The Spiritual Foundation of Human Rights

Suheil Bushrui

Kahlil Gibran Professor

(University of Maryland)


A Presentation by Dr. Suheil Bushrui, Kahlil Gibran Chair at the University of Maryland.

Al-Hewar Center – Wednesday, October 22, 2008



Although the term “human rights” is of relatively recent origin, its underlying philosophy is not.  Maurice Cranston, an eminent student of the subject, has defined human rights as “a twentieth-century name for what has been traditionally known as natural rights or, in a more exhilarating phrase, the rights of man.”[1] Their roots can be found in such ancient texts as the Babylonian code of Hammurabi or the juridical rulings of the Jewish sanhedrin, which banned torture and limited the use of capital punishment. In fact, the struggle for a universal ethic and practice of human rights has been an ongoing feature of humanity’s attempt to create the shape and form of a global moral order.


The issue of human rights represents what should be one of the most important spiritual concerns of our world today. It poses transcendent questions: what does it mean to be a human being, what is the purpose of life on this earth, and what should be our intellectual and emotional attitude towards one another?[2] One of the drawbacks of our contemporary approach to human rights concerns the method of presenting them as a code of civil and moral laws, and perhaps as a product of Western civilization, when in fact human rights are essentially a codification of mainly spiritual laws that are themselves the cumulative achievement of the world’s religious traditions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, dominates contemporary discussion of human rights. The French jurist René Cassin was the principal author of the document and recognized the connection between human rights and the spiritual in his work. He found the source of the rights he proposed in spiritual, as well as civic, moral, and legal, traditions.


Curiously, religious bodies have as dismal a history on the issue of human rights as secular institutions.[3] They have often failed to ensure full human rights for followers of other faiths or even for segments of their own adherents. In our own day we have witnessed atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the hapless regions of Rwanda. Serbs have carved crosses on the cheeks of yet living Muslim men, before killing them. We do not have to search very deeply into contemporary history to find variations on this pattern: Muslims murdering Christians; Christians, Jews; Hindus, Muslims; and so on, seemingly ad infinitum.  As Ted Gurr of the University of Maryland has empirically demonstrated, religious distinctions are motivating factors in numerous ethno-political conflicts.[4] Thus, the charge that religion is a great source of violent conflict cannot be denied.


That religion has fueled so much fanaticism and hatred has led many to conclude that it is out-of-date and no longer applicable to the needs of modern, or should I say post-modern, life.  Such, indeed, is a common judgment among many intellectuals and laymen alike.  Yet to act on this judgment brings its own evils and will do nothing to advance the cause of human justice or universal peace.  The German philosopher Carl Jung brilliantly analyzed the consequences of the loss of true religious practice when he observed of our spiritual traditions:


They express the whole range of the psychic problem in mighty images; they are the avowal and recognition of the soul, and at the same time the revelation of the soul’s nature. From this universal foundation no human soul is cut off; only the individual consciousness that has lost its connection with the psychic totality remains caught in the illusion that the soul is a small circumscribed area, a fit subject for “scientific” theorizing. The loss of this great relationship is the prime evil of neurosis.[5]


Humanity, therefore, faces a double conundrum as it approaches the fin-de-siècle and the end of a millennium: religion is, and has been, the cause of conflict time and time again in history; yet without religion we slip into a self-destructive neurosis that distances us further and further from peace and justice.


In certain respects, of course, there is nothing new in humanity’s contemporary condition, for it seems that it must periodically rediscover its spiritual roots in the midst of chaos and disorder. W. B. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of this century, captured the mood of this historical moment in a poem aptly entitled “The Second Coming”:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.[6]


Yeats’ poem not only celebrates the birth of a new civilization but also underlines the period of acute turbulence that is inextricably a part of the birth of a new moral order.


Another renowned poet, who also lived in an age of opportunity not unlike our own, spoke of the dislocation and doubt of his generation. In 1611 John Donne wrote:


And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,

The Element of fire is quite put out;

The Sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him, where to look for it.

                . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone….[7]


At the end of that same century John Dryden provided in The Secular Masque an epitaph for his age, one that can be aptly applied to our own situation:


All, all, of a piece throughout;

Thy Chase had a Beast in View;

Thy Wars brought nothing about;

Thy Lovers were all untrue.

