Wednesday, April 27, 2016

An Issue with Slavery | Dr Hatem Al Haj

By Dr Hatem Al Haj


The issue of slavery may be of the hardest issues to discuss. Our collective conscience as a global community is extremely averse to the discussion because of a variety of factors, not least of which is the cruel treatment slaves suffered for centuries. Many preachers find it difficult to talk about the issue, particularly when they are asked why Islam did not take an immediate and absolute abolitionist stance from it. Furthermore, reference books of Islamic law have extensive discussions of the rulings pertaining to the slaves, which cause many educators discomfort when they have to address them. In the following article, I will attempt to highlight some of the facts about Islam's stance from slavery.

A Historical Matter

To begin with, any discussion of slavery in Islam that does not put the issue in its proper historical context will be flawed. No heavenly religion sought to deplete the institution of slavery more than Islam did. Islam would, therefore, welcome the current state of abolishment of slavery worldwide, and it would certainly be keen on all the nations of the world maintaining that. A central credo of Muslim conduct is that when they engage in any agreement, they must make good on their agreement. To this point Allah said:

“يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓاْ أَوۡفُواْ بِٱلۡعُقُودِ‌”

{O you who have believed, fulfill [all] contracts…} (al-Mâ'idah 5: 1)

This article's defense of the Islamic stance on slavery and its mention of the excellent treatment of the slaves in Islam is only a matter of a historical and theological importance. After all, a Muslim must never posit that any Divine legislation revealed to any messenger of God was sub-ethical. An abolitionist stance at the time of revelation would have not been wiser or more ethical, and would have not served the cause of emancipation of the slaves of the time.

Never Racist

The second most important point to highlight is that slavery in Islam has never been a racist practice. There were slaves of all nations in the early history of the Muslim state. Even before Islam, the Arabs had slaves of all races. The most famous slaves in the history of Islam are Salmân the Persian, Bilâl the Abyssinian, and Suhayb the Roman. Indeed, as British historian S.H. Leeder writes, the issue of color was irrelevant to the early Muslims.

“TAKE away that black man!” exclaimed the Christian Archbishop Cyrus. “I can have no discussion with him!” when the Arab conquerors had sent a deputation of their ablest men to discuss terms of surrender of the capital of Egypt, headed by the negro Ubâdah, as the ablest of them all.

To the scared archbishop's astonishment, he was told that this man was commissioned by the General Amr; that the Moslems held negroes and white men in equal respect— judging a man by his character and not by his colour. [S.H. Leeder, Veiled Mysteries of Egypt and the Religion of Islam (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1913), 332.]

Slavery before Islam and in Other Religions

Slavery existed before Islam, and it spanned nearly every culture, nationality, and religion. While it may have not been known among hunter-gatherer populations, it was a part of every ancient civilization. In both a socio-geographic and religious context, slavery was both normalized and tolerated worldwide, including in pre-Columbian America. Slavery was also common in Africa. In fact, in non-Muslim Africa, there were wide-spread pagan practices associated with slavery, such as burying one or two young slaves alive next to their deceased master. The spread of Islam is credited with ending this practice. [Gordon, M. (1989). Slavery in the Arab world. New York: New Amsterdam. p. 7.]

Upon further research, it becomes apparent that no religion encouraged the ending of the practice as much as Islam did. Moreover, no religion encouraged the beneficent treatment of the slaves as much as Islam did.

Here are some mentions of slavery in the Bible. (Note that the new translations changed the word “slave” to “servant,” to be politically correct!):

Numbers 31: 17-18

“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

This is a clear communication attributed to Moses 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) allowing the enslavement of concubines and having sex with them.

Leviticus 25: 44-46

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.  You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly…”

Exodus 21: 2-11

“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.  “If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him.  “If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.  “But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,' then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.”

Will Durant (an American historian and philosopher) describes the position of the Church as follows:

The Church did not condemn slavery. Orthodox and heretic, Roman and barbarian alike assumed the institution to be natural and indestructible; a few philosophers protested, but they too had slaves… Pagan laws condemned to slavery any free woman who married a slave; the laws of Constantine ordered the woman to be executed, and the slave to be burned alive. The Emperor Gratian decreed that a slave who accused his master of any offense except high treason to the state should be burned alive at once, without inquiring into the justice of the charge. [Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.]

