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Islam Attacks Slavery - Part 4

It is stated in reliable traditions from the Prophet that one should feed his slave what he himself eats and should dress him with what he himself dresses. In his famous sermon in 'Arafat, on 9th Dhul-hijjah 9 AH, during his last pilgrimage, the Prophet said, "... and your slaves, see that you feed them such food as you eat yourselves and dress him with what you yourself dress. And if they commit a mistake which you are not inclined to forgive then sell them, for they are the servants of Allah and are not to be tormented ...". [27]

To say that Islam treated slaves on the basis of equality would be an understatement. Because, in fact, for a number of offences, the punishment meted out to a slave was half of the punishment meted out to others. [28] This was in contrast to the established practice of every nation to punish slaves more severely than the free men. Professor Davis writes, "The criminal law was almost everywhere more severe for slaves than freemen." [29] The Prophet of Islam always exhorted his followers to treat their slaves like family-members. He and his household always treated their servants as such. A female servant in the employ of Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter, testifies that her mistress had made it a rule to share all household drudgery with her and insisted that the servant should have rest every alternative days when she, Fatimah, would attend to the work. Thus, there was equal division of work between the mistress of the house and the maid-servant. It is also recorded that once 'Ali and his male servant Qambar went to a shop where 'Ali selected two garments, one a cheap coarse dress, the other expensive. He gave the expensive garment to Qambar. Qambar was shocked. "Oh Master!", he said, "This is the better one and you are the ruler of the Muslims. You should take this one." 'Ali replied, "No, Qambar, you are young and young man should wear better clothes." Could such a treatment produce any sense of inferiority in slaves? Masters were forbidden to exact more work than was just and proper. They were ordered never to address their male or female slaves by the degrading appellation, but by the more affectionate name of "my young man', or "my young maid"; it was also enjoined that all slaves should be dressed, clothed and fed exactly as their masters and mistresses did. It was also ordered that in no case should the mother be separated from her child, nor brother from brother, nor father from son, nor husband from wife, nor one relative from another.

Let us now refer to the Qur'an:

Worship Allah (alone) and associate nothing with Him, and do good to parents, to kinsfolk, to orphans, to the needy, to the neighbour who is a relative, to the neighbour who is a stranger, to a companion by your side, to the wayfarer and to (the slave) which your right hands possess; verily Allah loves not the proud, the boastful. (4:36)

The Holy Prophet gifted a slave to Abu Dharr al-Ghifari and told him to maintain him in the best way, to feed him whatever he himself ate, to clothe him with whatever clothes he liked for himself. Abu Dharr had a robe which he immediately tore into two, and gave one piece to the slave. The Prophet said, "Excellent!" Abu Dharr took the slave home and liberated him. The Prophet was highly pleased with Abu Dharr and said, "God will reward you for it."

How Imam Zaynul 'Abidin, the fourth Imam, treated his slave-girl is well-known in Islamic history. Once while serving food to the Imam, she accidentally dropped a bowl of hot soup on him. She was deeply conscious of the injury and pain she had caused to the Imam. She knew very well the disposition of the holy Imam and began reciting the Qur'anic verse, "Those who restrain their anger."

"I have restrained my anger," the Imam replied.
"And those who forgive the people," she went on.
"I have forgiven you," he said.
Lastly, she said, "And God loves those who do good to others."
The Imam replied, "I set you free to seek the pleasure of God."
The slave-girl had quoted those words from verse 133 of chapter 3 of the Qur'an. We reproduce the full verse here:

Those who spend (in alms) alike in prosperity and straitness, and who restrain (their) anger, and those who forgive the people, and Allah loves those who do good (to others).

Once someone remarked that the slaves of Imam Zayn al-'Abidin say to each other that they were not in the least afraid of him. On hearing this, the Imam prostrated to God in thanks-giving and exclaimed, "I thank God that his creatures are not afraid of me."

From what we have said above it must be clear how kindly and lovingly the slaves were treated by the Holy Prophet and the Imams of Ahlul Bayt, and those who followed the injunctions of the Qur'an and the examples set by the Prophet and the Imams. On the attitude of Muslim master with his slaves, Will Durant says, "...he handled them with a genial humanity that made their lot no worse - perhaps better, as more secure - than that of a factory worker in nineteenth-century Europe." [30]

At the end of the 18th century, Mouradgea d'Ohsson (a main source of information for the Western writers on the Ottoman empire) declared:

"There is perhaps no nation where the captives, the slaves, the very toilers in the galleys are better provided for or treated with more kindness than among the Muhammedans." [31]

P. L Riviere writes:

"A master was enjoined to make his slave share the bounties he received from God. It must be recognised that, in this respect, the Islamic teaching acknowledged such a respect for human personality and showed a sense of equality which is searched for in vain in ancient civilization" [32]

And not only in ancient civilisations; even in the modern Christian civilisation the ingrained belief of racial supremacy is still manifesting itself every day. A. J. Toynbee says in Civilization on Trial:

"The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue..." Then he comments that "in this perilous matter of race feeling it can hardly be denied that (the triumph of English-speaking peoples) has been a misfortune." [33]

Napoleon Bonaparte is recorded as saying about the condition of slaves in Muslim countries:

"The slave inherits his master's property and marries his daughter. The majority of the Pashas had been slaves. Many of the grand viziers, all the Mamelukes, Ali Ben Mourad Beg, had been slaves. They began their lives by performing the most menial services in the houses of their masters and were subsequently raised in status for their merit or by favour. In the West, on the contrary, the slave has always been below the position of the domestic servants; he occupies the lowest rug. The Romans emancipated their slaves, but the emancipated were never considered as equal to the free-born. The ideas of the East and West are so different that it took a long time to make the Egyptians understand that all the army was not composed of slaves belonging to the Sultan al-Kabir." [34]
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27. Ibn Sa'd, op. cit., vol. II:1, p. 133; al-'Amili, op. cit., vol.16, 21.

28. al-Amili, op. cit., vol.18, pp. 401f, 527-8, 586-7; vol. 19, pp. 73, 154f.

29. Davis, D.B., The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (N.Y.: 1969), p. 60.

30. Hurgronje C., Mohammedanism, (N.Y., 1916), p. 128 as quoted by W. Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. IV (N.Y., 1950), p. 209.

31. As quoted in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol.I, p. 35.

32. Riviere P.L., Revue Bleaue (June 1939).

33. Toynbee, A.J., Civilization on Trial (New York, 1948), p. 205.

34. Cherfils, Bonaparte et l'Islam (Paris, 1914), p. (?).

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