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Boston University Professor Defends Islamic State Sex Slavery

“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.” See, the Islamic State doesn’t practice sex slavery because it is sanctioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, but because the U.S. did bad things in Iraq. This is what passes for analysis on most university campuses these days. Much more below.

“The Truth About Islam and Sex Slavery History Is More Complicated Than You Think,” by Kecia Ali, Huffington Post, August 19, 2015 (thanks to David):

…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.

The disingenuous reasoning here is appalling. Can’t anyone in academia deal with a topic honestly anymore? I know Kecia Ali is a university professor, and university professors today are mostly muddle-headed ideologues more interested in pushing their far-Left agenda than having rational discussion or searching for the truth, but this is ridiculous. There are so many things wrong with that paragraph that it is a breathtakingly compact example of how contemporary academics obscure, rather than expose, the truth. Here are a few of the ways Kecia Ali outrages the truth in that paragraph:

“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.”

Actually, the Qur’an tells Muslims that Muhammad is uswa hasana, an “excellent example” (33:21), which in Islamic theology has amounted to the proposition that if Muhammad did it, it is right and worthy of emulation. The fact that “the Quran acknowledges slavery and early Muslims, including the Prophet, practiced it” actually inhibited the development of abolitionist movements within Islam, because of the absolute prohibition on declaring something to be wrong that Muhammad considered to be right.

“…indeed, the fact that slavery is illegal and no longer practiced in nearly all majority-Muslim societies would seem to settle the point.”

Actually, it would settle the point if those majority-Muslim societies had outlawed slavery on the basis of Islamic principles, but they didn’t. They abolished slavery under pressure from the West. There was never an indigenous Muslim abolitionist movement, and to this day, slavery is practicedsub rosa in North Africa, Saudi Arabia, etc., and justified precisely on the contention that if the Qur’an assumes it and Muhammad practiced it, it cannot be wrong.

“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.”

Here again, this point is only valid if there were some mainstream Qur’anic case against slavery, reinterpreting the pro-slavery passages in a different way. But there isn’t. “Objective scholars” — as if Kecia Ali were one — may not find slavery in the Qur’an or Islamic law, but note that Kecia Ali is writing for an audience of Leftist non-Muslims in the Huffington Post: she is not trying to convince Islamic State slave owners that slavery is wrong on Islamic grounds. It is, in other words, far easier to lull non-Muslims into complacency about a human rights abuse that Muslims justify on Islamic grounds than it is to convince the Muslims who are perpetrating it to stop doing so.

“Anyone making that argument about biblical slavery would be ridiculed.”

Kecia Ali here assumes that the Bible and Qur’an are equivalent in their teachings and mainstream interpretation. In reality, the abolitionist movement arose in the UK and US among Christian clergymen who argued against the ongoing applicability of the Biblical passages justifying slavery on the basis of the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God and equal in dignity on that basis. The Qur’an and Islam, by contrast, make a sharp dichotomy between believers (“the best of people,” Qur’an 3:110) and unbelievers (“the most vile of created beings,” Qur’an 98:6), and consequently there was no teaching of the equal dignity of all human beings upon which an abolitionist movement could be based.

Kecia Ali probably knows all this, or should if she doesn’t. But she doesn’t tell her hapless HuffPo marks, that is, her readers.

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.

What she leaves out (again) of all this is the normative character of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example for Muslims. That normative character is not some crazy literalist subsect of Islam. It is mainstream Islamic theology among all sects and madhahib.

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.

Yet again: Kecia Ali doesn’t tell her unfortunate readers that Islamic law is not considered to be some man-made document like the U.S. Constitution; on the contrary, in Islamic theology Sharia is considered to be the unchangeable and perfect law of Allah himself. As such, its allowance for slavery is considered to be as divinely inspired and unalterable as the rest of it.

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.

“Still, early Muslim slavery (like early Muslim marriage) wasn’t particularly a religious institution” — an unsupported and false claim. “Jurists’ ideas about the superiority of free over slave (and male over female) were widely shared across religious boundaries” — everyone did it, you see, so it must be OK. This tu quoque argument might hold water if theologically-justified slavery persisted in religious contexts other than Islam today, but it doesn’t.

To say this is not to present an apologetic defense of Islam;

Don’t kid yourself, professor.

to the contrary, effective Muslim ethical thinking requires honesty and transparency about the lasting impact on Muslim thought on slavery and non-consensual sex.

Honesty and transparency on this issue would be refreshing, but it isn’t forthcoming in this article.

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.

Once again, an assertion without evidence. How is the Islamic State being superficial and selective in its interpretation of the Qur’an and Sharia? Kecia Ali doesn’t tell us. She just wants us to take her word for it.

Religious studies scholars, of course, must analyze their doctrines.

I’m all for that.

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.

And why mustn’t one do this? Because above all, Kecia Ali and the Huffington Post don’t want you to have a negative view of Islam. But why should one not think that the Islamic State’s practices are the “legitimate expression of a timeless Islamic truth”? Yet again, we just have to take Kecia Ali’s word for it.

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.

Note that Kecia Ali doesn’t actually offer an alternative interpretation of the Qur’an passages that the Islamic State adduces in order to justify slavery. She just tells us that some unnamed “Muslim opponents” of the Islamic State have offered this. Who? When? Where? She doesn’t tell us. Why not? Could it be that this Muslim challenge to the Islamic State hasn’t actually happened at all?

…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.

I doubt that even the Islamic State jihadis would deny that these are old terms and rules that have fallen into desuetude. But they would argue that they are part of the law of Allah; the fact that they’re old and long unused doesn’t change that, and actually only increases the urgency of reviving them, so as to bring the practice of Muslims back in line with the commands of Allah. Here yet again, Kecia Ali is attempting a sleight-of-hand, pretending that this issue is all about human law, not about the law that Muslims consider to be that of Allah himself.

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.

The idea that the New York Times is interesting in retailing “familiar narratives of Muslim barbarity” is beyond ludicrous. For years, the Times has again and again obscured and whitewashed numerous incidents of barbarity committed by Muslims and justified by their perpetrators by reference to Islamic texts and teachings. Rukmini Callimachi’s piece was highly anomalous in acknowledging, even in a slight and incomplete manner, that the Islamic State justifies its practices by referring to teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah. But to admit that fact would be to expose as false and manipulative the ever-present narrative of Muslim victimhood, and Kecia Ali is not going to do that.

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.

“Moral high ground is in short supply.” Because the U.S. Constitution “continues to permit enslavement as punishment for crime” (the 13th Amendment says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”), we shouldn’t judge the Islamic State’s barbaric practice of sex slavery.

Kecia Ali’s moral equivalence here is nothing short of monstrous. But for her efforts, she will no doubt be hailed in Leftist circles and laden with honors, while the Islamic State’s sex slaves, for whose rights and human dignity she could have and should have spoken out instead of engaging in this gruesome apologetic for their enslavement, continue to suffer daily torture.

This is American academia today.

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