Dear John Kelly: Yes, Slavery was wrong in 1860s & Muslims helped Convince Americans to end It

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

John Kelly’s ignorant remarks about the Civil War and compromise on Laura Ingraham’s show have rightly angered a lot of people. One of the arguments he made was for historical relativism:

““I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as, as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong,” he said. “You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then.”

Kelly seems to imply that in 1861, most people in the world believed in slavery and so you can’t blame the American South for retaining it. I’m not sure how much actual history Gen. Kelly has read, but this premise is not true. For one thing, a majority of American states had abolished slavery. Ohio did in 1802, and by 1804 all the northern states had. Haiti made a revolution to abolish it in 1804. Chile abolished it in 1823, Mexico and Central America in 1824 (Anglo-Texans resisted this measure, what with being enlightened white people and all and in 1836 they made it legal again in Texas). Spain banned slavery in its European territory in 1837. Kelly’s argument that most people believed in slavery at that time so you can’t judge American plantation owners is false. The Southern states were outliers in the New World along with Brazil, and Anglos actively rebelled against an enlightened Mexico over the issue.

In 1846, the Bey of Ottoman Tunis, Ahmad, issued a decree banning slavery in his realm. He had himself been a slave and was convinced by the British consul to take this step. (See Ismael M. Montana, The Abolition of Slavery in Ottoman Tunisia (U of Florida 2013).

Ahmad Bey’s decree was sent to the US Consul in Tunis, Samuel Daniel Heap, and he likely reported it back to President James K. Polk. Moreover, it was widely reported in the American press. In a letter Ahmad Bey wrote to the British and other Western consuls he spoke of “our aversion to the thraldom imposed on the human kind, which debases it to the condition of the brute creation . . .” and then he said,

“this affair never ceased to be the object of our attention . . . and we have thought proper to publish that we have abolished slavery in all our dominions, for we consider all slaves existing in our territory as being free, and do not recognize the legality of their being kept as property.” He sent notaries to the Sufi centers to write out deeds of manumission in which “no right of property in their persons” shall be alleged by their masters. (Abolition of Slavery in Tunis.: TRANSLATION., New York Evangelist; New York Vol. 17, Iss. 14, (Apr 2, 1846): 54.

Ahmad Bey

Since the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture permits but discourages slavery, Ahmad Bey actually engaged in modernist jurisprudence to interpret the text as being in accord with his decree. Many clerics and Tunisian slaveholders disagreed. Ahmad Bey’s immediate successor in the 1850s was unenthusiastic about the decree and may not have enforced it, but he did *not* repeal it and it was in force under Muhammad III in the 1860s.

The need for a modernist theology was universal, since American Christians at the time faced the difficulty that the Old Testament clearly authorized slavery and the NT even advised returning a runaway to his master. Evangelical fundamentalism is probably rooted in part in a need for pro-slavery Christians to interpret the Bible literally so as to uphold slavery. That is why there are to this day vanishingly few African-Americans in the Southern Baptist Convention, and why polling shows Evangelicals to be Trump’s strongest supporters.

Precious Rasheeda Muhammad wrote a fine survey for MPAC of Muslim American history and brought the following to my attention.

Sen. Charles Sumner gave a speech in Congress in 1860, the first since he was viciously beaten by a South Carolina representative, in which he praised the Qur’an’s emphasis on manumission as a good deed and on human treatment of slaves!

In the 1860s, during the Civil War, Tunis authorities pressed the US to go through with abolition. Consul Amos Perry wrote to Secretary Seward on Dec. 7, 1864, explaining that Ahmad Bey had abolished slavery in 1846 and adding: “that the actual Bey entertains similar sentiments I have ample proof.”

He encloses a letter to the US from Gen. Hussein, the president of the municipal council of the city of Tunis. Hussein wrote to Perry that he understood that the latter,

“coming from a country where liberty and slavery for a long time existed and flourished side by side, and where they are at present involved in a death struggle for supremacy, you find man facts i the history of Tunis calculated to throw light on the legitimate influence of those two antagonistic principles.”

Gen. Hussein allowed that the Qur’an permitted slavery, as did Judaism and Christianity, but said that it forbade mistreatment of the slave and made it a grounds for obligatory manumission.

