Noah Feldman is described as, among other things, “a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University” with “a doctorate in Islamic thought from the University of Oxford,” who “as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq…contributed to the creation of the country’s new constitution.”
Given the blood and chaos that engulfs contemporary Iraq, one might think he wouldn’t be all that proud of that particular resume item anymore, especially in light of the fact that back in 2008, he downplayed and ignored the aspects of Sharia that have made life hell for so many of the nation’s non-Muslims. In a lengthy exposition of what Sharia was all about that Feldman published in the New York Times, he never once mentioned the Sharia provisions mandating second-class status (dhimmitude) for Christians and conversion or death for non-Muslims not considered “People of the Book,” such as Yezidis.
And now in this piece, Feldman actually acknowledges that in taking sex slaves, the Islamic State is “following the practices of the era of the Prophet Muhammad” and wants “to go back in time, to the days of the earliest Muslims and the Prophet’s companions.” He does not, of course, tell his readers that sex slavery is called for in the Qur’an (in the “captives of the right hand” passages, 4:3, 4:24, 23:1-6, and 33:50), or that sex slavery doesn’t just go back to Muhammad’s era, but was practiced by Muhammad, who is the supreme model for emulation for Muslims (cf. Qur’an 33:21).
Then Feldman compounds that omission by likening “one interpretation of classical Islamic law” — as if there were any mainstream interpretations of Islamic law that forbid sex slavery (there aren’t) — to the U.S. Constitution, in the course of building an argument in praise of progress. This is a fundamentally dishonest comparison, because the U.S. Constitution is a human construct, whereas those who believe in Islamic law believe it not to be a human invention and thus able to be amended and revised, but divine law that is perfect and unchangeable. Mainstream Muslims would no more revise the Sharia than Jews or Christians would revise the Ten Commandments. “Progressive” Muslims in the U.S. who depart from normative Sharia interpretations don’t have any appreciable influence in the Islamic world.
Noah Feldman, what with his doctorate in Islamic thought from the University of Oxford, should be honest enough with his readers to tell them about that difference and its significance.
“Islamic State’s Medieval Morals,” by Noah Feldman, Bloomberg View, August 16, 2015:
It’s been 150 years since U.S. law allowed masters to rape enslaved girls and women. Almost all modern Muslim societies banned slavery in the last century. So why is Islamic State turning back the clock, actively embracing and promoting enslavement of Yazidi women, thereby enabling them to be raped under one interpretation of classical Islamic law?
Islamic State’s goal isn’t primarily about money or sex, but about sending the message that they are creating an Islamic utopia, following the practices of the era of the Prophet Muhammad. They want to go back in time, to the days of the earliest Muslims and the Prophet’s companions. The more medieval the practice, the more they like it.
Our horror at this self-conscious neo-medievalism should teach us a lesson about the evolution of our beliefs and what it means to be modern. Begin with the sober acknowledgment that we aren’t light years ahead of Islamic State — more like a century and a half.
Slavery in the U.S. isn’t a distant relic. We’re still dealing with its aftereffects, in the form of persistent racial inequality and long-lived symbols of the Confederacy.
And we would do well not to forget that American slavery, particularly in its last half-century before abolition, was one of the most brutal slave systems in recorded human history. In comparison, the history of Islamic slavery is relatively mild.
Slaves of African descent were not only tortured to increase cotton yields, but also, in the case of the women, subjected to systematic and lawful rape. My Harvard Law colleague Annette Gordon-Reed has shown in her work on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson that there were occasional examples of more complicated, partially mutualistic relationships between slave women and masters. But this was, she points out, the exception rather than the rule — and it became increasingly rare as slavery in the Deep South reached its brutal climax, before abolition came by the sword.
What we in the U.S. recently sanctioned, we now find repulsive. And, of course, we’re morally correct to reject slavery and rape in the most stringent and absolute moral terms. These human actions — and institutions — are as wrong as anything can be. They and their aftereffects must be uprooted, by force when necessary.
The process that brings us to this rejection of our own morally repellent traditions makes us modern. We develop new ideas that our ancestors would hardly have recognized — and we come to believe that our old ideas were not just wrong, but horrifyingly wrong. Modern people are prepared to say that we, and our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers’, sinned. The fact that something is old and venerated isn’t a good enough reason to keep it when its immorality becomes manifest.
The modern project is to try and cleanse ourselves of bad things from the past while keeping what was good about it. This attempt to purify and improve is what defines us as modern people.
At the same time, we don’t reject everything about our past. The U.S. Constitution acknowledged and sanctioned slavery created by state laws. But modern Americans don’t reject the Constitution. Instead, we recognize that our Constitution is good in part because it has been able to evolve beyond its origins….
But part of being modern is recognizing an emerging consensus on the wrongness of past practices like slavery. Islamic State is enslaving women to trumpet to the world that it refuses to accept the idea of contemporary progress, an idea that has, in fact, been accepted by the vast majority of Muslims. The only appropriate modern response is horror — and a commitment to do something about it.