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The Issue of Slavery in Islam

First of all, it is useful to recall why the institution of slavery is thought of or remembered with such revulsion. Images of the brutal treatment of slaves, especially in ancient Rome and Egypt, provokes sorrow and deep disgust. That is why even after so many centuries, our conception of slaves is of men and women carrying stones to the pyramids and being used up in the building process like mortar, or fighting wild animals in public arenas for the amusement of their owners. We picture slaves wearing shameful yokes and chains around their necks.

Nearer modern times there is the practice of slavery on an enormous scale by the Western European nations; the barbarity and bestiality of this trade beggars all description. The trade was principally in Africans who were transported across the oceans, packed in specially designed ships, thought of and treated exactly like livestock. These slaves were forced to change their names and abandon their religion and their language, were never entitled to hope for freedom, and were kept, again like livestock, for hard labouring or for breeding purposes – a birth among them was celebrated as if it were a death. It is difficult to understand how human beings could conceive of fellow human beings in such a light, still less treat them thus. But it certainly happened: there is much documentary evidence that shows, for example, how ship-masters would throw their human cargo overboard in order to claim compensation for their loss. Slaves had no rights in law, only obligations; their owners had absolute rights over them to dispose of them as they wished-brothers and sisters, parents and children, would be separated or allowed to stay together according to the owner’s mood or his economic convenience.

After centuries of this dreadful practice had made the West European nations rich from exploitation of such commodities as sugar, cotton, coffee, they abolished slavery – they abolished it, with much self-congratulation, first as a trade, then altogether. Yet the Muslim regions had also known considerable prosperity through the exploitation of sugar, cotton, coffee (these words in European languages are of Arabic origin), and achieved that prosperity without the use of slave labour. More important, let us also note, when the Europeans abolished slavery, it was the slave-owners who were compensated, not the slaves – in other words, the attitude to fellow human beings which allowed such treatment of them had not changed. It was not many years after the abolition of slavery that Africa was directly colonized by the Europeans with consequences for the Africans no less terrible than slavery itself. Further, because the attitude to non-Europeans has changed little, if at all, in modern times, their social and political condition remains, even where they live amid the Europeans and their descendants as fellow-citizens, that of despised inferiors. It is barely a couple of decades since the anthropological museums in the great capitals of the Western countries ceased to display, for public entertainment, the bones and stuffed bodies of their fellow human beings. And such displays were not organized by the worst among them, but by the best – the scientists, doctors, learned men, humanitarians.

In short, it is not only the institution of slavery that causes revulsion in the human heart, it is the attitudes of inhumanity which sustain it. And the truth is, if the institution no longer formally exists but the attitudes persist, then humanity has not gained much, if at all. That is why colonial exploitation replaced slavery, and why the chains of unbearable, unrepayable international debt have replaced colonial exploitation: only slavery has gone, its structures of inhumanity and barbarism are still securely in place. Before we turn to the Islamic perspective on slavery, let us recall a name famous even among Western Europeans, that of Harun al-Rashid, and let us recall that this man who enjoyed such authority and power over all Muslims was the son of a slave. Nor is he the only such example; slaves and their children enjoyed enormous prestige, authority, respect and (shall we say it) freedom, within the Islamic system, in all areas of life, cultural as well as political. How could this have come about?

Islam amended and educated the institution of slavery and the attitudes of masters to slaves. The Qur’an taught in many verses that all human beings are descended from a single ancestor, that none has an intrinsic right of superiority over another, whatever his race or his nation or his social standing. And from the Prophet’s teaching, upon him be peace, the Muslims learnt these principles, which they applied both as laws and as social norms:

Whosoever kills his slave: he shall be killed. Whosoever imprisons his slave and starves him, he shall be imprisoned and starved himself, and whosoever castrates his slave shall himself be castrated. (Abu Dawud, Diyat, 70; Tirmidhi, Diyat, 17; Al-Nasa’i, Qasama, 10, 16)

You are sons of Adam and Adam was created from clay. (Tirmidhi, Tafsir, 49; Manaqib, 73; Abu Dawud, Adab, 111)

You should know that no Arab is superior over a non-Arab and, no non-Arab is superior over any Arab, no white is superior over black and no black is superior over white. Superiority is by righteousness and God-fearing [alone]. (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 411)

Because of this compassionate attitude, those who had lived their whole lives as slaves and who are described in ahadith as poor and lowly received respect from those who enjoyed high social status (Muslim, Birr, 138; Jannat, 48; Tirmidhi, Manaqib, 54, 65). […]  Islam (unlike other civilizations) requires that slaves are thought of and treated as within the framework of universal human brotherhood, and not as outside it. The Prophet, upon him be peace, said:

