BBC Page: Slavery in Islam

An Arab slave market

An Arab Slave Market. Ferencz-Franz Eisenhut (1857-1903). Oil on canvas. Signed and dated 1888.  All Muslim scholars want to interpret Quranic verses about slavery in the present day context for our global village.  The Muslim Times’ Editorial staff always wonders why they don’t suggest the same yard stick for women rights and other issues?

Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, ranging from Arabia in the centre to North Africa in the west and to what is now Pakistan and Indonesia in the east. Some Islamic states, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, and the Sokoto caliphate [Nigeria], must be termed slave societies because slaves there were very important numerically as well as a focus of the polities’ energies.

Encyclopaedia Britannica – Slavery

Many societies throughout history have practised slavery, and Muslim societies were no exception.

It’s thought that as many people were enslaved in the Eastern slave trade as in the Atlantic slave trade.

It’s ironic that when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished the Eastern trade expanded, suggesting that for some Africans the abolition of the Atlantic trade didn’t lead to freedom, but merely changed their slave destination.

It’s misleading to use phrases such as ‘Islamic slavery’ and ‘Muslim slave trade’, even though slavery existed in many Muslim cultures at various times, since the Atlantic slave trade is not called the Christian slave trade, even though most of those responsible for it were Christians.

Read further

Suggested reading

A Sexual Offender from ISIS: Is the Quran to Blame?

‘Islamic Law’: A Myopic Reading of the Quran

A small booklet: Islam and Slavery by Mirza Bashir Ahmad

Reading the Quran and the Bible Literally Means Demons and Jinns Will Rule Humans

The truth about Muslims and sex slavery – according to the Quran, rather than Isis or Islamophobes

CBS Video: The Duality of President Thomas Jefferson

Can the Quran be Unjust? Can the Fundamentalists Kill Anyone Who Cheats Them?

Hijab: Quran is to be Understood in the Context of Time – Every One Knows It But Does Not Say It


3 replies

  1. The Ahmadiyya Muslims view on the above topic:

    Islam and Slavery
    by Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad, M.A. (ra)
    In Islam and Slavery, Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad(ra) writes a preeminent treatise on how Islam came to not only end the practice of human slavery, but also to break down the institutional structures and prejudices that uphold slavery. Citing the Qur’an and the exemplary life of Prophet Muhammad(sa), Islam and Slavery masterfully addresses the allegations of critics of Islam, and the behaviors of extremist clerics. The author demonstrates that in Islam the only slavery is one of a worshiper’s submission to God—never of a person over another.

    Read the book in these formats

  2. Racial Diversity, harmony, The Quran, and History
    Quran admonishes Muslims against racism and discrimination based on the national and tribal origins. It states:
    “Mankind was one nation…” (10:19). “O Mankind! We created you male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other, not that you may despise each other.” (Koran 49:13). “Surely the believers are brethren; so reconcile between your brethren, and venerate God, that perhaps you may have mercy.” (Quran 49:10).

    Within this tenet, racial deference disappeared in the early Islam. Omar ibn Khathab, the son of African mother, became the second head of state after Prophet. Bilal, an African slave, became revered companion of Prophet. The extinction of racial prejudices is well documented by western historians.

    British Historian Arnold J, Toynbee states:
    “What value are we to place on Islam?…Islam’s creative gift to mankind is monotheism and we surely dare not throw this gift away…two conspicuous sources of danger—one psychological and the other material—in the present relations of this cosmopolitan proletariat [–i.e., westernized humanity–] with dominant element in our modern western society are race consciousness and alcohol; and in the struggle with each of these evils the Islamic spirit has a service to render which might prove, if it were accepted, be of high moral and social value. The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue [Arnold Toynbee: “Civilization on Trial.” London. 1957 page 87-88, 205-209].

    Similarly, American historian, philosopher, Will Durant:
    “Muhammad’s ethics transcended the limits of tribe…The believers are naught else than brothers.” (xlix, 10). Distinction of rank or race, so strong among the tribes was diminished by similarity of belief. ‘If Negro slave is appointed to rule you, hear and obey him…It was a noble conception that made one people of diverse nations scattered over continents; this is the glory of both Christianity and Islam.”
    [Will Durant: “The Story of Civilization.” New York.1950. Page 182]

    S.H.Leeder, a British historian, describes a meeting between Archbishop Cyrus and the head of deputation from Egypt:
    “‘Take away that black man!” Exclaimed the Christian Archbishop Cyrus, ‘I can have no discussion with him!’ when the Arab conquerors had sent a deputation of their ablest men to discuss terms of surrender of the capital of Egypt, headed by the Negro Ubadah, as the ablest of them.”

