Racism, Slavery, History, and Islam

By T.O. Shanavas; Author of book: The Islamic Theory of Evolution: The Missing Link between Darwin and the Origin of Species.

In our Trump world of alternate right and other white supremacists with their anti-Semitic, Islamophobic racist creed, it is deemed necessary to  search for guidance for the Muslim interaction etiquette with the people of different races. Moreover, these Islamophobes and their media outlets spread the canard that the slavery by ISIS and Sudanese dictatorship is guided by Muslim religious text.  So, we will review the slavery at the time of the origin of Islam. Furthermore, the Islamophobia of Breitbart News and many Republican politicians has the underpinning in their white racism. And also racism and slavery are interconnected. So, the racial diversity within Islamic context also reviewed here.

It is true that Prophet tolerated slavery initially. Prophet Muhammad came at a time when slavery was sanctioned by Holy Scriptures of Jews and Christians and practiced it  all over the world. Sadly, slaves were a normal commodity in the marketplaces.

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).

The western Christians abused the Biblical verses of the curse of Ham by Noah (“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, ‘Praise be to the Lord, God of Shem. May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth  live in tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”)  to justify racism and enslavement of black Africans. They claimed that Africans are the children of Canaan and the black color of Africans  is due Noah’s curse.  Thereby, Christian ecclesiastic authorities in Europe ruled that Ham’s children, black Africans, were destined to be the  slaves to his brother’s white descendants. Noah’s curse was drafted to the service against American abolitionists in its Civil War.

Widely celebrated Muslim scholar 14th century, Ibn Khaldun rejected the Western explanation for  the black color of Africans and proposed truly a scientific explanation:

Genealogists who had no knowledge of the true nature of things imagined that Negroes were the children of Ham, the son of Noah, and they were singled out to be black as a result of Noah’s curse, which produces Ham’s color and slavery of God inflicted upon his descendants. . . . The black skin common to the inhabitants of the first and second zones [Ibn Khaldun divided northern hemisphere of the earth into seven north zones. The first zone runs along equator and is followed to the north successively by the second through seventh zones.] is the result of the composition of air in which they live, and which comes about under the influence of the greatly increased heat in the south. The sun is at the zenith there twice a year at short intervals. In all seasons, the sun is in culmination for a long time. The light of the sun, therefore, is plentiful. People there go through a very severe summer, and their skins turn black because of excessive heat. (Ibn khaldun “Muqaddimh” translation by Franz Rosenthal. Vol. I pages 169-170).

The evil of racism never existed among Muslims until the affluence from oil economy corrupted rich Arab nations even though the Qur’an cautions Muslims against racism and discrimination. It states:

Mankind was one nation…” (Qur’an 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.” (Qur’an 49:13). “Surely the believers are brethren; so reconcile between your brethren, and venerate God, that perhaps you may have mercy. (Qur’an 49:10).

Within this maxim, racial divisive fame of mind vanished from converts to Islam. Umar ibn Khattab, the son of an African mother, became the second head of state after Prophet. Bilal, an African slave, became revered companion of Prophet. The extinction of racial prejudices within Muslim community  is well documented by western historians.

Famous 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. [Will Durant: “The Story of Civilization.” New York.1950. Page 182.]

Edward W Blyden, the father of Pan-Africanism states:

Muhammadan religion, on the other hand, disregarding all advantageous circumstances, seeks for the real man, neglect accidental for essential, the adventitious for the integral. Hence it extinguished all distinctions founded upon race, color or nationality. ‘I admonish you to fear God’ said Muhammad to his followers, ‘and yield obedience to successor, although he me a black slave,’ And therefore throughout the history of Islam, in all countries, race or ‘previous condition’ has been no barrier to elevation. Frequent are the instances in which proud Arabs have submitted to the rule of aliens, even if the aliens were Negro slaves…An American missionary, resident in Egypt, calls attention to the entire absence of race-prejudices  in that country, …This liberty , so far the Negro is concerned, may be chiefly the result of Muslim rule…The religion of Jesus, after eighteen hundred years, nowhere furnishes such practical evidence cosmopolitan adaptation  and power. (Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race by Edward W Blyden. 1887. Pages 244-245)

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.’ [Veiled Mysteries Of Egypt And the Religion of Islam.  By S.H. Leeder. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912. Page. 332]

Over twelve hundred years after the above incident, we, Homo sapiens, still have remnants of racism of Cyrus in our conscience. One of the 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 expose the hypocrisy of Cal Thomas, Rabbi Hier, FOX channel, other Islamophobes and their egotistic appreciation of Western and Christian values over Islamic values. They know our nation rejected the racial ranking only after the birth of  civil right movement under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about 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.”

Two hundred years ago our nation dismantled the painful and repulsive system of slavery. We paid heavy price of flesh and blood for the right cause under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.  On the other hand, the world of Islam eliminated slavery by peaceful means. Islam at its origin, did not encourage slavery, nor did it forbid it outright. Prophet abolished slavery by (1)  the theology of religious atonement for sins by the Emancipation of a slave ; (2) preventing taking free men into slavery and prohibition of turning the prisoners of war into slaves, (3) improving the treatment of slaves by their owner;   (4) giving inalienable right to slaves to buy back their freedom, and (5) giving rights to slaves to own personal wealth and property.

