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Q33: Why is slavery permitted in Islam?

This is a very broad and detailed topic so I will mention a few things but I would advise the reader to do their own background reading for further information. Links have been provided at the end of this article. I will first take a brief look at the Islamic position and rulings regarding slavery, discuss the wisdom behind them, and then illustrate history of slavery in Islam in comparison to other civilizations, past and present.

The Islamic Position

Slavery is undoubtedly permitted in Islam, but this Islamic practice is quite different from slavery as practiced in other civilization. For example, Islam has made freeing slaves a charitable act and an expiation for various legal infractions. That is, if somebody commits certain sins they could atone for it by freeing a slave. Moreover, Islam has narrowed the source of slavery to prisoners of war. These two points in themselves, while only scratching the surface of the issue, already sets Islamic slavery apart from systems of slavery wherein slaves were invariable slaves to the grave and wherein slaves were kidnapped or tricked into slavery.

In Islam, slaves are given countless rights. This point is clearly illustrated by an incident that took place during the life of the Prophet, wherein ….. For example, Ar-Rabadh said: I met Abu Dharr who was wearing a cloak, and his slave, too, was wearing a similar one. I asked about the reason for it. He replied, “I abused a person by calling his mother with bad names.” The Prophet said to me, ‘Abu Dharr! Did you abuse him by calling his mother with bad names? You still have some characteristics of ignorance. Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity (power) and if you do so, then help them.’ ” (Sahih Bukhari 30, Sahih Muslim 1661)

Because of popular conceptions of slavery, one might imagine that the Prophet PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him) actively caught people and sold them as slaves. In fact, some even distort Islamic texts in order to perpetuate this misconception dueto a narration where he grabbed someone in the market and asked “who is going to buy this slave from me?” but if you read the full narration, this was simply a practical joke and “slave” here means “slave of Allah (God)”. (The full narration can be found here)

Slaves during the Life of the Prophet

As consequence of the rights of slaves safeguarded by Islam, former slaves managed to gain a very high status in Islamic society. For example, Bilal was a companion of the Prophet PBUH and was a freed Abyssinian slave (from Ethiopia). He went on to become the Mu’aththin (one who gives the call for prayer). Another example was Safiya, who belonged to a Jewish tribe. The Prophet PBUH not only freed her but married her and she gained a high status as one of “Mothers of the Believers”. Some (freed) slaves narrated Hadith (reports of sayings or actions of the Prophet PBUH) that Muslims still refer to today and a slave was involved in burying the Prophet PBUH. In fact, there was a time when slaves managed to establish their own empire (i.e. the Mamluks in Egypt).

Slavery in Islamic and Western Civilizations

As mentioned previously, the slavery in Islamic civilization is quite different from that practiced in other civilizations. This fact has been recognized by the Scottish historian, H. A. R. Gibb. In The Travels of Ibn Battuta, about the famous 14th century Muslim Moroccan traveller, Gibb makes reference to slavery in the Muslim societies and explains that slaves were treated much more humanely in the Muslim societies than their counterparts in many other societies.

Perhaps the most recent and most brutal example of slavery occurred in the Americas for about 350 years until the 19th century, whereby African slaves were kidnapped, chained and shipped to the Americas. While many died along the way, those who survived were dehumanised and lost all their rights, begin treated perhaps worse then livestock. They were separated from their families, beaten, stripped, tortured, coerced into unbearable labour, prohibited from their religions (many were Muslim), and given the names that the slave traders assigned to them.

You can find out more about the history of slavery in the Americas such as from the book “Christopher Columbus and the African Holocaust” (you can see it from here) or read about Abdul Rahman Ibrahim Sori who was a nobleman from West African but was a slave for 40 years or Omar Ibn Saeed, a Senegalese man who was sold into slavery in the 19th century but wrote an autobiography. Alternatively, perhaps you can listen to black African people talk about their own families and ancestry. As a basic example, I taught history for some time in the UK and there was a discussion about ancestry so a British woman of Black African origin in the class told me that she had no idea of her ancestry as her ancestors were given the names assigned to them by their slave masters and all she knew was that the slave master was a map maker hence the surname “Mapp”.

During the time of the slave trade in the Americas, slave traders practised “slave breeding” whereby they would breed slaves in a somewhat similar way to how people breed cattle in order to increase the number of slaves. Thereafter, the slave masters had little or no attachment to the slaves produced. In complete contrast to this, the Prophet PBUH was gifted a slave, Maria (the Coptic) by the leader of Egypt and she was a Christian who later converted to Islam. The Prophet PBUH had a son with her, Ibrahim. The Prophet PBUH treated him just like any other child and when he died in infancy, he was so sad that many companions witnessed the Prophet PBUH crying. Ibrahim’s mother gained the status of “Umm Al Walad” (Mother of the child) and gained her freedom. Incidentally this ruling applies to other slaves who give birth as they also receive the same status and title. Therefore, slaves who bear their master’s child are free after their master’s death, while the offspring are free from birth. Also, the Prophet PBUH never bought any slaves for his personal benefit and any which he had possess were eventually freed.