    “To the sacred archbishop’s astonishment, he was told that this man was commissioned by the General Amr; that the Moslems held Negroes and white men in equal respect judging a man by his character and not by his color.”

    “Well, if the Negro must lead, he must speak gently,’ ordered the prelate, so as not to frighten his white auditors”
    “The reply of the Negro shows the spirit of those early conquerors., ‘There are a thousand blacks, as myself, among our companions.’l
    [Veiled Mysteries Of Egypt And the Religion of Islam. By S.H. Leeder. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912. Page. 332]

    Fourteen hundred years after the above incident, we, human beings, still have remnants of racism of Cyrus in our conscience. Harvard university Professor and chairman of department of Paleontology, Stephen Gould, states that one of founding fathers our great nation, Abraham Lincoln said: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
    [Ref: “The Mismeasure of Man†by Stephen Jay Gould. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981. Page. 35.].

    Similarly, Thomas Jefferson said: “I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in endowment both of body and mind.”
    [Ref: “The Mismeasure of Man†by Stephen Jay Gould. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981. Page. 35.].

    I quote these statements of our founding fathers, who have reaped our genuinely deserving deep-seated admiration, not to discredit them by washing their old dirty linens in public. I cite these to remind self-righteous Cal Thomas, Rabbi Hier, Attorney General John Aschroft, FOX channel and other chauvinistic cohorts that the western leaders did not question the correctness of racial ranking until civil right movement under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about fifty years ago. Only less than fifty years ago, Rev. Martin Luther King gave his precious life for a dream to watch “the white girls and black girls, white boys and black boys” playing in our backyards as children of one nation under God.

    Our discussion on race relations above exposes Cal Thomas’ dishonest depreciation of Islamic values below western values. Most Americans—Christian, Jewish or Islamic people—value dearly an egalitarian society without race consciousness. We also must not discredit great men and founding fathers of our nation, like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, for a few isolated misguided statements.  Muslims and Islam also request same justice from Christians, Jews, and all Americans.

    West has been chastising Islam for slavery in Sudan. What is happening in Sudan is most abominable and despicable. Rulers of Sudan do not represent Islam. It is true that Prophet tolerated it. Prophet (pbup) came at a time when slavery was sanctioned by Holy Scriptures. Unfortunately, slaves were a normal commodity in the market place. For example, “ye, shall take them (the slaves) as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them (the slaves) for a possession, they shall be your bondmen (slaves) for ever . . . “ [LEVITICUS 25:46]. “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, then you shall besiege it . . . you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle and everything else in the city all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-17) “Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever” (Leviticus 25:44-46). “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forward” (1 Peter 2:18). “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” (Ephesians 6:5).

    However, Islam does not encourage slavery, nor does it forbid it outright. Islam abolished slavery by (1) improving the treatment of slaves by their owners, (2) preventing taking free men into slavery, (3) prohibiting the turning of the prisoners of war into slaves, (4) giving inalienable right to slaves to buy back their freedom, (5) giving rights to slaves to own personal wealth and property, and (5) the concept of manumission of slaves to please God and to get amnesty from God for individual sins.

    Slave in Islam has different meaning. Unlike a slave in the west, a slave in Islam was treated as a member of the household, and must be fed with the same food and clothed with the similar clothes as the master or mistress does. The standard of living of the slaves should be on par with that of their owners. It is forbidden to overwork a slave and the slave has the right to buy his or her freedom and the owner does not have the right under law to refuse. In other words, the slave is a contract employee treated much better than modern day contract employee. The Prophet (pbuh) improved the life standard of the existing slaves equal to that of their owners. He further constrained the power of owner over slave and gave certain rights to the slaves.

    The Sayings of Prophet also defined the slave-owner relationship and it is not the same relationship as the Caucasian west had with slaves until very recently. The following tradition of Prophet shows the proper and kind treatment of slaves. Abu Zar, a companion of the Holy Prophet relates that the Prophet used to say,
    “Your slaves are your brethren. So, if any one you happen to have a slave, you give slave the same food that he himself eats, and the same clothing that he himself wears. And do not give them such work as is beyond their power to perform, and if you ever happen to give them such work, you should help them in doing it.” [Bukhari, kitab Al-Itq].

    This tradition teaches that slave is not forced to do a work that is beyond his physical capability. This workplace disability act of Islam was promulgated centuries before American disability act came into existence.

