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Harriet Beecher Stowe and Slavery – A Study From an Islamic Attitude

Harriet Beecher Stowe and Slavery – A Study From an Islamic Attitude

If there is one thing I developed during my lifetime, it is an acute awareness of the growing violence and conflict worldwide. Living in an era in which contributions aiming to the betterment of human life are becoming the most important ones. I feel that it is our duty to fascinate by the idea that the written word can alter individual lives, affect one’s identity, and perhaps even shape national consciousness.

In this spirit, I chose Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Taking as a starting point Abraham Lincoln’s suggestion that Mrs. Stowe’s writing changed the course of history. President Lincoln allegedly greeted Mrs. Stowe with these memorable words, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War!” Abraham Lincoln, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, believed that the power of words can alter the minds and hearts of individuals.

His words, therefore, serve not as a statement of truth about Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s effects, but rather as a provocation to pose a series of questions: How and with what implications might this kind of novelistic influence be possible? How does its depiction of characters and ideological positioning reveal Harriet Beecher Stowe’s attitude towards slavery? And most importantly what would ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ look like if it was set in a Muslim society? These primary questions will be answered along my research on this subject.

‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is dominated by a single theme: slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe pushed ahead her theme of the immorality of slavery on almost every page of the novel, “The most dreadful part of slavery, to my mind, is its outrages of feelings and affections-the separating of families, for example.” One way Beecher Stowe showed the evil of slavery was how this “peculiar institution” forcibly separated families from each other.

It is worth bearing in mind that Harriet Beecher Stowe, in her ‘Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, explains different systems of servitude in different religions. One of them is not Islam, though among all the religions it was only Islam that attacked the very foundations of this evil, Harriet might not have learnt this.

By examining the different narratives we can get insights of changes in the American culture, such as the slowly changing views of Christianity, life in America, and life as a slave in America.

A-Origins of Slavery:

Speaking about the origins of this institution, we realize that slavery was not invented by Christianity or Islam. It was there long before these religions came into being. The practice of slavery is coeval with human existence; historically, its traces are visible in every age and in every nation. The cause for the apparition of slavery was the conflict existing between the earliest civilizations or between a tribe and another. Those conflicts were over power and domination, it was lust after power. Each tribe fought for the spread of its religion and ideology. But the leaders of those tribes took advantage from this pretext to enslave human beings and force them to obey the rules imposing the superiority of one race over the other.

Slavery is broadly described by the United Nations (UN) as the condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers connected to the right of ownership are exercised.

It would be of interest to note that the word “slave” is of European origin. It came into existence when the Franks used to supply the Spanish slave market with the “barbarians,” and those captives happened to be mostly the people of Turkish origin from the region known as Slovakia (now a part of Czechoslovakia). These people are called “Slav” and so all captives came to be known as “slaves”.

History provides that slavery was practiced with abandon in the case of debtors; war captives were either killed or made slaves. In weaker nations, people were hunted like animals, killed or captured and reduced to slavery. It had its roots in commerce, in social structure, in agriculture undertakings; and reason alone was but a feeble weapon against a foe so insidious and so deeply rooted. Then, how was slavery to be eradicated?

B-The Contrastive Attitudes towards Slavery:

1-Western Attitude towards Slavery:

Before we turn to the Islamic perspective of slavery, let us see if Christianity as a system and as a creed did anything in the earliest time to alleviate the lot of slaves. During colonial America, the Christian churches admonished the slaves to be obedient, their priests blessed the ships carrying human cargoes, but they never urged the masters to be kind. Christianity adopted the system without any endeavor to mitigate its baneful character, or promise its gradual abolition, or to improve the status of slaves. Under the civil law, slaves were mere chattels. The slaves whether of native or foreign birth, whether acquired by war or purchase, were regarded simply as chattels. Their masters possessed the power of life and death over them.

