Slaves, concubines, and housemaids

Edited for brevity and focus.

A topic that I wish more Muslim feminists would address in the Blogosphere is that of concubines in Islam. I know that most will flail their arms in the air and moan “it doesn’t happen anymore so get on with other important issues”, but Muslim women must understand that it “does still happen” and it is a very important issue that must be addressed immediately.

Most active Muslim feminist bloggers write from outside the Arab world and if they have never lived in the Arab world they will not know the intricate realities of the Islam that is practiced by men and women here. Our sad disregard for their plight has caused the abuse and assault to escalate rapidly.

While I disagree with slavery in general, my particular concern has always been with concubinage. Slavery and concubinage continued openly in the Arab and Muslim lands until as late as the 1960s. And it still exists in Chad, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia and Mauritania (where approximately 90,000 black Mauritanians are enslaved by Arab/Berber owners). In 1997, El Hassan Ould Benyamin, a masjid imam in Tayarat openly condemned efforts to abolish slavery:

“This ‘abolition’ [of slavery] is illegal because it is contrary to the teachings of the fundamental text of Islamic law, the Quran … [and] amounts to the expropriation from Muslims of their goods; goods that were acquired legally.”

In all these countries, sex with slaves is a given and is tolerated by other Muslims as well as wives of men who keep concubines. Sexual slavery is an “epidemic” in Darfur. You can read here how as late as 2003 there have been Islamic leaders calling for slavery to be reinstated.  Shaikh Saad Al-Buraik openly urged Palestinians to practice concubinage by saying that, ‘(Jewish) women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don’t you enslave their women?’

I don’t wish to go into the theological underpinnings of sex with slaves; I want to draw attention to some groundbreaking work that has been done particularly by Segal (2001) to explain how slavery and concubinage became synonymous with ‘black people’ which has resulted in slavery still existing in Africa.

Segal explains that Arabs preferred Africans for slavery because according to some of the most renowned scholars African people were created for slavery[i]. Thus by the Middle Ages, the Arabic word abd was exclusively used for a black slave, while mamluk referred to a white slave.

Segal mentions that thousands of Berber women were publicly sold at Cairo in 1077 for revolting. That is where the demand for Black concubines gained sudden popularity. Al Idrisi spoke of the beauty of Nubian concubines in these terms:

Their women are of surpassing beauty. They are circumcised and fragrant-smelling… their lips are thin, their mouths small and their hair flowing. Of all the black women, they are the best for the pleasures of the bed … It is on account of these qualities of theirs that the rulers of Egypt were so desirous of them and outbid to purchase them, afterwards fathering children from them.

Similarly, Segal notes that Burckhardt found that Hijazi men especially from Mecca always preferred Ethiopian women as concubines:

The concubines are always Abyssinian slaves. No wealthy Meccan prefers domestic peace to the gratification of his passions; they all keep mistresses in common with their lawful wives … Arabians are more expensive, and less disposed to yield to the will of the husband … Upon their arrival (foreigners also) buy a female companion, with the design of selling her at their departure.

What can be derived from the two passages quoted above are the following few important points:

  1. African women were preferred as concubines for their physical qualities
  2. Hijazi men preferred their passions over domestic peace
  3. African concubines were not “expensive”
  4. They easily yielded to the will of their owners because they were in bondage

These are the also the main points why domestic servants from Ethiopia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines are sexually assaulted today by Muslims living in Muslim countries. These women are attractive but powerless in a foreign country, they are poor and dependent on their host families and in most cases are in no situation to deny the sexual advances of their sponsors. If they stand up for their rights and do collect the courage to complain against the sexual assault, they run the risk of being punished for fornication under Sharia law.

However, men find nothing wrong in approaching these women because they believe they have ownership of these women since they sponsor them. More importantly, they have never been taught that a woman’s consent is necessary for sex to take place since in their culture the right to consent lies only with a free woman who is a legal wife.

Wafa has a horrific story to share on her blog today. There is the case of a man willing to swap his old and beaten car with a healthy Indian or Sri Lanka housemaid! There are also photos of brutally abused maids by their female owners! (Something to ponder on is the possibility that perhaps the female abusers of these maids are jilted wives who are jealous of these younger and more attractive foreign women – after all, their husbands are known to prefer their passions over domestic peace!). This happens in countries where slavery is still silently practiced for which Butt bravely accuses Muslims in carrying out gender apartheid. Exactly a year ago CNN published this graphic tale of an Indonesian maid treated as a sex slave for more than a year. The Women’s Rights website carries more stories. Across the border in Sudan, slavery is still firmly in place. (Also this, and this).

It is obvious in today’s moral structure to treat sex with non-consenting women as immoral, indecent and plainly – rape. Today even if slavery exists, sex with a slave is considered rape. A woman is now seen as an adult human being; an equal to the male human. A woman, even if socially inferior, deserves full right over her own sexuality and hence her consent is necessary.

Perhaps many Muslim feminists are scared to talk about concubinage in Islam because it would seem that their loyalties don’t lie with Islam (there is Kecia Ali’s book but that’s almost it). There is invariably the need for justification with words similar to “to talk only about the Middle East is an obvious attempt to demonize Muslims and Islam. Yes, the situation of female maids in the Middle East is often atrocious; but so is the situation of female maids in Asia, and for that matter, of Filipino workers enslaved in U.S country clubs.”

