An Islamic renewal can be realised through the encounter between Islamic Law and Human Rights

This article was published in Oasis 15. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:40:47

Book review of Yadh Ben Achour, La deuxième Fâtiha. L’Islam et la pensée des droits de l’homme, PUF, Paris, 2011


Professor of Public Law and Philosophy of Law, specialist in the political thought of Islam and member of the Institute of International Law, Yadh Ben Achour explains the title of his book in these terms: ‘Verses 23-37 of the Sura al-Isrâ’ […] have a force comparable to those of the first sura of the Qurʼan, intitled Fâtiha […]. Given their importance, I am taking the liberty of bringing them together under the name of ‘Second Fâtiha’: magnificent in its inspiration, this portion of the Holy Book is a guide for believers and unbelievers towards a universally acceptable ethic, capable of inspiring a modern system of law […].

To direct Muslim thought towards a radical renewal, it is essential to make a fresh study of the fourteen commandments of this Sura at the beginning of the Qurʼan’. But surely anyone can see that these 14 verses of Sura 17 more or less repeat the Ten Commandments of Sinai. Ben Achour begins by elucidating what ‘modern rights’ are. They are said to manifest ‘an unprecedented development of the spirit of justice’, and this is illustrated in his first three chapters. The author argues that ‘the historical internationalisation of the rights of man [has ultimately led to] the emergence of a universal concept of ”rights for all men”. It is true that the development of respect for the rights of man is ‘hard to achieve, [since the] principle of them has had to combat the species of “voluntary servitude” that societies have organised down the centuries’. Now ‘it is the claim of modernity to be able to bring this “servitude” to an end’.

Ben Achour goes on to examine the relationship between ‘Islam and the notion of the rights of man’, noting that ‘there clearly are dogmas, values, and other stable convictions that have the potential to pass through time and space ¬without any visible alteration’. The same is true of the concept of man, insân. His nature, his destiny, his fundamental characteristics, his place in the cosmos, his relations with other creatures […] are defined by the Qurʼan and by the hadîth. These are transcendental values whose importance the author aims to underline. He goes on to reflect that there are many Muslims who try ‘to achieve a difficult if not impossible union between the modern notion of the rights of man and the philosophy of law in Islam’, in a concordism that of course has its limits. There are also those who deny ‘on principle the value of this philosophy of man and the legislation that derives from it’. It is in Chapter IX, La lettre et l’esprit (149-163) that Ben Achour expresses the best of his thought: in his opinion ‘Islam must register a crucial fact: to survive and win respect in the modern world it has to justify itself from a universal point of view […].

Unless the language of law is to condemn itself to relativism, it must draw inspiration from a universal reason that is valid for all […]. A shared language implies a shared patrimony, and this patrimony requires that particularistic religious ambitions be not necessarily silenced but at least muffled’. In his Conclusion (177-183), Ben Achour expresses the hope that ‘the Islamic societies of today [produce] the means whereby they can be transcended’, fighting ‘four top-priority battles’: ‘Explaining why, at the human level, the philosophy of the rights of man is superior to all philosophies that base their conception of right on an external will considered sovereign by men and by their laws […]; explaining that the essence of subservience comes from a confusion between the religious and the political […]; fearlessly denouncing certain claims made by the neo-Islamological science of anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists who invite us to describe, calculate, and comprehend, without judging, in the name of ‘science’ and objectivity […]; explaining that the birth of liberty is not a problem of words and still less of lies. It can only be achieved in an institutional system styled “democratic” in which however the law of numbers is not the principle’.