A few years ago, Jonathan A C Brown was the subject of one of those Twitter storms that have become such a familiar feature of the modern media age. A lecture he gave on the topic of this book, suggesting that Islamic forms of slavery were considerably more benign than Western ones, went viral, helped on its way by several right-wing news outlets. To some, it provided evidence of the kind of cultural relativism that is supposed to pervade the modern academy. At a time when ISIS was committing atrocities against the Yazidis of Iraq, here, it was said, was a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University ‘defending slavery’.
Slavery & Islam is Brown’s answer to his critics. It is, he says, a book for people who want to understand ‘how Muslims conceptualized, practiced and eventually abolished slavery’ through history and an exploration of the dilemmas faced by Muslims today, navigating between a religious tradition that is bound up in a veneration of the past and present-day understandings of profound moral failings in that very same past.