“Slavery cannot be intrinsically evil in Islamic law,” Georgetown University professor Jonathan Brown stated during a July 20, 2020 webinar. This disturbing assessment came during a 2019-2020 series of presentations on his 2019 book, Slavery & Islam, whose theses have hardly improved upon this Muslim convert’s past scandalous comments on slavery.
On February 7, 2017, Brown had caused furor while presenting a paper on slavery and Islam at the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). Thereby he noted the traditional Islamic doctrine expressed in Quran 33:21 that Islam’s prophet Muhammad is an “excellent pattern” of behavior. Therefore this example sanctified the slavery practiced by him and his companions, including sex slavery, a doctrine that had justified slavery throughout Islamic history.
Once public, such views completely negated Brown’s disclaimer at the presentation’s beginning. “I always make some hyperbolic statement that really makes sense in the context,” he noted, such that he would face accusations of “calling for slavery.” Given such concern over criticism, he expelled this author from the presentation before it started.
Brown’s elaboration of his views during his subsequent book tour has been hardly more reassuring, for slavery is “simply a fact of life in the Quran” and perhaps even “part of the DNA of Islam.” “Every area of Islamic law is permeated by slavery,” something that “sharia, without exception until the 20th-century, validated.” Muslim scholars have even speculated about a “time when the laws of slavery will actually be needed again,” such as in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-like world, he has noted.
For centuries, “Muslims were neck-deep in the trade of slaves,” Brown has observed. As others have estimated, this trade included 17 million black Africans, more than the 12 million taken to the Western Hemisphere in the transatlantic slave trade. As the Ghanaian historian John Azumah has noted, while the transatlantic trade enslaved mostly men for labor, Muslim slavers favored seizing women for use as sex slave concubines.
In this regard, Brown has unsettlingly reprised his 2017 comments on sex slavery. Thus any norm that sex be consensual “is fairly unusual in world history.” This corresponds to Islamic doctrine’s proprietary understanding of female sexuality, which, he has noted, denies any recognition of rape in marriage.
Slavery in Islam is faith-based, Brown has explained. Under sharia the “only way that someone can lose their freedom is if they are a non-Muslim who lives outside the Muslim state and is then captured by Muslims.” Slavery therefore “is a reduction in legal status that is caused by unbelief,” whose “vestigial effect” can remain even for an enslaved convert to Islam or a child born into slavery.
Yet Brown has argued that Islam is “obsessed with emancipation.” Islamic doctrine’s numerous biases towards freeing slaves, such as a means to expiate sin, means that Islam “does not have an equal in any religious or philosophical tradition” from the premodern world. “The Quran and Sunna are unprecedently adamant about emancipation.”
However this emancipation should not help a slave return to unbelief in Islam. “Freedom is not the most important thing in Islamic law,” Brown has noted, although Muslim scholars have historically argued that “slavery is intrinsically harmful.” Rather, true freedom comes from submission to Islam, an “emancipatory force.” Seventh-century Arab Muslim conquerors, for example, before subjugating the Persians, announced that they would be free only as “slaves of God alone.”
Correspondingly, Brown has described Islamic civilization as a “vacuum cleaner, just sucking in people.” Muslim scholars have historically advocated enslavement of non-Muslims as a means of introducing them to Islam. Then “Muslims are always manumitting slaves, which means they need new slaves,” in an “emancipation turbine.”
Brown has correctly described how Christians led the revolutionary movement against a once universal acceptance of slavery to create the “abolitionist consensus that is held worldwide today.” “Muslims talking about the issue of slavery and abolition of slavery doesn’t happen until they encounter essentially Western abolitionism,” a development true of the Westerners themselves. In his assessment, Christians had in the process to “desacralize scripture” in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament with its numerous references to forms of servitude.
Jewish rabbis and scholars would beg to differ with Brown, for as McGill University Professor David Aberbach has written, “Judaism is intrinsically an abolitionist religion.” “In Jewish belief, every human life matters.” Contrary to superficial readings, Rabbi Dov Linzer has noted, the “Torah only accepts slavery as a deeply entrenched societal institution.”
The late Jewish sage Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delved into this deeper understanding of the Torah’s position of slavery. God’s intends “slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will.” Nonetheless, in the “Torah’s value system the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity.”
