Traditionalist View on Sex Slavery
by Oliver A Ruebenacker
Are great people immune to mistakes? Most people – even among physicists – consider Albert Einstein the greatest physicist of all times, but would not hesitate to admit that Einstein made devastating mistakes during his career as a physicist; especially that Einstein rejected Quantum Mechanics. However, many Muslims still have painful difficulties admitting that the great ancient scholars of Islam made major mistakes. The traditionalists among today’s Muslims not only believe that there can be no scholar of Islam greater than those who lived several hundred years ago, but they also insist that the teachings of the old scholars need no substantial revisions. How problematic this view is, becomes manifest in two areas: Slavery and treatment of women. This article is about an ugly topic where those two areas overlap: Concubinage or in more modern terms: Sex slavery.
I was confronted with the issue of sex slavery, when I attended a class in traditional Islamic rules and regulations (fiqh) from Fall 2004 to Spring 2005. The class was primarily based on the Shafi’i school, one of the four orthodox Sunni schools of fiqh. Since I am not a traditionalist, my approach to the knowledge we were taught was to apply what sounded right and to dismiss what sounded wrong and I also learned about the Shafi’i school out of academic interest. However, for the more traditionally minded students, everything that our teacher (whom we called “the shaikh”) said was a religious requirement. For those, the class catered to an urgently felt need for religious knowledge, which they felt was necessary to make even the most basic acts of worship valid, and they had every reason to assume that they were taught in the best available quality.
The class, along with a number of other classes, was organized by a non-profit organization whose board consisted of well-educated and well-respected people, including community leaders and popular speakers. There was a ten dollar fee for every student per class session with the possibility of tuition waivers. By now our teacher has left the US, but back then, all classes were taught by the shaikh, who was a traditional scholar not only by subject matter but also by credentials: He had no degrees, but he did have a large pile of teaching certificates (ijazas) by other traditional scholars, who had certificates from their teachers, and so on, claiming to be part of a line reaching back to the Prophet (peace be on him). This kind of qualification was what counted in the eyes of those who ran the classes.
During every class session, our shaikh would at some point start to praise the famous Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, and from the way he talked about him, it was obvious that the two were personally close to each other. One day our shaikh even told us Shaikh Keller appeared to him in a vision. A classmate once told me in a private conversation that Shaikh Keller considered our shaikh to be the second-most knowledgeable person in North America, right after Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, who is the director of the Zaytuna Institute. In fact, Zaytuna served as a role model for this organization.
The class consisted of one three-hour session per week with a five-minute break, and was about stuff that every Muslim was required to know, or so we were told. We learned about how to pray, how to fast, how to do ablution and other things down to incredibly tiny and subtle details. And every little piece we learned was considered required knowledge, necessary to keep our worship valid under all kinds of circumstances which might arise. Our textbook was “Reliance of the Traveller”, a translation into English by Shaikh Keller of an old Shafi’i fiqh manual by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, mostly drawing from the teachings of Imam Nawawi, whose opinion is considered to be the strongest in the Shafi’i school until the present day. The manual was more than 600 years old. Nevertheless, it is believed that it is this translation which makes the Shafi’i school the most accessible one for English-speaking Muslims.
Years ago, before I became Muslim, when I first learned about Islam, one point that bothered me was that Islam appeared to tolerate slavery, at least according to traditional opinion. My Muslim friends responded to my concern with the classical apologetic logic: They said, Islam tolerated slavery only to avoid a social and economic collapse and therefore made slavery vanish not suddenly but gradually over time. When I heard this for the first time, I assumed slavery disappeared in the course of a few generations. Several years after I became Muslim I was shocked when I learned that in fact, slavery lasted on for more than a thousand years, until the nineteenth century, when international agreements with Western countries forced Muslim countries to ban slavery. It is true that the Qur’an commands Muslims to give each slave the right to earn their freedom in the verse 24:33, but traditional scholars played this down to a mere recommendation, which proved to be not effective enough.
But there was something even more shocking: Traditional scholars not only paved the way for centuries of Muslim slavery, but they also ruled that every male master had the right to have sex with any of his female slaves whenever he wanted, no matter whether she agreed or not. This not only shatters any illusion one might have about the dignity a slave enjoyed according to traditional scholars, it also smashes any hope to find a social or economical rationale for it. To me, this became a prime example for the necessity of reform of Islamic rules and regulations. I thought that any reasonable person would agree that the case of slavery and sex slavery showed clearly that the traditional schools could not be relevant for us today without major revision. Unfortunately, I had to learn that traditionalists do not agree.
