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Notes:
Author note: Suheil Badi Bushrui, Bahá'í Chair for World Peace, Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

The Spiritual Foundation of Human Rights:
A Bahá'í Perspective

by Suheil Badi Bushrui

1997-11-15
A keynote address delivered by Dr. Suheil Bushrui at the 21st annual conference of the Association for Bahá'í Studies on 15 November 1997.
I.

The recognition of human rights under international law is relatively recent, but the philosophy underlying the concept is ancient. In such texts as the Babylonian code of Hammurabi, the juridical rulings of the ancient Israeli Sanhedrin banning torture and limiting the use of capital punishment, the Islamic legislation on rights of women, the English Magna Carta, the US Declaration of Independence, the nineteenth century conventions outlawing the slave trade, and the post-World War II Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the shape and form of a global moral order has been in creation.

Numerous definitions of the term "human rights" have been formulated. Maurice Cranston, for example, describes 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." Broadly, human rights are a corpus of attributes and prerogatives - such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - that are due every human being regardless of nationality or place of residence. Such rights are not granted by governments to their citizens, but are innate to the dignity enjoyed by all persons. More specifically, human rights can be categorized as falling into the civil, political, social, economic, and cultural spheres of life.

Although the very expression "human rights" did not appear in the English language until 1781, the year in which Part I of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man appeared, the ideals which it implies were the subject of much discussion in the years immediately preceding that work's publication. It is useful here to recall the wording of Thomas Jefferson's original draft for the American Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In 1775, the year before the Declaration was issued, Goethe began work on his prose tragedy Egmont, set amid the political and religious conflicts of the Counter-Reformation, and portraying the idea of political freedom based on freedom of speech and religious tolerance in a law-abiding society. In 1787, the year when he completed its final version, Schiller's Don Carlos received its premiere in Hamburg. Like Goethe's drama, Schiller's is set at the time of the Spanish domination of the Netherlands, providing the basis for impassioned pleading for religious tolerance and mutual understanding, culminating in Posa's great cry: "Geben Sie Gedankenfreiheit!" — "Give us freedom of thought." In the same decade Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was writing his Nathan the Wise, first performed in Berlin in 1783, with its moving appeal for respect of others' beliefs, embodied in the person of the wise and tolerant Jew Nathan, and culminating in the discovery that his adopted daughter Recha and the young Templar who loves her are actually brother and sister, the children of Saladin's late brother and his Christian wife. The parable of the three identical rings with which Nathan replies to Saladin's question about whether Christianity, Islam or Judaism is the true religion reflected contemporary awareness of the need to regard religions other than one's own with reverence in the interests of human rights and solidarity with one's fellow men.

In Goethe, Schiller and Lessing, however, we find a magnamimity of spirit, which, not content with merely tolerating others' beliefs and conceding them freedom of expression, seeks to understand them more deeply and to recognize their kinship with one's own. Reflecting this ever advancing awareness of the unity of humanity, it is only fitting that in the second half of the twentieth century human rights have become a central issue of international politics. The questions that human rights address are perennial: what does it mean to be a human being?; what is the purpose of life on this earth?; and what should our intellectual and emotional attitude towards one another be? These very questions are central to religious thought and practice. From this perspective, we can discern that one of the chief drawbacks in our approach to human rights concerns the method of presenting them as a code of civil and moral law, and perhaps as a product of Western civilization, when in fact human rights are essentially a codification of mainly spiritual laws which are themselves the cumulative achievement of the world's religious traditions.

The twentieth century has been an age of human rights in the sense that they have been repeatedly violated on a massive scale and consistently recognized by international legal conventions. Thus, despite the horrors perpetrated in our age the struggle for an universal ethic and practice of human rights has advanced in the formal legal sense as well as in the emerging global society.

The chasm between the principles and the practices of human rights in today's world has been captured by the academics Richard Claude and Burns Weston in Human Rights in the World Community: "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 institution, 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." The need for a holistic approach to human rights was acknowledged in Agenda Item 10 of the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights: "Agenda Item 10: Consideration of 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."

