Human Dignity

By: Khalid Baig
Posted: 20 Safar 1431, 5 February 2010

We are witnessing today a clash between two opposing views of human worth. The first holds that human beings have an inherent dignity conferred on them by the Creator. The other insists that human beings have no more claim to dignity than other animals, from which they differ only in the number and sequencing of DNA molecules. From tiny bacteria to human beings all are creations of accidental processes; therefore none of them can claim special status over others.

We cannot ignore it as a debate that is taking place in some obscure religion or philosophy class which should not interest the rest of us. Its vast implications affect every one of us wherever we happen to be: in our homes, businesses, schools, on the streets or at the airports. This is so because a society’s treatment of other humans depends upon its perception of the status and value of humanity itself. If there is no inherent human dignity than there can be no inherent human rights. Then human rights are reduced to the level of a policy to be decided by the calculations of governments. If, on the other hand, we accept the first view then human rights become both serious and inalienable; they cannot be taken away in the name of this or that expediency.

The first view is expounded by the Qur’an which declares in no uncertain terms: “Now, indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam” (17:70). This is brought out through the Story of Creation. For God created man “with My two Hands” (38:75). Further, He breathed into Adam from His Spirit (15:29). This was so because Man was created as God’s vicegerent on earth (2:30).

Islam is not alone in asserting this dignity. All previous prophets had the same message. Thus both Judaism and Christianity affirmed it because man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This view was challenged by modern science. Resting on the twin pillars of Darwinism and Freudianism, its great “achievement” was in announcing that dignity and nobility of the human soul was a myth. Darwin claimed that man was not specially created. Freud added that he had no free will that would distinguish him from animals. Rather man was subject to instinctive drives, unconscious impulses, and emotions over which he had no control.

It was not that science had discovered that the first view was baseless, since it had no capacity to affirm or reject claims about matters it could not observe. Rather it was that some of its proponents had developed a fanatical religious hatred against all religion because of their bad experience with some of it. As it evolved under their patronage, modern science became a new faith that claimed to have made the faith in God and the moral values based on it obsolete. Of course, it could measure the speed of light, split the atom, and analyze the structure of DNA to “prove” its claims.

Those who have been mesmerized by the achievements of science have been torn between these opposing claims about human dignity. They claim that human beings have inalienable rights then proceed to forfeit those rights on one or the other pretext. They champion religious freedom then proceed to curb it. They affirm commitment to human dignity then proceed to defile it.

The new measures about universal nude body scans of all air travelers are just the latest manifestation of this conflict. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 12, states: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference." Similarly the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Yet we are told that we must bare ourselves for examination by officials if we want the privilege to travel. That the privacy protection does not even protect one’s private parts. The distance between the proclamations and the policies is the distance between the two views. The noble declarations are rooted in the first view but the policies are in the second. That they may examine us just like they examine animals on a farm is to be expected if we are no better than animals.

Back to the Story of Creation that gives us special insights about this particular aspect. It tells us that the prestigious status given to mankind had its jealous enemy right from the start. It was the devil himself who came up with a plan to show that Man did not deserve the honor bestowed on him. And so Satan’s very first attack was on the most important reflection of this dignity. It was launched with subterfuge and its purpose was to produce nudity. When under Satanic persuasion Adam and Eve tasted of the forbidden tree, "their shameful parts were manifested to them, and they began to piece together onto themselves some of the leaves of the Garden" (Qur’an 7:22). This narrative reminds us that the uncorrupted human nature abhors nudity. That is why Adam and Eve frantically started to search for something to cover themselves at its first occurrence. This tendency distinguishes human beings from animals, for which nudity is natural. Hence the reminder from God: "Children of Adam! Let not Satan tempt you as he brought your parents out of the Garden, stripping them of their garments to show them their shameful parts" (7:27). The immediately preceding ayah also tells us that clothing is a gift from God and concealing the parts of the body that must be concealed is its primary purpose, while protection from elements and adornment are secondary objectives.