    Abdul Yusr told  Ubadah, a companion of the Prophet (pbuh), said:
    “Dear nephew, my eyes have seen, my ears have heard, my mind remembers that the Holy Prophet used to enjoin, ‘Give to your slaves the same food that you eat and give same garment that you yourselves wear. Therefore, I prefer to give of my worldly possessions an equal share to my slave rather than lose any reward on the Day of Judgment.”
    [Bukhari, Kitab Al-Zuhd].
    This tradition brings to our attention that Prophet’s companions faithfully acted upon his commands regarding the treatment of slaves. Companions accepted that slave and the owner must have same quality of life. This tradition also teaches that on the Day of Judgment God loves those who treat slaves humanely.

    Abu Huraira reports, that the Holy Prophet used to say,
    “Let not one of you say, ‘my slave’ or ‘O my bondsmaid’, but let him say, ‘My boy’ or ‘My girl’. Similarly the slaves should not address their masters as, ‘My Lord’ or ‘My Master’ but simply say as ‘Sir.’”  [Bukhari. Kitab Al-Itq].

    Prophet (s) wanted a change in the mentality of both owners and slaves. On one hand, the owners are required to banish from their minds all idea of self-glorification and on the other, the slaves have been taught self-assurance. Thus not only was their social status raised, but they were also morally uplifted. As a result slavery was eliminated among true Muslims.

    Another tradition states:
    “Whoever emancipates a slave, God will grant him deliverance from the hell-fire, limb for limb.” [Bukhri, Kitab Al-Iman Al Nudhur].
    These traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) convey that God does not like slavery and Muslims are in a better position on the Day of Judgment if they do not have slaves. This teaching of Islam is not merely a commendatory; it was religious ordinances for Muslims and early Muslims rigorously practiced it.

    An example is an event in the life of Abu Masood, one of the companions of Prophet (pbuh), who took part in the Battle of Badr. Abu Masood said: “ Once when I was chastising my slave for some offence of his, I heard voice from behind me saying, ‘Abu Masood, what are you doing?’ But being enraged, I did not recognize the voice and went on chastising him. Then the voice drew nearer and grew louder and when I looked back, I saw that the Prophet, himself was rapidly advancing towards me, saying, ‘Abu Massod, what are doing?’ When I saw him, my stick dropped from my hand. The Prophet cast an angry look at me, and said, ‘Abu Masood, do you not know there is God above you who has far greater power over you than you seem to have over your slave. I said, ‘O Messenger of God forgive me, I set this slave free for Allahâ’s sake.’ The Prophet said, ‘If you had not done so, the fire of Hell would have scorched your face.’ [Ref: Muslim, Kitab Al-Iman]

    Unlike the western slave-master, Muslims have no total control over the slaves as illustrated by the following tradition of the Prophet. Ibn Abbas, Prophet’s cousin, says: Once a slave came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God, my master had married me to his bondwoman, but he now he desires to annul the marriage and separate us from each other.’ Thereupon, the Prophet ascended the pulpit in great rage, and addressing the people said, ‘O you Muslims, why is that you first marry your slaves to your bondwomen and desire to separate them from one another of your accord. Remember that you have no power to do that. The right of divorce rests in the husband and you cannot compel your slaves to divorce their wife.’”
    [Ref: Ibn Majah, Kitab Al-Talaq].

    Along with the ordinances to raise the standard of living of the existing slaves equal to the owner of the slave, the Quran legislated the means for the slaves to buy themselves out of servitude as modern day American contract employee buy out his servitude to his employer. Quran states:
    “And any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing to enable them to earn their freedom for a sum, give them such a deed.” [Quran 24:33].

    It must also be born in mind that the question of buying out the servitude did not depend upon the preference of the master; it is obligatory. Whenever a slave demanded such a contract, the master has no right to refuse it. It is on the record that once Sirin, a slave of Prophet’s companion Anas, desired his master to give him a contract of freedom on payment of a certain sum, but Anas, thinking that he was a rich man and needed no money, refused to make the required contract. Sirin complained to Omar, the second Caliph, who summoned Anas and ordered him to give Sirin the desired contract. Anas refused; Omar thereupon hit him with a whip and recited above verse. [Ref: Bukhari, Kitab Al-Mukatabat]

    God of Islam dislikes slavery. So, the Qur’an encourages liberating slaves.
    “Have We not created for men two eyes, and a tongue and two lips, and have We not shown him the two paths– evil and virtue? Yet he did not hurl himself on to the different way. What makes you know what the difficult way is? It is the freeing the slave, or feeding on a day of famine, an orphan who is near of kin, or an indigent who is in apparent misery. Then he should be those who believe, and enjoin one another in patience, and enjoined one another in compassion. Such are the companions of the right hand. But those who disbelieve in Our signs are the companions of the left hand. Around them there will be an encompassing fire.”
    [The Qur’an 90: 9-20]

    “It is not piety that you turn your faces towards the East or the West, but pious are those who believe in God, and the hereafter, the angels, the Books (Torah, Psalm, Gospels, Koran), and the prophets; and those who, for the love of God, give of their wealth, to kinsmen, the orphans, the indigent, wayfarers, beggars, and for the redemption of slaves;”
    (Koran 2:177).

