Slavery, Women, and Society in Aristotle’s Politics: A Muslim Perspective
Aristotle held that there were natural distinctions between male and female, free and slave, and civilized and barbarian. He is usually characterized as a more earthy, practical philosopher who took precedents from his observations of politics and history. Plato did not rely much on observation, because observation in the Cave can be useless.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Aristotle’s Politics to modern readers is his rather deterministic view on human beings. For Aristotle, some are born free, while others are born slaves. The “natural slave” is not necessarily a conventional slave, but rather, a person who is unwilling or incapable of ruling himself politically and morally. When left to their own decision-making, natural slaves inevitably ruin their lives. They detest political life and avoid it at all costs. They cannot understand the political and moral dimensions of their life, but they can follow the instructions of a master. In this sense, the worst thing that a natural master can do to a natural slave is to free them.
In Aristotle’s paradigm, the natural slave is important to the household because he allows his master to take his attention away from tedious labour. With that leisure time, the master could then exercise decisions in multiple arenas, participate in the polis, and pursue intellectual discourse. Without the natural slave, the natural master would be too focused on the disorder of his own household.
Since the natural master needs to participate in society, Aristotle puts women in charge of the household. Aristotle believed that there is a natural division of talent between freeborn women and freeborn men. Men are suited for the political life, while women are not; men have superior insight and planning skills for the political life, while women simply lack that. Therefore, for Aristotle, women rule above the natural slaves and children while the master is away. Her role is to foster the telos of the household, which is the basic building block of the natural polis.
Fortuitously, Ibn `Umar narrates a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (s) in which says, “Surely, each of you is a shepherd, and each of you will be questioned regarding his flock. The ruler who is in authority over the people is a shepherd, and he will be questioned regarding his flock. The man is a shepherd over the people of his household, and he will be questioned regarding them. The woman is a shepherd over her husband’s house, and she will be questioned regarding it. The slave is a shepherd over the wealth of his master, and he will be questioned regarding it.” I was not able to find a different primary narrator for this tradition, but it is eerily similar to what Aristotle describes. The word for “questioned” can also be translated as “responsible”, because the premise is that each person will be questioned about their responsibilities on the Day of Judgment. This subtle point emphasizes that leadership is not just a position of temporal power, but a burden that one is accountable for.
In a world palpably without slavery, one may question why a moral philosopher or a prophet would utilize such a system in their political schema. The question can be turned back onto modern people, who live off the products of child labour, the prison-industrial complex, and grotesque working conditions at home and abroad. Even if we want to distinguish this from slavery, slavery was simply part and parcel with pre-modern economy worldwide. I have no intention of whitewashing some horrible aspects of slavery, but the concept of slavery has become a melodramatic two-dimensional trope in the minds of most people today. Slavery in the past was not necessarily racial, nor permanent, nor always reflected by a poor standard of living. Jonathan Brown’s Slavery and Islam sufficiently shows a great deal of nuance that challenges the very definition of slavery. In the nineteenth century, both the Ottoman and the Manchu Qing dynasty’s bureaucratic class were called “slaves” (kullar and aha respectively). The Mamluks were literal slave warriors between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries that gained a higher social standing than freeborn people in Egypt and the Levant. The Janissaries were given a salary, and sometimes they even summarily executed their masters. Most Abbasid and Andalusian Umayyad caliphs were sons of slave women. Some slaves had hundreds of their own slaves. Tom Facchine compares Muslim slavery to a sort of premodern refugee resettlement program, where an opposing faction is integrated into a Muslim society in exchange for labour. To quote Brown, “there is no definition of slavery that covers everything we scholars in the West want to call slavery while excluding those things we do not want to call slavery.”
All of this said, slavery had its own unique horrors, such as the use of eunuchs. These were usually black men whose testicles had been castrated as infants. While it is conventionally forbidden to castrate a person in Islam, eunuchs were used as guards for the Ottoman Sultan and keepers of the Two Mosques in Mecca and Medina. Barbary pirates kidnapped hundreds of thousands of European women between 1530 and 1780 AD. Many slaves were indeed prisoners of war and subject to ill-treatment and sexual coercion (both men and women were victims of this). There was evidently a huge disparity between having a good master and a bad one; and unlike a bad boss, one could not simply leave his master.
