The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law: A Review of Possessed by the Right Hand, by Bernard Freamon

For my final guest post on this esteemed Islamic Law Blog, I wanted to highlight the publication of a recent book on a subject that has not received the treatment it deserves in the Islamic world. This is the highly charged matter of slavery, which Professor Bernard Freamon tackles admirably in Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures (Brill 2019).  I would describe Professor Freamon’s work as serving three ends.  First, it offers a broad and ambitious historical overview of practices of slavery within the Muslim world, from the time of the Prophet to the present day. Second, it lays out a rather strong case for the prohibition of slavery on the basis of what Professor Freamon describes as an “emancipatory ethic” that permeates both the Qur’an and the Sunna.  Freamon in this context sympathetically summarizes Bāqir al-Ṣadr’s view that the submission of one human being to another is inconsistent with the Islamic ideal of monotheism and submission to none but God. Finally, and most saliently for the purposes of this post, the book describes why all of this is relevant today.

The matter of relevance in many ways undergirds the entirety of the book and distinguishes it from the extremely valuable and more focused historical accounts offered by such luminaries as Patricia Crone and David Ayalon. Professor Freamon is not interested in describing particular practices in particular eras within the context of those eras. He is a lawyer, not an historian, and he wants to weave a broader narrative, to explain how slavery came about in the Islamic world, how it has evolved, how it has been justified, and how it must now be abolished. This last point almost necessitates a justification of the continuing relevance of Islamic slavery, which Freamon provides.

This is where Freamon’s study really excels. He shows how the shameful mistreatment of foreign workers in places like the Arabian Gulf, and even comparatively progressive Jordan resemble in many ways earlier slave practices throughout the Muslim world, and how practices of sex trafficking in places as diverse as West Africa and the Middle East parallel historical patterns of concubinage. I found the descriptions compelling, so much so that I would encourage anyone with limited time to focus on those chapters alone, for bringing attention to deep deficits of justice that exist in the Muslim world, and for raising very serious questions about whether or not our classical antecedents have provided justificatory cover for these abuses. For this reason if there were no other, we need to talk more about our slavery problem.

Yet there are other reasons, to which Freamon devotes comparatively less attention, though he does devote some. The most obvious was the rather stunning ISIS phenomenon, where seemingly overnight sexual slavery markets were established and justified on the basis of plentiful classical text. There are many reasons that Freamon does not devote the same attention to this as he did to the Gulf phenomenon—ISIS was short lived, broadly viewed across the Islamic world as extremist and illegitimate, and came on the scene after Freamon had done most of the research and writing of his book. The dangers of excessive focus on ISIS are clear enough—the broadly accepted counternarrative is that one cannot take too seriously the Islamic law claims of a motley crew of violence-prone international malcontents with pickup trucks and automatic machine guns. Freamon understandably wants to broaden his argument beyond ISIS to make it clear that the relevance of Islamic slavery is not limited to it.

I wonder whether or not Professor Freamon would have benefited from dwelling a little more on ISIS than he did, however, in particular because the claims ISIS made were not, from a fiqh perspective, all that outlandish, even in the view of modern courts. ISIS claimed that a denial of the right of a man to take a concubine is a denial of Qur’anic text and in this sense an act of apostasy. An Egyptian appeals court in 1995 likewise declared the liberal and reformist linguistics professor, Nasr Abu Zayd, an apostate who had to be forcibly divorced from his wife because, inter alia, he denied the lawfulness of sex as between a man and female slaves he had purchased for sexual pleasure. Egypt’s highest court of general appeal, the Court of Cassation, confirmed this precise determination, albeit in more cryptic terms. Admittedly, the appeals court indicated that the right of a man to such sex depended on the proper conditions being met. From an ethical standpoint, this hardly seems satisfactory. What it means,   in the end, is that both the Egyptian Court of Cassation and ISIS agree that Muslim men may buy some—but not all—women and enslave them for their sexual pleasure, and that to deny this is to deny Islam. The only dispute, it seems, concerns which women are so purchasable.

Finally, the one area that Freamon does not touch upon at all, and which I think deserves a great deal of attention, is what we might describe the badges and incidents of slavery. Much of the Muslim world contains not only structures and institutions that perpetuate racial hierarchies and subjugate those of African descent, but a great deal of outright and rather shameless racism as well. Nowhere is this truer than in the Arab world. Perhaps the best example of this is the deplorable colloquialism throughout the Arab world describing blacks, including and perhaps especially those whose forebears were brought to the region as slaves from the Zanj, by the term ʿabd, which is Arabic for “slave.” These individuals are not slaves, even under an expanded definition that encompasses guest workers exploited in the Gulf.

And yet, in ways that might seem disturbingly resonant to American audiences, they do not hold high places in government, are not represented in significant numbers in professional classes, are clustered in neighborhoods characterized by extreme poverty and neglect, and those that do reach levels of prominence tend to do so in fields such as sports and entertainment. Intermarriage is unthinkable and a black person appearing at a social club is either a waiter or a driver. These are not merely products of structural inequalities and marginalization. Arab fathers admit quite openly that they would never give their consent to their daughter marrying an (in their words) ʿabd, and any suggestion that a black person be admitted as a member to an exclusive social club is more often met with derision and ridicule than any sort of forthright defense of racist practices. Most dissonantly of all, when there is any suggestion that there should be more attention given to the subject of slavery and racism, the near universal retort is that there is no need, as slavery is long past, and racism is an American problem, not an Arab one. Arabs, I have been told more than once, are predominantly Muslim, and Islam does not see race.

So I think it’s about time to talk, and I thank Professor Freamon for his valuable contribution to the conversation.

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