However, Muslim feminists, I feel, must talk about these problems because first, misery can’t and shouldn’t be compared; second, if we don’t talk about the atrocities committed by Muslims, then we offer the chance to others to discuss it on their terms; third, no matter how far removed we are from the original Islamic idea of slavery and concubinage, the fact is that today it is a Muslim problem if it happens in a Muslim country and so it is our problem; and finally any woman who is abused by a Muslim becomes the problem of a Muslim feminist.

My questions to you are:

  1. Why do you think many Muslim feminists ignore to discuss the suffering of women sold into slavery?
  2. What concrete steps do you think Muslim feminists must take to end this suffering?
  3. How do you feel about all this as a Muslim and a feminist?


Further reading

Concubinage. Wikipedia.

Segal, R. (2001). Islam’s Black Slaves. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Sikainga, Ahmad A. (1996). Slaves Into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan. University of Texas Press.

Thousands of Nigerian women ‘found in Mali slave camps’, BBC report.


[i] Based  on Ibn Sina’s work on relationship between climate and human temperament Said Al-Andalusi, a judge at Toledo said that Africans were best suited to slavery because, “living under the long presence of the sun at the zenith causes their temperaments to become hot and their humors fiery, their color black and their hair woolly. They lack self-control and steadiness of mind and are overcome by flickleness, foolishness and ignorance.”

Ibn Khaldun wrote that, “the Negro natioans are,a s a rule, submissive to slavery because they have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.”


52 thoughts on “Slaves, concubines, and housemaids

  1. unsettledsoul says:

    My passion in life is to work with anti-sex trafficking organizations once I graduate. I just need to chime in that slavery is worldwide, it is not just in Muslim countries, it is in EVERY country, developed nations included.

    Middle eastern & north African cultures may have a Quranic tie to why they do what they do (a nice excuse, no?) but this is a world issue also, not just a Muslim issue.

    I certainly am not downplaying what is happening in the cultures you speak of, and I commend you for talking about it! Too often we forget how ugly the world still is.

  2. unsettledsoul says:

    I also apologize, I see you have touched on that subject at the end, let me just add those filipino maids you bring up are most likely Muslim also. The entire southern Philippines is a majority Muslim population.

    To answer your questions:

    1. Why do you think many Muslim feminists ignore to discuss the suffering of women sold into slavery?

    I don’t see Muslim feminists ignoring this at all! Yanar Mohammad is on the frontlines in Iraq fighting against sexual and labor slavery. Sisters in Islam is on the frontlines in Malaysia fighting against trafficking of human beings. It is the number one business in the world! It is above drug and arms trafficking. There are organizations and groups of women worldwide, in every country you speak of, yelling at the top of their lungs! Maybe the question should be: “Why don’t we hear or know about these Muslim feminists in the middle east and elsewhere who are fighting tooth and nail against trafficking and slavery?”

    2. What concrete steps do you think Muslim feminists must take to end this suffering?

    To have their voice heard in their media. They are already taking the steps necessary, but their voices are not being heard. Why? Because feminism is looked down upon by traditional Muslims, so they are not in the media save for a lucky few. Isn’t it funny we can stoop so low as to think women being slaves is a “feminist” issue?! My blood boils over this! Many women also do not want attention because increased awareness of what they are doing can put their lives in danger.

    3. How do you feel about all this as a Muslim and a feminist?

    I feel outraged, of course! I also feel like we shouldn’t bemoan about Muslim feminists not talking about the issue, or ignoring it! That is just not true and blurs what is really going on out there!

    If you would like I can provide you links to organizations with women fighting against slavery in any country you wish to focus on.

    Also, I talk about slavery! I know many western Muslims who know about and discuss and give to organizations and volunteer their time.

  3. Metis says:

    Thank you for that detailed comment, US. I really value your input and I think you have brilliant ideas on this post.

    You said, “I also feel like we shouldn’t bemoan about Muslim feminists not talking about the issue, or ignoring it! That is just not true and blurs what is really going on out there! If you would like I can provide you links to organizations with women fighting against slavery in any country you wish to focus on.”

    I apologise for being so vague. My research concern is Muslim Feminists in the Blogosphere and many times when I write I forget to mention that it is what I am looking at mainly. I understand that there are organizations that are fighting against slavery and I have links to a couple of them on the right sidebar. There are also individual Muslim women who write about it on their blogs like Wafa did today and like you mentioned you do too which is why I didn’t generalise it but used the word ‘many’ with Muslim feminists.’

    The other thing I wanted to clarify which the length of my post didn’t allow me to do is that lawyers working in these countries often have a very hard time putting across the logic that domestic helpers are not slaves. My dilemma is ‘what if they were slaves?’ Would we be ok today with sex with slaves? I feel we need to start with reestablishment of sexual ethics according to modern times but I don’t know if that is a feasible solution.

    The other important point is that in countries where rape of maids/slaves is common, the local women don’t really know about the efforts of organizations. They are themselves victims of this vicious cycle – they sponsor young maids from foreign countries, their husbands begin to exploit these women which arouses their jealousy and they in turn abuse those maids. But these local women are slowly gaining more and more access to the Internet which is where Muslim feminists (like Wafa) can make a difference. (A reason why I talk about difficult issues on my blog and regularly highlight the efforts of organizations on Twitter). I acknowledge that there is awareness, but it could be more.

    There are also public awareness advertisements on the telly now that aim to teach kindness towards domestic help, but then these ads never focus on the sex part or they never show a man mistreating the maids. I suspect the real problem is that women mistreat those maids out of jealousy (as has been often explained to me in private by local women).