Islam's Answer to the Dilemma of Slavery

It may be said that Islam did not take an absolute abolitionist stance on the institution of slavery, and this is true. One must remember, though, that during the time of the ministry of the Prophet (SA), not only was the immediate abolitionist approach not proposed by any religious or secular order, but it would have been infeasible. Furthermore, it might have resulted in a great deal of social and economic turmoil, not only for the communities at large, but firstly for the many slaves who would have not been able to fend for themselves.

In addition to this, the dilemma of the war captives and what to do with them made slavery the surest path to the preservation of their lives. In the past, due to the scarcity of resources, armies could not keep the captives in prisons and feed them, etc. It was also not always possible to free them because then they would regroup and go back to fighting.

Finally, since the enslavement of captives was a common practice of all armies, it would have been unexpected for the Muslims to be taken as captives if they lost and yet be mandated to free all the captives if they won.

Hence, Islam's answer to the dilemma of slavery can be summarized in two major points:

  1. Gradual depletion of the institution by cutting off its tributaries and widening its runoffs
  2. The enjoinment of the excellent treatment of the slaves as long as the institution survived

In the following paragraphs, I will address these two points.

The Gradual Depletion of the Institution of Slavery

When one wishes to deplete a river of its water, there are two possibilities: either cut off its tributaries or increase its runoffs. Relating this analogy to slavery, in terms of the cutting off of tributaries, before Islam a person could be condemned into slavery through various means, including a man selling his own wife or child, child abandonment, debt-slavery, captivity in war, kidnapping, or as a punishment for certain crimes. Islam cut off all of those tributaries feeding into the river of slavery except for one: captivity in war, for, as mentioned previously, it was a logistical necessity at times, and more importantly, enslavement helped protect the captives' lives. Despite that, Islam recommended freeing those captives. The Prophet said:

“فُكُّوا الْعَانِيَ يَعْنِي الْأَسِيرَ وَأَطْعِمُوا الْجَائِعَ وَعُودُوا الْمَرِيضَ”

Free the captives, feed the hungry and visit the sick.” (Bukhari)

Islam's Encouragement of the Emancipation of Slaves

In Islam, the emancipation of slaves is considered one of the greatest virtues and ways of earning the Lord's pleasure. Listed here are some pieces of evidence to this effect from the Qur'an and the Sunnah:

Allah said:

“وَهَدَيْنَاهُ النَّجْدَيْنِ*فَلَا اقْتَحَمَ الْعَقَبَةَ *وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْعَقَبَة* فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ”

{And have shown him (humankind) the two ways [of good and evil]? But he has not broken through the difficult pass [to righteousness]. And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass? It is the freeing of a slave.} (Al-Balad 90: 11-13)

“لَّيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَن تُوَلُّواْ وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ وَالْمَلَائِكَةِ وَالْكِتَابِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَآتَى الْمَالَ عَلَى حُبِّهِ ذَوِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّائِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ …”

{Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves;…} (Al-Baqarah 2: 177(

Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said:

“من أَعْتَقَ رَقَبَةً مُسْلِمَةً أَعْتَقَ الله بِكُلِّ عُضْوٍ منه عُضْوًا من النَّارِ…”

Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (hell) fire as he has freed the body parts of the slave.

Sa`eed ibn Marjânah said that he narrated that hadith to `Ali ibn al-H@usayn, and he freed his slave, for whom `Abdullâh ibn Ja`far had offered him ten thousand dirhams, or one thousand dinars. (Bukhari)

Abu Hurayrah also narrated that he Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said,

“من أَعْتَقَ شِقْصًا له في عَبْدٍ أُعْتِقَ كُلُّهُ إن كان له مَالٌ وَإِلَّا يستسعى غير مَشْقُوقٍ عليه”

“Whoever frees his portion of a common slave should free the slave completely by paying the rest of his price from his money if he has enough money; otherwise the price of the slave is to be estimated, and the slave is to be helped to work without hardship until he pays the rest of his price.” (Bukhari)

Islam also offered the expiation of many sins by the freeing of slaves (a much more conducive way of redemption than giving money to a religious institution).

