ISIS, Dr. Jonathan Brown and Concubinage in Islam

“It was in the institution of marriage, however, that Islam made its greatest contribution to women. It sanctified marriage, first, by making it the sole lawful locus of the sexual act.” – Huston Smith, The World’s Religions

 Appeals to Tradition

 The issue of ma malakat aymanukum (“those that their right hands possess”) in relation to sex outside of marriage between husband and wife is a vexing and volatile subject for what seems like an infinite amount of reasons.  Historically speaking, there have been numerous theological interpretations in Islam permitting sex with slave-women sometimes even non-consensual sex. In fact, in a recent AMA on reddit even Dr. Jonathan Brown, an esteemed Islamic scholar teaching out of Georgetown University, indicated as such with a rather strange, anthropological explanation. When asked about the permissibility of raping one’s slave, Brown responded as follows:

“…’slave rape’ is a tough term to decipher from a Shariah perspective. A male owner of a female slave has the right to sexual access to her. Though he could not physically harm her without potentially being held legally accountable if she complained, her ‘consent’ would be meaningless since she is his slave.”

As insightful a scholar as Brown can be, I think he is categorically wrong in his theological assessment. In fact, I find his response not only in error, but absurd as well, especially when compassion is at the very root of our faith:

“God will not show mercy to him who does not show mercy to others.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Now, of course, the draconian fools that make up ISIS have offered their own abundantly ignorant claims to ma malakat aymanukum. However, as foolish as ISIS is, their terrible decrees tantamount to sex slavery are not an historical exception in the history of Islam. Even now many of the so-called ‘royalty’ in some parts of the Middle East certainly bend and twist the notion of ma malakat aymanukum to allow the consummation of their illicit desires though maybe not with the obvious brutality of the likes of ISIS. Also, whether it’s a despotic warlord or some spoiled prince they most certainly have a coterie of theologians or mullahs capable of twisting and contorting faith to suit their misguided ways:

“There are those who believe that if they study the Quran, and so learn the words of knowledge of religion, and then go to kings and princes to seek favor from them, that they can keep safe their piety. It is not so. From a thorny tree you will get naught by thorns, and likewise you will get nothing from kings except sins to commit.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

The most common arguments permitting sex with ma malakat aymanukum outside of marriage are innumerable appeals to tradition often citing various questionable Hadith for corroboration. However, unlike the Quran, the validity of any given Hadith can be called into question, especially when it contradicts or even seems to contradict the Quran. Also, even if a theological interpretation has remained popular for centuries this doesn’t automatically validate such interpretations as true or irrefutable. Too often I hear fellow Muslims make fallacious appeals to tradition when defending any number of positions on Islam including this very contentious subject matter.

Worse, such appeals and interpretations regarding ma malakat aymanukum have offered a kind of derelict boon for many Muslim men’s wayward desires for centuries. Not for all, but certainly for some. Stories of harems and courtesans decorate much of Arabic poetry and literature and, of course, prostitution remains an institution in many Islamic countries including Turkey and Pakistan. As absurd as it sounds, I can only imagine some wayward brother browsing pornography with his right hand in some feeble, misguided attempt to rationalize his dull desires. Lest we forget, the devil is a lot more clever than we think, especially when leading us astray.

Suffice it to say, there’s quite a bit of exegetical work necessary to fully understand ma malakat aymanukum in Islam. While I’m under no illusions of providing a definite answer to satisfy everyone or put to rest the issue, I’m certain that I can provide a sound argument that demonstrates that any sexual relationship with slaves or concubines is strictly impermissible in Islam unless sealed by the bond of marriage.

The Process of Revelation is Key to Understanding Ma Malakat Aymanukum

Surahs in the Quran are distinguished by when they were revealed either as Meccan in origin or Medinan. The latter indicates Surahs revealed to the prophet post-Hijrah. Thematically, Meccan Surahs tend to focus primarily on God and humanity’s relation to Him. Medinan Surahs tend to detail practical applications of faith such as the treatment of women, laws of inheritance, judicial and punitive measures, etc. Much of what we define as Shariah draws from the Medinan Surahs and these are the final arbiters regarding moral and ethical behavior for Muslims.

