The Islamic State’s Moral Reasoning on the Sexual Enslavement of Yazidi Women and Girls

I’d recently viewed a widely circulating clip showing Al-Azhar Professor Suad Saleh arguing that, in a legitimate war between Muslims and their enemies, Muslims can capture slave girls and have sex with them. This is disheartening because Al-Azhar is a more than 1000 year old seat of learning and perhaps the most respected in the Sunni Muslim world. It’s a particularly touchy issue because of ISIS’ recent actions with regard to the Yazidi people. The video is from September 12, 2014, but has been circulating in social media in recent days. You can view it here:

It made me think of a something I had recently read in the book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2015) concerning the well-publicized success of the Islamic State in capturing and enslaving up to 7,000 Yazidi women.


Stern (a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University) and Berger (a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution) offer the following insight (see pages 216-217).

“According to ISIS, the practice of forcing the Yazidis and other religious minorities into sexual slavery is a way to prevent the sin of premarital sex or adultery, as well as a sign that the Final Battle [in Dabiq] will soon occur. In the fourth issue of Dabiq, an article titled “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour” explains that polytheist and pagan women can and should be enslaved… Further, they wrote, “a number of contemporary scholars have mentioned that the desertion of slavery had led to an increase in fahishah (sexual sins such as adultery or fornication), because the sharia alternative to marriage is not available, so a man who cannot afford marriage to a free woman finds himself surrounded toward temptation towards sin… May Allah bless this Islamic State with the revival of further aspects of the religion occurring at its hands.”

Stern and Berger continue by noting some of IS’ answers about its theological justifications for sexual slaves and how to keep them. Then they cite the Islamic State’s use of the Qur’an in their attempt to justify this, quoting:

“It is permissible to have sexual intercourse with the female captive. Allah the almighty said: ‘[Successful are the believers] who guard their chastity, except from their wives or (the captives and slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are free from blame [Koran 23:5-6].”

So in sum, the “Caliphate” of the Islamic State sees sexual slavery as a means of avoiding, oddly enough, sexual immorality (e.g. fornication or adultery), as aside from marriage, they claim that sex with slaves is the only Qur’an approved form of sexual activity. They even seem to celebrate the return of this form of slavery when they note “May Allah bless this Islamic State with the revival [of slavery] of further aspects of the religion…” In their view, the decline and abolition of the practice of slavery by Muslims during the 20th century was a bad thing (even if some influential Muslim theologians disturbingly continue to hold to its general legitimacy as in the case of Al-Azhar Professor Suad Saleh cited above), as it took away a key means of sexual release for Muslim men, leaving only marriage as an alternative.