It is a common refrain of pious Muslims in the face of atrocities done by other Muslims in the name of Islam that Islam must not be shamed. Whenever an Islamic atrocity potentially dishonors Islam, non-Muslims are asked to agree that ‘This is not Islamic’ so that the honor of Islam can be kept pristine. The real issue, however, is not what would be good or bad for Islam’s reputation; Islam is not the victim here. The pressing issue is not to get people to think well of Islam, but how, for instance, in the case of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls, the girls can be rescued and, above all, how Boko Haram’s murderous rampage can be halted.
Qasim Rashid, an American Muslim, recently published on FoxNews.com a heart-felt expression of deep distress at the kidnapping of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram (‘What would Muhammad say to Boko Haram’). He declared that Muhammad himself would not recognize this group as acting in line with his teachings:
“Boko Haram’s claim that Islam motivates their kidnappings is no different than Adolf Hitler’s claim that Christianity motivated his genocide. This terrorist organization acts in direct violation of every Islamic teaching regarding women.”
Qasim Rashid is not the only Muslim who has been speaking out in support of the kidnapped girls, while denying that their plight has anything to do with Islam (see here).
Qasim Rashid is a member of the Ahmaddiyah community, which is regarded as unorthodox by most Muslims. Indeed Ahmaddiyahs are often severely persecuted for their beliefs in Islamic nations. Although Qasim Rashid does not speak for mainstream Islam, he is nevertheless to be commended for speaking up against Boko Haram’s repugnant acts.
But does the claim that Boko Haram is not Islamic hold up to scrutiny?
What counts as a valid manifestation of Islam? Ahmaddiyah beliefs can be considered Islamic, for those who hold them do so on the basis of a reasoned interpretation of Islamic canonical sources, even if the majority of Muslims reject them as Muslims. By the same token, the beliefs of Boko Haram must also be considered a form of Islam, for they too are held on the basis of a reasoned interpretation of Islamic canonical sources.
It needs to be acknowledged that Boko Haram has not arisen in a vacuum. As Andrew Bostom has pointed out, violent opposition to non-Islamic culture has been a feature of Nigerian Islam for centuries. Today this hatred is being directed against Western education and secular government, but in the past it was indigenous Africa cultures which were targeted for brutal treatment, including enslavement and slaughter. The modern revival of absolutist Sharia-compliant Islam in the north of Nigeria is a process which has deep roots in history. It has also been in progress for decades. Khalid Yasin, an African American convert to Islam and globe-trotting preacher, waxed lyrical about the advance of Sharia law in Nigeria on Australian national radio in 2003:
“If we look at the evolution of the Sharia experiment in Nigeria for instance. It’s just a wonderful, phenomenal experience. It has brought about some sweeping changes, balances, within the society, regulations in terms of moral practices and so many things. …What did the Sharia provide? Always dignity, protection, and the religious rights?”
But let us consider the evidence Qasim Rashid gives for his view that Muhammad would disown Boko Haram. His arguments can be summarized as follows:
- ‘Boko Haram violates the Koran 24:34 [i.e. Sura 24:33] which commands, “and force not your women to unchaste life,” i.e. [this is] a condemnation of Boko Haram’s intention to sell these girls into prostitution.’
- ‘They violate Koran 4:20 [i.e. Sura 4:19] which declares, “it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will; nor should you detain them,” i.e. a specific repudiation of Boko Haram’s kidnapping and detention.’
- ‘Prophet Muhammad’s dying words embodied these commandments. He implored, “Do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers.”’
- The seeking of knowledge is an obligation on all Muslims, including ‘secular knowledge’.
- ‘Islam … commands female education.’
Although Qasim Rashid’s views are sincerely held, his reasoning is weak. Let us consider his points in order.
Compel not your slave-girls — Sura 24:33
Contra Qasim Rashid, Sura 24:33 does not say ‘force not your women’ but:
“… compel not your slave-girls to prostitution when they desire to keep chaste, in order to seek the frail goods of this world’s life. And whoever compels them, then surely after their compulsion Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (The Quran translation used here is cited from a translation by Ahmaddiya scholar Muhammad Maulana Ali).
The word translated ‘slave-girl’ here can also mean a young woman, but in this passage it clearly refers to female slaves. A standard interpretation of this verse by Sunni commentators – such as Ibn Kathir – is that if someone owns a slave girl, he should not prostitute her, but if he does, Allah will forgive her.