Yet the most ingenious system Islam legislated was to give the slaves control over their passage into the world of the free by allowing them to purchase their freedom with the help of the community that was ordered by Allah to support their cause. Allah says:

“وَٱلَّذِينَ يَبۡتَغُونَ ٱلۡكِتَـٰبَ مِمَّا مَلَكَتۡ أَيۡمَـٰنُكُمۡ فَكَاتِبُوهُمۡ إِنۡ عَلِمۡتُمۡ فِيہِمۡ خَيۡرً۬ا‌ۖ وَءَاتُوهُم مِّن مَّالِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلَّذِىٓ ءَاتَٮٰكُمۡ‌ۚ”

{…And those who seek a contract [for eventual emancipation] from among whom your right hands possess – then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you…} (An-Noor 24: 33)

This was beneficial for the slaves who had to be weaned from independence on their masters for provisions, for they would face problems if they suddenly found themselves required to provide themselves with food, clothes and shelter. (One must not underestimate what this could have meant to the stability and security of the society if the slaves were all freed at once by a mandate). It was also beneficial for the masters who were, to a great extent, dependent on the slaves for their businesses.

This was also favorable for the community, for they would see responsible people, who knew the value of work and labor, moving from the ranks of the slaves to those of the free.

Finally, in attestation to what I mentioned above about the Islamic plan for the depletion of slavery, C. Snouck Hurgronje said:

Setting slaves free is one of the most meritorious pious works, and, at the same time, the regular atonement for certain transgressions of the sacred law. So, according to Mohammedan principles, slavery is an institution destined to disappear. [C. Snouk Hurgronje, Mohammedanism (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1916), 129.]

Islam's Enjoinment of the Excellent Treatment of the Slaves

The excellent treatment of slaves in Islam is a fact that I will try to highlight by proofs from the textual and historical accounts, including testimonies by non-Muslim historians and thinkers.

In the Qur'an there are several verses commanding the good treatment of slaves, including:

“وَاعْبُدُواْ اللّهَ وَلاَ تُشْرِكُواْ بِهِ شَيْئًا وَبِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا وَبِذِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْيَتَامَى وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَالْجَارِ ذِي الْقُرْبَى وَالْجَارِ الْجُنُبِ وَالصَّاحِبِ بِالجَنبِ وَابْنِ السَّبِيلِ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ لاَ يُحِبُّ مَن كَانَ مُخْتَالاً فَخُورًا”

{Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful.} (an-Nisâ' 4: 36)

The Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded us repeatedly to treat the slaves with mercy and compassion. One of his last recommendations to the Muslims, prior to his death, was to fear Allah regarding their slaves. A quick review of the following hadiths will further testify to his instructions regarding the excellent treatment of slaves:

“ولا يَقُلْ أحدكم عَبْدِي أَمَتِي وَلْيَقُلْ فَتَايَ فَتَاتِي غُلَامِي”

None of you should say: My slave (abdi) and My slave-woman – for you are all (Allah's) slaves, and the Lord is Allah, Most High. (a sound hadith recorded by Abu Dawood)

Al-Ma`roor ibn Suwayd narrated: I saw Abu Dharr al-Ghifâri wearing a cloak, and his slave, too, was wearing a cloak. We asked him about that (how both were wearing similar cloaks).

He replied: Once I abused a man, and he complained of me to the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) asked me,

“يا أَبَا ذَرٍّ أَعَيَّرْتَهُ بِأُمِّهِ إِنَّكَ امْرُؤٌ فِيكَ جَاهِلِيَّةٌ إِخْوَانُكُمْ خَوَلُكُمْ جَعَلَهُمْ الله تَحْتَ أَيْدِيكُمْ فَمَنْ كان أَخُوهُ تَحْتَ يَدِهِ فَلْيُطْعِمْهُ مِمَّا يَأْكُلُ وَلْيُلْبِسْهُ مِمَّا يَلْبَسُ ولا تُكَلِّفُوهُمْ ما يَغْلِبُهُمْ فَإِنْ كَلَّفْتُمُوهُمْ فَأَعِينُوهُمْ”

