Monday, August 11, 2008

Freeing One Mauritanian Slave (3 of 4)

This continues my translation of a three-part French-language documentary on slavery in Mauritania. (Part 1 translated here, part 3 here.)

Part 2:

0:01: Narrator: "Slavery was abolished in Mauritania three times. In 1905, during French colonization, in 1960, as part of its Independance, and in 1980, under military power; but without real application. Now once again, with the recent democritization of the country, the public has re-engaged in eradicating slavery. In 2007, they promulgate a new law: 'whomsoever reduces another into slavery will be punished with imprisonment for 5 to 10 years'. But this was written, it is said, for the sake of the international community. For to criminalize slavery, first it must be recognized. This is not the case."

1:00: Narrator: "Nouakchott, the National Assembly. For the ruling class the word 'slavery' is taboo. Surprising? Not really. The body is essentially composed of former masters.

1:15: Politician #1: "I don't think there are any slaves in Mauritania, no slavery. There are after-effects of slavery."

1:23: Reporter (off-camera): "Does slavery still exist, or not?"

Politician #2: "No, slavery does not exist..."

Reporter: "Yet, you make laws criminalizing slavery?"

Politician #2: "Yes, for those who would be tempted to fall back on old reflexes."

1:41: Politican #3: "This law was demanded by national considerations. This is a demand that some have made, I don't know why, but it was done and it was accepted, to silence their tongues. To shut up those who wish harm on Mauritania. In Mauritania there are no slaves. I defy anyone to prove to me one single case in Mauritania."

2:11: [Paraphrasing the narrator] The caravan halt for the night in an encampment. Here, out in the countryside, far from the capital, their mission is of no interest to anyone. They make light of it. Here, masters have full power over their slaves, especially the power to free them. All it takes is a enfranchisement document; one is brought to the rescue team. [3:07]

3:14: Amanitou: "This is her master's decision to give her her liberty. It's dated August 12 2000." Biram: "It is a personal paper from the master. Without any administrative witness." Aminitou: "It is the master that certifies, in his own handwriting, that he frees his slave at this date." Biram (to the former slave): "But you know that slavery has been abolished. Why do you need this paper?" Former slave: "People have told me that the law was not valid, that only my master's certificate was valid." Biram: "For you, this is a legal document?" [4:01] Former slave: "Yes, it is islamic law."

4:10: Biram: "Here, everyone sees slavery as a dogma of islamic religion. It is part of a quasi-religious submission to a master. There are slaves that say they cannot disobey their masters because if they do they will go to hell. God will punish them. They believe that in disobeying their master they are disobeying God. ... Islam is not pro-slavery, but islam is also not particularly anti-slavery. Islam does not de-legitimize slavery..."

5:00: [Paraphrasing narration] The caravan arrives at Mederdra, to see the prefect of police and obtain his authorization to rescue Bilal's sister.

5:31: A hidden camera records Biram's charges that local authorities are conniving with the master to block attempts at removing the sister. The police say they saw nothing suspicious: "who's to say that this is a case of slavery?" "Whoever says it's not a case of slavery is someone who did not want to make an honest inquiry. And is waiting to hear complaints that will never come, because of how common the crime of slavery is. The keeper of public law and order must initiate an inquiry himself, because he defends society, it is not about waiting for a person to arrive with a complaint." There are new charges that the master gives sheep as bribes to the authorities, to appease them, which is why he's not worried about the police. Eventually the prefect gives his word to resolve the matter.

8:21: Back on the road, and the rescue team arrives, finally, at the master's camp. They are now accompanied by the police officer. "Will he, this time, apply the law?", asks the narrator. The brother, Bilal, is sent to find where his sister might be. The others look around, asking for the master by name. They eventually drifting towards a shephard boy, who gives them general directions. "Has his slave come here today?", Biram asks him. "No, I haven't seen her", he replies.

10:41: Biram turns to the police official: "Commander, you see that there is a slave here!" The officer mumbles "Yes, yes, we will see", in reply, which causes Biram to laugh in spite of himself.

