Social Change and the Power of Ideas
I’ve just started reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s both fascinating and terrifying, which is a feeling I get that when reading a Toni Morrison novel or really anything that takes me to that time in American history when an entire race was treated as sub-Human. Sometimes it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that this actually happened…That there was an a time when this happened and was accepted. It really is a testament to human nature, how easily we can give up on our fitra, and lose sight of what seems like obvious truth.
Although slavery officially ended in America in 1861, but extreme forms of racism, discrimination and racial segregation remained for centuries, and racism still persists to this day. It got me thinking about how easy it is for an idea, no matter how immoral and baseless it seems, to take hold of a culture and seep in until an entire society becomes effectively brainwashed. So once a practice like slavery pervades a society, what is the best way to get rid of it? The approach followed in America is based on revolutionary change and led to a civil war before slavery could be abolished. After the war there were immense economic consequences of ending slavery cold-turkey, both for the owners and the slaves themselves. Owners who depended on these slaves for work, and the slaves themselves who when freed all at once had nowhere to go. The government could not afford to house and feed all these people all of a sudden. Because of that for years different forms of economic enslavement such as sharecropping emerged. Another problem with this approach is that it tries to end the practice of slavery without giving society time to rid itself of the ideas underlying this practice. By this I mean that even though slavery as a practice was banned, the idea that whites were genetically superior to blacks lingered.
The approach advocated by Islam through the Quran and Sunnah is very different, and may give the impression that slavery isn’t banned in Islam, but the truth is that Allah in His infinite wisdom shows us an effective way to end the practice of slavery without causing an economic crash and while simultaneously subtly inserting the idea of human equality.
There are 2 ways to end any pervasive socio-cultural phenomenon, you can either:
1) Ban it and make it illegal.
2) Regulate it by saying ok, we’ll let you do it, but only within these restrictions and under these conditions. And couple that with incentives for people to stop doing it on their own (and there are many, many incentives to freeing slaves in the Quran).
Different approaches work better in different circumstances. The debate of which approach is more effective is kind of similar to the debate on whether countries should illegalize marijuana (like in America) and deal with a huge underground trade, or just regulate it (like in the Netherlands).
According to my limited knowledge, this is the how the second approach can be seen in Islamic teachings:
1) Strict conditions: Muslims cannot capture a free person and enslave him/her. Rather, the only conditions for slavery are prisoners of war (see no.8 for more details on PoWs in Islam), and a child born of slave parents.
2) The Quran and Sunnah emphasize that slaves are not subhuman or inferior. The very term “slave” and isn’t really used in the Quran to refer to human slavery, because all human beings are slaves and servants to Allah. Rather, the term used is “posessions of the right hand”, which is merely their status, like their job, based on which they have less freedom and thus less responsibility. But they have basic human rights which are outlined in the Quran and Sunnah. Since they are not dehumanized they can, upon being freed, rise to high levels in society such as Bilal whom the Prophet (s) freed and hired as his Muazzin – a very prestigious position, Maria the Copt whom he married, Zaid whom he freed and adopted, and of course the Mamaleek (which literally means “owned”) of Egypt who were an entire army of slaves that later overthrew the government and ruled Egypt for centuries. So my ancestors were actually ruled by slaves.
3) You must treat them with kindness and respect, you must feed them and clothe them from the same food and clothes you provide your family, and you must allow them to rest if it is a hot day, etc. I believe (but I’m not sure) that there are ayat in the Quran that instruct people to treat their slaves well, but I think this is mostly from the Sunnah. There many hadiths on this topic such as:
“Your servants are thy brethren. Allah has put them under your control. He could, if He willed, make you under their control. Thus, whoever has his brother under his control, let him feed him of his same food and dress him of his same dress. Never saddle them with work that goes beyond their capability. If the work happens to be somehow difficult, lend them a helping hand.”
“If any of you have a slave girl, whom he gives good education and excellent training, and then he emancipates her and marries her, he shall have a two-fold reward.”
4) Islam invented the manumission contract where a slave can sign a contract with his/her master to be freed after paying a certain amount of money. The master is encouraged to at least donate the 1st installment if he/she cannot afford to just set the slave free.
5) You cannot force them into prostitution or force them to have sex with another human being in general.
7) If your male slave and female slave would like to marry each other, you must support their marriage and you are not allowed to prevent it.
8 ) As for PoWs, there are very strict conditions from the Sunnah on how they are treated, namely that ultimately they must be freed, you can try to ransom them for your own prisoners but if not then you must still free them ultimately. You cannot go all Gitmo on them.
Coupled with the above restrictions, it is important to point out that it is forbidden to enslave a free person. Thus, all forms of modern-day enslavement are Islamically illegal because modern circumstances simply to not fulfill the strict Islamic conditions.
The Islamic paradigm of social change perceives the power of ideas as something not to be
underestimated. It’s kind of like what Leonardo DiCaprio said in Inception about how the most dangerous thing in the world is actually an idea that takes hold in someone’s mind. This holds true on the levels of societies as well. When an idea takes hold of a society, it requires decades, even centuries, of combating it before it can be rooted out. And what is racial superiority but an idea?
American terrorists enslaved an entire race based on an idea, European terrorists tried to exterminate an entire race in the holocaust based on an idea, and Middle Eastern terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centre based on an idea.
May Allah protect us from the danger of false ideas.
اللهم علمنا ما ينفعنا وانفعنا بما علمتنا و زدنا علما
Note: The above information is not presented at all as Islamic knowledge backed by evidence, it is only my own personal understanding which I give with a disclaimer stating my limited knowledge of this issue.