In Islam, the manumission of a slave is considered a good deed and an atonement for certain sins. Turning your slave into an indentured servant is recommended in the Quran (24:33). One rough estimate suggests that, in the Islamic civilization, slaves remained slaves for seven years on average. One of the social functions of slavery was to integrate captives into Muslim families and re-educate them. Since their children with free men were usually considered freeborn, there was often a level of social mobility both in the life of the slave and in their offspring.
Compare this to the United States, where it took nearly a century for the descendants of slaves to gain civil rights and an additional fifty-four years to elect a black president (who himself is not a descendent of slaves). The U.S still has a problem with systemic discrimination against the descendants of ex-slaves, who were not only from a faraway continent, but were robbed of any knowledge of their names, language, culture, history, and religion, and subject to Social Darwinist pseudoscience and the worst form of chattel slavery in human history. The Muslim world, largely, did not have an ex-slave problem, because slaves did not belong to a particular race, and their freeborn children were considered equal. It did, however, take colonization and top-down enforcement for Muslims to finally abolish slavery. This common idea that Islam put society toward the path of abolition is, for the most part, a myth.
There is a Shia hadith where a man comes to the Prophet (s) and asks for his advice on what profession he should choose for his son. The Prophet then listed a number of professions he should avoid, among which were (1) a butcher, because his heart becomes empty of mercy, (2) a seller of grave shrouds, because he becomes happy when a Muslim dies, and (3) a slave trader, because the Angel Gabriel told him, “O Muhammad! Surely, the evillest of your Nation are those who sell people.” This is not a legalistic instruction, but a spiritual one, as these careers apparently lead to hard-heartedness. But still: since hard-heartedness is the root of evil in Islam, then these careers are at the very least not aspirational for a believer.
The Abolitionist movement was, in part, inspired by eighteenth and nineteenth century religious revivals (the First and Second Great Awakening). These meetings emphasized equality – that all men were created equal in the image of God – as well as temperance and social reform. Temperance, and much of the religious zeal, are all but gone today. The role that religion played in abolitionism is often glossed over by modern people, but the belief in a human soul and its sacred value are moralistic concepts firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian thought. Some Enlightenment thinkers also believed that a free market is better off with each individual pursuing his own life plan. After all, being coerced to fulfill someone else’s dream will not always produce the best outcome; but competition between willing and capable participants can improve products and services while bringing down costs, at least in theory.
We could continue to obfuscate and pettifog the definition of slavery, but to be brief: some definitions of slavery could encompass citizens, labourers, prisoners, or even children. Governments have a monopoly over exercising violence on their people, including individuals who refuse to pay taxes and bills, or individuals who protest in an unapproved manner. The state can also violently evict unwilling tenants that are not paying their landlords. Bosses could use public or private security to restrain employees that violate the workplace’s rules of conduct. Prisoners, who are subject to incarceration and labour, work for insignificantly small wages. Children are subject to their parents’ and the state’s decisions on health care, education, diet, and custody; parents can even use limited violence (as approved by the state) to discipline their children. Even some marriages and relationships can resemble a master-slave dynamic, especially in cases where divorce is near impossible. As governments grow, the power of coercion becomes more centralized in and monopolized by the state.
What’s interesting about Aristotle’s natural slave is that it almost does not matter if the person is actually a conventional slave or not. Natural slaves are plebians that do not think about morality or politics. The word “idiot” comes from the Greek word idiōtēs, which means “private person, layman, ignorant person”. These were people that did not participate in the polis and kept to themselves. It actually reminds me of a large portion of society: they work a tedious job during the day, then they rush home to watch the Kardashians, play video games, or drink their stress away. Their values are a product of what the education system and the media has fed to them, and they seldom reflect on their existence. Today, they are a laptop class, stuck in the rut of the Matrix, or as expressed in Fight Club, “slaves with white collars”. To some Marxists, they are the uninitiated, non-vanguard members of the working class. They follow the cues of the powerful, consciously or unconsciously.
The problem with Aristotle’s setup is that it is too deterministic. In reality, these “slaves” can be initiated, woken-up, or re-educated; and the “masters” of today are often gullible, bumbling fools who cannot see outside of the box of liberalism. It is true that it is incredibly difficult or near impossible to change a person, but it happens everyday to people who are either violently shaken-up or put to slumber under the touch of Satan.
