Islam's position on Slavery

By Sami Zaatari


When one thinks of the word slave or slavery, the image of black people being put on ships and being sent to Europe and North America pop into our heads. We normally tend to think of slavery and slaves as being beaten, tortured, and being looked upon as mere possessions having no rights whatsoever. Due to our 'modern' way of understanding on slaves/slavery this is the usual image and definition that comes to mind on this sensitive topic.


However so what does Islam say about slavery? Does Islam advocate it? Does Islam view slaves as mere processions with no rights? In this article we shall discuss Islam's position on slavery, and what is says concerning slaves and so on, by doing so it will help both the Muslim and non-Muslim reader understand Islam's position on this topic.





When Islam began to be preached among the Makkan pagans of Hijaz slavery was a normal thing that was practiced among the pagans, they would buy and sell many slaves amongst themselves. These slaves would normally be miss-treated and would not be given proper care and so on.


At the same time many of these pagan tribes would often fight one another, and as a result of this people would sometimes come under control of another tribe, so they were taken as captives and turned into slaves. They would then be sold for ransom, or even into prostitution, either way it would not be a very pleasant time for the captured one.


When Islam arrived at the scene it sought to change these fundamental errors within the society, rather than simply cancel it all at once, Islam corrected many of the bad things these pagans would do against slaves. Before continuing, it must be said that Islam is against slavery, by that I mean that Islam does not allow Muslims to simply go buy and sell slaves at will, however so during war or battle Muslim's are allowed to take the women and children and the innocent men as captives. It is only during such circumstances that Muslims can take captives and so on. And this is hardly a bad thing.


Dr. Taha Jaber Al- ?Alwani President of the graduate school of Islamic and social sciences and president of the Fiqh council writes this concerning slavery:


"When Allah created human beings, He created them to be free and to be vicegerents on the earth. Slavery is something that came from people who couldn't understand the position of the human being and it was made, in the past, as a global phenomenon.

When Islam came, it tried to bring change to get the human being back to being free, as Allah has created us, by certain procedures. Those procedures of Islam went through without interference from the other nations or states who are non-Muslim states or nations. Maybe within the third century of Hijrah or the migration of the Prophet to Madinah, this phenomenon would have been over and disappeared. But as I mentioned, because it was a global phenomenon, that procedure which was established by Islam couldn't go through and finish with this very bad phenomenon.

Now, al-hamdulillah all people have agreed to stop this phenomenon and stand up against it. With this, there is no way to go back to adopt this phenomenon again in any way, especially for Muslims, since they must protect the freedom of others and always be with their rights to be free servants of Allah only. We should remember when the Caliph `Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) said in a famous khutbah (Speech or sermon) of his, "When did you make the people as slaves or servants of you while Allah, the Almighty, created them free?!"

This means that the Muslims from the very beginning advocated the freedom of all human beings and were against the oppression of free people by tyrants and dictator leaders."

Having clarified the above, we would like to states that it was a war custom in the past to take men and women as captives and then turn them into slaves. Islam did not initiate it, rather, it was something in practice long ago before the advent of Islam. And when Islam came, it tried to eradicate this practice, bit by bit. So it first restricted it to the reciprocal practice of war, in the sense that Muslims took war captives just as the enemies did with them.





One of the most common things we know concerning slavery was that slaves were treated very badly, beaten, badly fed, made to work very hard and in very bad working conditions. When Islam arrived it completely eradicated such acts, the hadiths that I am about to quote will prove that point:


Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: "When the slave of anyone amongst you prepares food for him and he serves him after having sat close to (and undergoing the hardship of) heat and smoke, he should make him (the slave) sit along with him and make him eat (along with him), and if the food seems to run short, then he should spare some portion for him (from his own share) - (another narrator) Dawud said:" i. e. a morsel or two". 4097.   (Translation of Sahih Muslim, The Book of Oaths (Kitab Al-Aiman), Book 015, Number 4096)"


Here we have a command from the prophet Muhamamd telling us that when we eat food which has been prepared by a slave, that we should let the slave eat along with us on the same table, and not only that, but also that if the food seems to be running short we should also save some for the slave. This is an extreme act of kindness to a slave, such an act was unknown and unthinkable, to have a slave eat with you, and to also save some of your food for that slave. Also the hadith is not meant to simply be a nice gesture, there is much wisdom behind the hadith as well:


1- By allowing the slave to sit and eat alongside you it shows equality, that you are no better than the slave that he should sit separate from you. Slaves were looked down upon, and they would be allowed to eat with their masters simply because of their status as a slave, being inferior meant they must be seated separately and away from their master and other people who aren't slaves. 


