As a scholar, activist, and Muslim woman, I find it necessary to critique Jonathan Brown’s recent statements regarding sexual consent and the institution of slavery. On February 7th, 2017, Brown delivered a lecture at the International Institute for Islamic Thought entitled “Islam and the Problem of Slavery.” While the lecture proposes to revisit the institution of slavery in Islamic history, it is filled with comments like: “slavery cannot just be treated as a moral evil in and of itself, because slavery doesn’t mean anything,” “I don’t think it’s morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us” and “we fetishize the idea of [sexual] autonomy to the extent that we forget, again, who is really free?”
Though the most shocking of these comments occur during the question and answer session where Brown spoke off script, it would seem that Brown’s project on slavery seeks to trivialize rather than to add historical nuance. Apart from discussing certain eras in general terms, he mentions only two individual Muslim slaves. Brown’s argument, an apologetic one, appears to be that slavery in Islamic history wasn’t that bad. His attempt to make this argument is the result of an unscholarly, and overly narrow understanding of Islam, one held by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In the introduction to published version of his talk (“Slavery in Islam – Part 1: The Problem of Slavery”), Brown asks, “Is there slavery in Islam?” to which he adds that “the Islam part is relatively straightforward.”
This framing of Islam leaves little room for change, dialogue, or contradiction. Because of the dominance of an essentialist understanding of Islam, those who fear Islam hold contemporary Muslims responsible for the actions and beliefs of Muslims from earlier historical periods.
Yet in this case, a Muslim scholar finds it necessary to justify and condone actions by Muslims, no matter how reprehensible they may have been in historic practice.
Brown attempted an apology for his statements in his article “Apology without Apologetics,” but, despite the glib title, he continues to engage in apologetics to support his broader argument about slavery and sex slavery in Islamic history. For example, he walks back his earlier questioning of whether Muslim wives have recourse to the idea of sexual consent in their relationships with their husbands, but does not address the issue of a concubine’s lack of legal consent throughout much of Islamic history. Regarding the institution of slavery, Brown uses a similar argument to those used by defenders of American slavery: that slavery was not abolished earlier because “it [would] have been too economically disruptive.” He doubles down on his claim that it is really only “our American slavery” that “was a manifestation of the absolute domination of one human being by another that is, in my opinion, a universal wrong across time and space.” What he leaves out is that Muslim slavers and traders were an integral part of the network that made the trans-Atlantic slave trade possible.
On the other hand, conservative pundits who point to the abolition of slavery as a means to express the cultural superiority of ‘Western civilization’ are also abhorrent. By their perverse reasoning, European ideals alone led Europeans to benevolently realize the error of engaging in slavery on an historically unprecedented scale. In reality, abolition came about through the long, hard struggle of those who fought for their humanity to be recognized. In the example of abolition, we can see that multiculturalism—the hard-earned recognition of the humanity of others—is a source of good in human society.
From Brown’s dismissive comments on consent and autonomy as modern, Western obsessions, it is clear that, like those on the alt-right, he too rejects the multi-cultural ideal. What Brown and Western supremacists seem to share is the idea that Muslims are somehow set apart from the wider world in which they live. Western and Islamic civilization are not mutually exclusive. As McGill historian of philosophy Carlos Fraenkel has demonstrated, the philosophical ideal of rational autonomy as a reflection of Divine rule was a major aspect of the Platonic traditions shared by European, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers. Likewise, the institutions of slavery in Western and Islamic societies cannot be divorced either.
I was appalled by Professor Brown’s comments that minimized the severity of the institution of slavery as well as the importance of consent in sexual relationships. My reaction was shared by many of my peers in Islamic studies circles. As scholars, it is important that we teach Islam as a human and historical phenomenon.
It is irresponsible to simply relativize the concepts of slavery, human autonomy, and consent to a point where they have no meaning.
