Beyond Slavery pp 107-122 | Cite as

Slavery and Sexual Ethics in Islam

  • Kecia Ali
Part of the Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice book series


All religions that survive for any appreciable period of time must eventually confront the problem of adapting to historical change. How much can beliefs and practices shift without losing the tradition’s essence? How does one determine which things may change and which may not? These are especially complicated questions for faiths with fixed scriptures and carefully preserved texts against which adherents can measure deviation. Just as Christians and Jews have struggled to interpret and apply biblical, rabbinic, and priestly guidance in circumstances quite unlike those of the traditions’ origins, Muslims have engaged their sacred heritage in a wide variety of settings over the centuries. Some of the things that appear as ordinary and normal in the core texts of all three faiths, such as death by stoning for certain types of sexual misconduct, are no longer widely accepted by individual believers.1 But how does someone who believes in the divine provenance of scriptural rules reconcile them with a manifestly different set of ordinary ideas about what is right and wrong? These questions arise urgently when one considers that classical Islamic law accepts both slavery as an institution and the sexual use of female slaves, whereas the overwhelming majority of Muslims today completely reject all forms of slavery.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    Ibn Rushd, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer: A Translation of Bidayat al-Mujtahid, 2 vols., trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee (Reading, UK: Centre for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, Garnet, 1994–1996). These and all other dates refer to the common era. I have slightly altered Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee’s translation of this passage.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ahmed Hassan, “Translator’s Preface to the Chapter on Marriage,” in Sahih Muslim: Being Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muhammad as Narrated by His Companions and Compiled Under the Title Al-Jami’-us-Sahih, 4 vols., trans. ‘Abdul Hamid Siddiqi (1977; New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1995)Google Scholar
  3. Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj al-Qushayri, Sahih Muslim, 8 bks. in 2 vols. (Egypt: Maktabah wa Matbu’ah Muhammad ‘Ali Sabih wa awlad, n.d. [1963?]).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The quotation is from Mohammad Ali Syed, The Position of Women in Islam: A Progressive View (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004) 36.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Mathias Diederich, “Indonesians in Saudi Arabia: Religious and Economic Connections,” chap. 6 in Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf, ed. Madawi Al-Rasheed (London: Routledge, 2005) 128–146.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    U.S. Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs, Slavery, Abduction, and Forced Servitude in Sudan, International Eminent Person’s Group (2002), (accessed July 11, 2009).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis, Slave: My True Story (Cambridge, MA: PublicAffairs, 2005).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Hamid Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2002) 57.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ahmal Alawad Sikainga, “Slavery and Muslim Jurisprudence in Morocco,” Slavery and Abolition 19 (1998) 64–66, 70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 114; intriguingly, in the case of the Sudan, British colonial regulation may have led to more religiously focused justifications for slavery.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) 80f.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Ehud Toledano, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998) 127.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Fatwas by the Permanent Committee, in Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-‘Aziz al-Musnad, collector, Fatawa Islamiyah: Islamic Verdicts (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 2002) 5:96–99. Group fatwas issued by some Saudi scholars stress that enslavement of prisoners would be legal “if any lawful Islamic war took place today between the Muslims and the disbelievers,” according to the ruler’s decision; in the absence of lawful “Jihad against the disbelievers … it is not permissible to establish or institute slavery.” Yet the descendants of those who were lawfully enslaved remain in bondage “until [they] are granted the opportunity to obtain [their] freedom.” See also Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, 184, 221.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992) 72–101.Google Scholar
  15. Shaun E[lizabeth] Marmon, “Domestic Slavery in the Mamluk Empire: A Preliminary Sketch” in Slavery in the Islamic Middle East, ed. Shaun E[lizabeth] Marmon (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1999) 1–23.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islamic Law (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    Zahra Ayubi, “American Muslim Women Negotiating Divorce” (senior thesis, Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Brandeis University, 2006).Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Ibn Kathir, The Life of the Prophet Muhammad: Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, 4 vols., trans. Trevor Le Gassick (Reading, UK: Garnet, 2000)Google Scholar
  19. Aysha Anjum Hidayatullah, “Mariyah the Copt: Gender, Sex, and Heritage in the Legacy of Muhammad’s Umm Walad” (master’s thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2005).Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    The text continues: “In Islam, not multiple marriages but illicit sex—pre- or extramarital fornication and adultery—is immoral. Islam limited the number of female consorts to four (but recommended one), and with this the proviso that all were brought under the protective umbrella of legal marriage.” Henry Bayman, The Secret of Islam: Love and Law in the Religion of Ethics (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2003) 173. Italics in the original.Google Scholar
