What does Islam really say about rape?

When I did the feature two days ago on the way various societies, including Muslim societies, oppress women, I had intended to include a section on what certain writers have been saying about the supposed condonement of rape in Islam. The actual writing comes from our favourite Islamophobe, Robert Spencer. No doubt somebody will write and suggest that I not waste my talents on debunking this sort of filth. But some of the converts to Islam on one of the email lists I subscribe to find these issues unsettling, and Spencer is in any case very close to the mainstream media.

Which is surprising for somebody whose web design is courtesy of such a lousy practitioner of the art as Charles Johnson of the infamous hate blog Little Green Footballs. He has clearly been hired for being a fellow traveller, rather than for his actual skills, because his design looks lousy on Linux. Take a look at his blog for yourself if you are reading this on Windows or the Mac; I have four screenshots of how it looks on Linux: Konqueror on Fedora Core 4, Firefox on FC4, Konqueror on SUSE 9.3, Firefox on SUSE 9.3. The wrong fonts (and the problem of the normal text being bigger than the headings) can be avoided simply by making allowances for common Linux fonts in the CSS stylesheet. (Linux is not that popular in the west, but it is increasingly so in eastern Europe, Asia and the developing world where people can’t afford Microsloth’s prices.)

Melanie Phillips is also an admirer of Spencer’s; Spencer has called her “incomparable” and her diary “always essential reading”, and she has called one of his articles on FrontPageMag.com “typically informed and thoughtful”. Melanie Phillips has written for the Times and the Guardian, and currently writes a column in the Daily Mail. As we know, the Sunday Telegraph published four hate pieces by the deranged hate-monger calling himself Will Cummins, a complete literary nobody apart from his tirades last July. Spencer already boasts of his appearances in the right-wing American mass media and even (probably occasionally) the mainstream media; it may not be too long before Spencer’s ideas appear in sections of the British media as well.

The accusations this piece refers to can be found in the FrontPageMag.com article Muslim Target, reproduced at Jihad Watch here. It is in response to a lawsuit against Oriana Fallaci, a vitriolically anti-Muslim Italian journalist, by one Adel Smith, who if Spencer is to be believed, has a history of “defending Islam” by launching misguided lawsuits. For example, he is reported to have sued both the late and current Pope for statements which merely asserted the superiority of their own religion; given that the popes are based in the Vatican, not in the Republic of Italy, I wonder how they’d make good the result of any such suit. Last month, he was also convicted of defaming the Catholic church himself, by calling it a “criminal association”. Bear in mind that Italy has a lower standard of free speech than either the UK or the USA; there are criminal libel laws, and I have read elsewhere of someone being prosecuted for criminal defamation for saying (to the police!) that he suspected a neighbour of a campaign of harrassment.

Adel Smith numbered among Fallaci’s offences her accusations about Muslim soldiers in Italy; Spencer defends her with quotes from the Reliance of the Traveller and some hadeeth. The school of thought relevant to Italy is the Maliki, as this is the school which is predominant in North Africa (except lower Egypt), from whence any invasion of Italy would have come. The school, as represented a standard text and commentary translated by A’isha Bewey, has this to say:

Killing monks and priests should be avoided unless they are involved in the fighting. Similarly, women who fight can also be killed. [Commentary: The prohibition against killing monks is not by virtue of their monasticism, because they are further from Allah because of the strength of their disbelief. They are left since the people of their deen leave them and so they are like women. Priests (rabbis) are left unless they actually fight. It is said that this refers to women and children as well. Women can be killed if they are involved in the actual fighting. Ibn ‘Umar limits this to the state of fighting. When fighting is over, women are not killed. The predominant opinion is that when women fight with weapons, they can be killed during the fighting or afterwards, even if they did not fight anyone. According to the Mukhtasar, monks and nuns retain their freedom, and it is forbidden either to kill them or to reduce them to slavery.]

