Beyond Human Rights by Esther Nelson

For way too long, the only meaning I found in my life happened when peering through one specific, religious prism. Then I discovered what’s called the academic study of religion.  Observing the many ways people find meaning through their own experiences with God (or their “ultimate concern”) shattered the tightly-sealed insulation around my worldview.  Those things that comprise religion (stories, concepts of the holy, ritual, symbols, social structures), coupled with our individual experiences create a powerful reality affecting us individually and communally.

Some of my students identify as agnostic or atheist. They’re happy to have shed (or never put on) garments they perceive as obstacles.  Rarely do they realize that religious “truths,” because they are taken to heart by people and implemented into the social fabric, shape the world they inhabit. When we discuss the ways religion affects women within society, they are far more likely to think about women’s lived realities in terms of human rights, not religious identity.  Religion is seen as something superfluous (at best) or an impediment towards progress (at worst).

Riffat Hassan (b.1943) in Lahore, Pakistan, teaches with the Religious Studies faculty at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.  When she returned to Pakistan (1983-84) and saw the “deluge…of anti-women legislation [and] anti-women literature,” her activism blossomed.  Pakistan is an intentionally Islamic (religious) country.

Hassan witnessed Pakistani women protesting publicly, demanding their human rights.  They urged Hassan to refute on a point-by-point basis the arguments used by the legislative body to enact laws reflecting women’s less-than-fully-human status.  Hassan refused, convinced that appeals to government based on human rights would be ineffective.  Instead, she exposed the theological ground where anti-women arguments took root, believing this tactic essential to move towards equitable legislation.

Hassan’s work demonstrated that men’s alleged superiority to women in the Abrahamic traditions holds three theological assumptions:

  • God created man first, then woman (derivatively) from man’s rib.

  • Woman was the primary agent of the Fall, therefore, all “daughters of Eve” are suspect.

  • Woman was created from man and for man, giving her instrumental, not intrinsic, value.

There’s no Qur’anic basis for these assumptions. Humankind (male and female) was created simultaneously. “That He did create in pairs,- male and female, from a seed when lodged (in its place)” [53:45-46]. The Genesis “rib” and Fall stories became incorporated into Hadith literature. The Hadith contains the gathered sayings and doings of Prophet Muhammad—a voluminous text compiled two hundred years after the Prophet’s death, much like the Talmud in scope. The “rib” and Fall stories, according to Hassan, should have been rejected from the Hadith because “…any hadith…inconsistent with the Qur’an cannot be accepted.”  (Muslims believe the Qur’an is God’s revealed speech.)

Most Muslims accept the theological assumptions Hassan articulates, so creating legislation that puts women in an inferior position to men feels right.  “Liberating” women from their inferior position using the language of human rights fails because it doesn’t tap into Pakistani society’s belief system.

This essay could end here with a suggestion that if/when the language of human rights is used in countries with clearly-stated, religiously-informed worldviews, the language must dovetail with the people’s belief system to be effective.  Hassan’s work focuses on tapping the “correct” theological roots.  But I want to explore further.

The United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, declares: “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.  We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.”

I often find that people/organizations striving to better women’s lives—from the enactment of equitable legislation to the eradication of FGM (female genital mutilation)—clothe the United Nations human rights document with the authority of revelation much like many religious people clothe their sacred texts.

One difficulty, as I see it, is that human rights are didactic statements labored over by people in committee. They are not stories. They are not poetry.  They don’t tap into that powerful, creative space within us where we discover meaning. This is not to say that the right to education and the right to live in freedom from slavery (among other rights) are not admirable. But muscling human rights onto a society doesn’t open up a transformative space that allows change to happen organically.

Masao Abe (1915-2006) taught at Nara University of Education in Nara, Japan.  He wrote an essay titled, “Religious Tolerance and Human Rights: A Buddhist Perspective.” I’m neither Buddhist, nor an expert on Buddhism, but I found Abe’s essay accessible, offering some creative thoughts.

Abe asserts that human rights, generally, are viewed anthropocentrically (humanity at the center). In Buddhism, human rights are understood on a broader “trans-anthropocentric, cosmological basis….Both human and non-human beings are equally subject to transiency or impermanence.” Within this paradigm, the self is not absolutely independent nor is it enduring.  Without a permanent self, can “inalienable rights” exist?

Abe believes Buddhist thought can contribute to religious tolerance and human rights by “elimination of…attachment to doctrine and dogma.” Dogma comes packaged in creeds for consumption by followers. The Abrahamic religions, understood as divinely revealed, are prone to intolerance based on fixed “truths.” What’s important in Buddhism is not dogma (or doctrine), “but one’s existential commitment to the religious truth, underlying the doctrinal formulation.”

Furthermore, Abe believes emphasizing wisdom rather than justice makes a difference.  The Abrahamic bent to enforce justice entails judgment, resulting in punishment.  The Buddhist bent towards wisdom entails compassionately affirming everybody in their distinctiveness or “suchness,” resulting in harmony and peace.