  4. Seema Rehan says:


    Are you focusing on human trafficking or on the concept of slavery and concubinage in Islam? If your concern is the former then there is work being done in that area by Muslims and non-Muslims but if you concern is the latter then I see problems. Muslims are not willing to acknowledge that slavery should have been banned even if in stages like alcohol. There is denial that concubinage was as immoral then as it is now and for this reason Muslims will not openly oppose those who want to reinstate slavery and concubinage.

    I’m not Muslim anymore but I’m a feminist and as a feminist I would propose that Muslims must stand up forcefully against those who want to reinstate slavery and concubinage. Imams should talk against this in their khutbas and public lectures should be given to men highlighting the immoral nature of slavery and concubinage.

    • Metis says:

      Seema, I think I packed too much into one post! I am really confusing my readers and I apologise. I have 600 pages to read on Social Research Design and thought I’d put everything in one post. Big mistake!

      Anyway, like I said (somewhere in there!) my main concern is concubinage. It comes with slavery but also without it. In the GCC countries where maids are assaulted human trafficking doesn’t always takes place – these maids go to these countries as legal workers. That is the main problem. In the minds of their abusers, they are not doing anything illegal or unIslamic!

      I like your solutions. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Becky says:

    Like US mentioned, the biggest problem here is Muslim feminists (and other women/men fighting to end sexual slavery and sex trade) aren’t being heard. I knew that there were problems, but I had no idea how widespread the abuse is. I’m absolutely appalled and horrified.

    To answer your questions:
    1.) Why do you think many Muslim feminists ignore to discuss the suffering of women sold into slavery? Like mentioned above, lack of knowledge. I don’t think any Muslim feminist would purposefully ignore such an important subject (at least I hope not!) The real question should by, why aren’t Muslim women, or or the Muslim community in general discussing this? Like you also mentioned a big part of it is probably not wanting to give Islam or Middle Eastern countries more of a bad rep than they have already, but that’s absolutely no excuse.
    2.) What concrete steps do you think Muslim feminists must take to end this suffering?
    Information! Talk about it, tell people about it, don’t allow people to feign ignorance. But unfortunately, like US pointed out, it’s just incredibly hard to get the message through, to have the voice heard.
    3.) How do you feel about all this as a Muslim and a feminist?
    I’m absolutely enraged, appalled and horrified. I cannot believe that these things are still going on, and that people are blatantly denying it or making excuses.

    • Metis says:

      Thanks for your answers Becky!

      It is pretty ugly and I think just the sexual assault of maids (in some GCC countries) and slaves (in Sudan) should have deserved a separate post. I read Wafa’s post and it spurred me into writing this.

      I know from experience that whenever I have tried to talk about concubinage, I have not met a favourable response from fellow Muslims. Eight years ago I wrote letters to a couple of scholars requesting them to explain concubinage in relation to modern times and how we can stop women being abused like that and they both wrote back saying something like concubinage was allowed only in the 7th Century, doesn’t happen now so no need to talk about it (something like this response – but shorter!). There was explicit denial.

      • Becky says:

        I read your link. That’s absolutely horrifying.

        I wish it was true – that it was a question of only academic interest today, but as you have clearly shown it’s not! Ignoring an issue is not going to make it go away, but clearly these Muslim leaders and scholars don’t want to rock the boat. Very saddening – and angering.

        • Metis says:

          We all think we are right so I’ll just say what I think is right 🙂 I think it would be better if scholars who are asked such questions go a step further and say that “there ARE men who think they can keep concubines even today, they keep slaves or treat their maids like concubines, and that is very wrong. It must stop.”

          There was a report a couple of months ago of a new born baby found abandoned in the plane’s toilet on a plane bound for the Philippines from KSA! The unfortunate side of concubinage today is that children are sometimes not accepted by the father which would have been unimaginable in early Islam.

          • Becky says:

            Again, I’m absolutely horrified! And like you said, even in early Islam such events would’ve been unimaginable – actually the birth of a child would’ve meant the mother would’ve been freed from slavery. But in these cases, these poor women live in such a limbo where they’re treated as slaves, but don’t even have the basic rights slaves and concubines used to have.

        • unsettledsoul says:

          My God. I read about it and hear about it and it never stops being horrifying.

        • unsettledsoul says:

          My God. I read about it and hear about it and it never stops being horrifying.

          It is unjustifiable, there is no justifying, which is why it is ignored.

          As recently as the 1950s, Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 450,000 — approximately 20% of the population. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 black Sudanese children and women had been taken into slavery in Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Slavery in Mauritania was legally abolished by laws passed in 1905, 1961, and 1981.[38] It was finally criminalized in August 2007. It is estimated that up to 600,000 black Mauritanians, or 20% of Mauritania’s population, are currently enslaved, many of them used as bonded labour.

          Descendants of the African slaves brought to the Middle East during the slave-trade still exist there today, and are aware of their African origins.

          Here is a link to an excellent non-profit I think you will be interested in. I ask anyone interested to read their site.

          • Metis says:

            Yes! And even a Saudi prince (who is not so old, I must add) is the son of an African slave. KSA was the last country to ban slavery (quite reluctantly).