We have to think about the impact of our comments on our students and the university community. Dismissals of the importance of consent are particularly damaging to the ongoing efforts to combat sexual assault on campus and of course for survivors of sexual assault themselves. With regard to slavery, we are at a moment where American universities like Georgetown are being forced to confront their history of slavery, thanks in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement. While understanding the diverse forms that slavery has taken is important, the interconnected histories of slavery likewise must be acknowledged. Questioning whether slavery is even a problematic institution is an insult to activist efforts and the continuing wounds of slavery in American society.
Finally, some have asked whether the present moment, when Islamophobia is rampant, is the time to critique a Muslim scholar publicly. To this, I can only reply—why should issues that primarily impact women and minorities be tabled for later? When will the better time to approach these topics arrive? Now is the time for Muslim academics to confront their privilege and the outsized impact of their pronouncements. Discussions of sexual consent and slavery must be addressed in a sensitive and nuanced way, not as a tool to proclaim civilizational superiority from the lectern.
Below please find a transcription of the most disturbing part of Brown’s original talk:
Jonathan Brown: “I actually think this is, this is sort of exporting our sin here because we take our history of slavery, and we just dump that on to other people, when they might have absolutely no, I mean, was there, was there occasionally racialized slavery in Islamic civilization? Yes. Was there unacceptable exploitation of people in Islamic civilization? Yes. But I think if you took the Shariah understanding of slavery and even the general practice of slavery in Islamic civilization, I don’t think its comparable at all to plantation chattel slavery in the Americas. It’s just not comparable at all. First of all, uh, it was rarely racialized. Two, it was never tied to race. Three, slaves had a huge regime of rights. Four, slaves in numerous circumstances became the actually rulers, or were used as the administrative elite.”[…]
JB: “It’s a very different kind of slavery that we talk about. Slavery in the Americas was an economic phenomenon. Slavery, especially in the sort of Ottoman Middle East was a social phenomenon. It was not an economic phenomenon. Is that clear? So I agree with you 100% And I have a whole, I do a whole nother article on Slavery in Islamic civilization, and I’m gonna do a whole nother article on the abolition of slavery in Islam in Islamic Civilization.”
Audience member: “I think you have a very weak point.”
JB: “Now I’m actually curious to hear what the weak argument is.”
AM: “The weak argument is [inaudible].”
JB: “So, but my point is, why… Let me ask you this question: you started saying ‘wrongs done to, by Arabs to other people.’ What wrongs? [man attempts to respond] Just tell me, I know what you’re gonna say. I’ll answer your question for you. The fact that there was slavery is a wrong.”
JB: “Okay. That’s, how can you say. If you’re a Muslim, you have to [man attempts to respond]/ The prophet of God SAW had slaves. He had slaves. There’s no denying that. Are you more morally mature than the prophet of God? No, you’re not. I’ll answer your question for you. So my point is, your assumption… I feel the same way right? I’m American. My family owned slaves. Now, if someone, if I started thinking about slavery, you know, I start getting really nervous, and uncomfortable, and things like that.”[…]
JB: “I wanted to kind of address this issue in my theoretical argument with my friend here, his comments, by the way which are completely understandable comments, I’m not criticizing them at all, but the reason why I want to discuss this issue of what slavery is first, is because, it’s like talking about terrorism, right? You can’t have a real discussion about terrorism, if terrorism is just this moral, like, blunt axe, that you just, that is impossible to handle. Or this sort of moral burden on your back that you can’t displace in order to have a discussion. When we talk about slavery, slavery cannot just be treated as a moral evil in and of itself because slavery doesn’t mean anything. The moral evil is extreme form of deprivation of rights, and extreme forms of control, and extreme forms of exploitation. I don’t think its morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us. We’re owned by people. And this obsession with thinking of slavery as property, its treatment as this sin, this thing, this inconceivable sin, I think that’s actually a really odd and unhelpful way to think about slavery and you kind of gets you locked in this way of thinking where if you talk about ownership and people, that you’ve already transgressed some moral boundary that you can’t come back from. But I don’t think that’s true at all. I’m trying to rethink about what slavery actually means and to show that it, the term doesn’t actually mean anything. Uh, there’s so many different phenomena that we would lump under this, things we wouldn’t lump under it that we should, that we should, sort of, free ourselves from that burden first before discussing what riqq was in the Islamic tradition or what the abolition of riqq was in the Islamic tradition.”[…]
