Friday, May 18, 2018

Does Islam sanction slavery?


There are a number of issues that are raised by detractors and sincere questioners alike, among them being the institution of slavery, in particular sex slavery. In recent years, the emergence of ISIS and BOKO HARAM in Nigeria  ( whose leadership actually declared themselves loyal to ISIS), and their actions of kidnapping  girls and reportedly selling them on the open market has led to this particular question being asked once again raised in the world stage.

The answers that are typically given are either incorrect, over-simplified, or simply misrepresented, without depth both theologically and historically.

This is understandable when we consider that as a term, slavery has been universally outlawed and not practiced on the world stage for a long time, as well as a natural aversion to images of oppression that comes from the areas where these activities are taking place.

ISIS themselves presented a long document defending their taking Yazidi and Shiite  girls as slaves, replete with references to Islamic texts. As if this was not bad enough, in more recent times migrants from a number of African countries, seeking to work in Europe, have been captured in war-torn Libya by groups who have been filmed beating, torturing, extorting for ransom and actually selling as slaves has rightly caused an outrage.

With these realities in mind, let us look at the Islamic texts and history.

Slavery as a social institution during Prophet Muhammad's time

It is undeniable that for a good portion of human history, slavery in some forms has existed. It did exist in Arabia in the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.  Slavery, in much of the world's history, would happen in a number of ways, such as  (1) Enemies captured during conflict. (2) Debts. (3) As punishment for certain crimes.

It is also to be noted that the Quranic revelation acknowledged the presence of this institute, and sought to deal with it in a number of ways.

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.(Q 2:177, Saheeh International translation).

There are other verses which has a similar message of freeing of slaves as an expiation for certain incorrect actions(Ft.1), but in the above verse we see the emancipation of slaves as a demonstration of virtue. Thus, the Prophet (Sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and the early Muslims were known to purchase slaves from their owners in order to free them.

In the Prophet's final address, he says "feed and clothe them (your slaves) as you feed and clothe yourselves".

The words of the above ahadeeth, if practiced, actually put an end to slavery practically.

We do not claim that this actually happened on a massive scale after the Prophet's death. Indeed, it is our view that many of the Islamic principles enshrined in the Qur'an and Prophetic tradition were in fact never fully crystallized(2), nonetheless the point is that throughout the Qur'an itself, we find that it preaches a religion that seeks to remove harm and oppression, and it is this reason that it had such wide appeal(3). 

Slavery in Muslim history

As an institution, slavery was not eliminated, and would occur largely in the ways described in the introduction, in particular through the process of war and debt. Yet, this institution did not prevent social advancement. Slaves actually became the rulers in places such as Egypt and India.

One narration attributed to the Prophet states "If a maimed slave is appointed leader, and he conducts your affairs according to the Book of Allah, obey him.( Saheeh Muslim, 20:4533).

Slavery in Muslim jurisprudence (Fiqh)

There are a number of rules associated with slavery. Indeed, the discussions are extremely lengthy, and often uses examples that are related to owning and regulating slaves.

Slaves could negotiate their way to freedom by agreeing upon a contract, in which after payment, he was freed. A woman who gives birth to the child of the master( known as Umm Al Walad)  is automatically freed, even hitting a slave could win the latter's freedom, according to some authorities.

Slaves themselves, according to the jurists, had almost the same rights as the free. One rather pointed 
example is that of marriage. Maliki jurisprudence allows for a slave to have four wives, whereas other madhaahib allowed only two.

This sort of debate shows us that the lives of slaves in Muslim control was nothing like the chattel slavery of the Western hemisphere, to which we are so accustomed to knowing about.

Sex slavery

It is our view that this aspect is the most misunderstood aspect of this topic, in part because of the presence of the Arabic term in the Qur'an known as  Milk-ul-Yameen, which is typically translated into English  as "right hand possessed" or even "handmaid". Even among Muslims whose first language is Arabic, this term is understood to reference a woman captured and sold to a buyer.

It is sometimes said that the Prophet himself had a harem (Arabic "Hareem"), filled with captured women, to serve him at his whims. The Prophet, upon whom be peace and blessings, certainly had wives, but he lived in an extremely humble manner, so much so that the Qur'an itself mentions his wives complaining about this, and they are given a choice to divorce the Prophet or to stay with him in such a living situation ( Q 33: 28-29).

Linguistically, Milk Ul Yameen {Malakat Aymaanakum often in the Quranic phraseology} refers to those whose maintenance and livelihood are largely dependent upon one person. Perhaps a person who does not have family support, because of being a foreigner in a strange land, or financial hardships, or other reasons. Such a person in such a situation needs a solution to their problems.

The Qur'an uses the term in both intimate and non intimate contexts. It appears in the context of working in a household ( 24:58 and 33:55- the latter speaking of malakat aymaanahunna, for women) .

