Although the institution of slavery stands legally abolished and it does not exist in the world of today, yet it is being discussed in this book as the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet of Islam have many injunctions about the humane treatment of the slaves and the failure of the Muslims to take initiative and abolish this curse has brought very harsh criticism against Islam.

            The institution of slavery had been in existence since times immemorial. It was much before the advent of Islam that the institution was well established in the social system of every nation. However, the treatment given to the slaves was inhuman and very cruel. They were considered a mere commodity and not human beings. They were marketable and heritable and like cattle or property they could be disposed of by bequest or will. A slave had no rights whatsoever although he was burdened with cumbersome duties and obligations. They had no legal status and led a life of unmitigated drudgery in the hands of the pitiless masters. They were never fed properly but given provisions just sufficient to keep them alive and fit to do their master’s work. While working in the fields they were fettered in heavy chains so that they could not run away. They were often beaten for small mistakes and sometimes even without mistake just for the savage pleasure of their sadist masters. Their masters had absolute right even to kill them or exploit them in any way. They were mercilessly and brutally treated without any right to complain even. Such was the miserable plight in which the slaves were living in Roman Empire, Persia, Egypt, India and everywhere when Islam arrived on the scene to deliver them from this condition.

            Al-Islam the most benevolent and humanitarian religion took many practical measures to improve the lot of this down-trodden section of humanity. It wonderfully mitigated their sufferings by encouraging its followers to emancipate the slaves, by helping the slaves to purchase their freedom, by putting an end to the sources which perpetuate slavery, by restoring the slaves their human status and dignity, by permitting marriages of slaves, by encouraging inter-marriages between free Muslims and Muslim slaves, and above all by granting them legal rights.

            Today slavery is abolished and the credit for its abolition has been taken by the Western man who promulgated laws during nineteenth century to remove this curse from humanity. The question arises: Why Islam – despite being a champion of slaves’ emancipation – did not abolish slavery by making a law as it did in case of usury, drinking and gambling? There is no easy answer to this question. The institution of slavery was well-rooted in the social system of every nation of the world at that time. There were many social, psychological and political problems involved with this institution that no legal enactment or social reform could have abolished it at once. It is perhaps due to this fact that Islam did not abruptly abolish it by making a law. However, by taking effective and practical measures Islam set a stage for its ultimate abolition.     

            Now let us discuss in brief the rights granted by Islam to the slaves and the measures taken by this great religion for ultimate abolition of the institution of slavery through evolutionary process. However, before we proceed, kindly keep in view the following verses of the Qur’an: 2:177; 2:221; 4:25; 4:36; 4:92; 5:89; 9:60; 24:32-33; 90:11-16;

Treatment of the slaves

1.   First thing which Islam did regarding the slaves was that their lost status and dignity as human beings was restored. The common descent of human being was emphasized by the Qur’an when it declared: O mankind! Fear your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain He scattered (like seeds) countless men and women.   (4:1)

            The Qur’an calls the believers as brothers of each other (49:10), while the Prophet of Islam declared that one Muslim is brother of another Muslim. About the slaves, prophet Muhammad (PBUH) enjoined upon his followers: “Your brethren Allah has placed them under your hands…… So feed them out      of what you eat and clothe them with what you clothe yourselves.”

            As a mark of respect for the feelings of the slaves, the Prophet commanded       his companions: “Don’t say: This is my slave and this is my slave-girl: rather say: This is my man and this is my maiden.” Prophet (PBUH) married his cousin Zainab to his freed slave Zaid and appointed son of Zaid to command an army which included great companions like Abu Bakr, Umar and Ali.  

2.   The Qur’an enjoins upon the believers to show kindness to the slaves (4:36). The Prophet (PBUH) has given instructions to his followers that they should treat the slaves like their own children and should give them food out of what they eat. According to some Traditions, the believers should consider the slaves like brothers. The slaves must be provided food, clothes and residential place. They should not be entrusted with a work which they are unable to do. If the assignment is difficult, the master should assist the slave. The Prophet declared that the worst of the men is he who beats his slave and does not help him in performing a difficult task. If a slave makes mistakes, he should be pardoned as many as seventhly times a day. In case he disobeys, he may be sold but no punishment should be inflicted on him. False allegations should not be made against an innocent slave. One who treats a slave badly will not enter paradise. The families of the slaves should not be separated from them.

3.   Marriages between free Muslims and believing slaves were permitted. The Qur’an rather exhorted the Muslims to prefer the believing slaves over the idolaters and non-believers who are free and who may be wealthy and good looking. It says: “And marry not the polytheist women till they believe; because a believing slave woman is certainly better than a free polytheist woman even though she may look more attractive to you. And give not your daughters in marriage to polytheists till they believe; because a believing slave is better than a polytheist even though he may look more attractive to you…… (2:221). Those Muslims who could not afford to marry free believing women were encouraged to marry believing maids (slave-girls) by the Qur’an (4:25).