2- By saving some food for the slave, this shows your concern and thought for the well being of that slave, as we all know slaves were treated as mere possessions who's feelings and needs were disregarded, they were basically treated worst than animals. This act shows care for the slave, that you should look after him/her, that he is not a mere possession for you to not care about.


So as you can see there is much wisdom behind these hadiths, these hadiths are not simply meant to be seen as kind gestures, rather they show that the prophet was trying to radically change the people's views and treatment of slaves, from bad to very good.


Another hadith concerning slaves tells us:


Narrated Al-Ma'rur: "At Ar-Rabadha I met Abu Dhar who was wearing a cloak, and his slave, too, was wearing a similar one. I asked about the reason for it. He replied, "I abused a person by calling his mother with bad names." The Prophet said to me, 'O Abu Dhar! Did you abuse him by calling his mother with bad names You still have some characteristics of ignorance. Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity (power) and if you do so, then help them.'  (Translation of Sahih Bukhari, Belief, Volume 1, Book 2, Number 29)"

Once again this hadith demonstrates how Islam views slaves, that they are to be treated kindly, as our BROTHERS. Can you imagine that, to call a slave our brother? This is something unthinkable to slave owners, they viewed slaves as possessions, to have them viewed as a brother would be unthinkable and disgusting to them. However so Islam came to help humanity, and therefore Islam told us to regard our slaves as brothers, and to feed them what we eat, and clothe them with what we wear.

Once again the hadith is not meant for simple kind gestures, again there is much wisdom behind it. By calling the slave your brother implies complete equality, since you would not treat your brother badly but you would treat him with love and respect. And once again to feed the slave what you eat, and to clothe him with what you wear shows that you care for the well-being of the slave.

So you can see how Islam completely reformed slavery you could say, Islam commanded those who owned slaves to treat them like brothers, and to feed them what you eat, and clothe them with what you wear, all of this essentially makes a slave a normal human just like us with equal human rights. This was a radical 180-degree u-turn from how slaves were viewed and treated by society.

Here is another great hadith regarding slaves:

Abu Mas'ud al-Ansari reported: "When I was beating my servant, I heard a voice behind me (saying): Abu Mas'ud, bear in mind Allah has more dominance over you than you have upon him. I turned and (found him) to be Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him). I said: Allah's Messenger, I set him free for the sake of Allah. Thereupon he said: Had you not done that, (the gates of) Hell would have opened for you, or the fire would have burnt you.  (Translation of Sahih Muslim, The Book of Oaths (Kitab Al-Aiman), Book 015, Number 4088)"

Here we have an incident of a Muslim beating his slave, the prophet witnessed and told the Muslim that Allah has more dominance over him than he has of his slave, this was a warning to the Muslim of his bad action and ignorance of beating his slave. After this the Muslim frees the slave, and the prophet told him had he not done so he would gone to hell! So here we see that if us Muslims beat our slaves, and do not free them for doing so then we are destined to the hell fire, this basically means that beating a slave is punishable by the fire of hell! So this hadith now establishes that we are not allowed to beat slaves, and not only that that beating them will land us in hell.

And as we all know beating your slaves was something normal to slave owners, they would always beat their slaves for any reason, in fact the Bible advocates the beating of slaves:

Exodus 21:20-21


When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property


So the verse is essentially saying that you can beat your slave as much as you want to, you only get punished if the slave dies! So this means you can punch, kick, slap, bite, choke, and do whatever violent act against your slave and get away with it clean free with no sin on you.






Another thing we commonly find in both the Quran and the hadiths is the call to free a slave, this theme is repeated many times:


4:92 "Never should a believer kill a believer; but (If it so happens) by mistake, (Compensation is due): If one (so) kills a believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave, and pay compensation to the deceased's family, unless they remit it freely. If the deceased belonged to a people at war with you, and he was a believer, the freeing of a believing slave (Is enough). If he belonged to a people with whom ye have treaty of Mutual alliance, compensation should be paid to his family, and a believing slave be freed. For those who find this beyond their means, (is prescribed) a fast for two months running: by way of repentance to God: for God hath all knowledge and all wisdom

5:89 "God will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for the oaths ye have sworn. But keep to your oaths. Thus doth God make clear to you His signs, that ye may be grateful." 

58:3 "But those who divorce their wives by Zihar, then wish to go back on the words they uttered, (It is ordained that such a one) should free a slave before they touch each other: Thus are ye admonished to perform: and God is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do."  