  6. Thanks for this post! I must say beforehand that this subject is a very touchy one for me…

    1. Why do you think many Muslim feminists ignore to discuss the suffering of women sold into slavery?

    I personally don’t believe many Muslim feminists discuss slavery and the fates of women in slavery particularly when these women are black African. It is a topic that seems to get swept under the carpet. Thanks to unsettledsoul for giving examples of Muslim feminists tackling the problem of trafficking and sexual slavery but I cannot think of any Muslim feminist that discusses slavery happening in parts of Africa. I mean the only person I know who speaks out on Arab enslavement of black Africans on the continent is not a Muslim. One just gets the feeling that African Muslims are been sidelined and ignored by the wider Muslim world. Also I agree with what Seema Rehan says especially this; Muslims are not willing to acknowledge that slavery should have been banned even if in stages like alcohol.

    2. What concrete steps do you think Muslim feminists must take to end this suffering?

    Muslim feminists will have to tackle this head on by encouraging alternate readings of scriptures. Instead of focusing on the right men have over their concubines, we could stress the importance that was placed on freeing slaves. Justice must also be served and those who commit inhumane acts should be punished accordingly. Again what Seema says! We should speak out against these humane acts.

    3. How do you feel about all this as a Muslim and a feminist?

    As a Muslim, a feminist and an African I am royally pissed. How is it that things like this are allowed to happen while the general Muslim community will focus on other topics deemed more important? When I think of Sudan, Mauritania, Chad and Niger I just cannot shake the feeling that the Muslim public does not care about what Arabs are doing to black Africans on the continent. Furthermore this nulls the concept of ‘one brotherhood’ and the lie that there is no racism among Muslims.

    • Metis says:

      ECC, Thanks so much for your comment. I was waiting for you to comment.

      I haven’t really seen much on slavery in Africa from Muslim feminists and am sad to report that until a few years ago I didn’t even know that slavery exists in Africa. I also didn’t know about Arab attitudes towards black people. Segal’s book was very illuminating. I can’t say if African slavery is ignored because of those ancient attitudes towards the African people (that they are made for slavery etc). It is most probably that the general attitude is that their situation is too bad to improve. I think all these countries in Africa were occupied and made Muslim so they are now a Muslim problem and we must all get together to do something about them. We should create one ‘brotherhood.’ That is a must!

    • unsettledsoul says:

      “As a Muslim, a feminist and an African I am royally pissed. How is it that things like this are allowed to happen while the general Muslim community will focus on other topics deemed more important? When I think of Sudan, Mauritania, Chad and Niger I just cannot shake the feeling that the Muslim public does not care about what Arabs are doing to black Africans on the continent. Furthermore this nulls the concept of ‘one brotherhood’ and the lie that there is no racism among Muslims.”

      I don’t know if the wider Muslim community doesn’t care, or just does not know. Even when Sudan is brought up in America, talked about, discussed, I don’t think Muslims realize this is Arab Muslims enslaving African Muslims. It certainly is not talked about in that way, by Muslims or non Muslims.

      I think the media attention on this issue is reprehensible, and is fostering the widespread ignorance.

      • Metis says:

        Here is another terrible tale that I had publicised on Twitter –

        Sometimes I feel that Muslims just don’t publicise anything enough. So you may be right that work is being done but not told or heard. However, I think publicising makes a lot of difference and we don’t do that. If these African slaves were Christian or if their captors were Christian I feel that there may have been more publicising of their plight – the West would have moaned how Muslims were enslaving their women in the former case and in the latter Muslims would have spoken up against the torture committed by Christians. However, since both slaves and their captors are Muslims, we choose to ignore the issue.

  7. Nick says:

    I’ve studied Islam and Sharia for more than 20 years, learning most of what I know from practicing Muslims. It seems to me that Islam cannot sustain any form of Feminism without undergoing a radical change in the entire ideology and culture that Islam has developed over the past 1,000 years. I see no evidence that any meaningful change in normative Islam is taking place, but do know that there is a tiny minority of Muslims who are trying to make such a change. To them I extend encouragement and hope that they can avoid becoming a statistic in Islam’s enormous and ferocious campaign against free thinking and truly Human society-building.

    • Metis says:

      Nick, thanks for your comment and welcome to this blog.

      Thank you for your encouragement and best wishes. I assure you that there are a lot of people trying to make a difference; they just need support and encouragement and I’m grateful to you for extending that.

  8. Seema Rehan says:

    “Anyway, like I said (somewhere in there!) my main concern is concubinage. It comes with slavery but also without it.”

    It is easier for Muslims to justify slavery but concubinage is far more difficult to justify and that is the main reason many Muslims whether they are feminist or not don’t want to discuss it. It sheds a very poor light on the religious morals established by the Prophet. I would really like to see how many very religious people comment here.

    There seems to be an opinion that manumission of slaves was practiced by all Muslims. It may have been but we won’t know if manumission always equaled capture quantitatively. Male slaves were always less in demand and were freed more than female slaves. A female slave didn’t automatically gain freedom if she bore a child. That happened only upon the master’s death. He could free her, but we again don’t know how popular that was. I see it in another light, bearing a child may have meant being bound to a man forever. If a woman detested her owner, having his child may have caused more problems as long as he lived.

    In Islam a man and a woman have to like each other to remain married. That right wasn’t given to the slaves. They had to have sex with their owners even if they may not have liked them at all. The worst part is that the owner decided whether his slave could remain married to her husband or not. If his desire for her was too strong he could order that the marriage was dissolved upon her capture. These are issues which are best neglected because they are too hard to justify.

    • Metis says:

      I don’t know what to say, Seema. I have always found this topic very difficult to deal with which is why I try to avoid talking about it, but I also feel we do injustice to these poor women and aid in their rape by keeping mum out of fear that the topic may backtrack 14centuries.