This can be illustrated from historical records, an extract from the book Freedom from Fear or the Slave and his Emancipation by O. A. Sherrard, shows how and to what degree Christian America meted out the most inhuman treatment to the defenseless Blacks. This will also show their debased beliefs and notions about human beings who differed from them in colour and race.

“The lot of plantation slaves was really very hard. The job assigned to him was, from his point of view, skilled; he was to cultivate a crop unknown to him – for the most part sugar in the West Indies, cotton or tobacco in America – and, in that his work was novel, he endured a heavier burden than his counterpart in Greece or Rome or among the serfs of Europe… All was new and strange to him; he had, therefore, to be broken in; he had to be taught his new duties; he had to be seasoned’ as the saying was. ‘Seasoning’ was a euphemism for a harsh discipline, which was reckoned by the opponents of slavery to carry off not less than twenty per cent of those who underwent it. May be that was over the mark, but it must nonetheless be admitted that large numbers died. The discipline was painful, and there was little to ameliorate and much to embitter its seventy.”

O. A. Sherrard describes how slavery was introduced into England’s colonies in America and the terrible stages of suffering that the slaves had to go through. They had to work or rather they were forced to work in inhuman conditions on the newly acquired plantations of their masters. This example gives you in a nutshell what I intend to examine in this work.

While reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we could comprehend Harriet Beecher Stowe’s personal vision and that of many other people upon the institution of slavery. It is useful to think of America in the first half of the nineteenth century not as one large country but as two separate nations. The America of the North was rushing towards modernity as it underwent its urban and industrial revolutions. The Southern states had largely remained the agrarian, slave-based economy they were in Jefferson’s time. Thus, the United States was two countries, two cultures, two ideologies that were destined for a collision.

Speaking about ideologies, the Northern people didn’t reconcile with the institution of slavery, Southerners did, and each section found moral and philosophical justification over the question of slavery. While Northerners found it unprofitable to own slaves (industrial capitalist fabric of their society), Southerners couldn’t forsake their reliance on slave labor. Economy plays an important role in the separation and difference between the two ideologies. ‘It is difficult’, writes Dr.Gray, ‘to avoid the assumption that opposition to the slave system was at first confined to a group who gained no direct advantage from it, and consequently possessed an objective attitude.’…

Harriet Beecher Stowe cited the interests of capital in her novel; the narrator pinpoints the reason why slavery continued, for instance, in the case of Emmeline’s sale: one of the New York partners is uneasy with the sale of human beings as a part of his transaction, but he found himself obliged to do it in favor of what he knows to be profitable despite the fact that he knows that this is morally wrong. While it is illegal for residents of New York to own slaves, it is of course not illegal for such business to be conducted. The New York businessman, in capitulating to the sale of slaves, makes essentially the same decision that was made by the Ohio senator, Bird: one in favor of larger “public interests” than morality.

Beside the economic justifications that are of first importance, the religious ones are very significant. Christian churches found scripture for enslaving the uncivilized people. One of their arguments was they were saving them from their cannibal neighbours in this world, and from eternal disgrace in the life hereafter.

The part played by the Christian churches in the slave trade is well exposed in the words of Mr Alpers who writes, that the Christians “were aware that to sell their fellow human beings could not be morally justified. Yet the Christian church came forward with excuses for the slave trade. Many priests themselves carried on slave trade, especially in Angola, and many others owned slaves in the Americas. The only reason the Catholic Church gives for its action was that it was trying to save African souls by baptizing the slaves. The Protestants were worse, for they did not even make it clear that they accepted that the Africans had a soul. Instead, they supported the view that the African slave was a piece of property like furniture or a domestic animal. There is no part of the history of Christian church which was more disgraceful than its support of the Atlantic slave-trade.”

We perceive these excuses as apologies, there is no need to make such apologies, and they are but awkward apologies.

The only redress prescribed by Christianity is seen in the letter of St. Paul to a certain Philemon sending back to him his slave, Onessimus, with a recommendation to treat him well.