Your servants and your slaves are your brothers
. Anyone who has slaves should give them from what he eats and wears. He should not charge them with work beyond their capabilities. If you must set them to hard work, in any case I advise you to help them. (Bukhari, Iman, 22; Adab, 44; Muslim, Iman, 38,40; Abu Dawud, Adab, 124)

Not one of you should [when introducing someone] say “This is my slave”, “This is my concubine”. He should call them “my daughter” or “my son” or “my brother”. (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 2, 4)

For this reason, Umar and his servant took it in turns to ride on the camel from Madina to Jerusalem on their journey to take control of Masjid al-Aqsa. While he was the head of the state, Uthman had his servant pull his own ears in front of the people since he had pulled his. Abu Dharr, applying the hadith literally, made his servant wear one half of his suit while he himself wore the other half. From these instances, it was being demonstrated to succeeding generations of Muslims, and a pattern of conduct established, that a slave is fully a human being, not different from other people in his need for respect and dignity and justice.

This constructive and positive treatment necessarily had a consequence on the attitudes of slaves to their masters. The slave as slave still retained his humanity and moral dignity and a place beside other members of his master’s family. When (we shall explain how below) he obtained his freedom, he did not necessarily want to leave his former master. Starting with Zaid bin Harith, this practice became quite common. Although our Prophet, upon him be peace, had given Zayd his freedom and left him a free choice, Zayd preferred to stay with him. Masters and slaves were able to regard each other as brothers because their faith enabled them to understand that the worldly differences between people are a transient situation-a situation justifying neither haughtiness on the part of some, nor rancour on the part of others. There were, in addition, strict principles enforced as law:

Whosoever kills his slave, he shall be killed, whosoever imprisons his slave and starves him, he shall be imprisoned and starved himself. (Tirmidhi, al-Ayman wa l-Nudhur, 13)

Beside such sanctions which made the master behave with care, the slave also enjoyed the legal right to earn money and hold property independently of his master, the right to keep his religion and to have a family and family life with the attendant rights and obligations. As well as personal dignity and a degree of material security, the Islamic laws and norms allowed the slave a still more precious opening-the hope and means of freedom.

Human freedom is by God, that is, it is the natural and proper condition which must be regarded as the norm. Thus, to restore a human life, wholly or partly, to this condition is one of the highest virtues. To set free half of a slave’s body has been considered equal to saving half of one’s own from wrath in the next world. In the same way to set free a slave’s whole body is considered equal to assurance of one’s whole body. Seeking freedom for enslaved people is one of the causes for which the banner of war may be raised in Islam. Muslims were encouraged by their faith to enter into agreements and contracts which enabled slaves to earn or be granted their freedom at the expiry of a certain term or, most typically, on the death of the owner. Unconditional emancipation was, naturally, regarded as the most meritorious kind, and worthiest of recognition in the life hereafter. There were occasions when whole groups of people, acting together, would buy and set free large numbers of slaves in order to obtain thereby the favour of God.

Emancipation of a slave was also the legally required expiation for certain sins or failures in religious duties, for example, the breaking of an oath or the breaking of a fast: a good deed to balance or wipe out a lapse. The Qur’an commands that he who has killed a believer by mistake must set free a believing slave and pay the blood-money to the family of the slain (al-Nisa’, 4.92). A killing has repercussions for both society and the victim’s family. The blood-money is a partial compensation to the family of the victim. Similarly, the emancipation of a slave is a bill paid to the community-from the point of view of gaining a free person for that community. To set free a living person in return for a death was considered like bringing someone back to life. Both personal and public wealth were expended to obtain the freedom of slaves: the examples of the Prophet, upon him be peace, and of Abu Bakr are well known; later, especially during the rule of Umar bin Abd al-Aziz, public zakat funds were used for this purpose.

Alas, there are, even among Muslims themselves, people who feel the need to somehow “disprove” the worth of Islam, especially on socio-political issues. In reality they feel this need because they have been more or less seduced by Western values, even though these values are only formal, theoretical utterances of law and principle and not, not by any means, lived realities. Such people do not go among the wretched and poor of the so-called “third world” and ask them about the merits of Western values as they are practised. Rather, they listen to an account such as we have given of the practised reality of Islamic values and claim, on purely theoretical grounds, that Islam is lacking in the best principles. This is what they say:

“It is true that Islam has commended humanity in the treatment of slaves, and encouraged most forcefully their emancipation. We can see from the history of many different peoples in the Islamic world that slaves quickly integrated into the main society and achieved positions of great prestige and power, some even before they gained their freedom. And yet, if Islam regards slavery as a social evil, why did the Qur’an or the Prophet not ban it outright? There are, after all, other social evils which pre-existed Islam, and which Islam sought to abolish altogether-for example, the consumption of alcohol, or gambling, or usury, or prostitution. Why does Islam, by not abolishing slavery, appear to condone it?”

