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Islam Attacks Slavery - Part 1

Islam has often been represented by Christian writers as a religion which not only tolerated slavery but also encouraged it. This is a serious accusation levelled against Islam, and in this book I propose to show its falsity. I would have taken, if possible, the charitable view that the charge against Islam is based on ignorance of facts, but I am grieved to note that in majority of the critics the overflowing motive seems to be prejudice, and malice. We have mentioned briefly the attitude of Christianity towards slavery, and more will be said afterwards. Here, to begin with, let us have a look at Islam and its codes.

As far as slavery was concerned, Arabs in the pre-Islamic days were as bad offenders as their neighbours. Slaves were a commercial commodity, and slavery was an established institution. It was a source of livelihood for thousands and a source of labour for scores of thousands. To the elite, the number of slaves in the household was a symbol of status. This was the state of affairs at the advent of Islam. Slavery offended the spirit of Islam as much as idolatry did. But while the latter had its roots in spiritualism and hence could be countered by reason, slavery had its roots in commerce, in social structure, in agriculture undertakings; and reason alone was but a feeble weapon against a foe so insidious and so deeply rooted. How was then slavery to be eradicated? The ill-informed may well suggest that the Prophet of Islam could have used force. But the ineffectiveness of force for such purpose is well recognised by all dispassionate students of sociology. Force may achieve submission but it inevitably achieves hostility, and very often hostility is so fierce that many a good cause has been lost when force has been employed for its advancement. The sad plight of the Negroes of America is but one illustration of how ineffective the employment of force can be when the object is to achieve a social reform. The emancipation of slaves did not change the attitude of the white masters towards their ex-slaves; and what a bitter legacy of racial antipathy has it left! Toynbee writes, "The Blacks in the United States who were emancipated jurisdically in 1862 are, with good reason, feeling now, more than a century later, that they are still being denied full human rights by the white majority of their fellow-citizens. [10]

Islam's war against slavery aimed at changing the attitude and mentality of the whole society, so that after emancipation, slaves would become its full-fledged members, without any need of demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience and racial riots. And Islam achieved this seemingly impossible objective without any war. To say that Islam waged no war against slavery would not be a true statement. A war it waged, but a war in which neither sword was resorted to, nor blood was spilled. Islam aimed at striking at the roots of its foe and created allies by arousing the finer instincts of its followers. A three-pronged attack on slavery was launched.

Firstly, Islam placed restrictions on acquisition of slaves. Prior to Islam, slavery was practised with abandon. Debtors were made slaves, war captives were either killed or made slaves. In weaker nations, people were hunted like animals, killed or captured and reduced to slavery. Islam, in unambiguous terms, forbade its followers to enslave people on any pretext. The only exception was an idolatrous enemy captured in a war which was fought either in self-defence or with the permission of the Prophet or his rightful successors. This exception was, in words of Ameer Ali, "in order to serve as guarantee for the preservation of the lives of the captives." [11]

As 'Allamah Tabataba'i has described at great length, prior to Islam strong and dominant people, throughout the world, used to enslave weak persons without any restraint. Important among the "causes" of enslavement were the following three factors:

1. War: The conqueror could do with the vanquished enemy whatever he liked. He could put the arrested soldiers to death, condemn them to slavery or otherwise keep them under his authority or clutch.

2. Domination: A chief or ruler could enslave, depending on his sweet wish, anyone residing under his domain.

3. Guardianship: A father or grandfather had absolute authority over his offspring. He could sell or gift him or her away; could lend him or her to someone else, or exchange him or her with another's son or daughter.

When Islam came on the scene, it nullified and negated the last two factors completely. No ruler or progenitor was allowed to treat his subjects or offspring as his slaves. Every individual was bestowed with well-defined rights; the ruler and the ruled, the progenitor and the offspring had to live within the limits prescribed by religion; no one could transgress those limits. And it drastically restricted the first cause, i.e., war, by allowing enslavement only in a war fought against unbelieving enemy. In no other way could anyone be enslaved. At the same time, Islam raised the status of slavery to that of a free man; and opened many ways for their emancipation. [12]


10. Toynbee, A. J., Mankind and Mother Earth, (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1976), p.12.

11. Ameer Ali, Muhammadan Law, vol.2, p.31.

12. al-Tabataba'i, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn, al-Mizan fi Tafsir'l Qur'an, vol.16, 2nd ed. (Beirut, 1390/1971), pp. 338-358.

Adapted from the book: "Slavery; From Islamic and Christian Perspectives" by: "Sayyid Sa'eed Akhtar Rizvi"

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