11:41: They find the tent they were looking for. The brother spots his sister inside the tent. From here on the police officer is decidedly uncomfortable, and tries to stall. The anti-slavery activists proceed on their mission, while he fidgets with his paperwork. "I'm not forcing anyone to leave", he says to them.

13:12: His sister makes her appearance. "I don't want to leave", she says over and over. "You're not a slave?" "No!" There's a very heated exchange between her and brother. The police officer intercedes, trying to calm everyone down. "If you're a slave you must go."

13:47: The sister: "I'm not a slave! I'm not a slave! I am free! I am a slave of allah! I am not leaving! The day has not yet arrived when I will leave with you!"

[Continued, and concluded, in part 3, here]


Anonymous said...

It is quite obvious that the people in Mauritania are quite unfamiliar with what Islam says about slavery evident from this quote and others -

"They believe that in disobeying their master they are disobeying God. ... Islam is not pro-slavery, but islam is also not particularly anti-slavery. Islam does not de-legitimize slavery..."

While Islam did not outlaw slavery immediately, Islam is effectively anti-slavery by the fact that it did put into motion the freeing of slaves.

For instance, Islam made the freeing of a slave the first option as expiation for certain sins.

In Islam, freeing a slave became a righteous act.

Of course, the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad also clearly indicates that "no free man should be made a slave " in itself acted to stop any new instances of slave-making.

Another instance is how Islam made owning a slave a great liability.

Islam demands that the slave is not tortured or mistreated. The slave is to eat what the master eats and to wear what the master wears. And the slave cannot be overburdened in his tasks, in which case the master must provides for him assistance.

In this case, the rights of the slave are greater than that of an employed free man.

Given these rights given to the slave, it was more sensible to free one's slaves than to rather keep them.

I'm rather uneducated as to why Islam did not make the freeing of slaves automatic.

However, my assumption is this -
Islam clearly wanted slaves to be freed willingly by their masters,
as a way to maintain social stability at a time where people were divided by clans, tribes and class.

Even though Islam managed to erase such distinctions early on, it was perhaps wise to create a situation where former slaves would be seen as having earned their freedom and their former masters would be seen as having willingly freed their slaves.

Also, Islam perhaps wanted to ensure the economic safety of the slaves, many of whom would have been unabled to take care of themselves had they been mandatorily freed.

Indeed, in many instances, as told by the earliest Muslim history, that a former slave would remain in the employment of his or her former master upon being freed.

Thus instead of making their freeing mandatory, Islam made their proper treatment by their masters obligatory while inculcating in that society of that time about the virtuousness of freeing a slave.

Empangan Emas

truepeers said...

I don't want to suggest that this kind of interpretation of Islam (as it might be) is unwelcome.

But surely a fuller picture of what Muslims really believe will have to take into account the long history of especially Arab slave trading, and the widespread racism of (especially) Arabs towards Blacks, and the lack of any widespread anti-slavery movement in the Islamic world. When an Arab living in Colorado was convicted of keeping a slave (a servant woman), he defended himself as simply doing what was normal in his culture; and there was much sympathy for him in the Arab world, as I recall.

I'm not suggesting Arab culture is equivalent to Islam but it is of course the central and in many respects model culture within Islam.

Anonymous said...

To truepeers - I understand where you're coming from but what I'd written is not just about AN interpretation of Islam regarding slavery.

Going back to the Quran and Hadith, one will discover that there is only one acceptable interpretation of slavery in Islam.

"A man came to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and said: 'Guide me to a deed that makes me close to Heaven and far from Hell.' The Prophet replied: 'Free a person and redeem a slave.'"

Fiqh us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 67

The very fact that there were Arab slave trades or Arab racism do not delegitimize what Islam says about slavery or racism.

Islam, like every other religion, is never followed all the times by all that claimed to follow it to the letter.

There are many Muslim women who do not don the hijab - on this basis do we then say that wearing the hijab is just an interpretation of Islam ?

