Islam Ended Slavery; Not Just in Law, But in Practice


Though many worldly movements are believed to have put an end to slavery, hardly can it be said that they ever succeeded in truly abolishing the practice.


NASIRUDDIN HAMID, QADIAN

AUGUST 23, 2020

Slavery is a curse that had tormented human society for thousands of years. Throughout history, slavery existed as a system that degraded generations of human beings as properties. 

According to Britannica encyclopedia, slavery began as the aftermath of wars since ancient times[1]. Initially, the men of the defeated side were ordered to be executed and their women and children were kept as slaves.

After a few decades, when people realized that slaves are the easiest way to generate service and labour, they started to keep even the men alive as slaves along with women and children for trading across the world.

This trend grew faster all over the world as the demand for slaves increased. The enslaved people were considered as animals or mere property and were treated in the most brutal manner. As time passed, the rate of people being enslaved increased as the treatment towards them worsened.

Failure of the so-called emancipators

Since slavery was deeply rooted in the traditional behaviour of the society, it was only through a careful and gradual process, this venomous system could have been completely eradicated.

Given that the condition of the slaves was of mere properties, and that they had no source of living or place of shelter of their own, it would have been more of a harm than a favour to free all the slaves at once. Moreover, the notions of supremacy and subjugation deeprooted in the minds of masters and slaves were also to be removed, without which the process would not bear any fruit.

This is probably the main reason many abolitionist movements failed in their efforts to put an end to slavery. There are many instances in human history when sincere efforts to eradicate slavery went in vain, as they failed to address the issue in the proper way.

Islam: Dawn of a new era 

At the time of the advent of Islam, hundreds of thousands of slaves existed in the kingdom of Byzantium, Iran, Greece, and Arabia. With the advent of Islam, the whole social structure of the Arab society was demolished and in its place arose a just and fair system.

Islam completely rejected the concept of slavery. Yet, some prejudiced minds deem Islam to be the condoner of slavery so much so that terms such as ‘Islamic slave trade’ and ‘Muslim slave trade’ are misleadingly used.

The Islamic way of abolishing slavery was not limited to merely outlawing the practice at a constitutional level; rather it was a gradual process that included changing people’s mindset, freeing the slaves and integrating them into the society.

Prohibition of Enslavement

Firstly, Islam categorically prohibited enslavement. Islam strongly reprimands the practice of enslaving free people and considers it to be an act that invokes God’s wrath. The Holy Prophetsa said:

Allah the Exalted addressed me saying, ‘There are three types of people who I shall be at war against on the day of resurrection. Firstly, a person who makes a covenant in My name but does not fulfill his agreement. Secondly, a person who enslaves a free person, sells him and consumes his value. Thirdly, a person who employs an individual, benefits from his labour, but does not pay him his wage.[2]

Hence, the root from which the disastrous branches of slavery had spread all over the world was at once severed by Islam.

Kind treatment towards slaves

As stated above, changing people’s attitude towards slaves was an essential prerequisite for the elimination of slavery. For this reason, Muslims were repeatedly commanded to treat their slaves kindly and as their own. The Holy Prophetsa said:

Your slaves are your brethren. Hence, if an individual has a slave under his control, then he should feed him what he eats himself and he should clothe him with what he wears himself. Do not burden your slaves with a task that is beyond their capacity and if you do, then assist them in this task yourselves.[3]

By urging Muslims to treat their slaves as their own brethren, Islam enabled slaves to attain the level of free people by dispelling inferiority from their hearts and empowered them to become capable of manumission. This is even more evident from another narration where the Holy Prophetsa said,

None of you should say, ‘My slave, my bond-woman.’ Rather, you should say, ‘My lad, my lass.’ A slave should also refrain from calling his owner ‘My Lord’, rather, he should address him by saying, ‘My master, my guardian.’[4]

In this way, the concept of supremacy was eliminated from the hearts of the people alongside restoring the lost identity of the enslaved people.