In fact that function is integral to a central value in Islam: Haya. Although normally translated as modesty for lack of a better word, haya encompasses much more than that. It is modesty, decency, moral propriety, and inhibition against all evil, with special emphasis on concealing parts of the body. Haya is the antithesis to nudity.  As for its importance, Prophet Muhammad ( Sall-Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: "Every religion has a distinct call. For Islam it is haya." [Ibn Majah]. Another famous hadith says: " Haya is a branch of Iman (faith) " [Bukhari, Muslim]. It is the basic building block of Islamic morality. When it is lost everything is lost.

The concept does exist in other religions as well. In Judaism the closest term is Tzniut, which represents both a moral value and specific laws that govern the dress code, and interaction between the sexes. Rabbi Aron Moss of Australia explains:  "The body is the holy creation of God. It is the sacred house of the soul. The way we maintain our respect for the body is by keeping it covered." Tzniut requires covering of the body, segregation of men and women during prayers ( mechitzah), prohibition of shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex, and prohibition of being alone in a secluded place with them. For the most part these are subsets of the commands given by Islam. In Christianity the term used is modesty. One finds repeated references to Christian modesty in encyclicals and directives. One such directive instructs: "In general, clothes should hide the shape of the body rather than accentuate it. Only this kind of clothing can truly be called ‘decent’." Pope Pius XII said in the 1950s: "Vice necessarily follows upon public nudity."

Of course the pop culture, augmented by the tremendous firepower of Hollywood and other mass media---and intellectually supported by the new science in its (im)moral underpinnings---has been a constant challenger to haya and modesty. It is a familiar story. As the floodgates of immodesty were opened, the Jewish and Christian teachings were washed away from the lives of their followers to the lament of their religious leaders. More than three decades ago Rabbi Zalman Posner noted: "The prevalent culture has little patience with one of these values, and the Hebrew word [ tzniut] is virtually unknown to the American Jew."
And the French Catholic leader Dom Bernard Marechaux lamented in alarming tones: "The cancer of Liberalism attacks everyone and we must be careful not to be infected ourselves.  …  Women who go to church dress just the way women who do not go to church dress; … It is a confusion of license and worldliness.  As a result … the Church is beginning to disappear in the world. Christianity is being lost." Pope Benedict XV said, "One cannot sufficiently deplore the blindness of so many women of every age and station …[who] do not see to what degree the indecency of their clothing shocks every honest man and offends God." They condemned the summer attire, the swimming suits, and every form of nudity in a loosing battle. Church leaders instructed the women to have their skirts at least eight inches below the knee when fashion designers persuaded them to go eight inches above. And everyone knows which direction they went.

The scene began to change with the arrival of Muslims. Muslims could recognize the nudity in the Western societies as the same abomination that had prevailed in the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya society of Arabia. They remembered that haya is part of faith and the mother of all virtues. Against all odds and pressures they upheld the banner of haya. They became the shining example of modesty in a society that had forgotten it.
In this background comes the most vicious attack ever on human dignity in the form of the new nude body scanners being installed at airports. They can take pictures of the nude body from head to toe and from all around. They are being forced on every one---men, women, and children. If they go unopposed it will be a major triumph of the idea that human beings are mere animals as Darwin and Freud would have us believe.

But haya is the call of the uncorrupted human nature, a universal value that should bring together all the people of conscience who value morality and decency. While some governments have rushed to introduce these machines, others have raised strong objections. Representing them, the new European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, said, "we will not let anyone dictate to us rules that go against fundamental rights on anti-terrorism grounds . . . our need for security cannot justify any violation of privacy. We should never be driven by fear, but by values" (11 Jan. 2010, testimony before the European Union Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Legal affairs and Women's committees). 

Which values? That will be determined by the ongoing clash between the two views of human dignity. And the picture here is less than clear. The Rabbinical Center of Europe warned that scanners would violate the rights of religious Jewish women whose modesty would be compromised. Children rights groups warned that they violated child pornography law in Britain. But Muslims seem to have opted for their own disenfranchisement by choosing to remain silent. If they continue to do that then they will have no one but themselves to blame for the terrible consequences. For them and for the whole world.