– Writer and Researcher
Remarkably, the slavery system plagued the whole world before the advent of Islam. Any attempt to suddenly prevent such a deep-rooted system from various societies would then have caused the social, political, as well as economic life to have been vehemently shaken.
Consequently, the divine wisdom was to work towards restricting the sources of slavery or blocking the avenues leading to enslavement whenever possible. In the same vein, as Islam restricted the streams feeding slavery, it expanded its drains in a way that can be understood as a gradual act of cancelling.
Let us take a look at how some western powers attempted to stop slavery and the outcome of their attempt through comparing these attempts to what has been really achieved by Islam.
Before doing this, one has to learn what is meant by slavery.
Linguistically: Slavery denotes various meanings of powerlessness and degradation.
Technically: Slavery stands for falling short of assuming authorities shouldered by man such as rulership, judgeship, bearing witness, and ownership. This is because a slave is a person who is owned by another. Consequently, how can one be responsible for others while s/he lacks the authority over his own self.
In today’s world, slavery is prohibited and banned according to international conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as can be seen in Article 4 which reads,
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
History of slavery
Reviewing the history of humankind with slavery starting with the Hunting Age, then the Pasturing Age, then the Cultivation Age, it becomes evident that slavery was an ongoing phenomenon throughout history. It becomes also clear that slavery was deep-rooted as a human conduct.
Afterwards, both the Torah and the Gospel endorsed slavery and the texts confirming this are beyond counting in a way that lies beyond the scope of this article. However, one can briefly cite that the Jews deem themselves as the Chosen People of Allah and that was the very reason behind their act of enslaving the non-Jewish other either by means of buying or taking prisoners of war. This, indeed, refutes the Orientalists’ allegations that Islam founded the institution of slavery and strengthened its foundations.
Slavery is as old as injustice, despotism, caste system, and exploitation throughout human history. The Qur’an referred to this in the Surah of Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) as follows:
“Now, there came a caravan, and they sent forth their water-scout. So he let down his bucket into the well. He said: Oh, glad tidings! Here is a boy! And they hid him as merchandise. Yet God was all-aware of all that they were doing. Thus they sold him for a paltry price, a number of coins; for they were disinclined toward him. The man from Egypt who bought him said to his wife: Tend graciously to his dwelling.” (Yusuf 12:19-21)
In addition, enslaving people was one of the penalties for theft at the time of ancient Hebrews. When Prophet Yusuf’s brothers were asked about the penalty for a thief who might have stolen the king’s goblet, they replied,
“…The recompense for it shall be that the one in whose pack it is found – he himself shall be its recompense. Thus do we recompense the wrongdoers for stealing, in our religion.” (Yusuf 12:75)
In ancient civilizations, slavery was regarded as the mainstay of the production and exploitation system. In the Ancient Egyptian civilization as well as the Persian civilization the closed caste system prevented the emancipation of slaves no matter what the will or potentials of the slaves were.
In the Byzantine civilization, the masters were from among the Roman minority, while the barbarians enslaved by the Romans constituted the majority. Some of these civilizations witnessed a number of revolutions by slaves; foremost among which were that of Spartacus (d. BC 71). He was a Thracian gladiator who led a slave revolt in Italy (BC 73-71). He defeated Roman armies in southern Italy, but his forces were crushed at Lucania, where he was killed and many of his troops were crucified.
Emancipation of slaves in the modern age
When Europeans intended to abolish slavery and illegalize slaves trade in the 19th century, their motives were neither spiritual, nor humane, nor ethical. On the contrary, they were mainly materialistic as the Capitalistic system of Europe deemed the emancipation of slaves as a way towards turning them into more skillful workers who might better serve the capitalistic system goals. Slaves became – according to economic feasibility criteria – a liability and a burden on the capital surplus which was adorned by the materialistic system of that time.
Now, let us take a closer look at a real example of the attempts made by the west more than a thousand years following the advent of Islam; namely, the American experience. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th President of the United States (1861-1865), who led the Union during the Civil War, emancipated slaves in the South in 1863.
