Slavery in Islam: Abolishing the social vice

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The Economist (27 August 2019, “Everywhere in Chains”) ran a story on the concept of slavery in Islam, referring specially to a new book by Jonathan Brown titled Slavery and Islam. A whole array of arguments has been included in the analysis, both for and against Islam.

Since the issue of slavery has popped up, we thought it is essential that Al Hakam came forward and presented the true Islamic viewpoint on this very important issue, before all guns are pointed towards Islam. 

What ought not to be forgotten is that slavery is not something introduced by Islam. It is something that existed since pre-historic times and was a by-product of wars and conflicts between clans and tribes, evolving later into an international phenomenon. Of the numerous vices that Islam took upon itself to cleanse the human society of, slavery was one of them.

Wars were very common even before Islam and so was taking prisoners of war into slavery. Wars continued to break out during the time of the Prophetsa of Islam and prisoners of war had to be held as part of establishing peace; holding the mischievous from creating unrest and waging wars.

Now, the question here is this: What did Islam do regarding the vicious business of slavery? This discussion can go on forever, but here, we can only suffice by saying that the Prophetsa of Islam turned this lawless business into a system and further worked on how the system could finally be abolished. In a world where a slave was no more than a commodity, much like cattle and other domesticised animals, the Holy Prophetsa of Islam gave laws to ensure that slaves were, to start with, taken as human beings who had feelings, emotions and other humanly desires that needed to be looked after.

Surah al-Balad (chapter 90) is one of the chapters of the Holy Quran revealed to the Holy Prophetsa in the early days of being commissioned for prophethood. Verses 11 to 14 of this chapter clearly state that a society cannot progress unless slaves are freed. 

“And We showed him two ascending paths of nobility. But he did not follow the path of ‘Aqabah’. And what should make you know what the ‘Aqabah’ is? [It is] the freeing of a slave.”

One can ask that if he had received this commandment in the early days of his mission, why did the Holy Prophetsa of Islam not free all slaves immediately? This question will have to be replied with a question.

The majority of those who were held slaves were prisoners of wars and they were in great numbers. As prisoners of war, it was essential to see what background they were from; why they had partaken in war; whether they still had in their hearts the want to take up arms and create unrest and whether they had committed – what we call in the so-called modern day by the so-called modern man – crimes against humanity.

In a society that literally endorsed the saying, “All is fair in love and war”, the prisoners of war could possibly have practiced the notion in an inhumanely fashion by killing children and raping women. Would it have been a reasonable move to set them free to go back into society? Would society have remained safe with such persons lurking the streets? Of course not! Modern day prisons tend not to set a convicted felon free unless it is clearly established that they do not pose a threat to the safety and security of civilians. This is a very reasonable approach. And it was the same approach that was adopted by the Holy Prophetsa of Islam 14 centuries ago.

As long as there were slaves in the custody of Muslims, they were given safety, security and, above all, the opportunity to reform themselves. Slaves got a homely atmosphere through living with Muslim families, developed civic sense and, at the appropriate time, were freed to integrate with the general society. While they lived as slaves, they were treated by Muslim families in accordance with the Quranic injunction of Surah al-Nisa (verse 37) where believers are commanded to be kind to those enslaved under inevitable circumstances; grouped in this instruction to be kind and affectionate with are parents, relatives and slaves.

Verse 222 of Surah al-Baqarah encourages the marriage of free Muslims (or masters) and their slaves. Not only is the general Muslim public encouraged to show respect to slaves through lawfully marrying them, the Holy Prophetsa himself is instructed by Allah not to marry more than the women he had already married, unless it was for the safety and security of a slave woman. (Surah al Ahzab, Ch.33: V.53)

Sahih Muslim has recorded a hadith where Hazrat Abu Masudra is reported to have said that he was angry at one of his slaves and physically disciplined him. The Holy Prophetsa approached him and said, “Abu Masud, do not forget that there is a God above you Who has more power over you than you have over His slave.”

Abu Masud, terrified by this reminder and the presence of the Holy Prophetsa, immediately announced that he had freed that slave. The Holy Prophetsa, endorsing this act, said, “Had you not done so, you would have burnt in the fire of hell.” 

All this was a gradual progression of Islam towards finally abolishing slavery. Since we are addressing the allegations of modern man on Islam, we wish to remind everyone here of a process called “weaning out”. The weaning-out approach is used in medical, social and economic situations where there is dependence on a certain harmful element and the body or society has to be freed of that dependence. So, Islam gradually moved the society that was so badly dependent on slavery towards one that was free of all forms of slavery. 

Then came a time when, under divine instruction, the Holy Prophetsa abolished all forms of slavery. The details of how the weaning out process unfolded are long. However, it is unjust to accuse Islam of promoting slavery when it actually strove to abolish it through very reasonable, rational and practicable ways.

Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa – the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat – has very eloquently spoken on how Islam views slavery and has also called world leaders to understand slavery in its most modern meaning and derivatives.

For example, speaking to the Pan African Ahmadiyya Muslim Association on 23 November 2013, he said:

“Based upon Islam’s true teachings, we [Ahmadi Muslims] strive and work towards the achievement of universal independence and self-determination, with the ambition that every single person in the world is able to live autonomously. All people should have fundamental freedoms, such as religious, political, national and civil freedom.

“The powerful nations take advantage of the weaker nations and dictate their own preferred policies and so, in this way, they have practically enslaved the developing countries. Sadly, the major powers take benefit and advantage of the natural resources of the poorer nations and do not give what is the due right of the weaker nations in return.”

Through these lines, we invite our readers to send any questions they may have regarding Islam and slavery; we will be happy to reply to them.

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