"On Slavery and a Moral Reading of the Quran"

Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl reminds that the Qur’an, as the final revelation and the final message given to the final Prophet came as humanity had sufficiently matured to the point that they could preserve the testament of faith in a book rather than rely on miracles. Once humanity reached that point, the prophecy ended, and the responsibility was fully borne by human beings to become God’s representatives on earth. God’s will only materializes through human beings, as fully accountable and responsible agents. Individually and collectively, we will be held accountable and responsible before God. Human beings must develop certain virtues within themselves and hold one another accountable for these virtues, among them honesty, truth and testimony, equity, fairness towards the oppressed and weak, holding power responsible and accountable and many others. Human beings must be anchored in virtues and ethics in order to discharge their duties as God’s representative; a human being without ethics who engages the final revelation and tries to represent the word of God will produce ugliness, trauma, and the opposite of what is Godly.


Dr. Abou El Fadl develops the example of the importance of morality and ethics in reading texts through discussing the topic of slavery, particularly in light of some scholars who have recently argued that slavery is not an issue of morality or ethics in Islam, but rather historical circumstances and pragmatics. Dr. Abou El Fadl discusses the historical variations and complexities of slavery in the ancient and medieval world, and points out how ISIS and Daesh, in rebelling against modernity and Western hegemony, effectively ignored and dumped all of the ethical teachings of the past 1500 years to return to their idea of a pristine Islam. They even ignored the foundational premise that Muslims as servants of God can only exist in a slave-like status before God and no other. He recalls the beautiful example that in a time when it was the norm to customarily prostrate in the presence of kings, that it was well known that in Europe or Asia, if someone would refuse to prostrate before a king, it was because that person was a Muslim.


Dr. Abou El Fadl goes on to address those who posit that the Quran recognizes and accommodates slavery and does not conclude slavery is morally reprehensible. Dr. Abou El Fadl puts forth the Quranic verses that are cited as evidence, and demonstrates that an ethical reading of these verses would in fact conclude the exact opposite. He discusses in detail the two Quranic parables that exemplify the difference between a free human being and a disempowered slave, and explains why they are in fact a resounding moral condemnation of the institution of slavery; slavery is likened to paganism and freedom is Islam. He underscores the reasons why the Quran teaches that slavery is an evil and has always been an evil, and how unless these verses are engaged with the proper ethical anchoring, other morally problematic readings are possible.


Finally, he presents the story of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his student Ilyazar of Damascus to emphasize the point of how easy it is for human beings to twist their thinking when they do not have a strong foundation of the virtue of ethics anchored in their conscious and conscience. If an ethical human being accepts God and partners their ethics with Allah’s teachings, the result can be beauty. But if a human being wishes to partner with Allah but leaves ethics at the door, the result will be ugliness and corruption. Delivered 30 August 2019.

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