Slavery: The ISIS Rules

introduction by Kenneth Roth
Ari Jala/Reuters
Yazidi sisters who escaped from ISIS captivity and are now living in the Sharya refugee camp, Duhok Province, Iraq, July 3, 2015


Modern slavery takes many forms, but most slaves are forced to work in the shadows. Those who control modern slaves—whether men compelled to work on Thai fishing boats, domestic workers trapped in the homes of their Saudi employers, children ordered to beg in Senegal, bonded workers in India, or sex workers trafficked in the West—usually shun publicity because treating human beings as mere chattel can be criminally prosecuted and cause moral revulsion.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, is a rare exception. Much as it openly flouts the global prohibition of summary execution, often with unspeakable cruelty, it has published an attempt to justify its subjugation of non-Muslim women and girls in sexual bondage. Its argument is not an academic exercise: Human Rights Watch has interviewed Yazidi women and girls who have escaped ISIS captivity. They describe a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage.

The excerpts from the ISIS pamphlet printed below—posted on a pro-ISIS Twitter account and generally considered authentic—use a question-and-answer format to set forth rules for having sex with captured and enslaved women and girls who are not Muslim.* What is striking is that, in the minds of its authors, this is not a lawless document. It sets forth an interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, albeit an extreme one. Far from pure licentiousness, it is filled with legal constraints. Yet by treating captured non-Muslim women as subject to the sexual whims of those who control them, ISIS disregards nearly universal injunctions against slavery and rape.

The ISIS pamphlet does not mean that its members who enslave and rape women necessarily act with Islam in mind. Like any ruthless group, ISIS undoubtedly includes many who are attracted by the opportunity to subjugate and brutalize others regardless of the rationalization. Yet ISIS’s effort to justify its conduct through sharia law highlights the importance of countering this legal claim, both by those qualified to speak for Islamic law and by those able to enforce the prohibitions of international human rights law.

—Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Question 1: What is al-sabi?

Al-Sabi is a woman from among ahl al-harb [the people of war] who has been captured by Muslims.

Question 2: What makes al-sabi permissible?

What makes al-sabi permissible [i.e., what makes it permissible to take such a woman captive] is [her] unbelief. Unbelieving [women] who were captured and brought into the abode of Islam are permissible to us, after the imam distributes them [among us].

Question 3: Can all unbelieving women be taken captive?

There is no dispute among the scholars that it is permissible to capture unbelieving women [who are characterized by] original unbelief [kufr asli], such as the kitabiyat

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