Freeing of slaves

While the preconditions for the manumission were being fulfilled, Muslims were also enjoined to free the slaves. This was made possible through two methods; recommendation and obligation. At the very beginning of Islam, around three years after the commencement of prophethood, Allah the Almighty revealed this verse to the Holy Prophetsa:

And what should make thee know what the ascent is? It is the freeing of a slave.[5]

Hence, from the very beginning, it was one of the main objectives of Islam to uproot this social evil which had held the entire society in its grasp. The manumission of slaves is stated to be a virtuous act by which a person can climb to the heights of Divine nearness. The Holy Prophetsa said:

Such a Muslim who frees a slave would be granted complete salvation by Allah the Exalted from hell.[6]

In this way, a desire was generated in the hearts of Muslims to free slaves and attain righteousness. One of the reasons many worldly systems, which worked for the elimination of slavery did not succeed is that they missed this element of volition from the part of the slave owners.

However, apart from these recommendations, the manumission of slaves was also made obligatory upon Muslims as a penalty for certain sins. One of such numerous instances is mentioned in the following verse of the Holy Quran:

As to those who call their wives mothers, and then would go back on what they have said, the penalty for it is the freeing of a slave before they touch each other. This is what you are admonished with.[7]

There were also instances in which the Holy Prophetsa would command Muslims to manumit slaves, for no particular reason. Hence, it is narrated in a Hadith,

Hazrat Asma bint Abi Bakrra relates that the Holy Prophetsa would order the Muslims to free a slave on the occasion of a solar eclipse.[8]

In Islam, the process of a slave becoming free was not always to be initiated from the part of the owner, rather the slaves can earn their freedom on their own. The Holy Quran states:

And such as desire a deed of manumission in writing from among those whom your right hands possess, write it for them if you know any good in them; and give them out of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you.[9]

Deed of manumission or ‘Mukatabat’ which the above verse refers to is a contract between the slave and his/her master. According to this contract, a person is bound to set his slave free after fixing a price for his/her freedom, who may pay the required amount by earning it through any legitimate means after being set free. The master has no right to reject the demand of the slave to enter into such a contract.

Prisoners of war

As mentioned, slavery began with the enslavement of prisoners in wars. Though this was a means of detaining the unjust and bringing an end to future wars, it was a practice that bounded generations in slavery. 

Islam stands against this practice. It rejects the idea of enslaving war captives. The Holy Quran says:

O ye Muslims! When you meet the disbelievers in battle, stand firm in battle and fight the wrongdoers. When the battle has properly taken place, take captives from the enemy men. Then, if there is a hope of reformation and circumstances are deemed to be fit, release these prisoners as an act of benevolence, or by taking an appropriate ransom. If it is necessary to do so, keep them in captivity until war comes to an end, and its burdens are taken off your shoulders.[10]

This verse clearly states that prisoners of war are only to be taken after a regular battle. The enslavement of people by unjustly attacking their country is made unlawful by this statement. It further states that the captives of war are not to be enslaved under any circumstances. Moreover, the duration of captivity should not exceed the duration of the war. Once the war is over, then the captives should be released either as a favour or by taking ransom.

Thus, Islam created a social structure, which closed the doors of slavery and opened up many ways through which slaves could be freed and justly integrated into society. This ascent of the social situation of slaves in the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa can be seen in the high regard and esteem with which one of the companions of the Holy Prophetsa is commemorated; Hazrat Bilalra, a freed slave.

Prophet Muhammadsa personally ensured the freedom of Bilalra. Later, he was chosen as the first ‘Muazzin’ (the person who calls for prayer) of Islam. When Muslims became victorious and entered Mecca after years of exile, Prophet Muhammadsa appointed Bilalra as the flag bearer of Muslims.

This scenario where a former slave became the leader of his masters points to the social transformation Islam brought in Arabia, a parallel to which cannot be found in the entire history of mankind.


The author is a graduate from Jamia Ahmadiyya Qadian, the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology, and currently serves as a missionary in the Department Waqf e Nau, Qadian.


References:

[1] Hellie, R. (n.d.). Slavery. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/slavery-sociology

[2] Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al Buyu’

[3] Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al Itq

[4] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Kitab al Itq

[5] Holy Quran 90: 13-14

[6] Sahih Muslim, Kitab al Itq

[7] Holy Quran 58: 4

[8] Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al Itq

[9] Holy Quran 24: 34

[10] Holy Quran 47: 5

1 Comment

Akhil · September 12, 2020 at 5:26 pm

The article beautifully enlightens the readers who approaches the subject without keeping any prejudices in his mind.

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