He concluded

“O inhabitants of America . . . since God has permitted you to enjoy full personal liberty and to manage your civil and political affairs yourselves, while many other people are deprived of such distinguished privileges and blessings, it would not tarnish the lustre of your crown to grant to your slaves, as an act of gratitude for the favors God has bestowed on you, such civil rights as are not denied to the humblest and meanest of your citizens. . . Humanity invites you to eradicate from your Constitution all that can give countenance to the principle of slavery . . . In concluding this letter, Monsieur . . . permit me to express my profoundest regrets for the war that afflicts and saddens your land, and my tenderest sympathies for the slaves there doomed to suffer.” (Via FRUS .

There is more warmth, more humanity and more principle in this one paragraph from a mid-nineteenth-century Muslim in Tunis than in all the utterances ever voiced by John Kelly.

So no, historical relativism can’t help here. If the Tunisian government was willing 170 years ago to reinterpret the Qur’an itself so as to abolish slavery in the northern tip of Africa, there was no excuse for Robert E. Lee to capture escaped slaves and sell them back into slavery. There aren’t two legitimate sides to this issue.


Related video:

TYT: Deplorable John Kelly’s Revisionist Civil War History

33 Responses

  1. It is true Arabs ( not God conscious Muslims) were partners in slave trade and made wealth out of it but the following Quran verses testify their wrong doing. I am not sure whether the same thing applies to the teachings of both OT and NT

    Islam put forward a plan to abolish it. Slavery has been gradually abolished by Islam where Islam first rooted, please ponder on the below verses from HOLY QURAN.,

    “Righteousness is not turning your faces towards the east or the west.

    Righteous are those who believe in GOD, the Last Day, the angels, the scripture, and the prophets; and they give the money, cheerfully, to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the travelling alien, the beggars,

    and to FREE THE SLAVES; and they observe the Prayers and give the obligatory charity (Zakat); and they keep their word whenever they make a promise; and they steadfastly persevere in the face of persecution, hardship, and war. These are the truthful; these are the righteous

    Quran Chapter.90: Verses .10-13,

  2. Islam is the only religion and Quran is the only scripture which makes freeing of slaves as a commandment

    There is no other religious scripture on the face of the earth which speaks against slavery as loud as Islam

    • I am not disputing your point, Pamameen, but while other religions may not speak against slavery with such a loud voice, the Buddhist and Baha’i scriptures do discourage or forbid it. The Upàsakasila Sutra (written centuries after the Buddha, and a few centuries before the founding of Islam) forbids slavery. The Buddha said buying and selling slaves was a “wrong livelihood” and he forbade monks and nuns from owning or receiving slaves (this was approximately 2300 years before the American Civil War). Baha’u’llah, in the Babi-Baha’i faith tradition, explicitly condemned and abolished slavery as well, sometime in the mid-19th century.

      • The Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, said that a man who capture another man and make him a slave will enter hellfire.

  3. Abu Mas’ud al-Ansari reported: “When I was beating my servant, I heard a voice behind me (saying): Abu Mas’ud, bear in mind Allah has more dominance over you than you have upon him.

    I turned and (found Muhammad ) to be Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him).

    I said: Allah’s Messenger, I set him free for the sake of Allah. Thereupon he said:

    Had you not done that, (the gates of) Hell would have opened for you, or the fire would have burnt you. (Translation of Sahih Muslim, The Book of Oaths (Kitab Al-Aiman), Book 015, Number 4088)”

    If a Muslim beats his slave or slaps him on the face, then he must set him free:

    • pamaneen, I think Mohammed personally opposed slavery but couldn’t say so out load directly for fear his “followers” would jump him. In slavery, feminism and many other matters, Mohammed went as far as he felt he could without being assassinated by his “followers”.

      This said, it is true that there are passages in the Quron and six Sunni Hadiths that have been interpreted to allow slavery. And since 632 AD, many tens of millions (or more) of nonmuslims have been slaves of muslims. No one has forgotten this history. There is a difference between spiritual muslims who honor the spirit of Mohammed and muslims.

