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Islamic Ideology ( 10 Aug 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Morality or the Immorality of the Institution of Slavery and the Quranic Permission That Allowed Sex with Female Slaves

By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

10 August 2016

This topic is of interest only from a historical point of view as slavery in the modern world is not only banned, but has become anachronistic on account of technological developments. From the moral perspective, Islam made far reaching changes to the then existing institution of slavery that made slavery a temporary state helping the slaves to win their freedom. It was however the US which was the first country to ban slavery completely under moral and weightier economic considerations. The freed slaves from the South were required to run the industries in the North. Technological advancement has relieved the beasts of burden such as horses, mules and donkeys of their burden, women of their back breaking household chores and slaves of their hard labour on the farms. Machines are slaves of the modern world which are cheaper, more reliable and more capable than what any beast or human is capable of.

Islam and the Institution of Slavery

Bernard Lewis, the best known living scholar of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Ottoman History writes in his book “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”:

“The Qur'an, like the Old and the New Testaments, recognizes and regulates the practice of the institution of slavery. The Qur'anic legislation, subsequently confirmed and elaborated in the Shariat Law, brought two major changes to ancient slavery with far-reaching effects. One was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances.

The Arabs practiced a form of slavery, similar to that which existed in other parts of the ancient world. The Quran urges kindness to the slave (4:36; 9:60; 24:58) and recommends liberation of slaves by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiation of sins (4:92; 5:92; 58:3) and as an act of simple benevolence (2:177; 24:33; 90:13). It exhorts masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their own freedom. An important change from pagan, though not from Jewish or Christian, practices is that in the strictly religious sense, the believing slave is now the brother of the freeman in Islam and before God (2:221). This point is emphasized and elaborated in innumerable hadlths (traditions), in which the Prophet is quoted as urging considerate and sometimes even equal treatment for slaves, denouncing cruelty, harshness, or even discourtesy and recommending the liberation of slaves.

Though slavery was maintained, the Islamic dispensation enormously improved the position of the slave, who was now no longer merely a chattel but was also a human being with a certain religious and hence a social status and with certain quasi-legal rights. The early caliphs who ruled the Islamic community after the death of the Prophet also introduced some further reforms of a humanitarian tendency. It was made unlawful for a freeman to sell himself or his children into slavery, and it was no longer permitted for freemen to be enslaved for either debt or crime, as was usual in the Roman world and in parts of Christian Europe until at least the sixteenth century. It became a fundamental principle of Islamic jurisprudence that the natural condition, and therefore the presumed status, of mankind was freedom, whoever is not known to be a slave is free. Since all human beings were naturally free, slavery could only arise from two circumstances: (1) being born to slave parents or (2) being captured in war. “

Prisoners of war were dealt with in different ways as listed below and enslavement was an exception rather than the rule:

1.       Exchanged

2.       Ransomed

3.       Freed especially if no longer considered a threat

4.       Enslaved and allotted by the commander among his soldiers

Slave Women         

The slaves enjoyed freedoms and humane treatment far superior to what prisoners of war enjoy in jails. A slave-owner was entitled by law to the sexual enjoyment of his slave women in the same manner that he could enjoy sex with his wife.

Treatment of Slaves

“In penal law, the penalty for an offense against a slave was half of that for a freeman. While maltreatment was deplored, there was no fixed shari'a penalty. In what might be called civil matters, the slave was a chattel with no legal powers or rights. He could not enter into a contract, hold property, or inherit. If he incurred a fine, his owner was responsible. He washowever, distinctly better off, in the matter of rights, than a Greek or Roman slave, since Islamic jurists, took account of humanitarian considerations. They laid down, for example, that a master must give his slave medical attention when required, must give him adequate upkeep, and must support him in his old age. If a master defaulted on these and other obligations to his slave, the Qadi could compel him to fulfill them or else either to sell or to emancipate the slave. The master was forbidden to overwork his slave, and if he did so to the point of cruelty, he was liable to a penalty which was, however, discretionary and not prescribed by law. A slave could enter into a contract to earn his freedom.” (Bernard Lewis)

In general, the treatment of slaves under Islam was far different from the images that slavery conjures. A British naval report, dated January 25,1858, speaks of black slave marines serving with the Turkish navy:

"They are from the class of slaves abandoned by merchants unable to sell them. There are always many such at Tripoli. Those brought by the Faizi Bari, about 70 in number, were on their arrival enrolled as a Black company in the marine corps. They are in exactly the same position with respect to pay, quarters, rations, and clothing as the Turkish marines, and will equally receive their discharge at the expiration of the allotted term of service. They are in short on the books of the navy. They have received very kind treatment here, lodged in warm rooms with charcoal burning in them day and night. A negro Mulazim [lieutenant] and some negro tchiaoushes [sergeants], already in the service have been appointed to look after and instruct them. They have drilled in the manual exercise in their warm quarters, and have not been set to do any duty on account of the weather. Those among them unwell on their arrival were sent at once to the naval hospital. Two only have died of the whole number. The men in the barracks are healthy and appear contented. No amount of ingenuity can conjure up any connection between their condition and the condition of slavery."

