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How is it that Islam, a Religion Inspired by God for the Good of Humanity, Allows Slavery?


By Ali Unal


There are historical, social and psychological dimensions to this question, which we must work through patiently, if we are to arrive at a satisfactory answer.


Why the institution of slavery is is thought of or remembered with such revulsion?

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 laboring 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 labor. 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.


It is not only the institution of slavery that causes revulsion in the human heart, it is also the attitudes of inhumanity which sustain it.

In short, it is not only the institution of slavery that causes revulsion in the human heart, it is also 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?

You are sons of Adam and Adam was created from clay.

No Arab is superior over a non-Arab, and no white is superior over black.

Superiority is by righteousness and respect for God alone.

When the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, was raised as a Prophet, racism under the name of tribalism was prevalent in Makka. The Quraysh considered themselves in particular, and Arabs in general, superior to all the other peoples of the world. God’s Messenger came with the Divine Message and proclaimed that no Arab is superior over a non-Arab, and no white is superior over black (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5:441) and superiority is by righteousness and respect for God alone (sura al-Hujurat, 49:13). He also declared that even if an Abyssinian black Muslim were to rule over Muslims, he should be obeyed. (Muslim, ‘Imara,’ 37.)

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. (Sunan Abu Dawud,Diyat,’ 70; Sunan al-Tirmidhi,Diyat,’ 17; Sunan 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 (Sahih al-Muslim, ‘Birr,’ 138; ‘Janna,’ 48; Tirmidhi, ‘Manaqib,’ 54, 65). ‘Umar was expressing his respect in this sense when he said: ‘Master Bilal whom Master Abu Bakr set free’ (Sahih al-Bukhari, ‘Fada’il al-Sahaba,’ 23). 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

Human freedom is God-given, and therefore everyone’s natural and proper condition. Thus to restore a person, either wholly or partly, to this condition is one of the highest virtues. Freeing half of a slave’s body is considered equal to saving half of one’s own body from wrath in the next world. Freeing a slave’s whole body is considered equal to saving one’s whole body. Seeking freedom for enslaved people is an acceptable reason for engaging in warfare. Muslims were encouraged to enter into agreements and contracts that enabled slaves to earn or be granted their freedom after a certain time or, most typically, on the owner’s death. Unconditional emancipation was regarded as the most meritorious and worthy of recognition in the Hereafter. Sometimes groups of people would buy and free large numbers of slaves in order to obtain the favor of God.

Freeing a slave also was the legal expiation for certain sins or failures in religious duties, such as breaking an oath or a fast—a good deed to cancel a moral lapse. The Qur’an orders that a person who accidentally kills a Muslim must free a believing slave and pay the blood-money to the victim’s family (4:92). A killing affects both the society and the victim’s family. The blood-money is a partial compensation for the latter, while freeing a slave is a bill paid to the community—it gains a free person. To free a living person in return for a death was considered like bringing someone back to life. Both personal and public wealth were used to free slaves. The Prophet and Abu Bakr were well known for this practice. Later on, especially during the reign of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, public zakat funds were used for this purpose.


A possible question:

Islam regards slavery as a social evil, regardless of how well slaves are treated or how many rights they enjoy. Therefore, why was it not abolished, as happened with alcohol, interest, gambling, or prostitution? Why did the Prophet condone it?

Until the evil of the European slave trade, slavery was largely a byproduct of war, for the victors normally enslaved the survivors. During Islam’s early years, there was no reliable system of exchanging prisoners of war. The available means of dealing with them were execution, placing them in prison, allowing them to go home, or distributing them among the Muslims as spoils of war.

The first option must be ruled out on the grounds of its barbarity. The second is practicable only for small numbers and for a limited period of time, provided that there are enough resources to care for them. This option was used, for prisoners were taken in the hope of ransom payments. Many Makkans held by the Muslims were so satisfied with their treatment that they became Muslims and changed sides. The third option is imprudent in times of war. This leaves, as a general practice, only the fourth option. Islam instituted humane laws and norms for what is, in effect, the rehabilitation of prisoners of war.

