Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim
Alhamdulillah Wassalatu Ala Rasulillah
This article is to assist a brother in his reply to a magazine article in a foreign language paper.
Slavery is not condoned by Islam, it is merely acknowledged and restricted with a workable solution put in place for its elimination.
Prior to the advent of the messenger Muhammad peace and blessings upon him, society, in the East and the West, Romans, Arabs, Persians, Indian, etc. practiced various forms of slavery.
Slavery, is practiced to this day in a number of societies in both the traditional manner of owning people and under new guises of taking more than their fair share from the fruit of the labour of others. I will elaborate on this later in this article insha Allah.
Before the establishment of the Qur`anic system slavery was instituted in a number of ways, the most common were:
1 - prisoners of war, many times this included women and children.
2 - banditry and highway robbery, where all members of caravans were taken in as slaves by their captors.
3 - by a person selling him/herself into slavery or selling one of their children.
4 - through kidnap.
5 - through loans and usury (interest).
Prisoners of war
When a tribe or a country is invaded, all its inhabitants fell under the mercy of their captors. It was common for men of fighting age to be killed or sold into slavery in far away lands and the women and children would either be divided among the victors as spoils of war, or / and also sold into slavery. This practice is found in the bible, I will only quote a couple of occurrences for brevity. This practice is condemned by Islam, it should be noted here that the bible is very severe in its recommendations with respect to war captives.
"Now therefore KILL every male among the little ones, and KILL every woman (female) that hath known man by lying (having sex) with him.
"But keep ALIVE for yourselves all the GIRLS and all the women who are VIRGINS." NUMBERS 31:17-18
"And the Jews salvaged for themselves 32,000 virgins, verse 35; see also verse 40.
"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
Banditry and Highway robbery
Banditry and highway robbery worked in a similar way to prisoners of war or spoils of war. Groups of individuals would fall upon a caravan of travelers massacre, plunder and enslave at will.
Selling yourself or members of your family
People selling themselves or selling members of their families continued to do so in Europe until the close of the preceding century. This usually occurred in situations of poverty where a person would sell either himself or herself or one of their children for a little money and their upkeep.
The case of kidnapping was a little different, the kidnapped person would usually be sold in distant lands. This takes place today under different guises. Beautiful women are lured to work in lucrative jobs locally and overseas to find themselves virtual sex slaves in brothels or in the porn industry, some are sexually abused and killed. Generally, people in these categories, in today's society are kept in these jobs through the shackles of drug addiction rather than chains and manacles.
Loans and usury
Slavery through loans and usury occured where a person is unable to repay a debt, or finance a usurious contract, the creditor would take the person, a member of that person's family, or the entire family into possession as his slaves. In general, the debtor would have no choice in the matter.
The messenger of Allah, Muhammad peace and blessings upon him, showed his dislike of enslaving people even prior to his appointment by Allah as His messenger. This is seen in the example of freeing Zaid Ibn Haritha. Zaid had been given to him as a gift, and after a short time, he gave him his freedom, and as Zaid chose to stay with the messenger rather than go back to his own father, because of the excellent treatment that he received from the messenger, the messenger peace and blessings upon him adopted Zaid and treated him as his own son.
In the early days of Islam, Abu Bakr, a companion of the messenger peace and blessings upon him and one of the first people to embrace Islam, used to buy the freedom of slaves and liberate them. They did not start out as his slaves, he bought them from their owners and gave them their freedom. Those who wished to stay with him were allowed to stay as employees, a notion that was somewhat alien to people in those days. In this case, they were treated like his brothers or his sisters.
The Qur`an and the Hadith of the messenger Muhammad peace and blessings upon him banned all forms of slavery with the exception of one which was acknowledged but not encouraged.
With the prohibition of usury (interest), Islam put an end to that form of enslavement.
Islam introduced severe punishment for the highway robbers and kidnappers thus banning that form of enslavement also.
Through stressing the importance of direct charity and through the introduction of a social security system (early in the seventh century), Islam also did away with the institution of people selling themselves or selling members of their families for fear of poverty.
The slavery that was acknowledged but not condoned by Islam was that of war, in fact the first revelation with respect to this form of slavery was against the taking of war prisoners, however, the ruling remained that prisoners can be taken in war with the advice or the encouragement to give these their freedom after the war is over, and in some case during the war.
The verse that deals with this issue states: "It is not appropriate for a prophet to have prisoners … " (8:67). This verse was critical of the taking of war prisoners but it did not demand a differing treatment. Verse 70 of the same Sura allows the retention of these prisoners. However, this retention is guided or controlled by 47: 4 which states that after the war is over, you either give them their freedom, or you take ransom for them. This ransom is usually an exchange of prisoners in accordance with the terms of the peace treaty. There are instances where the prisoners were freed unconditionally after the battle by the messenger peace and blessings upon him, this is usually the case where the danger of a resurgence is minimal, or as a show of goodwill, etc..
The object of battle in which a Muslim army is involved is not to enslave people, it is to defend a principle and promote justice, or to defend the weak etc. This is proved by the Hadith (legal statement by the messenger, peace and blessings upon him, which was revealed in meaning but not in verb and as such was not part of the Qur`an). He was asked about the categories of martyrs, as to whom would be a person fighting in the path of Allah? He said that only the one who fights so that the word of Allah is raised high, he would be the person who is fighting in the path of Allah. Basically, war is criminal unless it is for the principle or to help the weak and oppressed or to defend yourself.
The logic of keeping prisoners of war is self evident, the other side keeps its prisoners, if the Muslims were to refuse to detain troops whom they capture from the other side, these would return to fight them, and there would be no reason for the other side to return Muslim prisoners or to allow these to stay alive.