God of the Qur’an 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]

The Qur’an demanded action from its faithful . According to the Qur’an, turning one’s face to East or West is not Islamic piety. The  emancipation of slaves is highlighted as one of the characteristics of a true believer and is recommended for expiation of sin:

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, Qur’an), 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. (Qur’an  2:177).

The Qur’an demanded also not to take free men and turn into slaves: “It is not fit for a prophet to take captives unless he has fought and triumphed in the land” [Quran 8:67].

Prophet preached what God legislated:

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 someone 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].

Abu Musa reported that Allah’s Messenger said about one who emancipated a slave woman, and then married her, that for him there are two rewards.  (Muslim. Book #008, Hadith #3327).

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

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].

The Qur’an and the above traditions of the Prophet convey that God of Islam dislikes slavery and Muslims are in a better position on the Day of Judgment if they do not own slaves.

Prophet (s) transformed the psyche  of both owners and slaves. The Prophet defined the slave-owner relationship and it is not the same relationship as the Caucasian west had with their slaves.The owners are required to banish from their minds all idea of self-glorification and on the other hand, the slaves were imbibed with self-assurance and self-confidence to buy back their freedom . Thus, not only was their social status raised, but they were also morally uplifted. It is reflected in the following traditions:

None of you should say: My slave, for all of you are the slaves of Allah. Rather, you should say: My boy. The servant should not say: My lord, but rather he should say: My chief. (Sahih Muslim 2249)

Along with the ordinances to raise the standard of living of the 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 buyout 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].

Prophet also  wanted  all slaves to be emancipated, and so commanded:

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “Whoever manumits his share of a jointly possessed slave, it is essential for him to manumit the slave completely if he has enough money. Otherwise he should look for some work for the slave (to earn what would enable him to emancipate himself), without overburdening him with work.   (Bukhari. Book #44, Hadith #682)

The following tradition of Prophet cites the kind and compassionate treatment of slaves:

Narrated Al-Ma’rur: At Ar-Rabadha I met Abu Dhar who was wearing a cloak, and his slave, too, was wearing a similar one. I asked about the reason for it. He replied, “I abused a person by calling his mother with bad names.” The Prophet said to me, ‘O Abu Dhar! Did you abuse him by calling his mother with bad names You still have some characteristics of ignorance. Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So, whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity (power) and if you do so, then help them.’  (Bukhari Book #2, Hadith #29).

This tradition demands that slave cannot be forced to do a work that is beyond his physical capability. This workplace disability act of Islam was enacted few  centuries later  as American disability act.

Abdul Yusr told   Ubadah, a companion of the prophet 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 a share of my worldly possessions to my slave rather than lose any reward on the Day of Judgment.  [Bukhari, Kitab Al-Zuhd]

All these Islamic legislations led to the  death of slavery  without shedding a drop of blood.  Bernard 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, like that which existed in other parts of the ancient world. The Qur’an accepted the institution, but It urges, without 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 Bernard Lewis. Page 5-8].

To summarize, the racial ranking of human species by Christian ecclesiastics for the purpose of the sanctification of slavery in the west never existed in Islam and among Muslims. The word, slave, in Islam has a different connotation. Unlike a slave in the west, a slave in Islam was treated as a member of the family and must be fed with the same food and similar clothes as the master or mistress wears. It is forbidden to overwork a slave. Slaves had the right to buy his or her freedom and the owner had no recourse but to grant freedom after payment by the slave. In other words, the slave is a contract employee treated much better than modern day contract employee. Prophet further curbed the sovereignty of owner over slave and gave certain rights to the slaves. The Prophet  raised the standard of living of slaves equal to that of their owners. The cost of  slave ownership skyrocketed under Islam because the responsibility to maintain the standard of living of slaves equal to that of  the owner fell on the shoulder of slave-owner.   As a result,  owning slaves lost its economic sense and slavery melted away among Muslim. Above all, Muslims without slaves are better off on the Day of Judgment and manumission brings atonement of sin.

Finally, we have come to the question of “why didn’t Prophet declare war on slavery as president Lincoln did?” Prophet knew that a change of heart against slavery was the more important to abolish slavery permanently. The wisdom of Prophet eliminated slavery with least  human suffering and disruption for his nation and  his people while more than a million died, millions suffered, and national life disrupted by the US civil war as result of pursuing a policy of a swift abolition the slavery in US by Abraham Lincoln.

About the author:

Author of book: “The Islamic Theory of Evolution: The Missing Link between Darwin and the Origin of Species.”

 Co-author of the book: And God Said, “Let There Be Evolution”: Reconciling the Book of Genesis, the Qur’an and the Theory of Evolution, by Prof. Charles M. Wynn and Prof. Arthur W. Wiggins (Editors)

Categories: The Muslim Times

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