      With respect to Abu Mas’ud; there are many similar passages in religions and texts throughout the world. Many pro slavery advocates over more than ten thousand years have said that all slaves should be treated with the greatest love and respect. That isn’t the same as saying slavery is illegal.

      Quran Chapter.90: Verses .10-13 asks people to express love in action and help everyone. Including by freeing slaves. It does not require freeing slaves according to the 4 Sunni schools of jurisprudence.

      I, like you, could present a theological case for why banning slavery is consistent with the Koran and Hadith. I am glad you are making this case, as many other muslim scholars have.

      However, in my opinion making the case against slavery, making the case for femnism etc. intersects with the muslim civil war that has been fought since 632 AD . . . the question of how to interpret muslim scripture. An extremely sensitive topic over which millions of Sufis, twelvers, sixers (Ishaelis), Fivers (Zaydis), Ahmedias, Kurds, liberal Sunnis, moderate Sunnis, secular Sunnis have been killed since 632 AD.

      I think open and frank discussions on Islamic scripture and their interpretation (that many muslim organizations engage in such as Quillium) is a great way to promote love, goodness and welfare in the world. One of the best outcomes of this reform movement so far has been banning slavery in almost the entire muslim world.

  4. Juan, a very perceptive piece. I might add that in his own lifetime the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, pointed out to his followers the tremendous virtues and rewards in Paradise for a person who either frees slaves he himself owns or buys slaves from others in order to free them. Establishing the virtue of freeing slaves is established from that time although only a ruler could seek those benefits by proclaiming it throughout his realm.

  5. Sadly, since becoming Trump’s chief of staff, it appears that Kelly has been radicalized by radical Trumpism. More and more, he is becoming a public “surrogate” for some of the worst characteristics of the retrograde and evil wing of the Republican party, which is often captive to radical evangelical Christian sects that know neither justice nor mercy.

    This extreme right-wing cult now prospering in our country may bring us all to ruin. As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught:

    “Beware of extremism in religion, for that is what destroyed those before you.”

    This saying is found in several collections of the sayings (ahadith) including those Ahmad, Ibn Khuzaimah, An-Nasa`ii, Ibn Majah and Al-Hakim.

  6. link to
    The remarks by Gen. Kelly, and the recent removal of civil war statues, caused me to wonder how the Confederate military and political figures were treated post war. Clearly, they were guilty of treason.
    The hatchet was buried. Gen. Lee was not hanged. There was no Nuremberg.
    Instead, many southern Americans cherish their “rebel” heritage and they and many more miss the point of the whole catastrophe.
    We are left with a festering sore.
    But then, considering the endless abuses of people against peoples of all kinds all around the world, why should we hope for better?
    Human beings are in need of a better operating system; we need to fix the DNA.

    • “……how the Confederate military and political figures were treated post war……..”

      Confederate President Jefferson Davis was jailed but later being released on bond while awaiting trial. He was freed after President Johnson declared a blanket amnesty to former Confederate citizens on Christmas of 1868.

      General Lee would later become a university president but it would take over 10 years until the U.S. government compensated him for taking his home and transforming it into Arlington National Cemetery. Lee was not allowed to vote – but he was never arrested as Jefferson Davis was.

  7. All religions, including Moslem, enjoy mastery of contradictions of the vast scriptures, they depend on the faithful belief and acceptance of the contradictions as to magically means differently to reconcile. If Islam was so great for slaves then why did it actually enslave half the population ie women into hiding and obedience to the dominance of their husbands and or fathers etc.

    • Deeb, you have a point on muslims keeping slavery. This remains a very sensitive topic for non muslims throughout Asia and Africa.

      However, Mohammed tried very hard to upgrade the status of woman. For example, I am not aware of any passage in the Koran that interprets modesty differently between men and woman. I am not aware of any passage in the Koran that requires the Hijab. (if I am wrong, please correct me and let me know the Koranic verse.) My understanding (which might be wrong) is that the reason Mohammed suggested modesty was to avoid the evil eye . . . other people becoming jealous. Not the current nonsense about temptation, temptress etc.

      Similarly woman have similar property rights and business rights to men independent of their husband’s family.

