Slavery and Islam

Pages: 448
Subject: Religion: Islam
Imprint: Oneworld Academic

Slavery and Islam

Jonathan A.C. Brown

A thorough exploration of slavery from the perspective of Islam's authoritative texts as well as moral and philosophical debates on the subject

The Book

What happens when authorities you venerate condone something you know is wrong?

Every major religion and philosophy once condoned or approved of slavery, but in modern times nothing is seen as more evil. Americans confront this crisis of authority when they erect statues of Founding Fathers who slept with their slaves. And Muslims faced it when ISIS revived sex slavery, justifying it with verses from the Quran and the practice of Muhammad.

Exploring the moral and ultimately theological problem of slavery, Jonathan A.C. Brown traces how the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions have tried to reconcile modern moral certainties with the infallibility of God's message. He lays out how Islam viewed slavery in theory, and the reality of how it was practiced across Islamic civilization. Finally, Brown carefully examines arguments put forward by Muslims for the abolition of slavery.

Additional Information

Subject Religion: Islam
Pages 448
Imprint Oneworld Academic


About the Author

Jonathan A.C. Brown is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His previous books include Misquoting Muhammad and Hadith: Muhammad's Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, both of which are published by Oneworld. He lives in Virginia.


Slavery & Islam hints at some of the great questions that are still outstanding in this field.'

- Literary Review

‘For any system of belief that vests ultimate authority in the past, slavery is a big moral problem… For several reasons, this dilemma is an acute one for Muslims, as emerges in [this] scholarly but digestible new book.'

- The Economist

‘A must-read for students and scholars of slavery in historical and contemporary Islam, as well as for anyone interested in slavery and its relationship to religion… Slavery & Islam is a thoughtful, well-researched, and well-written elucidation of a very difficult problem.'

- Journal of Islamic Ethics

‘This insightful, courageous and comprehensively argued book is bound to constitute a new beginning. It is certain to be as widely debated as it is widely read. And we will all be all the better for it.'

- Sherman A. Jackson, King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture, University of Southern California

‘A prodigiously researched, provocatively argued, learned and multi-faceted treatment of a difficult and complex problem. One might not agree with all of Brown's conclusions, but the book will be a must-read for students and scholars of historical and contemporary Islam, as well as for anyone interested in slavery and its relationship to religion.'

- Bernard K. Freamon, Professor of Law Emeritus, Seton Hall University School of Law

Table of Contents



Notes on transliteration, dates and citation


Introduction: Can We Talk About Slavery?

What I Argue in this Book

Apology for Slavery?

Power and the Study of Slavery

Blackness, Whiteness and Slavery


1 Does ‘Slavery' Exist? The Problem of Definition

The Main Argument

Definition: A Creative Process

Definition to Discourse: A Political Process

Defining \ˈslā-v(ə-)rē\: We Know It When We See It

Defining Slavery as Status or a Condition

Slavery as Unfreedom

Slavery as Human Property

   Patterson & Natal Alienation

Slavery as Distinction: The Lowest Rung & Marginality

Slavery as Coercion & Exploitation under the Threat of Violence

The Problem with Modern-Day Slavery

Slavery & Islam - A Very Political Question

Conclusion: Of Course, Slavery Exists

The Proper Terms for Speaking about ‘Slavery'


2 Slavery in the Shariah

What Islam Says about Slavery - Ideals and Reality

Slavery in the Quran & Sunna

Inheriting the Near East - Roman, Jewish and Near Eastern Laws versus Islam

Islam's Reform of Slavery

Basic Principles of Riqq in the Shariah

The Ambiguities of Slavery in the Shariah

   Riqq & Rights in the Shariah

   Religious Practice

   Freedom of Movement

   Social and Political Roles

   Marriage and Family Life

   Right to Property

   Rights to Life and Physical Protection

Summary: Law and Ethics


3 Slavery in Islamic Civilization

What is Islamic Civilization?

Is there ‘Islamic Slavery'?

The Shariah & Islamic Slavery

   Muslims Enslaving Muslims

The Classic Slavery Zone

Consuming People & ‘Ascending Miscegenation'

Slave Populations

Routes of the Muslim Slave Trade

Blackness and Slavery in Islamic Civilization

The Roles and Experiences of Slaves in Islamic Civilization

The Slave as Uprooted Person and Commodity

The Slave as Domestic Labor . . . Even Trusted Member of a Household

Slave as Sexual Partner

Slave as Saint, Scholar or Poet

Slave as Elite Administrator & Courtesan

Slave as Soldier - When Soldiers often Ruled

Slave as Rebel


4 The Slavery Conundrum

No Squaring the Circle: The American/Islamic Slavery Conundrum

Slavery is Evil

   The Intrinsic Wrongs of Slavery

   Religions and Slavery

   Minimizing the Unminimizable or Historicizing the Unhistoricizable

Slavery is Slavery: The Problem of Labeling ‘Slavery' with One Moral Judgment

   The Moral Wrongness of Slavery as Unfreedom

   The Moral Wrongness of Slavery as Owning Human Property

   The Moral Wrongness of Slavery as Inequality

   The Moral Wrongness of Slavery as the Threat of Violence

   The Bald Man Fallacy and the Wrongness of Slavery

   When Slavery is ‘Not that Bad': The Problem with Conditions vs. Formal Categories

   Do Some People Deserve to be Enslaved?

   Or, Is Freedom a Human Right?

The Past as Moral Authority: Can We Part with the Past?

   The Natural Law Tradition and Slavery

   Critics of Slavery and the Call for Abolition

   The Consequences of Moral Progress

   Muslim Efforts to Salvage the Past


5 Abolishing Slavery in Islam

Is Abolition Indigenous to Islam or Not?

Islam as Emancipatory Force - An Alternative History

Abolishing Slavery . . . For Whom? Concentric Circles of Abolition

‘The Lawgiver Looks Expectantly Towards Freedom' - Abolition as an Aim of the Shariah

Doubling Down - Progressive Islam & the Axiomatic Evil of Slavery

Prohibited by the Ruler but Not by God: The Crucial Matter of Taqyid al-Mubah

If You Can't Do it Right, You Can't Do it at All - Prohibiting Riqq Poorly Done

Same Shariah, Diff erent Conditions - The Obsolescence or Unfavorability of Slavery

Slavery: A Moot Point & Bad PR

Defending Slavery in Islam


6 The Prophet & ISIS: Evaluating Muslim Abolition

Do Muslim Approaches to Abolition Pass Moral Muster?

A Consensus on Abolition

Could Slavery in Islam ever be Unabolished?

Abolition vs. ISIS

This Author's Opinion


7 Concubines and Consent: Can We Solve the Moral Problem of Slavery?

Species of Moral Change

Moral Disgust at Slavery Today

Conclusion & Crisis: Concubinage and Consent

   Consent and Concubines

Disbelief is Unproductive


Appendix 1 - A Slave Saint of Basra

Appendix 2 - Enlightenment Thinkers on Slavery

Appendix 3 - Did the 1926 Muslim World Congress Condemn Slavery?

Appendix 4 - Was Māriya the Wife or Concubine of the Prophet?

Appendix 5 - Was Freedom a Human Right in the Shariah?

Appendix 6 - Enslavement of Apostate Muslims or Muslims Declared to be Unbelievers


Select Bibliography



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