The practice of activities of a humanitarian nature is a very ancient phenomenon in the world. Driven by various motives, it has taken on different forms and functions throughout the Chinese, Greek, Indian and Persian civilizations of the Ancient World.
The existence of non-governmental organizations and charismatic personalities can be traced throughout the ancient history of the East. In the Christian tradition, numerous sects succeeded in creating a space for themselves that was both engaging and independent from that controlled by governments. The creation of this space, in turn, played a substantial role in the spread of knowledge, as well as earthly and religious culture; like those of the Nestorians and Jacobeans. In fact, one might claim that in preserving an important distance from political authorities, the Eastern Church laid the cornerstones for public traditions. Using this space also enabled some religious movements to provide social protection against government or foreign occupation. These movements either expressed the interests of the masses and/or appeased the anger of the crowds by performing important functions that the government was failing to fulfil.
During Pre-Islamic times, Sa’sa ben Naji ben Akl, the grandfather of the renowned poet Al-Akhtal (whom Moncef Marzouki singled out as the godfather of the Arab Human Rights movement) was never satisfied with the mere condemnation of the killing of children and the live burial of newborn girls.(1) On the contrary, and in the absence of any law against such tragic tribal traditions, he went as far as paying a ransom for each newborn girl so that he may save her from these burials, often driven by the poverty of her family. These ransoms were paid by Sa’sa to save the newborn girls regardless of any considerations such as tribal background or blood-ties. Many Arab personalities followed in his footsteps, only to be called ‘the revivers of the buried newborn girls’. In honor of his forefather, the poet Al-Farazdaq was quoted to have said:
“My grandfather is the one who prohibited burying female
newborns and revived the buried from their death.”
One of the earliest patterns of humanitarian attitude to emerge was displayed towards orphans. In pre-Islamic times, Arabs had orphanages that took in children who had lost their fathers, either through natural deaths or deaths caused by wars. Heads and masters used to supervise the orphans and care for them, using the alimony that was collected from the wealthy, contributions made by tribes or gains made from the enemy in times of war. Today, the Ghatfan orphanage is often cited as one of the most famous humanitarian homes for orphans of that period. (2)
At the end of the sixth century, the Alliance of Al-Fudhul was founded. It became one of the earliest forms of joint liability alliance to defend the interests of individuals marginalized by their societies. Based on Historic accounts, a Yemeni from Zubaid delivered goods for a man of Al-Sahem from Mecca, who in turn refused to pay him back. As a result, the Yemeni climbed the mountain of Abu Qais and appealed to Mecca’s virtuous personalities for assistance. Hearing his claim and taking note of the justice of his demands, they soon after committed the merchant of Mecca to compensate the Yemeni for the price of his goods. Ben al-Hareth al-Jarhami, Ben Wada’ah al-Qatouri and Ben Fadalah al-Jarhami, were the first individuals to take this case to the alliance. It was not long after this incident in which the alliance reiterated the duty to respect the rules of commerce, that oppression of any sort was to be abolished in Mecca.
The 3 individuals mentioned above soon embarked on expanding the alliance, and membership was made open to the whole population of Mecca. A treaty was signed at the home of the eldest Abdullah ben Jad’an (who was also renown for his honesty), in the presence of individuals such as Beni Hashim, Beni al-Mutaleb, Beni Assad ben Abdullah al-Azza, Zahra ben Kilab and Taim ben Murrah. As Iben al-Atheer in relation to this event states, all agreed: “to support any oppressed resident in Mecca against the oppressor until justice was done”. Quraish called this alliance ‘Al-Fudhul’. Prophet Mohamed witnessed this agreement and was later quoted to have said: “I witnessed with my uncles at Jad’an home an alliance, which if I would have been called for in Islam I would have responded.” (3)
The Holy Koran itself advocates works of a humanitarian and beneficiary character, and contains multiple references to them throughout its verses:
“There is no good in most of their secret talks save (in) him who orders Sadaqah (charity), or Ma’rûf (all the good and righteous deeds which Allâh has ordained), or conciliation between mankind, and he who does this, seeking the good Pleasure of Allâh, We shall give him a great reward. (An-Nisâ’: 114)
“By no means shall you attain Al-Birr (piety, righteousness, etc, unless you spend of that which you love”. (Al-‘Imran: 92).”
