Wednesday, June 10, 2015

ISIS and slavery: a state of “Islam” before the Qur’an

Amsha Alyas, who escaped ISIS after her husband was killed.
She was sold to an ISIS commander.

TWO-hundred and twenty-one years ago the Portuguese slave ship, the Sao Jose de Africa, set sail from Sofala in Mozambique with a cargo of 400 slaves. Captured in the Zambesi lowlands, the live cargo was destined for the markets of Brazil.

In 1794 the idea of transporting east African slaves across the Atlantic marked a significant shift in the brutal industry, a shift that would prolong slave trading between Africa and Brazil until 1865 – and see nearly half a million Mozambicans dispatched to the country’s sugar plantations.  

After having rounded Cape Point in late December, the Sao Jose hugged the coastline to avoid a storm and struck a rock off modern-day Clifton. It broke up and sank in shallow water about 200 metres offshore. Tragically, 212 of the slaves were drowned in the icy Atlantic after the crew were unable to rescue them.

The remaining 200, who’d survived the terrifying ordeal, were herded together on the beach and sold in Cape Town. One can only imagine their trauma: the lot of slaves at the Cape makes for miserable reading. Slavery was grossly exploitative, cruel and contrary to any concept of human dignity.

With our slave origins in Cape Town this is something that as South Africans we should be painfully aware of. In the 21st century being free from slavery is an entrenched human right – which makes it surprising that any modern nation state – let alone a “Caliphate” – should endorse it.

Yet ISIS in 2014, enforcing its Islamic “state” at the point of a Salafi-Wahhabi gun, had issued a document, via its Research and Fatwa Department, which – astoundingly – endorsed the slavery and sexual subjugation of Yazidi, Christian and Jewish women due to them being regarded as kuffar, or people of unbelief.

Questions of their “unbelief” are, of course, questionable. But that Yazidi women had indeed been enslaved by ISIS was confirmed by Human Rights Watch and Bristol University, who spoke to women who’d escaped the clutches of their rapacious captors. The BBC ran with the story and Al-Jazeera reported that girls were being sold in Mosul.

For any Muslim, this bizarre retrogression by ISIS is as baffling as its understanding of Shari’ah. Tahir ibn Ashur, the famous Tunisian scholar, once said that the maqasid (the noble goals of Sacred Law) indicated that equality was one of its objectives. Shaikh bin Bayya, a legal giant of contemporary Islam, has said the maqasid emphasises that freedom is an essential human right.

With ISIS hankering for a rose-tinted return to the past – and specifically the era of the pious forbears, the Salaf us-Salihin – one can only assume that their literalist reading of the texts has let them down again.

Slavery was indeed the status-quo of the Quraish who ruled Makkah at the time of the Prophet, but to say that he approved of slavery would be mistaken. Islamic scholars observe that the Qur’an, which Muslims believe has the final say on such things, is a thoroughly pragmatic work. This is because the Qur’an recognised that deeply embedded cultural institutions, such as slavery, could not be eliminated instantly with the sweep of a single verse.

The great elders of Qur’anic exegisis – or interpretation – tell us that Qur’anic verses have special qualities of meaning such as “specific” and “general”. They also have qualities of abrogation (naskh): in other words, one verse can out-rule another.

The abolition of intoxicants is a good example, and shows how the Prophet used gradualism to spread his word, rather than harsh reactivism. For instance, 2: 219 posits the undesirability of alcohol, but does not abolish it. In 4: 43 we get the suggestion not to come to prayer when intoxicated. Only in 5: 90 is alcohol completely forbidden.

For literalists like the Salafis, some of whom who spurn classical methodology and metaphor, there are obvious contradictions when it comes to intoxicants and prayer. On the issue of slavery it appears as they’ve reverted back to the default position – a state of Islam before the Qur’an – when slavery was accepted as an unquestioned status-quo.

The point is that Qur’an questions the institution of slavery from the get-go. However, the word of Allah is subtle, it realises that turning a society upside down short-term will not result in long-term reform. So what we get this time is a thematic thread weaving through the Holy Book from its second chapter right to the end.

In 2: 177 we are told that to free a slave is a practical deed of charity; in 4: 92 freeing a slave becomes an act of restitution for the mistaken killing of another Muslim; in 5: 89 freeing a slave is expiation for a false oath; in 9: 60 there is a reminder of the charitable act of freeing a slave; in 58: 3-4 expiation emerges again and in 90: 13 man is reminded that one of the most noble signs of justice is freeing a slave.

The Hadith of the Prophet also show that freeing slaves was a popular means of expiation. That the freedom of one slave could be equal to months of fasting – and even the feeding of 60 poor people – is an eloquent enough suggestion of its charitable merits.

A ruling, via Qur’an, that a slave woman would only receive half the legal punishment of a non-slave woman, that a portion of zakat (alms tax) should go towards freed slaves and the order (in 24: 33) for masters to help their freedman financially, is proof of a compassion towards slaves that did not exist historically before.

Unfortunately, reports from Iraq and Syria appear to contradict all of the above with regards to ISIS. Their evident return to an era of darkness and ignorance is inexplicable given the overwhelming body of scriptural evidence against reverting to slavery, and the fact that the Prophet was essentially an abolitionist, a man who believed that liberating a slave was like bringing a human being back to life.

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