    The Prophet’s teachings also reflect such encouragement to free existing slaves. Baraa’s son Azib relates that once an Arab of the desert came to the Prophet and said: ‘O Prophet of God, let me know by doing which I may go straight to heaven.’ Prophet replied : ‘Your question is brief, but you have asked a big thing. Emancipate a slave; and if you cannot do it alone, do it jointly with others.”
    [Ref: Baihaqi, as quoted by Mishkat in Kital Al-Itq]. 

    Another tradition states:
    “If any of you have a slave girl, whom you give good education and excellent training, and then he emancipate her and marry her, he shall get a two-fold reward.”
    [Ref:Bukhari, Kitab Al-Nikah].

    Prophet and his companions set free from the very beginning of the Prophet’s mission. The following list, which no means complete and which gives the names of only a few of the companions by way of example, is enough to bear out the truth of liberation of slaves by Muslims.

    Name of liberator and Number of slaves liberated.
    Prophet 63.
    Ayesha, 70.
    Hakim bin Hizam 100.
    Abdullah Omar. 1000.
     Abdur Rahman bin Auf 30,000.
    Othman, the third Calif 20.
    Dzul-Kifa Himiari Himiari. 8000.
    [Ref: Subul A-Salam, Kitab Al-Itq].

    To prevent further slavery by Muslim the Qur’an prohibits the taking free men as captives:
    “it is not fit for a prophet to take captives unless he has fought and triumphed in the land” [Quran 8:67].

    Even when captives are taken in war, Muslims are ordered to release them:
    “So, when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, smite the necks; then, when you have overcome them, make (them) prisoners, afterwards set them free or for ransom till the war lay down its burdens” [Quran 47:4].

    The significance of these is fully understood when we ponder over the western slavery of Africans and the sad story of Kunda Kindae of Alex Hailey’s movie. Prophet gives the most positive and clear and direct injunctions to the effect that it is a great sin and act of most heinous nature to reduce a free men to slavery, an act for which the offender shall be severely called to account. For instance, we may quote the following saying of holy Prophet in Bukhari:

    Abu Huraira relates that the Prophet used to say that God has spoken to him saying: “There are three classes of men with whom I will make war on the Day of Judgment. Firstly, the man who makes a covenant with some one in my name and then break it. Secondly, the man who enslaves a free man, sells him and eats his price. Thirdly, the man who employs a man to do a work and extracts full work from him but does not pay his wage.”
    [Ref: 1. Bukhari, Kitab Al-Bai and 2. Abu Daud as quoted by Fath Al-Baree].

    Bernad Lewis, Professor at Princeton University, states:
    But Qur’anic legislation, subsequently confirmed and elaborated in the Holy law, brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far reaching effects. One of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances. The Qur’an was promulgated in Mecca and Medina in the seventh century, and the background against which Qur’anic legislation must be seen ancient Arabia. Arabs practiced a form of slavery, similar to that which existed in other parts of the ancient world. The Qur’an accepted the institution, but It urges, without actually commanding, kindness to the slave¦ and recommends, without requiring, his liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiration of sin (Koran 4:92; 58:3) and as an act of simple benevolence (Koran 2:177; 24:33; 90:13). It exhorts masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their freedom. An important change from Pagan era …the believing slave is now the brother of the freeman in Islam and before God, and superior of the free pagan and idolaters (II:221). This point is emphasized in innumerable hadiths (traditions)…The recruitment of slave population by natural increase seems to have been small and, right through to modern times [in Muslim world], insufficient to maintain numbers. This is striking contrast with conditions in the New World, where the slave population increased very rapidly. Several factors contributed to this difference, perhaps the most important being that slave population in the Islamic Middle East was constantly drained by liberation of slaves ”sometimes as an act of piety, most commonly though the recognition and liberation, by a freeman, of his own offspring by slave mother.†[Ref: Race And Slavery in the Middle East by Bernad Lewis. Page 5-8].

    Finally, we have come to the question of “why Prophet and Islam did not free all slaves in one-stroke-declaration as president Lincoln did?” Prophet (pbuh) knew that change of heart against slavery was most important to abolish abolition of slavery permanently. The result is a least human suffering and disruption for his nation and its people while more than a million died, millions suffered, and national life disrupted in the US civil war as result of seeking abrupt change in the slavery practices in US by Abraham Lincoln.

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