08/28/2015 07:28 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2016

ISIS, Slavery, and Islamic Abolitionism

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Does Islam sanction slavery? Until recently, this question would have been seen as somewhat outlandish or else academic. It is akin to the question: does Christianity sanction slavery? Aside from the odd embarrassing right-wing talk show host in the US, the latter question does not generally arise these days except in academic and theological discussions.

In a perspicacious and amusingly devious piece, The Economist points out that a "hyper-literal" reading of scripture would render Judaism and Christianity liable to practicing slavery, too.

That the overwhelming majority of modern Muslims reject slavery does not make them that different to adherents of other religions today. One may extrapolate from this that it does not make ISIS "Islamic" in anything other than an academic sense. The same sense in which, say, the KKK is Christian.

The modern rejection of slavery, then, has been true for virtually all modern Muslim countries until very recently, when ISIS (which claims for itself the title of "the Islamic State"), revived unreconstructed medieval legal interpretations that have been obsolete since modern states throughout the Muslim world banned slavery over the past 200 years.

I stress that these are legal interpretations of the Prophet Muhammad's legacy, not the legacy itself, for which abolitionist interpretations are the most dominant today. Again, this is true for modern interpretations of Judaism and Christianity, as well.

In a late 2014 issue of its English-speaking magazine, ISIS elaborated a justification for reviving slavery in the present day, and as the New York Times details in a lengthy story in the past month, they have systematically put their slave-holding beliefs in practice. In painful detail, the Times documents the horrors of ISIS' practice of sexual slavery including the abuse of girls as young as 11. ISIS attempts to justify its horrific acts in the name of scripture. But to what extent is their reading of scripture reasonable?

The trouble with expert opinion

To answer this question, the Times consulted two experts with opposing views. The first, Kecia Ali, an associate professor at Boston University, and a leading expert on Islam and slavery states that, "In the milieu in which the Quran arose, there was a widespread practice of men having sexual relationships with unfree women," adding: "It wasn't a particular religious institution. It was just how people did things."

As a counter view, the Times author cites a colleague of mine at Princeton, Cole Bunzel, who is a specialist in Wahhabi theology and an expert on ISIS. He points to centuries of Islamic legal scholarship that took for granted that slavery was perfectly acceptable.

The Economist, which usually strikes a better tone than most when dealing with Islamic issues, does something similar to the Times in an article from a week or so later. To its credit, it notes that Muslim scholars--it uses the term "preachers"--have been clamorous in their rejection of ISIS' slave practices.

But then, in asking whether ISIS does in fact "adhere to Islamic tradition," they also cite two opposing views. The first is a Muslim scholar and theologian--a graduate from a Saudi Salafi seminary with a doctorate from Yale--who they characterize as an "apologist" and refer to as "Mr [Yasir] Qadhi." The Economist appears unaware that he happens to be an assistant professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee. This Muslim theologian elaborates the argument that Islam advocates abolition.

The opposing view is presented in the newspaper by an Israeli academic, "Professor Ehud Toledano" who is undoubtedly an expert on the history of Islamic slavery. This passage is worth quoting in full:

Other scholars insist, however, that [ISIS'] treatment of Yazidis adheres to Islamic tradition. "They are in full compliance with Koranic understanding in its early stages," says Professor Ehud Toledano, a leading authority on Islamic slavery at Tel Aviv University. Moreover, "what the Prophet has permitted, Muslims cannot forbid." The Prophet's calls to release slaves only spurred a search for fresh stock as the new empire spread, driven by commerce, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Persian Gulf. [My italics.]

For both papers, it is somewhat ironic that Muslims are the ones advocating a form of Islam that rejects slavery, and non-Muslim scholars are attempting to justify ISIS' actions on Islamic grounds. Kecia Ali's recent article on ISIS and slavery, written after she was cited by the Times, makes a useful point in this connection. She states:

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.

In making an academic point about Islamic history, both Bunzel and Toledano are also intervening in a current Islamic debate in which they are unintentionally siding with ISIS over the global Muslim community and its scholars.

As Kecia Ali is suggesting, surely it is Muslims who decide on how their religion is to be understood. It is one thing to describe the historical state of affairs in the Islamic legal tradition; it is entirely something else to intervene in a live Islamic argument, and take what most Muslims would consider the wrong side--a side that is also viewed as morally repugnant by most of the globe, including the commentators themselves. This is all the more dangerous given the dramatic rise of Islamophobia in the Western world in recent years.

