On sexual slavery and the question of what makes something ‘Islamic’

Salwa al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti politican, gave a cold-blooded proposal for Muslim men to take female slaves, especially non-Muslim female prisoners of war, for sexual use (or rather rape). It has rather unpredictably come under fire.

Slavery is one of the most abhorrent forms of abuse of power in this modern age. But the basic principles of al-Mutairi’s views have validation in Islamic texts. Like it or not, the Qur’an does not make any mention about ending slavery per se. It does recommend the freeing of slaves, particularly those who convert to Islam. But it also spells out the status of the slave as a person a man can have legitimate sexual relations with and by implication is someone who is sexually available.

Notwithstanding the incongruence between modern sensibilities and what is spelled out in the Qur’an as a book of wisdom and guidance, the abolition of slavery is now the expected universal norm. Every country has declared an end to slavery within its borders by the twentieth century. In predominantly Muslim nation-states, motivations behind the end of slavery was not so much a religious calling, but rather a mix of socio-economic circumstances, diplomatic strategy, and European colonial influence. It is at this circumstantial juncture that the right decision to universally turn back against slavery was established.

This is not to say that slavery has been completely wiped out from the face of the earth; today, slavery continues to exist in sex trafficking and in domestic labor, which enslaves thousands of migrant female workers.

Any intellectual discussion about sexual slavery and gender in the modern age should not be about sex and desire, but about power and the human weakness to abuse it. To say that men have an insatiable sexual desire and therefore need to channel it in “legitimate” terms (i.e., through concubinage, slavery, and even marriage) is missing the point.

How so? First, it is an insult to even suggest that men are inherently powerless to the will of their penises. Second, the Qur’an mentions allowances to multiple female sex partners (where wives, concubines, and slaves are thrown into the mix) only in the context of economic power; only rich men can afford to have multiple sex partners, especially concubines and slaves.

What is perhaps more intriguing and sets more tongues wagging is the fact that a Muslim woman is championing the slavery of other women. This is an example of what academic Deniz Kandiyoti describes as the “patriarchal bargain.” The patriarchal bargain posits that women are just as capable of oppressing other women to maintain or to gain access to social advantage. It is without doubt that any person, woman or man, with political influence would always seek to maintain power and privilege by pandering to those with more power and privilege.

The more powerful and privileged in question are those in the Kuwaiti government, who already claim a litany of human rights abuses, such maintaining a legislation that strips domestic workers of basic rights and ignoring the extensive abuse of migrant workers. This adds an additional dimension – xenophobia – into the mix. Much of the abuses against migrant workers – many of whom are Muslims – in Kuwait rests on the xenophobic attitudes of employers who view the workers as less than human. The fact that al-Mutiari’s suggestion women from war-torn Chechnya be bought to suffer yet more human rights abuses in Kuwait underscores this fact even more.

So in the context of sexual slavery as supported by the clerics al-Mutairi mentions, the more troubling question arises: is sexual slavery “Islamic”? Just because it is not prohibited in the Book does not make it right in practice. Easy as that. Another relevant question will arise by implication: so what makes something Islamic? It has been proven time and time again that what makes something Islamic is not necessarily spelled out in holy texts, but embellished mainly through privileged interpretation and historical contexts. Furthermore, the fact that slavery was a common and acceptable pre-Islamic practice during the prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, and the fact that some slaves gained status and power over those lower in the pecking order does not mitigate the loathsomeness of slavery.

Slavery or the abuse of female prisoners of war, the brutal removal of their freedoms and agency, and through silencing them and dehumanizing them goes against the very essence embedded in the respect for human lives, be it un-free or non-Muslim.

It is becoming clear that the Islamic discourse on slavery sheds very little light on the experiences of those at the nastier end of practice and this needs to change. The masculinist approach to holy texts that privileges the views of men needs to change. Also, what needs to change is the recognition that our modern sensibilities are shaped by history and socio-economic circumstances; what feels right, moral, and ethical rests on multiple factors.

