Ali Hammuda
Ali HammudaYouTube

Much has been written and said about the causes of radicalisation among Muslim youth. What motivates sane, and sometimes highly educated, people to give up their lives and become a part of an absolutely barbaric outfit like ISIS?

The answer, of course, is multi-faceted involving numerous factors differing from case to case. However, one facet of the answer can be pointed at hardline radical preachers who brainwash gullible Muslim youth (whether online or in person) into thinking in binaries, exploiting a narrative of victimhood, and giving a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives by promising heavenly pleasures in exchange for their life.

One such preacher, Ali Hammuda, who is currently an Imam at a Cardiff mosque (where three British citizens studied who went on to join Islamic State) recently came under the spotlight for reportedly preaching to an audience of teenage worshippers that having sex slaves is "permissible" under Islam. Explaining a series of hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) relating to slavery, Hammuda said that one of them could be interpreted as meaning that one of the signs of Doomsday will be when a slave girl gives birth to her master.

"One of the interpretations as to what this (hadith) means is that towards the end of time there will be many wars like what we are seeing today. And because of these wars women will be taken as captives, as slaves, yeah, women will be taken as slaves," he remarked.

"And then her master has relations with her because this is permissible in Islam: it's permissible to have relations with a woman who is your slave or your wife."

Ali Hammuda has since said the quote was taken out of context. When taken in the context of 7th century Arabia, the Quran is, in my opinion, a progressive religious text. It, for example, gave inheritance rights to women when there were none; it stipulated that men and women are equal in a spiritual sense-that virtue is based on one's deeds and not one's gender. It condemned religious leaders who exploit their gullible followers for material gains and emphasised critical thinking.

It recognised pluralism and that there were, in fact, multiple paths to God. Regarding slavery, the Quran does not ban it outright (perhaps for economic reasons), but instead recommends a path that would eventually abolish slavery by encouraging freeing of slaves and humanising them. All in all, it was a step in the right direction.

The issue arises when contemporary Muslims say that the legislative commandments of the Quran are set in stone and "applicable for all times." When Hammuda says that having sex with slaves is permissible in Islam, he is not being misleading or factually incorrect. Quran 23:6 unequivocally states that Muslims are allowed to be intimate with their wives and "what their right hands possess", which includes concubines, "bond maids", and slaves.

Now although the majority of Muslims and Muslim scholars agree that commandments regarding slavery are no longer applicable, the very core Islamic belief that other Quranic legislative commandments (especially corporal punishments) are applicable for all times produces a literal dogmatism that views change uncomfortably and potentially leads to radicalisation. It normalises preachers like Hammuda who talk about bringing back "the glory days of Islam".

This is a recipe for disaster, as there is a world of difference between the conditions existing 14 centuries ago and now. Any text that deals with social justice is tied down to its immediate audience and the conditions persisting in that time period. Naturally, only gradual reforms can be put in place, if that text is to be practical and not wholly ideal.

We Muslims must learn to prioritise the spirit of the Quran and see it for what it is: a text that was progressive in nature. The key is to adhere to its principles of social justice and equality without getting bogged down with the means the Quran tried to achieve them. This is why the Quran repeatedly emphasises Ijtehad (critical thinking) so that we're able to prioritise substance over form.

We end up doing a great disservice to the Quran when we overlook its progressive nature and hark back to a romanticised version of 7th century Arabia. That was just the beginning of the reformation project. It is up to us Muslims to continue it in the centuries that follow.


Ro Waseem writes about progressive Islam on his blog. He has been published in New Statesman, Huffington Post, OnFaith and Tikkun among others. He tweets @Quranalyzeit