Strictly speaking, this verse does not appear to apply to the situation of the Nigerian girls taken by Boko Haram. The outrage is that they were taken captive and enslaved in the first place, becoming what the Koran refers to as ‘those whom your right hand possesses’. That they may have been raped by their captors seems highly likely, but this is not the same thing as being prostituted to produce income for their owners. Islam permits men to have sexual intercourse with their slave women, and also to sell them into the service of another, but it frowns on hiring them out for prostitution.
In Sura 33:50 of the Koran it is stated that it was permissible for Muhammad to have sex with his female slaves:
“O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesses, out of those whom Allah has given thee as prisoners of war”,
and in verse 23:6 this prerogative is extended to Muslim believers:
“Successful indeed are the believers … who restrain their sexual passions except in the presence of their mates [their wives], of those whom their right hands possess.”
The actions and teaching of Muhammad also support the practice of sexual slavery for women taken captive in jihad. Chapter 547 of the Sahih Muslim, a revered collection of sayings of Muhammad considered reliable by most Muslims, is entitled ‘It is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a captive woman…’. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, the translator and editor of the Sahih Muslim, added the following footnote to this chapter:
“As for the expression malakat aymanukum (those whom your right hands possess) [it] denotes slave-girls, i.e. women who were captured in the Holy War … sexual intercourse with these women is lawful with certain conditions.”
Boko Haram is reported to be intending to sell the girls at a slave market. This is no doubt based upon the precedent of Muhammad’s own practice. There are many examples from Muhammad’s actions and those of his companions which could be cited. For example, after putting the men of the Jewish Quraiza tribe in Medina to the sword, Muhammad’s biographer Ibn Isaq reports that he sold some of the Jewish women and used the money to buy horses and weapon:
“Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children of B. Qurayza among the Muslims, and he made known on that day the shares of horse and men, and took out the fifth. … Then the apostle sent Sa‘d b. Zayd al-Ansari brother of b. ‘Abdu’l-Ashhal with some of the captive women of B. Qurayza to Najd and he sold them for horses and weapons. (Sirat Rasul Allah, by Ibn Ishaq)
The rest of the Jewish slaves were divided among the Muslims. Muhammad himself took one of the leading Jewish women, Rayhana, for his concubine, but she refused to marry him:
The apostle had chosen one of their women for himself, Rayhana d. ‘Amr b. Khunafa, one of the women of B. ‘Amr b. Qurayza, and she remained with him until she died, in his power. The apostle had proposed to marry her and put the veil on her, but she said: ‘Nay, leave me in your power, for that will be easier for me and for you.’” (Sirat Rasul Allah, by Ibn Ishaq).
Rayhana, who became Muhammad’s concubine by capture in warfare, is revered to this day as one of the ‘wives’ of the prophet of Islam.
In addition to the support for this practice found in the Islamic canon, historical sources give ample evidence that enslavement of women as captives of war and resulting sexual servitude has been a persistent feature of Islamic warfare conducted by pious Muslims. Consider for example the report of Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani, Saladin’s chronicler, of the fate of 8,000 Christian women in Jerusalem who were unable to pay a ransom for their release after the conquest of that city by Saladin:
“Women and children together came to 8,000 and were quickly divided up among us, brining a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled and nubile girls married, and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work, and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered, and lovely women’s red lips kissed, and dark women prostrated, and untamed ones tamed, and happy ones made to weep!” (Arab Historians of the Crusades, ed. by Francesco Gabrieli, pp. 96-97).
It is has been widely accepted by Islamic jurists down the ages that Islam permits Muslim men to have sex with women who have come into their possession through being taken captive in war, either because they personally captured them, or because they acquired them by purchase or gift from another. Indeed this was the legal basis in Islam for the harem system: the women of the harem were mainly sourced from jihad campaigns waged against non-Muslim communities.
It is simply incredible that Qasim Rashid would quote a verse which prohibits Muslim men from hiring out their concubines for sex as evidence that Islam is against the use of sexual violence against captive women. If we are supposed to deny the label ‘Islamic’ to Boko Haram, are we also to conclude that Saladin and even Muhammad himself cannot be called Muslims?
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