Regarding women, Aristotle puts them in charge of the home. Generally, women who are given equal opportunities still dominate careers revolving around people (teachers, social workers, nutritionists, nurses, dental hygienists, speech pathologists, administrative secretaries, hairdressers, etc.) while men dominate careers revolving around things (software developers, engineers, farmers, construction workers, pilots, electricians, mechanics, landscapers, truck drivers, etc.). Even in traditionally male careers where women are making significant gains in representation, they still revolve around people more than things (lawyers, veterinarians, sales managers, marketing managers, etc.)
In hunter-gatherer clans, women had a great role in defining the society aspect of life. Women’s focus was largely turned inward toward the clan: using their power of speech (hence, the “mother tongue”), they were raising and teaching children, exerting more agreeable behaviour toward one another, and creating hygienic environments. Women experience disgust more frequently than men do – one study found that women reacted with greater disgust than men at poor hygiene, body odour, toilets, animal contamination, expired foods, and risky sexual behaviours. The lead author of the study suggested that the function of women’s disgust sensitivity is to limit the spread of disease to themselves, their children, and the most vulnerable. On the other hand, men have less of a disgust sensitivity because that would compromise their outward, grimy role as hunters and warriors.
It is sometimes joked about that the typical man’s room has nothing but a simple chair and a television, while a woman’s room has colourful décor, cushions, flowers, and scents. Men often say things that offend women’s sensitivities – what they say in locker rooms with the boys generally differs from how they speak to their wives. When women come to men for sympathy, men often offer “solutions” to their “problems” as opposed to giving them the attention and care that they are actually seeking. All of this may be due to men’s outward orientation and women’s inward orientation. A hunter or warrior is expected to be quick, blunt, honest, and sometimes unrelenting. His use of synonyms while on the hunt, or how tidy his garrison is on the battlefield, amount to very little. But ultimately, the soldier values the care, attention, cleanliness, and aesthetic of the nurse, and seeks a healthy, fertile mother for his children.
What these gender dichotomies fail to do is acknowledge the many exceptions to these generalities: there are plenty of males that are technologically-illiterate, and there are plenty of females who are less social, or even prefer playing in the dirt with the boys. Our brains are also quite plastic and shaped by our social conditions. Men and women have huge overlaps on personality tests, even though women score higher than men in trait neuroticism, openness, and agreeableness. Furthermore, automation in the modern world has taken away many male-dominated careers (especially industrial jobs), so, many men are working jobs where they don’t have a clear advantage over women (especially office jobs).
Aristotle’s household hierarchy also suffers from an is-ought problem. Because the nature of most men and most women differ, does that necessarily mean that they all ought to have fixed roles in society? Aristotle’s argument is not just deterministic, it is utilitarian, because he expects this hierarchy to create better results. Utilitarian arguments are not necessarily wrong in politics, but they don’t tell us much about objective morality, and they open themselves up to ambiguities. Indeed, feminists have made cogent utilitarian arguments for the emancipation of women. Many modern women do not want to run a household – they want their own career, disposable income, trips away from home, and an equal place in political discourse – let daycares and schools take care of the children. After all, modern capitalist economies do better in a materialistic sense when there are more workers, more consumers, more bank accounts, and more investors. But what is good for civilization?
Capitalism, urbanization, birth control, and feminism have together created a society where families and households are breaking down significantly. In America, almost 40% of marriages are ending in divorce, women initiate at least 70% of divorces, almost a quarter of children live in single-parent households, 50% of the adult population is unmarried, 20% of the population has a sexually transmitted infection (half of infections are among people under the age of 24), birth rates have plummeted to a record low, the number of abortions have risen to over 60 million; and the median marriage age is rising in most developed countries. This breakdown affects crime, where a disproportionately high number of prisoners come from fatherless homes. While our institutions are strong, and quality of life is relatively good, the social consequences of the destruction of the nuclear family are alarming.