Unfortunately, Lincoln forgot that freedom should be “taken”, not “bestowed”. Indeed, slaves cannot be emancipated by means of a governmental decree or a legislative law. Let us take a look at that experience through three points to be elaborated below:
Freeing the slaves externally: All what Lincoln did was to free the slaves externally without attempting first to dissolve the differences between various casts of the society. He failed to create a humane ethical system that might raise the value of the slave and normalize his relationship with the so-called master before attempting to emancipate him.
Overlooking the nature of slaves: The slaves freed by Lincoln – externally – via legislation, could not bear up with the “bestowed” freedom so that they pleaded for their masters to take them back as slaves as they were in the near past. This is because those slaves were not emancipated internally or from within.
In addition, the caste differences, racism and the inferiority look from the whites to the blacks were still there. All these drove the slaves not to think of their own freedom and dignity, but of going back to their previous humiliating conditions. Psychologically speaking, this is normal and well expected. As life is habit and the conditions in which one lives determine his emotions and shape his feelings and the whole psychological system.
Truly, the psychological nature of a slave differs from that of a free person. This is not because a slave is regarded as a different race as was thought by some in old times; rather, it is because living in the shade of slavery causes the slave’s psychological systems to adapt to the accompanying conditions. As this causes his obedience system to develop to its utmost while the responsibility and shouldering consequences systems to wear away in a remarkable manner.
Overlooking the nature of society and surrounding conditions: Lincoln overlooked the nature of society and what might take place in the future especially in times of war. This made Lincoln himself, as soon as the war broke out, issue a decree forbidding the emancipation of slaves for fear of internal disturbances and inability of the slaves’ owners to bear up with the damage their interests might suffer from, a matter which means a total paralysis of society in war time. Accordingly, Lincoln’s good intentions neither helped him understand or deal with the psychology of the slaves, nor did they help him during war time and thus he was finally accused of being self-contradictory.
Islam and abolishing slavery
Islam came while slavery was a well-established and recognized institution all over the world. Slaves were a current economic and social commodity with no sign of denial or opposition by anyone. They used to work at fields while fettered in heavy chains to prevent them from escaping. They were given a minimal amount of food just to keep them barely alive. They were forced to work as if they were beasts. Lashes were harshly used to discipline as well as punish them. They slept in dark, bad-smelling cells where insects and chains attached to their necks and feet were their sole companions.
Islam came while social injustices such as ethnic and caste discrimination were prevalent. At that time, several sources used to feed the “river of slavery” every day adding new slaves and bondmaids to the already existing deprived ones as follows:
1. War: Regardless of whether it was legitimate or not; prisoners of war were automatically turned into slaves be them males or females.
2. Kidnapping: As kidnapped persons were turned into slaves and female slaves.
3. Committing serious crimes: The perpetrators of such heinous crimes as as murdering, theft and fornication were enslaved as their punishment.
4. Inability to pay off debts: The owing poor were turned into slaves by the well-off creditors.
5. A father’s authority over his own children gave him the right to sell any of them to others and thus let them fall into thralldom.
6. One’s authority over himself as one could sell himself to others as well.
7. The progeny of all the above becomes slaves even if the parent was freed or emancipated.
While the sources that fed the river of slavery then were gaining momentum and recognition, the gates of freedom were either blocked or were too tight to let anyone get rid of slavery.
Recognizing that reality, Islam adopted a middle way of reformation that aimed at the emancipation of slaves, and abolishment of the slavery system in a realistic revolutionary though gradual manner. In so doing, neither ignoring the reality, nor acknowledging it in a way that may consolidate it or strengthen its already existing foundations, Islam adopted what follows:
1. Drying the sources out
This means that Islam started with blocking most of the means that used to pour new victims into the river of slavery. Only two sources were left; namely, prisoners of legitimate wars and the progeny of slave parents. Even the POWs were given the opportunity to restore their freedom through either a gracious offer of freedom for them or a ransom paid as explained in the following Qur’anic verse:
“Thus whenever you (believers) face (in battle) those who disbelieve, strike their necks (a lethal blow), until, when you have thoroughly pacified them, you shall tie fast their bonds. Thereafter, let there be either a gracious offer of freedom for them or a ransom paid.” (Muhammad 47:4)
Thereupon, when the war is over, the POWs are either to be graciously emancipated or exchanged for Muslim captives.