Throughout her novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe was at pains to illustrate the fact that the system of slavery and the moral code of Christianity oppose each other. “You ought to educate your slaves, and treat them like reasonable creatures” No Christian, she insists, should be able to tolerate slavery. Harriet Beecher best pointed this fact in her characterization of Eva, the most morally balanced white character in the novel. Eva fails to understand why anyone would see a difference between blacks and whites. In contrast, the morally revolting, nonreligious Legree practices slavery almost as a policy of deliberate blasphemy and evil. Christianity, in Mrs. Stowe’s novel, rests on a principle of universal love. If all people were to put this principle into practice, Harriet Beecher Stowe insists, it would be impossible for one segment of humanity to oppress and enslave another.

Harriet Beecher Stowe uses Christianity and what makes a good Christian versus what makes a bad or hypocritical one. Her opinions were largely held by the Quakers and a lot of other Americans who believed in universal brotherhood. She was convincing them of the evil that the institution of slavery was causing, and she succeeded in bringing the light to the harsh reality of life for the slaves. Despite her effort to change the attitudes of Americans towards black people in her portraying of some characters like Mrs. Ophelia who opposed slavery but held prejudice against black people, she couldn’t change the attitude of the white masters towards their slaves; and what a bitter legacy of racial antipathy has it left!

As Professor D. W. Brogan writes in the introduction of Dr. Eric William’ magnificent book Capitalism and Slavery, “the abolition of the slave-trade, and abolition of the slavery, were not merely the results of a rising standard of political ethics but were a form of cutting of losses.” We understand that money dominated and controlled the issue. Again, capitalism and religion bring two contrastive issues.

Even after the American Emancipation Declaration, Toynbee writes, “The Blacks in the United States who were emancipated juristically in 1862 are, with good reason, feeling now, more than a century later, that they are still being denied full human rights by the white majority of their fellow-citizens.” One thing for certain, the racial discrimination and prejudice that the Westerners are still held towards the blacks.

To summarize, we totally agree with the words of Prof. BROGAN, who admitted that the slave system was “tolerated, defended, praised as long as it was profitable by the Westerners” Thus, abolition was the direct result of an economic distress.

2-Islamic Attitude towards Slavery:

Turning to the Islamic perspective upon the institution of slavery, we note that he vast multitude of Islamic literature is empty from this kind of pathetic effort at reformation that Stowe was doing. Let us recall a famous event that graphically shows the attitude of Islam and Christianity on the subject of slavery and race:

“Take away the black man! I can have no discussion with him,” exclaimed the Christian Archbishop Cyrus when the Arab conquerors had sent a deputation of their ablest men to discuss terms of surrender of the capital of Egypt, headed by Negro ‘Ubaydah as the ablest of them all. To the sacred Archbishop’s astonishment, he was told that this man was commissioned by General ‘Amr; that the Moslems held Negroes and white men in equal respect judging a man by his character and not by his colour.” This is not the only example; black people enjoyed enormous prestige, authority, respect and freedom within the Islamic system, in all areas of life, cultural as well as political. How could this have come about?

First, Islam placed restrictions on the acquisition of slaves. It forbade its followers to enslave people on any pretext. This is best illustrated with the words of Amir Ali “The possession of a slave by the Coranic laws was conditional on a bona-fide war, waged in self-defense, against idolatrous enemies; and it was permitted in order to serve as a guarantee for the preservation of the lives of the captives.” Slavery as a social institution would have ceased to exist with the discontinuance of the wars in which the Moslem nation was at first involved.

Second, Islam commenced an active campaign to emancipate the slaves. Emancipation of slaves was legally required expiation for certain sins or failures in religious duties, for example, the breaking of an oath or the breaking of a fast; and for many other trespasses; a good deed to balance or remove a lapse. For every instance, emancipation of a slave was prescribed as a penance; “an alternative was also prescribed, clearly indicating that Islam’s objective was in time to create a society free from this institution.

