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DamadReligious Interpretation Affects Human Rights

Practices in Islamic countries that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not the result of irreconcilable differences between Western and Islamic thought but of religious interpretations that change over time, according to Mohaghegh Damad, a Professor of Jurisprudence and Law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Iran.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and has come into conflict with the laws and customs of some Islamic countries on issues such as women’s rights, religious freedom, and racial discrimination. Damad, who spoke at a September 7 talk sponsored by the Law School’s Center for the Study of Race and Law and the Human Rights Program, argued that Islamic governments’ resistance to the declaration often stems from “pessimistic” or “extremist” interpretations of Islam that are far from permanent or inherent tenets of the religion.

The issue of women’s rights has been a major point of contention between Islamic scholars and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because a passage in the Quran states that men are superior to women, Damad said. But according to Damad, that passage has been subject to a large number of interpretations, resulting in changes in Muslim women’s rights over the years.

In Iran, for example, women received the right to vote in 1963 and since then have won the right to serve in parliament. Evolving interpretations of the Quran have also lowered the restrictions on women’s clothing and prompted Iran to adopt new laws limiting a man’s right to file for divorce or to marry a second woman without the consent of his wife. According to Damad, these changes indicate that historical conditions can affect Islamic scholars’ interpretations of the Quran, producing gains in women’s rights that emerge from within the Islamic tradition, not against it.

“In my view, what brought forth the reinterpretations was nothing but new historical conditions,” Damad said. He said that some Islamic scholars continue to insist that Islam is incompatible with the ideas of sexual equality and women’s rights found in the Declaration of Human Rights, but he characterized that view as pessimistic.

The view of Islam as a religion that changes over time in response to changing historical traditions is more in keeping with the Shiite tradition than the Sunni tradition, according to Damad. He explained that whereas Shiites believe in a “continuous ijtihad,” in which Islamic thinkers rely on their own reason to interpret God’s commandments, Sunnis do not engage in continuous reexamination and reinterpretation of the Quran because they believe that human reason is not capable of comprehending God’s commandments.

On the subject of religious freedom, Islamic interpretations also differ. While some Islamic theologians believe in executing people for abandoning the Islamic faith, a competing interpretation holds that simply abandoning the faith is not a crime. Under the second interpretation, “what does constitute a crime and must be punished is practical apostasy, i.e. proved actions to refute a religious belief that leads to destabilizing a social order,” Damad said. Islam holds that “the innate nature of any religion is voluntary.”

According to Damad, the Quran explicitly rejects racial discrimination. The prophet Muhammad opposed racism by appointing a black man to an important position in the Islamic faith and by telling his followers that piety and charity are the only measures of superiority. Some Muslims have claimed that Muhammad said his successor must be someone of the Quraishi race, thereby privileging one race over all others, but this story remains in dispute and has had no effect on Islamic political rights, he concluded.

Damad serves as the head of the Department of Islamic Studies of the Academy of Sciences in Iran and as the chairman of the Department of Islamic Philosophy in Iran’s Academy of Philosophy.

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