Is Sex Slavery Legal in Islam?

Yazidi Sex Slaves
(via REUTERS/Ari Jala)

In my recent post about al-Azhar and the doctrine they spread around the world, one reader offered this question in the comments:

Someone I know wrote an article about Islam recently and made the statement that, according to his knowledge, official Islam has never condemned the action of ISIS soldiers in raping Yazidi women. He made several other statements I didn’t particularly like, but on this point, he is saying they cannot condemn such treatment because Muhammad did this sort of thing and even gave his troops permission to do the same. Have you ever come across any statement that al-Azhar believes such action is wrong?

First of all, a little context, excerpted from an article in the National Catholic Register on the same topic:

In the Quran, slave girls are referred to as “those whom your right hand possess,” … Verse 4:3 allows a man to have up to four wives but advises that if he can’t deal fairly with all of them, he should marry only one, or else resort to “those whom your right hand possess.” Verse 4:2 says that men are forbidden to have sex with married women “except those whom your right hand possess. It is a decree of Allah for you.”

The article also draws from traditions about Muhammad. These have varying degrees of reliability but are regarded as an authentic source in principle. I cannot comment on these specific traditions mentioned, but they are provided in well-attributed collections.

After the assault on the Jews of Khaybar, Muhammad ordered that a leader of the tribe, Kinana bin al-Rabi, be tortured until he disclosed the location of the group’s treasure. A fire was lit on Kinana’s chest but, as he still refused to reveal the secret, Muhammad had him beheaded. Muhammad had promised Kinana’s young wife, Safiya, to another Muslim, but, after hearing of her beauty, he went back on his word and took her in “marriage” for himself. By some accounts, this occurred only hours after he dispatched her husband. (Ishaq, p. 515; Bukhari, 1. 8. 367).

The issue of sex slaves in Muslim history and interpretation is of course contested, but what do Muslim authorities do with it today?

Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar, has strongly denounced the Takfiri Daesh [ISIS] terrorists’ newly-released rules for sex slavery, stressing that they have nothing to do with Islam.

“This organization is a criminal and terrorist organization, and one of the goals of terrorism is the spread of its ideologies and the spread of its propaganda that will attract people’s attention,” Mohamed Mehna, a member of al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh’s Technical office, said on Wednesday. (from Press TV)

This alone should satisfy the question from the original comment, asking only if official Islam condemned the action.

But maybe something in ISIS’ rationale was deficient, it could be asked. That is, while their specific action is condemned, does the practice still has an Islamic basis?

Consider then this document, called A Letter to Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State. The list of signatories includes representatives of official Islam from around the world, including Egypt.

It criticizes the Islamic State on several points, and this is from the executive summary:

10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.

11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.

12. The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.

‘Consensus’ is an important word here. While it does imply anti-slavery developments around the world, in which Muslim nations share, it also is a term of Islamic jurisprudence.

Sharia is developed from different sources, but ijma’, or consensus of the scholars, is one of the essentials. Here is how point 12 is developed in the letter:

No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam’s aims is to abolish slavery …

For over a century, Muslims, and indeed the entire world, have been united in the prohibition and criminalization of slavery, which was a milestone in human history when it was finally achieved …

After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this; you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition (fitnah), and corruption and lewdness on the earth.

You have resuscitated something that the Shari’ah has worked tirelessly to undo and has been considered forbidden by consensus for over a century. Indeed all the Muslim countries in the world are signatories of anti-slavery conventions.

Where I have placed three dots it represents the letter quoting from the Quran to establish its points. I admit I followed some of the logic, but not all of it. But I am hardly a scholar. Read yourself to review.

But the fact is that these are the words of many of the highest Islamic authorities around the world. It is a shame this fact is not more widely known.

Still, though I know the basics of the principle of ijma’, I am still curious about the question posed in the comment and cemented in the Catholic journal. If something was permitted by Islam at Muhammad’s time, can it really be condemned absolutely?

One scholar I asked told me that in the story above, Muhammad married Safiya in order to end the practice of sex slavery. When their prophet set her free and married her, his companions could do no less with those they captured. He tells me this related in the literature.

Getting into the details of this question requires far more study than I have yet done and this post allows. Here are two links to competing sides. But here are a few principles as it is considered.

One, there are many Muslims whose interpretive system requires near-absolute fidelity to the earliest practices of the Islamic community. Through them we are often convinced this is normative Islam. It makes sense, but is it necessary? Islam has a long history and an interpretive framework that has adjusted to time and place. Shall Muslims not be given the freedom of development, if they work to claim it in fidelity with their sources?

Two, there are many commands and practices in the Bible that Christians today consider obsolete, though they came through God’s command. There is not absolute symmetry here with Islam; the religions are different and have different interpretive systems. But give pause before declaring offensive an attribute of Islam, lest the accusation be returned. For those who reject all religion in general, of course, this is less applicable.

Three, for everyone, find a balance in critical charity and charitable criticism. Islam, like all religions and worldviews, deserves its hard questions given its universal claims. But Muslims are individual human beings . Like many others, many Muslims cherish their faith without delving into all the details. Take care before bludgeoning anyone with details we also know little about.

Islam may be true or erroneous, it may engender virtue or vice. But of Muslims, honor them to the degree they seek to honor both God and humanity. Where they are deficient, remember, we all are too.