It is widely circulated that the Qur’an supports slavery and enables Muslims to keep slaves. Before knowing what Islam really said about slavery, let’s explore the attitudes of the previous divine religions.
As for Jews, in antiquity, the Israelite society allowed slavery. Slaves were seen as an essential part of a Hebrew household. It is impossible for scholars to quantify the number of slaves that were owned by Hebrews in ancient Israelite society, or what percentage of households owned slaves, but it is possible to analyze social, legal, and economic impacts of slavery.
The Hebrew Bible contains two sets of rules governing slaves. About the first set which includes the Hebrew slaves, the Old Testament says: “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.” (Lev 25:39-43)
About the second set which includes non-Hebrew (Canaanite) slaves, the Old Testament says: “You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” (Lev 25:45-46)
The main source of non-Hebrew slaves were prisoners of war. Hebrew slaves, in contrast to non-Hebrew slaves, became slaves either because of extreme poverty (in which case they could sell themselves to an Israelite owner) or because of inability to pay a debt. According to the Hebrew Bible, non-Hebrew slaves were drawn primarily from the neighboring Canaanite nations, and religious justification was provided for the enslavement of these neighbors: the rules governing Canaanites were based on a curse aimed at Canaan, a son of Ham, but in later eras the Canaanite slavery laws were stretched to apply to all non-Hebrew slaves.
As for Christians, in the early years of Christianity, slavery was a normal feature of the economy and society in the Roman Empire, and well into the Middle Ages and beyond. Most Christian figures in that early period, such as Saint Augustine, supported continuing slavery whereas several figures such as Saint Patrick were opposed.
During the first century New Testament times, slaves converted to Christianity, were regarded as freedman brothers in Christ and included in Christ’s kingdom inheritance. These slaves were told to serve their masters as if they were serving Christ, with morals, faithfulness, and respectfulness.
The New Testament orders servants to be obedient to their masters as follows:
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
Not with eye-service, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. (Ephesians 6:5-8 KJV)
In several Pauline epistles, and the First Epistle of Peter, slaves are admonished to obey their masters, as to the Lord, and not to men. Masters were also told to serve their slaves in the same way.
The New Testament commands masters to give their slaves equal treatment as follows:
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:9)
Before dealing with the Islamic attitude towards slavery, let’s analyze both the Jewish and Christian attitudes.
As far as the Jewish attitude is concerned, we notice that it supports slavery and enables Jews to keep slaves, and what is more it even discriminates against non-Hebrew slaves.
As for the Christian attitude, though it is fairer than the Jewish attitude, it also supports slavery and enables Christians to keep slaves. Though Christianity expressed sympathy for slaves, it did not prescribe a clear-cut mechanism for abolition.
As for the Islamic attitude, it is much fairer, more practical and effective. It goes without saying that Islam did not introduce slavery into the human tradition. Slavery was prevalent all over the world centuries before the advent of Islam. Islam had to deal with it as such an established practice to which an end cannot be put at once.
In fact, upon the advent of Islam, there were several bad practices which were dominant at the time. People were used to slavery, alcohol consumption, taking interest and other corrupt practices. A common practice, which takes a long time to become widespread, needs an equally long time to die out.
Islam adopted a graded approach when dealing with such practices. For example, alcohol consumption and taking interest were not prohibited at once. Islam kept restricting them gradually until people became ready to give them up willingly. Thus, alcohol consumption and taking interest were totally forbidden a short time before Prophet Muhammad died.
As for slavery, it was such a practice which was too established to be prohibited within one or more decades. This meant that Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime was not enough to put an end to such a hideous practice. That is why it needed an extended, prolonged approach.
Thus, Islam adopted such a practical approach which was expected to yield two positive results, with one at the short term and another at the long term. At the short term, the then slaves’ living conditions and treatment had to be improved. At the long term, the largest number of slaves as far as possible had to be set free and slavery had to be abolished by adopting a package of measures.
As for the short-term objective, Prophet Muhammad ordered masters to give their slaves equal treatment, feed them from the same food they eat, and clothe them in the same clothes they wear.
He instructed masters to view their slaves as equal brothers whom they must not have insulted or even overburdened with hard work. He ordered masters that if they overburdened their slaves with hard work, they should have helped them do such work.
Al-Ma`rur bin Suwaid reported: “I saw Abu Dharr wearing a nice gown, and his slave was also wearing a similar one. I asked him about that. He said that he had exchanged harsh words with a person during the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah and he put him to shame by making a reference to his mother (a non-Arab woman). That person came to the Messenger of Allah and made mention of that to him. Thereupon, the Messenger of Allah said, ‘You are a person who has remnants of the Days of Ignorance. They (slaves) are your brothers whom Allah has placed under your authority. He who has his brother under him should feed him from whatever he eats and dress him from whatever he wears, and do not burden them (assign burdensome task to them) beyond their capacity. If you burden them, then help them.’” (Al-Bukhari & Muslim)
Abu Hurairah reports that the Messenger of Allah said: “When one’s servant prepares food for him and serves it after having sat close to (and undergoing the hardship of) heat and smoke, he should make him (the servant) sit along with him and make him eat (along with him), and if the food seems to turn short, then he should spare some portion for him (from his share) either one or two morsels.” (Muslim)
Prophet Muhammad forbade slandering slaves. He said: “If somebody slanders his slave and the slave is free from what he says, he will be flogged on the Day of Resurrection unless the slave is really as he described him.” (Al-Bukhari)
Prophet Muhammad himself did not use to beat or even abuse slaves or servants. Anas ibn Malik said: “I served the Messenger of Allah for ten years. By Allah, he never said to me any harsh word, and he never said to me about a thing ‘Why have you done that?’ or ‘Why have you not done that?’”
