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Islam Attacks Slavery - Part 2

Before slave trade was started on a large scale by the Westerners (when colonisation began), it was only in wars that men were made captives. But Islam did not permit wars of aggression. All the battles fought during the life-time of the Prophet were defensive battles. Not only this, an alternative was also introduced and enforced: "to let the captives go free, either with or without any ransom "(The Qur'an 47:4). In the battles forced upon the Muslims, the Prophet had ordered very humane treatment of the prisoners who fell into Muslim hands. They could purchase their freedom on payment of small sums of money, and some of them were left off without any payment. It all depended upon the discretion of the Prophet or his rightful successors, keeping in view the safety of the Muslims and the extent of danger from the enemy. The captives of the very first Islamic battle, Badr, were freed on ransom (in form of money or work like teaching ten Muslim children how to read and write), while those of the tribe of Tay were freed without any ransom.[ 13]

Even in such enslavement a condition was attached that a mother was not to be separated from her child, nor brother from brother nor husband from wife nor one member of a clan from his clan. The Prophet and the first Shi'ite Imam, 'Ali bin Abi Talib, prescribed severest penalties for anyone who took a free man into slavery: cutting off the hand of the culprit.

Ameer Ali writes in Mohammedan Law:

The possession of a slave by the Koranic laws was conditional on a bona-fide war, waged in self-defence, against idolatrous enemies; and it was permitted in order to serve as a guarantee for the preservation of the lives of the captives.. Mohammad found the custom existing among the pagan Arabs; he minimised the evil, and at the same time laid down such strict rules that but for the perversity of his followers, slavery as a social institution would have ceased to exist with the discontinuance of the wars in which the Moslem [sic] nation were at first involved. The mutilation of the human body was also explicitly forbidden by Mohammad, and the institution which flourished both in the Persian and the Byzantine empires was denounced in severe terms. Slavery by purchase was unknown during the reigns of the first four Caliphs, the khulafai-rashidin, 'the legitimate Caliphs' as they are called by the Sunnis. There is, at least, no authentic record of any slave having been acquired by purchase during their tenure of office. But with the accession of the usurping house of Ommeyya [sic] a change came over the spirit of Islam. Mu'awiyah was the first Muslim sovereign who introduced into the Mohammedan world the practice of acquiring slaves by purchase. He was also the first to adopt the Byzantine custom of guarding his women by eunuchs. During the reign of the early Abbasides the Shi'a Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq preached against slavery, and his views were adopted by the Mu'tazila. Karmath, who flourished in the ninth century of the Christian era ..seems to have held slavery to be unlawful. [14]

Thus we see that the earnest attempt of Islam to stop its followers from acquiring new slaves was foiled by Banu Umayyah. And I must record to the lasting disgrace of a large number of Muslims that, in later times, they utterly ignored the precepts of the Prophet and the injunctions of the Qur'an, and the Arabs too participated with the European Christians in the abominable slave-trade of East Africa. The West African slave-trade was totally in the hands of the European Christians.

Secondly, Islam commenced an active campaign to emancipate the slaves. Emancipation of slaves was declared to be expiation for a number of sins. This question is related to canonical laws of Islam, but we shall enumerate a few of them to show how for small sins of commission the penalty imposed was manumission of slaves. For instance, if a man failed to fast without any reasonable excuse during the month of Ramadan, or if he failed to observe fast of i'tikaf or vow, etc, he had to free a slave for each day, in addition to fasting afterwards. Similarly, a slave had to be freed for every breach of vow; or for tearing one's garment as a demonstration of grief on the death of a spouse or child; or if a woman beat herself or cut or pulled her hair in grief over the death of anyone; or for accidental homicide and, in some cases, even for intentionally killing a Muslim; or if a husband told his wife that she was to him like his mother, and for many other trespasses. [15] From these instances, some of them trivial but deeply ingrained in Arab culture, one can see how religious laws were enacted for the emancipation of slaves, and the total eradication of the curse of slavery from the society.

It may well be argued that by prescribing emancipation of slaves as penance for sins, Islam envisaged continuance of slavery as a permanent institution. This was not so. For every instance emancipation of a slave was prescribed as a penance, an alternative was also prescribed - clearly indicating that Islam's objective was in time to create a society free from this pernicious institution. [16] Islam also declared that any slave woman who bore a child by her master could not be sold and, on her master's death, she became automatically a free woman. [17] Moreover; in contrast to all previous customs, Islam ordained that the child born to a slave woman by her master should follow the status of the father. [18] Slaves were given a right to ransom themselves either on payment of an agreed sum or on completion of service for an agreed period. The legal term for this is mukatabah. Allah says in the Qur'an:

And those who seek a deed [of liberation] from among those [slaves] whom your right hands possess, give them the writing (kitab) if you know of goodness in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you.. (Qur'an 2433)

The word kitab in the verse stands for the written contract between the slave and his master known as "mukatabah - deed of contract". The significant factor in mukatabah is that when a slave desires to get into such a mutual written contract, the master should not refuse it. [19] In the verse quoted above, God has made it incumbent upon Muslims to help the slaves in getting liberated. When a slave wants to get himself freed, the master has not only to agree to it, but he is also directed to help the slave from his own wealth, [20] the only provision being the satisfaction to the effect that the slave would live a respectable life after earning his freedom. Thus, about 1400 years ago Islam dealt in the most effective way a death blow to slavery. It also directed that the slaves seeking freedom should be helped from the public treasury (baytul mal). [21] Thus, as a last resort, the Prophet and his rightful successors were to provide ransom for the slaves out of state coffers. The Qur'an recognises the emancipation of slaves as one of the permissible expenditures of alms and charity. (See the Qur'an 9:60, 2:177.)


13. al-Waqidi, Muhammad bin 'Umar, Kitabul Maghazi, ed. M. Jones, vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p.129; Ibn Sa'd, al-Tabaqatul Kabir, Vol. II:1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1912), pp.11, 14.

14. Ameer Ali, Muhammadan Law, vol. 2, pp. 31-2.

15. al-Khu'i, Sayyid Abu'l Qasim, Minhajus Salihin, 3rd ed., vol. II (Najaf, 1974), pp. 328-331; also see the Qur'an, 4:92, 5:89, 58:3.

16. Ibid.

17. al-'Amili, Hurr, Wasa'ilu 'sh-Shi'ah, vol.16 (Tehran, 1983), p.128.

18. Ibid.

19. al-'Amili, op. cit., vol.16, p.101.

20. Ibid, p. 111.

21. Ibid, pp. 121-2.

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