Souled Out: ISIS, Slavery, & Your Personal Faith

While the Muslim world overwhelmingly rejects the actions of ISIS, the group claims their actions as valid interpretations of the sacred law. If such interpretations are drawn from traditional legal manuals, are the rebuttals to the claims of ISIS just apologetics from critics derided as “sell-outs”? Or does ISIS and their ilk simply represent a mirror image of the soulless faith that dominates today, “souled out” actors that erect an ego-driven faith of grotesque gratifications?


We have all witnessed the appropriation of pre-modern Islamic Law by ISIS to bolster their credentials and drive recruiting of Muslims from outside the region, particularly the West. ISIS claims to spend upwards of $2 billion to leer your son or daughter with “money, guns, and sex”, and to flee privileged lives as a despised religious minority. Infatuated by fantasy, Western recruits may envision a just society free from the liberties enshrined in Western law and culture, in which a strong centralized regime is the ultimate nanny state taking care to provide them what their Western homelands would have them earn.

Few would question the role of mental health, as we recall the recent tragedies in Chattanooga, Canada, and Sydney, but suspending that contributing factor, are the religious claims of ISIS in any way normative of Islamic Law? Prior to that, if Muslims survey scholarly critiques of war-time enslavement and the method of punishment employed by ISIS that evoke seemingly irrefutable citations of the Quran and Sunnah, the responses employed run afoul as apologetic at best and disingenuous at worst. Arguments that harp on the Muslim world’s rejection of slavery fail to mention the belated abolition laws in some areas and the continual practice of slavery-like conditions for migrant workers in others. Many scholars, from the late Ottoman era scholar Yusuf Al-Nabahani, to the recent defense of the institution in 2003 by Saleh Al-Fawzan, see the institution of slavery as an integral aspect of Jihad, and therefore the practice can never be rejected by detractors with modernist sensibilities. Some scholars will then get into semantics, trying hard to distinguish American Antebellum slavery from its Eastern counterpart. And while there are significant historical and social differences between the two, such as the rights given slaves, it still omits the historical facts of mistreatment of slaves in Muslim societies. This is particularly true of the enslavement of fellow African Muslims, whose commitment to the faith was questioned by the warring Sokoto Caliphate (1809-1903)[1] which relied on the economics of war to contribute to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade[2]. In many instances religious Judges were unable to stop the unlawful seizure of free men and women outside of conflict zones, as chaotic raiding became the norm. Slavery as an institution promulgated chiefly by Muslims continued in the interior of Africa till the 20th century.

Another argument that holds more weight in light of the abolitionist incentives prevalent in the practice of the Prophet ﷺ and enshrined in the Sharia, is that the practice of slavery was so ingrained in sixth century Arabia as it was in many parts of the pre-modern world, and that Islam implemented limits and rights for the slaves to encourage its eventual abolishment. This is akin to the rights and limits set within marriage promoted by Islam. While true, a counter argument is that if God could abolish polytheism, drinking, and promiscuity then why not slavery? Apologetics employed by current scholars speaking from the tradition, do nothing unless they deal directly with authoritative re-interpretation of source texts rather that opining rulings of legal schools of the classical era. This then begs Muslims of conscience to look towards what exactly the scholars wrote on the topic.


Islamic legal manuals of all schools deal at length with slavery and ancillary topics, including the trade of slaves and associated rights[3]. Classical and local interpretations of the law provided an institutional framework. For centuries, traders and consumers assumed that slaves could only be acquired by warring non-Muslims who refused conversion. The theological argument of augmenting Dar al Islam by exposing uncivilized heathens to the marvels of Islam as a faith and culture was employed widely, and seen simply as a form of Dawah. In fact, incidents occurred where scholars who had written fatwas outlining who could be lawfully enslaved became enslaved themselves.[4] This points to the utter confusion of maintaining such an institution, particularly during conflict. Today, the particularly harrowing slavery and rape of Yazidi women by ISIS is defended by stalwarts of the group. Is there any allowance for this disgusting behavior? Simply put, no. Here are direct quotes from the works of the founders and leaders of Islamic Law:

“In our view the man who rapes a woman, regardless of whether she is a virgin or not, if she is a free woman he must pay a "dowry" like that of her peers, and if she is a slave he must pay whatever has been detracted from her value. The punishment is to be carried out on the rapist and there is no punishment for the woman who has been raped, whatever the case.” (Imam Malik ibn Anas (711-795), Al-Muwatta', Volume 2, page 734)

"If a man acquires by force a slave-girl, then has sexual intercourse with her after he acquires her by force, and if he is not excused by ignorance, then the slave-girl will be taken from him, he is required to pay the fine, and he will receive the punishment for illegal sexual intercourse." (Imam Al Shaafi'i, Kitab Al Umm, Volume 3, page 253)

And to further negate the rape of Yazidi women, as obviously the Qur’an states there is “no compulsion in faith”:

“And know that the school of thought of Al Shafi'i and who agreed with him from amongst the scholars have stated that the idol worshipper and those whom have no religious book cannot be approached for sexual intercourse unless they convert to Islam first. As long as they are following their religion they are forbidden to approach. These slave girls (i.e. in the particular narration) are idol worshippers. This hadith and whatever resembles it must be interpreted as implying that the slave girls accepted Islam. There is no other choice but to interpret the hadiths this way and Allah knows best.” (Imam An Nawawi, Sharh Saheeh Muslim, Commentary on Hadith no. 2643)

There is a report in the in Sunan of Imam Al-Bayhaqi that highlights that a Companion involved in an early campaign was stoned to death by the direct order of Umar b. Al-Khattab for engaging in the unlawful capture and rape of a captive[5].

We see a system, albeit far from what is taking place today or in many respects history, that does not support seizure and rape of women, and that severely punishes Muslim soldiers who engage in such acts. Many scholars have argued that the religious sources do not justify enslavement or rape, but rather push for manumission and marriage whenever possible as a pious act to redress a variety of wrongs and to protect womenfolk, who on the losing side, would be left exposed with no protectorate. Regardless, since the early period and sadly today we have seen our sources being interpreted to justify enslavement and rape with rare articulate rebuttals.


We as Muslims, troubled by what we may witness or what we read, have to keep a few of things in mind before we distance ourselves from our faith or its founder. First, we need to learn more about our history, the good and the bad. A recommend place to start is a work by William Gervase Clarence-Smith entitled, “Islam and the Abolition of Slavery”. Approaching these pre-modern thorny issues with the lens of seeing persons and events as a product of their historical context allows us to better understand not only what happened, but more imperatively what is happening. This allows us not to simply accept or deny rulings, but be able to clarify what happened and to speak intelligently on what is needed by scholars and laity alike to redress wrongs today. Is all of Islamic law the dictates and efforts of misogynistic slave-owning men? No, but there can be no doubt or apologetics that the cultural milieu that those laws arise from can no longer be defended nor practiced today. Muslims have to cease to be retrograde in their approach to ideals of faith and practice without employing critical thinking and a renewing of an ethos of Prophetic Morality. This drives to the second recommendation in connecting to the personage and spirit of our Prophet ﷺ. Much of the debate blames him for sanctioning the practice. Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ himself had four concubines[6]. Two of them were following the treason committed by the Bani Qurayzah in supporting allied pagan forces in the Battle of the Trench, although narrations exist that, following rejecting marriage offers, he freed them to return to their remaining tribe. The two others were a domestic servant gifted by his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh, and finally the famous Mariya Al-Qibtiya, who bore him a son. These are true facts. Noting the previous discussion, we can in no way infer that the Prophet ﷺ engaged in misconduct. Moreover we see countless narrations and laws that command the good treatment and manumission of slaves. None of these women remained in slavery following his death. Moreover, we may forget that many, if not most of the early Muslims and closest Companions were slaves or from the most vulnerable strata of society. The Prophet employed an abolitionist zeal in freeing slaves and captives, and attempting to create a society of universal humanity:

Narrated Al-Ma'rur: At Ar-Rabadha I met Abu Dhar who was wearing a cloak, and his slave, too, was wearing a similar one. I asked about the reason for it. He replied, "I abused a person by calling his mother with bad names." The Prophet said to me, 'O Abu Dhar! Did you abuse him by calling his mother with bad names you still have some characteristics of ignorance. Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity (power) and if you do so, then help them”.[7]

Whenever mistreatment arose, Companions were commanded to free slaves, as related in this account “The youngest of us [brothers who own a female slave] slapped her, and Allah's Messenger (May peace be upon him) commanded us to set her free”.[8]

Keeping this spirit in mind would then suspend our damnation of revered figures and the laws and legislation they brought as not an attempt to further enslave others, but rather enact limitations, endorse dignity and fair treatment, and encourage the acceptance of the Islamic faith. Imam Ibn Jawzi, the great verifier of Prophetic reports, stated, "If you find a Hadith against the dictates of common sense or contrary to a universal rule, consider it a fabrication”. Those equipped with the intellectual gifts and opportunities afforded to them by simply living in the current age should seek to renew the critical analysis of texts and notions that surround our faith and identity to alleviate the burdens of the majority that may neither possess the time nor merit to do so, as antidotet to existing modes of scholarship that lack the rigor to deal with such issues. However each one of us has the ability and should acquaint ourselves with Prophetic conduct. If one were to engage in a serious and fair study of the Prophetic character, while even discounting practices no longer deemed acceptable, one would not be left with the image of a slave-holding ruler, but of someone increasingly pushing his lawless society towards justice, dignity, and fair-treatment. There is not a social ill that he did not forbid, nor institution that he did not reform by imposing limitations. He was a Messenger of his time whose transcendent message not only changed the world around him for the better, but charged us to do likewise.

Actors like the ISIS simply thrive in our ignorance and lack of moral confidence that is simply reflective of our inner state. Many Muslims are filled with rage, and insecurities and ISIS offers a nihilistic placebo. Many of our youth find obstacles to marriage and remaining chaste, and develop neurotic notions of sexuality. We have divorced and exorcised spirituality from the practice of the Sacred Law, leaving us ill equipped to respond to literalist opportunists and sexual deviants that claim sole scriptural authority. ISIS grows antagonistic to the ethics and Prophetic ethos, just as many educated Muslims grow in their indifference. Many of us could be aptly described as “Souled Out”, wearingly carrying on lives in a sea of negativity. Yes, we need scholarly advocates to address ISIS’s claims head on, devoid of the parading apologetics, flimsy equivocal claims, and pseudo-conspiratorial statements; but we also need to accept our faith as a historic evolution. We need to understand that the majority of Muslims globally are not in agreement with many antiquated modes of thought that either encourage or shelter the underpinnings of practices like slavery. While there will never exist the mechanism for a top down directive to be followed by all, as Americans, who rely not on a folk tradition and imbibe independent thinking, we have the imperative to change the discourse of our faith. We will always find Muslims like ISIS, who will use the faith for political or personal gratification. If you want to allow your personal faith to be in flux by their actions, there is no more easier way then to sit back and relegate your faith to a lower rung in your self-identity hyphenations. Academics and pundits may assume that ISIS are “serious Muslims”, but we must challenge that notion by taking our faith, our scripture, our ethics, our history, and our future seriously.

[1] Bello, Muhammad Infak Al Maysur Trans Arnett , FJ.pp122-126

[2] Lovejoy, Paul E. (1978). "Plantations in the Economy of the Sokoto Caliphate". The Journal of African History 19 (3): 341–368

[3] See Lydon, Ghislaine; Slavery, Exchange and Islamic Law: A Glimpse From the Archives of Mali and Mauritania. University of California, Los Angeles for a short discourse on the role of Maliki law works and Slavery.

[4] Ibid, p121-122, “Celebrated Muslim scholar A­mad Bābā ibn Mu­ammad Aqīt who lived in sixteenth-and early seventeenth century Timbuktu.20 But even this author writes with the assumption that non-Muslims could be lawfully enslaved. His reply to a Maghribi of Tuwāt, who was seeking to identify the non-Muslims subject to lawful enslavement, was entitled “The Ladder of Ascent towards Grasping the Law Concerning Transported Blacks.” In his answer, which reads like an ethnographic account, the scholar mapped the limits of the known Muslim world beyond which he considered it permissible to enslave Africans.21 His legal opinions seem to have held wide currency among Muslim scholars from Morocco to Hausa land…. That trans-Saharan slave dealers were concerned with lawfully carrying out their trade on the one hand, and that A­mad Bābā did not fail to report the incidence of wrongful enslavements of African Muslims on the other (as he himself had been in the aftermath of the Moroccan invasion of Songhay), points to the marked confusion among Muslims surrounding transactions in slaves”

[5] Sunan Al Bayhaqi, Volume 2, page 363, Hadith no. 18685

[6] Ibn Qayyim, Zaad al-Ma’aad, 1/114

[7] Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 2, Number 29

[8] Muslim, Book 015, Number 4082:


Academic Related Articles