This analysis requires that non-Jews such as Brown properly understand Jewish scripture. “Jews have always read the Torah through a rabbinic interpretive lens and not simply on the plain meaning of its words,” the website My Jewish Learning has observed. Thus Jews cannot “read every mitzvah as an ideal” that allows for no further development, Linzer has cautioned.
Accordingly, in various stipulations the “Torah indeed sees slavery as a problematic phenomenon,” Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of Jerusalem’s Western Wall and holy sites has noted. “Although it sanctions the institution of slavery, biblical law begins the process toward abolition,” University of Waterloo Professor James A. Diamond has observed. “Rules limiting slavery challenged the way society was built and prompted Jews to question an institution perhaps so natural it was invisible,” Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner has confirmed.
At a time when Romans had literally thousands of slaves per citizen, even the wealthiest Jews held very modest numbers of servants. And those servants, the Talmud tells us, were treated better by their masters than foreign kings would treat their own subjects.
Particularly the Bible’s Exodus narrative of Jews escaping bondage in Egypt imprints upon Jewish consciousness emancipation’s value. Diamond has noted that the Passover “commemorates the exodus, anchoring the relationship between God and Israel as Liberator and slave.” As Sacks commented, “Jews were the people commanded never to forget the bitter taste of slavery so that they would never take freedom for granted.”
Tellingly, Brown has noted that Islamic tradition rejects the Torah’s narrative of a gracious God emancipating Jews in ancient Egypt and equates them with Muhammad’s early Muslim followers in pagan Mecca. “The Muslims in Mecca are like the Jews in Egypt, but they are not slaves, they are oppressed.” Thus the Israelite exodus “is not a story of emancipation, it’s a story of victory over oppression,” symbolizing Islam’s triumph.
The contrast between beliefs held by Muslims such as Brown and the Judeo-Christian tradition clearly indicates why Muslims have struggled to reject slavery. Confronted with this moral evil, Muslim reformers have argued that slavery is an artifact of jihadist doctrines inapplicable in modernity, or that rulers have discretionary power to prohibit human bondage. Nonetheless, Brown has recalled that jihadists going to Muslims’ defense during Bosnia’s 1990s sectarian carnage had asked Saudi clerics about taking slaves, only to hear warnings that this would create bad publicity.
These Islamic realities reflect Brown’s moral relativism. Although the Ottoman Empire’s slave trade “was undeniably brutal,” he has argued that slavery and other often onerous labor relations such as indentured servitude have widely varied across human history. Following therefore his dubious claim that slavery is not really objectively definable, any slavery-induced “disgust is a cultural construct” and “just custom; it’s just urf.” By analogy, he has noted that China’s brutal dog meat trade horrifies many non-Chinese, although increasing domestic opposition to dog meat consumption undermines his cultural relativism arguments.
Despite grappling with slavery’s moral problems for Islam’s legitimacy, Brown has failed to find a solution. In recent years Islamic State jihadists in their mercifully brief caliphate have “really caused a crisis for young Muslims” by piously invoking Islamic canons to justify the enslavement of Mesopotamia’s non-Muslims. But as the foregoing analysis has proven, he is wrong to claim in Islam’s tu quoque defense that slavery’s abolition “is not indigenous to any religion or any philosophy.”
Contrary to traditional Islamic understandings of an aloof, arbitrary Allah, the biblical God’s natural law ultimately revealed slavery’s injustice to Jews, Christians, and the wider world. Church historian John B. Carpenter has noted as much in the relationship of America’s famed escaped slave and 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglas to the Jew Jesus Christ:
Christianity’s commitment to freedom was so pronounced that Frederick Douglass, who decried the hypocrisy of slave-holding religion vividly, did not convert to Islam and become “Frederick X,” but professed, “I love the religion of our blessed Savior.”
While Brown’s exculpation for slavery in Islamic doctrine is unconvincing, he has nonetheless provided valuable insight into this previously “taboo subject.” As Azumah has written, a “critical approach is reserved for the Christian past but forbidden for the Muslim past.” However inadvertently and awkwardly, Brown has helped uncover Islam’s dark slavery legacy.
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