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Islam Attacks Slavery - Part 3

It is worth remembering that a slave automatically became free if the master cut his ear or blinded his eye. [22] Also if the slaves, living in an Islamic state, accepted Islam before their masters, then they would become free automatically. If the slave became blind or handicapped he would become free. [23] According to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him), if a slave is Muslim and has worked for seven years then he should be set free. Forcing him to work after seven years is not permissible. [24] It is because of this tradition (hadith) that the religious scholars are of the opinion that freeing the slave after seven years is a highly recommended deed of virtue. In addition to these compulsory ways of emancipation, voluntary emancipation of slaves was declared as the purest form of charity. Imam 'Ali emancipated one thousand slaves, purchasing them from his own money. [25] The same was the number of the slaves emancipated by the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. The fourth Imam, 'Ali bin al-Husayn, used to emancipate every slave in his household on the eve of 'Idd (the annual celebration of Muslims). It is important to note that in all the above cases, the freed slaves were provided with sufficient means to earn their livelihood respectably.

Islam is the first and the only religion which has prescribed liberation of slaves as a virtue and a condition of genuine faith in God. No religion other than Islam has ever preached and enjoined how best we can show our love for fellow human beings in bondage. In chapter ninety of the Qur'an, liberating a slave has been prescribed as a cardinal virtue of the faith:

Certainly We have created men [to dwell] in distress. What! Does he think that no one has power over him? He shall say, "I have wasted much wealth" Does he think that no one sees him? Have We not given him two eyes, a tongue and two lips, and We pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways [of good and evil]? But he would not attempt the uphill road. What will make you comprehend what the uphill road is? It is the setting free of a slave ... .

It should be mentioned that the setting free of a slave has been highly commended. Islam controlled slavery in such a graceful and practical way that it made the maintaining of a slave a great responsibility for the master, and at the same time it enjoined so much care and kindness to the slaves that in many cases when the slaves were set free they did not like to leave their masters.

Thirdly, Islam restored dignity to slaves and enhanced their social status. It made no distinction between a slave or a free man, and all were treated with equality. It was this fact that always attracted slaves to Islam. It is painful to see that those who never cease to be vociferous in their unjust criticism of Islam should take no notice of this principle of equality, when even in this enlightened age there are countries where laws are made discriminating against the vast majority of population, to keep them in practical servitude. Islam recognises no distinction of race or colour, black or white, citizens or soldiers, rulers or subjects; they are perfectly equal, not in theory only, but in practice. The first mu'azzin (herald of the prayer call) of Islam, a devoted adherent of the Prophet and an esteemed disciple, was a Negro slave. The Qur'an lays down the measure of superiority in verse thirteen of chapter forty-nine. It is addressed to mankind, the whole human race, and preaches the natural brotherhood of man without distinction of tribe, clan, race or colour. It says:

O you men! We have created you of a male and a female, and then We made you (into different) races and tribes so that you may know (and recognise) each other. Surely the most honourable of you with Allah is the one who is most pious among you; surely Allah is All-Knowing and Aware.

This verse makes clear the view point of Islam as regards human life on earth. It lays down only one criterion of superiority or honour and that is piety, which means complete obedience to the will of God. It annihilates all man-made and artificial distinctions of race and colour which we find all over the world even now. To explain the qualities of piety, let us note what Allah says:

It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, righteousness is this that one should believe in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the Prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin, the orphans, the needy, the wayfarer, the beggars and to those in bondage and keep up prayers, pay the poor-rate; and those who fulfil their promise and the patient ones in distress and affliction and in the time of war - these are they who are the truthful and these are they who are pious. (The Qur'an 2:177)

This verse clearly shows that by itself there is no specific virtue in turning towards any particular direction for prayer. (The unity of the Qiblah indicates the unity of faith which leads to spiritual unity and culminates in physical harmony.) The belief and practice enjoined in the verse are the real virtues, and apart from being ordered by God, they appeal to human reasoning. Please mark that "to give away wealth out of love for God to...those in bondage" is one of them. In a tradition from Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, it is stated that when a person hits his slave (male or female), without any legal justification, then the only way of accounting for that act is setting the slave free even if that act of hitting is within the limits fixed by God. In another tradition, Zurarah asked the same Imam about the attitude of a master towards the slaves. The Imam answered that "an act unintentionally done by the slaves is not punishable but when they are persistently and intentionally disobeying the will of the master, then they can be punished." It would be of interest to know that a slave was given the right to sue his master. A third tradition from the same Imam says that a man possessing the following four characteristics will be forgiven and will be placed highly in the values of realms of heaven: (1) one who shelters an orphan and takes interest in the circumstances and problems in which orphan is placed and is kind to him in a fatherly way, gives him the love of parents; (2) one who is kind and helpful to the weak; (3) one who spends on his parents and is kind, thoughtful and looking towards them; (4) and lastly, the one who is not furious in his behaviour towards his servant or slave and helps him in the work one has ordered, and refrains from ordering him such task which is beyond his capacity.

"Islam enjoined that a master should treat his slave as one of his family-members; he must be given all the necessities of life, just like any other dependent. The Prophet used to eat together with his slaves and servants, and sit with them; he himself did not eat or dress better than them, nor did he discriminate against them in any way.

"The masters were obliged not to put them under hardship; slaves were not to be tortured, abused or treated unjustly. They could marry among themselves (with their master's permission) or with free men or women. They could appear as witnesses, and participate with free men in all affairs. Many of them were appointed as governors, commanders of army and administrators.

"In the eyes of Islam, a pious slave has precedence over an unpious free man." [26]


22. al-Hilli, Muhaqqiq, Sharaya'ul Islam, (kitabul-'itq); also see The Encyclopaedia of Islam:, vol. I (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960), p. 31.

23. Ibid, pp. 31-3.

24. Ibid, pp. 43-4.

25. Ibid, p. 3.

26. al-Tabataba'i, op. cit., vol.16, pp. 338-358.

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

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