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Islamic views on slavery

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Bilal ibn Ribah (pictured, atop the Kaaba) an Ethiopian former slave, was appointed by Muhammad to perform as the first official muezzin. He had been emancipated through Abu Bakr paying his ransom upon Muhammad's instruction. As a Muslim, he accompanied Muhammad on the Hijra and was the bearer of Muhammad's mace and spear on the latter's military expeditions. In January 630, in a richly symbolic moment, he was the first ever Muslim to proclaim adhan in Mecca as depicted.

Islamic views on slavery first developed out of the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia,[1] and were at times radically different, depending on social-political factors such as the Arab slave trade.

In Islamic law, the topic of slavery is covered at great length.[1] The Quran (the holy book) and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) see slavery as an exceptional condition that can be entered into under certain limited circumstances.[2] Only children of slaves or non-Muslim prisoners of war could become slaves, never a freeborn Muslim.[3] They also consider manumission of a slave to be one of many meritorious deeds available for the expiation of sins.[4] According to Sharia, slaves are considered human beings and possessed some rights on the basis of their humanity. In addition, a Muslim slave is equal to a Muslim freeman in religious issues and superior to the free non-Muslim.[5]

In practice, slaves played various social and economic roles, from Emir to worker. Slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, pastoralism, and the army. Some rulers even relied on military and administrative slaves to such a degree that they seized power. In some cases, the treatment of slaves was so harsh that it led to uprisings, such as the Zanj Rebellion.[6] However, this was an exception rather than the norm, as the vast majority of labor in the medieval Islamic world consisted of free, paid labour.[7] For a variety of reasons, internal growth of the slave population was not enough to fulfill the demand in Muslim society. This resulted in massive importation, which involved enormous suffering and loss of life from the capture and transportation of slaves from non-Muslim lands.[8] In theory, slavery in Islamic law does not have a racial or color component, although this has not always been the case in practice.[9]

The Quran provides for emancipation of a slave as a means of religious atonement for sins.[10] One of the five pillars of Islam, zakāt, is meant to encourage Muslims to donate money to free slaves and bonded laborers in countries where slaves and bonded laborers may exist, in the hope that over time there will be no slaves left in that country.[11]

The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Africa. In the early 20th century (post World War I), slavery was gradually outlawed and suppressed in Muslim lands, largely due to pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France.[2] For example, Saudi Arabia and Yemen only abolished slavery in 1962 under pressure from Britain; Oman followed suit in 1970, and Mauritania in 1905, 1981, and again in August 2007.[12] However, slavery claiming the sanction of Islam is documented presently in the predominately Islamic countries of Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, and Sudan.[13][14]

Many early converts to Islam were the poor and former slaves. One notable example is Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi.[15][16][17][18]

Slavery in pre-Islamic Arabia

Slavery was widely practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia, as well as in the rest of the ancient and early medieval world. The minority were white slaves of foreign extraction, likely brought in by Arab caravaners (or the product of Bedouin captures) stretching back to biblical times. Native Arab slaves had also existed, a prime example being Zayd ibn Harithah, later to become Muhammad's adopted son. Arab slaves, however, usually obtained as captives, were generally ransomed off amongst nomad tribes.[2] The slave population increased by the custom of child abandonment (see also infanticide), and by the kidnapping, or, occasionally, the sale of small children.[19] There is no conclusive evidence of the existence of enslavement for debt or the sale of children by their families; the late and rare accounts of such occurrences show them to be abnormal, Brunschvig states[2] (According to Brockopp, debt slavery was persistent.[20]) Free persons could sell their offspring, or even themselves, into slavery. Enslavement was also possible as a consequence of committing certain offenses against the law, as in the Roman Empire.[19]

Two classes of slave existed: a purchased slave, and a slave born in the master's home. Over the latter the master had complete rights of ownership, though these slaves were unlikely to be sold or disposed of by the master. Female slaves were at times forced into prostitution for the benefit of their masters, in accordance with Near Eastern customs.[2][21][22]

