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Slavery is Abolished by Islam Once and For All

It was the year 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 of them are described as un-free labor or bonded labor or forced labor. It is estimated that some 17,500 slaves are brought into the US every year with some 50,000 working as prostitutes, farm workers, and domestic servants. The CIA estimates about one million slaves in the US. Thousands of these people have remained unclassified as they are not recognized as slaves due to legal coercion. Despite the fact that no religious group would justify slavery from a theological perspective, the reality is that slavery has been practiced by all religious communities 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 talk 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 proposed gradual emancipation of the existing slaves by introducing laws that would ensure equality of all human beings and that would also help create a just society to eliminate the institution of slavery once for all. Thus the Quran refers to slavery as an institution of the past and does not support the idea of its continuation. Wherever the Quran talks about slaves, it refers to those who were enslaved before the reintroduction of Islam. The Quran does not say that people are allowed 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) refer to those who were enslaved in the past.

Islam closed the door for enslaving humans once and for all. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the war prisoners were the ones who were taken as slaves or captives. The Quran said in chapter 47 verse 47: that when you fight those who have imposed war upon you, you too should be prepared to confront them and when their strength is broken and you have subdued them, then you should take the remaining as prisoners of war. Then the Quran gives instruction saying they should either be freed or sent back after they pay compensation or through an exchange of your own prisoners. The Quran lays emphasis on freeing them and describes this as an honorable act. This is the only verse in the Quran pertaining to taking prisoners of war. Nowhere does the Quran say that such people should be enslaved and put in the chain of slavery for generations.

The Quran further explains in Chapter 3 verses 78-79 that the fundamental principle of Deen is that no human being – even though Allah may have given him a Code of Laws or the power to enforce it or even Prophethood – has the right to say to the others: “You should obey me or you should be my slave rather than Allah’s slave. What 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 slavery in any form or shape is not permitted in Islam. The Quran eliminated the institution of slavery once for all and instructed the followers to embark on the process of integrating the former slaves as equal human beings in all spheres of society. The gradual approach the Quran adopted was to ensure that people understand the idea of the dignity of human beings and create objective conditions in society 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 in the past and present have tried to justify slavery, 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. It should also be mentioned that much of 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 an exceptionally strong stand against slavery, it was not until recently that the slavery was legally abolished in all Muslim countries.

Writing about 1862 the English traveler W.G. Palgrave says that in Arabia he constantly met with black slaves in large numbers. There were many others who observed a similar pattern in different parts of the world. Until 1891, Muslim slave-owners had Chinese slaves to girls and women used as a concubine. Until 1908, the sale of black and Caucasian women was common 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 slavery was defined as an exceptional condition. Some scholars defined slavery as a form of punishment for unbelief. Capture in the war and birth in slavery were seen 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 were living in. 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).

The companions of the prophet competed with each other in setting slaves free. The Prophet personally liberated as many as 63 slaves. The number of slaves freed by his wife 'Aishah was 67, His uncle 'Abbas liberated 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, according to the Qur'an a slave girl is that woman who falls in the hands of Muslims as a prisoner during the course of war waged in the way of God" (Rasa'il wa Masa'il 3rd Edition, p.102, vol. 3). Responding to the question, 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).

Describing the attitude of the Prophet to slavery, Syed Maududi writes: "According to this permission, 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, who were taken, as prisoners of war in the skirmishes 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 has not been established (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 true. In one of the books it is mentioned "It is reported from 'Abdullah al-Zubairi who said: that after this the Noble Prophet married (tazawwaju) Mariah daughter of Sham'un. This is the same Mariyah who was 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 basic question while trying to justify an institution whose demise was pronounced by Islam.

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