Slavery, a grave violation of human rights: The institution of slavery is a violation of human freedom and equality which is fundamental to the Islamic belief system. Islam promotes eradication of slavery. The Quran effectively addresses this issue with a goal to abolish this institution. A human being owned by another human being and used for financial, military or other self serving purposes can be traced back to all ancient cultures. Slavery was intertwined with the socioeconomic fabric of seventh century Arab culture. Islam did not invent slavery. The Quran dealt with this preexisting condition with mercy and kindness towards the slaves, with a vision for it’s eventual demise.
The powerhouse for work force of the old time: Ancient societies depended on the institution of slavery to provide the workforce for trade, construction, agriculture, everyday household work or recruiting soldiers. This can be compared to present day’s reliance on employees in keeping economic fundamentals stable and running the wheel of the economy. A sudden complete disruption of a slave workforce without having any alternative system in place would be unworkable, as it would profoundly impact the socioeconomic stability. A progressive transformation was required to eradicate slavery without causing social disruption and anarchy.
“… Estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves range from 30 to 40 percent in the 1st century BC, upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BC, about 35% to 40% of Italy’s population. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_ancient_Rome)
” Prohibiting slavery in the context of seventh-century Arabia apparently would have been as useful as prohibiting poverty; it would have reflected a noble ideal but would have been unworkable on an immediate basis without establishing an entirely new socioeconomic system..” Jacob Neusner, Tamara Sonn, Comparing Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam, 1999
1. Changing the mindset: The Quran upholds the notion of human equality in the sight of God. Prophet Muhammad (SW) preached to the believers that slaves were their brothers in humanity. The believers were expected to show kindness to the slaves as they were kind to their own children.*
2. Sharing the comforts and bearing the burdens: Muslims were commanded to be graceful to the slaves, feed them with the same food they ate, clothe them with same quality clothes they wore and not to give them any task that could be too hard for them. Slave owners were commanded to help the slaves if any task was too hard for them.*
3. Erasing the symbols of human oppression: Prophet (SW) instructed people to stop using the term “slave” and to call the slaves as “my boy or my girl”. Slaves were told not to call their captors “master”. No human can be the owner of another human being. God is the Creator and Owner of all humans, and all humans are equal in His eyes. Quran describes the slaves as “people who your right hand possesses”.
4. Ending the channels of slavery: A common way of getting new slaves was by capturing men, women and children through raids from the stronger tribes on the weaker ones. Women, children and orphans were particularly vulnerable to these attacks. Prophet Muhammad (SW) prohibited any practice of enslaving a free man.* Islam closed all avenues to take new captives except the prisoners of war from a justified war.**
** “…..It is not fitting for a prophet to keep captives unless he has battled strenuously on earth. You may desire the fleeting gains of this world-but God desires [for you the good of] the life to come: and God is almighty, wise…” (Quran 8:67)
*Prophet Muhammad (SW) promised that on the day of judgement he will be personally complaining against three categories of people: one who enslaved a free man, sold him and spent the money. (Al-Bukahri)
*Prophet Muhammad said: “…your slaves are brothers under your command…feed them from what you eat, dress them with what you wear, do not ask them to do things beyond their capacity. If you do so, then help them…” Bukhari V1 B2 N:29
*”….(Prophet said) ‘He will not enter Paradise who behaves ill to his slaves.’ The Companions said, ‘O Apostle of God! have you not told us, that there will be a great many slaves and orphans among your disciples?’ He said, ‘Yes; then be kind to them as to your own children, and give them to eat what you eat yourselves…….. Be kind to slaves as to your own children…” Bukhari
A slave girl was slapped by the owner. He was ordered by the prophet to set her free. Muslim: B15 N:4082
5. The Quran offers different options to free slaves: a) Freeing slaves out of benevolence. (Quran-47:4). b) Prisoners of war could be freed by prisoner exchange or ransom from the enemies. (Quran-47:4). Ransoms were according to their means. c) Captives earned their ransom by teaching writing to unlettered people. c) Captives were given the right to make contracts with their captors for their freedom. (Quran-24:33) d) Not only the captors were commanded to facilitate slave’s freedom but also they were urged to help them financially to ease their transition into normal society. (Quran-24:33) e) Resources from Zakah, (charity) fund were used to buy freedom for the slaves (Quran-9:60). f) Quran codified freeing slaves as a virtuous act for a believer.
*”…And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if you know any good in them; yes, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. (Quran 24:33)”
*** “…. Alms are for the poor and the needy, …….for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom..“(Quran 9:60)
“….Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers (battle), smite at their necks; At length, when you have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens…. – (Quran 47:4 )
”….It is not righteousness that you turn your faces Towards east or west; but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the last Day…..to spend of your wealth, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy……. and for the ransom of slaves; …… ” (Quran 2:177)
“…..Have We not made for him a pair of eyes?
And a tongue, and a pair of lips?
And shown him the two highways?
But he has not attempted the path that is steep.
And what will explain to you the path that is steep?
(It is:) freeing the slave;
Or the giving of food in a day of hunger
To the orphan relative,
Or to the indigent (down) in the dust…………
……Such are the Companions of the Right Hand……” (Quran 90:8….. 90:18)
“…Allah has bestowed His gifts of sustenance more freely on some of you than on others: those more favored are not going to throw back their gifts to those whom their right hands possess (slave), so as to be equal in that respect. Will they then deny the favors of Allah? (Quran 16:71).
” ….And they feed the poor, the orphan and the captives, for love of Him (saying) : We feed you, for the sake of Allah only. We ask no reward nor thanks from you..” (Quran 76:8-9)
“…Serve Allah . . . and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the Companion by your side, the way-farer (you meet), and what your right hands possess [i.e. slaves] . . . (Quran 4:36)
We are Looking to a world 1400 years ago: The resources available to the Arabs in seventh century were not adequate to feed, maintain and rehabilitate the prisoners of war in a humane manner. The prisoners of war were either executed or sold, or they were distributed to the soldiers as slaves. That was the norm of the time. Islam initiated a process where captives were housed with Muslim families. They were given the right to make a contract with their owners for their freedom. Their dignity as a human being was assured. The Quran recommended that the believers free the slaves as part of their worship and as proof of their piety and righteousness.
Slavery was a problem of all societies: Though Islam promotes eradication of slavery, ending slavery was not an issue just for the Muslims. Slavery needed to be eradicated from all societies. The wisdom of the Quranic approach to end slavery lies in recognizing that slavery needed to be phased out over time, to avoid effects of it’s sudden absence and withdrawal. Quran gave the message of enlightenment that slaves are equal humans and deserve to be free. This was the first of it’s kind in an organized religious cultural tradition. The spirit of Islam was that the society had to be kind and dignified with the existing slaves, and move forward with freeing them while world transitioned from slave dependence to a world without slaves. Quran initiated that process and pushed humanity to that moral revolution.
Although Islam promotes eradication of slavery, history suggests that the Muslim nations failed: From the onset of Prophet (SW) and early Muslims pioneered in giving slaves back their freedom. They bought slaves just to free them. They freed their prisoners of war in thousands. It was a tragic and historic failure of subsequent Muslim nations that they failed to continue that trend and follow through the spirit of Quran. Muslims continued practicing slavery for centuries to come, rather than freeing their slaves as Quran demanded of them. Had they followed Quranic commands and Prophet’s (SW) ideals, the institution of slavery would have been abolished from Muslim lands many centuries ago.