4.   Slaves were not allowed to marry according to prevalent custom, as the owners would be partly deprived of their service on account of the preoccupation of the slaves with their families. However, Islam abolished such restrictions. The Qur’an say: And get such of you married who are single, and also those who are pious of your slaves and your slave women……” (24:32). Thus the Qur’an has enjoined upon the believers not only to permit those male and female slaves who are capable of assuming the responsibilities of marriage to marry but also to make arrangements for such marriages.

5.   Besides granting them human status and ensuring them benevolent treatment, Islam gave the slaves many legal rights. In Islam the slaves enjoy the same rights to life, honour and property as the free Muslims have. The Prophet of Islam declared: “He who kills his slave, we shall kill him; who mutilates his nose, we shall cut his nose; and who gelds our slave, we shall get him gelded in return”.

According to the criminal law of Islam, anyone who kills a slave, steals his property, dishonours him or inflicts any injury on him, will be punished in the same way as the slave or any other free man would be punished for committing the same offences. Similarly civil law of Islam recognizes their right to own property and even their masters have no right to use their property without their will.  

6.   The slaves in Islam enjoyed ranks and positions unparalleled in the history of man. The first Muazzen (caller to prayer) in Islam was Bilal, a negro slave. He was a close companion of the Prophet (PBUH) and was appointed commander of an army. Zaid, who was a freed slave of the Prophet (PBUH) was married to Zainab, a cousin of the Prophet. The prophet himself appointed Zaid as commander of an army in the Muta expedition. The Prophet also appointed Usama, son of Zaid, as commander of a Muslim army which included the great companions of the Prophet (PBUH) like Abu Bakr, Umar, Ali and Uthman. Salman Farsi was slave and Ali said about him that “he was one of our household (family member)”.

Steps for abolition of Slavery

1.   For freedom of slaves Islam adopted two measures: voluntary emancipation by the masters (called Al-Itq) and help to the slaves in purchasing of freedom by writing deed of emancipation with their masters (called Mukatabah). These are discussed in detail as under:

(a) Islam motivated voluntary manumission of slaves by positive injunctions. According to the Qur’an, to set a slave free is no doubt an uphill task save for those who are the righteous. In the sight of the Qur’an one of the virtues of the righteous and pious is that they free the slaves. Freeing of slaves has been made by the Qur’an an expiation for certain sins and offences like murder, breaking of oath, divorce by Zihar, etc. Some rules and regulations have been laid down by the Qur’an and Hadith for atonement of certain sins and religious irregularities through emancipation of slaves. Beating of a slave is a great sin and it can only be atoned by setting that slave free. Liberating of slaves is one of the eight heads of expenditure on which Zakat funds can be spent by an Islamic state.

            Islam considers it a great act of piety to free a slave or help him in getting his freedom. There are many verses in the Qur’an and Ahadith of the Prophet (PBUH) which encourage the believers to free their slaves for the pleasure of Allah. Manumission of slaves, according to Traditions of Prophet Muhammad, is an act which takes its doer to Paradise. The more expensive and loved a slave is, the greater would be the goodness and virtue in setting him free. Whoever frees a Muslim slave, it becomes his redemption in protecting him from Hell. One who has a slave girl and who teaches her manners, frees her and then marries her would receive double rewards from the Almighty. The Prophet (PBUH) declared that nothing is more dearer to Allah than manumission of slaves. The Prophet also said that even pleading for manumission brings reward.

            Inspired by the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet of Islam, Muslims vied with each other in liberating as many slaves as they could. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself liberated as many as 63 slaves. His companion Abu Bakr liberated more than 100 slaves. Prophet’s wife Ayesha liberated 67, Abbas liberated 70, Abdullah bin Umar liberated one thousand slaves. Slaves were purchased and liberated by the early Muslims as an act of worship. The result was that by the end of the period of pious caliphate, almost all the old slaves in Arabia had been freed.

(b)       Slaves have also been encouraged by Islam to purchase their freedom from their masters. If a slave shows interest to purchase his freedom and proposes to execute deed of emancipation (called Makatbah), the offer cannot be rejected by his master according to the opinion of some leading Muslim jurists. The master has to accept the offer though the amount of consideration can be settled by mutual negotiations. Once the amount is settled, the owner would not only provide the time to the slave enabling him to earn the stipulated amount but he is also expected to show magnanimity in reducing or remitting the amount. Other Muslims and Islamic state are also expected to help such slaves who have entered into agreements of emancipation. According to the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Allah considers it His duty to help a covenanted slave who intends to pay for his freedom.