Former slaves rose to positions of authority in administration as well as military and even became ministers and rulers. “In a society where positions of military command and political power were routinely held by men of slave origin or even status and where a significant proportion of the free population were born to slave mothers, prejudice against the slave as such, of the Roman or American type, could hardly develop” (Bernard Lewis).

War, Sex and Rape

Is rape an inevitable part of modern as well as historic wars? Are there exceptions to the rule apart from the dispensation under Islamic law which eliminated it? Let us take a brief look at the history of warfare as it concerns the subject. The following solutions that man has devised to minimize the problem of rape is indicative of the problem.

Japanese Military Prostitution (Wiki)

The Japanese Imperial Army set up `comfort stations’ for the prevention of rape crimes committed by Japanese army personnel and thus preventing the rise of hostility among people in occupied areas.

The first "comfort station" was established in the Japanese concession in Shanghai in 1932. Estimates vary as to how many women were involved, with numbers ranging from as low as 20,000 from some Japanese scholars to as high as 410,000 from some Chinese scholars, but the exact numbers are still being researched and debated. Many of the women were from occupied countries, including Korea, China, and the Philippines, although women from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for military "comfort stations". Stations were located in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, then Malaya, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and French Indochina. A smaller number of women of European origin from Holland and Australia were also involved.

German Military Brothels in World War II (Wiki)

German military brothels were set up by the Third Reich during World War II throughout much of occupied Europe for the use of Wehrmacht and SS soldiers. Until 1942, there were around 500 military brothels of this kind in Nazi occupied Europe.

It is estimated that, along with those in concentration camp brothels, at least 34,140 European women were forced to serve as prostitutes during the German occupation. In many cases and Eastern Europe, the women involved were kidnapped on the streets of occupied cities during German military and police round ups.

American Military-Base Prostitution (Article by Jennifer Latstetter)

Rarely, if ever, has a war been fought in which the soldiers have not used the native women of the country sexually, through rape, kidnapping, and slave brothels that follow armies. Unfortunately, the United States -- a country that professes equality for all -- is one of the biggest perpetrators of this cult of military prostitution.  This victimization of women has accompanied all American military invasions and has been condoned by the United States government, as well as the occupied nation's government.  Furthermore, the use of Rest & Recreation sites, i.e., government-funded brothels, by the American GIs has been in full-fledge use since the Korean War.  The rationale for this blatant mistreatment of women is that it creates a necessary sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among the soldiers.

Rape of the Iraqi Population By US Security Personnel

"The General Secretary of the Union of Political Prisoners and Detainees in Iraq, Muhammad Adham al-Hamd declared that the US occupation administration in Iraq relies on systematic rape, torture, and sadistic treatment of Iraqi women prisoners in its prison camps in the country. Al-Hamd said that the enormous crimes being committed against women in the prison camps in occupied Iraq have the support and blessings of the US military, for whom the practices serve as a means to bring psychological pressure on men engaged in the Resistance, in an attempt to break their spirit and fighting will.”

US Army Secret wartime files made public only in 2006 reveal that American GIs committed 400 sexual offences in Europe, including  126 rapes in England, between 1942 and 1945. A study by Robert J. Lilly estimates that a total of 14,000 civilian women in England, France and Germany were raped by American GIs during World War II. It is estimated that there were around 3,500 rapes by American servicemen in France between June 1944 and the end of the war and one historian has claimed that sexual violence against women in liberated France was common. And mind you, these are not rapes by victors of the defeated population either! So, if this be the state of `friendly liberators’, what can be said about wars due to hostilities?

How Do The US Male Soldiers Treat Their Own Female Colleagues?

According to a 2011 Newsweek report, women are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. 25% of military women have been sexually assaulted, and up to 80% have been sexually harassed by their own male colleagues.


The rape of men by other men is also common in war. A 2009 study by Lara Stemple found that it had been documented in conflicts worldwide; for example, 76% of male political prisoners in 1980s El Salvador and 80% of concentration camp inmates in Sarajevo reported being raped or sexually tortured. Stemple concludes that the "lack of attention to sexual abuse of men during conflict is particularly troubling given the widespread reach of the problem. Mervyn Christian of Johns Hopkins School of Nursing has found that male rape is commonly underreported.

