an experience that is available for study to all the nations.
I do not say that we have solved all our problems. We haven’t. There is no
doubt that a great many problems have been created for us on account of the
Revolution and on account of its Islamic character. But we have solved the
problem of dominance. Today the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic can
claim that they have rid themselves of all domination and powers and that they
can decide for themselves.
Of course, when a nation tries to do away with all the forms of dependence, it
has a long path to tread. And dependence if not accompanied with domination,
pushing around, and unjust demands is something natural and tolerable. It is
quite obvious that our revolution and the Islamic Republic inherited the legacy
of a decadent society, a shattered economy, and a degenerate culture.
What was handed down to the Revolution by the rulers of the past centuries,
especially of the last fifty or sixty years, was an Iran beleaguered from all
sides. It is not to be expected that the Revolution will be able to lead this
dissipated heritage in a short time to the heights of cultural, ethical and
economic achievement and scientific and industrial advancement.
We do not make such claims, but, of course, we do anticipate a good future. We
believe that it is possible for a nation to reach a high level of material
advancement only through independence, self-reliance and by using its manpower
and material resources. But what we positively claim today is that the Islamic
Republic is not under any political pressure or domination of any power
Political pressures do not influence it to change its course or alter its
decisions; it does not change its path or its momentum on account of any
consideration for some superpower. It means that we have freed ourselves and
our people from the domination of the big powers.
This is an experience, which, we believe, underlines the significance of the
most basic and precious of human rights in Islam: the right to live, the right
to be free, the right to benefit from justice, the right to welfare, and so on.
These and other such fundamental rights can be secured in an Islamic society.
They can be derived from the Islamic sources and Islam has incorporated them in
its commands to Muslims and drawn man’s attention towards them, much before
Western thinkers gave thought to these rights and values. It is essential to
return to Islam.
Muslim thinkers are charged with the responsibility of thoroughly examining and
studying the subject of human rights or rather the general structure of the
Islamic legal system. This is also the mission of the present conference,
which, I hope, will be a new step taken in this direction, and , God willing ,
this work would continue.
The nations of the world can benefit from the sublime outlook of Islam in this
regard in coming closer to securing these rights. The Islamic governments may
of course help their peoples in securing their rights, but on condition that
they should have no reservations in regard to the big powers. Unfortunately,
today we do not see such a state of affairs. Most of the regimes governing
Islamic countries are under the influence of the big powers. The majority of
them are dominated by the West and under US influence. Therefore, their actions
and decisions comply neither with the Islamic principles, nor with the needs of
A ready example in this regard is the conference held recently in Kuwait. You
have seen that in this conference, instead of considering the basic problems of
Muslims, what kinds of problems were discussed and what kind of resolution was
passed. It was by no means compatible with an Islamic approach to the problem.
Instead of rejecting over Iraq’s aggression against a Muslim country and its
waging of a war against an Islamic revolution, they should have denounced it
and expelled it from the Conference. Instead of revealing the part played by
the imperialist powers in igniting the flames of this imposed war, they came
out with a hollow and insipid demand for peace, and even expressed their
satisfaction for Iraq’s positive response to the call for peace. They did it
without going into the core of the problem, without appreciating the fact that
a nation’s resolve to defend its own rights is something commendable, and
without recognizing that the willingness of a government and a regime to be
influenced by the pressure of imperialist powers in creating obstacles in the
path of a revolution is something condemnable.
Of course, these resolutions, decisions and opinions are much invalid and
weightless as they are remote from Islamic principles and values.
Accordingly, there is no nation or country in the world which looks forward to
knowing what step the Islamic Conference takes in Kuwait so as to welcome it or
be disappointed with it. It means that these decisions and resolution are so
much so removed from reality, alien to the basic Islamic criteria, and the
aspirations of nations that they remain completely indifferent to these.
You will not find a single country in the world whose people should be waiting
eagerly to know as to what the Islamic Conference has to say, so that its
resolution promises a sense of obligation or the pleasure of receiving some
good news. What is the reason? Why should a gathering of forty-six Islamic
states organized on the highest level of heads of states and leaders be so
ineffectual and so much devoid of consequence and content?
It is on account of the unfortunate fact that most of these regimes are under
the influence of the big powers. As long as this domination of the big powers
and their awe and fear remain in their hearts, the affairs of the Muslim
nations will be in disarray. If we wish to deliver the Muslim word form its
present-day disarray and confusion, the first thing that is to be done is to
drive this fear and awe from the hears, as God Almighty has said: “…So fear not
mankind, but fear Me…” They should not be afraid of anyone except God. If this
happens, the condition of the Islamic nations will move towards betterment.
I conclude my speech with the hope that, God willing, this Islamic Thought
Conference, during the few days that it will hold its sessions, will be able to
make a significant contribution towards the understanding of the Islamic
verities regarding human rights.
Besides, the exchange of opinions between the Iranian and non-Iranian brothers
will help the communication of the experience of the Islamic Revolution and the
Islamic Republic and their better understanding by the non-Iranian brothers. It
will provide them the opportunity to study that experience, so that other
nations may view the revolution brought about by their brethren in Iran as a
model and as a new path that can be possibly trodden.
Wassalam ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh.
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