Indeed it must be remembered that the biggest slave traders of our modern history are Christian Europeans and if we were to go the bible, we will find explicit teachings in favour of slavery.

Rev R. Furman, a Baptist pastor from South Carolina has been quoted as saying "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."

And those precepts and examples are abundant in the Bible, the likes of which can be found nowhere in Islam.

Empangan Emas

truepeers said...


You are like my friend Dag who thinks there is some essential Islam, largely beyond interpretation. He uses the idea to reject Islam; you use it to defend Islam.

While it's true that the Islamic "revelation" (believers declare it a great revelation; i differ) does have some kind of essence, and cannot be interpreted to mean just anything, I take it as a basic human fact that no sign, no "revelation" is just self-evident; rather I believe every sign or text can only be understood through a process of interpretation. All religious or ethical thinking involves interpretation, or translation, of the original signs at the core of the religion/politics. That's not to say anything is possible, or reality is whatever we make it; it is simply to note that we are inescapably both bound to a past and with an open future.

So, for me, I am not convinced by an argument that says Islam is this (xyz)... and those Muslims who practise, say, slavery aren't true Muslims. I appreciate the importance of such an argument in the pragmatic political world where it is useful to challenge people on what they should believe. But if you put it to me as an intellectual argument, I don't find it convincing. Islam, to my mind, is in good part what Muslims make of it. And many Muslims today and in the past have defended slavery.

Similarly, I certainly believe that the question of hijab necessarily involves interpretation of the Islamic scriptures.

Admittedly this view that interpretation is inevitable, an inescapable part of our humanity, puts Muslims in a difficult position. Their religion is very often interpreted to claim that it is in possession of the final revelation; Muslims are told to see the Koran as the eternal, uncreated truth.

As a non-Muslim I don't believe it to be humanly possible that the process of revelation can ever come to an end (which is why I question Islamic "revelation"). We must live in an ever-expanding history and interpret our founding texts through that historical experience. If there is one thing I think Muslims must come to accept it is this inescapable human fact that we can't but live in an incomplete, unfolding, history that will, in future, reveal new things to us about God and what is sacred.


You claim: "it must be remembered that the biggest slave traders of our modern history are Christian Europeans and if we were to go the bible, we will find explicit teachings in favour of slavery."

- I don't know how you come to this conclusion. Every slave taken by Europeans from Africa was traded to them by someone, often a Muslim. The slave trade continues today in many parts of the world, but it is no longer modern Europeans who are involved in it (with a few exceptions). It is in fact modern Europeans who have taken the lead in outlawing slavery which was something practised in every civilization, until recently.

And when does the "modern" age begin, after the years of Muslims raiding Europe for slaves (something which only ended towards the end of the 18th century)?

Yes the Bible, especially the Jewish Bible, depicts a world which owned slaves. But for anyone to argue that the Bible therefore defends the "right" to hold slaves is to argue in the mindless manner of slave holders. The vast majority of Christians today would not share this view.

And this is precisely because they recognize that their Bible is not the final world of God, but merely something "divinely inspired"; and most of all because they recognize that their Bible is a historical document, telling a historical story, and not the final world for all times. They recognize that the process of revelation into human and divine truths must go on in secular history. Therefore, just because something like slavery is depicted in the Bible is no reason to excuse it today.

The situation with Muslims is often the opposite. It is common for them to take the view that since the Prophet took slaves, therefore it is not wrong, ever, forever. It is this unquestioning attitude (no less an interpretation) towards scripture which must change if Muslims are to live as members of modern civilization, which is to say as free men and women.

Charles Henry said...

..that the biggest slave traders of our modern history are Christian Europeans..

anonymous, can you provide a source for the numbers that led you to make this statement? I'd like to see your figures, and compare them to the research that I've been doing since I first translated this documentary.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

truepeers - unlike Christianity, all Muslims depend on the exact same version of the Quran and where differences arise over certain interpretations, the original version exists for reference.

Similarly, most Muslims - here meaning Sunnis - agree on the same body of hadiths.

