Does Islam Allow Slavery?

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Summary

One of the major misconceptions about Islam is the Islamic position on slavery and how Islam dealt with the slavery that existed in the pre-Islamic period. In this regard, it is important to understand that slavery existed in the Arabian peninsula prior to Islam. The enslavement of people was carried out through a number of means, including kidnapping and banditry, capturing prisoners of war, the enslavement of those who were unable to pay their debts, and the enslavement of those who were poor and needy.

Islam came to abolish the enslavement of mankind, and to call mankind to dedicate themselves in servitude to Almighty God. Islam prohibited the term ‘slave’ and ‘lord’, replacing them with ‘boy’ and ‘master’, and affirmed that all of us – whether slaves or freemen – are in reality slaves of Allah.

However, the circumstances at the time were complex, and there was a problem of thousands upon thousands of slaves who had no wealth of their own and no means to live without their owners. Many had been born into slavery and knew nothing else. Therefore, Islam set out a system of regulating the treatment of slaves, whilst commanding and encouraging their owners to free them at every opportunity. This included abolishing all forms of illegal enslavement, including kidnapping, as well as the enslavement of the debtor, the poor, and the needy; commanding that slaves be treat according to the same standard as the person’s own family; and the prohibition of mistreating them. Islam also made the manumission and freeing of slaves a major priority and from among the best of good deeds. In fact, Islam obliged the Muslims to free slaves as an expiation for several sins, including manslaughter. Finally, every slave was guaranteed the right to work for their freedom, even if the owner did not want to free them, and the slave was not to be prohibited from having precedence in religious matters.

We also see the huge contribution that slaves, both those who remained in slavery and those who were freed, made to establishing Islam and teaching it. Many of them went on to be great leaders, and are honoured amongst the greatest figures in Islamic history.

Even though Islam did not abolish the practise of enslaving prisoners of war, it became heavily regulated and controlled, with captives being given rights and treatment that were unheard of prior to Islam.

Another related misconception is the misconception that Muslim men were permitted to rape their female slaves. Rape is one of the greatest crimes in Islam, and Muslims are unanimous in affirming its prohibition in every situation. However, a Muslim man was allowed to enter into a relationship with his female slave, according to certain conditions. This allowed relationships to develop that were permissible and fair, in a similar way to a marriage, but also increased the chance of the woman being freed and encouraged the relationship to develop into a marriage.

Full Answer

One of the major sources of misconceptions that arise in relation to Islam comes from misunderstanding the life of the Prophet Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) and the circumstances that existed at the time. Whether this comes from people attempting to deliberately misconstrue some of his statements and actions, or those who mistakenly take certain events out of context, there is a need to address some of the most common areas of confusion. One such area of confusion is the Islamic position on slavery and how Islam dealt with the slavery that existed in the pre-Islamic period.

Firstly, it is important to understand that slavery existed in the Arabian peninsula prior to Islam. The enslavement of people was carried out through a number of means, including kidnapping and banditry, capturing prisoners of war, the enslavement of those who were unable to pay their debts, and the enslavement of those who were poor and needy.

Islam came to abolish the enslavement of mankind, and to call mankind to dedicate themselves in servitude to Almighty God. This is why the highest status that a human being can achieve is to be a slave of God whilst being a freeman. Allah said in the Quran, describing the best of mankind and the highest of them in position:

“And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down to Our slave [Muhammad], then produce a chapter the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you are truthful.” [The Quran: al-Baqarah 2:23]

Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

“Let not any one of you say [about his slave] ‘[he is] my slave’ or ‘[she is] my female slave’, and let no enslaved person say [about his master], ‘[he is] my lord’ or ‘[she is] my lord’. Rather, the owner should say, ‘[he is] my boy’ and ‘[she is] my girl’. and the slave should say, ‘[he is] my master’ and ‘[she is] my mistress’; for all of you are slaves, and your Lord is Allah, Mighty and Majestic.” [Abu Dawud: 4975]

However, the circumstances at the time were complex, and there was a problem of thousands upon thousands of slaves who had no wealth of their own and no means to live without their owners. Many had been born into slavery and knew nothing else. Therefore, Islam set out a system of regulating the treatment of slaves, whilst commanding and encouraging their owners to free them at every opportunity. This included the following:

1. Abolishing all forms of illegal enslavement, including kidnapping, as well as the enslavement of the debtor, the poor, and the needy. The Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

“There are three that I will be the opponent of on the Day of Resurrection, and whomever I oppose, I will defeat…[from them:] A man who sold a freeman [into slavery] and consumed his price.”