  21. 23.
    See Ingrid Mattson, A Believing Slave is Better Than an Unbeliever: Status and Community in Early Islamic Society and Law (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1999) 131–141, for a discussion of these issues, and the suggestion that the Qur’anic verses may make a distinction between permissible sex with war captives and (impermissible) sex with female slaves obtained in another fashion.Google Scholar
  22. 24.
    In addition to Mattson, Believing Slave, see Jonathan Brockopp, Early Maliki Law: Ibn ‘Abd Al-Hakam and His Major Compendium of Jurisprudence (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000) 192–205, on the early development of regulations surrounding the umm walad.Google Scholar
  23. 27.
    See Qur’an 4:3; and Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shaf’i, Al-Umm (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1993) 5:215.Google Scholar
  24. 28.
    Muhammad Ala-ud-din Haskafi, The Durr-ul-Mukhtar: Being the Commentary of the Tanvirul Absar of Muhammad Bin Abdullah Tamartashi, trans. B. M. Dayal (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1992) 24. I have altered B. M. Dayal’s translation of this passage in several respects.Google Scholar
  25. 30.
    See Ehud Toledano, “Representing the Slave’s Body in Ottoman Society,” Slavery and Abolition 23 (2002) 57–74.Google Scholar
  26. Leslie P. Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) for a full study of the subject.Google Scholar
  27. 31.
    David Brion Davis, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001) 125.Google Scholar
  28. 32.
    Ghazi A. Algosaibi, Revolution in the Sunnah, trans. Leslie McLoughlin (London: Saqi, 2004) 10.Google Scholar
  29. 33.
    Algosaibi, Revolution in the Sunnah, 37f. There are similar reports in Muslim, Sahih Muslim: Being Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muhammad as Narrated by His Companions and Compiled Under the Title Al-Jami’-us-Sahih, 4 vols., trans. ‘Abdul Hamid Siddiqi (1977; New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1995) 2:732f.Google Scholar
  30. See Muhammad Ibn Isma’il Al-Bukhari, The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari, trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Arabic-English rev. ed., New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1987) 7:103.Google Scholar
  31. 35.
    Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, ed. and trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Evanston, IL: Sunna, 1991; rev. ed., Beltsville, MD: Amana, 1999) 529. Reliance of the Traveller is a work of the Shafi’i school of law (Arabic: madhhab), one of four major Sunni schools that have dominated Muslim history alongside one major and several minor Shi’i schools.Google Scholar
  32. 38.
    ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Baz, et al., “Concerning Polygyny,” in Islamic Fatawa Regarding Women: Shariah Rulings Given by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Ibn Baz, Sheikh Ibn Uthaimin, Sheikh Ibn Jibreen and Others on Matters Pertaining to Women, ed. Muhammad bin Abdul-Aziz al-Musnad, trans. Jamaal Al-Din M. Zarabozo (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 1996) 178. He is responding to a questioner who partially quotes Qur’an 4:3, mentioning orphans but avoiding the portion of the verse discussing “what your right hands possess.” On the interconnections between polygyny and slaveryGoogle Scholar
  33. Zeeshan Hasan, “Polygamy, Slavery, and Qur’anic Sexual Ethics,” Star Weekend Magazine, August 30, 1996, (accessed May 6, 2006).Google Scholar
  34. 40.
    Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Biblioteca Islamica, 1980) 48.Google Scholar
  35. Amira Mashhour, “Islamic Law and Gender Equality: Could There be a Common Ground? A Study of Divorce and Polygamy in Sharia Law and Contemporary Legislation in Tunisia and Egypt,” Human Rights Quarterly 27 (2005) 568f.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 41.
    There are, however, limits to its usefulness as an interpretive approach. See Kecia Ali, “Timeless Texts and Modern Morals: Challenges in Islamic Sexual Ethics,” in New Directions in Islamic Thought: Exploring Reform and Muslim Tradition, ed. Christian Moe et al. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009) 89–99.Google Scholar
  37. 42.
    See, for instance, Majid Khadduri, “Marriage in Islamic Law: The Modernist Viewpoints,” American Journal of Comparative Law 26 (1978) 213–218CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Azizah Y. Al-Hibri, “Islam, Law, and Custom: Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights,” American University Journal of International Law and Policy 12 (1997)Google Scholar
  39. Mashhour, “Islamic Law and Gender Equality,” 569. Mashhour argues that “what is definitely clear in the Qur’an is that all its texts encourage the release of slaves.” Amina Wadud expressed a similar view in Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 101, but makes a different and, I think, more persuasive argument in her later essay, “Alternative Qur’anic Interpretation and the Status of Muslim Women,” in Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America, ed. Gisela Webb (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000) 14f.Google Scholar
  40. 43.
    Khadduri, “Marriage in Islamic Law,” 217; Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991) 139; and Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 9.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Bernadette J. Brooten 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kecia Ali

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations