Book review: “Slavery and Islam” by Jonathan A. C. Brown

Over time, I have made a few friends on Goodreads that live outside of the U.S. I often find myself adding a book on a topic that I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, and Slavery and Islam by Jonathan A. C. Brown was one of those. I chose to pick it up now, because the topic seemed particularly relevant given the recent protests, including the pulling down of statues of individuals who don’t meet today’s standards of morality. Brown actually explicitly mentions these in his book, including this provocative line:

If slavery is a manifest and universal evil, why did no one seem to realize this until relatively recently, and what does that mean about our traditions of moral reasoning or divine guidance? Why do our scriptures condone slavery and why did our prophets practice it? How can we venerate people and texts– the prophets, Founding Fathers, a scripture or founding document– that considered slavery valid or normal? And, if we see clear and egregious moral wrongs that those people and texts so conspicuously missed, why are we venerating or honoring them in the first place?

Wow, that about sums it up. The book comments on the American struggle with slavery, because the Founding Fathers, whom we revere, practiced slavery. But the book’s true focus in how Islam is trying to come to grips with its history of slavery. This issue has rocketed to the fore since the founding of ISIS, which has used the Quran and Sharia to justify the re-introduction of slavery. Brown and other Muslims are rightly concerned that this will cause a wave of Islamophobia (it has); how do we show that slavery isn’t “in Islam’s DNA”? This challenge is even harder for Muslims, because one of their religious tenets is that Mohammed, the founding prophet of Islam, could not sin. So you can’t accuse him of a gross moral wrong– no “he lived in a different time” excuses apply.

I found this book so particularly engaging, because as a Latter-Day Saint, our religious tradition has a similar conundrum. Unlike Islam, Latter-Day saints don’t claim prophetic infallibility. But in practice, we act like we do. Even when claiming prophetic infallibility, trying to justify Joseph Smith’s polygamy is playing moral gymnastics. And the recent defacing of the statue of Brigham Young on BYU campus directly overlaps with the larger discourse in the US on the legacy of slavery. How can we venerate prophets like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young when some of their faults seem so egregious?

Brown structures his book around what he refers to as the Slavery Conundrum: three axioms that contradict each other:

(1) Slavery is an intrinsic and gross moral evil.
(2) Slavery is slavery.
(3) Our past has moral authority over us.

Pick two, because you can’t have all three. For most of history, the Islamic world– and the West for that matter– didn’t include (1) and (2). Slavery was an accepted part of life, not a gross moral evil. The Bible doesn’t address it directly, other than tangentially– directing slaves to obey their masters, and masters to treat their slaves well. It doesn’t challenge it, doesn’t give it a moral dimension. The same applies to the Quran. As for (2), what has gone under the name “slavery” has varied so much from time and place, it’s hard to come up with a definition that captures all types. We in America only know our “brand” of slavery defined by the Atlantic slave trade. But the system of slavery in the Islamic world, known as riqq, was a lot different, and changed from time and place. Slaves could earn their way out of bondage, and slaves weren’t differentiated by their skin color. You even had very powerful slaves running countries, such as Rustem Pasha, the slave of the sultan, who served as the Grand Vizier.

Brown covers both Christian and Muslim attempts to square the slavery conundrum in modern times. Attempts to justify slavery violate (1) and (2). While many activists today choose to do away with (3), as has been shown by the toppling of statues. Brown saves his own interpretation for the end, which is rather quite jarring. As a Muslim, you cannot violate (3) without taking yourself out of the mainstream of Islam. This leads him to the following conclusions:

If it is not the faculty of human reasoning operating as a mirror for transhistorical moral truths that has led us to our passionate rejection of slavery in the modern period, then what is it? The answer is that it is more localized and contextualized moral reasoning rooted in how modern societies have prioritized various goods and bads, valued the construct of equality over that of hierarchy and favored the categories of both humanity and nation-state identity over religious confession…

To many it may seem demeaning to boil our deeply felt moral condemnation of slavery down to nothing more than ‘custom’. But this reaction betrays two unusual, moral tendencies. We trivialize custom as mundane, and we conflate what we ‘feel’ to be wrong with absolute Moral Wrong identified as either by some perceived grasp of mankind’s true nature or by indisputable reason.

The response to this objection is simple, though it may be unsatisfying to many. Simply put, the depth of feeling does not equal a true reflection of a universal morality. And custom is far more powerful than determining what type of gifts we give at weddings.

We feel disgust and revulsion at eating dog in the West. It’s custom. Brown puts slavery into this category. By itself, slavery is not a moral wrong, even if you feel strongly about it.

I am assuming many reading this book will strongly disagree with Brown. In fact, when I tried putting Brown’s arguments forward to my wife, her reaction was immediate. Slavery is wrong! It was always wrong! It will always be wrong!

I think Brown though is taking on a topic most of us would rather slip under the rug. How would you solve the Slavery Conundrum?

Brown asks for a type of moral humility, or intellectual humility surrounding morals. In our culture today, we are quick to condemn others who live in a different moral world than us. In fact, I couldn’t help but reflect on Jonathan Haidt’s explanation of different moral priorities on the left and right, the left focusing entirely on fairness and harm, while the right also prioritizes loyalty, authority, and purity. If we can have such strong different moral worlds in America– that are becoming even more moralistic– is it such a surprise that others have prioritized values differently that we do? Does that mean that were evil, or less “enlightened” than us? Brown doesn’t think so ending on this note:

Yet it would be self-righteous and dangerous to think that we inhabit a moral sphere that has risen completely above the benighted strata of even our recent past. Those relationships and ideas that we profess ourselves too mature to fathom were commonplace for our parents, our grandparents, our presidents, our philosophers, and our prophets. We still speak their language, employ their principles, seek their guidance in their exempla and worship their gods. We value ‘freedom’, ‘consent’, ‘kindness’, ‘justice’, and ‘equality’ because they elaborated these ideas– slaveowners and slaves though they were… It either leaves us in cultural and cognitive dissonance, harshly denouncing a heritage we still venerate. Or it deludes the wealthy and comfortable of the globe today into the fiction that all the darkness is in our past, letting us exploit and oppress while we forget ‘that one may smile, and be a villain.’

4 thoughts on “Book review: “Slavery and Islam” by Jonathan A. C. Brown

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  1. Islam encouraged the manumission of slaves and their humane treatment. there are explicit hadiths and verses regarding this.
    Al-Quran 2:177 Virtue does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West; virtue means believing in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the prophets; the virtuous are those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives and to orphans and the very poor, and to travelers and those who ask for charity, and to set slaves free, and who attend to their prayers and pay the alms, and who keep their pledges when they make them, and show patience in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the true believers; and such are the God-fearing.
    Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, Book 89, Hadith 256, Narrated Anas ibn Malik-Allah’s Messenger said, “You should listen to and obey, your ruler even if he is an Ethiopian (black) slave whose head looks like a raisin.”
    Mishkat-ul Masabeeh 3662- It has been narrated by Umm Hussain (r) that Prophet (s) said- “If any slave is appointed as your Imam and he rules and leads you according to the book of Allah then listen to him obediently and act on it.”
    Sahih-al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 655: Narrated Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari: Allah’s Apostle said, “If a person teaches his slave girl good manners properly, educates her properly, and then manumits and marries her, he will get a double reward. And if a man believes in Jesus and then believes in me, he will get a double reward. And if a slave fears his Lord (i.e. Allah) and obeys his masters, he too will get a double reward.”

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    1. Hi Atul — definitely agree with you, and the author, Jonathan Brown, goes into much detail about riqq and how it was much more humane than slavery as was practiced in the West. Brown is actually a devout Muslim, hence his interest in writing this book.
      The issue at stake for Brown though are the first and second points of the slavery conundrum: (1) slavery is a gross and intrinsic moral evil and (2) all slavery is slavery, there really isn’t a way to justify it. As you have done, Brown denies both (1) and (2): slavery isn’t inherently wrong, just when done improperly, and there are different kinds of slavery, some much worse than others.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I have seen some of his research works.
        Thank you for writing this. it refreshed my memory about certain aspects.
        You have reviewed the book well. Mashallah.
        Warm regards!

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