  9. sarah says:

    I would be interested to know if Concubinage was condoned by the early Muslims. It is my understanding that even bondswomen were married although the terms of their dower were different. However, there was some form of marriage ceremony for these women.
    Did Mulsim men who were companions have physical relations with prisoners of war? I understood that all physical relations without marriage were prohibited. Also, did the Prophet have loads of concubines? Again, my undestanding is that he had many wives (even freed slaves) but not concubines.

    It is a significant issue for Muslim feminists because it cuts to the heart of the treatment and rights of women.

    • Metis says:

      Sarah, I don’t know if it was “condoned” but it was accepted and even looked forward to in times of war. There are numerous data in hadith and seerah and biographies of the Companions on it. Concubines weren’t legal wives and nikah didn’t take place with them unless they were freed first in which case their freedom was often their Mahr. They also didn’t receive any Mahr and remained slaves until and unless they bore their masters’ children like Seema mentioned above.

      Different seerahs give different number of Prophet’s concubines, but he did have slaves as well as wives. Raihana is the famous example who refused to convert to Islam and refused to marry the Prophet so she lived as his slave. Majority of scholars also believe that Maria was not a wife.

      “Did Mulsim men who were companions have physical relations with prisoners of war?”


  10. […] Slaves, concubines, and housemaids « Metis’ Blog on Muslim Feminists. […]

  11. Lat says:

    I’m really saddened to read about alllll this! I know that domestic maids are abused everywhere but they get to be treated worst in gulf states,as I’m told and thru several readings.

    If what they do stems from how they practice and believe,as in religion,then it’s a very serious issue.Scholars need to talk about this and not avade it.But that’s the problem.They don’t do it and don’t let Muslim women do it either.I thought the late Cairo Mufti was a little more brave when he disallowed women in the university to stop wearing niqabs,citing cultural issues. If this matter of concubinage etc was talked in their circles too then maybe we can look forward to changes regarding these women.It’s their silence that’s enforcing these stereotypes.

    In my region,certainly such issues of concubinage doesn’t happen but abuse does.And this itself is a major concern.And there’ ve plenty of aritcles regarding pregnant maids being send back to their homes and Arab employers are bombarded for their attittude to women.So feminist groups do play their part here.It’s the government that needs to be persuaded to make the necessary changes to protect the welfare of these domestic maids working in foreign lands.

    Arab societies should move forward but their reformation and social change is very slow.And I don’t see it happening anytime soon either.Why do they stick to this so stubbornly,knowing things are changing in the wider world? How can they expect to enjoy both of the worlds of the 7th century and the millenium without giving up certain of their so-called rights? Untill they realise this,it’s going to be tough going.

    • Metis says:

      Lat, Dr. Khaled Abou Fadl has written a lot about it. In his book “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists” he writes against the erroneous belief that domestic workers (who are FREE women) are slaves. He writes that these women are not slaves, they willingly come to the Gulf states to work for a salary and hence they aren’t working towards any kind of freedom. They *should* be free. They are neither prisoners of war, not were they born into slavery. He writes against the Salaldi movement to reinstate slavery by saying, proposing to reinstate slavery “is particularly disturbing and dangerous because it effectively legitimates the trafficking in and sexual exploitation of so-called domestic workers in the Gulf region and especially Saudi Arabia.”

      But the problem is he is not taken seriously by many traditionalists. He is a rationalist and so while his opinion carries a lot of weight in the Western Muslim circles (who are already enlightened), it carries almost no importance for Muslims living in the ME or the Gulf.

  12. Lat says:

    “ importance for Muslims living in the ME or the Gulf.” yes that’s true.

    The thing is that it’s almost an Arab issue, isn’t it? I don’t see this reinstating slavery,concubinage things etc in Indian muslim circles or the Chinese muslims and so forth, but mostly or entirely an Arab issue.Perhaps that’s why wars waged and sustained in the countries mentioned above in the comment somewhere,were mainly by Arabs or by factions supported by Arabs. So I think only the Arabs can bring this change internally.So even Dr khaled can’t help here.That’s unfortunate,I know.It is those scholars in Arabia that need to make that crucial change.Wjhen that’ll happen only God knows!

    So what Wafa has done is commendable but how many Wafas must spring up in order for their voices to be heard,listened and implemented as a result? You mentioned above how some local women feel, like jeolousy and how it perpetuates their actions towards younger women.How are they tackling this problem? Here there is a agency where maids can call to report or ask for advice besides the maid agency.Similarly there’s also one for employers as well.So that they know what’s within their capability to do and what is not.Do Arab women already have this facility? Where they can sort out whatever issues they have without harming the domestic helper or themselves by coming to a compromise.And maids get to attend courses to further their language skills and other work areas so as to upgrade themselves and do better economically when they get back home.

    I do understand that without the participation of the male gender ,any effort cannot be fully achieved because it is in their(male)power to give up on enjoying certain rights which they traditionally believe it’s theirs.If the male are not convinced that it’s actually in their interests to do what is right by universal standards,then they’ll not be persuaded.

    When a maid is abused,normally people know it is wrong and why it is wrong.And they also know that if anyone does it,they’ll be punished by law.But when you have a society that doesn’t believe it is wrong and they don’t feel guilty about such abuse at all and they won’t be punished by the law,then domestic women have a tough road ahead there, unless they also have the law on their side.Just hope something could be done about this pretty soon.