Finally, in late Spring of 2005, the day came which turned out to be the last day I ever went to this fiqh class. I happened to meet one of the other students shortly before class, and I asked him how he thought we should respond to the need for revision, especially considering that our textbook was based on a work more than six hundred years old. The other student replied, there was not much need to revise the traditional thought, but maybe only add something in those places where the traditional scholars were silent. No need at all to change anything substantial. I asked him about slavery and sex with slaves, and he suggested I ask the shaikh. And so I did.
And so it came as it had to come. When the class reached the five minute break, I asked the Shaikh, whether it was permitted for a male master to sleep with slave women against their will. He immediately said yes, and he added this was agreed upon by all four Sunni schools – Shafi’i, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali. I asked to clarify, so if there was a slave market today, I could go and buy a fourteen year old girl just in order to sleep with her? He said yes, and he added, not only was it permitted, it was also common practice among early Muslims. Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the shaikh said, had children from his slaves. The class was shocked, especially the female students. One female student asked, what if the slave woman did not want to? The sheikh affirmed that this was not relevant. Another female student asked, whether this was still applicable today? The shaikh did not address this question – he did not seem to understand what the student meant by “applicable” – but he added that when agreements against slavery came up the Muslim countries “were the first ones to sign”. The shaikh said sex slavery was perfectly according to the Qur’an. I later checked with a more reform-oriented scholar who assured me that the Qur’an does not permit this kind of abuse of human beings.
Now let me be absolutely clear that this was more than just the words of a crazy fiqh teacher. What our shaikh told us is perfectly in line with the consensus of more than thousand years of Islamic scholarship. Let me spell it out:
It is permitted (halal) according to all traditional schools (madhabs) to have sexual intercourse with slave girls of the age of nine years or above against their will and without marrying them. And when I say according to the traditional schools, I mean it was consensus among the scholars of all classic schools of Islamic law be it Sunni or Shia. It is all over the classic sources of Islamic law where this issue is elaborated to great detail.
Now what the past scholars said is one thing, how modern Muslim scholars deal with it is another. Unfortunately, the question is rarely asked, because most Muslims are unaware of the problems, but if it is asked, traditionally oriented scholars fail to condemn sex slavery. Even some of the most influential contemporary scholars are defending and justifying sex slavery .
Sunnipath is one of the favourite places where Western Muslims go for Islamic education and fatwas (legal opinions) on everyday life issues. Ask any of the great scholars living today who adhere to traditionalist Islamic thinking. They will all say you have to put the issue of slavery and sex slavery into historical context, but they will all agree that these are permissible in principle, at best suspended due to the lack of a proper Islamic state. And they will refuse to call it abuse or rape or evil.
If they fail to condemn slavery and sex slavery as a universal evil, then what would stop these immoral practices from coming back in the future?
Slavery was supposed to gradually disappear according to Islam. The Qur’an tells believers to give their slaves options to buy themselves free. The Prophet (peace be upon him) freed all his slaves. We Muslims are supposed to take him as a role model. But our traditionalist scholars still refuse to believe that slavery and sex slavery are permanently banned by Islamic Law and can not come back under any circumstances. And if in ten or twenty years international law disappears and there is a Caliph who fights a just war and takes war captives, then there could be slave markets again, and then Muslim men would go and buy slave girls and have sex with them without marrying them, whether these girls like it or not.
After this, I did not go to fiqh class any more. I figured out there is no use in learning details from people I do not agree with on the basic moral principles. The issue of sex slavery caused me to doubt that classic Islamic schools can be reformed without abolishing the traditionalist approach. Both Sunni and Shia consider Ali Ibn Abi Talib a major role model, and if he slept with his slaves, according to traditionalist logic, it must be fine. But it has also clarified the lines: The position on slavery and sex slavery is a litmus test which helps us to distinguish between traditionalists and modernists rather sharply.
There is an addendum to this article
- For a while (more than a year, maybe much longer), there was an article by Shaykh Gibril Haddad on the website of the Sunnipath Academy, originally here, which disappeared, but has been copied by other websites, for example here, here and here. Shamira Chothia, a fiqh teacher from Zaytuna Institute, referred to this article when asked about sexual intercourse with slaves.
There is an addendum to this article
Mr Oliver A Ruebenacker is a convert from Germany who lives with his wife in Cambridge, Massachuetts. Oliver has a PhD in Physics and works as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Biological Physics.