The historical accounts of the early years of Islam report that "slaves of non-Muslim masters ... suffered brutal punishments. Sumayyah bint Khayyat is famous as the first martyr of Islam, having been killed with a spear by Abū Jahl when she refused to give up her faith. Abu Bakr freed Bilal when his master, Umayya ibn Khalaf, placed a heavy rock on his chest in an attempt to force his conversion."[20]

Slavery in the Quran

"Zakat expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect (zakāt) and for bringing hearts together and for freeing captives (or slaves) and for those in debt (or bonded labor) and for the cause of Allah and for the (stranded) traveler - an obligation (imposed) by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise."[citation needed]

The Quran includes multiple references to slaves, slave women, slave concubinage, and the freeing of slaves. It accepts the institution of slavery. It may be noted that the word 'abd' (slave) is rarely used, being more commonly replaced by some periphrasis such as ma malakat aymanukum ("that which your right hands own"). The Qur'an recognizes the basic inequality between master and slave and the rights of the former over the latter. The historian Brunschvig states that from a spiritual perspective, "the slave has the same value as the free man, and the same eternity is in store for his soul; in this earthly life, failing emancipation, there remains the fact of his inferior status, to which he must piously resign himself."[2][23] Quran 24:32:[24] "And marry the unmarried among you and the righteous among your male slaves and female slaves. If they should be poor, Allah will enrich them from His bounty, and Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing" Quran 24:33:[24] But let them who find not [the means for] marriage abstain [from sexual relations] until Allah enriches them from His bounty. And those who seek a contract [for eventual emancipation] from among whom your right hands possess - then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you."

The Quran, Surah 90:13 cleary stated , the act of freeing of a slave [25] will make those people who do such deed to be categorized as the Companions of the Right,[26] a term for the blessed people in hereafter.[27]

The Quran urges kindness to the slave[28] and recommends their liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiation of sins[29] and as an act of simple benevolence.[30] It exhorts masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their own freedom (manumission contracts)."[31]

Slaves are mentioned in at least twenty-nine verses of the Qur'an, most of these are Medinan and refer to the legal status of slaves. The legal material on slavery in the Qur'an is largely restricted to manumission and sexual relations.[20] According to Sikainga, the Qur'anic references to slavery as mainly contain "broad and general propositions of an ethical nature rather than specific legal formulations."[32]

The Quran accepts the distinction between slave and free as part of the natural order and uses this distinction as an example of God's grace,[33] regarding this discrimination between human beings as in accordance with the divinely established order of things.[20][34] "The Qur'an, however, does not consider slaves to be mere chattel; their humanity is directly addressed in references to their beliefs,[35] their desire for manumission and their feelings about being forced into prostitution.[36] In one case, the Qur'an refers to master and slave with the same word, rajul. Later interpreters presume slaves to be spiritual equals of free Muslims. For example,[37] urges believers to marry 'believing maids that your right hands own' and then states: "The one of you is as the other," which the Jalaalayn interpret as "You and they are equal in faith, so do not refrain from marrying them." The human aspect of slaves is further reinforced by reference to them as members of the private household, sometimes along with wives or children.[20] Pious exhortations from jurists to free men to address their slaves by such euphemistic terms as "my boy" and "my girl" stemmed from the belief that God, not their masters, was responsible for the slave's status.[38]

There are many common features between the institution of slavery in the Quran and that of neighboring cultures. However, the Quranic institution had some unique new features.[20] Bernard Lewis states that the Qur'anic legislation brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects: presumption of freedom, and the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances.[31] According to Brockopp, the idea of using alms for the manumission of slaves appears to be unique to the Quran, assuming the traditional interpretation of verses [Quran 2:177] and [Quran 9:60]. Similarly, the practice of freeing slaves in atonement for certain sins appears to be introduced by the Quran (but compare Exod 21:26-7).[20] The forced prostitution of female slaves, a Near Eastern custom of great antiquity, is condemned in the Quran.[22][39] Murray Gordon notes that this ban is "of no small significance."[40] Brockopp writes: "Other cultures limit a master's right to harm a slave but few exhort masters to treat their slaves kindly, and the placement of slaves in the same category as other weak members of society who deserve protection is unknown outside the Qur'an. The unique contribution of the Qur'an, then, is to be found in its emphasis on the place of slaves in society and society's responsibility toward the slave, perhaps the most progressive legislation on slavery in its time."[20]

