Islam and the Problem of Slavery
Slavery had been there for thousands of years, long before Prophet Mohammad was sent as Allah’s Messenger to mankind.
Evidently, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the two primary sources of Islam, are full of statements calling for the delivery of rights to all – from Allah down to oneself and to others, including animals and plants. Regarding slavery, the two sources have repeated statements calling for freeing slaves and for treating them properly. Yet, they do not have a direct statement categorically banning slavery.
Very often, anti-Islam propagandists misuse the absence of such a direct ban to accuse Islam of enjoining slavery. This claim is a distortion of the facts of the case. The rational, fair and decent thing to do is to examine the Islamic position on slavery. To find out how Islam dealt with the problem of slavery, one can check the two main references of Islam, i.e. the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It would also be useful to examine the views of recognized Muslim scholars on issues related to the slavery problems of their times.
Let us examine the Qur’an and the Sunnah to find out how Islam approached the problem of slavery.
Islam’s Approach to the Problem of Slavery
Basic Points to Be Considered
To properly understand Islam’s approach to dealing with slavery, some relevant facts should be considered first:
♦Islamic teachings were not revealed at one time, but were revealed in problematic situations, which required answers to questions or solutions to problems. They were revealed over the last 23 years of the Prophet’s life, i.e. the prophethood period.
♦ The history of the Message of Islam reflects stage-by-stage priorities. In the beginning, priority was for calling on people to accept Allah as the One and Only God and Mohammad as His true Messenger. Then, gradually, came the details of Islamic teachings, acts of worship and legislations in relevant situations.
♦ Evidently, Islamic commandments (the DOs) and prohibitions (the DON’Ts) were not revealed in one dose. They were issued on varied problematic occasions, and there was a clear gradual move from the general to the specific. That was typical of Islam’s legislations, as revealed in Qur’anic verses or as applied by Prophet Mohammad in reality. The legislations followed a step-by-step approach, and they paid special attention to the elimination of danger. The worst danger was - and still is - ending up into the Hellfire for ever and ever.
♦ Islam’s step-by-step approach is compatible with human nature and conditions. Imagine what it would have been like if all things had been revealed in one dose. How would people have responded to Islam’s call and bulk of commandments, prohibitions and practical applications.
♦In the past, economic activities relied heavily on slave labour. There were various ways of getting slaves. Slaves were sold and bought; some people were kidnapped in raids and were then turned into slaves; vulnerable individuals were caught and enslaved; and others had to become slaves because they could not pay debts. The slaves had to do as told by their masters, and they were treated harshly.
♦ Let us not forget one relevant notion, namely declared religion vs. declared followers; religion is one thing, and its declared followers are another thing. The former exists in references or language forms, whereas the latter may behave in a way that violates the teachings of their religion. Thus, the Message of Islam, which is basically embodied in the Qur’an and the purified Sunnah, is one thing, and declared Muslims are another thing. Whether someone genuinely believes at heart or not is known only to Allah. The same applies to any religion and its followers. So, let us not confuse Islam with Muslim countries, communities or individuals; the behaviour of Muslims may or may not agree with Islamic teachings. Even what is within the heart may or may not be consistent with what one declares or actually does. To judge whether some behaviour or statement is Islamic or not, it has to be examined in the light of the Qur’an and the purified Sunnah. Evidently, anti-Islam media deliberately confuse Islam with the behaviour of criminals with Muslim names.
Islam’s Normative and Practical Responses to Slavery
Islam approached the problem of slavery in two simultaneous ways: drying up the channels and sources of slavery; and freeing the existing slaves. The two ways included normative statements and practical steps and legislations.
♦Basically, "adda’wah" (the call) to Islam is for all, regardless of race, colour, gender, nationality, ethnicity, social status, wealth, etc. It transcends all boundaries. When it started, it did not discriminate between master and slave; both were invited, and from both some embraced Islam. On one occasion, out of pride, some of the Meccan elite requested Prophet Mohammad to give them special audience, excluding slaves and the poor. This was the Qur’anic response to the request: “(52) And [Mohammad] do not send away those who call upon their Lord morning and afternoon, seeking His countenance. … … …. So, were you to send them away, you would be of the wrongdoers.” [Suurah 6]
♦ What mattered - and still matters - is having faith and doing good. The Qur’an and the Hadith repeatedly emphasize the importance of faith and good deeds, linked together. The two are basic criteria of being Muslim, and they involve observing “attaqwa” (fear of God; piety). In one Hadith, Prophet Mohammad says, “All humans are Adam’s descendants, and Adam was created from earth. The more one is God-fearing / pious, the more one is honoured by Allah.”
