Islam teaches that all humans are equal in the sight of Allah, it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, of noble origins or vulgar, black or white, European or Hindu, American or Asian, Arab or Malay, etc., the only thing that can distinguish people in the sight of Allah is their faith, piety and conduct. People are different, they have always been, and will remain to be so. Their differences have always been the cause of their disputes. Islam teaches that to be different without fighting against one another, we should get to know each other, and deal piously with our fellow humans.
Allah says in the Qur’an: “O mankind, We have created you from males and females, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Verily the noblest among you in Allah’s sight are those who are most pious. Verily Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” [The Qur’an (49:13)]
Islam also teaches that all people are servants to their creator, and they must all abide by His laws and rules for the benefit of all humanity. Among men, there is the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the victorious and the defeated, the controlling and the controlled, etc… To find yourself in any of those situations is nothing but a trial for your faith. Centuries before the advent of Islam, slave markets were present all over the world and this was something Islam had to deal with. Historically, slavery resulted from several causes, mainly poverty and war. Allah revealed in the Qur’an many rules that focused on balancing the relationship between all people, and preserved the human rights, whether there is slavery or not. Hence, among the relations organized in the Islamic teachings is the relationship between masters and slaves. Let’s grasp an idea about those teachings, Allah says in the Qur’an:
“Virtue is to believe in Allah, the Judgment Day, the angels, the Holy Book and the prophets, [the virtuous are those who] despite their love for money, give it away to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, the wayfarers, those who ask [for charity], and for freeing those held in slavery, and [the virtuous are those who] observe their prayers, pay Zakah, keep their pledges when they make them, and are perseverant in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the true believers, and such are the pious ones.” [The Qur’an (2:177)]
“Do not marry pagan women until they believe, a bondwoman who believes is better than a pagan woman, however pleasing she may appear to you. Nor marry off believing women to pagans until they believe: A bondman who believes is better than a pagan, even though he (the free man) allures you.” [The Qur’an (2:221)]
“Worship Allah, and join none with Him (in worship), and be kind to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near of kin, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands possess (i.e. Your slaves): For Allah loves not those who are arrogant and those who are vainglorious.” [The Qur’an (4:36)]
“Alms (i.e. Zakah) are only for: the poor and the needy, for those who collect zakah, for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to the Truth), for freeing those held in slavery, for those in debt, for striving in the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer. It is a legal obligation enjoined by Allah, and Allah is All-Knowing and Most-Wise.” [The Qur’an (9:60)]
“Marry those among you who are single (i.e. a man who has no wife, and a woman who has no husband), and also marry the virtuous ones among your right hand possessions (i.e. slaves), males or females: if they are in poverty, Allah will enrich them of His grace: for Allah encompasses all, and he knows all things. Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allah enriches them of His grace. And such of your right hands possessions who seek a written pact (of emancipation for a certain sum), give them such pact if you know that there is good and honesty in them: And give them something (yourselves) out of the wealth which Allah has bestowed upon you. But force not your girls (i.e. bondswomen) to prostitution (i.e. by forbidding them from marrying) when they desire chastity, in order that you may make a gain in the goods of this life. But if anyone compels them, yet, after such compulsion, is Allah, Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful (i.e. to those women for they have been forced to do this evil act unwillingly), We have already sent down to you verses making things clear, an illustration from (the story of) people who passed away before you, and an admonition for those who fear (Allah).” [The Qur’an (24:32-34)]
“I swear by this City (i.e. Makkah), and you are a freeman from this City, and by the parent (i.e. Adam) and all those he begot (i.e. his progeny), Verily We have created man into toil and struggle. Does he think that none has power over him? He says (boastfully): ‘Wealth have I squandered in abundance!’ Does he think that none sees him? Have We not made for him a pair of eyes? And a tongue and a pair of lips?! And shown him the two paths (i.e. righteousness and perversity)? But he has made no haste towards the path that is steep. And what may let you know what the steep path is? It is the freeing of a slave, or the giving of food in a day of hunger (famine) to an orphan near of kin, Or to the indigent (down) in the dust. Then will he be of those who believe, and commend one another with patience, (i.e. spiritual jihad), and commend deeds of kindness and compassion.” [The Qur’an (90:1-17)]
Regarding “Slavery”, the above Qur’anic verses hold the following injunctions:
- Part of virtuous faith is to spend from your wealth on freeing salves.
- Marry a believing slave (male or female), they shall help you in your strife more than any pagan free (male or female) however pleasing they may appear to you.