Muhammad's traditions

Main article: Muhammad and slavery

The Islamic prophet Muhammad encouraged manumission of slaves, even if one had to purchase them first. On many occasions, Muhammad's companions, at his direction, freed slaves in abundance. Muhammad personally freed 63 slaves, and his wife Aisha freed 67.[41] In total his household and friends freed 39,237 slaves.[42] The most notable of Muhammad's slaves were: Safiyya bint Huyayy, whom he freed and married; Maria al-Qibtiyya, given to Muhammad by a Sassanid official, whom he freed and who may have become his wife;[43] Sirin, Maria's sister, whom he freed and married to the poet Hassan ibn Thabit[44] and Zayd ibn Harithah, whom Muhammad freed and adopted as a son.[45]

Islamic jurisprudence

Traditional Islamic jurisprudence


In Islamic jurisprudence, slavery was an exceptional condition, with the general rule being a presumption of freedom (al-'asl huwa 'l-hurriya — "The basic principle is liberty") for a person if his or her origins were unknown.[2] Lawful enslavement was restricted to two instances: capture in war (on the condition that the prisoner is not a Muslim), or birth in slavery. Islamic law did not recognize the classes of slave from pre-Islamic Arabia including those sold or given into slavery by themselves and others, and those indebted into slavery.[2] Though a free Muslim could not be enslaved, conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave did not require that he or she then should be liberated. Slave status was not affected by conversion to Islam.[46]


In the instance of illness it would be required for the slave to be looked after. Manumission is considered a meritorious act. Based on the Quranic verse ([Quran 24:33]), the Islamic law permits a slave to ransom himself upon consent of his master through a contract known as mukataba.[2] Azizah Y. al-Hibri, a professor of Law specializing in Islamic jurisprudence, states that both the Qur'an and Hadith are repeatedly exhorting Muslims to treat the slaves well and that Muhammad showed this both in action and in words.[47] Levy concurs, adding that "cruelty to them was forbidden."[48] Al-Hibri quotes the famous last speech of Muhammad and other hadiths emphasizing that all believers, whether free or enslaved, are siblings.[47] Lewis explains, "the humanitarian tendency of the Qur'an and the early caliphs in the Islamic empire, was to some extent counteracted by other influences,"[1] notably the practice of various conquered people and countries Muslims encountered, especially in provinces previously under Roman law. In spite of this, Lewis also states, "Islamic practice still represented a vast improvement on that inherited from antiquity, from Rome, and from Byzantium."[1] Murray Gordon writes: "It was not surprising that Muhammad, who accepted the existing socio-political order, looked upon slavery as part of the natural order of things. His approach to what was already an age-old institution was reformist and not revolutionary. The Prophet had not in mind to bring about the abolition of slavery. Rather, his purpose was to improve the conditions of slaves by correcting abuses and appealing to the conscience of his followers to treat them humanely."[49] The adoption of slaves as members of the family was common, according to Levy. If a slave was born and brought up in the master's household he was never sold, except in exceptional circumstances.[48]

Sexual intercourse

In Islamic law (Sharia), Ma malakat aymanukum is the term for slaves or captives of war. According to Muslim theologians, it is lawful for male masters to have sexual relations with female captives and slaves.[50] The purchase of female slaves for sex was lawful from the perspective of Islamic law, and this was the most common motive for the purchase of slaves throughout Islamic history.[51]

Al-Muminun 6 and Al-Maarij 30 both, in identical wording, draw a distinction between spouses and "those whom one's right hands possess", saying " أَزْوَاجِهِمْ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ" (literally, "their spouses or what their right hands possess"), while clarifying that sexual intercourse with either is permissible. Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi explains that "two categories of women have been excluded from the general command of guarding the private parts: (a) wives, (b) women who are legally in one's possession".[52]

The verse can be broken into three parts: