Misconception about Slavery

The system of slavery in Islam contradicts Islamic concepts of equality and full personal freedom. This, too, is an encroachment upon human rights.

Reply to the Misconception about Slavery

The slavery system among Muslims in many aspects was different from other societies, and what many people envision about slavery according to practices among the Greeks, Romans and European colonialists. Islam initially accepted the slavery system because it was an accepted and necessary part of the economic and social conditions in those times. The system of slavery was a worldwide phenomenon with many vital sectors of livelihood dependent on slave labor. Slavery was accepted and recognized in the previous religions. As it is stated in the Bible:

"10. When you come neigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 11. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. 12. And if it will make no peace with thee, but it will make war against thee, then thou shall besiege it. 13. And when the Lord Thy God has delivered it into thine hands, thou shall smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. 14. But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shall you take unto yourself, and you shall eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God has given thee. 15. Thus shall you do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. 16. But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God does give you for an inheritance, you shall save alive that breathes. 17. But you shall utterly destroy them.
[Deuteronomy 20:10-17]

And a master in the Judaic Law could even beat his slave to death as this next text states:

And if a man smites his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he [the slave] continues [to live] a day or two, he [the slave owner] shall not be punished: for he [the slave] is his money [property].
[King James Version Exodus 21:20-21]

Nowhere are there any indications in the Bible about the prohibition of slavery and this lead many to boldly proclaim, as Jefferson Davis the president of the Confederate States of America said:

[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.
[Dunbar Rowland quoting Jefferson Davis, in "Jefferson Davis, Volume 1, Page 286, see also Jefferson Davis's "Inaugural Address as Provisional President of the Confederacy, Montgomery, AL, 1861-FEB-18, Confederate States of America, Congressional Journal, 1:64-66. Available at: http://funnelweb.utcc.utk.edu/~hoemann/jdinaug.html]

Considering this world environment, Islamic law followed a long-term and gradual plan to eliminate slavery from society. We do not find any direct command to abruptly stop all dealings with slavery but, rather wisely, the sources of slavery were gradually restricted and diminished and emancipation of slaves encouraged. Moreover, strict rules of fair and honorable conduct were applied in dealing with slaves and allowing them to buy their own freedom. The first stage was liberating themselves from within their hearts and minds. They were instructed to feel strong, healthy and capable within, and discouraged from feeling weak and inferior. Islam reconstructed the human feeling and integrity in the hearts and minds of the slaves by calling them brethren to their masters and owners. Allah's Messenger said,

Your workers are your brethren. The Almighty Allah placed them under you [for your services]. Whosoever has one [of his brethren] under him [working for him], he must feed him of what he eats, clothe him of what he clothes himself and do not assign them to do what they cannot do. If you do, then help them.
Bukhari no.2406 and Muslim no.1661.

Slaves have established rights. The commandments of the Quran and Sunnah order Muslims to be kind and good to their male slaves and maiden servants. The Almighty Allah states in the Glorious Qur'an:

Worship Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are your kin, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet) and what your right hands possess (slaves): for Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.

The Prophets longstanding concern about the slaves is evidence by the fact that on his deathbed, the Messenger of Allah ordered the Muslims as a dying request to guard their prayers and the rights of the slaves.

He is also reported to have said:

Whosoever castrated a slave we will castrate him.
Mustadrakal-Haakim 4/409 no. 8100.

Slavery, according to Islamic teachings, is limited to physical slavery only and there are no forced conversions to the way of the master. A slave has the right to maintain his own faith. Islam sets forth the best example in human equality by making the superiority based on piety and righteousness. Islam made brotherhood or unity of ties between slaves and their masters by the excellent example of Allah's Messenger when he offered in marriage his cousin, Zainab bint Jahsh a noble Quraishi lady, to his freed slave, Zaid bin Harithah. The latter was also designated as a leader of the army that consisted of some leading and well-known Companions of Allah's Messenger .

Islam followed two main methods to eliminate slavery from the Islamic society to avoid any confusion or chaos in the society. These methods did not create animosity, hatred between various classes of the Islamic society, or cause detriment to the prevailing socio-economic situations.

The first method

Eliminating and restricting the sources of slavery, which were very vast at one point during the Islamic history. The sources of slavery before Islam were many and included warfare whereby the defeated fighters were captured and consequently enslaved. Piracy, kidnapping and abducting people was another common source wherein the kidnapped people were taken and sold like slaves. If a person was in financial debt he could become a slave to the debtor. Another source was the practice of fathers selling their children, male or female, into slavery. A person could sell his own freedom against payment of a certain sum. Many crimes were punishable by imposing slavery on the accused. The criminal person would become a slave to the victim or his family members or heirs. Reproduction of slaves, even if the father was a freeman, was another source of slaves

Islam blocked these sources with only two exceptions as legitimate sources of slaves, which was entirely logical given the circumstances of the times.

(1) War captives, or prisoners of lawfully declared wars by a Muslim ruler: Notice that not all such prisoners of war were declared as slaves, some were set free while others were allowed to pay ransom. This is based on the verse in the Glorious Qur'an:

Therefore, when you meet the unbelievers (in war), 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. Thus (are you commanded): but if it had been Allah's Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will never let their deeds be lost.

The enemies of Islam used all means to stop progress and spread of Islam in the early era. Non-Muslims at that time held Muslims as prisoners-of-war, and thus the Muslims in retribution did the same.

(2) An inherited slave born from two slave parents. Such a child is considered a slave as well. However, if the master of a slave girl took her as a legal concubine, the product of this relation is a free child who is also attached in lineage to his free father. In such case, the slave-girl is called "a mother of a child who cannot be sold and cannot be given as a gift and must be freed upon the death of her master.