- Be kind and gentle in your treatment to your slaves.
- Freeing slaves is among the outlets of Zakah.
- If an honest slave seeks a pact of emancipation, grant it to him or her and help them by paying part of the money.
- Marry off your slave girls if they wish to get married, this is closer to preserving their chastity.
- Never force your slave girls to practice any sort of illicit sex.
- Let the women who were forced –before the Qur’anic prohibition– know that Allah does not blame them for being forced to practice any sort of illicit sex.
- Freeing slaves is a doorway to Allah’s righteous path.
Prophet Muhammad P.B.U.H. taught Muslims a special code of conduct in all aspects of life. Among what he said regarding slaves are the following traditions:
“Your right hand possessions are your brothers [in humanity], and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him from what he eats, dress him from what he wears, and he should never overburden him with any work beyond his capacity, and if anyone had to do so, then he should help him.” [Recorded by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu-Dāwud and others]
“Don’t you ever say my ‘slave boy’ or my ‘slave girl’, you are all Allah’s slaves, but say ‘my Boy’ or ‘my Girl’, and the slave shouldn’t say ‘my Lord’, but should say ‘my boss’.” [Recorded by Muslim]
“If a servant brings his master some food and the master doesn’t make him sit down and eat with him, he must give him some of that food for he (i.e. the slave) is the one who has prepared it.” [Recorded by Bukhari]
‘Abdullah Ibn-‘Omar reported that: “A man came to the prophet and asked him: ‘How often should we forgive our slaves?’ The prophet didn’t reply, so the man repeated his question, but again the prophet didn’t reply, so the man repeated it for the third time, and the prophet said: ‘Forgive him [daily] seventy times’.” [Recorded by Abu-Dāwud] One may think: Would there be any punishment at all?!
“Whoever emancipates a slave, Allah shall save each and every part of his or her body from the hellfire.” [Recorded by Bukhari]
The prophet also said: “If someone slapped a slave or beat him, [he has sinned] and his penance is to emancipate that slave.” [Recorded by Muslim]
“Three get their reward (from Allah) twice, a man who owns a female-slave, he treats her kindly, educates her (about Islam) and excels in her education, teaches her good manners and excels in her teaching, then he emancipates her and marries her, he’s rewarded twice, and a believer from the people of the book (Christians and Jews) who believes in my prophethood, he’s rewarded twice, and a Muslim-slave who fulfills his duties towards Allah and advises his master faithfully.” [Recorded by Bukhari]
“Each one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his herd, A man in his family is a shepherd and responsible for his herd, A woman in her husband’s house is a shepherd and responsible for her herd, A slave in his master’s wealth is a shepherd and responsible for his herd.” [Recorded by Bukhari]
On his death bed, the prophet’s last words were the following: “Observe your prayers, stand fast in prayers and maintain your duty towards your right hand possessions.” [Recorded by Ibn-Maja, Baihaqy and An-Nasā’ī] These words were overflowing his tongue at his death as reported by his cousin ‘Ali Ibn Abi-Tālib, and among his last words P.B.U.H.: “Maintain your duty towards the two weak ones: women and your right hand possessions.” [Recorded by Tabari]
It’s worth mentioning here that the prophet P.B.U.H. died having no slaves under his command.
The above prophetic traditions hold the following injunctions:
- Slaves should be treated like brothers.
- A slave should be fed from the same food his boss eats.
- A slave should be dressed from the same kind of clothes his boss wears.
- A slave should never be burdened beyond his capacity of work.
- If a hard task was assigned for a slave by his boss, then the boss must help him.
- When referring to his or her slave, the master should say: “My Boy” or “My Girl”, like many refer to their children.
- When the slave refers to his master, he or she should say: “My Boss”, not “My Lord”.
- Emancipate slaves, for it saves from the hell-fire in the hereafter.
- Slapping or Beating a slave entails his or her emancipation.
- Treat your female slaves kindly and teach them about Islam in the best manner.
- The observation of the above Qur’anic and prophetic injunctions are the duty of any Muslim master, so masters should maintain this duty like they protect and take care of their women.