It seems to be a sort of relationship that is not socially seen as the same level as that of a wife, yet treated as an equal relationship in the Qur'an itself ( 4:3, 24, 25 23:6, and other places).

So, it should be seen that Milk Ul Yameen is not a slave, at least not as conceptualized according to the Qur'an, but rather a relationship that is similar to the marriage relationship.

Islam does not teach or allow rape, murder, kidnapping, exploitation and mistreatment of others. Indeed, even if one were to concede that Milk ul yameen meant a slave, the Qur'an itself says Milkulyameen is to be treated well ( Q 4:36) . One other text even says that female and male slaves alike should be sought out as marriage partners if they are found to have righteous character ( 24:32).

If people indeed transgress bounds and commit crimes against other human beings, they will be accountable before Allah for that.

Islam is a faith that has a very realistic approach to life and the issues one encounters therein. It is nice to give charity occasionally to an orphan or a widow, but the best solution is the long-term or permanent solution. Solutions are not only financial, but they also are found within emotional, physical, and family support. The Quranic term Milk Ul Yameen is one of those solutions, but in no way should it be mistaken for slavery.

[1] Freeing of slaves as an expiation for certain wrong acts are found in many places in the Qur'an, such as 5:89, 24:33, 58:3 and 90:13. With regards to Q 2:177, I think another application for the term "liberation of one in bondage"(Fir Riqaab) is funding an education.

[2] One important example is that of Shuraa, or consultation as necessary for governing. The Qur'an (42:38) has this as next to religious rituals, yet while we have understood the ritual of Salaah and spending in charity, yet, unfortunately, much of our history has been filled with dictators, some of whom even saw themselves as "God's shadow on Earth".

[3] Slaves counted as among the earliest followers of the Prophet, but more importantly is that the Islamic message of worship of God and brotherhood of man, as well as universal justice. The Qur'an  even says that it is necessary to stand for justice, even if it runs counter to family ( 4:135)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Remarks at the Divine Feminine gathering

[Note: The following is an edited version of my remarks at the MFC organized monthly gathering, held Sunday May 13, 2018 at Trinity Episcopal Church. ]

Good evening:

In terms of the theological aspect of this subject, the religion of Islam has a very clear and straightforward teaching. The ninth century Sunni Islamic theologian named Abu Ja'far Ahmad b. Muhammad At-Tahawi, better known simply as Imam Tahawi writes " Indeed, God is one, without partner, nothing is like him, nothing is beyond his power, He is eternal, without a beginning point, everlasting, without end...nothing occurs except what He wills, He does not resemble the creation, He lives and dies not, self-supporting who sleeps not, He creates and is never in need.." ['Aqeedat At-Tahawiyyah]

The contemporary discussions surrounding the phraseology and particular  pronouns to use for The Divine Reality have no Islamic equivalent. While it is true that God is referred to as "He", it is also true that the use of such pronouns does not imply natural gender. Muslim scholars also understand the name "Allah" as being the the unique name of the Divine, and thus do not view Allah has being neither male nor female."Allah" is unique and unparalleled.

Human cultures universally have associated the feminine with characteristics such as Nurturing, Loving, Patient, Beautiful, and Forgiving. Those attributes are certainly known within Islam as being among the 99 names of Allah. Also worth noting is that contrary to popular belief, Islam at it's core demands respect for women.  One of the chapters of the Qur'an is called "Women", and both genders have the same spiritual potentials.  Prophet Muhammad tells us that "Paradise lies under the feet of mothers"- a good narration in light of mother's day.

The Qur'an speaks of God throughout the text, among them are

"He is Allah, besides whom none deserves worship but Him. The one who knows the unseen and the seen, He is the Merciful, The Compassionate. He is Allah, Besides whom none deserves worship but Him, The Sovereign, The Sacred, The Source of Peace, The Protector, The Mighty, The Powerful, ..." [Q 59:22-23]

"Say: He is Allah alone, Allah the Eternal. He does not give birth to any, nor was He given birth to, and there is nothing like Him." [Q 112:1-4].

Thank you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Al-Faatihah: It's relevance to modern life

This lecture examines the first chapter of the Qur'an, the main prayer text within Islam. It includes some issues such as grammatical explanations, prayer within the New Testament, and the worldview Al-Faatihah should create.

Comments and discussion are welcome.