Some forms of slavery such as in the Americas targeted Black Africans in particular and systematically created racism towards them. In fact, until as recent as 1960 after slavery was abolished, there was at least one “human zoo” where white Europeans could go and see African people and feed them in a somewhat similar way to how people might go to the zoo nowadays to see exotic animals and feed them. The purpose of this arrangement was to try and scientifically prove that white people were superior to any other human race and that the Africans were primitive or less evolved than them (using Darwin’s theory of evolution) and as a way of justifying their very poor treatment towards them. You can find out more from here.

In contrast, slavery in the Islamic world did not target a specific ethnic group or community as there were slaves from various parts of the world, which Muslims had conquered. Not much is known about the slaves but some include Thoban who was Arab, Safina who was Persian and others such as Mehran and Shuqran (their names are not Arab so they were probably from some other countries).
Although slavery existed in the past, it has officially been abolished and there is no need to try and revive it. Some people might wonder then why Islam did not fully abolish slavery altogether, as was the case with then like forbidding alcohol. However, something to think about is that there have been various cases where workers in poor countries have been overworked, underpaid, not respected and not treated well such as in clothes factories. This is often referred to as “exploitation” but just how different is this from slavery? In some report such as here, such conditions have also been referred to as “modern day slavery”. Therefore, perhaps there is still a need to try and stop this practice and help the “slaves” to get their freedom? I am not a scholar and this is just an analogy and something to think about. You cancfind out more from here.
Also, notice that nowadays apart from “modern day slavery”, some particular groups of people have been targeted. For example, many ethic Uighur Muslims in Western China have been taken to “re education camps” where they are forced to stay, are tortured, are not allowed to fast during the month of Ramadan, are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol (both forbidden in Islam) and even to renounce Islam altogether. According to a UN report, there could be up to a million of such people in these camps. You can find out more from here. Despite this, very little is being done to stop this practice and many people are totally unaware that anything like this is actually taking place. Is this not a form of “modern day slavery” that people should try to end? You can find out more from here. There is more information here.

Other resources

You can find out more about the Islamic rulings from here.

Also, here is a link to a two part video that looks at this topic and gives more detail.

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3 thoughts on “Q33: Why is slavery permitted in Islam?”

  1. Slaams Mahir,
    A good article, thank you. Not to mention how other religions treated slaves; we expect no better than what they did. You gave a good account of how Muslims treated slaves. While it is true that slaves had more humane treatment from their Muslim masters.the concept of slavery was deep rooted in Arab society , and not easily up rooted. You will find this from the treatment of non Arab workers in the Arab countries ; that mentality is still there.
    I am sad though as to why Islam did not totally abolish slavery. Refer of last Khutbah of prophet in which he says all men are are equal
    Arabs are no superior to non Arabs .. al akhir.. he didn’t say ‘free’ men are equal regards of colour or creed!!! So could this slavery concept have had more cultural influence than religious one?

    Like

    1. Wa’aleikum alsalaam. Thank you for the message and for the comments. You made a number of points here so I will try to clarify some things:

      1- The concept of slavery was deep rooted in Arab society , and not easily up rooted: true, not just for Arabs but societies in general. Even Romans had Greek slaves and ancient Egyptians had slaves

      2- You will find this from the treatment of non Arab workers in the Arab countries ; that mentality is still there: in many ways some things have not changed in societies in general throughout history such as wars, racism and slavery. Regarding Arab countries; there is good and bad in every society and that includes Muslims as there are those who practise the religion the way it should be while others are only Muslim by name. There are many examples where people are unfairly treated such as the treatment of the Rohingya by Buddhists in Burma and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China. This is a reflection of the people and not the religion.

      3- I am sad though as to why Islam did not totally abolish slavery: sometimes things might seem illogical at first but upon further analysis make sense. For example: fasting seems illogical as people are technically starving themselves but now we realise that fasting is good for the health and they often use this such as for blood tests. Certain things have been completely prohibited such as alcohol consumption and at an individual level many people manage this. Some things have always existed and in many ways always will such as wars and having slaves. Rather than simply prohibiting all slavery which will not happen, practical steps have been given for dealing with slaves and freeing them as well as providing uses for them such as when there are prisoners of war or freeing slaves as a “penalty” for certain sins. Having said that, there is no need to try and revive slavery nowadays. Although slavery has officially been abolished it still exists but is more hidden so perhaps that is also why it can be hard to grasp the idea of slavery being permissible

      4- he didn’t say ‘free’ men are equal regards of colour or creed!!!: True. In the end, the criteria for reward or punishment is given in Surah Al Asr in the Quran (Indeed, mankind is in loss. Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience). Therefore, it might very well be possible that a righteous slave living in hardship is much better than a very rich person who is proud and ungrateful, such as with the case of Pharoah.

      5- So could this slavery concept have had more cultural influence than religious one?: that might be a way of looking at it. Slavery is something that has existed throughout human societies. Islam does not encourage slavery or endorse it but provides practical solutions for dealing with it.

      I hope you find this explation useful

      Like

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