“And those who, before them, had homes (in Al-Madinah) and had adopted the Faith, love those who emigrate to them, and have no jealousy in their breasts for that which they have been given (from the booty of Banî An-Nadîr), and give them (emigrants) preference over themselves, even though they were in need of that.” (Al-Hashr:9).
“Who is he that will lend to Allâh a goodly loan so that He may multiply it to him many times? And it is Allâh that decreases or increases (your provisions), and unto Him you shall return”. (Al-Baqarah: 245).*
Also, according to one famous Hadith, Prophet Mohammed was quoted to have said:
‘Do the favor for whoever deserves it or not, if it is directed for the proper person, then he deserves it, if not, then you deserve it’.
Islam concentrated on a central idea that is: ‘the good deeds and charities have a self-benefit and a benefit for the other people’. Interesting to note is the fact that this attitude corresponds to similar approaches advocated in Taoism in China. In this regard, the Koran states the following:
“Whosever does a righteous good deed it is for (the benefit of) his own self and whosever does evil, it is against his own self”. (Fussilat: 46). Also, “And whatever you spend in good, it is for yourselves”. (Al-Baqarah: 272).*
Abu Talha al-Ansari was the first Muslim to donate the best of his properties in the form of an endowment. It was a well named Birja.(4). Prophet Mohamed also endowed seven groves which he bequeathed from some warriors. Al-Ansari said: “I know that all the capable companions of the prophet, the immigrants and the supporters (ansaar), reserved endowments for charities that cannot be sold, bequeathed or given”.(5) If we compare this sentence with the definition of the word ‘Foundation’ that appears in the last edition of the universal encyclopedia for human rights, we find that the central concept governing the establishment of a foundation appears to have originated in the first years of Islam.
With the emergence of newly established cities and the increase in the human and cultural areas that fell under the direct control of the Arab-Islamic Empire, many new developed humanitarian forms and patterns emerged. Some of these forms were of personal nature or had local and/or global ambitions. During the 1st and 2nd centuries of Islam, the school of Hassan al-Basri (642-728/110-196 A.H.), became one of the most prominent phenomena, to seek real independence from both the influence of political authority, and political-religious oppositions. Thus, it could be argued that it expressed the characteristics of what we presently term as a ‘Counter-pouvoir’. Al-Basri refused to be a mortgaged judge employed to serve the political authority. On the contrary, he insisted on his right to act as the criticizing bell, sounding off the concerns of those whose voices could not be heard. He particularly dedicated himself to eradicating violence and sedition. When people asked him about sedition and fighting, he cautioned them not to “be on either side.” Asked in return: “What about Emir al-Mu’menin?” he was quoted to have said: “Not even with the Emir.” (6) We also find other personalities, who were followers of the same school of al-Basri, such as Ayoub al-Sakhiati, Furqod al-Sabkhi, Malek ben Dinar, Mohamed Ben Wase’ and others. This trend defended the rights of scientists, scholars and jurists to be fully independent from the Authorities, in addition to having a moral charismatic Authority figure to defend the society from the governor’s radicalism.
Since the 1st century of Hijra, voluntary groups emerged advocating numerous political, social, and cultural claims (rights?). These groups included the assemblies of literature, science and religion that were led by a prominent scientist or well established personality, such as for example, the assembly of Sakina Bent al-Husain. During the Abbasid, other groups emerged and spread widely such as the beneficiary endowments for health, education and sustenance.
At the end of the 1st century A.H. (7th century A.D.), a new tradition emerged that gathered people of the same profession in a specific market. Later, throughout the century, the new professional relations succeeded in gaining the recognition of the judge and obtaining a legal status for organization and accountability. Varying from one epoch in history to another, the caliphate either approved the elected head of professionals or imposed one head of its personnel. In general, the groups of professionals organized forms of solidarity, which preserved their professions within acceptable margins, in addition to creating uniform prices across the industry and protecting its professionals through peaceful means. This phenomenon spread widely in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Persia, Morocco, Andalusia and mid Asia, but retreated after the fall of Baghdad and the political troubles that followed.