’Tis well an Old Age is out,

And time to begin a New.[8]


If the seventeenth century witnessed a succession of earthquakes that fundamentally realigned the faultlines of European religion, then the nineteenth saw the beginning of a full-scale retreat from religious faith itself. In 1851 Matthew Arnold defined in “Dover Beach” the decline of religion as the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith”:


The sea is calm to-night.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; — on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!


Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.


Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.[9]


Two decades later Friedrich Nietzsche began the philosophical studies that led him to proclaim the death of God. He thus helped to create the intellectual climate that led the twentieth century to lose faith in the divine and adopt a bleak view of humanity’s place in the universe.


In the modern age religion has been viewed as a social and human phenomenon bereft of divine attributes. The lasting truths of the sacred religions have been questioned and brought into contempt. Infatuation with the irrational has been pursued at the expense of faith and reason, and the unstable principles of scientific determinism, Marxism, Freudianism, and materialism valued over those of the eternal and spiritual. We have denied the extra-temporal and reduced man to the plaything of economic or natural forces. The distinguished Catholic theologian Fulton J. Sheen drew our attention to the pernicious consequences of this practice in his remarkable book, Philosophy of Religion: The Impact of Modern Knowledge on Religion:


reason...though not always under direct attack, has nevertheless been undermined from the flanks through recurrent demonstrations that humanity has been governed, from time to time, by other forces than those of reason. When Marx makes the ethical and philosophical the unstable superstructure of economic methods of production; when the Freudian tradition makes reason the marionette of the unconscious, and asserts that man’s true nature is in the fulfillment of the libido; when sociologists make culture and religion the expression of an environment; when psychology becomes physiology, and physiology, chemistry, so that man is reduced to matter, and therefore a thing—then not only does reason lose its primacy, but man himself has no other value than that of being an instrument of power, political or other. 


It is a curious paradox that the modern world which started out to glorify rationalism ended in irrationalism. Despite this denial of reason, its principles are still valid and have a transcendent value. It can not only prove a God Whose existence makes the universe intelligible, but also critically judge the excursions of physics, history, and comparative religion in the domain of philosophy. Finally, it can explain how man became frustrated through a loss of purpose, and by recalling this purpose can pave the way for Faith.[10]


If, in the world of Western Christendom, the irrational now threatens to destroy faith, then in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim worlds true faith has been replaced by extremism or what I call “religious nationalism,” a term I define as religion employed for political or nationalistic goals. Fanatics of every stripe dedicate themselves to the search for enemies. When there are no real enemies, such enemies are invented. Today, the leaders of militant Islamicist movements constantly harp on the danger of Western cultural intrusions. Yet to proclaim that the West poses a threat to Eastern spiritual traditions is as flawed an argument as the contention of the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington that Islam by its very nature threatens Western culture and civilization.[11] Shoghi Effendi wrote of these phenomena:


Such a conscious, avowed, organized attack against religion in general and Christianity in particular is something new in history. Equally deliberate in some lands in its determined hostility to Christianity is another form of social and political faith—nationalism. But the nationalist attack on Christianity, unlike Communism, is often bound up with some form of national religion—with Islám in Persia and Egypt, with Buddhism in Ceylon, while the struggle for communal rights in India is allied with a revival both of Hinduism and Islám.[12]


The status quo of exclusionary ideologies must not prevail. No matter how militant the religious nationalism of peoples in non-Western cultures, they cannot remain isolated indefinitely from the underlying trend of our age away from an exclusive ethic toward an inclusive, universal ethic. In similar fashion, no matter how resistant Western intellectuals are in their opposition to the spiritual revival appearing across the world, their contrived philosophies cannot prevail indefinitely against the yearning of the human heart for divine grace. Nor can they stay humanity’s reach towards the warm hand of the benevolent and compassionate Creator. The signs of such a revival are already evident in the turning of millions of people in the former Communist countries towards a spiritual life.


Our profound hope is that faith will be revived and renewed in such a way as to put behind us, once and for all, humanity’s often tragic religious practices. We must not repeat our mistakes but must come to the realization that no serious attempt at bringing about justice, unity, and peace can ignore the pivotal role of religion. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the most recent of the world religions, emphatically reminded humanity that:


The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife. The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God.[13]


Our moral laws have all come to us through the religions that have enriched us as human beings. The source of our morality is God, the unknowable essence. The source of human rights, therefore, lies in the immortal words of all scriptures. To believe, as some contend, that human rights is a Western ploy to undermine non-Western traditions is as false as the proposition that only the West holds such noble ideals. Perhaps the time has come for us to examine carefully the ideals upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to find the supporting evidence in humanity’s various spiritual traditions. Differences will appear only in aspects of form but never of essence. Those who claim that “cultural relativism” should dictate what will or will not be recognized as human rights in different parts of the world must be confronted and asked whether human rights involve simply matters of interpretation and theological endeavor.


