Islam and the Tehran Hostages

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Certainly no Muslim may question the following principles, since they are Qur’anic and the Qur’an is for Muslims the only ultimate authority. These principles are not unique to Islam; rather, they represent some of the highest ethical standards of other human civilisations.

1. Islam advocates a very personal, individualist ethic. “No soul may be charged with more than it can bear…No soul may be charged with the sin of another…To every person belongs what he/she has wrought and earned” (Qur’an 2:286 ; 6:164;: 53:39). These precepts have barred from the religious consciousness of Muslims any suggestion of vicarious guilt or vicarious atonement.

2. Islam does not distinguish between humans and advocates a comprehensive universalism. The world community of Islam has integrated almost all the ethnic identities of earth into a single brotherhood governed by one law. “We created you from a single pair and made you tribes and nations that you may cooperate with and complement one another. Nobler among you is only the more righteous.” The Prophet admonished his people: “No Arab has priority over a non-Arab, and no white over a black and no black over a white –except in righteousness” (49:13).

3. Islam is neither a religion of revenge nor one that teaches to turn the other cheek. The Biblical law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth holds good for it, along with the teaching of forgiveness and magnanimity which it recommends. “If you are aggressed upon, attack the aggressor in the same measure with which he aggressed upon you… If the aggression stops, remember that God is forgiving and merciful” (2: 194, 192)

4. Property is sacred. Even to enter another’s house without permission of its owner is a crime. Gifts made to public officials belong to their offices, not their persons. Theft, in any form, is punished by cutting off of the hand (5:41). This severity reflects Islam’s strict commitment to the notion of private property and its indignation at any violation of it.

5. Further, Islam teaches that humans are innocent, not fallen; that they are created in the best of forms, capable of doing good as well as evil. The Qur’an declares that every human is born with a natural predilection to recognize God. His moral law and to incline to its fulfillment (30:30). This purpose, which the Qur’an calls “al amanah.” or the divine trust, provides meaning to human life and assigns to the actions of men and women cosmic significance (33:72).

By virtue of this, humans are held in Islam higher than the angels (2:34). “Whoever kills one man,” the Qur’an asserts, “has killed the whole of humanity, and whoever has saved one man has saved humanity'” (5:32). There can be no better basis than this for human rights and dignity.

6. Islam is a religion of justice. Human worth is measured in works and achievements. “Every atom’s weight of good or evil work is registered and on the Day of Judgment will be revealed and reckoned for or against ts author” (99:7-8). The very purpose of creation is that humans may prove themselves in their deeds. Life is a race in which those who do the good deeds will be the felicitous both in this world and the next. Blest or unblest, every person gets exactly what he deserves.

7. Islam affirms every person’s responsibility for history. God has placed humanity within a malleable creation which He made subservient to them (14:32; 22:65). and equipped them with all the faculties necessary to transform creation as well as themselves into the ideal (90:8-10). Religion has no meaning in Islam other than this transformation, every act of which is an act of worship.

Humans are expected to take history into their hands and knead it into what it ought to be. Realization of the absolute is not an eschatological hope, but the object of an activist engagement in life’s real processes. That is why the Muslim regards himself as responsible for justice throughout the world as well as at his own family home.

These principles of ethics constitute the bases of Islamic international law. which Muslim jurists have developed and applied a millennium before Grotius, father of European international law. International trade and diplomacy, war and peace, citizens in states not their own. tariffs and douanes (Arabic terms!), embassies and naturalization, transit and visits, etc. — all these were subjects of very elaborate legislation, and they constitute materials in any Muslim legal training. The dominant objectives here as elsewhere are justice, as well as liberty and dignity for all.

Inspired by Islam, the recent Iranian revolution has made Iran leap toward the restoration of liberty and dignity to the Iranian people whose human rights were openly violated, and whose wealth was plundered by the Shah and his regime. The hope of Iran to become an Islamic state is a hope for an open society where law is supreme and humans are equal: where government is for the commonweal but under the law: where society is internationalized by commitment to universal ends, to a world order of brotherhood and cooperation.

What does such an Islamic state and, behind it, Islamic law say about the hostages of Tehran? They say unequivocally that the restriction of the physical freedom of any human is forbidden, except where that human is personally involved in crime. The employees of an embassy in a foreign capital do not fall in this category. Hence, in the eye of Islamic law, the seizure of U.S. embassy employees tn Tehran is illegitimate and unacceptable. Indeed. Islamic law recognizes that foreign envoys in the Islamic state enjoy full personal immunity and may not be treated except as envoys. They cannot be incarcerated or executed; they can only be expelled. However, if their conduct brings material damage to the Islamic state or its citizens, they will have to compensate for the damage inflicted.

The Islamic law of nations equally condemns the harboring of criminals and of stolen wealth. There can be no doubt that the Shah, despite his longstanding friendship with the U.S.. has personally ordered the perpetration of innumerable crimes for which he ought to be brought to justice. And there can be no doubt that he and his entourage, have illegitimately appropriated billions of dollars from the public national wealth of Iran, which ought to be restored to the Iranian people.

These charges stand at the root of that unfortunate downward spiral of action and reaction into which Iran and the U.S. have been thrown. True, it is the tradition of America to be the haven for the oppressed of the world, a tradition which gives us due pride. But it is a travesty to invoke that tradition to give harbor to criminals, or to share with them their stolen wealth.

If, after all that has been said, seen and heard, the criminality of the Shah is contested and his facing justice is denied, it reflects our inability to distinguish between the sufferers of injustice and its perpetrators. For us Americans, this inability should be a far more serious matter than the whole affair of the Shah and his billions. It joins forces with Watergate to corrode the moral fiber of our society. Imperceptible as the corrosive change may be, its cumulative effect will adversely affect our future as surely as it did the fate of the ancient Roman Empire.

From “Islam and the Tehran Hostages,” The Wall Street Journal (November 28, 1979): 24. For a background on the Iran hostage crisis, read here for details.


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