[Ibn Majah: 2442]

The kidnapping of free human beings and their enslavement was the basis of the Atlantic slave trade, and indeed many of the victims of enslavement who were transported to the United States were themselves Muslim.

2. Commanding that slaves should be treated according to the same standard as the person’s own family, and the prohibition of mistreating them. The Prophet (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

bq.“They are (i.e. your slaves) your brothers whom Allah has put under your authority, so if Allah has put a person’s brother under his authority, let him feed him from what he eats and clothe him from what he wears, and let him not overburden him with work, and if he does overburden him with work, then let him help him.” [Bukhari: 39]

When people see the horrendous images associated with the Atlantic slave trade, it is impossible to imagine how slaves were treat in Islam; that they would eat together with their masters, that they would wear the same clothes, and that their masters would help and assist them in the work they were asked to carry out. Slaves were told that they would have double reward in the Hereafter, one for obeying their Lord, and another for obeying their master. Their treatment was such that one of the companions of the Prophet (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

“Were it not for hajj, jihad, and serving my mother, I would have wished that I were a slave that was owned [by someone].”

Even more emphatically, there are many reports of slaves asking to stay with their masters, even after their freedom, and these freed slaves who remained attached to their masters were so numerous that they are mentioned throughout the books of prophetic traditions, and many of them made huge contributions to Islam.

3. Making the manumission and freeing of slaves a major priority and from among the best of good deeds. This can be seen in the fact that there is not a single passage of the Quran that encourages slavery and the taking of slaves, and yet there are several passages that encourage the freeing of slaves, for example, Allah said, informing the Muslims of the means to overcome the challenges of this world and the next:

“It is the freeing of a slave; or feeding on a day of severe hunger: an orphan of near relationship, or a needy person in misery.” [The Quran: Al-Balad 90:13-15]

In fact, Islam obliged the Muslims to free slaves as an expiation for several sins, including manslaughter, breaking an oath, sexual intercourse during the day of fasting, a husband making a pronouncement that his wife is forbidden to him, as well as other sins. Furthermore, Islam stipulated that if someone mistreats one of his (or her) slaves, the expiation was to free them. The Prophet (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

“Whoever slaps his slave or beats him, the expiation is to free him.” [Muslim: 1657]

4. That every slave was guaranteed the right to work for their freedom, even if the owner did not want to free them, and that it was not permissible for the owner of a slave to refuse. Allah said:

“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…” [The Quran: An-Noor 24:33]

5. That the slave was not to be prohibited from having precedence in religious matters. Several slaves were known to lead the free men and women in prayer, due to their extensive knowledge of the Quran and Islam. Aa’ishah (May Allah be Pleased with her), the wife of the Prophet (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him), had a female slave who used to lead her in prayer, even though Aa’ishah, as the wife of the Prophet had the highest status amongst all of the women.

Furthermore, we see the huge contribution that slaves, both those who remained in slavery and those who were freed, made to establishing Islam and teaching it. Many of them went on to be great leaders, and are honoured amongst the greatest figures in Islamic history. From these was Bilaal ibn Rabaah (May Allah be Pleased with him), who had not only become a senior companion of the Prophet Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him), responsible for the call to prayer, but also married into a family of high status from the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him).

Several former slaves became governors of entire cities, including Mecca, the most holy of cities in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of Allāh be upon him) married several former slaves, including Safiyyah (May Allah be Pleased with her), Maariah (May Allāh be Pleased with her), and Juwayriyah (May Allah be Pleased with her). When he married Juwayriyah, his companions freed all of the other prisoners of war, and so her entire tribe was freed because of her.

