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  • Writer's pictureAslam Abdullah

Islam Abolished Slavery, Jurisprudence Kept It Alive

It was 2008 when the world observed the 200th Anniversary of the abolition of slavery in America. Yet the celebrations failed to recognize the existence of slavery in modern-day times. In our world today, some 27 million people are still forced to live in slavery, three out of four slaves are women, and some 50 percent of them are children. They may not be known as slaves, as many are un-free, bonded labor, or forced labor. Experts estimate 175,00 slaves are brought into the U.S. every year with some 50,000 as prostitutes, farmworkers, and domestic servants. The CIA estimates about one million slaves in the U.S. Thousands of these people have remained unclassified as different terms given to them due to legal coercion. Even though no religious group would justify slavery from a theological perspective, the reality is that every religious community endorsed it in the name of God against the will and guidance of God.

In the sixth century Arabia, when Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to the people of Makkah, he found slavery institutionalized and rampant in Arab culture and society. The divine message he invited people to talked about slavery in detail and set two priorities before the newly emerging community of believers.

1. How to eliminate slavery once for all.

2. How to work for the freedom of those who were already slaves.

Islam prohibited slavery in a theological sense and suggested measures to eliminate sociologically. Islam proposed the gradual emancipation of the existing slaves by introducing laws that would ensure the equality of all human beings to create a just society to eliminate the institution of slavery once for all.

The Quran refers to slavery as an institution of the past. It takes a strong position against its continuation. Wherever the Quran talks about slaves, it relates to those who were slaves before the reintroduction of Islam. The Quran does not permit people to enslave others. Rather, it talks about freeing the existing slaves (90:13). The Quranic references to Aw ma malakat imanukm (4:3, 24, 25, 36; 16:71; 23:6; 24:31, 33, 50, 52, 55;70:30) are about the already existing slaves.

Islam closed the door for enslaving humans once for all. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the war prisoners were the slaves or captives. The Quran said in chapter 47 verse 47: that when you fight those who have imposed war upon you, you should confront them, and when you weaken their strength, subdue them, take the defeated ones as prisoners of war. The Quran gives further instructions demanding that POWs should either be freed or sent back after they pay compensation or through an exchange of your prisoners. The Quran emphasizes freeing them and describes this as an honorable act. It is the only verse in the Quran about taking prisoners of war. Nowhere does the Quran say that POWs should be enslaved and put in the chain of slavery for generations.

The Quran, in Chapter 3, verses 78-79, abolishes slavery. It is that no human being has the right to say to the others: "You should obey me or be my slave rather than Allah's slave. Instead, he should say is: "You should be amongst those who belong to Allah by following His Book which you study and teach to others.

Thus, from the divine text, it is clear without any ambiguity that Islam does not permit slavery in any form or shape. The Quran eliminated it and instructed the followers to embark on the process of integrating the former slaves as equal human beings in all spheres of society. The Quran's gradual approach was to ensure that people understand the dignity of human beings and create objective conditions in the community for their integration as full human beings.

The practice among Muslims of slave girls or boys was in contrast to the Quranic edict. It was the result of the social conditions prevailing in the medieval times. Even though many Muslim scholars have tried to justify slavery in the past and present, they have ignored the clear Quranic text in this context and succumbed to historical anecdotes rather than following the divine verdict. It was this historical explanation that resulted in the enslavement of millions of men and women in the Muslim world in the past and until recently, in places like Mauritania or Libya. The justification of the institution of slavery comes from historical anecdotes allegedly related to earlier Muslims than the Quranic teachings.

Even though the Quran took a solid stand against slavery, it was not until recently that the slavery was declared illegal in all Muslim countries. Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (with the notable exception of India). The French colonies re-abolished it in 1848, and the U.S. abolished slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. None of the Muslim empires from the Umayyad dynasty till the Ottoman declared it illegal and Un-Islamic. Many of Islam's great scholars were slave owners and had concubines.

Writing about 1862, the English traveler W.G. Palgrave says that in Arabia, he consistently met with black slaves in large numbers. Many others observed a similar pattern in different parts of the world. Until 1891, Muslim slave-owners had Chinese slaves as well as young girls and women used as concubines. Until 1908, the sale of black and Caucasian women were regular in Turkey. In 1925 slaves were still bought and sold in Makkah as an ordinary way of trade. These slaves were the offsprings of local slaves as well as those brought from Yemen, Africa, and other Asian countries. It was only in 1936 that Saudi Arabia prohibited the importation of slaves. It was only in 1969 that Muslim states abolished slavery finally.

