Content warning. That’s all.
I am an exegete, not a historian. If you ask me about the history of slavery in Islam, I can’t give you an answer regarding the actual history. I can give you a holistic interpretation of what the Qur’an says concerning it (free slaves, and marry slave women before attempting sexual relations with them). But history? Oh, God, no. Ask somebody else.
Nobody needs to point out to me that the Qur’anic view of slaves is not ideal for the 21st century. The Quran’s provisions for slavery were meant for the environment in which it was revealed. Slavery was not prohibited outright; rather it was simply discouraged and freeing slaves was decreed as as expiation for sin. Slave women could marry their masters to gain their freedom. (Slave men could marry female owners as well, but this is not talked about as often.) Marrying one’s slave master is probably dehumanizing and miserable. You are marrying your own oppressor, for heaven’s sake. Was this an ideal situation? Of course not, but the Qur’an decreed it for the sake of improving the present state of slaves.
In this century it would be absurd to reinstate slavery and then tell slave women to marry their owners. It would violate the intent of Quranic directives. This is where common sense comes into play. We can’t follow Quranic commands verbatim in every scenario; sometimes we must simply follow the objective of the command.
This can all be deciphered through a holistic reading of the Qur’an. But exegesis does not solve everything. Once upon a time, I thought it did. A few months ago, I complained to my teacher (yes, I have a religious mentor, though I do not duplicate her viewpoints and we frequently argue) that some Muslim writers, like Kecia Ali and Ayesha Chaudhary, focus too much on history while (supposedly) neglecting exegesis. If you’ve read parts of Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, you’ll know what I mean: Male Muslim scholars’ viewpoints, no matter how inhumane they are and how much they contradict the Quran, are voraciously cited in academia and are thus implicitly granted intellectual and religious legitimacy.
When I read parts of Domestic Violence, I raged against Ayesha Chaudhary and demanded to know why historical events and scholarly viewpoints should matter so much if we know what should have happened. If I know, through exegesis, that the Quran disapproves of domestic violence and intends to eradicate it, why should we reference the viewpoints of Muslim scholars who said otherwise? Why do these shameless charlatans, who built careers out of warping Islam for their sexual amusement and political dominance, matter enough to be cited in academia? Citation without explicit refutation implicitly bestows legitimacy. This is obvious to us all. So why should we cite the views of inhumane monsters who wrote things like the following?–
“While [Al-Nasafi] argued that a necessary condition of hitting one’s wife is to leave her intact…[but] soundness is not a condition for sex, so if a wife dies while her husband is having sex with her, he is not liable.”
–Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, from Ayesha’s quotation of Al-Nasafi
Yes, really. The above “scholar” was arguing that (a) flogging one’s wife within an inch of her life is fine as long as she basically remains “intact” (whatever that means), and (b) “soundness is not a condition for sex”, so if a sexual act is so harmful to a wife that she literally dies, neither retribution nor justice can be pursued.
This type of unbridled hatred for women is quite common throughout classical “Islamic” scholarship. It reflects the evils of men, and Ayesha Chaudhary knows as well as we do that they worship themselves–an external deity isn’t even in the picture.
So, when I read this, I was furious. Not just at Al-Nasafi, but (mistakenly) at Ayesha as well! How dare she cite him? How dare she let his viewpoints out into the open? Another exegete I spoke to was similarly furious with her. Why take the time to reference this inhuman hypocrite posing as a scholar?
Here’s why. It’s very easy to theorize in exegesis. If you’re familiar with Quranic syntax, it’s quite simple to cross-reference a few verses and figure out that rape is undeniably haram and that to authorize it would put someone outside the fold of Islam and into the fold of munafiqoon. But that doesn’t do anything for the women who experienced it over the course of Muslim conquest. For them, holistic and human rights- centric Qur’anic exegesis is too little, too late. The damage has been done. And victims have the right to demand recognition of the viewpoints that caused the damage, in the name of justice.
If we do not write about history, we forget the real people who were victimized by errant scholarship. If we fail to expose the views of male scholars in an uncensored manner, then we fail to hold them accountable for their crimes.
The work of Ayesha Chaudhary is monumental. It displays, with suffocating honesty, the real beliefs of the men that mainstream Muslims hold as the epitome of morality. Yes, traditionalist Islam presents proponents of rape and slavery as examples of morality to be looked up to. If we don’t take the time to acknowledge this heinous mistake, we won’t make the slightest moral progress. One does not become a better person by ignoring the past.
Just like exegesis, historical overview has an essential role to play if we want to develop a vision of Islam that is centered on justice and consistent with the Qur’an. Exegesis tells us what should happen, what the rules should be. History tells us what did happen and what we owe to those detrimentally affected by it. I have learned this only recently; upon engaging in dialogue and finding out that others expressed similar vitriol towards authors like Ayesha, I decided to write about it.
When reading books like Ayesha’s, one notes the cold, calculated tone with which she portrays these men’s viewpoints. This takes a degree of emotional control that I have difficulty conceiving of. Ayesha Chaudhary has sacrificed a lot to relay us the harsh rites of history, and she is exceedingly brave.
Once, while having a conversation with a misguided Muslim man, I was told that Ayesha’s and Kecia Ali’s “cold, detached” tone (in writing) was due to the fact that they don’t truly care about Islam. They are “secular scholars,” he said, operating in an environment of “secular academia,” so why should they act like they care?
They do care. They are far more Muslim than he is, and far more intellectually honest with themselves and with others. These authors have put themselves through horror to bring us unveiled historical truth. They sound “cold and detached” because they refuse to mix up their own beliefs with history. They tell us what really happened without inserting their own exegetical opinions. We owe them recognition, not belittlement. And the best way to honor their legacy is to reform our vision of Islam.
I am quite certain that, like most informed Muslims, Ayesha Chaudhary and Kecia Ali can sift through truth and falsehood. They both understand core Quranic principles. They can both tell that the scholars they cite were driven by fervent devotion to the lords of power and debauchery. They can both envision a global Muslim community focused on the pursuit of justice. They just don’t let this ideal get in the way of historical deliverance. And now, more than ever, we need this honesty.
When a 16-year-old girl is incarcerated by the terrorist state of Israel, will we, in the future, whitewash it because according to international human rights law it shouldn’t have happened? When a young woman is held in captivity in Sinjar by ISIS, will we pretend it never happened because the Quran says it shouldn’t happen? Will we pretend ISIS never cited scriptural justification for this because in our opinion, the scriptural justification was invalid?
That is not acceptable. Exegesis is essential, but so is historical accuracy.