In a treaty initiated by Muhammad the Second (15th century Ottoman Sultan), he offered to end the enslavement of war prisoners on the condition that the other countries who were fighting him did the same. Despite that treaty, Europeans continued to enslave people with an estimated number of twenty million African (many of whom were Muslim) being enslaved and taken to America. Historians estimate that as many as 90% died in transit due to unsafe transport and mistreatment.
There are war prisoners who are not released or whose masters choose to keep as slaves. In the case of these people, Islam imposes on their masters a number of conditions:
1 - The Hadith states that the master is not permitted to refer to his slave as my slave, but rather, my boy or my girl.
2 - They are to be dressed, fed and sheltered to the same standard as the master and they are to eat on the same table as the master.
3 - They are to be respected as fellow human beings, and they have rights like any other human being.
This is found in the Hadith of the messenger peace and blessings upon him, where he stated: Your slaves are your brothers, feed them from what you feed yourselves, dress them with what you dress, and if you impose upon them a task greater than their ability, assist them in it.
We are also told in the Hadith Qudsy, this a Hadith where the messenger is quoting a statement from Allah which is not part of the Qur`an: "Three, I will be their opponent on the day of resurrection:
1 - a person who gives (a pledge) in my name and then betrays (that pledge),
2 - a person who hires another, extracts the work from him but does not give him his wage, and
3 - a person who sells a free person and takes the price."
Basically, this final Hadith should suffice on this topic, it shows that any person who sells a free person will have to face Allah as his opponent on the day of resurrection.
There is also an Athar (in this case, a judicial statement of legal precedence from a companion of the messenger peace and blessings upon him) from the second Khaliph of Islam Umar Ibnul Khattab which will further explain the issue. In this Athar, Umar says to his governor in Egypt when he received a complaint about the behaviour of the son of this governor towards a certain "peasant": "Since when did you begin to treat people as slaves and (you know) that their mothers gave birth to them as free people."
This should be contrasted with the new government policy on youth wages in Australia, the huge salary gap between executives and general staff and blue collar workers, etc. It is also to be contrasted with the usurious banking system which extracts from a person several multiples of the loan that is taken over long periods of time.
Islam did not come right out and say that slavery is banned from this day on, it applied the practical approach which puts a natural end to slavery with the masters being happy to liberate their slaves as this practice brings them nearer to their Creator.
We move now to some of the verses that recommend the freeing of slaves.
1 - Verse 2:177 states that "Birr", which is a degree of excellence, charity and devotion includes the freeing of slaves.
2 - Verse 9:60 states that one of the categories for charity is the freeing of slaves.
3 - Verse 4:92 states that the expiation for manslaughter, that is accidental killing, is the freeing of a slave along with a ransom depending on the circumstance. However, if this is not possible, then to fast two continuous months. Firstly, this does not equate the life of a slave with fasting two continuous months, it states that the expiation is to free a slave, if one is unable to free a slave for poverty or for the lack of slaves then, the person must fast two continuous months. I would like to stress the onerous task of fasting two months, it is not easy for a person to do this. However, the price of a slave may vary, a person may buy a slave depending on the age and well-being of the slave for less than the cost of a camel in the days of slavery.
4 - Verse 5: 89, an expiation for an erroneous oath is to free a slave.
5 - Verse 58: 3, an expiation for "Muzahara" of one's wife to his mother is to free a slave. Muzahara is a pagan practice that Islam banned. It involved a husband telling his wife that she to him was like the back of his mother. He would then keep her under his name without sexual contact and without the right of divorce. This practice was banned by Islam, the expiation of such a crime was made to be the freeing of a slave.
6 - Verse 90:13, states that one of the ways for a person to ascend spiritually is to free a slave. Some translators refer to this as the uphill road, ascension is always an upward endeavour. The Qur`an uses the term Iqtahama Al'Aqaba, that is rushed to this ascension or to this difficult milestone or to this sublime endeavour.
Today, slavery is practiced, and the secular world tells you that the person with money can set the rules, our liberal government is making the labour of the worker very cheap in order to appease the wealthy, there is no parity and no encouragement in any Western system to consider the well being or the future security of the employee. The superannuation guarantee legislation was introduced to provide money for the worker in his old age. The levy that was introduced took place of a pay rise, instead of providing for the worker, it resulted in people who were traditionally employees in many fields being changed to contractors so that the employer can escape the levy. Further, there are many reported cases of the employer extracting the services without paying these contractors. So there is no social security for their old age and there is no concern for payment. This is contrasted with Islam which makes the poor an equal member of society with every right that the boss has. It also provides the means for those who work hard to break out of the cycle of poverty, it encourages diligent work as part of worship as it also makes the kind treatment of others a part and parcel of the overall message of Islam.
In any event Islam's approach to slavery is a practical approach that effectively eliminated most forms of slavery. The verses with regards to the freeing of slaves as expiation must be read with an open mind. What I mean by this is that the term in Arabic says the freeing of a neck, and for ease of expression in English, the term freeing a slave is used. The term in Arabic extends to prisoners of conscience in other countries, it would include the expenditure of money to free a victim of kidnapping etc..
To free a neck, it is not necessary for the person to own the slave, a person can buy the freedom of another person from a third party, and you will find that this was the most common form of bringing freedom to slaves by Muslims over the centuries.
Finally, I am happy to further explore this topic with you by correspondence, if there is any area of the above that you would like more elaboration on, feel free to contact me.
This article was prepared in consultation with Professor Ibrahim Abu Mohammad.