The holistic approach to human well-being - one that every spiritual tradition endorses - affects all aspects of life: economic, social, cultural, political, and — above all — matters pertaining to conscience. The statement of the Bahá'í International Community entitled "Indivisibility of Human Rights" addresses the major issue at stake here, an issue which is inextricably a part of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (on religious freedom): "the most fundamental of human rights is the right of each individual to investigate reality for himself or herself, and to benefit from the results of this exploration... Throughout human history the conviction that each person has not only the right but the responsibility to 'know and worship God,' by whatever terminology they may have described this ultimate reality, has been inculcated by the world's great religions, arguably the most important force in the civilizing of human nature. "The central issue, however, is not a theological one. The historical record is relevant here because the religious forms are the ones through which the greater part of humanity have so far principally exercised the right to investigate reality. However hedged about that investigation no doubt was, because of the intellectual and social limitations of earlier ages, the right itself represents no new and untested hypothesis, but has lain at the foundation of what we call culture."

II.

Because human rights find their source in the great religious traditions, it is not surprising that the author of the original draft of the UDHR, René Cassin of France, reveals in his autobiography that the "rights" he proposed traced their origins to the Ten Commandments. The Commandments, of course, are not only civil and moral but also spiritual laws.

The inspired educators to whom we owe our spiritual heritage founded traditions that have guided human society for thousands of years. History records that from age to age enlightened ones have spoken out, imbuing the human race with an expanded consciousness and infusing it with a heightened awareness of the Divine. As we have noted, underlying the astounding diversity of traditions that have 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. Again we must emphasize the critical awareness from which human rights spring: the forms are many but the essence is one. This underlying unity is eloquently articulated in the ethical systems of different faiths, as in the teaching that we should treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated, otherwise known as "The Golden Rule" and found, in different formulations, in the Hindu Mahábhárata, the Jewish Talmud, the Zoroastrian Dádistan-í-Díník, the Buddhist Udana-Varqa, the Christian Gospel of Saint Matthew, the Islamic Hadíth, and in Bahá'u'lláh's Kalimát-i-Firdawsíyyih:

"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 the Dharma." -The Mahábhárata (Hindu)

"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary." -The Talmud (Jewish)

"That nature only is good when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self." -Dádistan-í-Díník (Zoroastrian)

"Since to others, to each one for himself, the self is dear, therefore let him who desires his own advantage not harm another." -Udana-Varqa (Buddhist)

"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 (Christian)

"None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." -Hadíth (Islamic)

"If thine eyes be turned toward mercy, forsake the things that profit thee and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned toward justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself." --Kalimát-i-Firdawsíyyih (Bahá'í)

As well as capturing a moral attitude, a peace-inducing aspect extending through these great traditions irrespective of their place and time of arising, The Golden Rule also signifies an aspect of unity which is religion's central virtue - a virtue that in our disjointed view of history we have 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 explaining the importance of religion as the foundation of human rights: "Writing of religion as a social force, 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.'"

Over the last few decades our knowledge of the world's 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, various religious traditions. The field of Comparative Religion now grapples with the question of how to accommodate quite disparate spiritual practices within the same general framework of understanding. Indeed, upon this endeavor may rest the viability of an universal ethic and practice of human rights. We must understand how religions agree on the essentials of spirituality so that this awareness can serve as a basis for a religiously-based code of human rights. In this usage, "religious" does not mean any particular religion, but rather a synthesis of the fundamentals religions share in common, such as The Golden Rule. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a scholar of Comparative Religion, argues that we need to look at the world's spiritual traditions in a new manner. He suggests that "it is no longer possible to understand each 'religion' as a stable system." Further, Smith notes that the intertwined history of religions, as well as the convergence of modern humanity into a single community, makes it desirable to speak of one history of religion in which there are multiple strands.

Another 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."

