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Published on April 12th, 2015 | by Admin | Views: 2466


Islam and Slavery

A topic that tends to come up sometimes, especially amongst orientalists and anti-Islamic critics, is that of Islam and slavery. It is often used to cause mass confusion in society, so I think it is worth actually explaining this topic properly.

Islam came to address all aspects of civilization, and then to change it to the correct way. Part of that meant addressing the reality of slavery.

Slavery, as addressed in Islam, has two separates aspects: first is the treatment of those who have already been enslaved from before, and second is addressing the ways society at the time enslaved people.

So first let’s look at people who had already been enslaved.

The existence of slavery was common-place, to the extent that R. Watkins mentions that no known part of the world was free from taking people as slaves. In fact, even after Islam addressed this topic, for the next 1000 years other civilizations continued to engage in it. Even to this very day, we still see enslavement, whether through sweat-shops driven by capitalist corporations, or economic enslavement through tools like credit.

The first question most people might ask is why Islam didn’t simply abolish slavery instantly? However, what we find is that the reality then is not like the reality now, which was that slavery was a part of the entire geo-political world.

Historically we also saw the type of slavery as one of inferiority, or of race (especially experienced by those who were not ethnically white). In fact, in some more recent and prominent examples we saw slavery of the black people of Africa, but there was also enslavement of Chinese, of subcontinent peoples, and of natives.

So when Islam was revealed, it started to first address those that had been enslaved by the corrupt society at the time. It addressed their treatment and we see in verse 36 of surah an-nisa, that Islam mentioned to do ihsaan (perfection) in the treatment of parents, and in the same line also mentions this about those that were enslaved. In the explanation (tafsir) of this verse, it mentions that the treatment of slaves should be such that one sees oneself as no different than the slaves, because all of mankind is a slave only to Allah. And Allah subjects some of mankind to more wealth and some to less as an example, and this doesn’t make you superior or inferior, rather it is simply the reality of your situation at the time.

Many people like quoting the verse that mentions ‘whatever your right hand possesses’ but then they do not bring about all the evidences relating to the topic. For example:

“Fear Allah regarding what your right hand possesses. They are your brothers and Allah has put them under your charge. Feed them with what you eat, clothe them with what you wear and do not impose duties upon them which will make it difficult for them. If you impose duties, then help them…” [Sahih Muslim]

Or this hadith:

“Let not any one of you say ‘My slave’ (`abdi) and ‘my slave-girl’ (amati). All of you are the slaves of Allah and all of your women are the slave-girls of Allah. Rather say, ‘my boy’ (ghulami), ‘my girl’ (jariyati), ‘my young boy’ (fataya) and my young girl’ (fatati).” [Sahih Muslim]

When a person reflects on this, they realize it is no longer consistent with the narratives of orientalists or anti-islam critics. This is because not only does this not align with what we are taught as the definition of a slave, but rather when one considers the reality of what slavery was at 1400 years ago, these things are very radical.

It also makes sense why historically so many in places like Africa or South-east Asia or even eastern Asia embraced Islam so openly, and still have a deep love for it. Because Islam gave the people who embraced it the same worth as humans.

We can see that in the examples as follows:

The prophet peace be upon him also said: “Whoever kills his slave, we will kill him”. [Ahmad]

“Whoever slaps his slave or strikes him, his expiation (kaffara) is to free him.” [Sahih Muslim]

So the punishment for killing a ‘slave’ is to yourself be killed, and to strike them grants them removal from their reality. This idea even in recent history is extremely radical, and was something that society has not been able to get past until about the last 200 years when finally much of society started to leave physical slavery in favor of economic slavery.

When we go to Islamic history itself, we find that many of those who were still left as remnants of slavery were amongst the best of the people. For instance, some of the greatest scholars of Islam were previously slaves. Ata ibn abi rabah of makkah, taghoos ibn kaysan of yemen, or yazid ibn habib of egypt, or makhool of al-sham, or dahaaq of hijaz. These were all freed slaves, all alive at the same time, and all the very top scholar of their land. Or the example of the mamlooks who fought to defend Islam as leaders of the army, and many of the rulers themselves were in fact the sons of ‘slaves.’ So the reality of being a slave was changed by Islam itself, because a person was generally known by their righteousness.

This was purely to first address the reality of the goe-political enslavement and its trade as it existed, and the Islamic rules were designed to eventually pave the way to its abolition.

So what about the actual enslavement of people going forward, and did Islam promote it or work to abolish it?Since the first part seemed to benefit people, let us look at what Islam actually says about the topic of enslavement and the path it laid out going forward.

The first question most people might ask is why Islam didn’t simply abolish slavery instantly? However, what we find is that the reality then is not like the reality now, which was that slavery was a part of the entire geo-political world.

As L.D. Agate mentions about the Roman Empire at the time: “…the immediate abolition or attempted abolition of slavery in Roman empire would probably have led to the collapse of the society.” Since slavery was such a cornerstone of all society, Islam instead changed the landscape itself, to pave the way for its abolition going forward. Even today’s change of physical slavery to economic slavery took centuries.

When we look at the Islamic texts, we notice that Islam created doors by which slaves could be freed, but closed doors by which people could become enslaved.

