The Truth About Islam and Sex Slavery History Is More Complicated Than You Think

08/19/2015 04:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2015
  • Kecia Ali Associate professor of religion, Boston University
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi recently outlined the Islamic State's systematic, logistically complex program of sex trafficking of captured Yazidi women and girls. Her narrative is chilling; the survivors' testimonies are horrifying. It is obvious that ISIS soldiers (and leaders) commit terrible abuses, including widespread rape. In addition to adding specific charges to the year-long trickle of information about ISIS sexual offenses, Callimachi's story makes a bold pronouncement: the Islamic State espouses a "theology of rape."

According to the people Callimachi spoke to for the story, ISIS soldiers justify rape of captives as not only religiously licit, but also spiritually praiseworthy. Her observations dovetail with the centrality of enslavement to ISIS propaganda: enslaving captives demonstrates its prowess. ISIS taunts Western opponents but reserves its deepest scorn for Muslims who reject slavery and all it entails. Its English-language magazine Dabiq contains arguments that enslaving disbelievers is "a firmly established aspect of the Sharia that if one were to deny or mock, he would be ... thereby apostatizing from Islam."

Though ISIS soldiers attribute religious merit to enslavement of Yazidi girls and women, many other Muslims, like those ISIS criticizes in its propaganda, oppose its actions and categorically reject the possibility of contemporary slavery. Callimachi suggests that "Scholars of Islamic theology disagree ... on the divisive question of whether Islam actually sanctions slavery." She quotes me expressing the position that "sexual relationships with unfree women" were "widespread" in the seventh century, and not "a particular religious institution." Princeton theology researcher Cole Bunzel, her opposing voice, disagrees. He points out, reasonably, that repeated scriptural and jurisprudential references to slaveholding (which include the permissibility of sex with "those your right hands possess") exist. While he notes that "you can argue that it is no longer relevant and has fallen into abeyance, ISIS would argue that these institutions need to be revived." This is a fair representation of ISIS's position. Yet this does not mean, as critics of Islam would have it, that the Islamic State's position on the legitimacy of owning -- and having sex with -- slaves is unquestionable. (For premodern Muslim jurists, as well as for those marginal figures who believe that the permission still holds, the category "rape" doesn't apply: ownership makes sex lawful; consent is irrelevant.)

Others scholars point out that just because the Quran acknowledges slavery and early Muslims, including the Prophet, practiced it doesn't mean Muslims must always do so; indeed, the fact that slavery is illegal and no longer practiced in nearly all majority-Muslim societies would seem to settle the point. It is one thing for committed religious thinkers to insist that scripture must always and everywhere apply literally, but it is ludicrous for purportedly objective scholars to do so. Anyone making that argument about biblical slavery would be ridiculed.

It is one thing for committed religious thinkers to insist that scripture must always and everywhere apply literally, but it is ludicrous for purportedly objective scholars to do so.

Slavery was pervasive in the late antique world in which the Quran arose. Early Muslims were part of societies in which various unfree statuses existed, including capture, purchase, inherited slave status and debt peonage. Thus, it is no surprise that the Quran, the Prophet's normative practice and Islamic jurisprudence accepted slavery. What is known of Muhammad's life is disputed, but his biographies uniformly report that slaves and freed slaves were part of his household. One was Mariyya the Copt. A gift from the Byzantine governor of Alexandria, she reportedly bore Muhammad a son; he freed her. Whatever the factual accuracy of this tale, its presence attests to a shared presumption that one leader could send another an enslaved female for sexual use.

Like their earlier counterparts in Greece and Rome, jurists formulating Islamic law in the eighth to 10th centuries took slavery as a given. They formalized certain protections for slaves, including eventual freedom for women like Mariyya who bore children to their masters; such children were free and legitimate. Jurists sought to circumscribe slavery, prohibiting the enslavement of foundlings and prescribing automatic manumission for slaves beaten too harshly. But the idea that some people should dominate others was central to their conceptual world; they used slavery-related concepts to structure their increasingly hierarchical norms for marriage.

Still, early Muslim slavery (like early Muslim marriage) wasn't particularly a religious institution, and jurists' ideas about the superiority of free over slave (and male over female) were widely shared across religious boundaries. To say this is not to present an apologetic defense of Islam; to the contrary, effective Muslim ethical thinking requires honesty and transparency about the lasting impact on Muslim thought on slavery and non-consensual sex. However, singling out slavery or rules governing marriage or punishments for a handful of crimes as constituting the enactment of "authentic" Islamic law surely reflects a distorted notion of a Muslim polity.

The Islamic State's attempt to create an imagined pristine community relies on a superficial and selective enactment of certain provisions from scripture and law, an extreme case of a wider phenomenon. Religious studies scholars, of course, must analyze their doctrines. What beliefs do they express? How do they formulate them? What one mustn't do is take them at face value, as the legitimate expression of a timeless Islamic truth. In fact, the stress they put on the errors of their Muslim opponents, who actively dispute their interpretations of many things including slavery, makes very clear that there is no one self-evident interpretation of Islam on these points.

There are reasons why the story of enslaved Yazidis is one that captures the front page of the New York Times: it fits into familiar narratives of Muslim barbarity.

Muslim history reflects a wide variety of historically specific patterns of enslavement, slaveholding, manumission and abolition. Muslims in numerous countries spread across different continents lived as slaveholders and slaves for more than a millennium. Generations of jurists formulated rules that put social practice into conversation with revealed texts as well as customary law, but canonical texts did not always determine behavior. Across and even within societies, slavery encompassed a wide range of practices. "Islamic slavery" included conscript-convert Janissary troops, cooks, nannies, Mamluk military rulers, salt miners, pearl divers, craftsmen allowed to keep part of their wages, mothers of Ottoman sultans and the drudges who cleaned the royal harem quarters. Slavery was hierarchical and slaves were, in some times and places, assigned specific work based on ethnic origins. Slavery was not entirely racialized, however, and slaves were captured or bought from Europe, Asia and the Caucasus as well as Africa.

In the thousand-plus years in which Muslims and non-Muslims, including Christians, actively engaged in slaving, they cooperated and competed, enslaving and being enslaved, buying, selling and setting free. This complex history, which has generated scores of publications on Muslims and slavery in European languages alone, cannot be reduced to a simplistic proclamation of religious doctrine. The fact that the Islamic State must preface its collections of rulings for slaveholding by defining terms such as captive and concubine illustrates that it is drawing on archaic terms and rules, ones that no longer reflect anything like the current reality of the world. By focusing on religious doctrine as an explanation for rape, Americans ignore the presence of sexual abuse and torture in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and in Assad's Syria by the regime and other factions in its vicious ongoing war. None of this is to deny the horror of the systematic rapes Callimachi reports or the revolting nature of the theology she describes. It is to point out that there are reasons why the story of enslaved Yazidis is one that captures the front page of the New York Times: it fits into familiar narratives of Muslim barbarity.

In focusing on current abuses in the Middle East, perpetrated by those claiming the mantle of Islam, Americans -- whose Constitution continues to permit enslavement as punishment for crime -- deflect attention from partial U.S. responsibility for the current crisis in Iraq. Sanctions followed by military invasion and its brutal aftermath laid the groundwork for the situation Callimachi describes. Moral high ground is in short supply. The core idea animating enslavement is that some lives matter more than others. As any American who has been paying attention knows, this idea has not perished from the earth.

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