Remarkably, Islam kept this last source as a way of mutual or reciprocal treatment with the other. This means that, if the other nations used not to enslave the Muslim POWs, Muslims would have done the same with non-Muslim captives and thus putting an end to the slavery system for good. This would have left the block of already existing slaves that could be dissolved through emancipation by means of widening the mouth of the river of slavery.
2. Widening the avenues of emancipation
While Islam tightened the sources of slavery, it widened its drains or outlets. In so doing, it activated its noble values and social justice system through endearing to Muslims the act of emancipating slaves voluntarily. It dictated that the emancipation of each member of the slave’s body is a reason for saving a similar member of the master’s body from Hell-fire.
In the same vein, Islam considered the deliverance of slaves and rescuing them from bondage as an expiation or penance for sins and offenses. The Qur’an states what means,
“Thus, whoever kills a believer by mistake, then their atonement shall be the freeing of a believing human being from bondage…” (An-Nisa’ 4:93)
Imam An-Nasafi (d. AH 710) commented on this verse as saying,
“Verily, as the killer forced a believing soul to leave the troop of the living human beings, it becomes incumbent upon him to help another soul to enter the realm of the freedom. This is due to the fact that rescuing a slave from bondage is similar to reviving him…”
Moreover, Islam empowered the state and the public system as to play a role in the process of emancipating slaves through dictating that freeing slaves is one of the eight ways prescribed for spending the Zakah.
Thus, Islam made the rescuing of slaves part of Zakah which is one of the five pillars of Islam:
“Indeed, prescribed charitable offerings are only to be given to the poor and the indigent, and to those who work on administering it, and to those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free those in bondage, and to the debt-ridden, and for the cause of God, and to the wayfarer. This is an obligation from God.” (At-Tawbah 9:60)
According to Islam, freedom of all people is the original state while bondage is the exception that needs verification. Anyone whose condition is unknown is to be considered free unless there is a solid proof that he is otherwise. Anyone who claims that another is a slave should prove his allegations through presenting irrefutable evidence.
In addition, Islam treated the slaves and the free equally in terms of all religious rights and in most of the civil rights. It also created a desire in Muslims for helping the slaves who want to get themselves rid of slavery through fulfilling a deed of emancipation. A slave in such a case is called a mukatab which stands for, a slave, male or female, who binds himself (or herself) to pay a certain equivalent for his (or her) freedom:
“…Moreover, if those whom your hands rightfully possess desire a deed of emancipation, then write it for them, if you come to know goodness in them. Moreover, give them of the wealth of God that He has given you.” (An-Nur 24:33)
3. Enjoining good treatment
There is no legislation or system that has ever treated the slaves in a way that maintains and preserves their human dignity as Islam did. Islam recognized the slave’s humanity and his right to dignity and life. Allah Almighty says in the Qur’an,
“O humankind! Indeed, We have created all of you from a single male and female. Moreover, We have made you peoples and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. And, indeed, the noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the most God-fearing of you. Indeed, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” (Al-Hujurat 49:13)
The sole criterion thus is nothing but piety and righteous deeds and not the esprit de corps or tribalism or the like.
The Prophetic Sunnah confirms that Islam has established the principles of brotherhood between the slaves and the masters. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said,
“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.” (Al-Bukhari)
The Islamic way for treating slaves followed unprecedented humane commandments and precepts as well as practical steps that are regarded as a source of pride to Muslims. To cite some, let us recall a Prophetic hadith that shows how one should call a slave or ask him to do something.
