Book on Islam and Slavery

Jonathan A.C. Brown, Slavery & Islam (London: Oneworld Publications 2919).

This is another book I’ve bought for my reading on non-western forms of slavery. The book’s blurb runs

‘Every major religion and philosophy has once once condoned or approved of slavery, but in modern times nothing is seen as more evil. Americans confront this crisis of authority when they erect statues of Founding Fathers who slept with their slaves. And Muslims faced it when ISIS revived sex slavery, justifying it with verses from the Quran and the practice of Muhammad.

Exploring the moral and ultimately theological problem of slavery, Jonathan A.C., Brown traces how the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions have tried to reconcile modern moral certainties with the infallibility of God’s message. He lays out how Islam viewed slavery in theory, and the reality of how it was practiced across Islamic civilisation. Finally Brown carefully examines arguments put forward by Muslims for the abolition of slavery.’

Brown is Professor of Islamic Civilisation at Georgetown University, and this is very much an academic book. It begins with a statement of Brown’s argument and a denial that it is an apology for slavery, followed by pages about the very definition of slavery. While many people will feel it’s unnecessary, it’s important to distinguish slavery from other forms of unfreedom, like serfdom. The book then discusses slavery in the Qur’an and Sunna, the traditions about Mohammed which are considered sound and reliable by Muslims. It then examines the Muslim reform of slavery, the influence of previous civilisations, slavery as regulated and defined by shariah. The chapter on slavery and Islamic civilisation discusses issues like the classic slavery zone, slavery and racial intermixing, and the social roles slaves could perform from domestic worker to scholar, saint, poet or elite administrator. Then there’s a chapter presenting the moral arguments against slavery and it’s intrinsic evil, especially as this confronts Americans and Muslims, followed by a chapter on Islamic attempts and arguments for slavery’s abolition. The succeeding chapter is on the Prophet and ISIS, examining issues such as whether Islamic attempts at abolition are successful or morally acceptable, whether slavery in the Islamic world could ever be legalised again and ISIS and slavery. The last chapter is about concubinage and sex slavery, which is obviously the major issue that provoked the author to write his book. There are six appendices, 1, is on a slave saint of Basra; 2 on western Enlightenment thinkers and slavery; 3 on whether the 1926 Muslim world congress actually condemned slavery; 4 on whether Mariya was Muhammad’s wife or concubine; 5 on whether shariah law considers freedom a human right, and 6 on the enslavement Muslim unbelievers or apostates.

The book appears to be an exhaustive examination of the issue, and I’ve no doubt the vast majority of Muslims were as shocked by ISIS’ revival of sex slavery as everyone else. But unfortunately sex slavery isn’t the only form of slavery that has been revived. The sponsorship system for migrant workers in the Gulf Arab states very much acts as a form of enslavement. During the Sudanese civil war Arabs enslaved the country’s Black population, and since then slave markets selling Black African migrants have opened in the part of Libya held by Islamists.

Of course Islam isn’t the only culture facing a revival of slavery. Way back in the 1990s the book Disposable People examined the persistence of slavery around the world, from enslaved workers in Brazil and the far east to traditional slaves in Africa and slaves brought to the west by their Arab masters in the guise of servants. The book estimated that there were 20 million people enslaved around the world. I’ve no doubt that, thanks to neoliberalism and the global assault on workers’ rights and conditions, this number has increased. Hopefully books like this will clarify the issues and help to combat it so that it can be genuinely consigned to the past.

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