So I’ve learned a few things over the last couple of days. First, I want to apologize to those hurt by how I addressed the topic of slavery in Islam. I should listen to my wife more. She always tells me that I talk about things too much like a scholar and not enough like a normal person. Topics like slavery are felt with the heart; I shouldn’t talk about them like a disembodied brain (especially when my body and experiences don’t reflect the subject). Second, when Alt-Right folk bombard you and your family with death threats and rape threats, it takes a toll on the body and spirit. Third, the support I’ve received has been incredible. The calls I got, the messages, the support offered to my family, the advice, they came from all over. In particular, the support I’ve received from academics around the world has literally brought tears to my eyes. Fourth, it’s been amazing to see the Muslim community stepping up to the plate in these tough times. We as a community are really shaping up to meet the challenges ahead. We know our enemy, we know our allies, and we have each other’s backs. We can disagree, sometimes bitterly, amongst ourselves, but we close ranks when one of us is attacked. I would go to the mat for any of you, even those I’ve fought with. No one benefits when the forces of bigotry, Islamophobia or unchecked state power win.
A few important points I’ve been asked about:
1) The many, many articles written by various shades of the Alt-Right about me have one thing in common: a clear agenda. They take quotes out of context, chop sentences in half, and even flat out make up things that I “said.” I haven’t seen editing this creative since the last Guy Ritchie movie. My favorite is when they assume my description of some event a thousand years ago is me calling for it today. How are academics supposed to teach history if any discussion is assumed to be advocacy? The most complicated issues are also often the ones that we need to discuss the most. How can this happen if people are intimidated into silence?
2) People have been passing around a screenshot of a Facebook post I made in 2015, when ISIS and their sex slavery were dominating the news: Another post taken totally out of context. Let me explain why I wrote that post: articles about Yazidi women being reduced to sex slaves by ISIS justifiably disgusted people. Many Muslims didn’t know how to handle the fact that ISIS was claiming this was allowed in Islam. What I was trying to do in this post was to say that ISIS’s sex slavery was a revolting symptom of a bigger problem: they had restarted slavery in the first place. And this was the result of a BIGGER problem: they didn’t consider the Muslim governments of Iraq to be real Muslims. That means they didn’t honor the protected status of religious minorities in Iraq, like the Yazidis. One of those protections is that they cannot be enslaved. But even this was just a symptom of a STILL BIGGER problem: ISIS doesn’t consider anyone who is not ISIS to be Muslim. This means they don’t care about the authority of Muslim scholars [of the past], who came to the consensus that slavery is prohibited.
I should have made my point more clearly. In the future, I’ll listen to my wife more and be more sensitive in the tone I take.
3) Rape in Islam: Rape in Islam is haram (prohibited). It’s a violation of the rights of a human and the rights of God. Even if there are not the four witnesses required to convict a rapist of the Hudud crime of forced zina (adultery, fornication), the act is still punished in the Shariah as an assault and physical injury, provable by two witnesses or, when appropriate, by circumstantial evidence. Rape as a violation of a woman’s security and autonomy is among the most reprehensible of crimes. It is disgraceful to take my words on this out of context and project them as a justification for violence against women.
4) Consent for Sex: Here the Shariah historically worked differently from modern laws on marital rape, which originated in the 1970s. But the effect is similar: protection. Within marriage, wrongs regarding sex were not conceived of as violations of consent. They were conceived of as harm inflicted on the wife. And in Islamic history wives could and did go to courts to complain and get judges to order husbands to desist and pay damages. So yes, non-consensual sex is wrong and forbidden in Islam. But the operating element to punish marital rape fell under the concept of harm, not non-consent.
5) Slavery in Islam: Muslims began curtailing slavery early on. In the 1000s, the great Persian scholar Juwayni gave a fatwa that slave girls captured in Central Asia should not be sold as concubines. In the 1780s, the scholar-king of Senegal Abd al-Qadir Kan abolished slavery in his realm and banned the French from slave trading there (note: this preceded the beginning of organized abolition in Britain. In fact, the first abolitionists cited Kan as a model ruler). In 1846 (before Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation), Ahmad Bey, the governor of Tunis, banned the slave trade there and emancipated all slaves in his realm. By 1900, many leading Muslim scholars had agreed that slavery should be prohibited. As Muslim states signed treaties banning slavery in the early twentieth century, the practice all but disappeared (if you’re thinking, hey, what about bonded laborers today or convicts in America… I agree! That’s the whole point I was making in my paper: don’t get fooled by labels that make slavery invisible, look at the realities behind them. Watch the documentary 13th (link)).