The Mukhtasar is likely to be Mukhtasar Khalil, an authoritative text on Maliki fiqh. What Fallaci alleges is either false, or a violation of Islamic law. Later on, Spencer moved into what took place at Thessalonica in 904 CE:

When jihadists captured Thessalonica in 904, just over twenty years after sacking Montecassino, an eyewitness recorded that “nuns, petrified with fear, with their hair disheveled, tried to escape, and ended up by the thousands in the hands of the barbarians, who killed the older ones, and sent the younger and more attractive ones into captivity and dishonor… The Saracens also massacred the unfortunate people who had sought refuge inside churches.”[14] And when the children and spiritual heirs of those jihadists streamed into Constantinople on May 29, 1453, historian Steven Runciman notes that “some of the younger nuns preferred martyrdom to dishonour and flung themselves to death down well-shafts.”[15] It is unclear whether these sisters had been reading dastardly Islamophobic propaganda or the life of the Prophet.

Now, it does not take any scholar to realise that Montecassino is in Italy and Thessalonica is in Greece, and that the people who carried out the raids on the two places were almost certainly different groups of people. Italy would have been reached via Sicily, and Greece via Anatolia or Cyprus. As for whether “the sisters had been reading dastardly Islamophobic propaganda”, the answer is most likely yes. Convents are often places where people are isolated from the outside world and may not have access to information which contradicts what the church wants them to hear. If Mother Superior had told them stories about sex-crazed Saracens who followed a “liar named Mohammed” (or some corruption on that name), it’s highly likely that they would have been terrified had such people entered their land.

And besides the reputation of the Arabs, we have to ask what reputation the monks and nuns themselves had, or indeed whether the invading armies consisted entirely of Arabs or included local converts who might have known things about these monasteries and their inhabitants that we don’t. While some Christian “religious” (as monastics are called) have a reputation today for good community works and even radicalism within the Church, other sections of the priesthood and the monastic orders have been known for various types of abuse of people in their care. The physical and sexual abuse of children in church-run “industrial schools” in Ireland and the regimes of the infamous “Magdalen laundries” has been widely reported; the Birmingham diocese (in England) has just been hit with a £600,000 damages bill (that’s over a million US dollars) for the sexual abuse of a boy in Coventry in the 1980s. Similar scandals have affected the American section of the church.

Bear in mind also that the monastic orders fulfilled a different function in medieval European society to that they fill today - they were common dumping grounds for younger children of wealthy families who did not want the expense of getting them married; there was also the issue of primogeniture, in which the eldest son was left everything and the others got nothing. The monastic life was not always an ascetic one; it was often culturally very rich, with the participants enjoying pretty much every pleasure except (at least officially) sex. What corruption went on in this system does not justify any orgy of rape and murder, but we should treat any account of such things happening with some circumspection. After all, the above cited Shari’ah textbook does not deal with the capture by Muslims of a monastic institution known for corruption or abuse.

Spencer elsewhere cites the Reliance and a hadeeth from Bukhari regarding the status of slaves and the right of a man to have sexual relations with a slave girl. It’s worth noting here that the enslavement of people captured on the battlefield or when a place falls to an invading army was a fact of life until perhaps the 18th or 19th century; it fell into disrepute due to the mass enslavement of Africans, in many cases by methods which amounted to simple banditry. They included slaving scams which were known of even in the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) such as selling into slavery people to whom you had made a promise to convey them. This is equivalent to National Express or Greyhound coach drivers selling their passengers by the side of the road - you can imagine the outrage this would cause. Added to this was the appalling conditions on the slave ships and plantations and the crude racism. The position in Islam of a slave-girl who had born her master’s child are also well-known; neither she nor the child is sold, and is free when the master dies (I’m not sure if the child is free from birth or from the master’s death). There could be no Jefferson / Hemmings controversy in an Islamic society.

The hadeeths do record that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) permitted the Muslim soldiers to take slave-girls from among the populations they captured, and did so himself (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). Spencer, however, makes this accusation:

According to a generally accepted Islamic tradition, when Muhammad’s men emerged victorious in another battle, they presented him with an ethical question: “We took women captives, and we wanted to do ‘azl [coitus interruptus] with them.” Muhammad told them: “It is better that you should not do it, for Allah has written whom He is going to create till the Day of Resurrection.’”[13] When Muhammad said “it is better that you should not do it,” he was referring to coitus interruptus, not to raping their captives. He took that for granted.