There is no doubt that Islam continued the practise of enslaving prisoners of war. However, while this was practised without exception prior to Islam, Islam added the permissibility ransom and unconditional release. This was unknown among the warring tribes prior to Islam. It is important to bear in mind that this was something that was universally accepted at the time, and that the circumstances were such that a family would have no way to live if their men were killed at war, and that the norm for them was to be taken under control of the victorious army. Even though Islam did not abolish this practise, it became heavily regulated and controlled, with captives being given rights and treatment that were unheard of prior to Islam. Allah the Most High said:

“And they give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive; [Saying], ‘We feed you only for the countenance of Allah. We wish not from you reward or gratitude.’ [The Quran: al-Insan 76:8-9]

Of course in modern times, prisoners of war are not enslaved, and this is something which is completely compatible with Islam and its aims, as the ruler or military commander was given the choice of enslavement, ransom, or unconditional release.

Another related misconception is the misconception that Muslim men were permitted to rape their female slaves. Rape is one of the greatest crimes in Islam, and Muslims are unanimous in affirming its prohibition in every situation. Allah said in a passage which the scholars of Islam apply to violent crime, including rape:

“Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.” [The Quran: al-Maa’idah 5:33]

The confusion arises from the fact that a Muslim man was allowed to enter into a relationship with his female slave, according to certain conditions. Some of the conditions of him having a relationship with his female slave are that, the slave must not be married to anyone else, the slave must enter into the relationship willingly (i.e., rape is not allowed), and if the woman became pregnant, she was to be freed by no later than the death of her master, and that the child was born a freeman. This allowed relationships to develop that were permissible and fair, in a similar way to a marriage, but also increased the chance of the woman being freed and encouraged the relationship to develop into a marriage. It was also common for the owner to allow two slaves to marry each other, and in this case, he had no right to enter into a relationship with the woman. Likewise, a slave that was shared between people, could only enter into a relationship with one of them.

In conclusion, One of the major misconceptions about Islam is the Islamic position on slavery and how Islam dealt with the slavery that existed in the pre-Islamic period. In this regard, it is important to understand that slavery existed in the Arabian peninsula prior to Islam. The enslavement of people was carried out through a number of means, including kidnapping and banditry, capturing prisoners of war, the enslavement of those who were unable to pay their debts, and the enslavement of those who were poor and needy.

Islam came to abolish the enslavement of mankind to other than their creator, and to call mankind to dedicate themselves in servitude to Almighty God. Islam prohibited the term ‘slave’ and ‘lord’, replacing them with ‘boy’ and ‘master’, and affirmed that all of us – whether slaves or freemen – are in reality slaves of Allah.

However, the circumstances at the time were complex, and there was a problem of thousands upon thousands of slaves who had no wealth of their own and no means to live without their owners. Many had been born into slavery and knew nothing else. Therefore, Islam set out a system of regulating the treatment of slaves, whilst commanding and encouraging their owners to free them at every opportunity. This included abolishing all forms of illegal enslavement, including kidnapping, as well as the enslavement of the debtor, the poor, and the needy; commanding that slaves be treat according to the same standard as the person’s own family; and the prohibition of mistreating them. Islam also made the manumission and freeing of slaves a major priority and from among the best of good deeds. In fact, Islam obliged the Muslims to free slaves as an expiation for several sins, including manslaughter. Finally, every slave was guaranteed the right to work for their freedom, even if the owner did not want to free them, and the slave was not to be prohibited from having precedence in religious matters.

We also see the huge contribution that slaves, both those who remained in slavery and those who were freed, made to establishing Islam and teaching it. Many of them went on to be great leaders, and are honoured amongst the greatest figures in Islamic history.

Even though Islam did not abolish the practise of enslaving prisoners of war, it became heavily regulated and controlled, with captives being given rights and treatment that were unheard of prior to Islam.

Another related misconception is the misconception that Muslim men were permitted to rape their female slaves. Rape is one of the gravest of crimes in Islam, and Muslims are unanimous in affirming its prohibition in every situation. However, a Muslim man was allowed to enter into a relationship with his female slave, according to certain conditions. This allowed relationships to develop that were permissible and fair, in a similar way to a marriage, but also increased the chance of the woman being freed and encouraged the relationship to develop into a marriage.

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