Jun 13, 2008, 6:39 AM
Islam and Slavery
When we say that Islam is a religion for all mankind and for all times, and that it embraced in itself all the healthy elements necessary for the existence and continuance of good life, we do not at all mean that it has once for all laid down all the detailed rules for all times and climes. No that is not so, for it has given such detailed direction only with regard to those basic human problems that remain unaltered through all the different vicissitudes of history, for the roots of these problems lie deep in the unchangeable, instinctive headsprings of human nature. As to the ever-changing condition of life, Islam is content with laying down some general principles for them so as to outline their future course of development. This is precisely what it did with respect to the problem of slavery. It laid down a sound basis for the freeing of slaves through voluntary enfranchisement or by the ransoming of their freedom besides pointing out course to a permanent resolution of this old and complicated problem in future.
Islam did not mean to change human nature. It rather sought to civilize it making due allowance for its inevitable limitations so as to help it ascend the highest possible planes of perfection without any recourse to suppression or repression. It recorded a miraculous success in transforming some individuals. As regards human society as a whole its success was no less glorious: it bears no analogy to anything else ever achieves in the domain of human history. But despite all this it did not aim at transmuting human beings to a degree of perfection both rare as well as impossible in the practical life of human beings all their present human limitations. For, if God had intended that, He would have from the very first created men like angels only, of whom it is said that: “They do not disobey God in all that He orders them; and they do what they are commanded to” (lxvi: 6). God did not intend to transmute men into angles such as these. He rather made them men and so such He knows their potentialities and the time successfully execute an order. However it is quite sufficient for Islam to be the first to initiate the emancipation movement which took the world some seven centuries to adopt and enforce. The fact nonetheless is that Islam had before long practically put an end to slavery in the Arabian peninsula and but for the presence of a new handspring of slavery due to which slavery due to which slavery lingered on everywhere in the world, it was quite capable of undertaking in earnest its similar effacement in the whole world of Islam. In the presence of this new cause of servitude it was not possible for Islam to abolish it out-right, for it concerned not only the Muslim but their opponents as well on whom Islam exercised no control or power. The source that thus prevented the total effacement of slavery was war, the most fruitful source of slavery at the time. We would discuss it should in some detail.
In treating slaves well and restoring their human status Islam has left behind some most wonderful and admirable examples. Of these we have already referred to some of the Quranic verses and traditions of the Holy Prophet. Here we would in brief take some more examples from practical life in the early period. When in Madina, the Holy Prophet established brotherhood between some Arab chiefs and some freed slaves. Thus he joined as brothers Bilal son of Rabah and Khalid son of Ru-waihata Al-Khas’ami, Zaid, the freed slave of the Prophet, and Hamza the uncle of Prophet, and Kharijah son of Zaid and Abu Bark. This relationship of brotherhood was a real bond akin to blood-relationship, so much so that the two persons thus made brothers inherited from each other just as only the blood relations now do.
But Islam did not stop at that. It went a step farther. Thus the Prophet married away his cousin Zainab, daughter of Jahsh, to his ex-slave Zaid. But marriage touches a very delicate aspect of a person’s life especially in that of a woman. Therefore although Zainab accepted a man far below her in social status, she could not reconcile herself to be the wife of one who did not come of a noble family like her, nor possessed wealth. But the Holy Prophet did by this act set an example of show that a slave could attain to the highest level of a Qureishite chief from out of the abyss of ignominy into which he was hurled by his cruel fellow human beings. But still this did not satisfy Islam.
Slaves were exalted to the position of military commanders and leaders. Thus when the Holy Prophet sent out an army which consisted of the closest of the Companions-Emigrants and the Helpers, the acknowledge leaders of the Arabs-he entrusted Zaid the slave, with the generalship of the army. After the death of Zaid the Holy Prophet appointed his son, Osma as the commander of the army consisting of such illustrious men as Abu Bakr and Omar, his two principle ministers and afterwards successor. Thus slaves were given not only a status equal and similar to others but were the same time raised to the exalted positions of heading the armies of free men. In this regard the Holy Prophet went to such a great length that he is reported to have commanded the believers: “Hear and obey (the orders of your leaders) although the man appointed above you as your leader be a negro slave with a raisin like head so long as he continues to enforce among you God’s law”. Thus even a slave could aspire to the highest office in the Islamic state. When faced with the problem of appointing his successor, Omar said: “Had Salim, the slave of Abi Huzaifa been alive, I would have appointed him caliph”. This was just a continuation of the tradition founded by the Holy Prophet.
Omar’s life affords yet another admirable instance bearing upon the respect enjoined by slaves in the Muslim society. When he was vehemently opposed by Bilal son of Rabah, an ex-slaves concerning the problem of Fay (conquered lands) Omar despairing of all other means of silencing his opposition by one of ex-slaves from among his subjects.
The great superiority of Islam with regard to slavery is manifest in various aspects. It aimed at freeing slaves externally as well as internally but to achieve that end it did not merely rely upon the pious wishes as Abraham Lincoin had done by issuing an order without preparing slaves mentally. This demonstrates Islam’s deep understandings of the human nature and how it employed all possible means to achieve its objective. It not only liberally restored these people’s liberty but also trained them so as to safeguard it and bear responsibilities flowing from it. It infused a spirit of love and cooperation throughout the society. It did not wait till conflicts should break out within the society over these rights as had happened in Europe leaving behind them an odious legacy of bitter malice and hatred and sapping all the spiritual headsprings in human heart. In the end, let us now take up the main basis on which Islam worked out the final emancipation after a due process of spiritual elevation of slaves.
We have already pointed that Islam successfully put an end to all those old sources whence slavery sprang up save one, which it was virtually impossible for it to do away with, and that was war, the only effective source of this evil left behind after the crusade of Islam against it. We propose to deal with it at some length.
The principal practice that dates back to the remotest past and was prevalent at the time was that prisoners of war were either enslaved or put to death. It was a practice such as had with the passage of time come to stay as a necessary condition of human existence in those past ages.
It was against this social background that Islam was revealed to mankind. Many battles took place between the forces of Islam and its opponents. The Muslims taken prisoners in these wars were made slaves by their captors. Their liberties were forfeited. Men were exposed to oppression and all those miseries that were commonly the lot a slave at the time. The honor of woman was violated in a most flagrant manner; several men-fathers, sons and friends-all jointly shares a single captive woman with no regard whatever to any rule or law, or respect for her womanhood, or any consideration whatever about her being a virgin maid or a married woman. Besides this, the children, if captured were brought up in a most odious and abject servitude.
the conditions stood, it was not possible for Islam to forthwith set at liberty
all the prisoners falling in its hands from the camp, for it would have not
only been a piece of bad policy but especially as the Muslims as well as their
dear and near ones captured in war were being made slaves by the enemies and
exposed to all sorts of tortures, atrocities and humiliations. In such
circumstances, the best and the only course left open to Islam was to treat
them as captives as they treated the Muslims. The enslaving of the prisoners of
war cold not be abolished unilaterally by Islam when the enemies insisted on
its continuance. So the practice was tolerated just so long as there did exist
no alternative to it and till the time the people all the world over should
agree among themselves upon a basis other than that of slavery in dealing with
their prisoners of war. We must not also overlook the great difference between
Islam and other religions in their wars or the treatment of the prisoners
captured in there wars…..
To be continued