A Georgetown University professor who teaches about Islamic civilization delivered a lecture on slavery to a gathering at the International Institute for Islamic Thought – an organization with suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – and told the attendees that modern society tends to needlessly agonize over the morality of owning people as property. Why?
Because “there is no such thing as slavery,” professor Jonathan Brown said, the Investigative Project reported.
Brown, a 39-year-old convert to Islam, read from his paper, “Slavery and Islam” about the “Problems of Slavery” during his lecture. Following, he fielded several questions from the audience, offering up such food for thought as his view that slavery cannot be defined as an outright evil because there are so many different kinds – slavery based on religion versus gender, for example. And what really counts, in the end, is whether those who were enslaved were treated well or poorly – not that they were enslaved.
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“I don’t think you can talk about slavery in Islam until you realize that there is no such thing as slavery,” he said, the Investigative Project found. “As a category, as a conceptual category that exists throughout state and time, trans-historically, there’s no such thing as slavery.”
His lecture was baffling and at times, difficult to follow.
Listen to four excerpts from Brown’s lecture below:
But at different points in the event, Brown said “slavery cannot just be treated as a moral evil in and of itself,” and that it’s not “morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us.”
On that last, he actually explained that everybody owns people, and everybody is owned by people – for instance, think of social obligations, or work responsibilities, where individuals are compelled to appear at certain times, or perform certain jobs, he said.
As the Daily Banter wrote: “That is a major problem, considering that slavery by definition is involuntary.”
But Brown went on, explaining that today’s society ought to rethink the definition of slavery as a great sin.
“This obsession of thinking of slavery as property – it’s treated as this inconceivable sin,” he said, the Investigative Project reported. “I think that’s actually a really odd and unhelpful way to think about slavery and kind of gets you locked in this way of thinking where, if you talk about ownership and people, that you’re already transgressed some moral boundary that you can’t come back from. But I don’t think that’s true at all.”
Brown, fielding a question from a skeptical audience member, admitted that “the fact that there was slavery is a wrong.” But he then spoke of his Muslim faith and the fact his prophet owned slaves – and suggested that what was OK for the prophet should be OK for followers of Islam.
“He had slaves,” Brown said. “There’s no denying that. Are you more morally mature than the prophet of God? No, you’re not.”
On the notion of consent for sexual relations, Brown was equally puzzling.
First, he said this, the Daily Banter reported: “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,” he went on, “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.”
So is Brown saying the notion of consensual sex – the idea of a woman having the right to say no, for example – is based on skewed historical interpretation?
But he had more to say about the matter.
The Daily Banter reported he said: “What’s the difference between someone who is captured in a raid in … Central Asia [being] 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,” Brown went on, “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.”