Al-Faatihah: It's relevance to modern life

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Being Successful In Life: A Quranic Perspective


Today's world has largely accepted the notion that ''success" is determined by the amount of items and cash one has been able to acquire. In fact, most institutions of learning, sciences, and social building are built upon this premise. This has also infiltrated the realm of religion, the most relevant example being within the Christian community, which has a theological movement therein known as The Gospel Of Prosperity. (#1)

These assertions are not meant to convey an idea that mankind needs to become wandering ascetics, in the tradition of Buddhist monks in Thailand and other places. Indeed, if anything, the Qur'an teaches us a balanced perspective when it comes to the acquisition of material comforts. We need only quote two  Quranic  references:

"Say: Who has eternally forbidden (Harrama) God's pleasant (things)  which He has produced for his servants, as well as that which is wholesome from His (own) provision? Say: They are for those who believe, in this life, as well as [being manifested ] specially on the Day of Resurrection. Thus, We (Allah) explain signs to a people of knowledge." ( Q 7:32)

 Our Lord! Give on us that which is pleasant in this life, as well as that which is pleasant in the after-life, and protect us from the punishment of the fire ( Q 2:201).

The latter is a supplication (du'aa) to be made, invoking Allah. It also provides us with evidence of a balanced worldview advocated by Islamic teachings.

What constitutes success?

The Qur'an is very clear that there is this life as well as the life to come. They are related and- in a sense- codependent upon each other, and that connection can often create some misunderstandings in terms of how we approach and understand the Qur'an. One particular Soorah which is the victim of this is Soorah Al Qaari'ah [Chapter 101].

It does talk about the Judgement day, as does chapters which are in the same general location in the Quranic codex. Yet it also speaks of something else entirely, related yet different from the afterlife and from the day of Judgement.

Repeatedly, the Qur'an tells us of scales, by which actions will be weighed on the day of Judgement. However, it is also has impact here in this very life. Carefully read the following verses from Soorah Al-Qaari'ah.

"Therefore, those whose scale is heavy, for him is a happy existence" ( Q 101:6-7).

We understand that these scales are to be heavy with worship, charity and fasting, but we also should understand that the scales should be heavy with positive and productive initiatives.  We are talking beyond simply political and economic power, rather, we are talking about things such as the cultivation of good character, deeds, knowledge, understanding, compassion and trustworthiness.

The only way the scale can be heavy is when these acts of cultivation are done on a regular basis. Allah says here in these verses that such who engage in this will be blessed with a sense of satisfaction in this life, as well as to be expected in the life to come.

This is summarized elsewhere in the Qur'an as "Alas, in the remembrance of Allah, hearts find contentment" ( Q 13:28).

In other words, recalling God's blessings to you, as well as his own attributes- in the here and now can bring forth the benefit of a happy life in the hear and now. That awareness and understanding translates practically in the cultivation of good personal ethics, actions and ultimately satisfaction.

Success's opposite

"And those whose scales are light, then his 'refuge' is whims " ( Q 101:8-9).

These two verses have to be read alongside vv.6-7 as mentioned above. These verses here show us that satisfaction has not been achieved by such folks. They are discontented, so they seek to attain contentment/happiness by making their goal or their refuge in whims. This is captured very well in the expression Fa-Ummuhu Haawiyah.(#2)

Haawiya is from Hawaa, which means whims, lusts, and the like. In other words, it is speaking to the narcissistic personalities,   people whose only goals are the satisfaction of their egos [an eternal hunger, which is actually never satisfied] and the trappings of materialism and all that glitters.

"And what will teach you about [the reality of ] whims?  It is [actually] a blazing fire" ( Q 101:10-11)

While it is clear that an afterlife exists, which has categories we know of as paradise ( Jannah) and Hell (Jahannam), it should also be clear that the foundations of that are manifested here in this life. The personality whose focus is only on ego and control is never secure. That personality hates and actually is likewise hated by others, yet does not care. That personality attains power and yields it in with destructive results.

The Qur'an phrases it in this fashion:

"Have you not observed the one who takes his whims [Hawaahu] as his object of worship? God has made such most astray, upon His own knowledge ( of that character's inner realities) placed a seal on his hearing, heart, and has veiled his vision..." ( Q 45:23).

In short, success is happiness, doing good, positive attitudes and inner-cultivation. If we can remember that and work on that, we will naturally fall out of the orbit of those who don't have that same interest, and, thus, be protected from their harm.

If we see the qualities of the hell-bound in our own thinking and actions, that should inspire us to BE BETTER, to aspire to change.

That can happen, with God's help as well as our own efforts ( Q 13: 11)


[1]  The Gospel Of Prosperity is essentially a movement within American Christianity which places emphasis on material things as evidence that God has blessed you. This writer recalls attending a panel discussion at a University, in which a Pastor who follows this ideology spoke against charity! The historical development of this concept is too complex to explain in a footnote, but it is important to know that many of the famous Televangelists adhere to this thinking. For a summary of the historical development of this trend, see

[2] "Umm" can mean "mother", "source" as well as "refuge". In other  words, here the Qur'an is telling us that the whole goal of those seemingly hell-bound is their Hawaa. The phraseology in Arabic is very profound, and admittedly I find it difficult to translate the same feeling into written English.