      Even the bit about a woman’s testimony being worth half that of a man was invented by Ali (with the support of Abu Bakr) to save a man and woman from being stoned to death for adultery . . . which they committed.

      Mohammed regarded adultery as equally Haram for men and woman.

      Obedience to fathers is identical between sons and daughters in Islam to my knowledge. A common feature of ancient cultures and religions.

      Obedience to husbands could be interpreted as loving and respecting husbands. Husbands are similarly required to love and respect their wives. Mohammed said that husbands should take the time to extensively consult their wives before making any important decisions, which didn’t win him any popularity contents with his male “followers”.

      I suspect that some of the Sunni Hadiths on woman may have been altered by self serving misogynists after the death of the prophet Mohammed, may peace be upon him. [Full disclosure . . . I love Sunni muslims! . . . I am not dissing the 6 Sunni Hadiths!]

      Deeb, as a supporter of woman, I don’t think we should legitimize Islamist interpretations of Islam that demean woman. To do so would harm hundreds of millions of woman around the world. I would argue that the problem is with muslims rather than with Islam when it comes to woman.

    • Er, because nearly everybody else believed women should be subjugated? Seriously, it wasn’t unique to Islam and it’s still alive and well today, even in the broadcast and movie studios.

  8. Very good article
    May I emphasis that the Quran is very clear and need no modern reinterpretation about encouraging freeing slaves . However, Muslim slaves traders chose to ignore the obvious

    The Quran has a careful plan to change the culture of slavery by
    – Allowing slaves to have free time to work for other employers to save money to free themselves .
    – The children of a slave are free – not slaves
    – if a slave has a child from her master then the child will not only be free but will have his father name and has the right to inherit
    And many more rules that facilitate freeing slaves as an act of redemption …..

  9. The military in every country is always the most ant-progressive part of society. It does not surprise me in the least that Gen Kelly is essentially a confederate sympathizer, or that he thinks there is two sides to the issue of slavery. Or that he makes a sly swipe against feminism. There is no more reactionary a segment of a society than its generals.

  10. That’s great history to know. It’s true, they were very radical and progressive thoughts and reforms in the Quran on slaves’ current status and future emancipation for their time.

    However, the institution of slavery, which was inherited, was still left in place and not dismantled, justified and practiced, even by the Prophet’s actions (like accepting an Egyptian Copt slave girl as a gift himself), whether people like to admit it or not.

    It survived for centuries in Muslim populations because expecting humane selfless practice was a problem and naive. There was no strong legal recourse or action implemented against slaveholding abusers except for appealing to their fear of the ‘hereafter’.

    Everything depended on a slave master’s piety and being a practicing Muslim or a community’s pressure and protection in vouching for a slave, which was weak to non-existent. If Quranic laws on freeing slaves were faithfully put in practice by everyone, perhaps eventually they could have led to having slave free nations earlier. Unfortunately, people are not all religious, or they are flawed, or they are hypocritical or cruel or capitalistic, etc. Most opportunistic Muslim rulers and governments and powerful people had always supported the institution and found an excuse in their expansions, except for the good men like Ahmad Bey above.

    Anyways, we are here in 2017 now. John Kelly needs to be schooled on his racist ignorance (thanks and well done, Professor) and we must thrive to fight all forms of slavery throughout the world.

  11. Neo-Confederates on the Internet are driving me crazy playing musicals chairs with history. All arguments lead back to slavery; these monsters rely on the rodent-like attention span of Internet users to keep any argument from ever going that far.

    Kelly’s essential argument is, “How dare you accuse a White Christian man of plotting to restore White Supremacy by praising his racist ancestors as being ‘real’ Americans?” Because if we can’t question the honor and sincerity of a White Christian man in particular, there really isn’t much restoring that needs to be done, is there?

    • Trumpism has diminished “White Christian men’ to a huddled mass of frightened man-children holding onto their withered manliness and keys to the gun locker with all their might.

  12. As Joe said, thanks for teaching me more history, too.

    Since no one else has touched on Kelly’s ‘Columbus’ comment, I’ll go ahead and throw in that the colonization and subjugation of the indigenous populations was not a universal sentiment in those days, either. I learned about Bartolome de las Casas several years ago, thanks to James Loewen’s excellent Lies My Teacher Told Me.