Until the evil of the European trade in black slaves, slavery was largely a by-product of wars between nations, the conquered peoples becoming the slaves of their conquerors. In the formative years of Islam, no reliable system existed of exchanging prisoners of war. The available means of dealing with them were either (i) to put them all to the sword; or (ii) to hold them and attend to their care in prison; or (iii) to allow them to return to their own people; or (iv) to distribute them among the Muslims as part of the spoils of war.

The first option must be ruled out on the grounds of its barbarity. The second is practicable only for small numbers for a limited period of time if resources permit-and it was, of course, practised-prisoners being held in this way against ransom, many so content with their treatment that they became Muslims and changed sides in the fighting. The third option is imprudent in time of war. This leaves, as a rule for general practice, only the fourth option, whence followed the humane laws and norms instituted by Islam for what is, in effect, the rehabilitation of prisoners of war.

The slave in every Muslim house had the opportunity to see at close quarters the truth of Islam in practice. His heart would be won over by kind treatment and the humanity of Islam in general, especially by the access the slave had to many of the legal rights enjoyed by Muslims, and, ultimately, by getting his freedom. In this way, many thousands of the very best people have swelled the numbers of the great and famous in Islam, whose own example has then become a sunna, a norm, for the Muslims who succeeded them-imams such as Nafi, Imam Malik’s sheikh, and Tawus bin Qaisan, to name only two.

The reality is that in Islam it is overwhelmingly the case that being a slave was a temporary condition. Unlike Western civilisation, whose values are so much in fashion, slavery was not passed down, generation after generation in a deepening spiral of degradation and despair, with no hope for the slaves to escape their condition or their status. On the contrary, regarded as fundamentally equal, the slaves in Muslim society could and did live in secure possession of their dignity as creatures of the same Creator, and had steady access to the mainstream of Islamic culture and civilization – to which, as we have noted, they contributed greatly. In the Western societies where slavery was widespread, particularly in North and South America, the children of the slaves, generations after their formal emancipation, remain for the most part on the fringes of society, as a sub-culture or anti-culture – which is only sometimes tolerated, and mostly despised, by the still dominant community.

But why, our critics will ask, when the Muslims were secure in their conquests did they not grant emancipation wholesale to former captives or slaves? The answer has, again, to do with realities not theories. Those former captives or slaves would not have either the personal, psychological resources or the economic resources needed to establish a secure, dignified independence. Those who doubt this would do well to examine the consequences upon the slaves in the former European or American colonies of their sudden emancipation – many were abruptly reduced to destitution, rendered homeless and resourceless by owners who (themselves compensated for their loss of property) no longer accepted any kind of responsibility for their former slaves. We have already noted the failure of these ex-slaves to enter upon or make a mark in the wider society from which they had been so long excluded by law.

By contrast, every good Muslim who embraced his slave as a brother, encouraged him to work for his freedom, observed all his rights, helped him to support a family, to find a place in the society before emancipating him, might well be pleased with an institution that opened to him a means of pleasing God. The example that comes first to mind: Zayd bin Harith who was brought up in the Prophet’s own household and set free, who married a noble woman, who was appointed as the commander of a Muslim army which included many of noble birth. But one might swell the list of examples to many thousands if one had the space.

Ah yes, our critics will say, it may be so, but now there are exchanges of prisoners if there are wars, now the institution of slavery does not exist, so are not the Islamic injunctions, however good, an irrelevance? No, indeed. There is nothing in Islam whose origin is in the commands and guidance of the Qur’an which can ever become irrelevant. Rather, we would say to these critics: open your eyes, study by what subtle means wars are now conducted, by what cunning devices whole nations are now conquered; how they are reduced to a state of absolute slavery (which is yet not called slavery) and made to devote their whole energies, indeed to dedicate the lives of their children for generations to come, to sustain their masters (who are yet not called masters) in a lifestyle of unbelievable affluence. We say, study how national currencies are bought and sold, how impossible sums of money are lent on terms of extraordinary brutality, not in order to help the poor nations, but in order to permanently entrap them in a state of dependence. To those who say, now there is no slavery, we say look into the faces of the earth’s poor peasants, striving to grow (in an increasingly barren soil) commodities which are not food for themselves but luxuries for the rich, and only if they have grown enough of these, have they some hope of buying something to eat-but there are still millions of others too poor to be poor peasants, who live upon mountains of urban rubbish, earn from it, eat from it. If you study the expressions of such people, locked in endless, fruitless toil, you will understand that slavery is not an evil that Western civilisation has eradicated, rather one which Western civilization has ably disguised and distanced from itself.

Let no person, at least let no Muslim, claim that mankind has nothing now to learn from Islamic values about how to deal with the problem of slavery. On the contrary, we have everything to learn. How urgent, then, is our need to pray for guidance of God lest we persist in error, for His forbearance lest we persist in arrogance, for His help in finding a sure way to end the domination of those who do not know compassion except as a fine-sounding word.




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