JB: “In general, you don’t find the brutality that you see in American slavery. As far as I can tell, generally, is simply not very common. Slaves in Islamic civilization were mostly investments. So one of the most common think is that you would do is you’d have a slave, and it was like buying a rental property. So you’d basically say ‘okay slave, you know, you’re good at, you’re a good carpenter, go out and work as a carpenter and every day you give me, like thirty percent of your pay.’ So they were basically, like, in a sense, like walking rental properties. They would generate income for you. The first question about the concubines. So, this is a huge…This is a very difficult discussion to have, and we may not have time to have it today, but I would say that, yeah… not now. Um. It’s very hard to have this discussion because we think of, let’s say in the modern United States, for example, the sine qua non of morally correct sex is consent. We think of people as autonomous agents, everybody’s an autonomous agent. And it’s the consent of that autonomous agent that makes a sexual action acceptable. Correct? If you take away the consent element, then everyone starts flipping out, right? At that point, then you get rape, you get sexual acts done by people who are too young, we perceive as too young, to consent. And these are sort of the great moral wrongs of our society. So the idea of someone who is a by definition a non-consensual sexual actor, in the sense that they have been entered into a sexual relationship in a position of servitude, that’s sort of ab initio wrong. The way I would respond to that is to say that, as, I mean, this is just a fact, this isn’t a judgment, this is a fact, okay? For most of human history, human beings have not thought of consent as the essential feature of morally correct sexual activity. And second, we fetishize the idea of autonomy to the extent that we forget, again, who’s really free? Are we really autonomous people? And what, what does autonomy mean? Can I just drive, you know, can I be like a cowboy in some movie or action TV series where I just get on my motorcycle and ride to the West? No, I got kids! I got a mortgage. I mean, we’re all born into and live in a network of relationships and responsibilities and duties. But we have this obsession with the idea of autonomy. And the fact is, that, and this is not to demean the status of women in Islam or Islamic civilization at all, but a concubine’s autonomy was not that different from the autonomy of a wife. Because for most of human history, and most of Islamic civilization, women got married to the person that their family wanted them to get married to. The idea of being autonomous and saying ‘I need to be in love him. I need to go and have this, you know, Jane Austen-like courtship with him’ — that was hogwash! So what’s the difference between someone who is captured in a raid in the steppes of Central Asia, brought to Istanbul’s slave market, sold to an owner, who, by the way, might treat her badly, might treat her incredibly well! She’s going to bear him children, she’s going to be a free woman, she’s going to be the mother of his children. If he’s high status she’s going to be high status. If he dies, she’s might be a very desirable wife. That person’s situation—what’s the difference between that and some woman who’s a poor. You know, baker’s daughter who gets married to some baker’s son, without any choice, because no one expects her to have any choice? And that baker’s son might treat her well, and might treat her horribly. The difference between these two people is not that big. We see it as enormous because we’re obsessed with the idea of autonomy and consent. That would be my response. It’s not a solution to the problem, I think it does help frame it.”
Moderator (Ermin Sinanovic): “And consent is understood to be present or required for it, but marriage is not. In other words, to consume (sic) a sexual relationship, nowadays, in the common understanding, consent is important but marriage is not, whereas, for instance, if you look at the definition of marriage Islamically, marriage is the act that makes a sexual relationship lawful — not consent itself, though consent is in-built into it through either directly or proxy.”
JB: “I should say that technically speaking, in Islamic law, the consent of the wife is required. [For marriage?] But what I mean is that, what does con… If you’re, if it’s always understood that you’re going to marry the person that your parents want you to marry, what does consent really mean? I mean, maybe if he’s horribly ugly you’ll say no. But I mean, what I’m trying to say is, there is a difference between a wife and a concubine and I think it is in an element of consent and autonomy, but that difference between them is not as massive a difference as we would see it as.”
Sadaf Jaffer, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University.