Might our conception of human rights as it focuses anthropocentrically on an absolute, permanent self be constricted and rigid?  If no absolute, permanent self exists, could understanding people as transient while accepting them in their “suchness” free us to see more broadly and inclusively and therefore more justly?  Perhaps a broader perspective on human rights can hold and also facilitate creative solutions to inequality that elude us when peering through a narrow, absolute lens.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

20 thoughts on “Beyond Human Rights by Esther Nelson”

  1. I grew up in a fairly conservative Calvinistic church (nowadays it’s part of the mostly mainstream United Church of Christ), but luckily (I guess) my family wasn’t churchgoing, so the church had almost no effect on my life. I still think I’m lucky not to be part of any of the standard-brand religions. The Goddess loves all of Her children.


    1. Thanks, Barbara. A particular religious bent was huge in my upbringing. Can’t imagine how I might have perceived the world apart from that. That being said, I do believe “religion” (broadly speaking) and especially Abrahamic religions in Western civilization have had enormous impact on what we call secular life. Are you familiar with the 1982 classic book, THE GREAT CODE THE BIBLE AND LITERATURE by Northrop Frye? He makes a case for the Bible being the single most important influence in Western literature and therefore it greatly influences what we call the Western world. Whether we are consciously religious or not, we have all absorbed a biblical worldview–according to Frye.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a brilliant and profound post providing much food for ongoing thought. I am intrigued by what you say about declarations of rights lacking the potency of poetry and story. (We need story!) We can’t afford to turn our back on the concept of human rights, which we have barely grasped or acknowledged. Yet moving beyond an human-centric world view brings us into a whole new realm. How do we maintain, restore, participate in balance? Balance not as something static but fluid, evolving and revolving, like a dance? Thanks for asking questions that open up new perspectives.


    1. Thanks, Elizabeth, for this great response. I like this: “How do we maintain, restore, participate in balance? Balance not as something static but fluid, evolving and revolving, like a dance?”


  3. As usual, Esther, there are a number of points I could address. I love your essays…
    but this sentence is what caught me today.

    “Rarely do they realize that religious “truths,” because they are taken to heart by people and implemented into the social fabric, shape the world they inhabit.”

    My question is how do we open people’s minds on this issue? Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Christianity and how pervasive its destructive messages are to Women people.

    And it simply doesn’t matter whether a person is an atheist or a believer or something in between – those messages get through and they DO shape our behavior – pain, of course, is helpful, because it makes it intolerable to stay with them. One is forced to become a questioner – as I was. And eventually this liberated me – but getting out was hell.

    If people. especially men find these messages working for them then what hope is there for change?


    1. Thanks for this great reply, Sara. I share your frustration as reflected in this sentence: “If people. especially men find these messages working for them then what hope is there for change?” I don’t have THE answer. I don’t think there is a “THE” answer. However, I often think about how enslaved African Americans must have felt and how easily it probably was to give up all hope. After all, the institution of slavery was “working” for powerful white people. Why should it ever be any different? And yet, gradually, slavery was abolished. Sometimes, I liken the movement toward change as leaven or yeast. We don’t really see yeast working in a loaf of bread, but if we watch long enough, we do see the effects of the rising agent. In the long view, we have seen some effects of change. I would like to see a lot more of it. Seems you would too ;-).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “But muscling human rights onto a society….” Esther, I think you “hit the nail on the head” with the word “muscling”. If we are not muscling ourselves, we are muscling others. I wonder what Christianity would be like if we stopped thinking of Jesus as a Divine/Human (which makes me think of the Roman gods) who will “save us” if we say the correct words, and started seeing him as the Teacher of Wisdom who gives us a Spirit of Compassion and Love. Or what if we knew him as both? But we become focused so easily on our selves. “Jesus loves ME, this I know”. As a friend once described it: “Our music would change from marches to waltzes”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, thanks Barbara. Patriarchy, the social system where we all live, is great at “muscling” their way into and through things–dominating, if you will. I do think a broader perspective is helpful as you’ve pointed out so well.


  5. Esther, thank you for this marvelous essay. The tendency towards dogmatic/absolute understandings of the one and only “truth” creates the polarized situation in which we now are all living/suffering. My experience living in West Germany in the 1970s — where dogmatism was even more rife than in my native U.S.A. — innoculated me, making me aware of the absolutes around me. My intellectual means of overcoming them, which was a religious means of overcoming them, involved panentheism: a conception of polytheism (a diversity of Gods and Goddesses) in which everything — Gods, Goddesses, humans, animals, plants — are a part of the interdependent web of all existence. This provides a recognition of diversity, within an understanding that we are all a part of the allness of the universe — we’re all in this together. I believe that this perspective offers another non-absolute lens from which we can see human rights, one that isn’t dependent on a concept of “the self as not absolutely independent nor enduring” Although this concept may be valid, I find it extremely difficult to accept it in a realistic, everyday, ordinary sort of way, since in living my life (as opposed to conceiving of my life) I have experienced my life as a story that has happened to and been orchestrated by one person — me, and it seems that I’ve been around the whole time.


