Slavery in 21st-century Islamism


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. In 2014, both groups were reported to have kidnapped large numbers of girls and younger women.


– By Boko Haram

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.

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.

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.”


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. Yazidi are a small minority who practice a religion based on “a mix of Christian, Islamic, and ancient Mesopotamian beliefs”.

According to reports endorsed as credible by The Daily Telegraph, virgins among the captured women were selected and given to commanders as sexual slaves. 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.”

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.

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.”


In a study of the Islamic 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.

Female slavery and war rapes were common during the medieval Arab slave trade, where prisoners of war captured in battle from non-Arab lands often ended up as concubine slaves (who are considered free when their master dies). 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.

In 1899, Winston Churchill wrote about the Islamic slave trade: “…all of the Arab Muslim 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.”

The Lieber Code of 1863 codified the protection of civilians and stated that “all rape…is prohibited under the penalty of death” and subsequent laws of war and humanitarian law have made maltreatment of civilians criminal. Slavery was formally abolished in nearly all countries in the mid 20th century.

Islamist view of slavery

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) to bemoan the notable “evasions and silences of Muhammad Qutb”. and the “dogged refusal of Mawlana Mawdudi to give up on slavery”.

– Qutb Brothers

Sayyid Qutb, the scholar of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood said in his (Tafsir) 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”. 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.” He contrasted the adultery, prostitution, and (what he called) “that most odious form of animalism” casual sex that are found in Europe, with (what he called) “that clean and spiritual bond that ties a maid [i.e. slave girl] to her master in Islam.”

Sayyid Qutb
Sayyid Qutb

– Abul A’la Maududi

Abul A’la Maududi, the prolific author and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami has said:

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…..

According to some scholars, 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.”

– Saleh Al-Fawzan

In 2003 a high-level Saudi jurist, Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan, issued a fatwa claiming “Slavery is a part of Islam. Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam.” He attacked Muslim scholars who said otherwise maintaining, “They are ignorant, not scholars … They are merely writers. Whoever says such things is an infidel.” At the time of the fatwa, al-Fawzan was a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, a member of the Council of Religious Edicts and Research, the Imam of Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh, and a professor at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud Islamic University, the main Wahhabi center of learning in the country.

According to multiple sources, religious calls by Islamists have also been made to capture and enslave Jewish women. As American journalist John J. Miller said, “It is hard to imagine a serious person calling for America to enslave its enemies. Yet a prominent Saudi cleric, Shaikh Saad Al-Buraik, recently urged Palestinians to do exactly that with Jews: ‘Their women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don’t you enslave their women?'”

Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri of Karbala expressed the view in 1993 that the enforcement of servitude can occur but is restricted to war captives and those born of slaves.

– Abdul-Latif Mushtahari

Abdul-Latif Mushtahari, the general supervisor and director of homiletics and guidance at the Azhar University, has said on the subject of justifications for Islamic permission of slavery:

“Islam does not prohibit slavery but retains it for two reasons. The first reason is war (whether it is a civil war or a foreign war in which the captive is either killed or enslaved) provided that the war is not between Muslims against each other – it is not acceptable to enslave the violators, or the offenders, if they are Muslims. Only non-Muslim captives may be enslaved or killed. The second reason is the sexual propagation of slaves which would generate more slaves for their owner.”

British Muslim commentator Mo Ansar said “If slaves are treated justly, with full rights, and no oppression whatsoever… why would anyone object?”.


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, “one 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.”

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.

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”.

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.” In late 2014 ISIL released a pamphlet on the treatment of female slaves.

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. Shekau has justified his actions by appealing to the Quran saying “what we are doing is an order from Allah, and all that we are doing is in the Book of Allah that we follow”.



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