Sex, slavery and Islam: Ignoring the elephant in the room

This past May, a Kuwaiti activist named Salwa al-Mutairi ignited a firestorm of controversy by suggesting a radical solution to her country’s growing concern about adultery and premarital sex: why not import “sex slaves” to satisfy lustful Muslim men? Her proposal drew a torrent of criticism, but al-Mutairi remained undeterred, and even went a step further by claiming that her idea was Islamically legitimate. Muslims across the world fiercely rejected her proposal, insisting that al-Mutairi was not only wrong, but also ignorant of the basic tenets of Islam. In truth, however, her idea is not nearly as “un-Islamic” as its critics suggest, and their response reflects a widespread inability to engage with the Islamic tradition.

Muslim women in particular were understandably some of al-Mutairi’s harshest critics. Muna Khan, editor of Al-Arabiya English, wrote a scathing editorial in which she called al-Mutairi’s proposal “idiotic” in light of the fact that the Prophet Muhammad freed slaves and forbade adultery. Muslim author Shelina Janmohamed scoffed at al-Mutairi’s claims, calling them “bonkers,” and “about as representative of Muslim thinking as the Pope is a Muslim.”

Despite having the best of intentions, both Khan and Janmohamed are unaware of a troubling paradox: they can only declare al-Mutairi’s ideas “un-Islamic” by dismissing much of the Muslim legal and historical tradition. As shocking or offensive as it may sound, classical scholars took for granted that “ownership” of a woman gave a Muslim man sexual access to her. They did not consider this “adultery,” and most assumed that the Qur’an itself condoned the practice, referring to concubines with the phrase ma malakat aymanukum (“those whom your right hands possess”). In two passages, the Qur’an praises “those who guard their chastity, except with their wives or what their right hands possess,” [1] and other verses use the phrase to describe female slaves in general. [2]

The eminent jurist al-Shafiʻi (d. 820 CE) held that men could take as many concubines as they pleased. [3] Imam Malik (d. 795) ruled that Muslim men could have intercourse with Jewish and Christian slaves, but could not marry them. [4] According to Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855), even male slaves could take concubines, [5] and al-Ghazali (d. 1111) approved of men using birth control to prevent their slaves from gaining the rights associated with bearing children. [6] These are not voices from the fray – they are the premier names in Islamic scholarship.

The mention of sex with slaves also appears in the hadith literature (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds). The Prophet Muhammad is well known for freeing slaves and treating them kindly, but according to many hadiths, he permitted his companions to sleep with their female slaves and captives. [7] The book Sahih Bukhari, possibly the most referenced collection of hadiths in the Muslim canon, contains a report in which a companion of the Prophet discusses coitus interruptus (withdrawal), an early method of birth control:

We got female captives in the war booty and we used to do coitus interruptus with them. So we asked Allah’s Apostle about it and he said, “Do you really do that?” repeating the question thrice, “There is no soul that is destined to exist but will come into existence, till the Day of Resurrection.” [8]

Here, the Prophet voices no concern about men having sex with captive women; instead he worries that they believe birth control circumvents God’s will. Sahih Bukhari contains several more narrations to the same effect. [9]

Other reports even indicate that the Prophet allowed men to sleep with their female slaves in a way that intentionally minimized their rights. In a hadith from Sahih Muslim, a companion explains to Muhammad that withdrawal is useful for a man “who has a slave-girl […], but he does not like her to have conception so that she may not become umm walad.” [10] Being an umm walad – a concubine with a child by her master – elevated a slave’s legal status; practicing withdrawal allowed men to enjoy their slaves’ bodies while preventing these women from gaining additional rights. The Prophet’s only response to this was that withdrawal was unnecessary, because the birth of children “is something preordained.” [11] Another report in Sahih Muslim describes a man explaining to Muhammad, “I have a slave-girl who is our servant and she carries water for us and I have intercourse with her, but I do not want her to conceive.” The Prophet reportedly replied, “Practice ‘azl (withdrawal), if you so like, but what is decreed for her will come to her.” [12] Similar reports are found in elsewhere in Sahih Muslim. [13]

For those who argue that sex with slaves in not a legitimate practice in Islam, the most troubling thing of all would be the fact that according to traditional biographies of the Prophet, he himself owned more than one concubine. One of them, a Coptic woman named Mariya, was allegedly given to Muhammad as a “present” by the ruler of Egypt. [14] Eminent historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923) plainly describes Mariya as a “concubine,” [15] and Ismail ibn Kathir (d. 1373), relays a hadith explaining that Muhammad “consummated with Mariya since she was a slave.” [16] According to respected scholar Ibn Sa’d al-Baghdadi (d. 845), Muhammad freed Mariya after she gave birth to his child. [17] The second concubine was a Jewish woman named Rayhana. Ibn Kathir quotes several hadiths about her, including one in which the Prophet offers her the choice of either marrying him or accepting the following alternative, “If you wish to remain in my domain and for me to have intercourse with you by that right, then that I will do.” [18] Some hadiths say she married Muhammad, while many others claim she remained his concubine until death. [19]