How Are Raped Men And Women Treated By Their Spouses?

According to a survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010, 30% of women and 22% of men from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo reported that they had been subject to conflict-related sexual violence. Despite the popular perception that rape during conflict is primarily targeted against women, these figures show that sexual violence committed against men is not a marginal occurrence. The lack of awareness for the magnitude of the rape of men during conflict relates to chronic underreporting. Although the physical and psychological repercussions from rape are similar for women and men, male victims tend to demonstrate an even greater reluctance to report their suffering to their families or the authorities.

According to The Guardian, "Both perpetrator and victim enter a conspiracy of silence and male survivors often find, once their story is discovered, that they lose the support and comfort of those around them. In the patriarchal societies found in many developing countries, gender roles are strictly defined. […] Often, […] wives who discover their husbands have been raped decide to leave them. "They ask me: 'So now how am I going to live with him? As what? Is this still a husband? Is it a wife?' They ask, 'If he can be raped, who is protecting me?'”

In the case of women, those who fall into enemy hands are no longer acceptable by their husbands or even by their children or parents whether or not they have been raped. There are many Iraqi raped women who have been abandoned by their husbands, who cannot talk about their ordeal, because the society only knows how to further exploit a raped woman. Many of these women have migrated to Jordan to make a new beginning. Even with their husbands alive, they have no support or comfort.

Tipu Sultan [1750-1799 AD] defeated the Marathas in a battle who fled leaving their women behind. A tent full of women was captured. The Sultan sent the women, guarded by his 20 men the next morning, to the Marathas who had camped some miles away. The Maratha men refused to take them back as they had spent a night with the victorious Muslims.

- A woman who has fallen into enemy hands is no longer welcome, and it no longer matters whether she was married or single. Armies gang rape women and abandon them if they are still alive after the ordeal. "Survivors face emotional torment, psychological damage, physical injuries, disease, social ostracism and many other consequences that can devastate their lives," says Amnesty.

Why Rape Is An Inevitable Part Of War?

Why rape is an inevitable part of war must be answered by the psychologists. We know that wars are followed by a spurt in birth rates. There is a connection between violence and sex. Violence raises the libido of a man and also makes him irresistibly attractive to the woman. Women, appear hard wired to be attracted by the ‘bad boys’, soldiers and players and especially after a heist, a war or a closely fought game. Duels fought over a woman where the winner takes the woman as trophy was not without the woman’s consent (as it is made out today), although her consent was taken for granted because she never demurred but only purred. War affects even sexual assault rates among the civilian populations and also the aggressive behaviour of soldiers much after the war is over.

War Culture in US

Penny Coleman, author and widow of a Vietnam vet who took his own life, probes whether war itself is a contributory factor to male sexual violence in civilian society. Using World War II data and results from Bureau of Justice surveys of veteran populations, she summarizes findings that support this supposition. Rape rates increased dramatically (more than 27 percent) in US civil society during World War II compared to pre-war rates, even while rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter decreased. A similar pattern of formidable increases in domestic violence, rape and sexual assault occurred in US civil society since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, while every other surveyed crime declined except for a small increase in simple assault

Post-War Spill over of Male Violence against Women

Using national data on US veterans' crimes, Coleman also speculates whether military service turns young men into sexual predators. The majority of veterans in jail today are there for violence against women and children, a fact that has persisted since the Bureau of Justice began surveying imprisoned veterans in 1981. Yet the incidence of veteran violence against women does not carry over to other crimes. Male veterans are much less likely than their non-veteran counterparts to be in prison for all other violent crimes except sexual crimes.

Journalist Ann Jones pursued this same question - of the spill over of war violence into domestic violence - in her gripping account of post-war violence against women and girls in four war-ruined countries in Africa and in Cambodia and Iraq. With United Nations (UN) and country-wide data on sexual violence as her backdrop, she documents the environment of everyday violence against women and girls after war ends through interviews with them and through photos they took of their lives using cameras she provided. What their pictures and words expose is that, soldiers bring the habit of war back to domestic and civilian life. After men stop killing each other, many continue to beat and rape women and girls. UN studies of high rates of post-war violence against females are borne out in Jones' cameos of the six countries. The author's own life was, she writes, "darkened by war." Her thrice-decorated WWI-veteran father chronically turned his "war-ridden rage and war-honed violence" on her and her mother. This childhood spent with a violent veteran father prompted her, much later in life, to plumb the tragic affinity between war and domestic violence.

