The Intolerable Possibility of Slavery: A Muslim Perspective


The Intolerable Possibility of Slavery: A Muslim Perspective

Many Muslims are talking about slavery today. Thanks to the so-called Islamic State, Muslims and the public more generally are asking the question, “Is slavery permitted in Islam?” If so, when and how (what form)? At first glance, the question seems worth asking. Some Muslims are enslaving people, women in particular. Thus it seems sensible to ask if they are permitted to do so as Muslims. The question, however, is symptomatic of a larger problem. Asking if Muslims are permitted to enslave reflects the fact that many Muslims haven’t resolved the issue of slavery itself. We haven’t come to a terminal point of the discussion that refuses the possibility of slavery altogether. In this short essay, I will attempt to push us (Muslims) in that direction. To do so, I will consider one particular response to the issue. It is one that is visible in the perspective of a cross-section of Muslims and thus worth engaging. By critically examining this approach, I will highlight its ethical shortcomings and suggest a different response that rejects the possibility of slavery altogether.

The response I want to examine can be described as a limited endorsement. This is not to say that Muslims are necessarily endorsing slavery as a system. They are not, in other words, saying slavery should be practiced. Their position, rather, is that slavery can be practiced. That is, Islam allows for slavery but it does not require that Muslims actually enslave anyone. The substance of this argument is rooted in two particular claims: one historical and the other qualitative.



The historical claim concerns the fact that slavery has existed among Muslims for quite some time. Any discussion about slavery in the present should thus begin with the acknowledgment that slavery has been a fairly widespread practice in Islamic history—a practice that has been sanctioned by various perspectives in what they call “the tradition.” Indeed, slavery was part of the society in which the Prophet himself lived and he never called for the absolute abolition of all forms of slavery. The consequence of this past, according to some Muslims, is that slavery cannot be abolished permanently. To do so would be tantamount to violating the established tradition that permitted and regulated slavery. The best we could hope for, then, is a sort of suspension of slavery that maintains the ethical integrity of the Muslim past but allows for a future defined by a permissibility refused: We can enslave but we will not enslave.

In addition to history, Muslims who take the limited permissibility position insist upon a categorical distinction between Islam and the West. Slavery, they rightly argue, cannot be understood as a singular trans-historical category. It is, rather, a diverse set of institutions that vary in their form and cruelty. In the West, slavery has a particularly vicious history. Taking the trans-Atlantic slave trade as the primary example, Muslims suggest that “Western” slavery is a manifestation of slavery at its worst; it is unlike any other form of slavery both in its cruelty and economy. Western slavery is thus understood as unique in the history of servitude and should not be used for the conversation concerning Muslim forms of slavery. Muslims, on the other hand, have no such historical precedent. Islamic slavery is distinctly “Islamic” and can be characterized by regulations that distinguish it from the practices of slavery in the West. Whatever appeal this idea may have, the extent to which it reinforces the epistemological assumptions of Orientalism is striking. Rather than seeing slavery as something distinguishable in terms of specific political and economic conditions, including capitalism, Muslims reinstate the civilizational discourse of two worlds in which institutions like slavery flow from an inherent structural propensity. Such an idea results in a peculiar essentialization in which Islam is once again a distinct, totalizing enterprise marked by its own version of global historical institutions.

In my view, the limited endorsement position fails on ethical terms. This is not to say that there is no ethical framework from which the position can proceed. Rather, it is to suggest that the ethical possibilities opened from this position are limited in a way that compromises the very constitution of a Muslim ethics. To see how, I think it is worth exploring the ethical basis of the limited endorsement position: where it begins and where it takes us.

In what sense is the limited endorsement position ethical? Where does its ethics begin? In my view, this position begins with a theoretical possibility that takes the right to become slave masters as essential. Faced with the interminable possibility of having slaves, we are all potential slave masters. Given this potential, the question becomes not can we enslave but rather should we enslave and when. The ethics at work hinges on the decision one makes. It requires a critical reflection on what the act of enslavement would mean, in ethical terms, for the one who enslaves or chooses not to. It therefore positions Muslims in a way that deeply identifies with a potential slave master. One can choose to become a slave master or not and therefore has to decide whether one wants to—or thinks one should—enslave another human being. In this sense, the question takes as its starting point the dilemma of an individual endowed with a certain privilege whose ethical capacity is realized by virtue of their ability to become a slave master.

What does it mean to begin our ethical musings from the position of a potential slave master? What does it mean for Muslims to take on a tradition that involves the purchase, sale and possession of human beings in whatever form? These questions are critical for understanding why we must refuse any position on slavery that allows for a limited endorsement.