Thus, the Islamic general position is quite clear and strong from the beginning: Islam is not a caste religion, nor does it require a medium of any kind between Allah and the believer; the call was to all, the free and the slaves, men and women, and all races and colours. In return, all believers were promised entry to Aljannah (Heaven), without any discrimination; what matters is one’s true faith within the heart and one’s righteous deeds. However, Allah’s measure of reward superiority is the believer’s degree of “attaqwa”. The Qur’an tells us that the more you observe "taqwa" of Allah, the more honourable you are in His sight. “Attaqwa” can be simply defined as a heart disposition to avoid disobeying or displeasing Allah in thought and action, in public and in secret. It requires that one’s behaviour be guided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah in all affairs.
From a normative perspective, Islam did not call for the abolition of slavery outright. Had there been a declaration of a complete ban on slavery at that time, those whose businesses and security relied on slaves would have found it extremely difficult not only to jeopardize their relationship with their community, but also to lose their wealth and protection. That is why the top priority was to accept Allah as the One and Only God, and Mohammad as His Messenger. Embracing Islam faithfully is sufficient to eventually turn one’s fear of loss into willingness to make sacrifices for Allah’s sake. No wonder, gradually, the faithful were motivated not only to free their own slaves, but also to buy slaves in order to set them free.
In lieu of declaring a sudden whole ban, Islam adopted practical steps aiming to dry up the sources sustaining slavery and to open new avenues for the manumission of existing slaves. The two ways proved effective in the long run, leading to the drying up of slavery sources and to the freeing of existing slaves while avoiding undesirable consequences. Let us identify the manifestations of both ways.
To dry up the sources of slavery, Islam did the following:
♦ The kidnapping of people for the slave trade was made unlawful. It had been a customary practice to kidnap people, especially the vulnerable, and sell them.
♦ The buying and selling of people captured through raids waged against innocent non-combatants was outlawed. It had been customary for a strong tribe to raid a weak one and to capture men, women and children and make them slaves.
♦ Islam also banned buying and selling stolen children. According to the Hadith, among three types of people whom Allah will prosecute on the Day of Judgement is “one that sells a free person and consumes his / her price….”
♦ Taking a person as a slave because he / she could not pay debts was made unlawful. Besides banning usury, Islam encourages lending on the one hand, and it stresses the importance of paying debts on the other hand. However, Islam encourages the able to reschedule and/or forgive debts in cases of hardship. Allah says, “(280) And if someone is in hardship, then [let there be] postponement until [a time of] ease. But if you give [from your right as] charity, then it is better for you, if you only knew.” In addition, Islam makes debtors in difficulty eligible for a share in “zakaah” (compulsory alms).
♦ New practices were introduced whereby freedom was granted to slave parents and their children on the basis of marriages and births.
To increase the opportunities of opening more avenues for the gradual extinction of slavery, Islam did the following:
♦ A part of “zakaah” is allocated to freeing slaves. In Islam, the freeing of slaves is designated as a lawful recipient of “zakaah”. Allah says, “(60) Zakaah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakaah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveller - an obligation [imposed] by Allah. And Allah is Knowing and Wise.” [Suurah 9].
♦ One option of atonement of a failed oath is to free a slave. As stated in the Qur’an, “(89) Allah … … … will impose blame upon you for [breaking] what you intended of oaths. So, its expiation is the feeding of ten needy people from the average of that which you feed your [own] families or clothing them or the freeing of a slave. But whoever cannot find [or afford it] - then a fast of three days [is required]. That is the expiation for oaths when you have sworn.…” [Suurah 5].
♦ To atone for voluntary failed vows, freeing slaves was a priority.
