The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam

In this article, I will discuss the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, agreed upon and issued by the member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in August 1990. It constitutes in many ways a counter-draft, or an Islamic rendering, if you will, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. One of the major differences to the UDHR is the constant reference to Islamic law, the Sharia. The declaration has been criticized by Western and non-Western observers alike for not addressing gender issues and the rights of non-Muslims, and for neglecting (or limiting) free speech. At the same time, it is an important document reflecting the public debates on Islam and human rights in Muslim-majority countries. In the following, I will take a close look at the Cairo Declaration and point out some peculiarities here and there.

The Cairo Declaration starts with a praise of Islam and the global Muslim community (ummah) which is described as “the best community” and a “well-balanced civilization”. Here, a global aspiration to “guide all humanity” and to “provide solutions for all chronic problems” is formulated. The religious character of the declaration is mirrored in the following paragraphs: “divine commands”, “revealed books of Allah”, “worship”, “abominable sin”. Article 1 sets out the path of the declaration by linking human dignity to the subordination to Allah and the “true religion” (of course, Islam). The second article emphasizes the sanctity of human life which shall not be taken “except for a shari’ah prescribed reason”. The same holds true for any kind of “bodily harm”. The background to this “shari’ah-prescribed” reservation is that the penal codes of some conservative Muslim-majority countries contain so-called hadd (Arabic for “border”) punishments, i.e. physical punishment for theft, drug abuse, adultery, and other designated crimes.

Article 5 then turns to a central issue in Islamic ethics, namely marriage and family. It explicitly states the right of men and women to marriage and highlights the duty of the state and society to “protect” and “safeguard” the family. In the sixth article the specific role of the man (i.e. the husband) is mentioned, namely being “responsible for the maintenance and welfare of the family”. Women are “equal to man in human dignity”, as sentence (a) points out, but the rights as well as the gender roles differ. From a liberal perspective, this is one of the main points of criticism of the declaration. In addition, article 10 highlights the supreme role of Islam and the prohibition to force anyone to leave Islam for “another religion” or for “atheism”. This is a challenge to article 18 of the UDHR which was specifically proposed and drafted by Charles Habib Malik (1906–1987), a Lebanese Christian politician. In article 18 of the UDHR, the freedom of religious belief is explicitly stated to include the right to change one’s religion, a paragraph which was one of the main reasons for Saudi Arabia’s abstention in 1948. Thus, with regards to the freedom of religious belief we see a major difference between Western and Islamic concepts of human rights.  

On the other hand, article 11 of the Cairo Declaration mentions colonialism and calls for the termination of “all forms of occupation”, reflecting several conflicts where Muslim-majority peoples have lived under foreign occupation. Again, a changed perspective, compared to the 1948 UDHR, sheds light on the injustices experienced by various colonized and occupied peoples. The right to seek asylum is also mentioned (article 12), with the notable exception of asylum seekers whose plea is “motivated by committing an act regarded by the Shari’ah as a crime”. One should not forget that the “Shariʿa” (Islamic law) is not defined anywhere, but crime and punishment shall only be carried out “as provided for in the Shari’ah” (article 19 (d)). Thus, there is some space left for interpretation as to what constitutes a crime according to Islamic law. Articles 20 and 21 forbid torture, “any form of maltreatment, cruelty or indignity” (20), and taking hostages “under any form or for any purpose” (21). 

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in article 22, but only “in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah”. Upon this sentence (a), we find an Islamic exhortation to “propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil (al-amr bi-l-maʿruf wa-n-nahy ʿan al-munkar). Sentence (d) of article 22 prohibits “nationalistic or doctrinal hatred” as well as any incitement to “racial discrimination”. Articles 24 and 25 close the declaration by pointing once again to the “Islamic Shari’ah” as the main reference for the “explanation or clarification” (25) of any of the articles mentioned in it. To the very end the Cairo Declaration keeps its strict focus on Islamic law as the main instrument regulating and drawing moral boundaries for accepted Muslim behaviour. The lines between state and individual action are often blurred in this document. This has also been criticized, particularly the dominant role given to the “Muslim state”. While the perspectives on West and East (or on the Christian and Muslim world) differ between this declaration and the UDHR, there are also many rights stipulated by both documents. The historical (and current) perspective on Western policies in the Muslim world certainly looms in the background of the Cairo Declaration, but in terms of freedom of religious belief and free speech it surely falls short of the UDHR and other Western human and civil rights declarations.        

Kayaoglu, Turan (2020): “The Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s declaration on human rights: Promises and pitfalls.” Brookings Institution, September 2020.


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