Therefore, as far as Muslims are concerned, there are inviolable body of standards.

As far as slavery in Islam is concerned, what is allowed and what is not allowed are very clear.

Where Muslims deviate from these standards, it cannot be excused as just another interpretation of Islam.

Here you are as guilty as those Muslims. If those Muslims seek to justify Islam for their slave-taking, then you're seeking to justify their actions by arguing the same namely that in this issue there are other valid interpretations of Islam.

What Islam says about enslaving the free are clear. It is strictly prohibited. The only circumstances where slaves can be taken as mentioned in the Quran is during war, and here again "war" is cleanly defined as self-defensive war.

Therefore to go to war for the sole purpose of taking slaves does not exist in Islam's teachings. Similarly to capture free men to enslave them is explicitly forbidden by Islam.

You claimed that the Prophet Muhammad sold slaves. According to our history, he used to buy slaves in order to set them free. His actions would not contradict his words.

For example,

"A man came to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and said: 'Guide me to a deed that makes me close to Heaven and far from Hell.' The Prophet replied: 'Free a person and redeem a slave.' "

(Fiqh us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 67 )

As for your claims that there are many Muslims of today defend the institution of slavery, I will have to take that with a large grain of salt.

Given the fact that slaves have to be given the same food as the master, wore the same clothes as the master, and cannot be overworked or overburdened, among other criterias, having a slave is a great liability.

Now, tell me, which person, Muslim or non-Muslim, would want to own a slave if these are the criterias.

I stand by what I said regarding what Christianity says about slavery. There are enough biblical verses about the issue to say that Christianity condones it.

"As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may aquire male and female slaves." (Leviticus 25:44, NRSV)

"So they sent twelve thousand warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children. "This is what you are to do," they said. "Completely destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin." Among the residents of Jabesh-gilead they found four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan." (Judges 21:10 NLT)

Church fathers and other scholars equally agree with me.

"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." Rev. R. Furman, D.D., a Baptist pastor from South Carolina.

As to your claim that Christians of today do not hold to whatever opinions about slavery as contained in the Bible because they no longer regard the Bible as the truth, millions of fundamentalist Christians in the United States beg to differ.

As for Muslim slave-traders who provided the European Christian slave-traders with slaves, that does not in anyway excuse the fact that the European Christians were involved in slave-trading. As a matter of fact, can we actually say that these Muslim slave-traders were motivated by the demands for slaves by the European Christians ?

Now that's some food for your thought.

Empangan Emas

truepeers said...


Ok, let me try out your argument, in respect to what Christians believe:

Here's what the Bible (Old Testament) says (Leviticus, Chapter 11):
1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron,
"Speak to the Israelites and tell them: Of all land animals these are the ones you may eat:
any animal that has hoofs you may eat, provided it is cloven-footed and chews the cud.
But you shall not eat any of the following that only chew the cud or only have hoofs: the camel, which indeed chews the cud, but does not have hoofs and is
therefore unclean for you;
2 the rock badger, which indeed chews the cud, but does not have hoofs and is therefore unclean for you;
the hare, which indeed chews the cud, but does not have hoofs and is therefore unclean for you; and the pig,
which does indeed have hoofs and is cloven-footed, but does not chew the cud and is therefore unclean for you.
Their flesh you shall not eat, and their dead bodies you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.

-So therefore, to continue your mode of "reasoning", Christians don't believe in eating pork and millions of "fundamentalists" in the US don't eat pork.

However, I know something about the USA and Christian culture and I can tell you that the majority do in fact eat pork, and they do use suede and other pig products.

Now there are in fact 100s of laws in the Jewish Bible that Christians don't follow. And as for the Bible's descriptions of life in Biblical times, well it's pretty clear that Christian life styles today are something quite different.

So why don't today's Christians follow all the Mosaic laws in the Old Testament? Why don't they live like Jews of four or five thousand years ago?

Because they see their religion as a revelation that unfolds progressively in history. Later revelations qualify how they interpret earlier ones. The founder of the Christian church, St. Paul, goes on at length, in the Bible to criticize a certain Jewish conception of religion and law.

