Slavery in 21st-century Islamism

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Quasi-state-level Islamist groups, including Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have captured and enslaved women and children, often for sexual slavery.[1][2] In 2014, both groups were reported to have kidnapped large numbers of girls and younger women.[3][4]


By Boko Haram[edit]

Apparently the first report of slave-taking by Boko Haram was on 13 May 2013 when a video was released of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau saying his group had taken women and children - including teenage girls - hostage in response to the arrest of its members' wives and children.[5]

According to Islamism expert Jonathan N.C. Hill, Boko Haram began kidnapping large numbers of girls and young women for sexual use in 2014. The attacks echoed kidnappings of girls and young women for sexual use by Algerian Islamists in the 1990s and early 2000s, and may reflect influence by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.[3][6]

According to a community leader from Borno state quoted by the BBC, some captured young women and teenage girls held by Boko Haram have been forced to marry one Boko Haram fighter after another as the fighters are killed. "Any time they go for an operation and one of the fighters is killed they will force the young woman to marry another one ... Eventually she becomes a habitual sex slave."[7]

By ISIS[edit]

Islamic State price list for
women and children slaves
1–9 years old $165
10–20 $124
21–30 $82
31–40 $62
41–50 $41
SOURCE: Zainab Bangura,
UN special envoy on
sexual violence in conflict.[8]

The Economist reports that ISIS (also called "Islamic State") has taken "as many as 2,000 women and children" captive, selling and distributing them as sexual slaves. Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago, later stated to have compiled a list of 4,800 captured Yazidi women and children, and estimated that the overall number could be up to 7,000.[4] Yazidi are a small minority who practice a religion based on "a mix of Christian, Islamic, and ancient Mesopotamian beliefs".[8]

According to reports endorsed as credible by The Daily Telegraph, virgins among the captured women were selected and given to commanders as sexual slaves.[9] According to an August 2015 story in The New York Times "The trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them."[10][11]

In April 2015, Zainab Bangura, the United Nations special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, visited Iraq and was given a copy of an Islamic State pamphlet including a list of prices for captured women and children. According to a story on the list in Bloomberg, the list's authenticity "was established by UN researchers who'd gathered anecdotes on similar slave markets in Islamic State-controlled areas". The captives are non-Muslim minorities, "mostly Arab Christians and Yazidis" who have refused to convert to Islam and whose adult male relatives have been executed. Bidders for the captive women and children include "the groups own fighters and wealthy Middle Easterners."[8]


In a study of the Arab slave trade from 650 C.E. to 1905 C.E., which considered human trafficking in North Africa, the Middle East, and India, Professor Ralph Austen estimates the number of slaves to be 17,000,000.[12]

Female slavery was common during the medieval Arab slave trade, where prisoners of war captured in battle from non-Arab lands often ended up as concubines (who are considered free when their master dies).[13] During the Islamic Golden Age, some Muslim jurists writing on military jurisprudence advocated severe penalties for rebels who use "stealth attacks" and practise abductions, poisoning of water wells, arson, attacks against wayfarers and travellers, assaults under the cover of night and rape.[14]

In 1899, Winston Churchill wrote about the Islamic slave trade: "...all [of the Arab tribes in The Sudan], without exception, were hunters of men. To the great slave markets of Jeddah a continual stream of negro captives has flowed for hundreds of years. The invention of gunpowder and the adoption by the Arabs of firearms facilitated the traffic...Thus the situation in the Sudan for several centuries may be summed up as follows: The dominant race of Arab invaders was increasingly spreading its blood, religion, customs, and language among the black aboriginal population, and at the same time it harried and enslaved them...The warlike Arab tribes fought and brawled among themselves in ceaseless feud and strife. The negroes trembled in apprehension of capture, or rose locally against their oppressors."[15]

The Lieber Code of 1863 codified the protection of civilians and stated that "all rape...[is] prohibited under the penalty of death"[16] and subsequent laws of war and humanitarian law have made maltreatment of civilians criminal.[17] Slavery was formally abolished in nearly all countries in the mid-20th century.[18][19]

