Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Susan Buck-Morss

Committee Members

John Wallach

Uday Singh-Mehta

Subject Categories

Islamic Studies | Political Science | Political Theory | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


Human Rights, Islam, Secular, Secularism, Religion, Universality, Qur'an, Shari'a, Liberalism, Traditions


Universal human rights (HR) are often theorized as philosophically neutral. Because they do not espouse any particular theory of the human being, it is argued, they can be reasonably appropriated by all. In this thesis, I explore HR’s universality claim, by focusing on the discourse’s secular foundation. In the universal human right to freedom of religion, I find a distinctly modern grammar of ‘religion,’ one that separates ‘religion’ from politics and power, law from morality, and the public and private realms. The modern concept of religion also espouses a secular theory of the human, insofar as the human is defined as morally autonomous and self-sovereign.

To test my critique of human rights’ universality claims vis-à-vis their secularity, I survey a number of theoretical engagements with human rights discourse from contemporary Muslim scholars. Positions in this literature range from full endorsement of the philosophical and moral foundations of HR, to trenchant critiques of their secular bases. I propose the Qur’anic term din as a conceptual alternative to ‘religion’ for understanding the tremendous variation in contemporary Islamic political thought on human rights. The absence of consensus among reasoned Muslim arguments about human rights significantly challenges HR’s universality claims.