The position I am arguing for requires a fundamentally different ethical position. It is a position constituted by two radical and, I believe, necessary refusals. First, we must refuse the possibility of slavery altogether. To do so, we have to take as axiomatic the idea that any form of slavery forecloses certain ethical possibilities. The ethical possibilities I am concerned with entail what I believe are Islamic principles of human dignity and solidarity. I see no ethical justification for a standpoint that assigns Muslims a right to decide on the future enslavement of any human beings in whatever form. Indeed, if we are to take seriously the idea that Islam is concerned with principles of human dignity, then it is the burden of those who endorse slavery (as a possibility or actual practice) to furnish an argument that demonstrates (1) what right Muslims enjoy that allows them to become slave masters while remaining ethically Muslim and (2) how slavery can ensure the dignity of the enslaved. They must demonstrate, in ethical terms, how slavery can exist without undermining the larger principles of Islam including dignity, freedom and equality before God. Moreover, if Muslims are to pursue any meaningful solidarity with other human communities, it is unclear how this could be accomplished if slavery remains. What kind of dignity and solidarity can exist between a master and slave? As far as I can see, if there truly is an Islamic principle of dignity, I’m not sure how it is compatible with human bondage. Slavery, in any form, requires the negation of dignity and equality insofar as the master can only be so through the subordination of the slave. This is clear from the fact that no slave has ever enjoyed equal rights with her/his master. Indeed, the very possibility of such equality would mean we are no longer in the realm of slavery.

The second refusal we must embrace is intimately tied to the first and it concerns the past. If we take what we know about the moral order of the seventh century as the final word on morality, then Muslims are in a particular bind. We are forced to believe that whatever social condition prevailed at that time is the ethical model for our lives in the present and future. We are committed to repeating the past indefinitely. This idea, however, makes a critical mistake. It fails to distinguish between the social conditions of Islam and the principles put forth within those social conditions. From what we know about the seventh century, for example, the Prophet Muhammad never abolished slavery. Indeed, he is said to have owned at least two slaves himself: Mariyah and Shuqran. However, if historical sources are correct, we also know that the Prophet implored Muslims to free their slaves on numerous occasions. For example, in the hadith collection of Sahih Bukhari (The Book of Sales), the Prophet identifies three persons he will oppose on the Day of Judgment, two of which relate to slavery: “one who sells a free person as a slave and eats the price” and “one who employs a laborer and gets the full work done by him but does not pay him wages.” Similarly, in Bukhari’s The Book of the Emancipation of Slaves, the manumission of slaves is linked with one of the highest rewards from God.

Of course, it is also true that sources suggest that the Prophet spoke in terms that took the slave system of his times as an established reality. Various hadith collections and the Quran as well reference slavery in ways that not only acknowledges but also constitutes that system. In addition to stipulating regulations for Muslims who own slaves, there are also specific statements that address slaves directly. One narration in Bukhari, for example, indicates that a “double reward” is possible for “a slave who discharges his duties to Allah and his master.”

What we find in these sources, then, is a tension. There is at once a set of textual references that both condone and challenge the system of slavery. The question thus becomes one of interpretation: In what way do we interpret a past with no clear position?

My own reading is that we cannot resolve this question for the past. The tension exists and it is ultimately fruitless to decide on the ethical condition of the seventh century since no clear position exists that we can evaluate. Muslims both allowed slavery to continue and promoted principles that disturbed that very system. What we can do, however, is make a choice. And that choice can be informed by the past in a way that addresses the present and the future. Here is where I believe the second refusal is crucial. Faced with an ambivalent past, we must refuse the position that limits our contemporary ethical horizons. To do so, we can take the Prophet’s statements against slavery as our contemporary responsibility to establish a future free of slavery and secure a new ethical position.

Such a perspective is critical today. It allows Muslims to see the Prophet’s words as establishing a set of ethical principles that provide us with an opportunity to contribute to an effort he initiated centuries ago. In this sense, the Prophet didn’t abolish slavery per se. However, he left us with the opportunity to do so ourselves. This implies that Muslims have a role to play in the elaboration of Islam. We have the ability to refuse the maintenance of slavery visible in the history of Islam and accept a particular responsibility for our contemporary situation. More importantly, we can take a radical stance vis-à-vis the past that asks why some Muslims didn’t accept the principles set up by the Prophet himself. From this critical standpoint, we can assume the responsibility of a new ethical position, informed by a particular moment in the past, and push forth a future in which slavery is no longer a question.

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