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 they share much in common, including the historical continuum in which the different responses have been produced. Much valuable work has been done to bring diverse religious thought together including the initiation of religious dialogues, the building of models of tolerance, the cultivation of religious toleration, and the adoption of a common ethic of human rights. Hans Küng tersely but with unchallengeable eloquence captured the importance of inter-religions understanding with this formulation: "There can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions."

The approach of the Bahá'í faith to the question of the unity of ethic and vision is encapsulated in the concept of progressive revelation. The foundation for the establishment of religious peace and the promotion of human rights is the acceptance of the essential unity of the founders of all religions. Each is the successor and 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 various regions of the earth, the one true creator has communicated His will and purpose to mankind, granting successively greater outpourings of religious truth and affording an ever fuller apprehension of the divine. But at root and in its inmost essence the messages thus conveyed are one. Only by establishing a universal system of human rights, embodying an understanding of the underlying truth and unity of all religions, can we hope to establish genuine and lasting peace.

The challenge before us is to promote conditions in which all the world religions can truly work together in the utmost harmony, and in conformity with the principle of "unity in diversity and diversity in unity." Only on this basis can a common system of rights and values evolve. As has been prophesied in the Christian Gospel of St. Luke (13:29): "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."

Inspired and intellectual thinkers have for centuries recognized that humanity enjoys a shared spiritual heritage which can serve as an instrument for global unity, cooperation, and human rights. What has been required is an ecumenical approach towards the religions, one which identifies common denominators and maps out shared terrain. Such a codification of the truths common to all religions constitutes a global code of ethics incorporating all that is best in mankind's spiritual journey. Ultimately, what has been sought is a unified and integrated vision of the world and of human history. Unity in this sense is not only political, social, or economic, but is a deep-seated unity of conscience, outlook, and belief.

III.

If the seventeenth century experienced a succession of eruptions that fundamentally re-aligned the fault lines of European religion, the nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of the full-scale retreat of religious faith itself in the West. In 1851, Matthew Arnold in his poem "Dover Beach" described the decline of religion as a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the 'Sea of Faith'": ..."The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 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."

Twenty years after Arnold's poem, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. Like Nietzsche, the thinkers Galileo, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel helped create an intellectual climate which led twentieth century society to lose faith in the divine and to adopt a bleak view of humanity's place in the universe. In the modern age, religion has been viewed merely as a social phenomenon bereft of divine attributes. The questioning of, and contempt for, the truths of the sacred religions has led to the adoption of the unstable principles which have defined the way we live: scientific determinism; (until recently) Marxism; Freudianism; and materialism. Through secular reason we have denied the extra-sensory and extra-temporal, and reduced mankind to the plaything of economic and natural forces. The Catholic theologian Faulton Sheen, in a remarkable thesis, draws our attention to the pervasive influences that have robbed us of faith: "In brief, this work attempts to recall the philosophical world to the value of reason, which, 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 become 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."

If rationalism has defeated faith in Western Christendom, then in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim worlds true faith has often been eclipsed by extremism or what can be called "religious nationalism," a term defined as religion when employed for political or nationalistic goals. Also in the East that same spirit of faith is being assailed. Speaking of the implicit attack waged by Western countries against both their own Christian traditions and religion in general, Shoghi Effendi (the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith) writes: "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."

To understand the true destructive nature of religious nationalism, we can turn to a quotation from the nineteenth century Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: "Oh, there are some who remain proud and fierce even in hell in spite of the certain knowledge and contemplation of the absolute truth. They refuse forgiveness, they curse God who calls them. They cannot behold the living God without hatred, and they cry out that the God of life should be annihilated; that God should destroy Himself and His own creation. And they will burn in the fire of their own wrath forever, and yearn for death and annihilation, but they will not attain to death."