The process of revelation (not to be confused with process theology) as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – again, from Meccan injunctions to Medinan ones – demonstrates that sexual relations with slaves were finally decreed as impermissible. Remember, the entire revelation of the Quran took over twenty years to complete. Outside of worship of God and God alone, the practical moral framework established in Islam involved a definite and legitimate process.

Certainly the Quran was revealed in perfection and remains perfect. In relation to ma malakat aymanukum, the early Meccan verses understood that sexual relations were occurring between owners and their slaves. More importantly, these early verses understood that virtually no boundaries existed at the time for the sating of one’s sexual desires. Worse, women had no place or value in pre-Islamic Arabia:

“Drunken orgies were commonplace…marriage arrangements were so loose as to be scarcely recognizable. Women were regarded as nothing more than chattel…” – Huston Smith, The World’s Religions

As a result, the early Meccan Surahs decreed as follows:

“…[Those] who abstain from sex, except from their wives or those their right hands possess…” – Quran, 23:5-6 (Yusuf Ali)

“And those who guard their chastity, except from their wives or those their right hands possess…” – Quran, 70:29-30 (Yusuf Ali)

These early verses are not granting permission they are establishing a very clear boundary. This distinction cannot be impressed upon enough. A limit had now been set on one’s sexual conduct as decreed by the Quran in relation to the existing licentiousness throughout the pre-Islamic community.

As the process of revelation moved forward and the first Islamic community formed post-Hijrah the mandates regarding sexual relations were finally codified in the Medinan verses regarding ma malakat aymanukum:

“If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess: And Allah hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another: Wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to what is reasonable: They should be chaste, not lustful, nor taking paramours: when they are taken in wedlock, if they fall into shame, their punishment is half that for free women. This (permission) is for those among you who fear sin; but it is better for you that ye practise self-restraint. And Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” – Quran, 4:25 (Yusuf Ali)

“Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allah gives them means out of His grace. And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity, in order that ye may make a gain in the goods of this life. But if anyone compels them, yet, after such compulsion, is Allah, Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful (to them)…” Quran, 24:33 (Yusuf Ali)

The Meccan verses set a limit, the Medinan verses established the rule. The Medinan verses make clear that consummation is allowed only within the confines of marriage regardless of social status, be it a free woman or a slave. As a result, any interpretation or ruling allowing for sex with slaves outside of marriage is now deemed a sin.

In this day and age of rampant Islamophobia and fanaticism it’s also vital that we understand that the revelatory process has nothing to do with the decidedly legal concept of abrogation. Theologically speaking, the concept of abrogation exists in the Judeo-Christian traditions and in reference to the Judeo-Christian traditions. Christians believe the laws of the Torah (Old Testament) were abrogated – as in nullified or canceled out – by the Injeel (New Testament).  The Quran explicitly states that it too abrogates previous revelations not the revelations that comprise the Quran itself.  However, there is no abrogation within the Quran.  In other words, God does not change His mind.

Translating Ma Malakat Aymanukum

For the sake of brevity, I stuck with Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Quran. However, it’s also worth noting that Both Ahmed Ali’s and Muhammad Asad’s translations of the Quran delve into the Arabic lexicon to better interpret ma malakat aymanukum. Ahmed Ali translates it as ‘women slaves of old’ to connote the aforementioned revelatory process. Asad takes legitimate issue with the notion of there even being an option present by rooting out the coordinating conjunction ‘or’ in the verses that state, ‘from their wives or those their right hands possess.’ Asad’s notes on verse 23:6 is really worth quoting for its detailed analysis:

“…with the significant difference that in the present context this expression relates to 
both husbands and wives, who “rightfully possess” one another by virtue of marriage. On the basis of this interpretation, the particle ‘aw’ which precedes this clause does not denote an alternative (“or”) but is, rather, in the nature of an explanatory amplification, more or less analogous to the phrase “in other words” or “that is”, thus giving to the whole sentence the meaning, “save with their spouses – that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock]” – Muhammad Asad, Message of The Quran, 23:6

Rather than providing an option in these early Meccan verses, Asad insists that ma malakat aymanukum is simply a reiteration to emphasize one’s spouse(s).

Again, I very much doubt I’ve settled such a large, vexing issue, but for me at least, I find my minor hermeneutics sufficient in understanding ma malakat aymanukum. God knows best. Amen.