♦ To atone for killing a believer by mistake, the killer has to free a slave, in addition to other things, such as fasting and financial compensations.
♦ In Suurat Annissaa’, Allah says, “(92) And never is it for a believer to kill a believer except by mistake. And whoever kills a believer by mistake - then the freeing of a believing slave and a compensation payment presented to the deceased's family [is required] unless they give [up their right as] charity. But if the deceased was from a people at war with you and he was a believer - then [only] the freeing of a believing slave; and if he was from a people with whom you have a treaty - then a compensation payment presented to his family and the freeing of a believing slave. And whoever does not find [one or cannot afford to buy one] - then [instead], a fast for two months consecutively, [seeking] acceptance of repentance from Allah. And Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.” [Suurah 4].
♦ If a Muslim has sexual intercourse with spouse while fasting in the month of Ramadan, he / she has to free a slave, as a top atonement priority.
♦ If a Muslim declares “thihaar” to his wife, he has to atone for it by freeing a slave, as a first option. “Thihaar” was a pre-Islamic practice, whereby a husband declares his wife to be like his mother, hence no sex with her. Islam bans “thihaar” and prescribes atonement for it. In this respect, Allah says, “(3) And those who pronounce “thihaar” from their wives and then [wish to] go back on what they said - then [there must be] the freeing of a slave before they touch one another. That is what you are admonished thereby; and Allah is Acquainted with what you do.” [Suurah 58].
♦ Prophet Mohamed encouraged fellow Muslims to free slaves in return for heavenly rewards. According to the Hadith, he said, “Whoever frees a Muslim will be saved from the Hellfire ….” He also said, “If a man brings up a slave girl properly on good manners, provides her with good education, then frees and marries her, he will be doubly rewarded by Allah.”
♦ Encouraging freeing slaves, Allah says, “(11) But he has not broken through the difficult pass. (12) And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass? (13) It is the freeing of a slave (14) Or feeding on a day of severe hunger (15) An orphan of near relationship (16) Or a needy person in misery.” [Suurah 90].
Evidently, some Muslims responded to the calls of the Qur’an and the Hadith not only by freeing their own slaves, but also by buying slaves from others in order to free them.
The Islamic approach to the problem of slavery included calls to improving the life of slaves. Let us see some of those calls:
♦Islam demanded good treatment of slaves. Allah says, “(36) Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbour, the neighbour farther away, the companion at your side, the traveller, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful.” [Suurah 4].
♦ Prophet Mohamed called upon Muslims to treat slaves well, to feed and clothe them properly, to avoid burdening them with tasks they cannot do and to help them in difficult tasks. He said, “They are your brothers / sisters whom Allah has put under your authority. So, feed them from what you eat, clothe him from what you wear. Do not overburden them with work, but if you do, give them a hand.” He also said that Archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) told him on several occasions how important it was to treat slaves nicely.
♦ Allah commanded the faithful not to force their slave girls into prostitution: “And do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, if they desire chastity, to seek [thereby] the temporary interests of worldly life. … … … .” [Suurah 24/ Aayah 33].
♦ It was also recommended that the faithful marry believing salves rather than marry disbelieving free men and women; as stated in the Qur’an, “(221) And do not marry polytheistic women until they believe. And a believing slave woman is better than a polytheist, even though she might please you. And do not marry polytheistic men [to your women] until they believe. And a believing slave is better than a polytheist, even though he might please you.” [Suurah 2].
♦ Knowledgeable slave men qualified as imams, leading the free in congregational prayers.
♦ In lining for prayers, there is no apartheid between the free and slaves; first arrive at the mosque, first in line, in which all worshippers are equal.
♦ Prophet Mohammad asked slave owners to call a slave “abdullaah” (the slave of Allah), not the salve of a person (e.g. of Ali / Ibraheem). All humans, be they believers or disbelievers, belong to Allah, and unto Him all will return after death. Prophet Mohamed says, “Let not any of you say: ‘my slave’. Instead, say, as you call your son and daughter: ‘my lad’ and ‘my lass’.
♦Things went further in favour of freeing slaves. Hitting one’s slave was atoned for by manumission. According to the Hadith, “Whoever slaps or beats his slave should free him for atonement.”
