Mauritania: Human Rights Activists Accuse Islamic Jurisdiction of Legitimizing Slavery
Recently, the issue of slavery has taken center stage in Mauritania. In the beginning of May, a Mauritanian human rights organization decided to reopen the debate by denouncing the continued existence of slaves in the country.
To get people's attention, this organization burned books of the Islamic Maliki school of jurisprudence, prevailing in Mauritania, claiming that they provide a religious justification for continuing slavery. The act of burning books took place at the end of a special prayer for slaves, which emphasized their right to lead Muslims in prayer. However, the burning of the books sparked fury among the public. Demonstrations erupted throughout the country in condemnation of what was perceived as an affront to Islam. As a consequence, the anti-slavery movement apologized to the Mauritanians for the burning of the Maliki books and explained that this was a symbolic act committed to draw attention to jurisprudent views legitimizing slavery.
The Maliki school is inspired by Malik Ibn Anas, who was born in 712 CE in Medina, in a time where slavery was part of the daily reality. In his writings he refers to how to handle slaves' transactions, a master's right to have sex with female slaves, when a how a slave can be granted freedom, and so on. Supported by the Maliki school, several Mauritanian Islamic leaders speak openly in favor of slavery. CNN actually reported that slavery continues in some mosques, particularly in rural areas.
In Mauritania, slavery was officially abolished in 1981, but this development did not change much in the lives of modern-day slaves since it was not accompanied by sanctions against slave-keepers. It was only in 2007 that Mauritania passed a law that actually criminalizes the act of owning another person. However, the effects of the new law were hardly tangible since, so far, only one case of slavery has been successfully prosecuted. According to U.N. estimates, from 10% to 20% of the 3.4 million-strong population of that country still lives under slavery conditions, while many others live in conditions of semi-slavery.