Did you abuse him by slighting his mother? You are a man who has jahiliyah (pre-Islamic ignorance and disbelief). He added: Your slaves are your brethren upon whom Allah has given you authority. So if one has one's brethren under one's control, he should feed them with the like of what he eats and clothe them with the like of what he wears. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them (in their hard job).>> (Bukhari 3:46:721)

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) unequivocally prohibited the separation between a mother and her slave child. Abu Musa reported that he ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said:

“لَعَنَ رسُولُ اللَّهِ – صلى الله عليه وسلم – من فَرَّقَ بين الْوَالِدَةِ وَوَلَدِهَا وَبَيْنَ الْأَخِ وَبَيْنَ أَخِيهِ”

May he be cursed, he who separates a mother from her child or a brother from his sibling. (A weak hadith recorded by at-Tirmidhi)

And for one who humiliates his slave by beating him or slapping him, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said,

“من لَطَمَ مَمْلُوكَهُ أو ضَرَبَهُ فَكَفَّارَتُهُ أَنْ يُعْتِقَهُ”

He who slaps his slave or beats him, there is no expiation for this but to free him. (Muslim)

The Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was always concerned about the wellbeing of the salves that he would always mention them at the times where he expected the greatest attention from his audience, such as the time of his death and during the Farewell Pilgrimage, where he had the largest audience in his lifetime. “As for your slaves, male and female,” he exhorted them at the Farewell Pilgrimage, “feed them with what you eat yourself and clothe them with what you wear. If you cannot keep them or they commit any fault, discharge them. They are God's people like unto you and be kind unto them.” [Gordon, M. (1989). Slavery in the Arab world. New York: New Amsterdam. p. 19.]

Because of the aforementioned examples of the divine and prophetic instructions regarding slavery, no other nation or religious group in the world treated slaves better than the Muslims did, and here are the testimonies of the non-Muslim historians and leaders regarding this very fact:

On the attitude of the Muslim master towards his slaves, American historian and philosopher Will Durant writes:

…he handled them with a genial humanity that made their lot no worse – perhaps better, as more secure – than that of a factory worker in nineteenth-century Europe… It is astonishing how many sons of slaves rose to high place in the intellectual and political world of Islam, how many, like Mahmud and the early Mameluks, became kings. [Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 209.]

At the end of the 18th century, Mouradgea d'Ohsson (an Armenian historian and diplomat who wrote extensively about the Ottoman Empire) declared:

There is perhaps no nation where the captives, the slaves, the very toilers in the galleys are better provided for or treated with more kindness than among the Muhammedans. [H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers, ed., The Encyclopaedia of Islam: New Edition, vol. 1 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), 35.]

Napoleon Bonaparte, a military leader who was Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814, is recorded as saying about the condition of slaves in Muslim countries:

In the East, slavery never had the same characteristics as in the West. The slavery of the East is that which is seen in the Holy Scripture: the slave inherits from his master and marries his daughter. Most of the Pashas had been slaves; a great number of grand viziers, all the Mamluks, Ali Bey al-Kabir, and Murad Bey had all been slaves. They started by performing the most menial services in the house of their master and subsequently rose in status because of their merit or through favours. In the West, on the other hand, the slave was always below the domestic servant; he occupied the lowest rank… (Christian Cherfils, Bonaparte et l'Islam d'après les Documents Français & Arabes (Paris: Libraire de la Cour d'Appel et de l'Ordre des Avocats, 1914), 124.)


I would conclude by emphasizing that Islam was keen on the emancipation of the slaves, and it enjoined this throughout its teachings. The original and natural state in which God created his servants is the state of freedom, and He desires a return to that freedom. Let us all pray for the deliverance of all people from all forms of disguised slavery that exist in our world today and for the end of all manifestations of subjugation of people by others.

Dr Hatem Al Haj is a member of the the Permanent Fatwa Committee, Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America (AMJA). He has a PhD in Comparative Fiqh from al-Jinan University, Tripoli, Lebanon. He is Mishkah University's dean in the College of Islamic Studies, English

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