[24:33] And those who cannot afford marriage should keep themselves chaste until Allah enriches them out of His grace. And those of your slaves who wish to enter the contract of Kitabah (emancipation by paying money), contract Kitabah with them, if you recognize some good in them. And give them out of the wealth of Allah that He has given to you. And do not compel your maids to prostitution – if they wish to observe chastity in order that you may seek the temporary benefit of the worldly life. If one compels them, then after their being compelled, Allah is Most-Forgiving, Very-Merciful.
MThere are historical, social and psychological dimensions to this question, which we must work through patiently, if we are to arrive at a satisfactory answer.
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). 'Umar was expressing his respect in this sense when he said: 'Master Bilal whom Master Abu Bakr set free' (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. 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 civilisation-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 noblewoman, 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.
Nay, I swear by this city... We verily have created man in an atmosphere...But he hath not attempted the Ascent, Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is! It is to free a slave, And to feed in the day of hunger, An orphan near of kin, Or some poor wretch in misery. And to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance and exhort one another to pity.
Emancipation, Qur'an 24:27-34 Surah An-Nur (Light): Tell the believing men... And tell the believing women... And marry such of you as are solitary and the pious of your slaves and maid servants. If they be poor; Allah will enrich them of His bounty. Allah is of ample means, Aware. And let those who cannot find a match keep chaste till Allah give them independence by His grace. And such of your slaves as seek a writing of emancipation, write it for them if ye are aware of aught of good in them, and bestow upon them of the wealth of Allah which He hath bestowed upon you. Force not your slave girls to whoredom that ye may seek enjoyment of the life of the world, if they would preserve their chastity. And if one force them, then (unto them), after their compulsion, Lo! Allah will be Forgiving, Merciful...
It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and giveth his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God fearing.
Wed not idolatresses till they believe; for lo! a believing bondwoman is better than an idolatress though she please you; and give not your daughters in marriage to idolaters till they believe, for lo! a believing slave is better than an idolater though he please you. These invite unto the Fire, and Allah inviteth unto the Garden, and unto forgiveness by His grace, and expoundeth thus His revelations to mankind that haply they may remember.
Allah will not take you to task for that which is unintentional in your oaths, but He will take you to task for the oaths which ye swear in earnest. The expiation thereof is the feeding of ten of the needy with the average of that wherewith ye feed your own folk, or the clothing of them, or the liberation of a slave, and for him who findeth not (the wherewithal to do so) then a three day fast. This is the expiation of your oaths when ye have sworn; and keep your oaths...
It is not for a believer to kill a believer unless it be by mistake. He who hath killed a believer by mistake must set free a believing slave, and pay the blood money to the family of the slain, unless they remit it as a charity. If he (the victim) be of a people hostile unto you, and he is a believer, then (the penance is) to set free a believing slave. And if he cometh of a folk between whom and you there is a covenant, then the blood money must be paid unto his folk and (also) a believing slave must be set free. And whoso hath not the wherewithal must fast two consecutive months. A penance from Allah. Allah is Knower, Wise.
Free a Slave, Qur'an 58:3-4 Surah Al-Mujadilah (She That Disputeth): Those who put away their wives by saying they are as their mothers and afterward would go back on that which they have said; the penalty in that case is the freeing of a slave before they touch one another. Unto this ye are exhorted; and Allah is informed of what ye do. And he who findeth not the wherewithal, let him fast for two successive months before they touch one another; and for him who is unable to do so the penance is the feeding of sixty needy ones. This, that ye may put trust in Allah and His messenger. Such are the limits imposed by Allah; and for disbelievers is a painful doom.
Those who wish to understand the specific and broader meaning of the verses of the Qur'an, it is recommended that they should also read commentary on these subjects and verses. The English readers will find either Yusuf Ali's or Maududi's commentaries a good source. Allama Yususf Ali presents the meaning Ayah (verse) by Ayah with detailed footnotes for relevant words in each verse and includes a detailed index of the topics mentioned in the Qur'an. Maulana Maududi's work covers commentary for each Surah (chapter) of the Holy Qur'an.
"... The Qur'an cannot be translated. ... The book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Qur'an, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qur'an-and peradventure something of the charm in English. It can never take the place of the Qur'an in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so. ..."
"The Holy Qur'an," Text, Translation and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1934. (Latest Publisher: Amana Publications, Beltsville, MD, USA; Title: "The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an," 1992). A pocket edition of Yusuf Ali's translation is also available in contemporary English.
"The Meaning of the Glorious Koran," An Explanatory Translation by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, a Mentor Book Publication. (Also available as: "The Meaning of the Glorious Koran," by Marmaduke Pickthall, Dorset Press, N.Y. and several Islamic book publishers; Published by several publishers since 1930). Note: The Mentor publication (451 MJ1529 195) contains a few errors/omissions, e.g., in Surah 72: the last part of Verse 2 should read "we ascribe no partner unto our Lord", and Surah 68: Verse 22 should read "straight" road instead of "beaten" road. In case of any doubt, the reader is advised to check with a copy from an Islamic publisher and also check with an Islamic scholar for the meaning directly from the Arabic original.