In theory, cultural relativism is the reasonable idea that certain social, economic, cultural, and political practices are inherent to particular groups and that the abrupt, artificial introduction of alien influences can be disruptive. In practice, however, cultural relativism is often employed by ruling elites as a pretext for opposing reform movements that threaten their power or status. Thus, calls for the respect of basic human rights are dismissed by politically motivated relativists as culturally insensitive or not socially practicable. Often, a natural corollary of such political manipulation is the stimulation of crude anti-foreign nationalism.


The knowledge and practice of human rights must be made universal. Crucial to this effort, therefore, is article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which serves as a rallying point upon which the world’s religions can unify to promote universal human rights. Article 18 reads:


Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.


The inspired educators to whom we owe our spiritual heritage founded traditions that have guided human life for thousands of years. History records that from age to age enlightened ones have spoken out and imbued the human race with a profound consciousness. They have infused into it a heightened awareness of the divine and imparted a new significance to all aspects of life including art, government, education, science, and architecture. But underlying the astounding diversity of traditions that has thus developed there lies a common foundation manifested in their cosmological, eschatological, and theological teachings-teachings about our origins, our destinies, and the nature of the divine. The forms are many, but the essence is One. This underlying unity is beautifully exemplified in the ethical systems of different faiths, as in the teaching that we should treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated, otherwise known as “The Golden Rule,” and found in different formulations in the Hindu Mahabharata, the Jewish Talmud, the Zoroastrian Dadistan-i-Dinik, the Buddhist UdanaVarqa, the Christian Gospel of Matthew, the Islamic Hadith, and Bahá’u’lláh’s Kalimát-i-Firdawsiyyi:


Do not to others what ye do not wish

Done to yourself; and wish for others too

— What ye desire and long for, for yourself

— This is the whole of Dharma, heed it well.

       -  The Mahábhárata


What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor:

that is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.

              - Talmud


…that nature only is good when it shall not do

unto another whatever is not good for

its own self…    

      - Dádistan-í-Díník


Since to others, to each one for himself, the

self is dear, therefore let him who desires his

own advantage not harm another.

              - Udana


Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that

men should do to you, do ye even so to them:

for this is the law and the prophets.

      - Matthew


None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for

his brother what he wishes for himself.

                                      -  Hadith


If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake

the things that profit thee and cleave unto that

which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be

turned towards justice, choose thou for thy

neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.

- Kalimát-i-Firdawsiyyih[14]


As well as summing up the moral attitude, the peace inducing aspect extending through these great traditions, irrespective of their place and time of arising, this Golden Rule also signifies their moral unity-an aspect that the world in its disjointed view of history has failed to appreciate. In the 1985 message to the peoples of the world, The Promise of World Peace, the Universal House of justice quotes Bahá’u’lláh about the importance of religion as the foundation of human rights:


Bahá’u’lláh said: “Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein.” Referring to the eclipse or corruption of religion, he wrote: “Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness, of justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine.” In an enumeration of such consequences the Bahá’í writings point out that the “perversion of human nature, the degradation of human conduct, the corruption and dissolution of human institutions, reveal themselves, under such circumstances, in their worst and most revolting aspects. Human character is debased, confidence is shaken, the nerves of discipline are relaxed, the voice of human conscience is stilled, the sense of decency and shame is obscured, conceptions of duty, of solidarity, of reciprocity and loyalty are distorted, and the very feeling of peacefulness, of joy and of hope is gradually extinguished.”[15]


We can only achieve global peace on the basis of a moral philosophy adequate to the task, one derived from the eternal truth that has been revealed to humanity at the different stages in our progress and development. Each of the founders of the world’s religions has spoken of the Absolute, the one fountain of light and moral guidance, so eloquently expressed by Shelley in “Adonais,” his noble elegy written on the death of his fellow poet, John Keats:


The One remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

Until Death tramples it to fragments.[16]


Within the Islamic tradition that fountain of moral light and guidance, the figurative point to which we all must journey, is the Kaaba. The thirteenth-century parable attributed to Jalaluddin Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, made that same point by using the concept of the celestial Kaaba:


