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Georgetown Prof Defends Islamic Slavery

'I don't think it is morally evil to own somebody,' says the Catholic university's AlWaleed Bin Talal Professor of Islamic Civilization

An academic reader writes:

This news item stands out if only because — at last! — reality beats Houellebecq. Who’d a thunk? Or maybe Houellebecq was prophetical in his novel, “Soumission”.

What’s he talking about? News that Jonathan Brown, a tenured Georgetown professor and holder of the Al-Waleed bin Talal Chair in Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University, has delivered a lecture defending slavery and rape non-consensual sex. Umar Lee, a Muslim who heard the lecture and was offended by it, posted about it here. He wrote:

While the lecture was supposed to be about slavery in Islam Brown spent the majority of the lecture talking about slavery in the United States, the United Kingdom and China. When discussing slavery in these societies Brown painted slavery as brutal and violent (which it certainly was). When the conversation would briefly flip to historic slavery in the Arab and Turkish would slavery was described by Brown in glowing terms. Indeed, according to Brown, slaves in the Muslim World lived a pretty good life.

I thought the Muslim community was done with this dishonest North Korean style of propaganda. Obviously not. Brown went on to discuss the injustices of prison labor in America and a myriad of other social-ills. Absent from his talk (until challenged) was any recognition of the rampant abuse of workers in the Gulf, the thousands of workers in the Gulf dying on construction sites, the South Asian child camel-jockeys imported into the United Arab Emirates to race camels under harsh conditions, or the horrific conditions of prisoners in the Muslim World (the latest news being 13,000 prisoners executed in Syria).

Brown constructs a world where the wrongs of the West excuse any wrongs (if he believes there are any) in the Muslim World.

“Slavery wasn’t racialized” in Muslim societies, Brown stated. That would be believable if it weren’t well-known black people in the Arab World and African-Americans in this country weren’t constantly referred to as abeed (slaves) simply because the color of the skin.

Brown described slavery in the Muslim World as kinder and gentler. The Arab poet who wrote “before you buy the slave buy the stick… for he is nejas (impure)” is perhaps a better description of Arab slavery than what Brown offered.
“Slaves were protected by shariah (Islamic Law)” Brown stated with no recognition of the idealized legal version of slavery and slavery as it was practiced. In this version of slavery there is an omission of kidnappings, harems, armies of eunuchs, and other atrocities.

Read the whole thing. Umar Lee is furious.

Below, a YouTube link to the lecture and the Q&A following.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpFatRwdPm0&w=560&h=315]

Just past the 1:00 mark, Brown says that slavery under Islamic law was not comparable to chattel slavery in the American South, in part because the slaves of Muslims had rights. He said it was in fact comparable to feudalism in medieval Europe — something “social,” not “economic.” When the questioner persists in his challenge to Brown’s take on slavery in Islam, Brown goes on to say that it’s an undeniable fact that Muhammad held slaves.

“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.

He also says that it’s not helpful to talk about slavery in turns of some people owning others. I don’t know why it’s not helpful to do that, because that’s what slavery is. The BBC has a useful explainer about Islam and slavery, going into the phenomenon contextually and historically. But slavery, whether practiced by Christians, Muslims, or pagans, is about people owning other people, period.

But here’s the kicker:

“I don’t think it is morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us, and we are owned by people,” says Prof. Brown of Georgetown University — which last year announced plans to repent for its own profiting from the US slave trade.

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?


“The difference between these people is not that big,” Brown claims.

Um, wow.

Says the academic — a Catholic — who pointed this lecture out to me:

I defend his freedom to express himself. I defend the right of professors, be they full-time tenured or part-time adjuncts, to express their opinions without fear of recrimination or losing their job.

The issue lays in the responsibility of the Catholic Church, to whom the Society of Jesus owes allegiance, and under whose charge Georgetown University is administered. This university employs a tenured professor — protected by the Bill of Rights and the American traditions of academic freedom — who is an apologist of slavery. One may say, he’s not defending slavery, he’s helping relativise our own parochial, American concepts of slavery to better appreciate the condition of slaves – or rather “slaves” (in “quotes”) – in the Arab world. One may say that the Catholic Church has employed apologists of slavery in the past. Who am I to judge? Who are you? Who is anybody? Whose justice? Which rationality?

As an academic, I find this sophistry troubling but not surprising – such intellectual laziness (often generously endowed by patrons pulling the strings) has been around a looooong time. As a Catholic, I find this very problematic. Very. Problematic.

It’s already an interesting 21st century.

In other words, what is a Catholic university doing employing a professor who defends slavery, including sexual slavery, to the point of equating it with Christian marriage?

Al-Waleed bin Talal, the Saudi bllionaire who funds that professorship at Georgetown, is the grandson of an Armenian Christian woman who escaped the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks, and who was presented to King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi dynasty, when she was 12 years old. She was likely an Orthodox Christian child (Armenians are Orthodox) captured and pressed into slavery by Muslims. She could have been a concubine, but he made her his wife. In those days, less than a century ago:

An immense slave corps, mostly of African origin, now served the royal family and its palaces. But if Abdulaziz had begun his career as a tribal chieftain, he was now an oriental potentate holding sway over the vastness of Arabia and a kingdom needed a new palace for its king. In 1935 – just two years after the state of Saudi Arabia was proclaimed – work was begun on the last great mud-built palace in the Najd murabba (square).


Abdulaziz had been prodigiously fertile, taking brides in order to co-opt one or another tribe or to mend relations with cadet branches of the al-Saud. Abdulaziz, as a unitarian Wahhabi, had been a sternly devout Muslim and as such never had more than four legal wives at a time. But these were regularly divorced and rotated as his whims and passions warranted. And the king had also made ample use of slave-girls and concubines. In this, he had held fast to an Islamic tradition that allowed rulers to take women as chattel in addition to the four wives allotted under Sharia law.


In 1921, Abdulaziz had been busy wiping out the last traces of resistance among his al-Rashid rivals in the Great Nafud desert to the north of Riyadh. In triumph he and his warriors visited the emir, or prince, of Unayza, a large desert trading post halfway to the Iraqi border. In the emir’s palace, according to family members, Abdulaziz was presented with a beautiful 12-year-old girl, Munayer.

Munayer’s father, it is thought, was most likely an Armenian Christian from eastern Anatolia. His wife certainly was. Six years earlier, in 1915, the family had been forced to flee in terror before the vast anti-Armenian massacres of that year. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who fled west to Athens or Beirut, Munayer, her father, mother, and two other siblings traveled southward, along old caravan routes, deep into the interior of Wahhabi Arabia. It was a strange choice for a Christian family. They may have been too terrified to reason carefully. Or perhaps they intended to head for Lebanon or even Persia – safe havens then for fleeing Armenians – and simply got lost.

This is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s grandfather we’re talking about.



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