In his book “From the Wonders of Our Civilizations,” Dr. Mustafa al-Siba’I noted that the beneficiary and humanitarian societies could be classified in two broad types: “One governmental type: Which included large endowments, and a second type established by individuals like, Emirs, leaders, rich personalities and prominent women”.(7)
The most important beneficiary (benefactor?) organizations were foremost concerned with building Mosques, followed by schools and hospitals. In addition, these organizations built inns and hostels for passengers, and shelters ‘Tekyas’ to house homeless people and those who preferred solitude. Other forms of charitable works included the creation of water springs in public places and long roads, of wells for passengers, the dissemination of plants and livestock in remote areas, which spread between Baghdad, Damascus and Medina, and other Islamic cities and capitals. Some social organizations exerted efforts to maintain roads, archways and bridges, while others donated lands for public cemeteries and contributed coffins, thus enabling the poor people to bury their dead.
Other organizations focused on supporting foundlings, orphans, disabled, aged and blind people through a range of provisions including shelter, food, clothes, education and general assistance.
Public restaurants also distributed food for those in need. This phenomenon persisted well into the 20th century. It was witnessed in Damascus, like ‘Tekyah of Sultan Saleem’ and ‘Sheik Muhie al-Deen’ and it spread to all the lands controlled by Mecca. Nowadays, the old tradition of ‘Mawa’id Al-Rahman’ is still followed during the month of Ramadan in Egypt and many other Islamic countries. There are multiple examples of humanitarian based activities, still evident in India and Persia, which offer complimentary meals for individuals in need.
In addition, other beneficiary organizations were specialized in facilitating marriages and affording the expenses or the dowry of the brides. Others supplied mothers with milk and sugar. In relation to this, it was said that Salah Al-Deen al-Ayobi ordered one running tube of milk and a second one of sweetened water to run open for mothers and children twice a week free of charge.
Many organizations also that took care of animals, especially those abandoned, sick or old. Today, it is an established fact that the National playing field of modern Damascus used to be a green field for the horses and sick animals to graze upon until they died.
Today, the governments of more than 30 Islamic countries forbid humanitarian organizations from assisting prisoners, despite the fact humane treatment of all captives (including prisoners of war) was a well established principle in Arab-Islamic History.
One of the principal rights of prisoners, acknowledged in the Arab-Islamic societies during the 1st century A.H., was the aid or alimony (Sadakah) of those captured or imprisoned. Unfortunately, such a tradition retreated, soon to be forgotten in our modern times. According to Abu Yosef, the author of ‘Al-Kharaj’, and many other historians, the first individual to recognize alimony for prisoners, was Imam Ali Ben Abu Taleb in Baghdad. Mua’wiah Ben Abu Sufian allowed the same practice in Damascus and was soon followed by many other Caliphs. This principle was advocated in the Koran, which contains verses that urge the feeding of the poor, the orphan and the captives. Arabs used the word ‘captive’ to refer to any imprisoned person to be locked in a cell. The linguist, Mujahed, used the term: ‘the captive prisoner’. Referring to the rationale that guides the provision of alimony to prisoners, Al-Tha’labi was quoted to have said: “Although captivity is not a deformity, it turns the captive into a wounded and bitten creature”. Many wise men mentioned that ‘there should be no extra punishment over the punishment” and that “to commit a mistake of forgiveness is far better than the mistake of punishment”. This concurs with basic regulations for the treatment of prisoners, approved by the United Nations, which considers imprisonment as sufficient punishment in itself, and does not allow for further harming.
The Caliph Ameur ben Abed al-Azeez preserved the prisoners aid that covered their food and needs by appointing a person from outside the prison authority to supervise the distribution of this charity. He demanded that a well-known and honest person be chosen to register the names of the poor prisoners and to pay them a monthly sum. That person then would call the names of the prisoners one by one and pay each 10 Derhams per month, in addition to supplying them with winter and summer clothes. Naturally, not all the prisoners were in need for such assistance designed to improve their conditions and rehabilitate them. As a result, various humanitarian organizations emerged dedicated to improving the living conditions of prisoners. They ensured prisons were kept clean, the provision of basic dietary requirements and education. In addition, they taught them a profession to facilitate re-establishment into society and enable them to secure an income after their release.(8)
This rich and varied historical account provides a solid counter-argument to all those who claim that civil non-governmental organizations are a foreign phenomenon with no foundations in Arab and Islamic societies. In particular, it answers the advocates of ‘Comprehensive theories’, i.e. those who relate everything to Caliphate, and the dominant Secularist trend, present in all schools advocating a one party system in which public organizations are to serve only the purposes identified by the party and thus through strictly controlled measures.
