September 28, 2017

Omar Suleiman on slavery in Islam

Great lecture by Sheikh Omar Suleiman.

I post it here, because it shows how brilliant people like Omar Suleiman can still be led into cognitive dissonance and unsustainable claims on this explosive issue. They know the Islamic sources with incredible erudition and expound them with clarity, but frequently go astray when engaging in comparative historical analysis.

 Here are some brief comments on the talk:

At 1:11:13 he states there were no ethical systems, before, during, or even for 700 years after the Prophet that, encouraged freeing slaves. Actually the Druze (a group which I doubt Omar Suleiman would claim as Muslim) abolished slavery in the 11th century. Also, the Sassanids (under the influence of Zoroastrianism, I believe) had before Islam elaborated a series of laws regulating treatment of slaves, and encouraging emancipation. Gregory of Nyassa, going much further than the Prophet Muhammad, and several hundred years before he lived, says: "...God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?" Because of these overlooked examples, I don't think Sheikh Omar Suleiman's particular historical claim can be sustained.

 Right after that he says, "we [as Muslims] only expand within permissible bounds." But if you apply that universally, there is nothing absolutely prohibiting slavery in the Quran or hadith. There is only 1)limits on treatment of slaves & 2) encouragement of manumission. There is nothing absolutely prohibiting slavery in the original sources of Christianity by the way.

 I am not convinced by his 'abolitionist' trajectory and invoking of the 'sunset clause' around 1:16. Presentism on this issue is fairly rampant in our community, and I think he is engaging in it here. Slavery didn't wither in Islam, after the death of the Prophet. In fact it grew as Islamic civilization grew. And its death was hastened not by the Prophet's call for manumission, but by radical abolitionists, western and non-western.

Suleiman's discussion of zakat immediately after thoroughly confuses the issue. He then follows up with an allusion to the world economy of the time being dependent on slavery, implying that Islamic civilization somehow ended that dependence. But the historical record is pretty clear that Islamic civilization increased the dependence of the world economy on slavery and significantly expanded the slave trade.

Finally, a word about the practice of manumission. We often view it as a liberal practice. But manumission also sustains slavery. It doesn't solve the root cause of inequality between people. More importantly, it can subtly encourage people to think that slaves will be a permanent part of the moral landscape, and thus divert more radical approaches to human equality by the enslaved themselves by saying that Muslim or Christian virtue is already attainable for slaves...ergo no need to be free! Nevertheless, I appreciate Sheikh Omar's attempt to sincerely deal with a difficult topic.
 

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