FOR ANY system
of belief that vests ultimate authority in the past, slavery is a big moral
problem. That goes for all three of the monotheistic faiths, and even for civil
creeds such as traditional American patriotism, which is now wrestling hard
with the fact that human equality’s most eloquent advocates, the republic’s
founders, were also slave-owners.
reasons, this dilemma is an acute one for Muslims, as emerges in a scholarly
but digestible new book, “Slavery and Islam”, by Jonathan Brown, a professor at
Georgetown University and himself a Muslim convert. He focuses on both theology
and history right up to the mid-19th century—when slavery became a bone of
contention between European imperial powers, full of new-found abolitionist
zeal, and traditional Muslim authorities across the Middle East and beyond.
Like everything else about the Muslim encounter with European colonialism, this
is a painful memory, and many Muslims insist that the European stance was
patronising and hypocritical.
cases, the Muslim sheikhs’ response to colonial pressure involved a tart
recourse to Islam’s holy texts, in which the existence of slavery is taken as
an inexorable feature of human society. If God tolerated this system, the
traditional Islamic scholars said, it was surely not for any human authority to
their Western critics that slavery, as practised under Islam, was a far more
humane phenomenon than the bondage endured by say, American plantation workers;
therefore the Westerners had no moral standing.
this lies outside the scope of Mr Brown’s book, present-day discussions about
slavery are further complicated by the much broader sense in which the word has
come to be used. The term “modern slavery” now encompasses human trafficking,
especially for sexual exploitation, as well as the bonded labour imposed for
debts, for example in India. The term also covers forced labour mandated by
harsh states like North Korea. According to the United Nations, at least 40m
people endure modern slavery of one form or another.
traditional slavery, in which humans are treated as chattels, and bequeath
their status to their children, does still exist, even though all countries
have abolished it. The places where the social reality of servitude lingers on
are mostly in a swathe across North Africa: for example Mauritania, Niger, the
Central African Republic and Sudan. In Mauritania, slavery was formally
abolished by the French colonists in 1905, and by the independent republic in
1981, but last year the country was rebuked by the African Union for failing to
stamp it out.
Weddady, a Mauritanian-American activist who encourages civil-society movements
across North Africa, says the subject is so emotional in his home region that
it is hard to have a calm discussion. People either exaggerate slavery’s
persistence or deny it ever existed. Many younger Arab Muslims have accepted
the argument that Islam never endorsed slavery, and become upset when presented
with evidence to the contrary, he has discovered.
it all the more important for scholars to examine the evidence through an
objective historical lens, as Mr Brown sets out to do. In truth, he writes,
there can be no doubt that Islam’s founding texts accept and assume the existence
of slavery. They also strongly encourage masters to free their slaves, as a way
of atoning for sin or simply as a disinterested act of piety.
slaves is not condemned: it is considered to be a logical consequence of war,
in which the men, women and children of the losing side are taken captive. It
also seems clear from the texts that male householders are allowed to take
female captives as concubines.
other hand, it is also clear that in Islam, man’s natural condition is freedom;
when an abandoned child is discovered, it is assumed to be free. But where a
child’s parentage is known, the status of servitude passes down the
generations. Unless they are explicitly freed, the children of slaves can
expect to spend their lives in bondage.
that, the vast majority of today’s Muslim thinkers share the modern view that
slavery is an absolute evil, whose abolition is to be welcomed. As Mr Brown
carefully explains, they use many different arguments to reconcile this
position with the older texts. Some stress that freedom for all was always the
divine purpose, and that God only allowed slavery in the early days of Islam as
a concession to the realities of the age. Others insist that God never really
approved of slavery at all, and that regulating an evil phenomenon is not the
same as endorsing it.
still assert that Islam can evolve. They stress the entitlement of Muslim
scholars, after due deliberation, to make fresh moral pronouncements through a
process of ijma or consensus. Some scholars emphasise the right of legitimate
rulers to make liberating reforms. In other words, the adage that “man can
never abolish what God allowed” has largely been dropped.
outside the world of Islam, or indeed outside the world of revealed religion,
it may seem unimportant which line of exegesis is used to reconcile modern
thinking about slavery with Islam’s holy writ. The main thing, surely, is the
conclusion: that slavery is now and always will be unacceptable.
Brown convincingly shows that theology matters, if only because any argument
that can be constructed theologically can also be deconstructed. The terrorist
movement known as Daesh (or Islamic State) regards the legitimacy of slavery
under Islam as axiomatic, and questions the right of anyone who thinks
otherwise to be considered Muslim. Appallingly, it claimed scriptural authority
for the right of its fighters to rape female captives of an alien faith, such
as the Yazidis.
“caliphate” may have been destroyed, but the group’s ideas also need to be
opposed theologically. Non-Muslims are unlikely to make much contribution to
the minutiae of debate about what this or that passage in the Koran really
means, but they can at least offer encouragement from the sidelines whenever the
matter is being addressed in good faith.
Headline: Everywhere in chains
Source: The Economist