On this occasion, it's the Economist running a lengthy feature on it, and coming to some pretty surprising conclusions - for the mainstream media, at least.
The piece does, of course contain some gross apologetics, in the form of American Muslim "theologian" Yasir Qadhi:
Scholars are sharply divided over how much cultural mores are to blame. Apologists say that, in a concession to the age, the Prophet Muhammad tolerated slavery, but—according to a prominent American theologian trained in Salifi seminaries, Yasir Qadhi—he did so grudgingly and advocated abolition. Repeatedly in the Koran the Prophet calls for the manumission of slaves and release of captives, seeking to alleviate the slave systems run by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Jewish Himyarite kings of Yemen. He freed one slave, a chief’s daughter, by marrying her, and chose Bilal, another slave he had freed, to recite the first call to prayer after his conquest of Mecca. His message was liberation from worldly oppression, says Mr Qadhi—enslavement to God, not man.
It is noteworthy that the Economist takes all of this at face value, and also does not question Qadhi's status as a moderate, despite the fact that he has been recorded on tape saying that Jews and Christians are "filthy", and that their lives and property can be taken by the Muslims in jihad.
But like the New York Times piece that apparently started all of this off - and unlike the majority of mainstream media articles on these kinds of subjects - the article does provide an opposing point of view, from professor Ehud Toledano, who comments: “They are in full compliance with Koranic understanding in its early stages...what the Prophet has permitted, Muslims cannot forbid.”
He is right - Yasir Qadhi's arguments are without merit. The Qur'an takes the practice of slavery for granted as a product of its day, and never condemns it. It even goes so far as to give Muslim men permission to have sex with slave girls: “And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess.” (4:24; see also 4:3 and 33:50, among others). There are passages which mention, recommend, or praise the freeing of slaves, but three of these (4:92, 5:89 and 58:3) come in the less-than-savoury context of emancipation as a punishment for the slave's owner, while others still amount to something less than a blanket condemnation.
As for Muhammad himself, he is recorded to have owned around sixty slaves in his lifetime, and although Muslims are keen to point to a couple of examples in which he freed individual slaves, there is no evidence to suggest that he disapproved of slavery in principle. He traded in slaves - for example, an Arab who he bought in exchange for two black slaves (Sahih Muslim b.10, no.3901). The pulpit from which he preached Islam was built by slave labour at his own command (Sahih Bukhari v.3, b.47, no.743). When a Muslim woman freed her slave girl without Muhammad's permission, the Prophet told her that it would have been better to give her to a relative as a slave instead (Bukhari v.3, b.47, no.765). And when another follower emancipated six of his slaves on his deathbed, we are told that Muhammad "called for them and divided them into three sections, cast lots amongst them, and set two free and kept four in slavery; and he (the Holy Prophet) spoke severely of him." (Muslim b.15, no.4112)
The Prophet of Islam also took his own female war captives as sex slaves (for example, Safiyya bint Huyayy after the battle of Khaybar), and when confronted with his own men raping infidel women after a battle, not only failed to condemn them for it, but apparently encouraged them to continue:
We went out with Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) on the expedition to the Banu al-Mustaliq and took captive some excellent Arab women; and we desired them, for we were suffering from the absence of our wives, (but at the same time) we also desired ransom for them. So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing 'azl (Withdrawing the male sexual organ before emission of semen to avoid conception). But we said: We are doing an act whereas Allah's Messenger is amongst us; why not ask him? So we asked Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him), and he said: It does not matter if you do not do it, for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born. (Muslim b.8, no.3371)
Does this really sound like an abolitionist to you?
After this wobble, though, the Economist article goes on to get pretty good, providing a brief summary of slavery in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the numerous ways in which slavery in one form or another remains a major problem throughout the Muslim world today, concluding bluntly that Islamic State's "extreme revival of slavery owes at least something to the region’s persistent and pervasive tolerance of servitude."
The piece also makes the important point that to the limited extent that slavery was abolished in the Islamic world, it was the West that did so, not Muslims:
All this ended because of abolition in the West. After severing the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century, Western abolitionists turned on the Islamic world’s, and within decades had brought down a system that had administered not just the Ottoman empire but the Sherifian empire of Morocco, the Sultanate of Oman with its colonies on the Swahili-speaking coast and West Africa’s Sokoto Caliphate.
With Western encouragement, Serb and Greek rebels sloughed off devshirme [the taking of Jewish and Christian children as slave soldiers for the Muslim armies]. Fearful of French ambitions, the mufti of Tunis wooed the British by closing his slave-markets in 1846. A few years later, the sultan in Istanbul followed suit. Some tried to resist, including Morocco’s sultan and the cotton merchants of Egypt, who had imported African slaves to make up the shortages left by the ravages of America’s civil war. But colonial pressure proved unstoppable. Under Britain’s consul-general, Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, Egypt’s legislative assembly dutifully abolished slavery at the end of the 19th century. The Ottoman register for 1906 still lists 194 eunuchs and 500 women in the imperial harem, but two years later they were gone.
Going further, I would add that anti-slavery views simply did not resonate anywhere in the Islamic world until Western powers began to intervene. While slaves were freed in England via court order during 1772, in the British colonies starting in 1834, colonial France in 1848, and the United States in 1865, the practise did not become illegal within the Islamic world until large swathes of its territory came under European colonial rule, or until Muslim countries sought admission to the League of Nations after 1920. Slavery was not abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1962, and Oman in 1970.
This raises an important question: If Islam is so obviously anti-slavery, the Qur'an repeatedly calls for manumission, and Muhammad was a budding abolitionist, why is it that there was never an abolitionist movement at any time within the Islamic world? How could it be that Islam as Muslims practised it for fourteen centuries actually turns out to be completely wrong?
The mainstream media are not yet asking these questions, but recent weeks have shown us some encouraging signs that the blinkers are coming off in some quarters, and that at least some questions are beginning to be asked.
Even if learning comes slowly, the resultant understanding is just as important.