November 22, 2016

Yasir Qadhi on slavery in Islam

Some thoughts on this thoughtful presentation from probably the most prominent Muslim traditionalist in America. I very much respect his attempts to engage this serious and important issue. Here are some points where I agree and where I disagree:

1. I appreciate how he tries to contextualize slavery, the terms for it, and the meaning of it in the context of different times. This is an important first step.

2. He is right that slavery (broadly understood) was a universal practice across many cultures globally.

3. He is incorrect that Islam was the first belief system to create rules about slavery. Not sure how he could claim this. He later claims that many other cultures had no 'rules' about slavery. Also incorrect.

4. He is also slightly in error about the 'legitimate' source of slaves in Islam. I think that is probably because he's focused on deriving notions of 'legitimacy' from text, rather than from actual practice. That is a long side debate which I will not take up here.

5. The virtues of manumission are frequently mentioned in the books of law. The interpretation we give to this practice, however, is KEY. See point 7.

6. I find the argument that, because there is no specific law legislating FOR slavery, therefore Muslims don't need it and can preserve the tradition intact...interesting. I'm not fully convinced, mainly because I don't think Qadhi has fully faced the historical and epistemological difficulties of this position.

7. I'm glad to see he raises this past disagreement among the ulama. But he studiously avoids the colonial context of abolition (I am sure he is aware of it, as he has spoken out on the impact of colonialism on Muslims before). This silence is curious. If Qadhi is a traditionalist, and he follows the pious ancestors, then what right does he have to call abolition 'more humane' than previous practices? How can he avoid that abolition was almost always and everywhere forced on Muslim countries by colonial invaders? Finally, we should ask ourselves, how does Qadhi know the INTENTION (his word) of Allah apart from The Quran and the actual practice of the early community? The companions took female captives as slaves or sex slaves (there are plenty of documented instances of this in the hadith tradition). By most accounts, even the Prophet practiced this. Isn't Qadhi saying that the generation of Muslims now who have gotten rid of slavery know better than the early Salaf and the Prophet did, since the later generations were the one to fulfill what he claims is the internal logic of the tradition? I would like to know more about how Qadhi would square this with his veneration for the early companions, and the Prophet himself.

8. I have said it once, and I will say it again: The abolitionist hermeneutic is a modernist hermeneutic. And once you have accepted a modernist 'logic' of history where you believe (as Qadhi seems to here, though implicitly) that history has moved progressively towards abolishing a practice that the early companions openly practiced without sanction, then you have rendered most articulations of traditionalism anachronistic. Progressive history makes a lot of traditionalists nervous, because it undermines their absolutist claims to an 'ethical ground'. Keep this in mind whenever traditionalists accuse liberals of undermining the basis of a 'traditional' Islamic ethics. More often than not the 'tradition' they practice is as modern and anachronistic as anything Muslim progressives have yet dreamed of.

9. I say all of this, not to beat a tired old dead horse, but because I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and emotional polemics on both sides of this issue. We need more clear sighted analysis. I think Qadhi himself might benefit from a serious engagement with scholars working on the links between slavery and law, both in Atlantic and Indian Ocean contexts.


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