Most Muslims reject the idea of men taking concubines, but many are unaware of – or in denial about – the toleration of this practice in classical Islamic law and the Prophetic tradition. There is widespread silence about this topic in contemporary Muslim discourse – “traditionalist” scholars are even removing unpalatable references to slavery from their “complete” translations of classical texts. [20] In the rare instances where scholars do discuss slavery and concubines, they make great efforts to show how much “gentler” slavery was among Muslims than among non-Muslims historically. But they’re missing the point: the majority of contemporary Muslims consider the ownership and sexual “use” of human beings to be morally repugnant, regardless of how politely it is done.

Lebanese author Amin Maalouf notes that, “Many types of behavior that are perfectly acceptable to a believer today would have struck his “co-religionists” in the past as inconceivable.” [21] The inverse also holds true. Is selective amnesia our way of avoiding the conflict between concubinage and our modern sensibilities?

Muslims need to recognize the realities of the Islamic tradition in order to decide what role it should play in modern life. If we recoil in disgust at the mention of men having sex with female slaves, then what should we make of the alleged actions of the early Muslims, or indeed, the Prophet himself? Can we call concubinage “un-Islamic” if classical scholars approved of it, and the Prophet reportedly engaged in it? What makes something “Islamic” in the first place?

If we want to develop a level of coherence in our beliefs as a global religious community, we must confront these questions head-on with clarity, candor and courage. Whatever interpretation we choose, let us acknowledge it as our own, not forgetting that the times we live in shape our religious assumptions just as much as Islam does.

1. 23:5-6, 70:29-30
2. E.g. 4:3, 4:24, 33:50, 33:52
3. Ali, Kecia. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006. (p. 41)
4. Dutton, Yasin. The Origins of Islamic Law: The Qurʼan, the Muwaṭṭaʼ and Madinan ʻAmal. 2nd ed. Abingdon, Oxon [England]: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. (p. 99)
5. Ḥanbal, Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad, Susan A. Spectorsky, and Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm Rāhwayh. Chapters on Marriage and Divorce: Responses of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Rahwayh. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993. (p. 69)
6. Brockopp, Jonathan E.. Islamic Ethics of Life: Abortion, War, and Euthanasia. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. (p. 43)
7. Only war captives could become slaves. But a captive might soon be sold, instead of being put into domestic slavery. In either situation (whether on the battlefield or at home), her ‘owner’ was permitted to have sex with her. See footnotes 8 and 9.
8. Sahih Bukhari, Kitab Al-Nikah, no. 137
9. Sahih Bukhari, Kitab Al-Maghaazi, no. 459; Kitab Tahwid, no. 506; Kitab Al-Qadar, no. 600; Book of Sales and Trade, no. 432; Book of Manumission of Slaves, no. 718
10. Sahih Muslim, Kitab Al-Nikah, no. 3377
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., no. 3383
13. Ibid., no. 3371, 3373, 3384
14. Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. New York: Inner Traditions International, 1983. (p. 277)
15. al-Tabari, Isma’il Qurban Husayn, and Ismail K. Poonawala. The Last Years of the Prophet. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1990. (p. 147)
16. Kathīr, Ismāīl ibn Umar, Trevor Gassick, and Muneer Fareed. The Life of the Prophet Muḥammad: A Translation of Al-Sīra Al-Nabawiyya (Volume IV). Reading: Garnet, 2000. (p. 431)
This hadith, narrated by al-Waqidi (d. 822), reads:

The Messenger of God [pbuh] very much admired Mariya; she was fair-skinned and beautiful and had curly hair. He lodged her and her sister with Umm Sulaym, daughter of Milhan. The Messenger of God [pbuh] would visit them both there and it was there that they both accepted Islam. He consummated with Mariya since she was a slave, then moved her into a property he had at al-‘Aliya that had belonged to Banu al-Nadir. He was there during the summer and at the time for the date harvest. He would go to her there. She was devout. He presented her sister Shirin to Hassan b. Thabit, and she bore him Abd al-Rahman.

17. Houtsma, M. Th.. E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993. (p. 1012)
18. Kathīr, Gassick and Fareed 2000, 434
19. Friedmann, Yohanan. Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. (p. 184, footnote 140)
20. Ali 2006, 51
21. Maalouf, Amin. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. New York: Arcade, 2001. (p. 102)
(Photo Credit: amortize)

Peter Gray recently finished his BA in Asian Studies at Clark University with a special focus on Indonesia. A Muslim convert, he writes about Islam, “Islamophobia” and interfaith dialogue at


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