Such fanatics as described in The Brothers Karamazov dedicate themselves to the search for enemies; when no real enemies are extant, such enemies are invented. Today, we see such a phenomenon appearing in militant Islamicist movements whose leaders constantly decry the danger posed by Western cultural intrusion. Yet to proclaim that Western ideals of democracy constitute a threat to Eastern spiritual traditions is as flawed an argument as Samuel Huntington's contention that Islám by its very nature threatens Western civilization. The status quo of exclusionary ideologies cannot prevail no matter how resilient the religious faith of people in non-Western cultures is; it cannot hold out indefinitely against the trend of our age away from narrow dogmas to an universal ethic of tolerance. Similarly, no matter how resistant Western intellectuals prove to be in opposing the broadening spiritual revival, their shallow notions cannot prevail indefinitely against the yearning of men's hearts for divine grace, nor can such philosophies stay humanity's reach towards the warm hand of the benevolent and compassionate Creator.

IV.

Our moral laws have 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 scripture. To believe that human rights is a Western ploy to undermine non-Western traditions is as false as the proposition that only the West holds to such noble ideals. The time has come for us to carefully examine the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to find the underlying morality in humanity's various spiritual traditions. From such a perspective we can see that religious differences are matters of form, but never of essential principles. For example, what religion does not teach the value of every individual person as a manifestation of God's divine grace? If every religion recognizes the existence of individual souls and the relationship between that soul and its Creator, than every religion agrees on the fundamental basis of human rights: human beings enjoy certain inalienable rights that no worldly authority may capriciously or systematically abrogate.

It is precisely the contention that human rights are universal and may not be infringed by governments that makes the concept of such rights so controversial and problematic in the world today. What is important to our discussion of human rights is that state sovereignty and its appurtenance, cultural exclusivity, are major impediments to a system of universal human rights. During the Cold War, the East-West schism undermined the UDHR as details of its implementation were drowned under successive waves of ideological and political disputes. Today, although the Cold War is a memory, there is a palpable and perhaps growing tension between the tenets of the UDHR - Article 3 on the right to life, Article 5 against torture, Article 9 proscribing arbitrary arrest, Article 18 guaranteeing religious liberty - and the authority claimed by certain political elites to speak for their people and protect them from what they deem corrupt foreign influences. The idea that certain principles and institutions, such as participatory democracy, are simply alien to particular peoples is encapsulated within the notion of "cultural relativism."

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 home-grown 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.

In the twentieth century, Communist and Islamicist regimes have rejected the idea of individual rights as a Western ploy in favor of emphasizing the collective good of society. Communist ideologues, based on their interpretations of Marxist-Leninist texts, once asserted that the good of society as a collective had to take precedence over the well-being of individuals. Assertions of individual rights, so they claimed, are inherent threats to the collective and must be extirpated by whatever means necessary. Similarly, twentieth century dictators of every stripe from radical leftists to reactionary rightists have practiced a perverted form of democracy which consists of summoning crowds to pay rapturous homage to the supremo and his political program. This form of democracy in some countries - called "direct democracy," "democracy of the street," or "people's democracy" - allegedly conforms with the political or cultural styles of the citizenry and represents their true voice.

Human rights, which is inherently a universalist concept, will be globalized when all people - not just ruling elites with narrow political agendas - enjoy easy access to the text and principles of the UDHR and can, by means of a genuinely free and fair electoral system, express their personal preferences about how it should be implemented. There is a cruel irony prevailing in countries that suppress human rights in that ruling elites conspire to deny the masses access to the UDHR, but at the same time these very elites ensure that they personally enjoy the fruits of denied rights such as travel and access to information. Thus, in non-free states a three-tiered system prevails: ruling circles secretly exercise rights guaranteed by the UDHR; student movements, professional associations, and non-governmental organizations (collectively known as "civil society") understand the values embodied in the UDHR and aspire to implement them; and finally, the masses of ordinary and often illiterate people are denied the basic "right to know their rights." In the twenty-first century, all peoples, regardless of social status or educational level, deserve to know their fundamental human rights so that individuals, and not governments, can decide for themselves which rights they will exercise.