Islamic jurisprudence accepted the basic principle of liberty for a person, yet it defined slavery as an exceptional condition. Some scholars described slavery as a form of punishment for unbelief. Capture in the war and birth in slavery were the reasons for the continuation of slavery. Much of the jurisprudence on slavery emerged in a patriarchal society politically controlled by despotism and authoritarianism. At times it went against the basic teachings of the Quran or what the Prophet said. Few bothered to see the relevance of the Prophet's saying in their political conditions they lived. The Prophet said that "there are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgments: of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats this money" (al-Bukhari and Ibn Majah). In another statement, he said all humans are born free.

The companions of the Prophet competed with each other in setting slaves free. The Prophet personally liberated as many as 77 slaves. The number of slaves freed by his wife 'Aishah was 67, His uncle 'Abbas released 70. The son of second Caliph' Abd Allah ibn 'Umar liberated one thousand, and another companion 'Abd al-Rahman purchased thirty thousand and set them free. How is it possible that those liberating and freeing slaves would buy new slaves against the dictates of the Quran?

Still, there are juristic positions adopted by some contemporary scholars in justification of slavery. Yet, the majority of Muslims reject and recognize slavery as anti-Islam practice.

For instance, Syed Abul A'la Maududi, the founder of the Jama'at Islami, and a translator and commentator of the Qur'an and author of several books on Islam says that "According to the Qur'an a woman who has been captured by force falls in the category of a slave girl (kaniz). And because the Qur'an confines the use of force to the fighting (qital) in the way of God, thus, a slave girl is that woman who falls in the hands of Muslims as a prisoner during the war waged in the way of God" (Rasa'il wa Masa'il 3rd Edition, p.102, vol. 3). How many slave girls a Muslim fighter may have besides his legally wedded wives? The interpreter of the Quran Syed Maududi said: "There is no limit to their numbers" (Tafhim-ul-Qur' an-commentary of the Qur'an by Maulana Maududi, vol. IV, under verse 33:52).

Syed Maududi described the attitude of the Prophet to slavery in the following words. "Those women who came into his possession from among the God-granted salve-girls, he selected for himself Hazrat Raihana, Hazrat Juwairiyah, and Hazrat Safiyah. They were prisoners of war in the battles with Banu Quraizah, Banu Mustaliq, and at Khaibar (respectively) and also Hazrat Mariyah (Mary), the Coptic sent as a gift by Maquaqis (Patriarch) of Egypt. The former three he set free and took them into wedlock while he lived with Hazrat Mariya on account of possessing her by the right hand. It is not correct to say (historically) that he set her free and took her into wedlock" (Tafhim-ul-Quran, vol. iv under verse 33:50, pp. 113-114).

Justifying this, Syed Maududi further explained: "The proper granting of the rights of possession by the State is just as legal an action as a marriage. Therefore, a person who does not show the slightest aversion to marriage, there is no reasonable ground for him to show unnecessary aversion to living with a slave girl" (Tafhim-ul-Qur' an, Vol.1, under verse 4:24, p.340)

The assertion of Syed Maududi that the Prophet did not marry Maria is not valid. A book of hadith says: 'Abdullah al-Zubairi reported: that after this the Noble Prophet married Mariah, daughter of Sham' un. She is the same Mariyah sent by Maqauqis, the ruler of Alexandria to the Prophet as a gift" (Sahih al-Mustadarak Hakim Vol. iv)

Syed Maududi also ignored the following saying of the Prophet when he remarked: "A person who has a slave-girl and trains her in the best manner and gives her the best education, then sets her free and marries her, he will have a double reward (in the next life) Mishkat-ul-Masabih Kitab-ul-Iman Ch.1; Bukhari 3:31)

How could the Prophet go against his own words? Syed Maududi and many other scholars have failed to answer this fundamental question while trying to justify an institution whose demise was pronounced by Islam.

The prevalence of slavery and concubinage system in the Muslim world until 1969 does not justify them. Scholars' silence in denouncing it and preventing the traders from engaging in this trade does not sanctify it. The practice of having concubines for one's pleasure by rulers, traders, and even scholars does not support it. Slavery was wrong, and those who were engaged in slave trades were against the fundamental teachings of Islam that build its ethics on the idea of the dignity of human beings.

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