We learn from history and experiences just as much from the holy texts. Much has changed since the days when slavery was taken for granted: if there’s anything more unacceptable it is the reduction of a whole person into something that can be bought and sold against their will.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/user/OriMeissa Ori Meissa

    i’m going to focus on this quote:

    ‘is sexual slavery “Islamic”? Just because it is not prohibited in the Book does not make it right in practice. Easy as that.’

    Here’s my problem with this analysis. If slavery is not explicitly prohibited in the holy book and yet IS addressed (e.g. Surahs 33:50, 23:5-6, 4:24, 8:69, 24:32, 2:178, 16:75 to name a few), then it can safely be assumed to be permitted by the holy book. If you indeed assume that the Quran is written by a deity, Allah, who says explicitly no less than 4 times (e.g. in Surahs 2:173, 5:3, 6:145 and 16:115) that one should not eat pork, does this imply that God either:

    a. Considers the consumption of pork MORE IMPORTANT than the issue of slavery, hence the need to explicitly ban the former and not the latter?


    b. Doesn’t have an explicit problem with slavery whatsoever?

    This I find very hard to comprehend.

    Secondly, for something as abhorrent as the reduction of another human being to a commodity to be bought or sold against their will, explicit prohibition by God in the Quran would have at least removed any confusion over the historical position muslims could feasibly take on the issue. There certainly wouldn’t be Islamic scholars as recently as 2003 claiming that slavery “is a part of Islam. Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam.” (Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan, 2003 Senior Council of Clerics, KSA).

    If we mere humans can come to a more reasonable, humane response to forced servitude than monotheism (as the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam will attest to), how can one use such religions as a moral guide? Slavery is indeed Islamic as much as it is Christian or Jewish. When the world changed, it forced these religions, including Islam, to adopt a different approach or they would have been too far out of step with the majority of the world population who wished to see an end to this barbaric practice.

    • Fatemeh

      @Ori: Oh, YOU GOT US! I guess we’ll just stop being Muslim now. <_<

      Sarcasm aside, don't come into a space for women who identify with a faith and shit on it. It's rude and derailing. Please see our comment guidelines before posting again.

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    I think the problem/challenge in this debate lies in the very framing of the question. Having thought long and hard about this topic (although admittedly not as much as my fav mentor Kecia Ali has!), I don’t yet have a solution to venture but I’ve decided that to ask whether slavery is Islamic or not is itself rather misguided and meaningless. The question is indeed, as Alicia points out above, what makes something “Islamic”? The medieval jurists were elaborating an enormous body of laws related to slavery not so much because the scripture gave it tacit approval, but because slavery existed as a real social institution in their wealthy, urban contexts of Egypt, Persia and the Levant. They simply took it for granted, as did everybody else in the pre-modern world.

    Of course, I guess the problem lies in the fact that, despite the historical contingency of socio-legal practices/institutions (as much as of ethics and emotions, and even of concepts like freedom and the individual), Islam like any other religion makes a claim to transcendent values irrespective of time and place. And yet precisely because of that I think it’s more interesting and important to note that most lay Muslims today (and I would cite my mom as a perfect example) are simply horrified by the very idea of slavery and are little aware of its prevalence among Muslims in the past. There’s another aspect to this: something about law in the modern world makes us obsessed with all things legal, including when it comes to Islam, but I think it’s important to consider ethics and morals and all those things the law doesn’t quite capture. And that’s where someone needs to come in and study the significance of the traditions that have passed down for generations in the Islamic religious discourse, AND which make it possible for people today to imagine/understand slavery as un-Islamic, regardless of the legal tradition!

    As for Salwa al-Mutairi, I think she is just too ridiculous to merit attention. But Alicia has brought up all the relevant points, including the highly problematic issue of migrant workers in Gulf Arab countries.