Academics and public statements on Islam

While their citations provide useful material for understanding ISIS' perverse theology, such generalizations about Islam can unwittingly give scholarly cover for Islamophobia, leaving the anti-ISIS Muslim majority to pick up the pieces. "These Muslims, and their leading theologians, can declare ISIS' beliefs un-Islamic, but what do they know compared to Western academics?"

The editorial choice to give such academic voices equal weight in deciding this issue seems highly problematic. It would not be viewed as reasonable in the case of either Judaism or Christianity. As noted earlier, The Economist astutely points out in a previous article that this applies one rule to Muslims and another rule to Jews and Christians when it comes to violent passages in their scriptures.

Given the rise of Islamophobia in recent years, it seems that academics, non-Muslim and Muslim, bear an additional burden of contextualizing when they step out of the ivory tower to speak publicly on Islamic issues.

Abolitionism in modern Islam

Thus, while there is no denying that slavery existed in the medieval world in which Islam emerged, the vast majority of Muslims scholars today, like their counterparts in Judaism and Christianity, roundly reject slavery.

They argue that the Islamic scriptures' emphasis has always been the emancipation of slaves, although medieval Muslim scholars, like contemporaneous Jewish and Christian scholars, did not push for abolition. Modern Muslim scholars, on the other hand, reject slavery and condemn ISIS' practices.

An oft-quoted maxim of Islamic jurisprudence informs Muslim jurists that legal rulings change with time and place. Hence, it is less relevant, according to Islamic law as practiced by Muslims throughout Islamic history, what scripture says, and more a question of how it applies to a given context.

In this respect, Muslim scholars over the past century have developed systematic and scripturally rigorous arguments to say that while slavery existed in the time of the Prophet, and was widely practiced by all religious traditions in the Middle East, this is no longer acceptable today.

As an outsider, one may find the argumentation more or less convincing with respect to scripture, but what really matters is what Muslims think; and Muslims have overwhelmingly come to accept such a proposition in their practice. In fact, the abolition of slavery has been declared a matter of juristic consensus, which raises the legal authority of such an opinion to the unimpeachable level of scripture itself.

Using the academic point that ISIS identifies with Islam to suggest that this vanishingly small minority of Muslims are on an equal footing with the rest of the world's Muslims comes dangerously close to supporting ISIS' extreme view of the religion. This would be akin to saying the KKK are representative of Christians, since they too, like their anti-abolitionist predecessors, would support their arguments with scripture.

Slavery in Islamic History

The Economist, in its most recent treatment of the issue of slavery implies that, in part, slavery persisted in Muslim lands because sometimes being a slave was highly desirable. It notes that there were cases in which being a slave was "[a] path to power." This is in stark contrast with the recent Western experience of slavery, which was an overwhelmingly negative one for slaves.

Yasir Qadhi, the theologian cited earlier, notes that the majority of Caliphs in 1300 years of Muslim history were the offspring of slaves. The same is true with respect to many senior figures in the political and military establishment.

Being a slave in a Sultan's harem could make a woman quasi-royalty, and the possible mother of a future sultan. Such possibilities were frequently realized. The glamorous end of servitude made harsher forms of peonage simply fall on a spectrum that had both good and bad.

Such factors explain why the Muslim world was late in joining the emerging Western liberal consensus in the 19th century that slavery was a scourge on humanity. For many Muslims it must have been a difficult argument to make sense of.

Indeed, it must have seemed to a privileged class of late Ottomans that the West was simply bent on destroying the means of social mobility that had ensured their own success. Abolishing such a system would prevent the often marginal communities they originated from enjoying such privileges in the future.

Many of these privileges arose as a consequence of the Prophet Muhammad's active amelioration of the conditions of servitude in 7th century Arabia. Haroon Moghul explores some of the regulations Muhammad introduced in his excellent piece: "Why it (still) makes little sense to call ISIS Islamic."

Among other things, he deals with the serious charge that Islam sanctions rape. This, he shows, is not only rejected by modern Muslims and their scholars; it has no sanction in the teachings of Muhammad.

