The New Yorker has a profile of Abeid, one of Africa’s foremost anti-slavery campaigners. He is a Muslim — as are his biggest enemies, the slavers.
Mauritania, where Abeid lives, most likely has the highest incidence of slavery in the world: there are 140,000 slaves in the country, give or take — out of a population of 3.8 million.
Because untold numbers of Muslims believe that their religion permits slave ownership, those who question slavery might as well be questioning Islam. That’s dangerous territory for any critic, especially one as vociferous, even strident, as Abeid.
The article about him doesn’t mince words about religious authorities who use the Qur’an to justify slavery.
While Abeid was travelling, a well-known imam had given a televised interview. A journalist asked whether slavery existed in Mauritania, and the imam said no. Then why, the journalist asked, had the imam recently given the journalist’s boss a slave girl as a gift? The imam simply smiled…
Mauritania is an avowedly Muslim country, and though the constitution endorses both secular and religious law, in civic matters Islamic precepts dominate. But the Koran is ambiguous on the essential question of whether slavery should exist. In much of the world, Muslim scholars argue that the only Islamic basis for slavery is in jihad: after conquering unbelievers, Muslim warriors may take them as slaves, provided that they treat them well. In Mauritania, there is little consensus. Imams who defend slavery often refer to a set of interpretive texts that date back as far as the eighth century.
‘Cause consulting ancient books that were written in a time of widespread barbarism and ignorance is the best way to determine what’s just and moral today.
One prominent example is a mukhtasar, or handbook of Islamic law, written by the fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar Khalil ibn Ishaq. According to its precepts, a slave cannot marry without her master’s permission, nor does she have any right to her children; a free man who murders a slave will not be punished by death, but a slave who murders a free man will be; slaves are whipped for fornicating, though a master may have sex with his slave girl; and slaves may not inherit property or give testimony in court.
Abeid will abide (ha) none of it. He doesn’t lack courage, to say the least. During a recent public speech cum prayer meeting, he denounced books that interpret Islamic law, saying:
“These books justify selling people, they justify raping people. We will purify the religion, the faith, and the hearts of Mauritanians.” He held up a red hardcover with intricate embossing. “What the Prophet says was hidden by these books, which are not real words from God,” he said. “These old books give a bad image of Islam. We have no choice but to take this step.”
Then it was time for the book-burning.
One of Abeid’s bodyguards dropped the books into a cardboard box and doused them in lighter fluid. The crowd was on its feet, peering at the spectacle. No one had expected this. Defacing the holy books of Islam is a crime of apostasy, punishable by death. Abeid set the books on fire.
Unsurprisingly, he travels everywhere with bodyguards. I hope they’ll manage to keep him out of harm’s way.
(Image via Wikipedia)