Although ways are many, the destination is one. Don’t you see many ways to the Kaaba. For some the route is from Anatolia, for some from Syria, for some from Persia, for some from China, and still for others the sea-route from India and Yemen. Therefore, if one looks at only ways, then differences are big and distances among one another are infinite, but if one looks at the destination, all agree unanimously, because everyone’s heart is directed toward the Kaaba. All the hearts have a strong love and affection for the Kaaba. There, no contradiction exists, because this attachment to the Kaaba is beyond faith and infidelity. In other words, this attachment has nothing to do with those different ways to the Kaaba. Once they arrive at the Kaaba, those disputes, quarrels, and differences which occurred on the way disappear. It is only on the way that they keep saying to each other, “You are wrong, you are infidels.” But when they reach the Kaaba, it becomes evident that their quarrels were only over the way, while their destinations were one and the same.[17]



No attempt to bring an end to the disorder present in the world will succeed without a transformation of faith through the retrieval of our common spiritual heritage. The challenge, of course, is that we must overcome the misunderstanding and prejudices that are the cause of strife between the different religions and seek instead to build upon the fundamentals that they hold in common. The human race must discover its shared religious-cultural heritage, for ultimately culture is built upon religion. When we begin to search out the universal truths that we agree upon, we shall find ourselves sharing “the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment….”[18] In the words of `Abdu’l-Bahá, “if we investigate the religions to discover the principles underlying their foundations, we will find they agree, for the fundamental reality of them is one and not multiple.”[19]


Over the last few decades our knowledge of world faiths, of their richness and diversity, has grown immensely.  The discipline of comparative religion has played a special role in increasing understanding of, and sympathy for, religious traditions other than our own, and the field now grapples with the question of how to accommodate quire disparate spiritual traditions within the same general terms of reference.  Indeed, upon the answer to this question rests the viability of a universal ethic and practice of human rights.  One of the leading scholars of comparative religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, asks in Towards a World Theology that we look at the world’s spiritual traditions in a new way.  He argues the impossibility of any longer understanding each religion as a stable system and insists that the interconnectedness of our religious history, as well as the convergence of modern humanity into one community, makes it desirable to speak of one history of religion in which there are many strands.[20]


Another influential scholar, John Hick, maintains that all the world religions constitute different ways of experiencing, conceptualizing, and responding to the same ultimate reality:


The same ultimate divine Reality is being glimpsed from different points of view and is being expressed from within the rich variety of our human cultures. 


We must hope that what has been so evident to so many of the mystics of the different traditions will be increasingly accepted by ordinary believers, and eventually by our professional religious leaders and official dogmatists.[21]


The religious systems of the world, evolving as they have at different times and under diverse circumstances, embody numerous and varied responses to humanity’s innate sense of the transcendent. Yet there is a common ground between them, which is the historical continuum in which these different responses have been produced. Much valuable work has already been completed in this field. It has led to the initiation of religious dialogue, the building of models of tolerance, the development of religious pluralism, and the foundation for a common ethic of human rights. Just how necessary are peace and mutual understanding between the world’s religions is impressed upon us by the theologian Hans Kung’s terse statement, “There can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions."[22]


Followers of the Bahá’í faith, the most recent world religion, find hope in the unifying vision disclosed in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of their faith. On the question of religious unity and human rights he taught that there is an overarching divine plan of salvation. All religions are important elements in this plan. Each divine revelation takes account of man’s capacities of understanding at a particular point in time and space. Although all religions are true and divine in origin, their social aspects evolve and are subject to renewal and redefinition.


This holistic approach may be encapsulated in the simplified concepts of the relativity of religious truth and progressive revelation. But the necessary foundation of these statements, and indeed the establishment of religious peace and human rights, depends upon the acceptance of the essential unity of the founders of all religions. Each is the fulfillment of the one who has preceded him, and the herald of the one who is to succeed him. Through these messengers, appearing at different historical periods and in different regions of the earth, the One True Creator has communicated His will and purpose to mankind. He has granted successively greater outpourings of religious truth and afforded an ever-fuller apprehension of the Divine. But at root and in its inmost essence the message thus conveyed is one. Only by establishing a universal system of human rights, embodying this understanding of the underlying truth and unity of all religions, can we hope to establish genuine and lasting peace.