For the serious readers of the meaning of the Qur'an in English, it is recommended that it should be read along with a good commentary to comprehend the essential meaning and scope of verses. Either Yusuf Ali's or Maududi's commentaries are a good starting point. The former presents the meaning Ayah (verse) by Ayah with footnotes and includes a detailed index of the topics mentioned in the Qur'an, while the latter presents commentaries for each Surah (chapter) of the Qur'an.
Before the Quranic revelation, slavery prevailed all over the world. In those days it seemed perfectly normal for people to have slaves whom they had captured in war or purchased in the markets. But the Quran proclaimed the equality of all men in the sight of God. It struck at the root of slavery by recognizing the moral worth of a human being as a human being. However there were at the time of the Quranic revelation numerous slaves that pre existed in that society as well as other parts of the world. The Quran in every conceivable way discouraged slavery and improved the lot of slaves. The Believers were urged to be kind and considerate to slaves, they were told that to emancipate a slave was a meritorious act. They could atone for some of their offences by setting a slave free. Thus the number of slaves was gradually reduced and the society was made less dependent on slave labor. The Arabic words "Maa malakat aimanukum" as occurred in the Quran which mean "Those whom your right hands possessed" are in the past tense and refer to those who had already been enslaved. When they were emancipated through a gradual process, slavery died a natural death.
Islam (Quranic Islam, which is actually what was practiced by Muhammed the Messenger of Allah and those with him, and not the distorted picture of Islam as promoted among the masses today by the pen of the historians and human conjecture) set in motion a gradual process of improvement in the status of those in bondage and culminating in the abolition of this institution. The process started with:
"...ye...may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands posses....wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dower..."[4:25]
This conferred upon the slave girls all the rights and privileges of a wife. Verse 36 of Sura 4 brought another big change in the status of slaves by enforcing the obligation to do good to one's parents and in the same breath, also to the slaves:
"...do 'Ihsan' (goodness) to parents ...and (to) what your right hands posses."[4:36]
verse 60 of Sura 9 exhorts Believers to give monetary help to those in bondage in order to alleviate their economic status:
"Alms are for...those in Bondage.."[9:60]
Verses 2:177,4:29,5:89 etc make another quantum change in this matter by urging the believers to free those in the shackles of slavery:
"...But it is righteousness...to spend of your substance out of love for Him...for the ransom of slaves.."[2:177]
"And whoever kills a believer by mistake, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave.."[4:92]
"He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation...give a slave his freedom.."[5:89]
According to Quran if a slave asks for his freedom ,the believer is left for no other choice but to accede to his request and is also required to help him with funds in order to rehabilitate him as a free man:
"And if any of your slaves ask you for a deed in writing (for emancipation) give them such a deed; If ye knew any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you..."[24:33]
The main source of slaves, were prisoners of war. The Quran laid down that they should be set free either for a favor or as ransom for your own prisoners of war:
"So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates..."[47:4]
Thus the Quran has restricted the victor with either freeing prisoners for ransom or as a favor. There is no third choice given by the Quran, and thereby it has not only abolished slavery but abolished the very source of this evil, i.e. prisoners of war.
The basic and fundamental teaching of the Quran is that subservience is due to Allah alone and not to any human or group of humans. Obedience and sovereignty is only and only for Allah, says the Quran at numerous places. Qur'anic Islam does not accept Slavery. Unlike the Bible which states:
"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
The Qur'an unambiguously states that no man no matter how high a status he may occupy, be that status of a direct recipient of Divine messages even (Nabuwah) ,no human being has the right to enslave any other human or group of humans, says the Qur'an:
"It is not meet for a mortal that Allah should give him the Book and the wisdom and 'Nabuwah' (prophethood), then he should say to men: Be my slaves rather than Allah's; but rather (he would say): Be sustenance providers (Rabaniyoon) because of your teaching the Book and your studying (it yourselves)."[3:79]
The above clarifies the basic teaching of the Qur'an in stating that obedience is not due to any human or group of humans' man made laws but according to the Quran, obedience and subservience is due to Allah alone, which is implemented in human affairs by following his Book (see 6:114) and instances where man subjects man, are described in the Quran as a great injustice. (Ref: Narration of enslavement of Children of Israel by Pharoah and his forces.)
From above and many other verses it is very clear that the Qur'an has abolished slavery, and not upheld it. If their remain certain verses were slaves are mentioned then these are those which were already existing in society from days of ignorance and about whom the Qur'an enjoined a gradual elevation in status leading to their freedom and abolishment of any future enslavement.
Furthermore it is the Quran which is the final authority for all matter of Islam and its verdict is final and absolute. No other Book carries more weight or reliability than the Quran in matters of Islam.