In a recent interview
with the Huffington Post, Reza Aslan said:
“ISIS’ notion of reestablishing slavery as part of Islam — I mean, if you know anything about Islamic history the very first thing that Muhammad did was outlaw slavery
This is simply untrue. Not only did Muhammad not outlaw slavery, he was a slave owner and a slave trader.
Here are examples from sahih hadith collections that describe Muhammad’s ownership, trading, and beating of slaves.
"Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah's Apostle was on a journey and he had a black slave called Anjasha...."
(Sahih bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 182)
"Jabir (Allah be pleased with him) reported: There came a slave and pledged allegiance to Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) on migration; he (the Holy Prophet) did not know that he was a slave. Then there came his master and demanded him back, whereupon Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: Sell him to me. And he bought him for two black slaves, and he did not afterwards take allegiance from anyone until he had asked him whether he was a slave (or a free man)"
Sahih Muslim Book 010, Hadith Number 3901
Narrated Jabir: A man manumitted a slave and he had no other property than that, so the Prophet cancelled the manumission (and sold the slave for him). No'aim bin Al-Nahham bought the slave from him.
Sahih al-Bukhari Book 41 Number 598
Narrated Abu Huraira and Said bin Khalid:
The verdict of Allah's Apostle was sought about an unmarried slave girl guilty of illegal intercourse. He replied, "If she commits illegal sexual intercourse, then flog her (fifty stripes), and if she commits illegal sexual intercourse (after that for the second time), then flog her (fifty stripes), and if she commits illegal sexual intercourse (for the third time), then flog her (fifty stripes) and sell her for even a hair rope." Ibn Shihab said, "I am not sure whether the Prophet ordered that she be sold after the third or fourth time of committing illegal intercourse."
Volume 8, Book 82, Number 822
These are just a handful from the corpus of Islamic scripture pertaining to Muhammad and his ownership, trading and punishment of slaves. Apart from the hadiths, the Quran and the narratives of Ibn Ishaq all demonstrate that Muhammad participated in slavery. To say that ‘the very first thing that Muhammad did was outlaw slavery’ is simply untrue.
In his book ‘Slavery in the Arab World’, Murray Gordon writes:
“In sanctioning slavery, the Koran did not lay the groundwork for a new social institution in Arabia: what it did was to give its blessings to one that had been a way of life for a long time in the region. The existence of slavery implied that there had evolved over the years a normative set of relationships between master and slave that was part of the woof and warp of Muslim society. In decreeing the validity of slavery, the Koran accepted discrimination between human beings as in keeping with the divine order of things.”
A way forward for Muslims is to say that whilst Muhammad did not abolish slavery, and whilst Islamic scripture does not forbid slavery, Islam can be seen to follow a trajectory towards abolition, because it gave slaves ‘spiritual’ rights to become Muslim. Clearly, whatever the veracity of this, it is better that Muslims move towards this interpretation of religion.
This is an argument that liberal Muslims can use. That the trajectory of the spirit of Islam, as they see it, points away from the literal circumstances of its birth.
Problems arise on a few levels. The conception of Islam as being an eternal template for humanity, and Muhammad being the perfect human to whom all must try to emulate in word and deed prevails.
It is this literalism that fuels the Islamic State in its taking of Yazidi girls as slaves, and that allows them to claim divine sanction for owning and raping them.
In Mauritania, Biram Dah Abeid is a slavery abolitionist.
in The New Yorker explains:
"Mauritania is an avowedly Muslim country, and though the constitution endorses both secular and religious law, in civic matters Islamic precepts dominate. But the Koran is ambiguous on the essential question of whether slavery should exist. In much of the world, Muslim scholars argue that the only Islamic basis for slavery is in jihad: after conquering unbelievers, Muslim warriors may take them as slaves, provided that they treat them well. In Mauritania, there is little consensus. Imams who defend slavery often refer to a set of interpretive texts that date back as far as the eighth century. One prominent example is a mukhtasar, or handbook of Islamic law, written by the fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar Khalil ibn Ishaq. According to its precepts, a slave cannot marry without her master’s permission, nor does she have any right to her children; a free man who murders a slave will not be punished by death, but a slave who murders a free man will be; slaves are whipped for fornicating, though a master may have sex with his slave girl; and slaves may not inherit property or give testimony in court"
It is because of the fact that Islam endorses slavery that this slavery abolitionist engaged in a bold demonstration:
“One of Abeid’s bodyguards dropped the books into a cardboard box and doused them in lighter fluid. The crowd was on its feet, peering at the spectacle. No one had expected this. Defacing the holy books of Islam is a crime of apostasy, punishable by death. Abeid set the books on fire
So the issue of slavery is a live one in parts of the Islamic world. Incredibly brave men put their lives at risk in order to highlight how Islamic scripture supports and perpetuates it in certain societies.
Falsely stating that Muhammad abolished slavery does not help to deal with the problems that Islam contributes to. To say that he abolished slavery seeks to absolve him of criticism, rather than honestly address the issues that arise from this aspect of the seerah and scripture.
This is not just about slavery. It’s about the tensions between the literalist and the metaphorical that are at the heart of the contestation of Islam today, on a wide range of issues, including apostasy.
Reza Aslan can fairly assert the argument of positive trajectory. We all support this interpretation of Islam, because it offers a space for liberalism and compassion.
But you can only assert that argument if you admit that Islam has to move in a trajectory away from aspects of its birth and scriptural literalism.
Saying that Muhammad abolished slavery, and that it was the first thing he did, is wrong. It cedes ground from the hard work that is needed to tread the path away from religious literalism. The first step on that path is acknowledgement, and honesty about the issues.