“And those who seek a deed [of liberation] from among those [slaves] whom your right hands possess, give them the writing (kitab) if you know of goodness in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you..”(Quran 24:33)

Third, Islam restored dignity to slaves and enhanced their social status. It made no distinction between a slave and a free man, and all were treated with equality. The Coran taught in many verses that all human beings are descended from a single ancestor, that none has an intrinsic right of superiority over another, whatever his race or his nation or his social standing.

“O you men! We have created you of a male and a female, and then We made you (into different) races and tribes so that you may know each other. Surely the most honourable of you with Allah is the one who is most pious among you; surely Allah Is All-Knowing & Aware.” (The Quran 49:13)

From the Prophet’s teaching, upon him be peace, the Muslims learnt these principles, which they applied both as laws and as social norms:

You should know that no white is superior over black and no black is superior over white. Superiority is by righteousness and God-fearing [alone]. (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, p 411)

It is stated in reliable traditions from the Prophet that one should feed his slave what he himself eats and should dress him with what he himself dresses. In his famous sermon in Arafat, on 9th Dhul-hijah, during his last and only pilgrimage, the Prophet (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him) said, “…and your slaves, see that you feed them such food as you eat yourselves and dress him with what you yourself dress. And if they commit a mistake which you are not inclined to forgive then sell them, for they are the servants of Allah and are not to be tormented…” The Prophet Mohammad (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him) clearly stated that the duty of kindness towards slaves was the same as that towards family members, neighbors and others.

Let us refer to the Coranic verse that makes the above idea crystal clear:

“Worship Allah (alone) and associate nothing with Him, and do good to parents, to kinsfolk, to orphans, to the needy, to the neighbour who is a relative, to the neighbour who is a stranger, to a companion by your side, to the wayfarer and to (the slave) which your right hands possess; verily Allah loves not the proud, the boastful. (4:36)

Moreover, every Muslim who embraced his slave as a brother, encouraged him to work for his freedom, observed all his rights, helped him support a family, to found him a place in the society before emancipating him, might well be pleased with an institution that opened to him a means of pleasing God. The example that comes first to mind is that of Zayd bin Haritha who was brought up in the Prophet’s own household and set free. He married a noblewoman, he was appointed as the commander of a Muslim army which included many of a noble birth. But one might swell the list of examples to many thousands if one had the space.

Beside such sanctions which made the master behave with care, the slave also enjoyed the legal right to buy his freedom, and if necessary should be given the opportunity to earn money, or be lent money by the state, in order to do so. The slave has the right to have a family and family life with the attendant rights and obligations. As well as personal dignity and a degree of material security, the Islamic laws and norms allowed the slave a still more precious opening-the hope and means of freedom.

Islam also declared that any female slave who bore a child by her master could not be sold and, on her master’s death, she became automatically a free woman. Moreover; it ordained that the child born to a slave woman by her master should follow the status of the father. The Prophet Mohammad (upon him be peace) stated that when a slave owner had a child with a female slave, the child should be freed and could inherit from the father like any other child (as in the case of Ibrahim, his own son from Maria, a Coptic slave whom he freed and took her as his wife.) It was also ordered that in no case should the mother be separated from her child, nor brother from brother, nor father from son, nor husband from wife, nor one relative from another.

No wonder the disappointing surprise turns into a shock with the depiction of the treatment of slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The quadroon women together with their children from their masters, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, come back to our minds in terms of a shocking difference in their status and treatment. In an Islamic world, those women would not be under the threat of separation from their families; they wouldn’t be deprived from their bodily autonomy and marital chastity. Their children would not be early traumatized by being sold away from their mothers’. Alongside, a man forced to take another woman as his wife or a woman is fleeing because her child is to be sold would be unrealistic in a Muslim work. Humanity is retained and the contrast with the non Islamic behavior becomes almost fictional only.

This constructive and positive treatment necessarily had a consequence on the attitudes of slaves to their masters. The slave as slave still retained his humanity and moral dignity and a place beside other members of his master’s family.