Permission in Islam to Have Sex with Female Slaves

Has any religion tried to codify the rules of war to the extent Islam has done and eliminate rape? Rape in the course of war is mentioned multiple times in the Bible: "For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped..." Zechariah 14:2 "Their little children will be dashed to death before their eyes. Their homes will be sacked, and their wives will be raped."Isaiah 13:16.

Laws against rape in the books of law remain on paper for the victors. Trial for war crimes is only for the losers. So what good is a law that makes rape in war a criminal offence if it is never applied to the victors and rarely to the vanquished either? Do we need laws that look good in the law books or laws that minimize misery?

There are several verses in the Quran that permit sex with female slaves as if they are wives and the codified law allows it with the same restrictions such as:

1.       If the slave woman was a married woman prior to her enslavement, then sex with her was permissible only after observing the period of iddat or waiting for four months or three menstrual cycles to confirm that she was not pregnant. The Iddat period is automatically extended up to childbirth if found pregnant.

2.       The slave woman could not be shared. The slave woman could marry with her master’s permission another slave or a free man and once she was so married, she was no longer available to the master.

3.       Children born of the master were born free and had full rights of inheritance etc. The slave woman also attained freedom on delivering her master’s child and her legal status automatically became that of a wife.

4.       Sex with a woman taken as a prisoner but not allotted as slave by the commander/leader was treated as rape and adultery and punished accordingly by stoning to death.

The women who fell into the hands of the Muslim army were therefore not raped, gang raped, publicly disrobed or treated in an undignified manner as is the case with how they are treated by every victorious army.If they were not ransomed or freed, they became slave of one master who could choose to have sex with her. Since the woman was not shared, this was not sex slavery unless marriage of a woman is also thought of as making her a sex slave. More importantly, the woman was not abandoned to her fate but was taken care of in a dignified manner. This is an important point since women who fall into enemy hands were/are generally not welcome back by their own husbands or family.

Contract Marriages

There is much confusion about Muta or contract marriages and clearly even if there was an instance of it, it was declared forbidden by Umar bin Khattab. I can however imagine that in some campaign in a distant land, where women were not taken captive, the leader of the Muslim army may have faced a situation where if he did not allow Muta he may have faced a revolt by his men. What can be said in favour of Muta is that rape was avoided and although it was `legalized prostitution’, it was with the consent of the women. Morality is quite often a matter of choosing the lesser evil or of minimizing misery.


War does strange things to people. War turns men into psychopath killers and rapists. The women soldiers in the US army are a sexually battered lot both during war and in peace times.

So the task for the critics of the Quranic verses permitting sex with female slaves  is to define the rules of war which are pragmatic and can be adhered to, and to look at the verses from the Koran in that light, and comment whether the `evil of allowing sex with women taken as slaves in war’ that was allowed, which limited sex with own slave only, was worse than leaving the subject untouched, and turning a blind eye to the inevitable gang rape of both the men and the women by the victorious armies.

The rules are not codified in the books in other societies but we know from the story in Mahabharata, that a Draupadi who became a slave of the Kauravas as a result of her husband losing her in a game of dice, could be publicly disrobed in the presence of her (ex) husbands and elders, without anyone raising their voice against such treatment. In Islam, nether can a woman be enslaved in this manner or dishonoured. That is the advantage of codifying the rules. The down side is that such rules become easy targets for criticism.

The Quranic verse allowing sex with female captives must be understood not with the sensibilities and morality of peace time, but with an understanding of what war does to people. The punishment for adultery is severe in Islam. Rape is worse than adultery and if this was to be eliminated even during war, sex with female captives had to be allowed without which there would have been rape without being able to punish for it. Crime which goes unpunished only breeds contempt for the law and eventually leads to a complete breakdown of the moral code.

Islamic wars were the only wars in history in which no woman was publicly humiliated by stripping and gang raping and abandoning her thereafter. The woman slave was never shared between men and although her owner had sexual rights, he could not ill-treat her and had to take good care of her, feeding her the same food that he ate. Children born to the women were born free and if the woman who had borne her master’s children was not given freedom by her master, she automatically became a free woman on his death.

Morality is not what the majority think is moral or immoral. Our concepts of morality change with the times just like fashions do. Morality is what promotes maximum good and who can know this better than God? If rape was not a feature of every war (including wars for liberation and wars to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people), I would have had no hesitation in condemning the permission to have sex with female captives as undoubtedly this is immoral in precept and aesthetically abhorrent. However, facts only confirm that the word of God cannot be found fault with even today since in practice, these laws saved the women from the indignities that are always heaped on them. While Slavery is rightly banned and such banning is in accordance with the spirit of the Quran, a solution to the problem of the crime of rape and sodomy as a consequence of war eludes a solution despite the laws that criminalize rape and make it punishable as a war crime.

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to


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