June 25, 2020

Teleologies of abolitionism in modern popular understandings of the history of Islam and Christianity

There are a lot of misleading teleologies in the modern appropriation of abolitionism by contemporary Muslim and Christian faith communities. In the eagerness to uncover an 'abolitionist' impulse in their religious past, one frequently observes scholarly and popular efforts to 'prove' that some Muslims or Christians abolished slavery before it became a global norm. There have also been many efforts to portray the founders of these religions themselves as abolitionists. This is complicated by the long history of warfare on the frontiers of Christian and Muslim states, which produced many slaves.

 While I appreciate efforts to uncover these 'lost' histories, I also think it is helpful to define what 'abolitionism' is and what it is not, in the interest of greater clarity about the past. Most Christian and Muslim faith communities have historically had strong prohibitions on enslaving co-religionists. This attitude had long coexisted with a tolerance of enslavement as punishment for being captured in a battle or a war. Prohibiting the capture and sale of co-religionists is not functionally equivalent to an abolitionist viewpoint, although it may have helped in certain ways and at certain times, to stimulate abolitionism's more universalist vision. The prohibition against selling or enslaving co-religionists did not extend to those outside of the 'civilization' created by these universalist faiths, or to the idea of slavery, ownership by another, as being inherently immoral.

 If prohibiting capture and sale of co-religionists was functionally equivalent to abolition, In fact the impulse to extend the name 'abolitionist' to anyone who tried to curtail or regulate the slave traffic of co-religionists, leads to logical and historical absurdities. Are we to regard Bathilde, wife of Clovis II, as an early abolitionist because she outlawed the traffic in Christian slaves in the Merovingian state? Is the Ethiopian emperor Gälawdéwos an abolitionist, for propagating an edict against the illegal slave trade in Christians in 1548? Were the slaveowning founders of the United States 'abolitionists' for banning the slave trade from Africa? I have similar doubts about labeling West African Muslim leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries who similarly tried to curtail the TRADE in CO-RELIGIONISTS, as abolitionists. I would distinguish between people who wanted to end the slave trade or who were outraged by its excesses, from the militant position of abolitionism. Perhaps this makes me a bit out of step with recent scholarly trends, which have tended to take a 'lumping' approach to the phenomenon of abolition, rather than the 'splitting' approach I favor.

 I have argued in the Journal of Global Slavery that abolitionism is a modern discourse with origins in the brutal regime of trans-Atlantic slavery and can only with great difficulty and inconsistency be mapped onto the further past of most faith communities. There is a nonviolent wing exemplified by Quakers, the Great Awakening, and the anti-slavery efforts of people like Olaudah Equiano and Otto Cugboana, as well as an armed resistance wing exemplified by Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Sam Sharpe, the Haitian revolutionaries and the Bahian Muslim rebels. Abolitionism was not the natural working out of the 'inner logic' of the Abrahamic faiths, but a modern response to the contradictions in those discourses which had allowed slavery and the slave trade to continue to flourish. I think it is valuable to make these distinctions so we can gain a more sophisticated historical sense that, just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged as a response to, and was influenced by the Holocaust, the modern human rights revolution of abolitionism was a response to the brutalities of forced migration of Africans across the modern Atlantic, and was first and foremost a diasporic phenomenon of the Americas. My JGS article.


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