Islamist views on slavery[edit]

Earlier in the 20th century, Islamist authors declared slavery outdated without actually clearly affirming and promoting its abolition. This has caused at least one scholar (William Clarence-Smith[20]) to bemoan the notable "evasions and silences of Muhammad Qutb".[21][22] and the "dogged refusal of Mawlana Mawdudi to give up on slavery".[23]

According to some scholars,[24] there has been a "reopening" of the issue of slavery by some conservative Salafi Islamic scholars after its "closing" earlier in the 20th century when Muslim countries banned slavery and "most Muslim scholars" found the practice "inconsistent with Qur'anic morality."[25][26]

In response to the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram's Quranic justification for kidnapping and enslaving people,[27][28] and ISIL's religious justification for enslaving Yazidi women as spoils of war as claimed in their digital magazine Dabiq,[29][30][31][32][33][34] 126 Islamic scholars from around the Muslim world, in late September 2014, signed an open letter to the Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rejecting his group's interpretations of the Qur'an and hadith to justify its actions.[35][36][n 1] The letter accuses the group of instigating fitna – sedition – by instituting slavery under its rule in contravention of the anti-slavery consensus of the Islamic scholarly community.[37]

Qutb brothers[edit]

Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb, a leading scholar of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood wrote in his tafsir (commentary of the Quran) that slavery was a way of handling prisoners-of-war and it "was necessary for Islam to adopt a similar line of practise until the world devised a new code of practise during war other than enslavement".[38] Qutb's brother and promoter, Muhammad Qutb, vigorously defended Islamic slavery, telling his audience that "Islam gave spiritual enfranchisement to slaves" and "in the early period of Islam the slave was exalted to such a noble state of humanity as was never before witnessed in any other part of the world."[39] He contrasted the adultery, prostitution,[40] and (what he called) "that most odious form of animalism" casual sex that are found in Europe,[41] with (what he called) "that clean and spiritual bond that ties a maid [i.e. slave girl] to her master in Islam."[40]

Abul A'la Maududi[edit]

Abul A'la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami has written:

Islam has clearly and categorically forbidden the primitive practice of capturing a free man, to make him a slave or to sell him into slavery. On this point the clear and unequivocal words of [Muhammad] are as follows:

There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgement. Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats this money" (al-Bukhari and Ibn Majjah).

The words of this Tradition of the Prophet are also general, they have not been qualified or made applicable to a particular nation, race, country or followers of a particular religion.....After this the only form of slavery which was left in Islamic society was the prisoners of war, who were captured on the battlefield. These prisoners of war were retained by the Muslim Government until their government agreed to receive them back in exchange for Muslim soldiers captured by them.....[42]


According to CNN and The Economist, the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant "justifies its kidnapping of women as sex slaves citing Islamic theology." An article entitled, 'The revival (of) slavery before the Hour,' (of Judgement Day), published in the ISIL online magazine, Dabiq, claimed that Yazidi women can be taken captive and forced to become sex slaves or concubines under Islamic law, "[o]ne should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar -- the infidels -- and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law."[4][43][44]

It not only justified the taking of slaves but declared that those who "deny or mock" the verses of the Koran or hadith that justified it were apostates from Islam, asserting that as concubinage is specifically justified in the Koran:

Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.[45]

Another article in Dabiq rebuked supporters of ISIS who had denied ISIS had taken slaves "as if the soldiers of the Khilafah had committed a mistake or evil", and promised "slave markets will be established".[46]

ISIL appealed to apocalyptic beliefs and "claimed justification by a Hadith that they interpret as portraying the revival of slavery as a precursor to the end of the world."[47] In late 2014 ISIL released a pamphlet on the treatment of female slaves.[48][49][50][51][52][53]

Boko Haram[edit]

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group, said in an interview "I shall capture people and make them slaves" when claiming responsibility for the 2014 Chibok kidnapping.[27] Shekau has justified his actions by appealing to the Quran saying "[w]hat we are doing is an order from Allah, and all that we are doing is in the Book of Allah that we follow".[54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, a Nigerian extremist group, said in an interview "I shall capture people and make them slaves" when claiming responsibility for the 2014 Chibok kidnapping. ISIL claimed that the Yazidi are idol worshipers and their enslavement part of the old shariah practice of spoils of war.