  • http://dgreymatter.wordpress.com Alicia

    Ori Meissa, I’m not sure why the comparison between pork and slavery was necessary. People can pick and choose something or someone they see as recurrent themes in a text and come up with their own conclusions, but in the end what matters is how certain topics are considered more important in Islamic discourses at a specific moment in history. At this very moment in history, because people have moved on from slavery and quite universally recognise the inhumanity of the practice the topic of slavery has nearly dropped out from further discussion in much of contemporary Islamic discourses.

    What’s wrong with saying that “just because it’s not prohibited in the book it doesn’t make it right in practice”?.

    People tend to abuse texts, use it in their own interests at the expense of others, misinterpret it. People are never always good and perfect when using texts and putting them into practice. The power of the text can so easily be abused and people who are quick to prove others wrong, protect their interest and privilege, are especially susceptible to abuse.

  • Dina

    one point for Ori Meissa imo..
    The nonprohibition of slavery and the sexual abuse of female prisoners of war in the hadith has caused me to “apostasize” in my late teen years.

  • Dina

    (nonprohibition in Quran, that is, sorry for the incomplete post)

  • Amelia

    Slavery is one of the things that confuses and disturbs me the most about Islam; many religious leaders and figures refuse to accept that it is wrong and is sanctioned in the Quran, the status of women in Islam is another troubling phenomenon. My faith is getting pretty shaky and I’m beginning to question a lot of the tenets of Islam.

  • Rochelle

    Don’t want to get into the whole is-this-or-isn’t-it-Islamic debate, but I got the impression that the process by which one can judge whether something is or is not allowed/permitted/prohibited is not as simple as whether or not something is in the Quran. People go to school for years and years to make such judgments, and there have been lively debates on such matters for over a thousands years. I’m not saying that we can’t have an opinion just because we lack formal education on the matter, but we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think that matters of this complexity can be reduced to such black and white terms.

  • Dina

    @ Rochelle to be honest I do not feel i need to go to school for assessing whether i find it inconsistent if for the half of believers only the spouse is halal, and for the other half allegedly promiscuity in certain boundaries is permissible.. i do not feel i need to go to school in order to find ANY sexual relation with a person you “possess” deeply deeeply troubling and disturbing (the entire notion of ownership of a human, not just sexual innuendos i feel i can judge as inhuman and bluntly wrong)… to me also this really isnt arrogance. i’d find people arrogant who told me i wasn’t in any way capable of moral assessment in the sense of judging something wrong because i had not taken x course at y institution..

  • Rochelle


    This is exactly the opposite of what I meant. I do think you – and everybody – has the capacity, right, and obligation to assess morals and ethics within one’s religion. There is really no need to get defensive – we’re on the same page on this one. I was not calling you arrogant and I apologize if that’s how it came across.

    What I am calling arrogant is the argumentative move along the lines of: ‘hey slavery is in the Quran therefore all Muslims must sanction it’. Or, similarly: ‘Women were made of man in the bible, thus all Christians/Jews must believe women to be inferior’.

    I’m saying there are more tools in our interpretive toolbox to assess these things.

  • Ayeshter

    @ Amelia

    I have went through the exact same thing. When I fully rationalized that slave/concubinage was legal and what the implications were, it shook my deen to it’s core. I’ve more or less come to terms with it, but many of my religious views, particularly on marriage, have changed significantly. Just keep reading and thinking, and keep your mind open to all possibilities.

  • Dina

    @ rochelle oooooooohhh so sorry!!!!! I completely misread you, i cannot tell you how sorry I am!!

  • Humayra

    Kecia Ali’s book, _Sexual ethics and Islam: Feminist reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and jurisprudence_ (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006) deals with the issue of sexual slavery in Chapter 3. Refreshingly, Ali manages to mostly avoid the usual pitfalls, sparing us tired rationalizations as well as the typical attempts at deflecting the discussion to the supposedly “worse” slavery practices of Others. I’d highly recommend this book for those who want an intelligent and thought-provoking examination of this and other related topics.