By Mariam Sheikh Hakim
Like many myths about Islam, the Quran and Muslims, I’ve always heard the worst from Islamophobic extremists and Islamist extremists alike. They tend to share pretty much the same language, online content and perpetuate the same awful narratives about Muslims and their supposed religious practices.
As time wears on I’m starting to see these similarities are unavoidable – particularly online where it is rife. For example this video of a female Muslim ‘scholar’ saying that men can have sex with female prisoners of war to ‘humiliate’ them has been shared widely on right-wing news sites and social media. It’s been spread in the wake of the recent sexual assault allegations in Cologne and reports of ISIS fighters raping and selling sex slaves. It’s mainly been promoted by Donald Trump supporting anti-Muslim bigots, far-right extremists and people who’ll easily believe anything bad about Muslims.
Those sharing the video usually make unfounded claims that the ‘North African/Arab’ men accused of the Cologne assaults were motivated by a ‘Muslim background’. The video has been used as proof of a culturally ingrained mind-set that all Muslims apparently possess, as well as claims that the Quran supposedly endorses raping women, in particular female slaves.
It’s worth noting the video has also been shared by Muslims who have strongly refuted and ostracised the scholar, reacting with disgust over this extreme view that sexual violence and rape is somehow permissible.
And they are right,, rape and sexual violence is not permitted in Islamic texts. It is of course something that causes harm to other humans, which is not Halal (permissible) and in early Muslim communities rape was a crime punishable by death.
However, seeing as this myth isn’t about to go away with a few online condemnations, what scripture is being cited by extremists and has it been distorted? After all there are billions of Muslims across the globe that aren’t going round capturing women to use as sex slaves.
The main reference cited is Chapter 23:1-6 in the Quran.
“And successful are the believers who guard their chastity … except from their wives or those that their right hands possess.”
There are three main points to understand here:
- The reference is about sexual relations, which are forbidden with any woman unless she is a spouse or ‘those their right hands possess’. To be clear, this means a concubine or a slave, but intercourse has to be consensual. Rape is forbidden as it is violent and harmful (obviously) and Islamic texts legislated for the proper and honourable treatment of slaves.It was compulsory for a slave to be well looked after and the slave owner was fully responsible for their well-being.
- This is not an entitlement being discussed. Concubinage and interpersonal relations with various bondmaids/slaves was already occurring at the time the Quran came about and subsequent passages list restrictions as a starting point to help progress the end of slavery. In any case marriage was encouraged (Chapter 24:32) with slaves.
- Moreover, even consensual sexual relations with a slave were not permissible if it caused harm and abuse elsewhere (e.g. a wife) as all parties involved could be affected.
But why were consensual sexual relations even allowed with slaves? The main source of this is based on the Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah who had a female slave (also described as a ‘bondwoman’ ‘bondmaid’ or ‘concubine’) called Hagar. Through mutual consent Abraham and Hagar had a child together called Ishmael.
Some Islamophobes have a hard time remembering this Biblical narrative, and when confronted with this fact, they start to make strange excuses. https://twitter.com/MariamKSHakim/status/699364956672827393
Given how far society has evolved from slavery, the idea of sexual relations is still an uncomfortable concept for many including myself. Yet this reference to 7th century relations is still a far cry from the ‘all Muslims want to rape sex slaves’ myth that is being perpetuated nowadays. In fact, slavery has never been encouraged by Islamic texts; rather it was something inherited from pre-Islamic cultures (pre-600s) that needed to be voluntarily and gradually weeded out of society. Conveniently something the extremists ignore.
In the Quran, slavery is regarded as something that required restraining and eliminating. Manumission, or the act of a slave owner freeing a slave, was highly encouraged (Chapter 24:33). So is giving this freed slave a portion of your own wealth (Chapter 24:33 & 16:71). The Quran also encourages Muslims (female or male) to marry their righteous slaves; a form of manumission and freedom from stigma (Chapter 24:32). The Quran and later texts list a plethora of avenues to free slaves, as it was seen as a highly virtuous act. In fact, it’s difficult to find references on how to make slaves out of people, rather the focus is always on ending slavery.
Furthermore, passages about slavery don’t apply any longer for a modern age given that slavery was widely abolished in the late 19th century (British empire) and has been officially banned internationally since 1948. Slavery is now illegal and is internationally treated as unethical. There is widespread consensus across all nations on this, including Muslims ones.
There is no desire amongst ordinary Muslims to drag humanity backwards into slavery. Just because something was permissible and regulated under a 7th century society, doesn’t mean it is a necessity for a 21st century one – especially when there was a clear agenda in early Islamic texts to eventually eradicate slavery.
Let’s not forget the Islamic abolitionist movements where Quran interpreters advocated slavery was in opposition to Islamic principles of justice and equality. These movements fought hard for progress and most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are happy to keep moving with the times.
Human trafficking and modern sex slavery is, after all, not just a ‘Muslim’ issue, it’s even happening right under our noses in the UK by all sorts of perpetrators. Therefore let’s spromote those devout Muslims like Zainab Bangura who work hard to empower victims of ISIS sexual violence and slavery, as well as those women seeking justice for having been forced into sex slavery elsewhere in the world.
On that note I leave you with a self-referential passage from the Quran about those seeking to place false interpretations on to its wording and context, be they Muslim or not:
(Chapter 3: verse 7)
“Almighty God has sent down to you the Quran, in it are verses that are precise … and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation from truth, they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation suitable to them.”
The majority of sane, law-abiding, everyday Muslims do not seek to impose themselves on others by force or aggression. They don’t even need me to explain passages in the Quran as they’re not interested in keeping a female slave to rape or ‘humiliate’.
Religious illiteracy has recently been cited as a root cause of extremism and rightly so. Islamophobic extremists as well as Islamist extremists (like ISIS) that promote and validate sexual violence through ‘unspecific passages’ in the Quran – or without context – do so to justify their own violent mind sets.
These people will and should get called out for it, by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. They have perverted the Quran, which is a falsehood and a smear on the religion of billions across the globe. Islamic texts do not promote rape and do not encourage slavery. We must therefore all be united in spreading light on the matter through proper understanding, not further ignorance and bigotry. This ignorance only plays into the hands of extremists, who have a vested interest in burying the truth of the Quran and pushing their own agendas instead.
Mariam Hakim is a communications professional who regularly writes about faith, gender and parenting issues.