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Islam the Misunderstood Religion: Is Religion Antiquated? Islam and Slavery

Jun 21, 2013, 1:34 PM

Islam came and told the masters that they should be fair and good in their dealings with the slaves: “And be good to the parents and to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy neighbour of (your) kin and the alien neighbour and the companion in a journey and the wayfarer and those whom your right hand possesses; surely Allah dose not love him who is pound, boastful” (iv: 36). It stressed the fact that the true relationship between the master and his slave was not one of slavery and over lordship, nor of subjection or objection but that of kinship and brotherhood. Thus the masters were permitted to marry the slave-girls they had in their possession: “….Let them marry from the believing maids whom your right hands possess. Allah knoweth best (concerning) your faith. Ye (proceed) one from another; so wed them by permission of their folk, and give into them their portion in kindness” (iv: 25).

Thus the masters were described as brothers to their slaves: “ Your slaves are your brother……so he who has a brother under him should feed him clothe him as he himself feeds and dresses; do not ask them to do things which are beyond their power and if you do so ask them to do such things then help them”.

With a mark of deference to the feelings of the slaves the Holy Prophet added. “None of you should say: this is my man and this is my maiden”. It was on this authority that Abu Huraira, on seeing a man riding a horse and his slave trudging along after him, said to the man: “Get him seated on the horse behind you, for, surely he is your brother, and his soul is similar to yours”.

This was, however, not all that Islam did for the slaves, but before proceeding without inquiry, we would first like to sum up the great advance that, thanks to Islam, came about in the position of the slave at this preliminary stage.

The slave was now no longer regarded just a commodity-a merchandize-but was looked upon as a human being with a soul similar to that of his master, whereas in the past he was regarded as a being quite different from his master, and created to serve as slave in every way fit to suffer humiliation. It was because of this notion that their consciences never twinge them when murdering, punishing, cauterizing, or making their slaves perform loathsome and burdensome jobs. Islam raised them from this state of abject slavery to exalted status of brotherhood with free men. These achievements of Islam were not mere professions but a fact to which history bears witness. Even the prejudiced writers of Europe to admit that in the early period of Islam the slave was exalted to such a noble state of humanity as was never before witnessed in any other pare of the world. They won so dignified a status within the Muslim community as made the freed slaved abhor betraying their erstwhile masters although now they stood in no need for fear of them and were now as free as they. The reason for this lay in the face that they considered themselves to be members of the family of their pervious masters and linked to them with ties asking to those of blood.

Also the slave now came to be regarded as a human being whose personal safety was guaranteed by law not permitting the commission of any transgression against him through word or act. As to the word, the Prophet forbade the Muslim to talk of their slaves as such and instead commanded them to address them in a manner that should make them think of themselves as members of their family, and blot out from their persons the stigma of slavery. With this in view he said: “Surely God has made you their masters; and if He had willed He could have likewise given you in their possession as slaves”. This means that it was the particular conditions and circumstances that had made them slaves, otherwise they were as good as their master. In this way Islam deflated a little the swollen pride of the masters along with raising the status of slaves so as to connect them all in a purely human relationship. It brought them closer and fostered love among them telling mutual relationship. In the case of physical harm or injury, for both of them a kindred punishment was explicitly laid down. “He who slays his slave we shall put him to death,” is a principle very clear in its vast implications, all of which go to show that a state of perfect equality prevailed between the slave and his master as between one man and another, besides guaranteeing to both of them the right to live as human beings. Thus Islam made it clear that the present situation-slavery-did not precludes them from their rights as human beings. These guarantees were not only quite sufficient to grant a slave his safety and security of life but were also so generous and noble that no other parallel in the whole history of slave laws exists at all either before or after the advent of Islam. In this respect Islam went to such an extent that it forbade the master to even slap his slave, except for the purpose of correction (which has its own prescribed limits that may neither be passed by nor overlooked under any circumstances, the punishment given being, however, similar to the punishment the master may award his own children on their mischief).  This also provided a legal justification for setting the slaves at liberty. And with this we pass on to the next stage-the stage of actual enfranchisement.

In the first stage Islam gave spiritual enfranchisement to slaves. It gave them back their humanity and taught that from the of the standpoint of a common origin they enjoyed a status similar to that of their masters and that it was the external circumstances alone that had deprived them of their freedom, preventing then thereby from participating directly in the social life of the community. But for this only point of difference, there was no other difference between slaves and masters as far as their rights as human beings were concerned.

But Islam did not stop short there as the great fundamental principle of it is the achievement of perfect equality among all men making everyone of them equally free. Therefore it proceeded to bring about the actual freedom of the slaves by two important means: (1) voluntary emancipation by the masters (Al ltq) and (2) writing of their freedom (Mukatabah).

(1) As to the first of these (i.e. Al ltq) it was a voluntary act on the part of the master to set a slave at liberty. The practice was greatly encouraged by Islam and the Holy Prophet himself in this regard too provided the best example for his followers. He freed all the slaves he had. His companions followed his example, Abu Bakr in particular, spending large sums of money on buying off slaves from the idolatrous chiefs of Quraish to set them free later on. Besides this the slaves were also bought out of the Public Exchequer whenever there was some money to spare for this purpose so as to set them free. Yahya bin Saeed says: “Umar bin Abdul Aziz sent me to collect alms from Africa. I collected the alms and then looked for the poor to distribute the alms among them but I found none, nor I found anyone who might have accepted these from me, for Umar bin Abdul Aziz had enriched the people. So I bought a slave with the money and then set him free.”

To be continued