  1. ^ Spencer, Richard (14 October 2014). "Monday 20 October 2014 Thousands of Yazidis sold as sex slaves, say Isil". Irish Independent. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  2. ^ McPhee, Rod. "The schoolgirls stolen as sex slaves by Nigeria's anti-education jihadists Boko Haram" (3 May 2014). Daily Mirror. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Hill, Jonathan N.C. (July 30, 2014). "Boko Haram, the Chibok Abductions and Nigeria's Counterterrorism Strategy". Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c EconomistStaff (October 18, 2014). "Jihadists Boast of Selling Captive Women as Concubines". The Economist. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  5. ^ "Boko Haram timeline: From preachers to slave raiders". BBC News. 15 May 2013. Retrieved 3 October 2015. 
  6. ^ Marina Lazreg, "Consequences of Political Liberalisation and Sociocultural Mobilisation for Women in Algeria, Egypt and Jordan," in Anne-Marie Goetz, Governing Women: Women's Political Effectiveness in Contexts of Democratisation and Governance Reform (New York: Routledge/UNRISD, 2009), p. 47.
  7. ^ Ross, Will (8 May 2015). "Nigeria: What next for the rescued Boko Haram captives?". BBC News. Retrieved 3 October 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c Yoon, Sangwon (August 3, 2015). "Islamic State Circulates Sex Slave Price Lis". Bloomberg L.P. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  9. ^ Sherlock, Ruth (18 October 2014). "Islamic State commanders 'using Yazidi virgins for sex'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  10. ^ CALLIMACHI;, RUKMINI (13 August 2015). "ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape". New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2015. 
  11. ^ see also Semple, Kirk (November 14, 2014). "Yazidi Girls Seized by ISIS Speak Out After Escape". The New York Times. 
  12. ^ Quoted by John Ralph Willis. "Jihad and the ideology of enslavement", in Slaves and slavery in Muslim Africa— vol. 1. Islam and the ideology of enslavement, London, England; Totowa, N.J.: Frank Cass, 1985, p x.
  13. ^ "Islam and slavery: Sexual slavery". Retrieved 2014-04-30. 
  14. ^ Abou El Fadl, Khaled. [Commentary: Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition]. Muslim Lawyers
  15. ^ Winston Churchill. The River War, Vol. II, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899, pp. 248—50.
  16. ^ Askin (1997), pp. 35–36
  17. ^ Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, 1999, hardcover, 858 pages, ISBN 0-674-07608-7, page 5.
  18. ^ Murray Gordon. 'Slavery in the Arab World', New York: New Amsterdam, 1989, p. 234.
  19. ^ "Slavery: Mauritania's best kept secret". BBC News. December 13, 2004. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  20. ^ Archived from the original on April 17, 2006. Retrieved August 9, 2015.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  21. ^ at p.6 - 'Islam and Slavery' by William Gervase Clarence-Smith
  22. ^ Clarence-Smith, W. G. (2006). Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford University Press. p. 186. Retrieved 17 August 2015. 
  23. ^ Clarence-Smith, W. G. (2006). Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford University Press. p. 188. Retrieved 17 August 2015. 
  24. ^ Khaled Abou El Fadl and William Clarence-Smith
  25. ^ Abou el Fadl, Great Theft, HarperSanFrancisco, c2005.
  26. ^ Clarence-Smith, William G. "Islam and Slavery" (PDF). 
  27. ^ a b Lister, Tim (6 May 2014). "Boko Haram: The essence of terror". CNN. Retrieved 13 May 2014.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "CNNEssenceTerror" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  28. ^ Ferran, Lee (5 May 2014). "Boko Haram: Kidnappers, Slave-Owners, Terrorists, Killers". ABC News. 