2.   Islam tried to put an end to all those sources whence slavery sprang up. Let us see to what extent it was successful. There were two sources of perpetuating slavery, namely: capture of free men, women and children in peace times and their sale in markets; and prisoners who were taken in a war and later on made slaves.

(a) Islam brought an end to both the sources. So far as the first source of giving birth to slavery is concerned, Islam has strictly forbidden and condemned catching free people and making them slaves. According to a Hadith, the Prophet of Islam is reported to have said that Allah would be an opponent of three persons on the Day of Resurrection, one of them being a person who sold a free man and enjoyed his price. 

(b) Regarding the second source i.e. the captives taken in a war, though Islam permits to make them slaves, yet the most preferred and recommended course of action about them is that they should be freed either by grace or against a ransom. The Qur’an says: So when you meet the disbelievers in battle, smite at their necks till, when you have routed them, then bind them firmly (making them prisoners). And after-word, when the war lays down its burden, then either show grace (by freeing the prisoners gratis) or accept ransom (for their release). This is the law (laid down regarding the prisoners of war)……” (47:4).This means that the Muslims, when they meet the disbelievers in a battle, should first of all crush the enemy and defeat them completely, and afterwards they may take prisoners. But even such prisoners of war may be freed either with grace (without consideration) or with ransom (with consideration such as money or exchange of prisoners with the enemy or for some service from the prisoners). The verse reproduced above also lays down that it is only in a battle with the disbelievers that the captives can be taken and not in a battle with the Muslims. It means that if there is a battle between the Muslims (God forbid), the victorious Muslims would not be taking the defeated Muslims as prisoners and making them slaves. That is why the Prophet of Islam is reported to have said that no Muslim can be made slave.

            During the reign of the Prophet (PBUH), seventy-eight expeditions were organized against the enemies of Islam and only in very few of them prisoners were taken. In most of the cases the prisoners were set free gracefully without any consideration and in very few cases ransom was accepted. This example of the Prophet (PBUH) was followed by his immediate successors known in history as the rightly guided caliphs. During their reign many new countries were conquered but no prisoners of war were taken.  

The Prophet of Islam is also reported to have said that no Arab can be made a slave and this principle was later on extended during the reign of caliph Umar to all the inhabitants of conquered countries.     

3.   One of the major factors which promoted slavery and encouraged the trade in slave-girls was that the slave-girls were used for prostitution. Even the rich persons enjoying high status in society did not feel any shame in earning income through prostitution. It is reported that rich man like Abdullah-bin-Ubayy who was a tribal chief (and a hypocrite) had purchased some slave-girls whom he forced to earn for him as prostitutes. Islam abolished this evil custom. The Qur’an says: “And do not force your slave women to prostitution, if they desire to preserve their chastity, in order that you may make some gain…….” (24:33).

Relations with Bondwomen

            Although the foregoing discussion made in this Chapter relates both to the male and female slaves equally, yet we feel inclined to dilate a little more on the institution of bondwomen and slave-girls separately because the existence of this institution in Islam has not only instigated criticism from the enemies of Islam but the institution has also put the muslim scholars to embarrassment because of its misuse by the licentious and lustful persons among the ruling and wealthy classes during the imperial era of Islam.

            Bondwomen or slave girls are those non-Muslim females who fall prisoners of war in the hands of the Muslim troops. Their marriage ties, in case they were married, are broken by the fact that they have come into the Islamic Zone while their husbands have been left behind in war zone (Dar-ul-Harb). Such women, according to most of the Muslim scholars and jurists, are lawful for the purpose of sex without marriage for those persons in whose possession they are formally given by the chief of the armed forces of Islam or by the head of the Islamic state. According to them, none but the one whom the slave girl is given has the right to touch her. The offspring of such a woman from his seed shall be his lawful children and shall have the same legal rights as are given by the Divine Law to children from one’s legally married wife. After the birth of a child she cannot be sold as a slave girl and shall automatically become free after her master’s death.

          Contrary to the above view, some scholars hold that cohabitation with bond women and slave-girls without marriage is unlawful. Muhammad Asad, who is one of such thinkers, while commenting on verse 3 of Surah 4 in his book “The Message of the Qur’an” writes that condition of having maximum four wives is applicable in the case of free women as well as slave-girls. According to him, “Contrary to the popular view and the practice of many Muslims in the past centuries, neither the Qur’an nor the life-example of the Prophet provides any sanction for sexual intercourse without marriage”. At another place, while commenting on verse 25 of Surah 4, he says: “This passage lays down in an unequivocal manner that sexual relations with female slaves are permitted only on the basis of marriage, and that in this respect there is no difference between them and free women, consequently, concubineage is ruled out”.


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