Does Islamic Law take a Position on Slave Reparations?

Welcome Development, Cautious Celebration

Princeton theological seminary recently announced that it would be awarding 27 million dollars in scholarships as reparation for its involvement in the history of slavery, although it – as an institution – was not involved in the slave trade itself. The PTSEM was founded in 1812. While it did not own slaves, it did benefit from the slave economy through investment.  By doing business with Southern banks and accepting donations from those who profited directly and indirectly from slavery. Its founding faculty and leaders used slave labor during their lifetime.

“Princeton Theological Seminary will set aside more than $25 million to pay reparations for its historical ties to slavery, thrusting the seminary to the forefront of a national debate over how America’s should reconcile with its slave-owning past. Calling the payments an act of repentance, President M. Craig Barnes said in a statement Friday the seminary is “committed to telling the truth,” even though the seminary itself never owned slaves.” [link]

Princeton theological seminary has a 1 billion dollar endowment, largely a result of the Seminary’s long history of accepting donations as mentioned previously. The details of this involvement can be found in the PTSEM’s “Slavery and the Seminary as Institution”.

The reparations will not include cash awards, but instead scholarships and programs will be created for students. 30 new scholarships, at the cost of tuition plus $15,000, will be awarded to students who are descendants of slaves or from “underrepresented groups.” Among the other initiatives planned are the seminary designating five doctoral fellowships for students who are descendants of slaves and hire a full-time director for the Center for Black Church Studies. While this certainly is a welcome development, in my opinion we have to be cautious in celebrating too soon, as it is unclear what is meant by “underrepresented groups.” In a strictly legal sense, reparations are due to descendants only to the exclusion of others, however underrepresented they are.

Islamic Legal Precedent for Reparations

So what is the Islamic legal position on reparations? Are the descendants of slaves due restitution of the damages caused to their ancestors? One of the first instances of reparations being awarded is recorded by Ibn Rushd al-Jadd about an incident in Cordoba circa 5th century. While I have been working on a detailed paper on this issue for sometime I’ve held off until I read both Jonathan AC Brown and Bernard K. Freamon‘s recently released books on slavery and the Islamic world.

What is an Islamic Theory of Reparations based on?

The Islamic position on reparations centers itself on three core concepts:

    1. The prohibition of selling a free person
    2. The imprescriptible right to restitutionary damages for harm and injury
    3. The invalidity of escheatment of these rights when living heirs exist

In the simplest terms:

Kidnapping a person and selling them into slavery is forbidden. If that person cannot be returned to their family, then you owe blood-wit for their murder as well as the projected value of their work in supporting their family.

As long as these amounts go unpaid, they compound and remain due to the heirs of that individual. Failure to pay represents a form of unlawful seizure that damages are due for as well, due to lost opportunity costs. The simple passing of time does not forfeit their inheritors’ rights to these compounded amounts and they cannot be stripped away by the state. If specific lineage cannot be established, but general relationships can, an equitable pro-rated distribution would be awarded.

A Core Concept of Justice

For Muslims it is a core concept of justice to support the idea of slavery reparations. Texts of the Quran enjoining justice and hadith texts invoking God’s curse on those that enslave the free and profit financially from their misery should come to mind here. While it is natural to ask how such reparations would be equitably distributed, it is not natural to consider that a delayed right finally being awarded to the descendants of people oppressed and wronged is somehow unfair to those who are not included in that category. Asking a question like “Isn’t this unfair to people who won’t receive money?” is like saying “Isn’t it unfair that you inherit from your father & I don’t?” Ensuring that the rights of lawful recipients are awarded and safeguarded is a core function of Islamic legal justice.

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