With the advent of the renaissance period in the 19th century, the phenomenon of non-governmental organizations re-emerged in the Arab world. New charitable and religious organizations were re-established in Egypt and Lebanon in the first half of the 19th century. In the second half of the last century, the organizations seeking an educational enlightenment role began to exist, openly or secretly in Syria, Palestine, Tunisia and Iraq. Abdallah al-Nadim (1845-1896) was the first to defend the need for civil society and its independent expressions in the Arab world. He was also the first Arab personality to prioritize the work of NGOs, over other forms of political or party activity. In addition, he considered the street and village to be the first school for reformation and revival. On the other hand, Al-Nadim favored viewing ‘politics’ as an art, as defined by the noble Greek meaning of the word, instead of what he called: ‘The administrative practical politics’.(9) Consequently, he disseminated his thoughts in Egypt and during his exile, in Yafa, and advocated them through, the magazine “Al-Ustath”, an important resource of knowledge during this period.
Farah Anton inaugurated the 20th century by translating the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights into the Arabic language and demanding that it be taught in schools.(10) Although the new democratic ideas, mainly among the supporters of “constitutionalism” in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon acknowledged and advocated the natural rights of humans, the subject of Human Rights remained confined to the sphere of enlightened writers, and did not become a general social or cultural trend. A number of charismatic personalities such as, Jamal al-Deen al-Afghani, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakebi and Mohamed Husain al-Najafi al-Na’ini played an important role in consolidating the idea of Shurah (consultative council) and the principle of participation between the governor and the governed in organizing public affairs.
During this time, independent organizations continued to grow in Arab countries. While the British authorities in Egypt accepted early on the idea that people have a right to their own professional, cultural and artistic organizations, Ottoman law did not recognize such a right until the 24th of April 1912. This law in turn organized the activities of the various associations, and continued to operate during the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon and the British mandate in Palestine and east of Jordan. The first article of the law annulled all the old associations and acknowledged the right of each professional group to establish its own independent association. The Tunisian Constitution in 1861, although not long lasting, also affirmed the principle that civil society ought to enjoy freedom to form independent organizations. The same occurred later in the Ottoman constitution of 1876, the Iranian constitution in 1906 and the Moroccan constitution in October 1908, all of which were written by enlightened individuals.
Many individuals and well established personalities who have defended Human Rights, raised this issue in the Arab world, including Mohamed Mandour, Mahmoud Azmi and Riad Shams al-Deen in Egypt; Edmon Rabat, Sami Kayali and Najat Kassab Hassan in Syria; Charles Malik, Raif Khouri and Saleem Khyatah in Lebanon; Ali al-Wardi in Iraq.(11)
Contrary to logic, with the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Arab world during the same year witnessed the unfolding of a catastrophe or Al Nakbah with the establishment of Israel. The events in the region increased doubts in Arabic public opinion about the functions and efficiency of the United Nations and its related organizations. While the world embarked on a path to rediscover the importance of Human Rights, not one Arab organization was established until the beginnings of the Sixties. In 1949, Raif Khouri called upon the Lebanese intellectuals to establish an independent organization of Human Rights, with a constitution that incorporated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but to no avail (12). In fact, it was not until 1962 that we witnessed the establishment of the first Arab organization for Human Rights.(13)
In fact, it was not until one century after the first Constitution licensed the establishment of NGOs, that the first Human Rights NGO emerged in this part of the Arab world. Indeed, it took one and a half centuries, after the establishment of the first charitable association during the recent Arab ages, to view the emergence of an NGO engaged in the defense of Human Rights. The reason might be due to historical traditions that charitable associations were established in a spontaneous fashion, without much attention paid to legal formalities. Furthermore, traditions of solidarity and charity prevailed as a necessity to undermine oppression and support the poor, but also as a moral and religious duty in all Islamic societies.