The knowledge and practice of human rights must be universalized by means of education and access to relevant information. Crucial to the diffusion of the concept of human rights is Article 18 of the UDHR, which serves as a rallying point upon which the world's religions can cooperate in realizing this goal. 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."

V.

We have arrived at a period in time - both the fin de siècle and the end of a millennium - that has a dual significance due to our loss of true religious faith (as manifested in the decline in private and public morality) and our deepening neurosis as described by Carl Jüng: "[Religions] 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..."

And yet this condition of moral laxity and emotional disorder is nothing new, for it seems that humanity has always periodically had to rediscover its spiritual roots in the midst of chaos and dissension, particularly that accompanying change.

W.B. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of this century, has captured the mood of this historical moment, at the threshold of a new era, 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 center 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."

Yeats' poem not only celebrates the birth of a new civilization, but also underlines the period of acute turbulence that inextricably precedes the creation of a new moral order. Yeats' religious imagery leaves the reader in no doubt as to the nature of the global society he anticipated and which is now arising.

Another renowned poet, who likewise lived in an age of opportunity not unlike our own, spoke of the dislocation and doubt of his generation. In the seventeenth century poem "First Anniversary" 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."

Later in the seventeenth century John Dryden's poem "Secular Masque" included his age's epitaph, one that can equally be applied to our own day: "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 anew."

At present we have arrived at a double conundrum: religion, we have said, is and has been the cause of conflict time and time again; and yet without religion, mankind slips into a self-destructive neurosis. Further, no lasting effort at creating justice, unity, and peace can ignore the central role of religion.

Any attempt at achieving a just order in the world will not be possible without a prior transformation of faith through the retrieval of our common spiritual heritage. The signs of such a revival are evident in the yearning of millions of people in former Communist countries for the spiritual life. While our spiritual rebirth should not reject the progress that reason has achieved since the Enlightenment, we must put behind us humanity's often tragic religious practices. The challenge facing us, of course, is to overcome the misunderstandings and prejudices that are the cause of strife between the different religions, and instead build upon the fundamental beliefs that they hold in common. The human race enjoys a shared religious-cultural heritage, for ultimately culture and civilization are built upon religion. When we begin to search out the universal truths that we agree upon, we shall find ourselves collectively manifesting "the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment." In the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "If we investigate the religions to discover the principles underlying their foundation, we will find they agree, for the fundamental reality of them is one and not multiple."

As we have noted, spiritual, moral, and religious aspects form an important part of the discourse on human rights. Eternal truths have been revealed to humanity at different stages in our progress and development: the forms of the worlds' religions may vary, but their essence is one and the same. All of the prophet-founders of the world's religions have spoken of the absolute, the one fountain of light and moral guidance. Again taking an example from literature, Shelley's "Adonais," his noble elegy written on the death of his fellow-poet John Keats, captured the meaning of this oneness: "The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven's light forever shines, Earth shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity, Until Death tramples it to fragments."

Within the Islamic tradition, the symbol of that fountain of moral light and guidance, the figurative point to which we all must journey, is the Kaaba. The following thirteenth century parable attributed to Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, discusses that same point 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."

The opening words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state emphatically that the philosophy underlying the UDHR 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 of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

Every spiritual tradition asserts that man in his trichotomy of mind, body, and spirit is created in the image of God. The divine religions agree that the totality of mind, body, and spirit distinguishes the human being and raises him to a station above that enjoyed by animals (without spirit) and angels (without body). Man's favored station acknowledged by all the great scriptures of the world inevitably leads to the conclusion that to degrade or humiliate him in any way is unacceptable to God. A person's life, household, family, and possessions are all sacred and inviolable. Compassion and caring for all God's servants, no matter their chosen religion, is far worthier an endeavor than killing or hurting others due to excessive zeal for God. In Fusus al-Hikam ("Bezels of Wisdom") by Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi (1165-1240 AD), the greatest of the Sufi poets, we encounter the following 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 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.'"