Aishah reports that the Messenger of Allah did not ever hit a wife or a servant, nor did he ever hit anything with his hand except when fighting in the cause of Allah or when the things sanctified by Allah are desecrated, and then he will exact vengeance for the sake of Allah. (Al-Nasa’i)
After all, in respect of the short-term objective, Islam may resemble Christianity. Both called for better treatment and more favorable living conditions for slaves.
As to the long-term objective, it is the mechanism intended for putting an end for slavery. This mechanism was something unique and exclusive to Islam. This is the thing which distinguishes Islam from Christianity.
Islam adopted such procedures which were more likely to put an end to slavery in the long run. For example, Islam introduced the Mukatabah institution. It was a contract to be concluded between a master and a slave where they agreed that the slave would pay a specified amount of money to the master in return for setting him free.
By virtue of the above contract, the master would allow his slave to work for somebody else or as a self-employed worker to pay for his freedom.
Allah encouraged Muslims to make Mukatabah. He says in the Qur’an:
And those who seek a contract [for eventual emancipation] from among whom your right hands possess – then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness. (An-Nur 24:33)
Islam rendered slaves seeking to regain their innate freedom recipients of the obligatory alms. The Qur’an entitled slaves to receive the obligatory alms as worthy beneficiaries. Allah says:
Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing slaves and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah. And Allah is Knowing and Wise. (At-Tawbah 9:60)
He also says:
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces 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 traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill 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. (Al-Baqarah 2:177)
The slaves who concluded a Mukatabah contract with their masters were also entitled to a share in the obligatory alms. Allah says:
And those who seek a contract [for eventual emancipation] from among whom your right hands possess – then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you. (An-Nur 24:33)
Under Islam, Allah prescribed the emancipation of slaves as expiation for several offences, including manslaughter, perjury and Dhihar (a pre-Islamic practice of rendering intercourse with one’s wife forbidden by likening her to, for example, the back of one’s mother.) Sometimes, being a Muslim was not required for the emancipation of a slave.
Allah says in the Qur’an:
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. (An-Nisaa’ 4:92)
He also says:
Allah will not impose blame upon you for what is meaningless in your oaths, but He 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. But guard your oaths. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be grateful. (Al-Ma’idah 5:89)
As for the female slaves, they had the lion’s share of the attention Islam paid to slaves. For example, the slave woman who bore her master a child would be rendered untradeable and she would regain her freedom after the death of her master.
Prophet Muhammad said: “Any man whose slave woman bears him a child, she will be free after he dies.” (Al-Bayhaqy)
Islam forbade any situation where a mother is deprived of the care of her child even if she was a slave woman. Prophet Muhammad said: “A mother should not be separated from her child.” (Al-Bayhaqy)
Prophet Muhammad encouraged Muslims to educate and treat their slave girls well and then manumit and marry them. He said: “He who has a slave girl and educates and treats her well and then manumits and marries her will get a double reward.” (Al-Bukhari)
The Qur’an included the manumission of slaves in the good deeds which are more likely to admit people to Paradise. Allah says in the Qur’an:
And have shown him the two ways? But he has not broken through the difficult pass…It is the freeing of a slave or feeding on a day of severe hunger an orphan of near relationship. (Al-Balad 20:11-16)
We observe that there are so many hadiths of Prophet Muhammad recommending Muslims to manumit slaves as a charitable act. For example, Prophet Muhammad said: “Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all parts of his body from the Hellfire as he freed the parts of the slave’s body.” (Al-Bukhari)
There are certain situations where the emancipation of slaves was highly recommended. Asma bint Abu Bakr reports that Prophet Muhammad ordered them to free slaves at the time of solar eclipse. (Al-Bukhari)
Under Islam, emancipation gives rise to an intimate relationship between a master and a slave by virtue of which a master may inherit his freed slave if the latter happens to die leaving behind no heirs. The establishment of such a relationship itself serves as an incentive to the emancipation of slaves.
Thus, Islam spared no effort to emancipate slaves but in a reasonable, gradual manner. It did not encourage or support slavery. It tried to combat it as far as feasible and endeavored to ensure better lives for slaves until it was opportune to totally abolish slavery.
It is unfair to accuse Islam of supporting slavery or even ignoring its efforts to put an end to it. Islam was the first and sincerest advocate of slaves in history. We notice that abolition took place centuries after the advent of Islam under certain pressures.
Yet, under no pressure, Islam looked after and took care of slaves in a time slaves had nobody to plead their cause or even respect their humanity. Anyway, Islam will remain the pioneer of abolition even if its efforts are denied by the modern human rights advocates.
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