Human Responsibilities and Human Rights. By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan


These days ‘human rights’ are a much-talked about subject. In addition to human rights, there are a great many human responsibilities. But these are not talked-about much today, including in the media, ‘social activist’ and NGO quarters, and even in government circles.
‘Human rights activism’ appears to be the ‘greatest’ ‘activism’ of our age. It has been around for near about 200 years. But, in terms of results, it is a complete failure. This negative result invites us to reassess the whole matter. According to my analysis, ‘human rights’ in themselves are nothing. They are actually a by-product of human duties. If people are made duty-conscious, then, certainly, their rights will be secured. However, if you insist on human rights and neglect human duties, it is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse—and this will produce no beneficial results at all.
Why did the human rights’ concept become so pervasive? How did it gain such wide acceptability? The answer is that it was a result of reaction. The ‘modern’ age witnessed many movements, like democracy, socialism and nationalism. All these were results of reaction against something or the other. To achieve their goals, the leaders of these movements overemphasized the concept of rights and neglected the concept of duties. It was due to this wrong approach and practice that numerous negative results followed. These movements were successful in overthrowing existing regimes, but they failed to establish the systems that they claimed to have championed. All the so-called revolutions based such movements were simply coups, and not revolutions in the true sense of the term.
Is it possible, one might ask, to arrive at a harmonious balance between human rights and human responsibilities? The fact is that it is not a question of balancing the two. Rather, it is a question of opting for a natural strategy, one that is in harmony with nature. It is a question of making the right beginning. If you start from the right beginning, you can reach the sought-after end. But if you make a wrong start, you can never reach the end that you hope for. All the movements mentioned above, which were based on the concept of rights, as opposed to duties, chose unnatural methods, methods that were not in accordance with the laws of nature. It is due to this unrealistic approach that they failed. Their methods were all based on the notion of rights, as against duties. The right start, however, would have been to lay emphasis on human duties. In doing so, people’s rights could have been achieved, as an end-product, as it were.
In other words, the starting-point must be inculcating in people the consciousness of the need to perform their duties first. However, today, only rights are spoken about, not duties. And so, nothing can be achieved—neither rights nor duties.
The Islamic answer to this question of rights versus duties and responsibilities is reflected in a hadith report in the Sahih al-Bukhari, in which the Prophet is reported to have said, “Give to others what is due to them, and ask your dues from God”.
From this we learn that when you are in society, you should perform your duties honestly. And as far as your problems are concerned, they will be solved through the laws of nature. In other words, live in your society as a giver, not as a taker. The famous formula ‘In giving that we receive’ will then come true in your favour. If you live as a giver, then, in accordance with the law of nature, you will also receive from others.
This formula is given in the Quran in these words: “…whatever is of use to man remains behind” (13:17).
If you prove to be useful to others, you shall flourish. In other words, if you prove to be a benefit for others, you will certainly find a proper place in society.
Religion pays much stress on individual responsibilities (vis-à-vis God and vis-à-vis fellow creatures of God), while modern, secular culture, in which religion plays, if at all, only a very peripheral role, focuses much more on human rights than human duties or responsibilities. This is due to the difference between these two ideologies. Religion is based on the individual, while secular thought is based on the notion of ‘the system’. Religion emphasizes the reform of the individual, of one’s inner state and behaviour, while secular ideologies emphasize changes in the external structures, processes and environment or ‘the system’. Accordingly, religion focuses on individual duties. In contrast, secular ideologies focus on human rights.
Those who emphasize human rights always make demands on society. But the fact is that in doing so, they themselves are making demands against some individual or the other—in the form of an administrator or boss or someone else occupying a seat of power who can fulfill their demands. Hence, if you want your demand to be fulfilled, you have to change the minds of those who are in the position to fulfill your demands. The society as a whole cannot give you anything. Rather, it is the individual or individuals in a position of power who can give you what you want. Therefore, you have to change these individuals, and only then can your demands be fulfilled.
I believe that the source of all kinds of good and evil lies in human nature, and not in society as such. Society has no nature in itself. It is nothing but a collection of individuals. This means that, starting from individual change, we can bring about change in society by changing the individuals who comprise it. But, if your starting-point is society, you will not get any results. If you address and seek to reform the society as a whole, your efforts will vanish into thin air. But, if you address and seek to reform an individual, then a collection of such reformed individuals can emerge, who can manifest social change in the form of a group of changed individuals.
This approach is a realistic one. It is based on reality. All changes are the result of will, and will is found in the individual, not in society. What is of utmost importance is to inculcate will, and this can be done only in and by an individual. It is within an individual, not society as a whole, that will can be inculcated. This individual-centric approach is the only realistic approach. Trying to address and reform the society, instead of the individual, is not at all realistic.
Focussing on duties, rather than on rights, is not tantamount to ignoring human rights or to being indifferent to people’s sufferings. I always take a realistic approach in all matters, and my approach in this matter, too, is a realistic one. According to the law of nature, no one is going to give you anything for free. You always only receive that which is in accordance with your deeds. There is a well-known saying: ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ ‘Human rights activists’ who focus on rights and ignore duties are going against the law of nature. In contrast, those who stress duties are only following the laws of nature. In this sense, such ‘human rights activists’ have adopted an ‘unnatural path’—unnatural because it goes against the laws of nature alluded to above.