Not only that, Muslims are also told to help the slave out by giving him some money to stand on his own two feet:

24:33 "Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage keep themselves chaste, until God gives them means out of His grace. And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which God has given to you. But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity, in order that ye may make a gain in the goods of this life. But if anyone compels them, yet, after such compulsion, is God, Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful (to them),"

Ibn Kathir's tafsir writes:

The Command to grant Slaves a Contract of Emancipation

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(And such of your servants as seek a writing (of emancipation), give them such writing, if you find that there is good and honesty in them.) This is a command from Allah to slave-owners: if their servants ask them for a contract of emancipation, they should write it for them, provided that the servant has some skill and means of earning so that he can pay his master the money that is stipulated in the contract. Al-Bukhari said: "Rawh narrated from Ibn Jurayj: `I said to `Ata', "If I know that my servant has money, is it obligatory for me to write him a contract of emancipation'' He said, "I do not think it can be anything but obligatory.'' `Amr bin Dinar said: "I said to `Ata', `Are you narrating this from anybody' He said, `No,' then he told me that Musa bin Anas told him that Sirin, who had a lot of money, asked Anas for a contract of emancipation and he refused. So he went to `Umar (bin Al-Khattab), may Allah be pleased with him, and he said, `Write it for him.' He refused, so `Umar hit him with his whip and recited,

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(give them such writing, if you find that there is good and honesty in them.)Then he wrote the contract.'' This was mentioned by Al-Bukhari with a disconnected chain of narration. It was also narrated by `Abdur-Razzaq who said Ibn Jurayj told them: I said to `Ata', "If I know that my servant has some money, is it obligatory for me to write him a contract of emancipation'' He said, `I do not think it can be anything but obligatory.''' [It was also said by `Amr bin Dinar who said, "I said to `Ata', `Are you narrating this from anybody' He said, `No.'''] Ibn Jarir recorded that Sirin wanted Anas bin Malik to write a contract of emancipation and he delayed, then `Umar said to him, "You should certainly write him a contract of emancipation.'' Its chain of narrators is Sahih. Allah's saying:

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(if you find that there is good and honesty in them.) Some of them said (this means) trustworthiness. Some said: "Honesty,'' and others said: "A skill and ability to earn.''

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(And give them something out of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you.) This is the share of the wealth of Zakah that Allah stated to be their right. This is the opinion of Al-Hasan, `Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam and his father and Muqatil bin Hayyan. It was also the opinion favored by Ibn Jarir.

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(And give them something out of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you. ) Ibrahim An-Nakha`i said, "This is urging the people, their masters and others.'' This was also the view of Buraydah bin Al-Husayb Al-Aslami and Qatadah. Ibn `Abbas said: "Allah commanded the believers to help in freeing slaves.''

The hadiths also provide us with many examples of slaves being freed:

Narrated Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari:  "The Prophet said, "Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sick and release (set free) the one in captivity (by paying his ransom)."  (Translation of Sahih Bukhari, Food, Meals, Volume 7, Book 65, Number 286)"

"'Abdullah b. 'Umar reported that 'Umar b. Khattab asked the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) as he was at ji'rana (a town near Mecca) on his way back from Ta'if: Messenger of Allah, I had taken a vow during the days of Ignorance that I would observe I'tikaf for one day in the Sacred Mosque. So what is your opinion? He said: Go and observe I'tikaf for a day. And Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) gave him a slave girl out of the one-fifth (of the spoils of war meant for the Holy Prophet). And when Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) set the war prisoners free. 'Umar b. Khattab heard their voice as they were saying: Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) has set us free. He (Hadrat 'Umar) said: What is this? They said: Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) has set free the prisoners of war (which had fallen to the lot of people). Thereupon he (Hadrat 'Umar) said: Abdullah, go to that slave-girl and set her free.  (Translation of Sahih Muslim, The B ook of Oaths (Kitab Al-Aiman), Book 015, Number 4074)"

Narrated Asma: "No doubt the Prophet ordered people to manumit slaves during the solar eclipse.  (Translation of Sahih Bukhari, Eclipses, Volume 2, Book 18, Number 163)"

From all this we can conclude:

Slaves are to be treated equally in Islam, like our brothers.

Slaves are to be treated with care and kindness, we feed them what we eat, and clothe them with what we wear.

Slaves are not allowed to be beaten.

If a slave is hit he must be freed, if he is not freed then the owner will be sent to hell.

Islam commands us to free slaves on many occasions.

Islam commands us to not only free the slave, but help the slave when we free them by providing them money so they can support themselves.

And Allah knows best!