3-Analysis of the Results:

We understand, accept, and appreciate Harriet Beecher Stowe’s urgent call to all the Americans, men and women, of any skin colour; to embrace the very values of love and brotherhood that are original in Christianity. But it would be of interest to give a clear demonstration of what would happen if Harriet Beecher Stowe learnt about Islam. She would be astonished, of course, that the message behind her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin has already been tackled by Islam. Her effort will not be centered pathetically on reformation but invulnerably attraction to Islam. She would treat the issue of slavery in another way.

Among all the religions, it was only Islam that aimed at striking at the roots of slavery, at changing the attitude and mentality of the whole society, so that after emancipation, slaves would become its full-fledged members.

This achievement, effected 1400 years ago, is a far cry from the failure of Christianity in this 2008 where, in Christian USA. If a black candidate becomes the president, it is considered big news. Such kind of thinking was, and still is, unthinkable in Islam.

You see the implication of this news. Someone from the black people is to be selected on political grounds even though he is black. This revolution of values in the USA, the most powerful and richest nation in the world, changed the way society views itself, shifting from an object-orientated society to a person-orientated society. This is what the reverend Martin Luther King dreamt of almost half a century ago, that racism would be capable of being conquered and the USA would be “Free at last”.

More importantly, we note that this leader and social activist of the Civil Rights Movement, who served as the cause of peace and justice for all humans, called for strength and courage and told his fellowship, “I want you to love your enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.” Therefore, Mr. King’s love for the human race is identical to that of Beecher Stowe’s protagonist “Uncle Tom”. Martin Luther King and Harriet Beecher Stowe called for obedience to Jesus Christ, who loved his enemies so fully. Their ability to speak the truth is another value that made them such influential historic leaders. We regard Harriet Beecher as an American national leader when she wrote the book that shook the conscience of the Americans, which influenced the American culture, and that achieved Mrs. Stowe’s aim which is reformation. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe was allegedly accused, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, of being the woman who wrote the book that started the American Civil War; her aim was at ending the legal institution of slavery by convincing people of this evil peacefully and non-violently, but it is the irony of life that turned of her book together with other factors a time bomb that would inevitably explode shortly.

Islam achieved the end of slavery without any need of demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience and racial riots, with its attack in which neither arms were being raised, nor was blood spilled. Islam succeeded where every other religion and system has failed so far. It helped to create a culture in which slaves became much more assimilated into the community than they were in the West, by absorbing the slaves in Muslim societies without any regard of their skin colour or origin. We cannot but admire the tremendous success of Islam in this field.

In short, it is not only the institution of slavery that causes revulsion in the human heart; it is the attitudes of inhumanity which sustain it. And the truth is, if the institution no longer formally exists but the attitudes persist, then humanity has not gained much, if at all.

As a concluding word, slavery has existed from the beginning and will last in one form or another as long as men lust after power. Slavery is only one form of the disguising evil which, after centuries of the dreadful exploitation of human beings, ably changes its form. That is why colonial exploitation replaced slavery, and also why the chains of unbearable international debt have replaced colonial exploitation: only slavery has gone, its structures of inhumanity and barbarism are still securely in place.

This has resulted in more misery, more murder, more degradation, more sadness, suffering and sin than any other human institution. Slavery crushes individuals; it blights communities; it sours all human intercourse, for its sign-manual is fear.

But we do not share this pessimistic view. We realize that the problem is gigantic, but we also know that Islam is the Religion sent by Allah, the Omnipotent. Islam, 1400 years ago brought three-sided program for eradication of slavery: blocking the ways of acquiring new slaves, emancipation, and restoration of the human dignity to the slaves.

It is imperative that a greater understanding of the psychological, cultural, political, and societal roots of human cruelty be developed. We need to continue examining in our creative works the factors which enable individuals collectively and individually to perpetrate evil and the impact of apathetic bystanders as fuel for human violence.