Abu-Hamid Muhammadal-Gazzali (1058-1111 AD), who lived a century before Ibn al-'Arabi, was the St. Augustine of Islam and in his day the greatest theologian of the Islamic world. Forsaking his intensely orthodox training he became dissatisfied with an intellectual and legalistic approach to religion, and instead declared his unequivocal belief in a creed of universal love. No thinker of East or West has so nobly defined the greatness of man's station as al-Gazzalai did in the introduction to his Kimiyay-i- Sa'adat ("The Alchemy of Happiness"): "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 endued with angelic qualities. Attaining that state, he finds his heaven in the contemplation of Eternal Beauty, and no longer in fleshy delights. The spiritual alchemy which operates this change in him, like that which transmutes base metals into gold, is not easily discovered..."

This passage not only emphasizes the reason why every person should be honored and respected, but also suggests how we can inculcate such respect for our fellow human beings regardless of their age, color, race, gender, or creed. In fact, al-Gazzali's words underscore the urgent necessity for our schools and universities to recognize the importance of teaching human rights. At the same time, we must proceed creatively and energetically to move the discussion of human rights beyond the hallowed corridors of academia to the wider spaces of the intellectual marketplace. At the heart of any discussion of human rights, and of man's relationship to man, lies the question of what constitutes humanity, and how that humanity may find its fullest expression. When Shakespeare's Hamlet marvelled, "What a piece of work is man!" and Sophocles, in his Antigone, declares "Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these / Is man", they were adding new links to a chain of conjecture and reflection stretching back over many centuries. 2,300 years ago the Psalmist asked the question: "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 honor."

The question posed by the Psalmist was answered before and after his time by a succession of enlightened educators, divine luminaries, prophets, and messengers of God. They all speak of the "kingdom within" and exhort humanity to arise to its proper station and nobility. Indeed these educators emphasize the greatest of all rights, the integrity and inviolability of human dignity. The prophets also stipulate the responsibility of every individual to guarantee equal rights for their fellow human beings. Thus we read in the various scriptures:

"...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 (Jewish)

"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 (Hindu)

"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 and the Four Valleys, p.34 (Bahá'í)

"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 (Christian)

"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 (Islamic)

"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 (Hindu)

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: "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 (Christian)

The "one Spirit" emphasized in these sacred passages suggest a unity of vision and ethic that has decisive implications for the way in which we think about ourselves, society, and nature, . In terms of the concept of human rights one can state that if each one of us consists of the essence of all and all of the essence of each, then it is self-destructive to denigrate, humiliate, or harm another. By the same token it is self-enhancing to respect, praise, elevate and promote the interests of another since at the level of the spirit we are identical. In the words of Kahlil Gibran: "My origin is their origin, my conscience is their conscience, my contention is their contention, and my pilgrimage is their pilgrimage. "If they sin, I am also a sinner. If they do well, I take pride in their well-doing. If they rise, I rise with them. If they stay inert, I share their slothfulness."

VI.

The greatest impediment to unity in the post-Cold War world is not political ideology but rather religious-cultural discord. If a universal system of human rights is to be achieved, men and women of faith need to see each other with the eye of Him who created us all. As a tangible sign of the unity we seek, we should admit into our circle doubters and atheists because the Almighty is like the sun whose rays reaches all created things without distinction. Members of various faiths must transcend the letter of scripture, creed, tradition, and ideology. Believers must learn to listen to the divine voice speaking through revelation and history and together understand what God is saying to each one of us through their particular faith and through the faith of others. But perhaps also we should come to know what Jerald Gort calls the "other in ourselves": "Before posing questions regarding the other out there, we should ask about the other in us, our nobler and loftier neighbour 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 which 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!"

"Know thy self." Socrates read these words on the Delphic Oracle; for him they represented the essence of all wisdom. A thousand years later the Islamic Hadíth equated self-knowledge with the knowledge of God and Truth: "He who comes to know himself comes to know God." A thousand years after the great Prophet of Islam, the same message is again clearly expressed in the words of Bahá'u'lláh: "O Son of Spirit!...Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting."

 

Bibliography

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