Religion and Slavery

Reader Ted McClure pointed me to an interesting post on the subject on the MuslimLawProf blog (written by Prof. Haider Ala Hamoudi at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law); here’s an excerpt:

If I had to summarize modern views on slavery in Islam among modern Muslims who know something of the subject, it would go something like this:

Slavery was a deeply abhorrent practice, a repulsive one fundamentally at odds with basic principles of justice and fairness brought by the Divine. But it is also a practice that predominated in human civilizations prior to modernity, and its prevalence caused Islam not to ban the practice outright, but to regard it with deep distaste, to mitigate its effects and humanize it to the extent possible, and most importantly of all to set the seeds of its own destruction, so that it would not last in the Muslim world. We did all of that, and so not only is slavery gone, but even when it existed, it was better than Western slavery.

Now let’s be clear before proceeding to the important parts worth discussing. Some of this is apologetic nonsense, and should be dispensed as such quickly. The Arab slave trade killed about as many Africans as the Western slave trade, and we are talking in the tens of millions. Nothing “better” about that as a historical matter. Besides, the notion of reforming an institution and seeking to end an institution lie at some tension with one another. If you, as I do, tend to regard slavery as abhorrent and repulsive and you pray for its end, you don’t seek to reform it, and you don’t seek to trumpet how much better you’ve made it than some other culture did. You have reduced a human being to the status of livestock, you have claimed a right to buy and sell her, and when you do so, you steal her humanity. You want to reform drug laws, fine, but you can’t reform slavery.

So I want to leave aside that piece of it and concentrate on the other piece. Effectively, this Islamic argument indicates you have to accept Lincoln’s bargain. You may as a modern Muslim say slavery is a wrong, a deep and fundamental one. You can say not only is it and should it be criminal, but it should be prosecuted severely. But when and where it is prevalent and widespread as it was in Lincoln’s South and in Muhammad’s Medina, you won’t quite ban it. You won’t encourage it, you won’t even be neutral towards it, you’ll hate it and discourgage so much that you won’t even say it is sanctioned. (Qur’an never does, all is implication). But what you’ll do is neutralize its effect as much as you can through liberal manumission rules, stop its spread (Islamic rules on enslavement are restrictive, as was the American ban on the slave trade) completely and totally, and wait for it to die out….

[But though y]ou can claim the Qur’an regards slavery as Lincoln did in 1858 as per above, you can make that argument quite plausibly, … you have to piss all over the classical law to do it. because the fiqh of the classical jurists does no such thing. I don’t mean to suggest that a ban on slavery is incompatible with classical doctrine, you can make it compatible. But the meta ethical position that this is an abhorrent, repulsive, disgusting practice and we’re going to make it die is not a even close to a fair reflection of the fiqh….

But then, the question arises, if you’re willing to declare the classical doctors engaged in profound and fundamental error on this point, if you’re willing to argue that this was a fundamental and total breach of their function as interpreters of the Word, as betrayal of their human instincts, a gutting of deep and fundamental principle, a figurative spitting in the eye of the very purposes for which God broke the veil separating humanity from the Divine, well if you’ll do that for slavery, the central example often used throughout the rules on sale under classical Islamic doctrine, then just how much deference should you afford the jurists on other questions. It’s worth a thought anyway.

What struck me as especially interesting about this is that of course three other legal systems have also had to deal with the question of slavery — the Jewish legal systems, the Christian tradition that seeks to tailor secular law (in many respects) to Biblical judgments about right and wrong (not the only Christian tradition but an important one), and of course the American legal tradition.

The American legal tradition had a legally simple, though famously militarily complicated way, of dealing with this: Article V, which produced the Thirteenth Amendment. End of story; what Madison thought about slavery need no longer detain us in passing judgment on the legality of slavery (though there is of course a debate about the extent to which it should affect our passing judgment on Madison).

The Christian tradition, I think, has dealt with it in complicated ways, but my sense is that it boils down to (1) a good deal of flexibility in the interpretation of the Bible as such, coupled with (2) the sense that old scholarly interpretations of the Bible are not strongly binding on Christians today (though many Christians do find them important though not binding). I note that I am not at all an expert on the subject, but that this is just my own highly oversimplified summary of what I understand to be the situation — one reason I’m blogging about this is to solicit more knowledgeable commentary.

The Jewish and Muslim legal systems, though, have long seen ancient teachings as important, and the most orthodox branches of Judaism and Islam have treated those teachings as extremely important, to the point of indeed being pretty close to binding. And in a case like slavery, the very strength that the orthodox often attribute to those traditions — that by creating a rich and binding set of legal rules, the religious traditions help avoid people from being led into error by their own preferences and the passions of the moment (or even of the modern era) — becomes a weakness: One can accept the ancient teachings as to slavery, but few are willing to do so (and rightly so, in my view). One can say “times have changed, so those teachings, though correct for their time, no longer apply today,” but there goes the supposed anchor of tradition as a means of resisting modern temptation and error; and in any event, many are unwilling to accept that slavery was ever correct.

Or one can say that the ancient teachings were wrong from the outset, which makes one have to face the MuslimLawProf’s question: “[I]f you’re willing to declare the classical doctors engaged in profound and fundamental error on this point, if you’re willing to argue that this was a fundamental and total breach of their function as interpreters of the Word, as betrayal of their human instincts, a gutting of deep and fundamental principle, a figurative spitting in the eye of the very purposes for which God broke the veil separating humanity from the Divine, well if you’ll do that for slavery, … then just how much deference should you afford the jurists on other questions”? I’d love to hear what people who are more knowledgeable than I am on this question, whether as to Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or other traditions, have to say about this.