The Islamic injunctions regarding slavery were not solely concerned with freeing slaves, but were also concerned with destroying the racism dams built. We have seen the trial of some nations to free slaves by issuing a judicial decree, but where did this take them? Racism, persecution and maltreatment continued in their worst forms for decades. Islam targeted the core of the problem and dealt with it. The previous injunctions granted slaves social and civil rights that placed them and their masters on an equal footing. The Qur’an exhorted the Muslim masters or mistresses to marry from their slaves those who embrace Islam and are righteous. It even urged the masters to marry the righteous slaves without giving any regards to their poverty or status. It also permitted the non-Muslim slaves to marry from each other. Islam gave slaves the right to emancipate themselves through an emancipation pact. In this pact, the master grants the slave his or her freedom in return for the accomplishment of a certain task or for a certain amount of money, etc… Allah also ordered the Muslim masters to help their slaves in freeing themselves by paying part [majority of jurists say ⅓] of the due installments determined in the emancipation pact from their own wealth, and this was also an outlet for spending the money of Zakah according to the Qur’an. When Muslims adhered to those injunctions, their act was praised by many slaves. This made it obvious that these tolerable, generous teachings could never be but divine, especially during that historical period 1400 years ago. Almost half of the prophet’s most famous companions were emancipated slaves, and many of the famous scholars from the next generations were also former slaves.
In addition, emancipating slaves was set as penance for many sins in Islam, like violation of fasting, false murder, violating oaths and vows, etc… For the previous deeds the first compulsory penance is to emancipate a slave. The Companions used to emancipate slaves in large numbers seeking Allah’s reward. Very few examples of those, as mentioned in “Ma’aref Al-Qur’an” by Imam “Mufti Muhammad Shaf’i”, are:
Lady ‘Āʾishah, the mother of believers, emancipated 69 slaves,
Al-’Abbas, the prophet’s uncle, emancipated 70 slaves,
‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Omar, the prophet’s companion emancipated 1000 slaves,
‘Abdurrahman Ibn-‘Auf, the prophet’s companion, and the richest Muslim of his time, emancipated 30,000 slaves.
Thus, as you can see, only four famous Companions emancipated about 31,139 slaves, thousands of other Companions must have emancipated countless slaves.
In the early years of Islam, “Abu-Bakr” emancipated a black slave from Abyssinia who was severely tortured by the pagans for embracing Islam. This slave’s name was “Belal Ibn-Rabah,” the Abyssinian who later on became the prophet’s Muezzin. It happened once that Belal debated with one of the companions who had noble origins among his tribe. In a wild burst of anger, this companion insulted Belal saying: “You son of a black woman.”
When this reached the prophet P.B.U.H. and he saw this companion, he said to him: “You are a man who still has pre-Islamic ignorance in his heart.”
Filled with guilt, this companion went to Belal, and placed his face on the ground in front of him saying: “Step on the head of the son of the nobles, O Belal.”
Belal pulled him up and forgave him saying: “Never could I step on a head that bows and prostrates praying to Allah.” [Recorded by Ibn-Hajar in “Fath Al-Bary” the explanation of Bukhari]
Pondering over the previous, I can’t but say that Islam dealt with the real problem from core to crust. Abolishing slavery needed reforming people’s attitude towards slaves alongside freeing them, only freeing them means absolute failure. In Islam, slaves or right hand possessions were given their rights as human beings, which is the major part in a real effective remedy for the problem. Islam focused on narrowing the distance between masters and slaves by rooting out the sense of arrogance and nobility from the masters, then it further enhanced their desire and tendency to emancipate slaves by setting emancipation of slaves as a doorway to repent from sins and an outlet for charity and obligatory alms. Islam gave slaves the right to emancipate themselves, this granted them the upper hand on their destiny, and raised their status to that of free hired workers. Pondering over today’s free servants and how they live, I couldn’t but notice how retarded we have become compared to the early Muslim generations.
Canon Taylor a Christian philologist, toponymist, and Anglican canon of York (from 1885-1901) read a paper speaking about Islam before the Church Congress at Wolverhampton, on October the 7th, 1887, among what he said: “…….It brought out the fundamental dogmas of religion the unity and greatness of God, that He is merciful and righteous, that He claims obedience to His will, resignation and faith. It proclaimed the responsibility of man, a future life, a Day of Judgment, and stern retribution to fall upon the wicked, and enforced the duties of prayer, alms giving, fasting and benevolence. It thrust aside the artificial virtues, the religious frauds and follies, the perverted moral sentiments, and the verbal subtleties of theological disputants. It replaced monkishness by manliness. It gave hope to the slave, brotherhood to mankind, and recognition to the fundamental facts of human nature.”
Written By: Ehab Shawky