The challenge now before us is how to promote conditions in which all the world religions can truly work together in the utmost harmony, in conformity with the principle of “unity in diversity and diversity in unity.” On this basis we will evolve a common system of rights and values-even as has been prophesied in the Gospel of Luke:


And they shall come from the east, and from the west,

and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit

down in the kingdom of God.[23]


We have, then, a shared heritage, and we must exploit it in order to realize the goals of unity, cooperation, and human rights that we seek. Let us, therefore, endeavor to foster an ecumenical approach towards the world’s religions, to identify their common denominators, and to map out the shared terrain between them. From the resulting codification of the truths common to all religions we can begin to work towards a global code of ethics that incorporates all that is best in mankind’s spiritual heritage. Ultimately we must develop a unified and integrated vision of the world and human history. Unity cannot, of course, be only political, social, or economic in scope. There also must be an accompanying, deep-seated unity of conscience, outlook, and belief. Without such a sea-change in society, a thorough going spiritual reorientation towards unity, no effort towards the establishment of a global society can ultimately succeed. Our ability to bring peace, tranquillity, and universal human rights to our troubled world depends upon engendering in the mass of humankind a profound and all-embracing aspiration towards unity. Without it the renaissance of our true humanity will be impossible. In the words of `Abdu’l-Bahá:


Man must be a lover of the light no matter from what day-spring it may appear. He must be a lover of the rose no matter in what soil it may be growing. He must be a seeker of the truth no matter from what source it come. Attachment to the lantern is not loving the light. Attachment to the earth is not befitting but enjoyment of the rose which develops from the soil is worthy. Devotion to the tree is profitless but partaking of the fruit is beneficial. Luscious fruits no matter upon what tree they grow or where they may be found must be enjoyed. The word of truth no matter which tongue utters it must be sanctioned. Absolute verities no matter in what book they be recorded must be accepted. If we harbor prejudice it will be the cause of deprivation and ignorance. The strife between religions, nations and races arises from misunderstanding. If we investigate the religions to discover the principles underlying their foundations we will find they agree, for the fundamental reality of them is one and not multiple.[24]


While each individual, each society, each cultural or ethnic entity, may have its own definition or understanding of “human rights,” these “rights” are often used as a pretext to preserve systems that guarantee power or influence to those resisting the implementation of universal human rights. The issue, of course, is the manipulation of power, which is an accurate definition of politics as we understand it today. In fact, politics in its true meaning and etymology should mean “community building.” A politics based on the manipulation of power can only succeed if people heed the siren call of cultural relativism, whereas one based on community building can only lead to cooperation and constructive activity. Indeed the word “culture” is itself greatly misunderstood. One fact, however, is universally applicable: no culture can be adequately understood without an understanding of the religion that underlies it. As Philip Allott states, “the culture of a society is the society as spirit.”[25] And, in fact, it is the “spirit” of a society that can recognize and uphold human rights as a code for upholding the dignity of the human being.  The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states emphatically that the purpose and aim of the Declaration is a profound belief and firm faith “in the dignity and worth of the human person” and that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and…equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”


Every one of the spiritual traditions of the human race asserts that man in his totality of spirit, body, and soul is created in the image of God.  The trichotomy of spirit, body, and soul has been recognized by all ancient civilizations.  The divine religions agree that the totality of spirit, body, and soul distinguishes the human being and raises him to a station above animals (without spirit) and angels (without body).  Man occupies such a high position in all the great scriptures of the world that to degrade or humiliate him in any way is unacceptable in the eyes of God.  His life, his household, his family, his possessions, are all sacred and inviolable.  Compassion and caring for God’s servants is, in fact, far worthier than killing them through excessive zeal for God.  In Fusus al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom) by Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240 A.D.), the greatest of the Sufi poets, we encounter this story:


David wanted to construct the Temple, and he did so several times, but whenever he finished it, it fell down. Then, David complained of that to God. God revealed to him, “My temple shall not be built by the hand of the one who shed blood.” When David said, “Oh, Lord, wasn’t that done for Your sake?” He answered, “Yes, but they were also My servants.”[26]


Abu-Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 A.D.), who lived a century before Ibn ‘Arabi, was the Thomas Aquinas of Islam and the greatest theologian of the Islamic world. Forsaking his intense orthodox training and dissatisfied with the intellectual and legalistic approach to religion, he declared his unequivocal belief in the message of universal love. No Western or Eastern thinker has so nobly defined the greatness of man’s station as he did in his introduction to his Kimiya’e Saadat (The Alchemy of Happiness), being his Persian abridgement of his Arabic masterpiece Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din (The Revivification of the Sciences of Religion):


