Review of Dr. Jonathan Brown’s Book on Slavery and Islam

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Dr. Jonathan Brown recently wrote a book about slavery and how it relates to Islam. In this post, I’ll give an overview of what the book is about, some general thoughts on the book, as well as my take on the topic as a whole.

Slavery and Islam focuses on two broad areas. The first is analyzing how Islamic law and classical Islamic civilization dealt with slavery, and the second is discussing the moral dimension of slavery and the questions it raises. At times these threads are interwoven and at times they are separate, but I’ll deal with these two areas one at a time.

How Islam and Muslims Dealt With Slavery

One of the main takeaways from Dr. Brown’s book is how vast, varied, and fascinating Islamic law and civilization are even when dealing with just this one topic. For this reason, it’s difficult to impose a particular narrative onto Islamic history. Any narrative you try to portray could easily be countered with facts that show otherwise. The approach taken by Dr. Brown, which he guides the reader along, is to just look at the facts, understand what happened, and then deal with the moral question as a modern question rather than trying to impose our modern beliefs onto the past.

In addition, this book serves as a good follow-up to Misquoting Muhammad (a previous book by Dr. Brown) because it also shows how various scholars interpreted sacred texts and engaged in intellectual dialogue with each other. It talks about where there were points of disagreement between jurists, and the arguments various scholars used to back up their positions. This was a major theme of Misquoting, so if you enjoyed that book you’ll like this one as well.

It also serves as a window into the premodern world, which is especially useful for readers who may not have an extensive background reading about such topics. Things like social hierarchies, the importance of family and tribal ties, the way power was exercised, all of these are important parts of the equation. The discussions about how the way Muslims practiced slavery differed in certain ways from the Romans, Jews, Pre-Islamic Arabs, and other civilizations was especially fascinating.

Later, Dr. Brown looks at what happened when abolition arrived to the Muslim world during the modern era. He presents the various responses that Muslims had: some modernists and reformers adopted and nativized abolition, claiming that this was the Islamic position. Others vigorously opposed it. Others just went along for the ride. This section is thought-provoking because many people have preexisting opinions and perceptions about the various intellectual and political groups of the colonial era, such as traditionalists, Salafis, reformists, anti-colonialists, etc. Reading about the way various groups reacted to the call for abolition can challenge one’s preexisting opinions.

At the end, Dr. Brown discusses sexual slavery and how it relates to the concept of consent. He points out that while Islamic law didn’t have this concept, it had the concept of “harm” and this is what Muslim jurists used to prevent abuse. He also analyzes the concept of “consent” itself and shows how using consent as the ultimate deciding factor for whether a particular relationship is moral or immoral doesn’t make sense. As he points out, society’s definition of consent, and especially of when someone “can” or “cannot” consent, is extremely arbitrary.

The Moral Question

This is what Dr. Brown terms the Slavery Conundrum (in my own words):

  1. Islam contains moral teachings, and Muslims derive their morals from Islam.
  2. The primary texts of Islam (Quran and hadith), and Islamic law, dealt with slavery but did not ban it. Not a single classical Islamic scholar called for slavery to be banned.
  3. Today, everyone feels strongly that slavery is an intrinsic moral evil, and that it must be banned.

The dilemma is that not all of these can be true at once. The conundrum is introduced in the beginning and referred to many times throughout the book.

Very early on, Dr. Brown engages in a lengthy discussion on the definition of slavery. He makes the argument that we can’t really create and impose a strict definition of “slavery” – he comprehensively goes through various possible definitions and shows how they’re inaccurate in some way or another (the concept of “modern-day slavery” is also discussed). This chapter is important because we need to be able to define things, but it can be skipped or skimmed through for readers who are less enthusiastic about this sort of thing.

The most interesting parts of the moral discussions were when it talked about the economic and political dimensions and how they factor into our moral views. It can be argued that slavery did not become illegal because of moral progress, slavery became illegal because we didn’t need it anymore, due to machines being able to provide the bulk labor that slavery was in the past. Dr. Brown quotes Aristotle who said that slavery would disappear if looms were able to power themselves, which is pretty much exactly what happened during the Industrial Revolution.

General Thoughts on the Book

The first thing that struck me after reading Slavery and Islam is that intellectually, Muslims are playing catch-up. In this particular case, slavery was banned long ago due to political reasons, but it’s still unclear what justifications can be given to keep it banned or to unban it. The parts of this book that talk about moral dimension can give some insights there and a better intellectual foundation, but regardless, this kind of book should have been written 100 years ago if our tradition was keeping up with modern times.

Books like this should be part of the curricula of Islamic seminaries. Those curricula might learn fiqh that mentions slaves, ahadith that talk about it, and so on. But it’s presented in a way that’s devoid of the civilizational context, which in this case is inseparable from the fiqh. Slavery was something that was so tightly coupled to the social structure of the premodern world, it makes little sense to talk about it without that. In retrospect you get a sense of how horrifically absurd it was that a group like ISIS attempted to go into history, take this institution, rip it out of its civilizational context, impose it onto a modern nation-state with a bureaucracy and a surveillance system and everything else a modern nation-state comes with.

I would especially recommend this book for imams and preachers. Many of them get questions on the topic, and they end up giving incorrect answers such as claiming that Mariyah was a wife of the Prophet (SAW), when she wasn’t. Furthermore, much of the reasoning in this book can be applied to other moral dilemmas as well.

What you won’t get out of this book are simplistic apologetics. The book isn’t here to prove that Islam actually prohibits slavery, or that Muslims didn’t practice it. If you’re looking for that kind of content, I’m sorry but that’s simply not what this book is. Even though it’s meant for a general audience, it’s an academic book, and it deals with facts, evidence, and rigorously substantiated arguments. I personally love books like this, though it’s not for everyone so make sure you know what you’re getting into.

For intermediate and advanced readers, make sure to follow up on the notes and the appendix. Dr. Brown did some excellent research for this book and we can benefit from it by not only reading the book, but also by following the sources and reading some of what they have to say as well.

The Dilemma: My Thoughts

My personal opinion is that the way out of the dilemma is to relax the assumption that slavery is an intrinsic moral evil. Rather, what’s evil is the negative effect (harm) that can result from slavery. So the evilness is in the effect and not in the thing itself. That’s why the idea of bringing back slavery in the modern era is so evil because such an institution mixed with the modern machinery of the state would inevitably result in great harm – there’s simply no way to do it that doesn’t result in that.

To the question of why Islam didn’t ban slavery, I think the answer is simple: the benefit of having it remain outweighed the harm that would have been averted by banning it. As was mentioned in the book at one point (quoting someone), the US Civil War is an example of how banning slavery isn’t always some fun, happy process where everyone just gathers in a circle and sings kumbaya. It creates significant social ruptures and often results in bloodshed. Also, what happened after the Civil War should be a lesson too, where former slaves were often forced into sharecropping, which was basically a continuation of slavery. You can’t just introduce millions of unemployed people to the streets and hope everything goes well, and the modern-day people who have this expectation of our ancestors to have banned slavery are either naive or dishonest.

I think if slavery ever comes back, it will be in some kind of post-civilizational collapse scenario, where we return to hunting and agriculture. Human society will then naturally coalesce into a hierarchy, and a new slave class will appear to work the fields, do menial tasks, and for females, provide sexual pleasure for the men who are at the top. Given the amount of extremely powerful weapons that countries continue to develop, who knows if this might even end up happening in the near future.

And Allah knows best.


Photo credit: this tweet by Dr. Brown.