Spencer assumes, without any evidence, that the relations the Sahaba (may Allah be pleased with them) had with their mates was rape and that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) encouraged rape. He has absolutely no proof of this - he is simply assuming the worst. “Come on, it must have been.” Well, that sort of reasoning won’t convince a jury, except perhaps the worst type of redneck jury. The motto seems to be “think dirty” - and as demonstrated by recent events in the UK, in which cot deaths were investigated by people working on precisely that motto, a “think dirty” attitude does not produce just or truthful outcomes.

Now, I have come across Muslims who apparently lack the ability to give the Salaf the benefit of the doubt on such a serious accusation as this. It should be noted that Islam does not encourage the rape of wives or slave-girls. The Deobandi Hanafi mufti Muhammad bin Adam al-Kawthari, in response to a question on whether a husband may force himself on a wife if she is unwilling, replied:

Imam al-Nawawi (Allah have mercy on him) states in his commentary on the Hadith of Abu Huraira stated above: “This Hadith indicates that it is unlawful (haram) for the wife to refuse her husband for sexual intimacy without a valid reason. Menstruation will not be considered a valid reason, for the husband has a right to enjoy her from above the garment (on top of cloths).” (Sharh Sahih Muslim, P. 1084) However, this does not in any way mean that the husband may force himself over her for sexual gratification. The Hadith mentions that, “the husband spends the night in anger or being displeased,” which clearly shows that he must restrain himself from forcing himself over her. Had this not been the case, the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) would have advised the husband to gain his right in a forceful manner.

Given the copious amount of material that exists on the duties and rights of married women, I must point out here that I’ve never seen any reference to the duties of a slave in Islam, other than not to run away. For example, here is a passage from the Reliance of the Traveller, in the section “Holding One’s Tongue”, which is edited from a book by Imam Nawawi (Durubi is the late Syrian Shafi’i shaikh Abdul-Wakeel Durubi):

It is offensive to contend against the words of anyone with authority over one, or talk back, oppose, rebut, or disobey such a person in anything lawful [Durubi: meaning not unlawful or offensive], the prohibition applying to such people as a follower with his leader, son with his parents, student with his teacher, wife with her husband, or unlearned person with a scholar.

Note that “a slave with his master” is not mentioned in this. (Shaikh Nuh Keller, has not translated pieces relating to slavery given its lack of relevance in our time, but he has not said that he has removed them from the Arabic.) I do not mean by this that a slave has no duty whatever, but Islamic texts I have read do not dwell over it. In fact, sections on slaves are mostly given headings to do with freeing slaves, rather than with slavery.

Other accounts demonstrate that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) did not force himself on unwilling wives: the book by Ibn Abi Zaid al-Qairawaani translated by Abdas-Samad Clarke as A Madinan View (Ta Ha, London, 1419/1999) states that the he (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) divorced two women who sought refuge from him when they entered in upon him. Bear in mind, these were obviously non-Muslims. But there are numerous reports demonstrating the good character the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) showed to people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and to both animals and even plants. There is also a famous hadeeth in which he (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) admonished one of his Companions (who, as I recall, was departing to Yemen for da’wah purposes) to beware of the du’a of the oppressed, as there is no barrier between it and Allah.

New Muslims especially should beware of making the same assumptions about the Salaf that the enemies of Islam do. Our duty is to give people the benefit of the doubt; we do not form opinions of people based on mere assumption, and we should especially guard ourselves about being swayed by the assumptions and aspersions of those whose hatred of Islam is clearly manifested in their published works. (Spencer cannot persuade any respectable publisher to publish his books.) There are ample books on the character of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) which should be resorted to if we are disturbed by scurrilous filth. Causing distress to an animal is forbidden in Islam; harming a person without need is also forbidden. Rape is harmful and the distress it causes is well-known, even if it is not covered by the adultery laws when the victim is a wife or slave-girl. As the fatwa quoted above demonstrates, Islam does not condone rape. And Allah Most High knows best.

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