For instance, I previously mentioned that the expiation for striking a slave was to release them from their reality. And in this way, Islam made the freeing of a slave as the requirement to be forgiven for many sins.

Some of the other avenues that required the freeing of slaves included: your relatives under your slavery, the breaking an oath, calling your wife like your mother and wanting to go back to your wife after, breaking fast in Ramadan by engaging in direct intimacy, killing a believer by accident, etc.

It also encouraged to free them just to be given mercy for ones own self. So in verses 11-13 of Surah Al Balad Allah encourages to ‘free the neck’ of the slave, and the prophet peace be upon him narrated that “Whichever man frees a Muslim man, Allah Most High will liberate for each of his organ an organ from the Fire.”

And Islam also created a method for the slave to simply leave his reality by way of contract, as mentioned in verse 33 of Surah An Noor “If any of your slaves wish to pay for their freedom, make a contract with them accordingly, if you know they have good in them, and give them some of the wealth Allah has given you…”

And Islam did not leave it there. It then made it part of the Islamic state’s zakah fund to free slaves. It is mentioned in verse 60 of Surah At Tawbah: “Zakat are meant only for the poor, the needy, those who administer them, those whose hearts need winning over and for freeing slaves (riqab) and helping those in debt, for Allah’s cause and for travellers in need. This is ordained by Allah; Allah is all knowing and wise…”

So Islam revised the reality of being a slave itself, and intervened in the reality of slavery to slowly eliminate it from society.

The final aspect of this topic is the question about the acquisition of slaves themselves.

Historically there were many ways to acquire slaves, and it had always been quite normal. In the society at the time some of ways to acquire slaves would be: if a person couldn’t pay their debt, if they engaged in thievery, if they committed certain sins in the society, if they were conquered in wars, etc.

So when Islam was revealed, it took those situations and then changed the solutions from enslavement to something else. So for the debt Islam offered extension on payment of the debt, for thievery (based on wants, and not due to poverty) as the cutting of the hands, banning the ability of the free person to be taken as a slave, etc.

For war, Islam legislated the complete prevention of taking prisoners of war as slaves, and gave the option to either release them, or to exchange them for money or other captives. This is mentioned in verse 4 of Surah Muhammad: “When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly – later you can release them by grace or by ransom – until the toils of war have ended.”

As for what the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) actually did in the battle of Hunayn was to take women and children who were offered by the combatants from the mushrikun to fight in order to swell the numbers and incite their men to fight in the battle field as war booty. So when they were defeated in the battlefield, the women and children became war booty (sabaya) and the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) divided them between the Muslim fighters. When he (peace be upon him) was requested to reconsider this matter, he asked the Muslims to relinquish their right to this war booty voluntarily and returned the prisoners to their people.

What this indicates is only the permissibility of taking women and children that accompany the men in the battlefield to increase their numbers and for inciting them to fight as slaves. As for other than women and children, i.e. male combatants, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) never enslaved any one of them and so it is not correct to say he enslaved any male combatant whether Arab, Jew or Christian.

The word “prisoner of war” (asir) in its unrestricted sense designates a male combatant and the word “war-booty/captive” (sabaya) designates women and children and not prisoners of war. From this it becomes clear that Islam prevents enslaving male prisoners of war who are combatants and has given the Khalifah the option to either take as slaves the women and children or free them but there is no ransom for them based on what the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) did in Hunayn where he took the women and children as slaves but then released them and in the battle of Khaybar where he set them free and did not enslave them. This is in the case when the women and children are part of the army. However, if they remain in their houses then nothing may be done to them whether taking them as prisoners of war or as war booty.

As for the action of the Khalifah in the matter of enslaving the women and children, it is based on the war policy required [at the time] in dealing with the enemy. The purpose is not to enslave rather it is one of the modes of engagement in war whose matter is left for the Khalifah to decide what is best and required in dealing with the enemy.” So we see from this section that what this was a matter only in one specific type of battle where the enemy brought the women and children to the battle itself, treating them as part of what they owned (like their weaponry and equipment). In this case, the Khalifah can choose to treat them that way (as spoils of war), to both demoralize the opponent, and also to warn others in the future from treating the women and children in this manner. It drives home a clear message as well, that women and children should be kept safe and not brought into the battles themselves since that is not the place for them.

There is a specific type of battle where more can be said specifically on taking war booty (sabaya) as it relates to the topic of war tactics itself, but it is beyond the scope of this post.

So when we reflect upon this, we see that many of the verses that are quoted by the orientalists or the anti-Islam critics are out of context, and we can see they are often not only exaggerated, but even completely false. And it is understandable that some do not have knowledge, but the cure to ignorance is to seek it sincerely.

It is also ironic that how this topic is brought about today, considering the depth of economic slavery, the epidemic of rape of women in the West, and surveillance and control exerted upon the human race by a select few of society. In many ways, modern slavery can be seen as even worse than the slavery of the past.

InshAllah this has benefited. And Allah knows best.

Written by Osama Qureshi

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If Allah makes you stand up you will never fall, and if he lets you fall and leaves you to yourself, you will always fall.

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