My way of thinking is based on results. It is not tantamount to being indifferent to the sufferings of others. Speaking against oppression and protesting on the streets yield nothing in terms of practical results. Again I will say that my method is about abandoning the unnatural path. The natural fact is that it is not ‘the system’ or ‘society’, but, rather, individuals who play all the various social roles, and so it is individuals who must change. Ignoring the need to transform oneself and other individuals, and, instead, trying to change the social system, as ‘human rights activists’ do, is an effort that is entirely in vain.
To illustrate this point, consider the case of the communist movement, which was totally based on the concept of changing the ‘social system’. The movement successfully established a communist regime in a vast expanse of land—the Soviet Union, to begin with. But what was the result? The communist regime represented the worst kind of oppression and human rights’ violations.
Focusing on one’s responsibilities, rather than rights, helps resolve conflicts, and, in the long-run, also leads to one securing rights. This approach provides two benefits. Firstly, it brings an end to social unrest. And, secondly, in the long run, it helps in enabling one receive one’s rights. The reason behind this is that this concept is in accordance with the law of nature. And in this world, one can achieve anything positive only by following the laws of nature.
In this context, contemporary discourses about human rights that ignore human responsibilities cannot truly secure peace and justice. These kinds of discourses cannot give us any positive results. Instead, they are bound to yield negative results. In fact, they are a constant threat to attaining peace and justice. The reason is that when you insist on human rights, you are promoting a culture based on the notion of ‘we versus them’, based on the notion of the existence of two antagonistic groups: a group that ought to possess certain rights, and a rival group, that is thought to have snatched the rights of the former. On the other hand, when you speak of human responsibilities, it promotes a ‘we-we’ culture, informed by the notion that we need to be givers, not demanders or takers.
Once, someone asked me, “If, in a certain context, one’s human rights are being grossly violated, what should one do? Should one, even in this context, focus only on one’s duties and not demand or struggle for one’s rights? Should one remain silent on the violation of one’s rights?”
My answer to this was that this is an abstract question. According to my experience, all talk of this kind is basically flawed, because it looks only at one side of the picture and ignores the other side. It does not seek to discover the root cause of the phenomenon. It focuses on the victim, but never tries to know how the victims became victims of someone in the first place. I am a great believer in this Quranic verse: “Whatever misfortune befalls you is of your own doing” (42:30). This is a law of nature, and this has also been referred to in the Bible in these words: “You will always reap what you sow” (Galatians, 6:7).
Some people might say that it is very convenient for people whose rights are not being trampled upon to talk about responsibilities and to sideline the issue of human rights’ violations because they are not directly affected by such violations and because silence on these violations benefits them by winning them the goodwill of the ruling classes. My reply to this argument is that those who emphasize human duties are not sidelining the rights of people. Rather, they are going to the root cause of the issue. In focusing on responsibilities rather than rights, they are highlighting the fact that if you want to receive something from society, you have to give something to it. Human rights’ activists always tend to take the victims as completely innocent, but facts shows that this approach is wrong. They do not inquire as to why the situation of victims is such. They immediately take the side of the victims, and do not try investigating the reasons behind their situation.
Some people might contend that if human rights’ activists had not demanded human rights, today we would not be enjoying many of the freedoms that we take for granted—for instance, the right to free expression, the right to take up an occupation of our choice etc.. Hence, they say that those who stress responsibilities, rather than rights, ignore the great role that the human rights’ movement has played in securing many freedoms.
This argument is, however, completely wrong. All such benefits that we presently enjoy are basically due to the advent of the Age of Reason. Science created the culture of reason, and due to this we have acquired these benefits. To cite one example, in previous centuries, religious persecution was pervasive. But after rational discussion, people discovered that this kind of persecution only stifles progress. It was this finding that led to the emergence of many new freedoms.
Many Muslim groups keep stressing the issue of (real or imagined) violation of Muslim human rights—in India and elsewhere. They rarely, if ever, talk about their duties. Also, they almost never talk about human rights’ violations of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries or of vulnerable groups among the Muslims themselves, such as women or minority Muslim sects. This shows their contradictory stance and behaviour. And it proves with certainty that they are communal-minded people. Although they falsely try to portray that their case is based on principles, in actual fact it is based on communalism.
This approach of theirs is completely wrong. Based on my direct knowledge, I can say that all these Muslims who think and behave in this way are communal-minded. They always favour their community and speak against other communities. It is not a matter of principles, but, rather, a reflection of communal thinking. This approach, of constantly harping on the issue of human rights but completely ignoring human duties, does not serve any practical purpose. It has not in the past, and nor will it in the future. It is a violation of both the Quranic teachings and the principles of reason. It is not Islamic. The Quran clearly proclaims: “Whatever misfortune befalls you is of your own doing” (42:30).
This approach is both useless and counterproductive. It cannot at all help in addressing and solving human rights’ violations. It is a law of nature that it is in giving that we receive. If you want something from others, you must first give them something. It is impossible to unilaterally receive something from others. The concept of demanding while not giving, speaking about your rights but ignoring your duties, is unnatural, and, hence, is utterly useless.
In this context, Muslims must adopt a two-point formula: of education and sabr, or patience. Education is the source of intellectual awakening and enlightenment. Sabr means realistic planning. When you save yourself from reaction, when you are able to exercise patience in the face of difficult situations, when you are awakened intellectually, you are able to assess the situation objectively, and you can then chalk-out your approach and strategy on positive lines.

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