Response to a question about forced marriage of widows in Islam

I am writing in response to a question about forced marriage of widows in Islam, with reference to the recent practices of the I.S. (the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”) and their justification of these practices. This is based on reporting in the LA Times

The LA Times reporting is itself based on a piece in a very slick online magazine called Dabiq, Issue 4, (Dhul-Hijja 1435=lunar month beginning Sept. 25 2014, i.e., the current issue) which is available online at:

The reference to “marriage” and “widows” comes from the LA Times article to be sure, but only in language reportedly used by human rights organizations or victims—not in the language of the I.S. itself.  I.S. does not refer to this, instead refers to enslavement and forced concubinage.

BY the way, the Dabiq issue was posted on the Scibd website referenced above by a secularist, liberal activist from Canada, Tarik Fatah , who has also posted on his Scribd website books and articles by himself and others arguing against this point of view:

It’s clear that the I.S. has a millennialist orientation here: over and over again, they refer to “The Hour” in their justification.

The Qur’anic justification that first popped into my mind as background when asked about marriage of widows may be relevant in some ways—referring to marrying widows, up to four at a time. But it is not quoted here.  Not surprisingly, the verse quoted first is actually the “Sword Verse” (9:5) and the reference to “capturing” there is actually not to enslaving them at all: the tafsir (commentary) on the website is the very popular Tafsir al-Jalalayn, which glosses the word “to capture” or “restrain” as to enchain them until it is clear whether they should be put to death or will adopt Islam. Indeed, a word-search for “widow” and “marriage” shows that these words do not occur in this article in Dabiq. Instead, the issue is whether the women must be killed or can be enslaved.

There is a large discourse about the Sword Verse and “moderate” Muslims (correctly!) point out a number of important contextualizations of the verse that tend to reduce its impact. Nevertheless, in classic Islamic law, this verse abrogates any verse that appears to contradict it.

Then the source goes on to argue that the Yazidis are not to be considered quite as bad as apostates, who must be killed or convert, but can have other options such as enslavement. But they are also not “good enough” to be able to pay the jizyah and live openly under Islamic protection. (“dhimma”—which refers to the protection of the Islamic state, a situation enjoyed by Muslims as well as Jews and Christians; the term is often translated as “toleration” as in “tolerated minorities”—and with good reason—but actually it should be noted that Muslims too enjoy the dhimma of the state. They would not be called dhimmis to be sure, and their status is neither dependent on paying jizya nor being humbled as would be the case for Jews and Christians (Qur’an 9:29)).

So enslaving their women is a good option—according to this argument. Among other things important for the author and audience of Dabiq, they see it as enabling the unbelieving women to have contact with Islam and to renounce their improper beliefs.  

In fact, the article suggests that this is a reinstatement of an ancient practice that was improperly cancelled—it seems to me they are referencing the enslavement of women in the wars of approx. 632-634 CE (right after the death of Muhammad). And, it is noteworthy that they argue that this is a sign of the approaching “Hour” – the end of history and Day of Judgment – in that a famous narrative about Gabriel teaching Muslims about religion refers to the slave girl giving birth to her master, and the increase in female enslavement makes this more prevalent, a  sign of the times. So this practice is justified and indeed reflects the current reality, according to their perception, reinstates a hallowed precedent, and fulfills a prediction about the nearing of the Hour.

For context, note that the Qur’an is hardly the only scripture that condones slavery. Slavery is intrinsic to Biblical law and practice, and probably universal around the globe up to only two centuries ago. The forced marriage of a captive woman is discussed in Deut. 21:11. It could be argued that the provisions for the beautiful captive and in general for Hebrew slaves are more generous than those envisioned by I.S. for Yazidis, but (a) modern human rights would condemn all slavery and (b) the Biblical provision for non-Israelites captured in wars generally did not even allow for the possibility of conversion to the Israelite faith; those captured in wars considered to be legitimate, or indeed, divinely required, are often to be put to death–and there were biblical precedents for killing all the women as well as the men, or all the women of marriageable age.

Please note that I am neither saying that “Islam” condones, nor that it condemns, rape and enslavement of women. Clearly, millennialist and what are often called with some justification jihadist or Islamist movements are in fact making this argument, and it has some traction among Muslims. And many of the Muslims who are arguing that Islam does not  or should not rape or enslave in our times are in fact secularists, or for other reasons have no traction among religious Muslims.

There are indications that a strong, consistent opposition to rape and enslavement is being articulated by religious, mainstream Muslims, in English and in traditional Muslim languages such as Arabic, and in pronouncements from imams in pulpits or in major publications. But it is not clear that they are doing so in journals as attractive as Dabiq, or even that they are winning any war of ideas with jihadists. Nor is it clear that the pronouncements are considered free of political taint by Muslims who might consider that many of those arguing against I.S. are working for governments opposed to I.S. or that they also have other political views that render them unreliable. Indeed, they are also not visible in Western reporting either: Note that in the LA Times article, victims and human rights activists were cited, but not Tarik Fatah or for that matter some of the very active, prominent, mainstream Muslims experts in religious law resident in their own backyard in California (Khaled Abou el-Fadl comes to mind) , who argue for strong opposition to jihadism.

Seth Ward

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