    • mariam says:

      Lat , you are seems it is mostly an Arab issue.but the sad part is that people like Wafa are rare,if you read some Arab blogs you will be surprized that many of them defend current situation of their countries,they assume their countries are part of heaven and real problem is west that want destroy their culture!!!!comments of Saudi readers in American Bedu blog boiles my blood.I am in wonder in which planet these people live!!!

    • Metis says:

      Lat, I have been reading a lot on slavery in Islam and it appears to me that you are spot-on in your analysis that it is an “Arab issue.” Maids are abused everywhere, but like you said, it is frowned upon. Slavery on the other hand, is seen as reprehensible everywhere except in the Arab and especially Wahabi circles.

      There is a growing tendency amongst non-Wahabi clerics to teach that through the introduction of Mukataba the initial intent was to abolish slavery. Fazalur Rahman’s work is most important in this. But there are also scholars who have argued that Mukataba was in no way an Islamic invention. The concept existed before Islam and was practiced as well. A noteworthy argument is that if slavery was seen as undesirable it wouldn’t have become part of the promise of afterlife (read this – and this – In the mind of a Muslim there is contradiction between morality and slavery. Slavery is a natural order of this world and the condition is to treat your slaves well like you would treat an employee.

      The spread of slavery sort of proves that it was highly desired by Arabs. But what should be remembered and never denied is that no institution before or after Islam preached the humane treatment of slaves. And that is where the irony lies. A person can be Muslim and believe in slavery, but a person can’t claim to be a God-fearing Muslim and still mistreat their servants.

      Abuse of servants comes mainly from the women and it would be useful if someone explored why women can be so heartless with their maids. I am quite certain that jealousy plays a major role in it because we don’t hear of male servants physically mistreated like that. And also because my own maid’s niece was raped by her employer and when she complained to his wife she was starved, beaten and eventually thrown out of the house by the wife. I have seen abuses maids in agencies with my own eyes and have heard their stories firsthand. It is very ugly.

      • Lat says:

        I don’t read anymore esp after the mermaid eating article.I gave up! 🙂 And the other one is a wrong address! Anyway I understand and agree with your statements.

        Perhaps diaglogue sessions and even ’employee and employer know each other’ sessions could be arranged to help women and overcome the causes for these abuses.To me simply put the women are trying to get some form attention meaning acting like spoiled brats as sometimes attributed to diminished responsiblity,since women aren’t taken seriously.

        • Lat says:

          Oh man! sorry for all those errors! 🙂 I’m just too quick with my buttons!

        • Metis says:

          Sorry about that bad link, Lat. I fixed it.

          • Lat says:

            I could access the sites now,thanks!
            I didn’t know ghilman refers to a slave or a slave soldier in particular but only as obedient youths.Why anyone would want a slave soldier in heaven beats me when there’s going to be just peace and not war in heaven.It shows how relative their perception was to what heaven meant to them.

            I also didn’t know houris were considered slaves either.Most translations do use the word marry when talking about them to the righteous and some scholars interpret that as being paired as not being married as we think it is.The houris as we’ve discussed in length before,is also a relative concept to me,fitted in to make sense to those living in the previous eras.

            To me slavery became a “natural order of this world” when war became the natural order of human life.But now the situation is reversing and so are our perceptions of war.The forces unleashed by the “natural order of this world” dictates a different view of human life now,a life no longer bonded to a fellow human literally as in previous eras.We should respect that world order and move on.

  13. mariam says:

    reason for ignoring this issue is clear , we muslims are racist.and sad part of issue is that racism is not discussed or studied seriously in Islamic countries,when I say : when a muslim abuses a muslim it seems tongue of muslims has been” eaten by mouse” but when a jew abuses a muslim their tongue becomes 5 meters , stems from racism. I am labled zionist.
    we are racist toward blacks,south asian,Christian,jews………we put our head in sand and hope no one can see us.
    another issue that Lat mentioned is very important, with my great respect toward Arab readers specialy Dear Wafa , social change in Arabian countries is very very country has a same history about slavery with Arabian countries,but in 2010 they are still struggling with this issue.despite the fact that my country is home of milion refugees(many of them women) from Afpak in east and Iraq in west, we do not have such issue in our country at all.I dont mean there is zero abuse in Iran.

    as a muslim woman and offcourse feminist I am just ashamed of myself that I cannot do something for my sisters.

    • Metis says:

      Wonderful comment, Mariam! Thanks for speaking up.

      Like Lat pointed out I think the imperial forces were not eager to give up slavery being so used to it while the natives of the states that were occupied (Indians, Iranians, Turkish etc) were not particularly too keen about it.

  14. Mohammad Fadel says:

    Great column. Some Muslim clerics, based on an erroneous political theory (see the Mauritanian scholar mentioned above), believe it is impossible to free a slave against the owner’s will, or for a government to prohibit slavery prospectively. This is wrong for a couple of reasons. First, it is illegal to enslave a free person in an Islamic territory. The Malikis, for example, penalized someone who sold a free person into slavery with a thousand lashes. That means slaves can only be imported into Islamic territory from abroad, but with all non-Islamic territories having outlawed slavery, and Muslim countries entering into treaties prohibiting enslavement, there is no source of legal slaves. Accordingly, the only source for slaves today would be persons who were born to slave parents in Islamic territory in an unbroken line . . . This raises the second objection. Suppose I am in Mauritania today and have a slave, and can prove that the ancestors of this person were all slaves for as long as they were in Islamic territory. Mauritania is still part of the international system and they have committed to outlawing slavery. Ottoman treaties from the 16th-18th centuries routinely included mandatory emancipation clauses binding both parties as part of a peace whereby each state was required to emancipate captives of the other party who had been enslaved during the hostilities. In the Ottoman case, the government would pay the slave’s original purchase price to the owner, but it must be remembered that slavery was the only way (or perhaps the most efficient way) to manage a long-term prisoner of war. That is not the case today, and these people are not prisoners of war in any case. The point is that the government definitely has the power to liberate these slaves against the master’s will, even assuming that they are slaves in the eyes of Islamic law. My understanding of Mauritania, however, is that the problem is that dependency between the slave and his master is so extreme that a slave has no choice but to remain with his master’s household, even though the law does not recognize them as slaves.