Gender today is not what it used to be. In a word, modern urban societies have made gender more optional. I don’t only mean this in the transgender sense, where men can appear more anatomically like women through surgeries, hormone therapy, and liberal attitudes in fashion. I mean this in the way that labour has changed. Men have historically relied on their muscles, speed, stamina, and bone-density (hunters, warriors, and heavy-lifters), where they enjoyed a distinct physiological advantage. Women historically had limited access to birth control and daycares, and they are generally more empathetic and social, so they spent much of their time as nurturers and caretakers of children and the vulnerable. Our differing skills and interests resulted in a division of labour. Having a preponderance of female hunters and warriors, while having a preponderance of male gatherers and nurturers, can compromise the clan. However, most urban jobs are fairly androgynous, male muscles are not an indicator to earnings, and birth control is abundant. Most flamboyant expressions of gender differences are done for aesthetic purposes. While attraction is a potent force of gender dichotomization, there are pressures on women to behave like men (competing in a ruthless free market) and vice versa.
The advancement of AI will further change the male-female dichotomy. We are entering an era of self-driving cars, AI-created art, AI-created literature, and AI-created programs. It seems plausible that, assuming any rate of improvement, many white-collar jobs will be replaced by AI, in the same way that many blue-collar jobs were replaced by machines. Skeptics assume that people will always find something to do for work, but it seems likely to me that the output value that individuals have today will not be the same in decades to come. With just a handful of employees, independent research labs like Midjourney or OpenAI have already replaced countless gigs, and this will probably continue. If a large subsection of society cannot find work, then governments will mitigate this problem with guaranteed minimum income. This will create an equality of outcome, where individuals receive a set stipend instead of competing in a free market that creates hierarchies. If that happens, then socio-economic status will not differ significantly between individuals. How, then, will women exercise hypergamy to choose the best possible mate? By judging a man on variables outside of his status, such as his appearance, and personality – variables that still currently exist, but will be heightened in a time when computers and governments run our economy. This scenario may seem far-fetched and full of ironies, but if we continue on the current path, we will get there someday. Perhaps in a future utopia or dystopia (you decide!), the bulk of the population is unemployed and receive money that they give to fewer corporations. In return, they rent and they eat. They may not own their own property, and the government can freeze their money or subject them to violence if they misbehave. Does this resemble a master-slave relationship?
The measure of a civilization’s success should not be in GDP alone. We are so used to ranking countries by GDP, but even Simon Kuznets, the economist who helped develop GDP, warned against using GDP as a measurement for how well a country is doing. What good is a high GDP if the population cannot even replace itself with such an abysmal birthrate? What good is our iPhone when there is a crescendo of mental health problems in society? What good is modern medicine when we are mostly dying from preventable chronic illnesses? What good is our lifestyle if the Earth cannot sustain it for long? What good is free love when more people are dying alone? How enlightened are we really?
Our best minds need to come together to create order in hearts, homes, and humanity. Islam never had a one-size-fits-all family model, as it is a religion that has permitted monogamy, polygamy, concubinage, divorce, remarriage, and manumission. The enshrined rights of a husband and a wife give a basic skeletal structure of an Islamic marriage, but it only takes form through love and mercy (mawadda wa rahma, 30:21). Islam encourages marriage, marrying early, making marriage easy, having children, restricting abortion, dressing and behaving modestly, avoiding divorce when possible, and paternal custody for children. These social regulations, even if they’re only haphazardly or symbolically upheld, bring some balance. Family life is ultimately what makes a happy and healthy society, and even Western society used to uphold similar values before the latest wave of social frivolity and decadence. Imperfect hands will not build a perfect utopia, but we have our role models in the Prophetic Household.
 Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part 13. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html
 Ibid, Part 2-7. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html
 Ibid, Part 2. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html
 Ibid, Part 2. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html
 Ibid, Part 6. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html
 Ibid, Part 8. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html
 Sahih Muslim, Book 33, Hadith 24. https://sunnah.com/muslim:1829a
 Jonathan Brown, Slavery and Islam, pp. 28.
 Ibid, pp. 55.
 Ibid, pp. 30.
 Jonathan Brown, Slavery and Islam, pp. 126.
 Ibid, pp. 246.
 Saduq, Al-Khisal, Chapter 5, Hadith 45. https://thaqalayn.net/chapter/10/6/38
 Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek–English Lexicon, s.v. ἰδιώτης and ἴδιος