Skip to main content

Earlier this week Professor Jonathan A.C. Brown of Georgetown University delivered a lecture titled “Islam and the Problem of Slavery” capped off by a truly revolting Q&A session during which Brown took issue with idea that slavery is morally wrong, while also claiming that sexual consent is a relative concept.

Brown, a 39-year-old convert to Islam, read from his paper, "Slavery and Islam -- Part 1: The Problem of Slavery," which you can read here. (Yes, this implies there are more parts to come but there's enough material to question already.) The essay is exactly the type of gobbledygook that emanates so frequently from religious studies departments. His main contention is that the word 'slavery' is not a particularly useful term because throughout the ages there have many different types of slavery with varying degrees of ownership, subjugation, exploitation, and brutality. 

That, in a nutshell is his argument. As for the Q&A after the lecture, it's just plain nuts. 

The Q&A (you can hear it and the lecture in full here) was an especially dizzying tour de force of intellectual obscurantism and baseless snobbery. (For those who wonder if I have selectively edited his remarks or removed them from context, I have placed timestamps below so that you may refer to the proper interval and hear for yourself.)  

Brown says, "There is no such thing as slavery, as a category, as a conceptual category that exists throughout space and time transhistorically." Thus, ‘slavery’ as a term is too subjective and loaded for Americans to use when applying it to anything in Islamic civilization:

Brown: [59:57] But actually you know, slavery in Islam or slavery in any other place doesn’t have any necessary connection to what we think of slavery in an American context. In fact I actually think this is sort of exporting our sin here because we take our history of slavery and we just dump that onto other people...

But I think if you took the Sharia understanding of slavery and even the general [unintelligible] of slavery in Islamic civilization, I don’t think it’s comparable at all to plantation chattel slavery in the Americas. It’s just not comparable at all.

Here, Brown exempts himself from his own admonition against speaking as if “slavery in Islamic civilization” consists of some uniform condition of the slaves in question. But it does not consist of such uniformity, as Brown himself acknowledges. Slavery, or 'slavery' as Brown might prefer, has existed in various forms throughout Islamic civilizations – plural. So for Brown to say that American chattel slavery was not comparable to slavery in Islam, it behooves us to ask, whose Islam? Which slaves? 

He then explains why his yet-to-be defined 'slavery in Islamic civilization' is different from American chattel slavery:

Brown: [1:00:46] First of all, it was rarely racialized.

This may be true, but substantively it means nothing. What does it matter of slavery in Islam is based on race or not? Is the enslavement of a gender, religious group, or people from a certain area any more moral or immoral than the enslavement of people based on race? Indeed, to hearken back to another of Brown's own arguments, shouldn't we be looking at the conditions in which the slaves live, rather than their identities?

Brown: Two, it was never tied to race.

It’s unclear how this is any different from “First.” Therefore, ibid.

Brown: Three, slaves had a huge regime of rights.

Again, which Islam? Whose slaves are we talking about?

Brown: Four, slaves in numerous circumstances became the actual rulers or were used as the administrative elite.

Notice Brown’s use of the word “numerous.” Numerous relative to what? Surely this will have come as no comfort to the vast majority of those who did not ascend to elite status after years of being subjugated.

Subsequently, Brown engages a questioner and betrays himself as nothing more than religious zealot at best and a defender of Islamism at worst.

Brown: [1:02:22] Let me ask you this question. You started saying ‘wrongs done by Arabs to other people.’ What wrongs?

Questioner: Well—

Brown: Just tell me. I know what you’re going to say so I’ll answer your question for you. The fact that there was slavery is a wrong.

Questioner: Yeah.

Brown: Ok, that’s, how can you say, if you’re Muslim, the Prophet of God had slaves. He had slaves. There’s no denying that. Was he—are you more morally mature than the Prophet of God? No you’re not. I’ll answer your question for you.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is a self-inflicted knockout of Arabian Desert-sized proportions as Brown commits the philosophical fallacy of appealing to authority. Aside from the fact that Brown keeps breaking his own rule by using derivations of 'slavery,' here he implies that one cannot be more moral than the supposed “prophet” of Islam, Muhammad. Therefore, others are incapable of accurately passing moral judgment on his actions, because those judgments are ipso facto invalid. 

Brown's response further demonstrates that his arguments have been reverse engineered to fit a conclusion he arrived at beforehand, rather than after extensive intellectual inquiry.

Brown: Slavery cannot just be treated as a moral evil in and of itself because slavery doesn’t mean anything. The moral evil is extreme forms of deprivation of rights and extreme forms of control and extreme forms of exploitation. I don’t think it’s morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us, and we’re owned by people.

