Islam and the Institution of Slavery


There is a general misconception about the traditional slavery as if it is an institution created or nurtured by Islam. The fact is the other way round and Islam has actually played a pivotal role in abolishing the custom of enslaving people which existed when the last Prophet (s.a.w) proclaimed his message of the revival of Islam at the beginning of the 7the century A.D. The misconception further intensifies and makes complications when people see the Quran speaking of the concubines in a number of the Suras like in Almominoon and Alma’Arij where permission has been granted to the Muslims for keeping concubines beside the wives under regular wedlock. In both the Suras the words are,” Save from their wives or the (slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy”(23:6 and 70:30). There are question marks and doubts about the institution of slavery and concubinary tradition which need clarification vis-a-vis its permission as an institution in Islam. Some of the important basics to be understood clearly in this connection are elaborated to clarify the actual situation related to this issue.

The first point is that the institution of slavery and concubinage is never an integral part of the system of Islam, which means that it is not obligatory on the Muslims to compulsorily own slaves and concubines.

The second fact is that the institution existed in its very cruel form and was very deep rooted in that Pagan society of ‘Jahilia’ at the time of the advent of the Prophetic message of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) like so many other traditions existing there. Islam had to take care of it to mend and reform it like it did for a number of other institutions by adopting a gradual reformatory approach. A number of changes were introduced and implemented by the Prophet to bring this institution to a status compatible to the human norms. Some of the reformatory steps taken were as follow.

It was repeatedly emphasized by the Quran and hence by the Holy Prophet that the men and women in bondage are your brethren. It is only a relationship that has been established between you two, like the relation between an employer and employee. As human beings both the master and the bonded person are equal. It is why the Prophet (s.a.w.) has very emphatically ordained his followers to feed their slaves what they eat themselves and give them the same garments they use themselves. The prophet (SAW) has stressed the believers to treat the slaves with kindness and benignity. Through its moral teachings, Islam has attempted to give to these downtrodden, hapless and oppressed people a place in the society equal to that of the free people. Even the worst enemies of the Prophet have testified this fact. H.G. Wills, otherwise known for his animosity with the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) has very categorically acknowledged what the Prophet had done in this respect.

Islam has opened a way for the slaves to get freedom when it ordained ‘Makatibat’ in the holy Quran. (Makatiba is the term for the agreement with the master of pledging an agreed amount to be paid in return of freeing a person from the yoke of serfdom.) The Divine Law (Sharia) has made it obligatory on the master that he will not hesitate accepting an offer done for such a deal. The individual so freed will work to earn to be paid to the master according to the terms of the agreement reached at as revealed in verse 33 of Sura-e-Alnoor.(24:33) It says,”And let those who cannot find a match keep chaste till Allah gives them independence by His grace. And such of your slaves as seek a writing (of emancipation), write it for them if ye are aware of aught of good in them, and bestow upon them of the wealth of Allah which He hath bestowed upon you. Force not your slave-girls to whoredom that ye may seek enjoyment of the life of the world, if they would preserve their chastity, and if one forces them, then (unto them), after their compulsion, lo! Allah will be Forgiving, Merciful”.

To make the payment easier for the person seeking freedom, it has been ordained to all the believers and even to the concerned master to help the person seeking freedom from the clutches of serfdom, through charity and obligatory alms (zakat) to enable him to pay the amount of the deal. In the Quranic terminology freeing of the slaves has been mentioned as an act of beatitude or ‘Falah’. (2:177) Similarly in verse 60 of the 9th Sura of the Quran, the list of people entitled for Zakat includes those seeking freedom from the yoke of slavery. In Sura Albalad (90th Sura of the Quran) a very loveable style has been adopted to persuade the believers to set free their bonded men out of beneficence. It says, “But he hath not attempted the ascent. Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is? (It is) to free a slave—” (90: 11,12 and 13) The glorious deeds of Hazrat Abubakar for the cause of Islam include freeing of those slaves who adopted Islam, when he paid heavy amounts for freeing such people. This list of people freed by Abubakar, include Hazrat Bilal as well.