    • Thanks for the followup on Columbus. (Will follow up on your links!) As I recall, Columbus was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for his treatment of the “Indios” by the Spanish government. They knew brutality and torture, even “500 years ago.”

  13. Introduction of the laws, precepts, and teachings of Islam extended over twenty years, it is naturally to be expected many of the pre-Islamite institutions, which were eventually abolished, were, at first, either tacitly permitted or expressly recognised .

    In one of these categories stood the usage of slavery. The evil was intertwined with the inmost relations of the people among whom Mohammed flourished.

    Its extinction was only to be achieved by the continued agency of wise and humane laws, and not by the sudden and entire emancipation of the existing slaves, which was morally and economically impossible.

    Numberless pro-visions, negative as well as positive, were accordingly introduced in order to promote and accomplish a gradual enfranchisement.

    A contrary policy would have produced an utter collapse of the infant commonwealth.

    The Prophet exhorted his followers repeatedly in the name of God to enfranchise slaves, ” than which there was not an act more acceptable to God.” He ruled that for certain sins of omission the penalty should be the manumission of slaves.

    He ordered that slaves should be allowed to purchase their liberty by the wages of their service ; and that in case the unfortunate beings had no present means of gain, and wanted to earn in some other employment
    enough for that purpose, they should be allowed to leave their masters on an agreement to that effect.

    He also provided that sums should be advanced to the slaves from the public treasury to purchase their liberty. In certain contingencies, it was provided that the slave should become enfranchised without the interference and
    even against the will of his master.

    • Pamaneem, I think this is a very good comment. Sadly there is a difference between what Mohammed, may peace be upon him, wanted; and what imperfect muslims have done since Mohammed’s passing. Suspect Mohammed would not be happy with what has been done in his name.

  14. I learned something from this post. I didn’t know that General Lee had tried to keep inherited slaves that had been freed in the will of their former owner. Or that the courts ruled against Lee and freed the inherited slaves. Even by contemporary standards of Southern values and decency; this was wrong.

    I think that many Americans, including General Kelly (who I respect), would benefit from learning this history.

    I think that all soldiers should deeply love and respect their enemy; especially when they fight them and when they defeat them. Perhaps this is what General Kelly was trying to do with respect to General Lee. He should have done this while simultaneously supporting the idealism and righteousness of the Union cause to free the slaves.

    Honoring and respecting our enemy is not to justify the character, values or misdeeds of our enemy. Rather it is honoring the shared humanity and spirit we share. It is a reflection of us rather than a justification of our enemy. This is a good thing to do. Current enemies are often close future friends and allies. Examples include America’s friendship with Canada and the UK after the war of 1812; and America’s friendship with Japan and Germany after WWII. Or Gandhi’s friendship and love for the UK in 1947. Or France and the UK’s friendship with Germany after WWII.

    • General Robert E. Lee had expressed the belief that black slaves from Africa were better off as slaves in the U.S. than free in Africa as they were taught proper discipline and habits from the white owner.

      • Mark this what General Lee believed is wrong. This needs to be taught.

        Even worse than that; slaves were not given education and self confidence. Rather there was an attempt to keep them weak, give them inferiority complexes, and persuade slaves to insult African Americans who loved learning and excellence.

        The slave holders created the backlash against geeks and nerds that to this day greatly harms America and greatly reduces living standards. Not just among African Americans anymore, but among all Americans.

      • Mark, to say that someone is better off than slaves in Africa is a very low bar and isn’t any reflection of virtue.

        American black slaves were slaves in Africa before they were sold to Europeans , Arabs, North Americans, South Americans, Asians. No doubt African slaves didn’t have a great life in most cases. No doubt many slave owners in Africa (whether African or muslim) treated their slaves badly.

        But none of this in any way justifies the mistreatment of American slaves after they arrived in America.

  15. In addition, even the Russians freed the serfs, beginning with Alexander II’s emancipation proclamation in 1861. In fact, as early as 1801, it was illegal to sell serfs if it broke up the serf family.

    • The Russian emancipation of 1861 only affected privately-owned serfs.

      Serfs owned by the Russian government were not emancipated until 1866.

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