    • Metis says:

      Mohammad, Thank you so much for your informative comment and welcome to Metis!

      I enjoyed reading your response to the post. There are two options that I have come up with:

      1. Either there was never this vision in Islam that slavery would be abolished and this ideal that we have is only our interpretation of “what was intended” and “what should have been.”
      2. Or there was this vision and soon after the Prophet’s death people became selfish and greedy and began enslaving people

      Despite the Mamluks gaining immense power there is also the Devshirme issue and enslave free people which was never the original intent. So I think you are spot on with your excellent assessment. Thanks so much.

      • Lat says:

        That’ a very good comment by Mohammad. I’m sad that some countries still practice slavery today.
        “My understanding of Mauritania, however, is that the problem is that dependency between the slave and his master is so extreme that a slave has no choice but to remain with his master’s household, even though the law does not recognize them as slaves”

        It all begins with educating the ‘slave'( I really hate this term being used in today’s climate) on his rights and giving a proper education just like everyone else.Removing this dependence is the duty of the ‘owner’ and the government.Don’t know what else to say but that they are hopeless if they still continue this bonded buisness 😦

  15. susanne430 says:

    I greatly enjoyed this post and the comments. I’ve wondered before why Muslims (and I speak mostly of the few Arab ones that I’ve met) have Palestine as their main issue and seem to ignore most others. Eccentricyoruba’s comment about why her people have been ignored made me think of this. I’ve asked my Arab Muslim friend why they do not focus on the plight of their African brothers and sisters, but it seems freeing Palestine and fighting Israel is the main issue. That and freeing Iraq of the Americans.

    I may ask him tomorrow about the plight of African Muslims who have been enslaved by Arab Muslims and see if he is familiar with this. I didn’t know this was happening.

    • Lat says:

      There’s not much coverage on this because scholars don’t rally for causes to free our African bros and sisters but Palestine has the 2nd Holy Mosque of the Muslims,the Dome of the Rock, unlike the African nation.So all or most attention is shown there.Furthermore the belief that Zionists are going to destroy it makes more case for mobilization of the brotherhood than the suffering of our African brethen by Arab militias,who are funded by rich Arabs and other factions who can divert the attention of the people,knowing which button to press.

    • Metis says:

      You may be so right. Today’s Islam = Hijab+Palestine. The End.

  16. wafa' says:

    Thanks for the great topic 🙂

    I remember i have read once about slavery in Mauritania but since i am completely against the whole idea, i stopped reading and simply walk away. But i think we need to address it more.

    One of my biggest problem with Islam is this topic, I kept wondering why didn’t Islam prohibit “slavery” from the get go. I can not buy that it goes gradually with things, the same way with drinking, . Still Islam and the prophet was there for a long time , why wouldn’t a verse comes to stop it once and for all. The idea of dividing people after wars and make them slave is way over my comprehension. And then to have sex with those women as it’s ok, is another big problem.
    So why didn’t Islam stopped this barbaric action?
    why it keeps it for a long time when we are told over and over again to worship to no one but Allah ? is not slavery a kind of worshipping? we are told we can not take our lives because our souls are owned by Allah so how can i can not kill my self but it’s ok for another person to own me and kill me.
    there are things that we really need to understand and dig for instead of just take for granted.

    What Saad Al-Buraik, who is a lunatic by the way, said about Jewish women is so so sick. Let him point out the verse in the Quran that says “Jewish women are for Muslims to take” , we are very good in stupid talking.

    You said ( since in their culture the right to consent lies only with a free woman who is a legal wife.) , and sorry to say but this is completely wrong. If we are talking about those Saudis, nope, it’s not. it’s actually ok to sleep with his wife without her agreement . to them , the prophet have condemned the woman who wont allow her husband to have sex with her even if she didn’t want it.

    i will definitely write about such topics more and more inshAllah.

    now to answer your questions:-
    Why do you think many Muslim feminists ignore to discuss the suffering of women sold into slavery?
    seriously because i think it’s not practiced and if it’s, it’s very scarce. But that wont be the case inshAllah anymore.

    What concrete steps do you think Muslim feminists must take to end this suffering?
    Point out the unknown cases, call it as it’s and fight.
    The only problem is that we are talking about the Islamic world where no one can change things but political MEN.

    How do you feel about all this as a Muslim and a feminist?
    it’s scary and sad. I could be one of them. Things need to be change and change quickly.

  17. wafa' says:

    I know you know Arabic so check this video made by Lebanese group to shed some awareness on the situations of maids in Lebanon. it’s satire but amazingly done and describes the situation in Lebanon and most Middle Easter countries.

  18. wafa' says:

    another video that might add some glimpse to the matter.

