ISIS, Machiavelli and Martin Luther

Most Muslims are at their wit’s end trying to defend Islam against the horrific actions of ISIS and their ilk. Many have even gone to great theological lengths to explain how ISIS is diametrically opposed to the tenets and principles of Islam. Unfortunately, the efforts of these well-intentioned souls often fall on deaf ears. Rarely, if ever, are the naysayers and Islamophobes informed in any meaningful way on hermeneutics or exegetical constructs concerning matters of faith. Usually these critics, many of whom are academics or supposed intellectuals of some repute (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchen, etc.), abandon any attempt at critical evaluation and reduce themselves to henpecking literalists to bolster their misguided claims and accusations – ironically enough, the same foolish methodology that fundamentalists like ISIS employ in their draconian attempts at indoctrination and terror.

Never mind the most obvious, but seemingly lost fact that Islam is, by no means, monolithic. There are upwards of 1.5 Billion Muslims in the world today whose beliefs are incredibly wide and varied in scope. Asking a Muslim what they’re doing to combat terrorism is like walking up to some random Mexican and asking them what they’re doing to fight the Cartels. Or perhaps a more perfect analogy is asking a Nigerian what they plan on doing about gang violence in South Central Los Angeles. In other words, it’s a nonsensical and loaded inquiry based almost entirely on gross, superficial gleanings informed by wild ignorance and fear-mongering.

The reality is that the likes of ISIS are neither driven by the tenets of Islam nor can be challenged by them. Battling ISIS on theological grounds is a mostly fruitless effort. The supposed beliefs of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen are simply a threadbare disguise. At root, they are driven by greed and power, not living a virtuous life as a defined by the Quran and the example of the Prophet (pbuh).

With that in mind, let’s put aside all the seemingly endless theological refutations against the horrific crimes committing by ISIS. Instead, let’s turn to Niccolo Machiavelli, that shrewd, provocative Renaissance philosopher whose seminal work, The Prince, details the acquisition of political power by any means necessary – something ISIS is hell-bent (pun intended) on achieving.

 Virtue and Vice in a Machiavellian World

 Virtue and vice have no inherent metaphysical value in relation to power according to Machiavelli. They are simply tools to facilitate gaining and maintaining authority. Of course, this runs completely counter to any religious notion of virtue and vice, but no matter.  Concepts of goodness have no teleological or eschatological purpose in Machiavelli’s sociopolitical world.  Virtue is simply a means to a decidedly worldly end:

“Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power…” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Notions of goodness and salvation are mere abstractions to be manipulated when necessary (I’m reminded of that sad and profound scene in the film Paradise Now where some two-bit mullah tries to convince the main character to become a suicide bomber). Machiavelli even argues that ethics and virtue in a classical, Aristotelian sense can be outright foolish and impractical. In fact, in The Prince Machiavelli elaborates even further and insists that acts considered wrong or deplorable might need to be committed for the sake of achieving and maintaining power:

“The term that best captures Machiavelli’s vision of the requirements of power politics is virtù. While the Italian word would normally be translated into English as “virtue,” and would ordinarily convey the conventional connotation of moral goodness, Machiavelli obviously means something very different when he refers to the virtù of the prince. In particular, Machiavelli employs the concept of virtù to refer to the range of personal qualities that the prince will find it necessary to acquire in order to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things,” the two standard markers of power for him. This makes it brutally clear there can be no equivalence between the conventional virtues and Machiavellian virtù.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To be clear, Machiavelli is not contriving some diabolical sociopolitical theory from thin air.  He is simply drawing from endless examples throughout history to assert his claims.  As a result, vice and virtue are relative concepts and ought to be gauged mainly by whether or not they facilitate one’s sociopolitical might.

The Brutal Measures of Martin Luther

What’s often lost in all the volatile discussions about Islam, Islamophobia and terrorism, especially here in America, is just how violent the roots of Protestantism are. Many are aware of atrocities committed under the banner of Catholicism (Crusades, Inquisitions, Conquering of the Americas, etc.), but America is largely Protestant. Most of us simply know Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, as a rebellious German priest who challenged the Catholic hegemony that enveloped most of Europe. However, few are aware of how he evoked the name of Christ in a very Machiavellian sense to justify the barbarous oppression and slaughter of thousands of the German working poor desperate to free itself from the crushing boot heel of feudalism.

Martin Luther was desperately trying to consolidate power with various German princes against Catholic rule. To do so, Luther twisted Christian virtue as he saw fit. In fact, the following quote could easily echo the words and sentiments of al-Baghdadi or Bin Laden:

“The peasants would not listen; they would not let anyone tell them anything, so their ears must now be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their shoulders…He who will not hear God’s word when spoken with kindness, must listen to the headsman, when he comes with the axe.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

Even more compelling in a Machiavellian sense is how Luther manages to deform the very notion of God’s mercy and later condemn any act of rebellion against authority as blasphemous (of course, he fails to acknowledge his own monumental act of rebellion against the Catholic Church):

“The Scripture passages which speak of mercy apply to the kingdom of God and to Christians, not to the kingdom of the world…Rebellion is no joke, and there is no evil deed on earth that compares to it.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

To be clear, it would be in gross error to associate Luther’s brutality with Christianity as a faith and philosophy.  Not only in error, but nonsensical as well.  Luther certainly was fueled by aspects of zealotry and self-righteousness, but these driving forces were diametrically opposed to the supposed virtue he espoused.  Instead, it was greed and power that ultimately drove him to encourage such injustices.

Like Luther, al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen distort, corrupt and deform the beliefs they supposedly profess to pursue their nefarious ends. Sadly, this is nothing new. Human history is replete with such mayhem and corruption whether it’s ISIS, Pope Urban II, Mao, Stalin, etc. And, thank God Almighty, it is also full of brave souls who continue to defy such tyranny no matter the odds. Amen.













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.