A crucial point is that slavery isn’t one thing. It has varied dramatically across time and space, from the horrors of racist, inhuman chattel slavery on the plantations of the American South to mukataba in the Ottoman Empire. Mukataba was an emancipation contract for a fixed time and with rights to own property and marry; it was closer to being a wageworker in a 19th-century British factory than what we think of as American slavery. In the Islamic world, slaves actually ruled entire states. The ruling dynasty of one empire, the Mamluks, was all slaves. The administrative and military elite of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful and richest people in the realm, were technically slaves of the Sultan.
In the Quran and Sunnah, the only avenue left for slavery was dealing with people who had been captured in war. All other forms were outright abolished. The Prophet guaranteed them appropriate food, clothing, shelter and no overly taxing labor. They could be disciplined no more harshly than one’s own kids. The Quran instructed owners to make mukataba agreements with slaves if they were fit and able to make it on their own, and Muslim scholars understood that it was better to keep those who were otherwise too old or unable to fend for themselves as slaves rather than setting them free to starve. The Quran and Sunnah made clear over and over that freeing slaves was one of the best deeds a Muslim could do. The Shariah saw freedom as the natural state (asl) of all humans. And, as the legal maxim stated, the Shariah “aimed towards freedom.”
As Muslims spread out across the globe and new peoples and cultures entered the faith, existing traditions of slavery took on an Islamic veneer. Sometimes the humane values of the Shariah prevailed. Sometimes local customs and systems of exploitation continued, moderated only a little by God’s law. Slavery in Islam was never tied to one race, but in certain times and places it could become racialized, as happened with the prevalence of black African slaves in Egypt in the 1700s-1800s.
Slavery of some sort has existed in almost every human society since the dawn of time. Moses, Jesus, the Buddha, Aristotle and Plato all considered the slavery in their times to be accepted features of life. Islam considered slavery, even in its restricted form, to be an ‘incapacity,’ an injustice (zulm), as the Muslim jurist Shaybani called it around the year 800 CE. But it was an economic and social condition, and it was usually temporary. As economic life changed in the 1800s, Muslim societies saw that this institution could be gotten rid of completely. The great Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra summed it up: Islam would welcome a day when slavery was banned.
The deep disgust we feel at slavery is precisely why we need to talk about it. Slavery in Islam raises the critical question of how we as Muslims deal with elements of our tradition that clash with values we feel deeply today. It forces us to think about whether right and wrong change over time. If they do, can we make universal claims about morality? Can we judge people in the past by present-day values, and can the past make moral demands on us today? If, on the other hand, right and wrong are fixed and don’t change over time, then who in history defines them? Jesus or modern human rights? Aristotle or Lincoln? The Quran clearly sought to restrict and regulate slavery in Arabia at the time, and there’s a strong argument that it aimed to end slavery altogether. The Prophet Muhammad freed every slave given to him. But how do I as a Muslim deal with the fact that God and the Prophet did not abolish slavery altogether? Would it have been too economically disruptive, so that gradual abolition would be better? This was the answer offered by the famous scholar Rashid Rida, who pointed to the challenges America faced in integrating former slaves after the Civil War.
As a Muslim today, I can say emphatically that slavery is wrong and that Islam prohibits it. This has been the consensus of the ulama, and it’s well within the power of states to prohibit what was previously allowed if doing so serves some public interest (maslaha) (this is known as taqyid al-mubah, restricting the permitted). It’s easy for me to say this looking back on slavery in American history, because our American slavery was a manifestation of the absolute domination of one human being by another that is, in my opinion, a universal wrong across time and space.
You can download my first paper on the issue here (download), and follow along for the next two on the subject.