As for Pork, Jesus himself says (Matthew 15:10-11,16-20) that it's not what a man puts into his mouth that makes him unclean, it's what comes out of his mouth!

So clearly, the Bible is contradictory. This, my friend, is what a religion looks like when it is involved in continual re-interpretation of the sacred. And Christianity is just that type of religion.

That is why millions of Christians have risked and often given their lives to fight wars in the nineteenth and twentieth century against slavery, including wars against Muslim slave traders.

If you were to go to the US and ask Christians if slavery can be defended by Christianity, I seriously doubt you would find even one in a thousand today who would say yes.

As a Canadian, I also know a lot about anti-Americanism and the kind of nonsense that hateful "religion" promotes. There is a stereotypical view of the "Christian fundamentalist" that Hollywood and others promote that has rather little basis in reality. I suggest you find a place on the internet where you can actually talk to American Christians and ask them what they and their neighbors and fellow church goers think about slavery.

Now, as for Islam, again I'm glad you think it outlaws slavery (unless you give the slave the same clothes, food, and work schedule as yourself).

So what are you going to do about, say, the Saudi authorities who allow and sometimes even defend slavery, and the rough treatment that they accord black and southeast Asian slaves, importing thousands of slaves into their country each year?

Are you going to declare them apostate and fight a holy war against them?

Your answer, like your previous comment, will inevitably entail an interpretation of Islam, to reflect what is new and unprecedented in this day and age. Even saying that Islam consists of an "inviolable body of standards" is an interpretation. Even to give your mind over thoughtlessly and without any critical reflection to some scholars' rule of law is an interpretation of Islam.

My basic point is that human beings have a God-given freedom that can't be signed away. Even the law must be interpreted, and not every Muslim will agree with your interpretation of the law, as I'm sure you know. It's nice that you insist on your interpretation, but why should I take your word for it? Who are you? By what authority is your interpretation of slavery in Islam the correct one? How is it possible that all Muslims agree? If they really did, how come they have spend so much time and effort, over the years, in wars pitting Muslim against Muslim?

Do you really believe that human nature is such that one day we could all agree on the real laws of God and there will be peace forever? If you answer yes, I don't think you understand our God-given human nature.

At the end of the day, what Muslims really believe has to be a question that does not just look at any one interpretation of the Koran and Hadith, but at many interpretations and at how Muslims actually live.

This is the assumption of religious studies in the West. In studying a religion, we have well-developed disciplines for considering a variety of "etic" and "emic" (basically, objective and subjective) understandings of religious belief from both believers and outside observers.

We require a number of perspectives to understand what a religion is all about because we recognize that the fundamental truths about our humanity are rooted in paradoxical events and scenes. Indeed, the Koran, like the Bible, is full of mysteries and contradictions. That is why we have scholars and judges and ideologues: however much we want the truth to be crystal clear, that we may give up questioning, life is not actually like that. And anyone who tells you it can be made crystal clear is someone pulling a shade over your eyes.

There is a lot of wisdom in the Christian perspective that teaches that knowledge of the law is not enough. We cannot escape from history and history inevitably brings new situations and new problems to the fore. This means we must inevitably question past interpretations of the law in light of moral and ethical imperatives that arise in the new situation.

Unless and until Muslims realize this, they will not be at home in the modern world; and some will interpret Jihad accordingly, in response to their alienation from the modern world. And so people like us who want to live in the modern world will have to fight Jihad accordingly. It's not because we hate Muslims as human beings. We love our shared humanity. But we have to hate what we consider to be an anti-human idea: that all the answers we will ever need are already given in some body of law. This idea has led to countless wars among Muslims, and we don't want a part of that.

No, history is open-ended; we have to learn to see new truths that no one ever saw before... Today, if we are going to feed all the people and keep order in the world, we cannot live without science and freedom and open-ended reason. We cannot live, and man has never lived, without ongoing re-interpretation of truth. That is our God-given human nature.