    1. Thanks, Nancy, for this very thoughtful response. I like this: “…everything — Gods, Goddesses, humans, animals, plants — are a part of the interdependent web of all existence. This provides a recognition of diversity, within an understanding that we are all a part of the allness of the universe….” No doubt there are a variety of ways to understand (and participate in) how this plays out in our individual, “everyday” lives. I can appreciate your perspective.


  6. 1/3 in usa n england have no human rights = left in poverty wage slave wage n about 3/4 of planet left there = slavery is illegal n immoral so no human rights for most = broken world n always has been so = failing leaders all the way up to n including god play


  7. Thanks for your thoughts here, Esther, and regards where you say: “the Buddhist bent towards wisdom entails compassionately affirming everybody in their distinctiveness or ‘suchness,’ resulting in harmony and peace.”

    In Zen poetry too, a profound depth of suchness and compassion, derived simply from the careful observation of life and everything always so unique in nature. A delightful Buddhist poet and Zen nun named Otagaki Rengetsu (born 1791 in Kyoto), writes the following:

    The thick river ice
    Begins to melt
    The mountain well too
    Starts to thaw
    Allowing me to scoop up spring.

    And another poem by Rengetsu —

    The night lingers —
    In the lonely forest
    The voice of the cuckoo
    Cloaked in green leaves
    And mist…


  8. I love this essay! What an insightful way of looking at our society’s problems and how to move beyond our current ways of thinking. This makes me think of the difference I found living in Massachusetts, which, for all its progressiveness, I really believe still suffers from a worldview shaped by the Calvinistic puritans, versus New York City, where lived before and has always been inhabited by people with many different perspectives. I find that in New England people are much more likely to see issues in terms of moral imperatives, which makes them much harder to solve. The idea of transforming the root causes of oppression is brilliant and applicable in so many situations.


  9. thanks for this article. I especially appreciate your notes about women in Islam, that the Quran liberates us from being the one seduced by Satan in the original story of Adam and Eve (Hawah is the Arabic version of her name). Yes, the story is told at least 3 times in the Quran, and in each version they BOTH reached for the fruit of the tree, not just Eve. Also, true, there is nothing to support the concept of Eve made from a rib of Adam (yes this notion is common, and so incorrect). I believe God sent the Quran to correct mistakes made in the Bible, and this is a major correction needed to liberate women. Thanks for pointing this out. Unfortunately patriarchy is so entrenched in Arabic culture, that even though God sent the Word to stop killing female babies, and there is are several Equal Rights Ayats (verses) in the Quran, and our Prophet Muhammad displayed many feminist attitudes, this is not promoted in traditional Islam. There are, however, many Muslims with Progressive Values that support this approach to our faith.


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, jammyali. As you note, patriarchy is entrenched in Arab culture. That social system, unfortunately, is entrenched to some degree or another across the globe. Since patriarchy exercises its power to dominate, when people within the system interpret texts, that interpretation inevitably makes sure that the interests of those with power are not compromised. MPV is a wonderful “push-back” to the status quo.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This article has been stuck in my head for the past few days; it is certainly rich with thoughts to consider.

    I have been thinking a lot lately about how Christian values inform what we see as Western values. I have formally left the Christian faith and have been engaging in “deconstructing” that worldview in myself, but it seems the further I go the further I see we are entangled. For example, I have been thinking a lot about the way we relate to work in North America and how that it seems inextricably connected to the Protestant work ethic even for those of us who are not, and perhaps have never been Protestant ourselves. The division between mind or soul and body, and the assumption of the inanimation of the non-human and the prevalence of these ideas in our supposedly secular culture also come to mind.

    I’ve travelled quite a ways from your points about human rights, but I think these topics are also related. I wonder too how “human rights” might be considered from a more animist perspective, and how we understand the human in relation to the non-human (i.e. the rest of the world).

    Thank you for this intriguing post!


    1. Thanks for your very considered response, Jacqueline. I only scratched the surface of Masao Abe’s essay “Religious Tolerance and Human Rights: A Buddhist Perspective.” It’s in a collection of Abe’s essays edited by Steven Heine. Abe develops your questioning as you expressed in the sentence: “I wonder too how “human rights” might be considered from a more animist perspective, and how we understand the human in relation to the non-human (i.e. the rest of the world).” It can be complicated to tease things apart because “…it seems the further I go the further I see we are entangled.” However, I’m convinced it’s necessary for our survival to think about the world using different paradigms than the ones we fall back on–often out of habit or a commitment to tradition or whatever…..


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