The dominance of authoritarian forms of government greatly affected the work and functioning of existing donor and humanitarian organizations, particularly since they neglected the positive traditions of Arab society and have chosen to ignore the good principles manifest in Western society and tradition. As a result, while NGOs were successfully flourishing on the universal level, civil organizations in the Arab world witnessed a significant decline in number within a relatively short period of time. Thus, under the pretense of belonging to political opposition groups or forbidden parties, even organizations that specialized in teaching Moslems to memorize the Koran and assisting the handicapped were soon banned by the state. Cultural and sports clubs and associations were nationalized. Authoritarian governments in many Arab countries also formulated exceptional laws to punish any well established civil gathering and founded ‘semi-formal governmental associations’ to replace them.
The decline in the legitimacy of the one party system and totalitarian authority in the region, coupled with the liberation wars or civil wars that erupted in many Arab and Islamic countries, all required an assessment of the need for donor and humanitarian organizations. In the Palestinian case, Palestinian civil organizations in exile focused on providing support to the Palestinian resistance in the camps and Palestinian society under the occupation. They played an important role in preserving the social unity and national consciousness of the people throughout the period of Israeli occupation and its inhuman conditions. The unfolding Afghani tragedy was another event that stimulated the growth of this phenomenon in the Gulf countries and throughout the Arab peninsula. In fact the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was an important catalyst in improving the standard of living in these countries, due to the resulting rise in oil prices that was witnessed following the invasion.
Although most organizations in the Gulf adopted Islamic characteristics, they varied from each other. Some were official organizations like: ‘Al-Amer bel-Ma’roof and Nahi an al-Munkar’ in Saudi Arabia, others were directly affiliated with political Islamic movement, or ancestral (antecede) “fundamentalist” movement, while others still were part of what was called in the last two decades the ‘Al-Jihad movement’.
Without doubt, Islamic humanitarian organizations benefited a lot from their interaction with Western or international humanitarian organizations and played a role in extending their influence to regions, which thus far had not been affected by the West or were out of their sphere of influence and/ or interest. Despite the advent of radical political activism and the fact that it colored the work of an increasing number of humanitarian based organizations, Islamic humanitarian organizations soon stood out on the basis of their high level of credibility and professionalism, which in turn minimized corruption and the abuse of public funds. Therefore, corruption was not a serious problem confronting these civil organizations, even those in control of substantial funds, regardless of their religious or secular nature. We cannot deny the world problem of international manipulation, But their good reputation soon resulted in these organizations becoming an attractive target for political movements and political systems that could not affect their policies.(Unclear)
It is widely accepted that such phenomenon are also found in the West. The ministries of co-operation and foreign affairs in many countries of the North have been known to “fabricate” or establish hollow organizations to serve particular needs or respond to the eruption of crises. However, since these countries enjoy the presence of solid and well established civil societies, NGOS are often successful in managing interferences and interactions from the government, and can successfully influence the process of cooperation between them. On the other hand, in many countries of the South, the fact that most civil society organizations are structurally weak, means they are often forced to cooperate with an authoritarian government, which only weakens them further.
In spite of the various weak points that can be found in many countries of the South, there is no doubt that humanitarian organizations are viewed by local governments as a threat to their interests and as a foreign interference. Moreover, they often carry the Western perspective and priorities of civil based work, as their agenda is influenced by Western public opinion. A simple example will illustrate the reason and extent of the difficulties that these humanitarian organizations can potentially cause:
Civil society based organizations regularly sought the assistance of Western organizations to expose Israeli practices in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. However many Western organizations continue to refuse to engage in work on Palestinian issues without the recognition by the NGOs approaching them of Israel’s ‘right to security’. Thus, any decision, which acknowledges the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, must also confirm the recognition of the Israeli state and its right to secure borders, regardless of whether any such comparison can be made between a nation without rights and a government that enjoys too much discretion. Furthermore, it has become almost tradition that each time a Palestinian is honored for a distinguished humanitarian job, an Israeli must necessarily be honored too, even if there were no Israeli individuals deserving of honoring in that same year. Many Palestinian activists have accepted these conditions due to their fear of loosing international assistance or of being deported outside the countries of the North (?). Today, however due to the existence of stronger Arab and Islamic organizations, both relations and performance have taken on a different shape. In fact, the project and feasibility studies are being now also being formulated in the South. With activists from developing countries enjoying their own organizations and increasingly rejecting any relation that tries to impose an agenda on them, it has become increasingly necessary to think of an approach that is more universal in character, rather than Western dominated. This approach would need to reflect cooperation with organizations from the North based on an equal footing, respect and necessary compatibility (?/replaced complimentarity).
