Jonathan Brown’s Lecture on Slavery

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Here is an excellent lecture by Dr. Jonathan Brown on the subject of the abolition of slavery. It is a forerunner to his upcoming book Slavery and Islam which will be released on August 23, 2019. I have already preordered the book and intended on doing a full-length book review, inshaAllah.

Summary of the Lecture

In the lecture, Dr. Brown talks about the history of Muslim engagement with the problem of slavery, and then offers 5 main positions which have been espoused by scholars regarding slavery. This is then followed by his own personal analysis of the positives and negatives of each approach. I was not taking notes during the lecture, so this is off the top of my head based on what I remember. Forgive any mistakes you may find therein.

The first approach is claim that slavery was mansookh and that the entire Islamic tradition has erred in continuing its practice. The problem with this argument is that the naqli evidence is weak and it essentially undermines the entirety of the Islamic tradition. Only radical reformers who fall outside the fold of the tradition would take such a position.

The second position is that it would have been too destabilizing to have gotten rid of slavery immediately and so the Islamic approach was to gradually dispense with slavery. Something went wrong, however, in that Muslims did not fulfill this mandate and so slavery continued. The weakness of this position is that we don’t have an explicit statement by Allah and His Messenger condemning slavery as a moral evil (which is the least they could’ve done) or commanding Muslims to carry out this holy mission.

The third position is the position Dr. Brown said he holds, which is that emancipation is of the maqaasid of the Shariah and the ruler has the ability to ban certain things for the maslaha of society, the fulfillment of a treaty and so forth. This position, Brown claims, grounds itself authentically in the tradition and the arguments of scholars who take this position are arguing using traditional fiqhi language. The weakness, however, is that one does not get to condemn slavery as a transhistorical evil as modern people tend to believe.

The fourth position is of Ahmed Bey, the Ottoman governor of Tunisia. He claimed that the current slave trade of the Muslims was wrought with violations of the Shariah and that slaves were not be treated in accordance with Islamic law – neither in the way they are captured nor their subsequent treatment. “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all,” Brown christens this position. The weakness with this position is that it does not condemn slavery as a moral evil at all, but rather simply opposes it on technical grounds.

The fifth position is that slavery is in fact still permissible and those who think otherwise are simply brainwashed by colonialism. The weakness of this position is that it does not view slavery as evil at all.

My Comments

Here is the comment I left on this video:

I listened intently to this excellent presentation. There were 2 weaknesses, however, which I identified. The first is a technical error that Dr. Brown makes in response to the question which occurs at around 1:30:00 . He says that “The Quranic description does not talk about the Israelites, Bani Israel, as slaves…” This is incorrect. Here is Suratul Shu’araa’: وَتِلْكَ نِعْمَةٌ تَمُنُّهَا عَلَيَّ أَنْ عَبَّدتَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ – 26:22 And is this a favor of which you remind me – that you have enslaved the Children of Israel?” The word used in Arabic does in fact mean enslaved (عبّد). The second weakness is that for the 5th category (those who say that slavery is still acceptable), the weakness that Dr. Brown mentioned was merely that we don’t get to condemn slavery as evil under this view. But we would expect the proponents of this view to be fully aware of that and in fact okay with it. Do we have nothing else we could say to those holding the 5th view? In other words, what would Dr. Brown propose we say to the Daesh fighter, aside from pointing out the fiqh rulings pertaining to slavery which they were regularly breaking (bringing us back to the view of Bey, the Ottoman governor of Tunisia, who said if you can’t do it right don’t do it at all)?


I also left a comment in response to an ignorant commenter who said the following:

Im embarassed. Brown is apparently blatantly unaware of how many european nations, primarily in the north, abolished slavery in the 1300s
My response:
You should be embarrassed as you apparently didn’t listen to the lecture properly. Listen to what he said at 11:55 . He clearly mentions that in the Middle Ages they started getting rid of slavery.
When someone actually writes an academic grade book on a topic, they’ve probably read dozens of books in the process of their research. You can rest assured that they know any “basic facts” relevant to the topic that you as a layman read on Wikipedia. Respect the scholarship guys. And also, when you read or listen to something serious, pay attention instead of strawmanning your opponent. While some misunderstandings are inevitable as I explain in this article, the level of reading/listening comprehension in this ADD generation is unbelievably low.