Dr. Jonathan Brown and Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali On “Slavery and Islam: What is Slavery?”

Dr. Jonathan Brown and Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali discuss the complexity of defining slavery in different historical and political contexts in their paper published by Yaqeen Institute“Slavery and Islam: What is Slavery?” This piece interrogates assumptions about slavery by presenting different historical examples. It begins by exploring the definition of slavery. The authors assert that one’s understanding is limited by our own cultural experiences. Dr. Jonathan Brown and Dr. Abdullah Ali then take us on a journey through different time periods and locations. We encounter various forms of slavery through historical narrative. We are introduced to individuals in different positions, from a domestic worker in Mecca to a powerful minister in the Ottoman Empire, highlighting the diverse realities of slavery. The excerpt also examines the concepts of ownership, control, exploitation, and freedom in relation to slavery, revealing the intricacies involved in defining the institution.

Defining Slavery

The paper introduces the difficulty of defining slavery, emphasizing that our assumptions and words often fail us when attempting to understand its true meaning. Our understanding of slavery is shaped by our own cultural background and limited by our experiences. Dr. Jonathan Brown and Dr. Ali question whether we would even recognize slavery if we encountered it.

Dr. Jonathan Brown on the diversity of Slavery

Through using a hypothetical journey called “TARDIS”, Dr. Jonathan Brown and Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali present examples from different historical periods and locations. They aim to demonstrate the diversity of experiences in slavery throughout history. From a household in Mecca to the Ottoman Empire and England, we encounter individuals in different positions within the institution of slavery, challenging our preconceived notions.

Concepts of Slavery

The excerpt further delves into the complexities of defining slavery by examining concepts such as ownership, control, exploitation, and freedom. It highlights that the label of “slave” may not necessarily correspond to our understanding of slavery, and that the reality of the condition behind the label varies across different contexts. The author also questions the meaning of freedom and how it relates to slavery, illustrating that freedom itself can be a complex and relative concept.

Dr. Jonathan Brown aims to challenge our assumptions about slavery and encourage a deeper exploration of its multifaceted nature.

The Complexity of Defining Slavery

Historians and anthropologists struggle to define slavery as a single institution across time and space. Our understanding of slavery is shaped by our cultural memory and varies based on our own perspectives.

American Chattel Slavery

The American perception of slavery is influenced by images of African men, women, and children being seized by slave traders. They were transported on ships, and sold to white plantation owners. Slavery is known as America’s original sin, reducing people to property and denying them freedom and family. America’s system of slavery abducted, abused, and subjugated an entire race for centuries, and the impacts of the grotesque and unimaginable chattel slavery are still seen, felt, and institutionalized today.

Categories of Coerced Labor

Slavery exists on a continuum of dependency, along with other forms of forced labor such as serfdom, master/servant relationships, debt servitude, and bonded labor. These categories overlap and blur the line between slavery and other forms of coerced labor.


The word “slavery” is politically, historically, and socially contextualized. This means the definition of the word slavery varies from person, to context, to society, to era. Abolitionists, for example, defined slavery as treating humans as property. However, the freedom from “slavery” in the US still allowed continued exploitation after its abolition.

Dr. Jonathan Brown and Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali argue that the word “slavery” has limited use as a category or conceptual tool, given its vastness. The authors recommend specificity when researching and defining slavery, for example speaking in particular whether the exploitation is of human labor or the deprivation of their rights. They argue that some conditions for slavery can be observed in many societies, and the best approach in addressing those issues are in regulating conditions and protecting people’s rights to prevent extreme debasement depending on those specific conditions and their specific definitions.

For more information on this topic, check out Dr. Jonathan Brown’s full book exploring slavery and Islam beyond the definition titled Slavery & Islam here.

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