Know, O beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvelously made and for some great end. Although he is not from everlasting, yet he lives for ever; and though his body is mean and earthly, yet his spirit is lofty and divine. When in the crucible of abstinence he is purged from carnal passions he attains to the highest, and in place of being a slave to lust and anger becomes endowed with angelic qualities. Attaining that state, he finds his heaven in the contemplation of Eternal Beauty, and no longer in fleshly delights. The spiritual alchemy which operates this change in him, like that which transmutes base metals into gold, is not easily discovered….[27]


And he ends this thought with the words that the “treasuries of God, in which this alchemy is to be sought, are the hearts of the prophets,” and he briefly describes this alchemy “as turning away from the world to God….”[28]


This passage emphasizes not only the reason why man should be honored and respected, but it also suggests how we should inculcate this respect and honor in the hearts of all human beings regardless of age, color, race, gender, creed, or political persuasion. In fact, it underscores the urgent necessity for our schools and universities to take the subject of human rights seriously by implementing an energetic and ingenious campaign of education. We must move the discussion of human rights from the hallowed corridors of academia to the vital spaces of the public square.


Twenty-three hundred years ago the Psalmist asked:


What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.[29]


In a world where reality is rationed, segmented, and compartmentalized, there is no unity, no glory, and little honor. Dignity, forbearance, courtesy, magnanimity, and compassion have neither meaning nor place. In such a world it is the law of the jungle that prevails. The rampant ego reigns triumphant, and all else is subservient to its imperious demands. In such a world to speak of human rights is an almost futile exercise.


The question of the Psalmist has been answered before and since through a succession of Enlightened Educators, Divine Luminaries, Prophets, and Messengers of God. They all speak of the Kingdom Within, and they exhort humanity to arise to its proper station and nobility. In fact, these educators emphasize the greatest of all rights, the integrity and inviolability of human dignity. They also stipulate the responsibility of every individual to guarantee equal rights for their fellow human beings. Thus, we read in the scriptures of the world’s different faiths:


And I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will

cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to

observe My rules.

                                                Ezekiel 36:27


More minute than the minute, greater than

the great, is the soul (Atman) that is set in the

heart of a creature here.

                                                Katha Upanishad 2:20


Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s

creation, and that all these planes and states are

folded up and hidden away within him.

                Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form

when within thee the universe is folded?

                                The Seven Valleys, p. 34


Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and

that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man

defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for

the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

                                                I Corinthians 3:16-17


Behold, Thy Lord said to the Angels, “I am about

to create man from clay. When I have fashioned

him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of

My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.”

                                                Qur’an 38:71-72


I am the same to all beings, and my love is ever the

same; but those who worship me with devotion, they

are in me and I am in them.

                                                Bhagavad Gita 9:29


The scriptures further exhort us to associate with

each other as brothers and sisters, not as enemies

and adversaries, in a relationship that is both spiritual

and social. Be kindly affectioned one to another with

brotherly love; in honour preferring one another.

                                                Romans 12:10


O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male

and a female, and have made you into nations and

tribes, so that you might come to know one another.

                                                Qur’an 49:13


Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that

they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God.

                                                Kitáb-i-Aqdas K144


For by one Spirit, are we all baptized into one body,

whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or

free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

                                                I Corinthians 12:13


The complexity of the problem that the issue of human rights presents to today’s world is best explained in a concise statement by Burns Weston:


To say that there is widespread acceptance of the principle of human rights on the domestic and international planes is not to say that there is complete agreement about the nature of such rights or their substantive scope—which is to say, their definition. Some of the most basic questions have yet to receive conclusive answers. Whether human rights are to be viewed as divine, moral, or legal entitlements; whether they are to be validated by intuition, custom, social contract theory, principles of distributive justice or as prerequisites for happiness; whether they are to be understood as irrevocable or partially revocable; whether they are to be broad or limited in number and content—these and kindred issues are matters of ongoing debate and likely will remain so as long as there exist contending approaches to public order and scarcities among resources.[30]


This statement suggests the need for a holistic approach in addressing human rights. Agenda item 10 of the deliberations of the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 insisted on the need to consider “the relationship between development, democracy, and the universal enjoyment of all human rights, keeping in view the inter-relationship and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural and political rights.”[31] This holistic approach-one that every spiritual tradition shares-touches all aspects of life: economic, social, cultural, political, and above all the human conscience.


