Of Islam, Boko Haram and Sexual Slavery
Originally published in The Huffington Post
The Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram recently kidnapped young girls, allegedly to sell into sexual slavery. Extremist Muslim clerics and extreme critics of Islam have long shared the conviction – amongst some others – that Islam allows keeping slaves, at least in certain circumstances, and permits their rape. This myth is completely unfounded.
Slavery was the norm in the Arabia that Prophet Muhammad opened his eyes in. Anyone who could afford to buy a slave, kept one. Unfortunately, these slaves – especially girls – had no dignified status in society. They were bought and sold like property. They were overworked, abused and looked down upon as inferior beings.
Deeply troubled by this social injustice, Prophet Muhammad set out to emancipate slaves. He did not do this with the stroke of a pen. Letting the slaves go free, have to fend for themselves, be homeless and form separate isolated settlements would likely ensure freedom – but not equal rights and status. Hence, Prophet Muhammad embraced the slaves instead, assimilated them into society and made them useful contributors to the growing Muslim community. He uplifted them and ousted their inferiority complex. He instructed the Muslims to free the slaves who could stand on their own feet and forbade slave trade at all costs. He taught that all humans were equal and so it was not proper to address a slave as a “slave.” He said:
Let none of you call out to his slave saying, ‘My slave boy!’ or ‘My slave girl!’ nor let a slave call out to his master saying, ‘My Lord!’ but let the master call out to the slave saying, ‘My young man!’ or ‘My young woman!’ and let the slave call out to the master as ‘My chief!’
Islam offered many ways for former slaves to be integrated into society. One such means was marriage. No Arab noble would ever have conceived of marrying a slave, but Prophet Muhammad broke this taboo with his own example. He inspired a brand new way of thinking in Arab society. He taught:
He who has a slave-girl, educates and treats her nicely and then manumits and marries her will get a double reward.
While Prophet Muhammad was starting this social revolution in Arabia, he found himself in a very hostile environment. Muslims were persecuted for over a decade in Mecca. They were boycotted, thrown out of the city and forced to migrate to Medina. Prophet Muhammad’s enemies were persistent and pursued him there as well. Just two years after his emigration, a thousand-man strong army marched out of Mecca with the intent to finish the Muslims forever. It was at this time that fighting was first permitted in self-defense (2:190). The Muslims, only 300 in number, defended themselves and won this battle decisively at Badr. Muslims had to counter many more offensives. Thus, Prophet Muhammad laid down clear rules and regulations for warfare. No women, children, elderly, monks, worship places and trees, for example, were to be hurt during fighting.
Prophet Muhammad also laid down guidelines regarding the captives taken during war. Most victors would take the rival women slaves, rape and torture or even kill them. However, Prophet Muhammad allowed the female captives to earn their freedom through different means. The captives who were still left behind were, like slaves, integrated into society through marriage. Prophet Muhammad led by his own example again by marrying two such women captives, who are esteemed and revered by Muslims world over today as the “the mothers of the faithful.”
The assertion that Islam did not necessitate marriage and permitted the rape of female “slaves” and captives is utterly baseless. Quite to the contrary, Islam broke the prevailing taboo regarding marriage with “slaves,” when it commanded: “And marry widows from among you, and your male slaves and female slaves who are fit for marriage.” (24:33) And: “And whoso of you cannot afford to marry free, believing women, let him marry what your right hands possess, namely, your believing handmaids…” (4:26).
Many other verses (e.g. 4:19; 2:222) also admonish Muslims to marry “slaves” and captives and assimilate them into society. Marriage was an absolute pre-requisite for any sexual relation with them. This is also very clear by the use of the words “being chaste” in 4:26. If sexual relations with these women were allowed before marriage, how would they be “chaste?” Furthermore, the same verse also prohibits having sexual affairs with slave-girls and condemns fornication as a social ill.
The Quran also makes it unlawful for women to be inherited or detained against their will (4:19). Their consent is important in all matters, including marriage. This rule applies to all women, including the most disadvantaged women in society. Prophet Muhammad said: “An orphan girl should be consulted with regard to marriage. If she refuses then she is not to be forced.”
This treatment of women was unprecedented in ancient Arabia. For slaves, it was the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights movement combined – two in one. Boko Haram has committed multiple crimes against humanity – kidnapping girls and selling them is but one of the most grievous of them. These acts do not represent Islam by far. Instead, they offend it deeply.