  29. ^ "Islamic State Seeks to Justify Enslaving Yazidi Women and Girls in Iraq," Newsweek, 10-13-2014
  30. ^ Athena Yenko, "Judgment Day Justifies Sex Slavery Of Women – ISIS Out With Its 4th Edition Of Dabiq Magazine," Archived 2014-10-14 at the Wayback Machine. International Business Times-Australia, October 13, 2014
  31. ^ Allen McDuffee, "ISIS Is Now Bragging About Enslaving Women and Children," The Atlantic, Oct 13 2014
  32. ^ Salma Abdelaziz, "ISIS states its justification for the enslavement of women," CNN, October 13, 2014
  33. ^ Richard Spencer, "Thousands of Yazidi women sold as sex slaves 'for theological reasons', says Isil," The Daily Telegraph, 13 Oct 2014.
  34. ^ "To have and to hold: Jihadists boast of selling captive women as concubines," The Economist, Oct 18th 2014
  35. ^ Lauren Markoe (24 September 2013). "Muslim Scholars Release Open Letter to Islamic State Meticulously Blasting Its Ideology". The Huffington Post. Religious News Service. Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  36. ^ Smith, Samuel (25 September 2014). "International Coalition of Muslim Scholars Refute ISIS' Religious Arguments in Open Letter to al-Baghdadi". The Christian Post. Retrieved 18 October 2014. 
  37. ^ "Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi". September 2014. Archived from the original on 25 September 2014. Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  38. ^ in Fi Zilal al-Qur'an, Surah Tawbah (3/1669) also in Tafsir of Surah Baqarah (/230), tafsir of Surah Mu'minoon (4/2455), tafsir of Surah Muhammad (6/3285)
  39. ^ Qutb, Muhammad, Islam, the Misunderstood Religion, p.27-8
  40. ^ a b Qutb, Muhammad, Islam, the Misunderstood Religion, p.41
  41. ^ Qutb, Muhammad, Islam, the Misunderstood Religion, Markazi Maktabi Islami, Delhi-6, 1992 p.50
  42. ^ From "Human Rights in Islam" by 'Allamah Abu Al-'A'la Mawdudi. Chapter 3, subsection 5 [1]
  43. ^ Abdelaziz, Salma (13 October 2014). "ISIS states its justification for the enslavement of women". CNN. Retrieved 13 October 2014. 
  44. ^ Mathis-Lilly, Ben (14 October 2014). "ISIS Declares Itself Pro-Slavery". Slate. Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  45. ^ Wood, Graeme (March 2015). "What ISIS Really Wants". The Atlantic. Retrieved 26 February 2015. 
  46. ^ "Issue 9 Of Islamic State (ISIS) English-Language Magazine 'Dabiq' Article Justifies The Practice Of Taking Women As Slaves". memri. May 22, 2015. Retrieved 22 May 2015. 
  47. ^ Malas, Nour (November 18, 2014). "Ancient Prophecies Motivate Islamic State Militants: Battlefield Strategies Driven by 1,400-year-old Apocalyptic Ideas". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 22, 2014. 
  48. ^ Smith, Amelia (September 12, 2014). "ISIS Publish Pamphlet On How to Treat Female Slaves". Newsweek. 
  49. ^ "ISIS publishes guide telling fighters how to buy, sell and abuse captured women - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online. 
  50. ^ Greg Botelho, CNN (12 December 2014). "ISIS: Enslaving, having sex with 'unbelieving' women, girls is OK -". CNN. 
  51. ^ Katharine Lackey (13 December 2014). "Pamphlet provides Islamic State guidelines for sex slaves". USA Today. 
  52. ^ "Islamic State issues abhorrent sex slavery guidelines about how to treat women - Christian News on Christian Today". Christian Today. 
  53. ^ "Isis releases 'abhorrent' sex slaves pamphlet with 27 tips for militants on taking, punishing and raping female captives". The Independent. 
  54. ^ Ferran, Lee (5 May 2014). "Boko Haram: Kidnappers, Slave-Owners, Terrorists, Killers". ABC News.