He later expounds upon this “we own lots of people" remark in a moment, and we’ll analyze it when he does. For now it suffices to say it's clear Brown is defining the ownership of another person as nothing more than a mere social obligation, regardless of whether that obligation was entered into voluntarily. That is a major problem, considering that slavery by definition is involuntary. 

Brown – perhaps unwittingly – conjures up something close to a pro-slavery argument used by George Fitzhugh – an eccentric writer in the Antebellum South:

Brown: [1:08:35] In general, you don’t find the brutality that you see in American slavery. As far as I can tell, generally it is simply not very common. Slaves in Islamic civilization were mostly investments.


Fitzhugh said much the same thing about slaves being investments, arguing that the North simply had "slaves without masters" who worked, got paid, and went home. Outside the factory or farm, the fate of the worker was hardly the concern of the employer, as the employee was simply replaceable. And so Fitzhugh averred that there was "less of protection afforded to the weak, ignorant and landless mass in Northern society, than in any other ever devised by the wit of man," while asserting the South was "conclusive proof of the naturalness and necessity of domestic slavery." That's because slaves in the South, Fitzhugh argued, were investments. As such, it was in the slave-owners’ best interests to ensure the well-being of his slaves. (As you'll soon see, Fitzhugh's distinction is even more akin to Brown's comparison.) 

Incredibly, Brown kept digging and equated the ownership of slaves with having personal obligations like a family and a mortgage, but first he addressed the issue of concubines in Islamic civilization:

Brown: [1:19:20] The first question was about the concubines. So this is a very difficult discussion to have. We don’t have time to have it today, but I would say that…. It’s very hard to have this discussion because we think of, let’s say in the modern United States, the sine qua non of morally correct sex is consent. We think of people as autonomous agents. Everybody’s an autonomous agent and it’s the consent of that autonomous agent that makes a sexual action acceptable. Correct?

If you take away the consent element, then everyone starts flipping out. Right? At that but you get, rape you get sexual acts done by people who are too young we perceive to consent. And these are sort of the great moral wrongs of our society. So the idea of someone who is a by definition non-consensual sexual actor in the sense that they have been entered into a sexual relationship in a position of servitude that’s sort of ab initio wrong.

The way I would respond to that…

And here I thought there was no response to the idea that sexual relations without mutual consent is wrong, other than "Yep." This is the part where Brown equates owning slaves with having a duty to family, as a mother or father might:

Brown: …is to say that as – I mean this is just a fact – this isn’t a judgment, it’s a fact. 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 the extent that we forget, again who’s really free? Are we really autonomous people? I mean what does autonomy mean? Can I just drive—can I be like a cowboy and in a movie or an action TV series where I just get on my motorcycle and just ride to the West? No, I got kids. I have a mortgage. I mean we’re all born into and live in a network of relationships and responsibilities and duties, but we have this obsession with the idea of autonomy. And the fact is that—and this is not to demean the status of woman in Islam or Islamic civilization at all, but a concubine’s autonomy was not that different from the autonomy of a wife, because for most of human history and most of Islamic civilization, women got married to the person that their family wanted them to get married to. The idea of being autonomous and saying, “I need to be in love with him. I need to go have this, you know, Jane Austen-like courtship with him. That was hogwash.

I will refrain from insulting your intelligence by rebutting this rambling, barely coherent and perhaps not even wrong response to whether having sex with enslaved women, or any other women, without their consent is wrong. Nor will I attempt to unpack how having a mortgage is anything like being a woman who was captured in war and forced into involuntary sexual servitude. 

Brown then drops this nuclear bomb of moral relativism:

Brown: What’s the difference between someone who is captured in a raid in the steppes of Central Asia brought to Istanbul’s slave market, sold to an owner, who, by the way, might treat her badly, might treat her incredibly well. She’s going to bear him children. She’s going to be a free woman. She’s going to be the mother of his children. If he’s high status, she’s going to be high status. If he dies she might be a very desirable wife. That person’s situation? What’s the difference between that and some woman who’s a poor baker’s daughter who gets married to some baker’s son without any choice because no one expects her to have any choice? And that baker’s son might treat her well. He might treat her horribly. The difference between these two people is not that big. We see it as enormous because we’re obsessed with the idea of autonomy and consent, would be my first response. It’s not a solution to the problem. I think it does help frame it.

Yes, Professor Brown. That does help frame it. Of course, "it" here being the fact that Georgetown University employs a man who thinks that slavery and rape just might be moral, depending on the time or place in which they occur. 

Follow me on Twitter