This book was published in 2006, but it has even more relevance today than when it came out, because of the rise of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram that have engaged in selling people they have captured in war and have done so on the basis of religion. This ought to have squelched all tendencies among leftists of accusing some of us of Islamophobia, but their reaction has been to insist that these people are not true Muslims.
Clarence-Smith’s book tells a different tale, and it is a book that should be read by every young person today, if only to counter the anti-Western and pro-Islamic propaganda they are being fed daily by our teachers and professors. Those who have adopted the simplistic notion that the West is bad while the Muslim world is good will find plenty in here that may shock them. Slavery in Islam isn’t just a matter of ISIS and Boko Haram, which they no doubt will explain by saying they were made crazy by Bush’s wars. No, slavery in Islam goes back all the way to the beginning, which is why they need to read this book.
It is true that the author has a small axe to grind, namely he doesn’t accept the “standard” line that says that Islam abolished slavery only because of the pressure of Western imperialists. But it is a small axe, and he is perfectly willing to discuss both the good and the bad on both sides (that is, the Western side and the Muslim side). Because of this, there is plenty in here to shock the sensibilities of the multiculturalist. His rejection of the standard line is due to his belief that things were more complicated than the standard line admits, that some colonial administrators were happy to let the institution of slavery continue, that others were so heavy-handed that they did more harm than good, and so on. Plus, he insists that although Islam was slow to abolish slavery, it questioned it sooner than others did.
Anyway, I had never heard of this standard line before, though I probably should have figured it out on my own. My line is a different one, namely that we are today being sold the story of Islam as the religion of the oppressed, that the West is evil and Islam is good, and that anyone who questions it is an Islamophobe. This book is a useful one in the fight against that story.
The book begins by giving a quick survey of slavery in the Muslim world, and his conclusion is that it was just as bad there as it was everywhere else. Our students seem to have been told that it was milder, but this seems to have come from some Muslims in the last two centuries who were embarrassed by Islam’s record and wanted to do whatever they could to justify it. It is pathetic that our students are now regurgitating excuses from what I would call the Islamic right. Later on in the book, he tells of the Muslim left, which engaged in no such excusing and wanted to eliminate rules from the Qur’an that had no relevance for today’s world (pp. 208ff.).
He also tells of the confused legacy of the Qur’an and the Hadith, for they on the one hand have Muhammad say that the seller of slaves is the most vile of people and that those who free slaves are acting virtuously, while on the other hand they never issue an outright condemnation of slavery. In the ninth century, “jurists developed the fateful theory that the inhabitants of Dar al-Harb, the abode of war, were all potential slaves” (p. 26). Dar al-Harb, of course, includes the West. This edict did not come out of the blue, but had been preceded by both the practice of commandants in the field and scholarly exegesis on the Qur’an. Still, what it meant was that every non-Muslim living in their own lands could be enslaved.
There was some resistance. We learn that the Druze decided as early as the eleventh century to abolish slavery (220), but they were an anomaly. More often, there were people who thought the institution of slavery was abominable, but were forced to put up with it. It happened countless times that a ruler would take steps to eliminate it, but the next ruler would re-instate the status quo. It wasn’t until the coming of the Western imperialists that things really began to change. Even then, change was slow, and as we have seen with the rise of ISIS and Boko Haram, there are still plenty of Muslims who think slavery should be re-instated. This was also the period when many excuses began to be offered. I have already mentioned the excuse that Muslim slavery was milder than it was elsewhere. There was also the excuse that Muhammad thought that slavery would disappear of its own accord, which I believe is also what Thomas Jefferson thought. Then there was the excuse that Islam couldn’t abolish slavery as long as their enemies kept it alive, for then they would be at a disadvantage. Also, because the Qur’an respects property rights, and because slaves were considered property, it was difficult to contemplate abolishing slavery without compensating the owners for their loss. And so on.