Georgetown professor defends Islamic slavery and 'non-consensua'l sex

Jonathan Brown, a professor at Georgetown University and a prominent Muslim scholar, delivered a lecture in which he defended Islamic slavery and incidents of non-consensual sex. Brown claims that because Muslims slaves have some "rights," that the institution was akin to Medievil feudalism rather than the chattel slavery found in the American south.

The lecture has to be seen to be believed.

Rod Dreher points out the dilemma for modern Muslims if they accept the fact that Muhammad was a slave owner.

“Are you more morally mature than the Prophet of God?” Brown says. “No, you’re not.”

So, there you have it. If Muhammad held slaves, how bad could slavery really be?

It’s a challenging point, actually: if the Prophet behaved in a certain way, who are Muslims today to stand in judgment of him and what he did? If we say that slavery is evil, are we not implicitly condemning the Prophet as an evildoer? Can a Muslim do that and still be a good Muslim? I don’t know.

It’s worth pointing out that in the New Testament, St. Paul doesn’t condemn slaveholding, which was common in his day, nor does he explicitly endorse it. He simply recognizes it as a fact of life, and tells slaves and slaveholders how to treat each other. (See here for more information.) However, the principles of Christianity led in modern times to the rejection of slavery among Christians. To canonize someone as a saint does not mean that they led perfect lives, only that the led lives of heroic Christian virtue. The only perfectly sinless life was that of Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering whether or not Islam today has within it the resources to oppose slavery, which continues to exist in some Muslim countries. The line I quote above can be used to justify slavery (if Muhammad held slaves, who are Muslims to condemn other Muslims who own slaves?), or, I suppose, to undermine confidence in Muhammad and his teaching.

The old biblical justifications for owning slaves reflected the times in which the apostles and Jesus lived. In fact, from the beginning of human civilization 6,000 years ago until the 19th century, slavery was the norm for nations and peoples on all continents. 

But just because it used to be the norm, doesn't mean it still has to be. Christians were a major force in eliminating slavery from the Roman empire (that and it's slow collapse) and were in the forefront of anti-slavery movements around the world since then. 

But there has been no Muslim "reformation" that would redefine Islam's adherents' relationship to the Koran or the historical version of Muhammad. Hence, the Koran's teachings about slavery continue to hold sway over individual Muslims.

But is that any reason to justify it? For Professor Brown, apparently, yes.

Brown also justifies the use of "concubines" and the resulting forced sexual relations suffered by women in Muslim countries:

On the matter of concubines — in Muslim society, female sex slaves imprisoned in a harem — Brown says that we can’t judge past civilizations by our own sexual standards, because “we think of people as autonomous agents, and the consent of those autonomous agents is what makes a sexual act acceptable.” He goes on:

“For most of human history, human beings have not thought of consent as the essential feature of morally correct sexual activity. And second, we fetishize the idea of autonomy to where we forget, who is really free? … What does autonomy mean?”

Well, he’s correct about that — to a point. It is not right to judge older societies by standards common today. Sexual autonomy — and individual autonomy — is a late modern development.

However, Brown goes deep into sophistry when he says that historically, a concubine’s autonomy is not that different from a wife’s autonomy, because all women in all pre-modern societies were not free to marry who they wanted to marry, but only the man their families wanted them to marry. Brown asks what is the real difference between a sex slave in Islam (who might have been well-treated by her master) and a medieval Christian woman who had to marry a man she may not have loved, and who had a miserable life with him?

Does the fact that "sexual autonomy" is a modern way of thinking mean that we can excuse past civilizations for brutalizing women? Comparing civilizations from different periods in human history is always frought with complications. For example, while you can say most Americans either supported slavery or opposed equal rights for blacks at one time, the fact that there were others in society who thought differently - abolitionists - means that the opportunity was there for all to re-examine their beliefs and adopt the moral position that slavery was a moral wrong and needed to be eradicated.

So it hardly matters that the Koran justifies either slavery or non consensual sex. Modern ways of looking at the world tells us categorically that those beliefs are immoral and wrong. For anyone - especially a prominent scholar like Brown - to argue otherwise is,as Dreher rightly points out, sophistry. 

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