While living among Muslims, slaves saw at close quarters the truth of Islam in practice. Many slaves were won over by the kind treatment they received and Islam’s humanity, not to mention their access to many of the legal rights enjoyed by Muslims, and, ultimately, by the chance to regain their freedom. Thousands of ex-slaves can be found among the great and famous names in Islam, whose own example then become a norm for future Muslims—imams such as Nafi‘, Imam Malik’s teacher (the founder of the Maliki School of Law, one the four most famous Schools of Muslim Law), and Tawus ibn Qaysan, (one of the greatest scholars of the generation succeeding the Companions) to name only two.


Muslims considered slavery a temporary condition

In general, Muslims considered slavery a temporary condition. Unlike Western civilization, whose values are so much in fashion, slavery was not an inherited condition that engulfed whole generations of people in a deepening spiral of degradation, despair, and hopelessness. On the contrary, enjoying a status as fundamentally equal to everyone else, slaves in Muslim society could and did live in secure possession of their dignity as creatures of the same Creator. They had access to the mainstream of Islamic culture and civilization—to which, as we have noted, they contributed greatly. In Western societies where slavery was widespread, particularly in North and South America, the descendants of slaves, even generations after their ancestors’ formal emancipation, remain largely on the fringes of society, a sub-culture or anti-culture—which is only sometimes tolerated, and mostly despised, by the dominant community.


When the Muslims were secure against foreign conquest, why did they not free all of their former captives or slaves?

Again, the answer has to do with existing realities. Those former captives or slaves did not have the personal, psychological, or economic resources needed to establish a secure and dignified independence. Remember what happened in the southern United States when the slaves were suddenly freed by President Lincoln. Many were abruptly reduced to destitution and homeless by owners (who were compensated) who no longer accepted any responsibility for them. They were thrown, without any preparation, into the wider society from which they had been so long excluded by law.

In contrast, observant Muslim masters who embraced their slaves as brothers and sisters encouraged them to work for their freedom, recognized their rights, helped them support a family, and helped them find a place in society before freeing them. The example that comes to mind is that of Zayd ibn Harith, who was brought up in the Prophet’s own household and set free. He married a noblewoman and was appointed commander of a Muslim army composed of many noblemen and Companions. There are many similar examples.


Islam considered slavery an accidental and therefore temporary condition, one that is to be reformed step by step until it almost completely disappears

There are two important points to emphasize here: the Muslims’ attitude toward slavery, and the condition of slaves in non-Muslim countries. Islam considers slavery an accidental and therefore temporary condition, one that is to be reformed step by step until it almost completely disappears. However, it sometimes was observed that some Muslims, especially rulers, continued to hold slaves. Islam cannot be blamed for this, for it is the spiritual deficiency of such Muslims that caused them to behave in such a manner.

The other point is that personal habits engender a second nature. When Lincoln abolished slavery, most of the slaves had to return to their owners because they had never learned to take the initiative and choose for themselves. As a result, they could not live as free people. Given this psychological reality, prisoners of war were distributed among Muslims so that one day they could live a true Islamic social life as free people in a Muslim society and fully enjoy their legal rights.

Islam sought to abolish slavery by steps. In the first step, it enabled slaves to realize their true human consciousness and identity. After that, it educated them in Islamic and human values, and inculcated in them a love of freedom. Thus, when they were freed, former slaves were equipped to consider all kinds of possibilities on how to be useful members of the community: farmers, artisans, teachers, scholars, commanders, governors, ministers, or even prime ministers.

Islam attempted to destroy the institution of “individual slavery,” and never envisaged or tried “national slavery.” So, as a Muslim, I pray to God that enslaved—colonized, oppressed—peoples of the world should enjoy real freedom.