Abu Hurairah reported Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“None of you should say: ‘Supply drink to your lord, feed your lord, help your lord in performing ablution,’ and none of you should say: ‘My Lord.’ He should say: ‘My chief, my patron;’ and none of you should say: ‘My bondman, my slave-girl,’ but simply say: ‘My boy, my girl, my servant.’” (Muslim)
While slavery previously constituted one of the biggest sources of the master’s richness, Islam turned it – through applying the above system of values which regarded the master and the slave as equal human beings – into a financial burden for the master. The master is required to feed the slave of what he eats and dress him of what he wears and not to ask him to do things beyond his power. Moreover, the master is even required to use euphemistic terms such as my boy, my girl or my servant instead of bondman and slave-girl respectively to safeguard the dignity of the slave.
Amazingly, Islam has gone far beyond the mere emancipation of slaves, as it did not leave them astray in the maze of the new world of freedom without arming them with the necessary power, team spirit or affiliation. Rather, it prescribed integrating them into the tribes and clans in which they previously lived as slaves. In so doing, Islam empowered them with the dignity, honor, rank and power of those tribes and clans through al-Walaa’ (allegiance).
But, why did Islam adopt gradual approach in prohibiting slavery?
Islam did not suddenly prohibit slavery for a number of reasons such as the reciprocal or mutual treatment with the other as is explained above.
Another reason is that modern history attests to the fact that enslavement has been regenerated in many different forms. Consequently, the most effective remedy for enslavement is to treat it whenever and wherever it reemerges in the same way as Islam gradually did.
Here, an important question arises: Did the decision to stop slavery in the modern age really abolish it?
It is true that the French Revolution (1789-1799) cancelled slavery in Europe and President Lincoln did the same in the USA just as the whole world have agreed to do this. However, is not the white slaves traffic a lucrative trade that is widespread today all over the world, especially in the USA and Europe?
The size of slave trade amounts to tens of billions of dollars annually as women and children are exploited in indecent acts, forced labor, and drugs trafficking and the like in direct contradiction to the international treaties and agreements as has been shown above. Whoever wants to learn about the size of such inhumane trade can be referred to any of the following reliable sources:
- Anti-Slavery International,
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC),
- Amnesty International (AI),
- UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and
- International Labour Office (ILO).
A final word
It has now become apparent that graduation is a divine law that should be adopted in administering people’s affairs when a change is to be effected in their economic or social life. Real change cannot be effected through a sudden decision to be made by a king or a president or an Assembly Council or a Parliament or any form of leadership, etc. Rather, this can be effected only through graduation, that is, to prepare the people intellectually, psychologically, morally and socially to accept the intended change.
That was the very approach adopted by the Ever-Glorious Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to change the pre-Islamic life of ignorance into an Islamic life. Prophet Muhammad spent 13 years in Makkah where his mission was to educate a believing generation that later on could shoulder the responsibility of making da`wah. Therefore, the Makkan period was a period of education and formation rather than legislation and codification.
 Zaqzuq, M. Hamdi (Ed.). Haqa’iq al-Islam fi Muwajahat al-Mushakikkin [Facts of Islam vs. the Doubters’ Distortions]. Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Egypt, 2006.
 The American Heritage Dictionary.
 Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version.
 Dr. Amir Abdullah, www.hurras.org
 An-Nasafi, Abdullah ibn Ahmed. Tafsir An-Nasafi. Verified by Magdi Mansur. Al-Maktabah Al-Tawfikiyyah, Egypt. Vol. 1-2, P. 282.
 Al-Khudrawi, Deeb. Dictionary of Islamic Terms: Arabic-English, English-Arabic. Al-Yamamah for Printing and Publishing, Damascus – Beirut, Darussalam, Riyadh, Houston, Lahore, 2004.
Dr. Ali Al-Halawani is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Translation, Kulliyyah of Languages and Management (KLM), International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He was Assistant Professor and worked for a number of international universities in Malaysia and Egypt such as Al-Madinah Interanational Univerity, Shah Alam, Malaysia (Mediu) and Misr University for Science & Technology (MUST), Egypt; Former Editor-in-Chief of the Electronic Da`wah Committee (EDC), Kuwait; Former Deputy Chief Editor and Managing Editor of the Living Shari`ah Department, www.islamOnline.net; Member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS); and member of the World Association of Arab Translators & Linguists (Wata). He is a published writer, translator and researcher. You can reach him at [email protected].