Once again, this does not mean that medieval interpretations of Islam did not have problems in how they conceived of the ideas of consent, rape, and underage sex; but these interpretations are not particularly relevant to how modern Muslims conceive of their tradition. Nor is this a uniquely Islamic problem.

The notions of consent, rape, and underage marriage as we understand them today only arose in the last few decades challenging not only religion, but earlier interpretations of Liberalism. For modern followers of any tradition, whether it be Islam, Christianity, or Liberalism, the relevant question is not so much: what did past adherents think, but how should we understand our tradition today?

On all of these issues, in addition to slavery, the view of Muslim scholars is that there is no religious requirement to maintain past ideas. The task of Muslim scholars is to interpret Prophetic teachings in a way that is suitable for our times, while remaining faithful to those teachings.

Once again, what constitutes faithfulness to these teachings is a judgment that Muslims must make, and the vast majority of them have no problem making such judgments in a way that harmonizes with modern international law.

Speaking out against slave-like conditions

This brings us to another issue. In the article already cited, The Economist also discusses the prevalence of worker abuse in many Muslim countries, as is the case with migrant workers in the Gulf, and notes that though this is not technically slavery, it is "slave-like."

This, the paper speculates, owes something to the history of proslavery practices in medieval Islam. The article concludes by asking: "Is it too much to hope that the Islamic clerics denouncing slavery might also condemn other instances of forced and abusive labour?"

This is an important question for Muslim scholars that too few are dealing with. Why might this be? In the same paragraph, The Economist concedes that with respect to such issues, "Western governments generally have other priorities."

Sadly, many Muslim scholars are not that different, and sometimes it is difficult to fault them too much. Western governments wish to maintain cozy economic and geostrategic relations with its allies in the region, despite their abysmal domestic human rights records.

Similarly, most scholars in the Middle East are usually too beholden to these states to say anything against them. In the autocratic cultures that have re-entrenched after the short-lived democratic experiments in the region, free speech has been curtailed even more dramatically than before. Few people are willing to undertake the thankless task of speaking out about workers rights.

One of the few exceptions of a local scholar speaking out against the abuse of workers in the Gulf is found in a remark by Tariq Ramadan, who is the director of an Islamic research centre in Doha, besides his teaching post at Oxford University.

He stated in a lecture at the Qatar Foundation in 2014 that there was a need for greater "self-criticism," that "human rights violations are against Islamic principles and ethical standards," and that there was a "need to teach people that such practices are completely unacceptable on religious and moral grounds."

But such statements are extremely rare to find. This issue is not one that has been taken up by scholars in the region, and it may be easier for a Western 'expatriate' scholar like Tariq Ramadan to say such things in English rather than Arabic.

A scholar's responsibility

Islamic scholars can't be let off the hook so easily, however. Indeed they have a lot to answer for. The Islamic scholars' self-image, past and present, has been that of the moral standard bearer in society. Such a claimed status naturally brings responsibilities.

In this regard, they have often been failing miserably, and the recurring crises of the Muslim world should be a wake-up call for them. This is arguably also the case for Muslim scholars and academics in the West, though this is unfortunately controversial in Western academia.

It is not difficult to find reasons to be highly critical about the abuse of migrant workers on religious as well as more generally ethical grounds. One may cite the Prophetic statement exhorting a person to pay and otherwise render rights owed to hired workers, "before their sweat has dried."

By contrast, many workers in Qatar, the richest country per capita in the world, wait months to be paid. The commentary on the Prophetic statement notes that delayed or reduced payments constitute cruelty, oppression, and the abuse of trust, all of which are condemned in scripture in no uncertain terms.

Muslim scholars in the Gulf, where migrant workers are routinely abused, and have frequently died in large numbers due to unsafe working conditions, should speak publicly about such matters, and use the potency of religiously grounded arguments to raise public awareness regarding such issues. This could lead to real change, while empowering Muslim scholars with ethical agency in their communities.

Returning to the original question of this piece: does Islam sanction slavery? Muslims today, like their counterparts in other major religions, overwhelmingly respond in the negative. In combating the blight that is ISIS, it serves everyone better if their attempts at reviving slavery today on Islamic grounds are understood for the anachronism they are, and treated as they should be, with scorn and ridicule.