Due to the increasing criticism mounted against humanitarian organizations based in the Islamic world by the South, there is an urgent need to review and assess the structure, function and performance of these organizations rather than simply feeling victimized. The fact that Western organizations have their own shortcomings does not justify ignoring the internal and external problems that Southern organizations are also facing, which need to be neutralized, not indulged by direct conflict.(?)since they be neutralized nor indulged with direct conflicts and cheap performance(unclear-?).
Whether these organizations are considered legitimate actors or not, they have clearly expanded their direct mission of feeding the hungry, educating the orphans, or easing the misery inherent in war torn societies. There is no doubt that they have become one of the central guardians of social cohesion in many developing countries. At the same time, they are no longer the property of a single political party but a public possession of their respective societies.
As external pressure is mounting and internal social needs are increasing, there is no doubt that the central role that many of these organizations have come to play is of paramount importance. This makes the establishment of a more efficient communication network between the intellectual elite, the social initiatives and legal organizations an all the more essential goal to work towards. There is also a need to improve the performance of the Southern organizations through work based on well formulated studies and sociological surveys that can provide an accurate assessment of their experience, and would help provide a clearer analysis of the structural and functional problems that they face. This would also serve to undermine the various deficiencies that these organizations are presently suffering from.
The holy Quran, A summarized version of Al-Tabari, Al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir with comments from Sahih Al-Bukhari. Translated by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, Ph.D. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan.
1.Look at ‘Sa’sa’ article prepared by Dr. Moncef Marzouki, the short universal encyclopedia, Al-Ahali, Beirut-Damascus, 2000.
- Haytham Manna, “Child Rights in the Arab-Islamic Culture”, Riwaq Arabi, No.1 of the English edition, January 1997.
- Look at ‘Al-Fudhul of Alliance’ by Dr. Haytham Manna, the short universal encyclopedia, Al-Ahali, 2000.
- Dr. Mustafa Al-Siba’I, “From the Wonders of our Civilization”, 5th edition, Islamic office, Beirut, 1987, p. 124.
- The same source, p. 124-125.
- Look at ‘Hassan Al-Basri’, the short universal encyclopedia.
- Dr. Mustafa Al-Siba’I, the same source, p. 125. Also, this paragraph has been referred to in Dr. Shatti book about the medicine in Arab culture.
- Look at the article about ‘L’aumone des Prisonniers’, the short universal encyclopedia.
- The same source, the article of ‘Abdullah Al-Nadim’.
- Published in his magazine ‘Al-Jami’a’ in 1901; republished in Riwaq Arabi No. 4, October 1996, p. 148-151. Also, in Dr. Haytham Manna “The Early Childhood, the First Labor of Human Rights in the Arab World”, Al-Jamal publication, Germany, 1999.
- Since the introduction of ‘Superman’, Salama Mousa opened the discussion about the individual role and rights. He continued that during the Thirties and Forties through ‘The New Magazine’ and his writings about renaissance. Through ‘Al-Hadith’ magazine, which was published in Aleppo, Edmon Rabat and Sami Kaylani had a great role to consolidate the democratic thoughts. Edmond Rabat dedicated himself to the idea of constitutional state and its necessity in the Arab world. In Morocco, Al-Taher Haddad had a great role in the advanced reformation trend and in originating the culture of mature society without the need for the state or governor’s custody.
- Look at Raif Khouri article: ‘The Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations: its deficiencies, positive ness and a proposal for the Lebanese intellectuals’. “The Early Childhood”, p. 75-84.
- Look at the introduction of Dr. Haytham Manna: ‘A historical review of human rights in the Arab world’, “The Self and Body Safety, the Torture in the Arab World during the 20th Century”, 10.12.1998, The Arab Commission For Human Rights (in French and Arabic).