Hazrat Usman, the 3rd righteous Caliph of the Umma, is on record to have said, “Since the day I accepted Islam there has not been a single day of Friday when I have not freed a slave by paying to the masters. We can imagine the number of people freed by Hazrat Usman since he is one of the earliest who accepted Islam. He ranks number six in that row. The Divine Law has also fixed expiations for certain wrongs when committed by the believers, to free slaves as compensation for that sin or wrong thus opening different channels for the reformation of the institution of slavery. The most important point to be kept in mind is that Islam has declared it one of the biggest sins, when a free human being is captured to be bonded into slavery. In the history of Islam only those people were treated as slaves who were captured as combatants against the Islamic forces, fighting a just war fully in consonance with the principles laid down for the battle in the cause of Islam. Mostly such categories of captured slaves were released, some times in exchange of compensatory money and most often as such out of benefaction. At times such captured people were set free in exchange of the Muslim fighters captured by the enemy. Anyhow, if such steps seemed to be contrary to the interest of the Muslim society, then the POWs were to be distributed among the Muslims where they were to be treated in accordance with high moral and ethical standards prescribed by Islam for such category of captives.

Look back at the black citizens in the most civilized country, America. The forefathers of these blacks were captured in Africa, like the hunters catch their hunted animals. They were loaded in ships like animals and transported to America as slaves. There these free people were sold like animals and were treated as animals for the rest of their life. We do acknowledge that later on American society has done a good deal of compensatory measures to compensate to some extent the crime committed by their forefathers. Thus the condition of the following generations of those unfortunate blacks was ameliorated to some extent. In this connection Abraham Lincoln, the 6th President of America, deserves special compliments for playing a key role in giving the blacks a place of honor in the society. Notwithstanding all this, the collective mind of the Americans, even today, is not willing to treat the blacks as equal citizens to the whites. This is an historical fact and cannot be repudiated for the cruelty committed by the so-called civilized people. Contrary to this, Islam has declared such an act to be the most heinous crime and evil when some one is captured and forced into slavery.

One of the important points in this connection to be noted is that the institution of slavery has not been finally abolished since there is no verse in the Holy Book which ordains complete and final obliteration of this institution. In the Quran prohibitive commandments about the abolition of various evils have come in a gradual sequence till its final end. A good example is the prohibition of intoxicants. We see that the first commandment about this menace was that no one should go for prayers when under intoxication.(4:43). Then came the warning in these words,”Satan seeketh only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of strong drink and games of chance, and to turn you from remembrance of Allah and from (His) worship. Will ye then have done? (5:91) Verse preceding to it gives a clear order, “—-Leave it aside in order ye may succeed”. In the same way gradual prohibition orders came for the stoppage of usury. The first order in this connection was a moral denunciation of the usury as revealed in the Sura-e-Rome, (30;39) which says,” That which ye give in usury in order it may increase on (other) people’s property hath no increase with Allah; but that which ye give in charity, seeking Allah’s countenance, hath increase manifold”. The compound interest was declared prohibited in Sura-e-Ale Imran. The final commandment about interest was revealed in the 9th Hijri in Sura Al’Baqra, a little before the Prophet’s (S.A.W) death. Anyhow, there is no exclusive commandment in the Quran which categorically puts a final seal on the institution of slavery and concubinary. Let’s have a look at the instructions which the Quran has so emphatically given to the believers regarding the bonded men and women if they happen to exist in a Muslim society.

Feed them what you eat yourself.

Clad them the same clothing which you use yourself.

Treat them with beneficence.

Moreover, there are the Quranic teachings based on moral sense of the believer to free those who are under the yoke of bondage. There are instructions to use supererogatory and obligatory alms for freedom of the bonded people. It is a permanent provision guaranteed in the Holy Book to be abided by the believers in all ages. It was the reformatory process which was initiated by the Prophet (PBUH) and which resulted in honoring the serfs to the status of kings and rulers of the vast Islamic empires. Qutbud Din Abbek and Shamsud Din Altamish were the greatest pious saints and great kings of their time. History tells us that people with a background of serfdom had ascended to the highest position of scholarship and knowledge during the blessed era of Khilafat-e-Rashida and during the reign of Banu Umayya and the Abassid Caliphate. Such eminences were highly respected and were given very reverend position to be respected by the sons of the very aristocratic and powerful rulers. Anyhow, it is the prerogative of Allah (S.W.T) that no explicit order has been given in the Quran regarding final abolition of the institution. We earnestly believe as Muslims, what Allah commands to do and what He disallows are full of wisdom and beneficence. We have but very little knowledge as the Holy Quran testifies at several places, “Ye know but very little”. (Wa Antum La Taalamoon)


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