♦Encouraging fellow Muslims to free salves, Prophet Mohamed says, “Whoever frees a Muslim will be saved from the Hellfire ….” He also says, “If a man brings up a slave girl properly on good manners, provides her with good education, then frees and marries her, he will be doubly rewarded by Allah.”
♦ Discouraging slavery, the Hadith says that among three types of people Allah will prosecute on the Day of Judgement is the “one that sells a free person and consumes the price.”
♦ The practice of “mukaatabah” was introduced as a means of manumission. It is a kind of contract between the master and the slave whereby both agree that the latter would pay for his freedom through his own earnings. It gave the slave the opportunity to work and earn and eventually to be free.
♦It had been customary to either kill or enslave captured war combatants. Islam introduced two more options with respect to prisoners of war. It gave the opportunity to free, ransom or exchange them.
According to the Qur’an, “Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (i.e. free them without ransom), or ransom (according to what benefits Islam)” [Suurah 47/4].
During the battle of Badr, Prophet Mohammad freed some prisoners for ransoms and others for nothing. Also, on conquering Makkah, he said to the people there: “Go! You are free.”
♦The Prophet initiated the tradition of “moaakhaah” (bringing two Muslim men into a brotherhood bond) – slaves were not excluded from being bonded with free men. He brought into matrimony his cousin Zainab, a free woman, and his slave Zeid. That was a daring step, challenging the prevalent racial discrimination in Arabia at that time.
♦ The Prophet assigned important tasks to slaves. For example, he appointed his salve Zeid as the head of the army prepared for the Mu’tah Battle; under Zeid’s command were ‘nobles’ from Makkah and Medina. He even appointed Ossaamah, Zeid’s son, the head of an army. In Ossaamah’s army, the Prophet’s closest companions, Abu-Bakr and Omar, who later became Caliphs (heads of the Muslim state) served as soldiers. Thus, the salves were given the opportunity to occupy sensitive top jobs. As the Prophet said, “Listen to and obey your commander even if he is an Abyssinian slave … so long as he follows Allah’s book.”
♦ Early Muslims introduced a voluntary kind of rehabilitation for the freed slaves; the freed slave wasslaves were offered the opportunity of becoming a member of the family that freed him.them. This meant gaining rights and duties similar to those of the rest of the family members. At another level, the freed and freer became friends. Muslims are basically brothers and sisters, and they are all “ibaadullaah” (slaves of Allah alone).
♦ Defining righteousness, Allah says, “(177) Righteousness is not that you turn your faces (in prayer) toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakaah; [those who] fulfil their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous. [Suurah 2].
Paradoxically, the things that have been categorically banned since the advent of Islam are still thriving. Yet, slavery as manifested in the buying and selling of humans gradually disappeared in Muslim communities over the years despite the absence of a categorical ban.
Consider how many bans made ages ago are still being violated. Yet, though not officially banned during the lifetime of Prophet Mohamed, ownership of slaves is non-existent now. Apparently, new modes of slavery have been developed, and they need to be eliminated. They exist, for example, in police states, occupied territories, military fascist regimes, racist communities, caste / class systems, apartheid regimes, vulnerable minorities, genders and individuals and economic systems and institutions with built-in inequalities.
There are not any statements in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah that enjoin enslaving others. Relevant statements call for freeing slaves and for treating them properly. Islam’s approach to the problem of slavery created new opportunities for attaining freedom. It introduced practical means / policies, leading eventually to the elimination of slavery. The policies limited the sources of slavery on the one hand, and they opened up new avenues for manumission on the other hand. Islam demanded of Muslims to treat salves nicely, while seeking to dismantle the slavery system and enslavement on the ground.
Such was the Islamic approach that, without declaring an early general ban, the outcome was appreciation on the part of the freed and satisfaction on the part of the freer; there was no immediate destruction of livelihood, nor was there any hatred or ill-feelings.
To deal with the current modes of slavery, Islam has a built-in mechanism of “ijtihaad”. “Ijtihaad” means working out new solutions to new problems in the light of Islam’s universal principles.
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