This article is a book review of the book, ‘Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics’. The book has been written by Ann Elizabeth Mayer. The author is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Introduction Since decades, there has been constant tensions and stress in matters related to human rights… Read More »

This article is a book review of the book, ‘Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics’. The book has been written by Ann Elizabeth Mayer. The author is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.


Since decades, there has been constant tensions and stress in matters related to human rights and Islam. A person may contest that many facets of Human Rights are violated by Islamic laws and traditions but another may be of the view that Islamic law faces opposition from the Human Rights Laws.

Some people may also categorize Human rights and Islam as not contrary to each other. In this book, the author, Ann Elizabeth Mayer tries to provide an objective analysis of the issue of human rights and Islam. The focus of the book is on the Islamic countries’ traditions vis-à-vis human rights.

As her principal research finding, she points out that there is an absence of unanimity on an exclusive human rights philosophy in the Islamic tradition. Based on her research, she brings to light that while interpreting human rights and religious doctrines, there are always certain differences of opinion in other religions as well. The book, through 10 chapters provides an insight into the response of Muslims to the human rights laws.

Human Rights vis-a-vis the Theory of Cultural Materialism

In the first chapter, the issue of these rights in the Middle-East is taken up. Mayer attempts to carry out an analysis of the theory of cultural relativism with respect to various human rights.

Opinions of various Muslim and Western scholars are also quoted by the author in order to give an alternative insight to the readers about the issue. The chapter is brought to a conclusion on an optimistic note, describing the involvement of people from the Muslim community in the United Nations’ system of human rights.

Traditions and Sources

Further, the enlightenment about various sources of Human Rights Law and Islamic Law is provided in a combined chapter, which provides the reader, an insight about the traditions and political scenario of the Middle East countries, whose foundation is said to be the Islamic law.

The next chapter is about the Islam tradition and the reaction of Muslims to human rights. The author makes an analysis of various Muslim Scholars’ philosophy regarding the so-called western issues like democracy, constitutionalism.

Reference of Legal Instruments

After having scrutinized various legal sources, Mayer gives an introduction of the restrictions on the Iranian Constitution, various human rights schemes as well as UIDHR. The two main Islamic traditions Shia and Sunni are also discussed, as their different applications in different countries, shape the political contours and their response to human rights.

It is recognized by International law that human rights can have certain limitations on the legal ground in order to respect public order, rights and protection of public health. Freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, the right to form associations or unions and to take part in the conduct of various public affairs are some of the rights where this restriction is applicable.

Various covenants like ICCPR and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also contain these conditions for the clarity on the application of these restrictions. Thus, in the Islamic Human Rights law, it is quite ambiguous that which situation or right can qualify as a reasonable limitation.

The difference in Interpretation/Opinion

With regards to this, Mayer figures out the presence of doctrines of several sects as well as schools of law for facilitating the interpretation of Sharia law in this modern era. In addition to this, scholars and judicial practitioners also have their own different interpretations.

Although there is tolerance regarding the difference in opinions of various schools in Islamic history, yet the author contends that conflicts may emanate by the prevalence of these differences when talking about the possible/reasonable restrictions. The exact and objective limitations can only be obtained if there is consensus among various schools, sects and traditions. It is important here to realize that it is easier said than done because development can also lead to arbitrariness in the interpretation procedure.

Exploring Egalitarianism

Chapter 5 onwards, various sensitive issues are taken up for discussion like women’s rights and the restrictions that they have to face, discrimination, rights of sexual minorities etc. Under this, the author describes the two approaches; first, accepting that Sharia is violated by the egalitarian principle and the other ason-paper’ acceptance of equality, yet substantiated by the formulating discriminatory rules.

According to the Human Rights viewpoint, the equality principle is not in compliance with discrimination on the basis of sex and religion. She further goes on to make a comparative analysis of gender equality in the USA and Iran. She is filled with immense praise for the pioneering documents like UIDHR, the constitution of Iran which guarantees equal rights regardless of caste, class, race, poverty, colour etc, yet there remains vagueness regarding its application for women in particular.

Now, taking up the Quran as a source, numerous domestic/private rights of the women are discussed. Instruments like the draft constitution of Al Azhar, Saudi Basic Law, Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), UDHR, Cairo Declaration etc, are thoroughly examined to check the implementation of the women’s rights. Towards the end of the chapter, the sex stereotypes and their presence even in the present times are discussed.

The plight of Religious Minorities

Another issue is the status of religious minorities in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran etc. After examining various documents related to this issue, Mayer comes to the conclusion that as the Quran clearly states, Islam cares for religious minorities like any other religion of the world.

Another important issue is that of gender and sexual orientation. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) identities are considered as a sin and are strongly prohibited according to Sharia. Although the Organization of Islamic countries embellishes the UN system of protection of human rights and accepts their universality, yet they refuse to give special protection and recognition to these vulnerable groups.

Several Islamic countries are infamous for the harsh punishments given to those who convert their religion from Islam. They are given a chance to repatriate to their parent religion but are admonished for their actions. The author analyses various doctrines and cases to have a clear insight into the violations of religious rights in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Concluding remarks of the book

Towards the end of the book, Mayer makes a point that the purpose of her book is not to establish an image of Islam as incompatible with rights, but to assert that religion and culture are manoeuvred by the elites present within the leadership of the religion to make their dissent to the international human rights appear legit.

The author, as a concluding remark, states that the major hindrance to the Islamic Human Rights is the politics involved in every aspect of their lives. To conclude this book is worthy of a read, in order to have knowledge about the influence of traditions and politics in the deliverance of basic human rights in Islamic nations and to gain clarity about various existing misconceptions.

Authored by: Arshdeep Singh
Student, Rajiv Gandhi National Law University, Punjab

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Updated On 20 Sep 2021 12:39 AM GMT
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