The greatest impediment to unity, in my opinion, is the religious-cultural one. We have no time to lose, the enemy that confronts us is the enemy of all. To save the world and ourselves we have to come together as men and women of faith in one and only one Creator, to begin to see each other with the eye of Him who created us all. If we do not—to adapt the words of St. Augustine—then we stab the Soul. We must admit into our circle even those who do not wish to believe in a creator. Let us welcome them and make them comfortable, for the Almighty is like the sun whose rays reaches all created things without distinction. We as members of various faiths must transcend the letter of scripture, creed, tradition, and ideology. We must learn to listen to the divine voice speaking through revelation and history and together seek to understand what God is saying to each one of us through our particular faith and through the faith of others.[32]


But perhaps also we should come to know the “other in ourselves”:


Before posing questions regarding the other out there, we should ask about the other in us, our nobler and loftier neighbor and companion-our own Soul which clasps with one hand our body and mind here on earth and with the other, holds fast the reality that surpasses itself. Only then can we hope to pass from one hand to the other, from the many to the One. Hence, to experience the truth about oneself and about the other is to experience the reality of the Soul, which at once individualizes and universalizes all of us. First Soul, then God![33]





[1] Maurice Cranston, What are Human Rights? (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1973), 1.

[2] For a pioneering attempt to explore the relationship between human rights and the different faith traditions see the essays in Arlene Swidler, ed., Human Rights in Religious Traditions (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982).

[3] For an overview of the subject see the essays in Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann, eds., The Ethics of World Religions and Human Rights (London: SCM Press, 1990).

[4] Ted R. Gurr, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993).

[5] Carl Gustave Jung, Collected Works, ed. Herbert Read, et al., and trans. Richard F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), vol. 10, p. 172.

[6] WILiam Butler Yeats, The Poems, rev. ed., edited by Richard J. Finneran, vol. 1 of The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats (New York: MacmILan Publishing Company, 1989), 187.

[7] John Donne, An Anatomie of the World. The First Anniversarie, lines 205-13 (spelling has been converted to modern standard).

[8] John Dryden, Dryden: The Dramatic Works, ed. Montague Summers (New York: Gordian Press, 1968), vol. 6, p. 485.

[9] Miriam Allott and Robert H. Super, eds., Matthew Arnold (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 135-36.

[10] Fulton J. Sheen, Philosophy of Religion: The Impact of Modern Knowledge on Religion (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948), xiv-xv.

[11] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

[12] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters, 2d ed. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 182.

[13] Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed After the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, trans. Habib Taherzadeh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988), 129-30.

[14] H.T.D. Rost, The Golden Rule: A Universal Ethic (Oxford: George Ronald, 1986), 28, 69-70, 57, 40, 76, 103, 145, respectively.

[15] Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace: To the Peoples of the World (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), 18.

[16] Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, new ed. corrected by G.M. Matthews (London: Oxford University Press, reprint 1970), 443.

[17] Quoted in Masataka Takeshita, “Sufism and the Dignity of Man: Ibn ‘Arabi and Rumi” in Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, ed., Contemporary Relevance of Sufism (New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1993), 99.

[18] Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi, from the Arabic, no. 68 (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985).

[19] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1945), 15.

[20] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981), 21.

[21] John Hick, “Religious Diversity as Challenge and Compromise” in The Experience of Religious Diversity, eds. John Hick and Hasan Askari (Aldershot: Gower Publishing, 1985), 23-24.

[22] Hans Küng, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 105.

[23] Luke 13:29.

[24] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered byAbdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912 (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), 151-52.

[25] Philip Allott, Eunomia: New Order for a New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 376.

[26] Quoted in Takeshita, “Sufism and the Dignity of Man,” 96.

[27] Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali, The Alchemy of Happiness, trans. Claud Field (London: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1991), 3.

[28] Al-Ghazzali, Alchemy of Happiness, 3-4.

[29] Psalms 8:4-5.

[30] Burns H. Weston, “Human Rights” in Richard P. Claude and Weston, eds., Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action 2d ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 17.

[31] Bahá’í International Community, “Indivisibility of Human Rights,” Statement to the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 14-25 June 1993.

[32] Anton Wessels, “The Experience of the Prophet Mohammed,” in On Sharing Religious Experience: Possibilities of Interfaith Mutuality, eds. Jerald D. Gort et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 228.

[33] Hasan Askari, “From Sharing to Encounter” in ibid., 121.