The second method

The second method of eliminating slavery involved encouraging and expanding the ways of liberation of slaves. Originally the only way for freedom was the will of the master to free the slave. Prior to the advent of Islam, a slave was considered a slave throughout his life and the master who liberated his slave sometimes had to pay a fine. Islam introduced the practice of self-liberation of slaves, whereby they could pay their masters a contracted amount to purchase their freedom. The master was also given the latitude to liberate his slave at any time and without any obligation or financial fine. Some of the prescribed means for liberating the slaves are mentioned below:

1) Atonement for sins: The atonement for killing by mistake was set to be the liberation of a believing, faithful Muslim slave, in addition to the blood money to be given to the affected family. This is based on the verse in the Glorious Qur'an:

Never should a believer kill a believer; but (if it so happens) by mistake, (compensation is due); if one kills a believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave, and pay compensation to the deceased's family, unless they remit it freely.

2) Atonement for Dthihaar oath:Dthihaar is a type of oath where a person used to say to his wife, "You are unlawful for me to touch, like the back of my mother'. This was a practice during the pre-Islamic era and Islam banned it. This is based on the verse in the Glorious Qur'an:

But those who divorce their wives by Dthihaar, then wish to go back on the words they uttered, (it is ordained that they) should free a slave before they touch each other: this is an admonition to you: and Allah is well-acquainted with (all) that you do.

3) Atonement for breaking an oath: This is based on the verse in the Glorious Qur'an:

Allah will not call you to account for what is unintentional in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average of the food for your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for the oaths you have sworn. And honor your oaths. Thus does Allah make clear to you His Signs, that you may be grateful.

4) Atonement for breaking the fast during the month of Ramadan: An example of this is the incident of the man who came to Allah's Messenger telling him:

O Prophet of Allah! I have destroyed myself!' Allah's Messenger asked the man, "Why?' The man informed Allah's Messenger that he had an intercourse with his wife during the fasting hours of the day of Ramadan. Allah's Messenger asked the man, "Do you have a slave to free?' The man answered negatively. Allah's Messenger asked the man again, "Do you have the means to feed sixty poor people?' The man replied negatively. While the man and the rest of the people were sitting, Allah's Messenger was presented with an amount of fresh dates. Allah's Messenger asked about the man who committed that sin, and he came forward. Allah's Messenger said to the man, "Take these dates and give them to the poor people in charity [atonement for your sin].' The man replied, "O Prophet of Allah! By Allah! There is no poorer family in the entire city of Madinah than my family.' Upon hearing this, Allah's Messenger smiled in such a way that his cuspid teeth appeared, saying, "Then, take the dates and feed your family.
Bukhari, Hadith No. 1834.

A person who is required to pay atonement for his sin and is financially capable and does not possess a slave to liberate can purchase a slave, if possible, and liberate it in atonement for his sin.

5) Liberating of slaves was declared one of the most beloved charitable acts of worship in the Sight of Allah : Allah the Exalted says in the Glorious Qur'an

But he has made no haste on the path that is steep. And what will explain to you the path that is steep? (It is :) freeing a slave.

Moreover, the statements of Allah's Messenger along with his actions, in this regard, encouraged people to liberate slaves for the cause of Allah . Allah's Messenger said,

Whosoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will free every organ of his body from the hell-fire against every organ of the freed slave, even his private parts against the freed slave's private parts.
Bukahri, Hadith No. 6337 and Muslim, Hadith No. 1509.

In addition, Allah's Messenger is reported to have said, Allah's Messenger said,

Visit the ill, feed the hungry and release the slave.
Bukhari, Hadith No. 2881.

6) Liberating a slave by a will: One of the means of liberating a slave is through the death-will. The will may be written, announced verbally, or the like. If a master declares in any form that his slave will be a freeman upon the master's death, the slave has secured his freedom after the death of the master. As a precautionary measure Islam bans selling or giving away of such a slave after this declaration. If a slave-girl is given such a promise and the owner takes her as concubine, the child who is a product of that cohabiting is born as a freeman also. Similarly, the slave girl, in such a case, is not to be sold or given away as a gift to a third party, but rather liberated as well.

7) Slave liberation is one of the proposed channels of Zakah: This is based on the verse in the Glorious Qur'an:

Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to the truth); 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.

8) Atonement for undue beating and slapping of the slave on the face: Islam requires freeing a slave if the slave master beats -unjustly- or slaps his slave on the face. This is based on the Hadith of Allah's Messenger :

Whosoever slaps his slave or hits him/her on the face must pay an atonement by freeing him/her.
Muslim,Hadith no. 1657.

9) Contracting freedom by a slave: This involves a situation when a slave requests his master to buy his freedom for a sum of money they both agree upon. If a slave requests his master to issue him such a liberation contract, it becomes binding on the master to grant the slave such a contract. In such a case the slave will have the liberty to buy, sell, trade, own and work in order to accumulate the needed money against his freedom contract. Even working for his master will be for a specific wage against his labor. In fact, Islam went a step further by asking donations, assistance and support for such people from the wealthy people in the Islamic society. Even the master is urged to discount some of the money agreed upon, or to give him some easier payment facilities to help obtain his freedom. This is based on the verse in the Glorious Qur'an, the meaning of which is translated as:

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; rather, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you.

In brief, we can say that Islam did not legalize and encourage slavery but rather established laws and regulations that contributed significantly and effectively to help restrict the sources of slavery and liberate slaves once and for all.