    (2009) “Enchained” introduces the Bheel and Kohli tribes trapped in modern day slavery in the province of Sind Pakistan. The movie describes about eighty nine Bheel tribes who suffered two harsh years in slavery. Sodo is an elderly person of the Bheel tribe who escaped slavery from the hand of slave holder and freed eighty eight other men, women and children who were trapped in slavery. It is all about their cruel treatment, oppressive chains and brutal hard work in the fields of agriculture, brick factory and stone crushing.

    P.S: hope you don’t mine me adding all these comments 🙂

    • Metis says:

      Wafa, I really, really enjoyed your comments and your honesty and bravery. The first video – I wish wasn’t so real 😦 The second video just broke my heart. Thanks for sharing.

      “You said ( since in their culture the right to consent lies only with a free woman who is a legal wife.) , and sorry to say but this is completely wrong. If we are talking about those Saudis, nope, it’s not. it’s actually ok to sleep with his wife without her agreement . to them , the prophet have condemned the woman who wont allow her husband to have sex with her even if she didn’t want it.”

      Do you think this could be a reason men find nothing wrong with attacking these women? They are not taught that consent is required – at least in the 21st Century?

  19. Sumera says:

    The problem with the abuse of maids, or servants is that people associate their labour (which is paid) as the equivalent of being a slave (who were captured or born into it afaik?).

    In this day and age slavery has no place – when Islam was brought into the equation slaves already existed and some had them, to oust them into society with no means to support themselves, no lineage aside from that of being a slave, would have caused much upheaval. They were recommended to treat them kindly whilst they were slaves but ultimately to free them if they wanted freedom (not all slaves did want to be free either).

    What really bothers me is the booty – it is true anything that was at the battlefield,; women, children, men etc were all captured but focus on sex is with the women (men were probably used for hard physical labour).

    The other point I want to make is it is in some people’s nature and ego to be “masters” is in part historical and personality- they feel having a slave/servant grants them a high status/position and with this comes power. Man has always had an inherent thirst to exert power, and for those who have servants/maids they abuse them which in turns rubs their own egos and gives them delusions of grandeur.

    • Metis says:

      Loved your comment, Sumera!

      Your assessment in the last paragraph is excellent. I believe this is why slavery is still so important to some people.

      I don’t understand the dichotomy between not seeing slavery as immoral, yet praising emancipation of slaves. I have concluded that perhaps slavery was seen as a natural order of this world and there was neither the intention to abolish it nor to propagate it. Concubinage, yes, is a lot harder for me to accept even in the 7th Century Arabia.

      • Sumera says:

        I think the emphasis that “all men are born free” is pertinent because this statement proposes slavery to be a man-made phenomenon – and that is why I agree partly with your view of it Metis.

        Slavery is a societal norm for a given culture/era – in which relationships are understood by it and hierarchies of power and status are explained and balanced by it.

        It also seems that relationships of any kind are viewed through the slave/master lens- e.g. Imam Ghazali stated a wife is like a slave to her husband because of her being “bonded” by contract to him! and mankind is seen to be enslaved by Gods will and our existence is to serve Him since he is our Master.

  20. luckyfatima says:

    Excellent post, Metis. I had heard before of Arabs fetishizing Afro-Arab/Black women and in Gulf Arab culture, people of African descent are looked at as hypersexual. After reading this, I can see more clearly why there is this under current in Gulf Arab culture of an obsession with Black sexuality. (we have something similar in white American culture, and there are parallels, but of course differences). Now I kind of “get it” a little bit more.

    I do believe there are Muslim women working against modern slavery and human trafficking. The African countries you mention do not have the resources to enforce laws that could seriously end slavery. Infrastructure is very weak due to development issues. I think of abuses of maids/laborers that I have seen in India and Pakistan in the same way. (And I know for a fact that slavery is still practiced in Pakistan, for example in rural Balochistan) The wealthy GCC, however, could easily move to better protect the men and women who work as domestics and menial laborers, but simply does nothing and the average people there do not look at the issue as a major problem and think it is sensationalized.

    What I find is harder to address are our religious exegesis on slavery and slavery in the Quran. This is something I have always winced at and not thought about too much, leaving myself with the apologistic “not a part of my modern life” excuse.

  21. Metis says:

    Thanks Fatima, I really like your take on this. I always felt like women in the GCC countries are a little wary of African and Indonesian women. Did you get that feeling too? Especially the Indonesian women are seen as sexual predators!

    “What I find is harder to address are our religious exegesis on slavery and slavery in the Quran. This is something I have always winced at and not thought about too much, leaving myself with the apologistic “not a part of my modern life” excuse.”

    That was my excuse as well for a long, long time until I thought I was helping in their abuse by ignoring something that didn’t directly affect me.

    I didn’t about slavery in Pakistan. Your comment and Wafa’s link to the video was a revelation. Please give more details when you can. I would learn a lot from it.

  22. Sultan Anon says:

    Here is an example of someone of academia who’s in denial(puts his hand in the sand), or else he’s deliberately lying about concubinage going on today. This is a link to a question of concubinage existance today answered by Sheik Muhammad Iqbal Navid, Imam in Calgary Canada and former Professor of King Saud Univ., Saudi Arabia :

    Concubinage is really unnecessary in my opinion. Such practices, from my studies, varied in practice as an institution of practice, but in and of itself was distinctly different from slavery. A concubine in its “ideal” form was comparable to a mistress, a voluntary process and sometimes not, either because the spouse wasn’t in agreement to it, or an arranged matter by the girl’s parent(s) without her consent. Then there’s the paramour…another topic for another place, but I thought I’d just set this awareness to the readers’ minds as well.

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