Harriet Beecher Stowe and Slavery – A Study From an Islamic Attitude

If there is one thing I developed during my lifetime, it is an acute awareness of the growing violence and conflict worldwide. Living in an era in which contributions aiming to the betterment of human life are becoming the most important ones. I feel that it is our duty to fascinate by the idea that the written word can alter individual lives, affect one’s identity, and perhaps even shape national consciousness.

In this spirit, I chose Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Taking as a starting point Abraham Lincoln’s suggestion that Mrs. Stowe’s writing changed the course of history. President Lincoln allegedly greeted Mrs. Stowe with these memorable words, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War!” Abraham Lincoln, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, believed that the power of words can alter the minds and hearts of individuals.

His words, therefore, serve not as a statement of truth about Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s effects, but rather as a provocation to pose a series of questions: How and with what implications might this kind of novelistic influence be possible?

How does its depiction of characters and ideological positioning reveal Harriet Beecher Stowe’s attitude towards slavery? And most importantly what would ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ look like if it was set in a Muslim society? These primary questions will be answered along my research on this subject.

‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is dominated by a single theme: slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe pushed ahead her theme of the immorality of slavery on almost every page of the novel, “The most dreadful part of slavery, to my mind, is its outrages of feelings and affections-the separating of families, for example.” One way Beecher Stowe showed the evil of slavery was how this “peculiar institution” forcibly separated families from each other.

It is worth bearing in mind that Harriet Beecher Stowe, in her ‘Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, explains different systems of servitude in different religions. One of them is not Islam, though among all the religions it was only Islam that attacked the very foundations of this evil, Harriet might not have learn this.

By examining the different narratives we can get insights of changes in the American culture, such as the slowly changing views of Christianity, life in America, and life as a slave in America.

A-Origins of Slavery:

Speaking about the origins of this institution, we realize that slavery was not invented by Christianity or Islam. It was there long before these religions came into being. The practice of slavery is coeval with human existence; historically, its traces are visible in every age and in every nation.

The cause for the apparition of slavery was the conflict existing between the earliest civilizations or between a tribe and another. Those conflicts were over power and domination, it was lust after power. Each tribe fought for the spread of its religion and ideology. But the leaders of those tribes took advantage from this pretext to enslave human beings and force them to obey the rules imposing the superiority of one race over the other.

Slavery is broadly described by the United Nations (UN) as the condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers connected to the right of ownership are exercised.

It would be of interest to note that the word “slave” is of European origin. It came into existence when the Franks used to supply the Spanish slave market with the “barbarians,” and those captives happened to be mostly the people of Turkish origin from the region known as Slovakia (now a part of Czechoslovakia). These people are called “Slav” and so all captives came to be known as “slaves”.

History provides that slavery was practiced with abandon in the case of debtors; war captives were either killed or made slaves. In weaker nations, people were hunted like animals, killed or captured and reduced to slavery. It had its roots in commerce, in social structure, in agriculture undertakings; and reason alone was but a feeble weapon against a foe so insidious and so deeply rooted. Then, how was slavery to be eradicated?

B-The Contrastive Attitudes towards Slavery:

1-Western Attitude towards Slavery:

Before we turn to the Islamic perspective of slavery, let us see if Christianity as a system and as a creed did anything in the earliest time to alleviate the lot of slaves. During colonial America, the Christian churches admonished the slaves to be obedient, their priests blessed the ships carrying human cargoes, but they never urged the masters to be kind.

Christianity adopted the system without any endeavor to mitigate its baneful character, or promise its gradual abolition, or to improve the status of slaves. Under the civil law, slaves were mere chattels. The slaves whether of native or foreign birth, whether acquired by war or purchase, were regarded simply as chattels. Their masters possessed the power of life and death over them.

This can be illustrated from historical records, an extract from the book Freedom from Fear or the Slave and his Emancipation by O. A. Sherrard, shows how and to what degree Christian America meted out the most inhuman treatment to the defenseless Blacks. This will also show their debased beliefs and notions about human beings who differed from them in colour and race.

“The lot of plantation slaves was really very hard. The job assigned to him was, from his point of view, skilled; he was to cultivate a crop unknown to him – for the most part sugar in the West Indies, cotton or tobacco in America – and, in that his work was novel, he endured a heavier burden than his counterpart in Greece or Rome or among the serfs of Europe…

All was new and strange to him; he had, therefore, to be broken in; he had to be taught his new duties; he had to be seasoned’ as the saying was. ‘Seasoning’ was a euphemism for a harsh discipline, which was reckoned by the opponents of slavery to carry off not less than twenty per cent of those who underwent it. May be that was over the mark, but it must nonetheless be admitted that large numbers died. The discipline was painful, and there was little to ameliorate and much to embitter its seventy.”

O. A. Sherrard describes how slavery was introduced into England’s colonies in America and the terrible stages of suffering that the slaves had to go through. They had to work or rather they were forced to work in inhuman conditions on the newly acquired plantations of their masters. This example gives you in a nutshell what I intend to examine in this work.

While reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we could comprehend Harriet Beecher Stowe’s personal vision and that of many other people upon the institution of slavery. It is useful to think of America in the first half of the nineteenth century not as one large country but as two separate nations. The America of the North was rushing towards modernity as it underwent its urban and industrial revolutions. The Southern states had largely remained the agrarian, slave-based economy they were in Jefferson’s time. Thus, the United States was two countries, two cultures, two ideologies that were destined for a collision.

Speaking about ideologies, the Northern people didn’t reconcile with the institution of slavery, Southerners did, and each section found moral and philosophical justification over the question of slavery. While Northerners found it unprofitable to own slaves (industrial capitalist fabric of their society), Southerners couldn’t forsake their reliance on slave labor. Economy plays an important role in the separation and difference between the two ideologies. ‘It is difficult’, writes Dr.Gray, ‘to avoid the assumption that opposition to the slave system was at first confined to a group who gained no direct advantage from it, and consequently possessed an objective attitude.’…

Harriet Beecher Stowe cited the interests of capital in her novel; the narrator pinpoints the reason why slavery continued, for instance, in the case of Emmeline’s sale: one of the New York partners is uneasy with the sale of human beings as a part of his transaction, but he found himself obliged to do it in favor of what he knows to be profitable despite the fact that he knows that this is morally wrong. While it is illegal for residents of New York to own slaves, it is of course not illegal for such business to be conducted. The New York businessman, in capitulating to the sale of slaves, makes essentially the same decision that was made by the Ohio senator, Bird: one in favor of larger “public interests” than morality.

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