The modern worlds defines civil rights as the legal rights which enable a person to bear responsibility for commitments and freely enter on his own behalf into various contracts of sale, purchase, bequests, mortgage, wills and the like. Contrarily, slavery deprives a person of the right to undertake such commitments. Slavery has been recently abolished by international agreement. Unfortunately, many derogatory allegations have been made against the religion of Islam in relationship to slavery. It has been argued, for example, that if Islam aims at liberty and equality among all people in terms of rights and obligations, why did it not abolish slavery from the very beginning? To clarify the falsity of this accusation, we first need to realize that no religion or law which preceded Islam prohibited slavery. The Jewish religion did not prohibit it. Jews divided people into two classes: Jews and those who were considered non-Jews forever because they were descended from races which the Jews claimed were destined to servility since the beginning of time. As for Christianity, there is not a single text or prescription which disapproves of or prohibits slavery. The messages of the apostle only instructed slaves to be faithful in the service of their masters.
Before the advent of Islam, communities and states considered the subjects of other nations as fair game to be captured at any time either to be enslaved or to be sold. Plato, the Greek Philosopher, is said to have been enslaved on one of his trips, and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, who later became the second caliph, was forcibly enslaved while on a journey to Syria. ‘Umar yielded to his captor at first, but later caught his captor unawares and killed him.
During the era of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Arabs were surrounded by two great states possessing advanced civilizations and wide learning. These two states were Rome Byzantium and Persia. Roman law, some items of which are still operative in modern Europe, gave noble Romans special privileges while subjugated people and slaves were not even treated as human beings. Master could kill their slaves without even being held responsible for their actions. The punishment of a slave for a crime was double that of a free man, and creditors had the right to enslave their debtors if the later failed to pay their debts on time. As for the Persians, authority was also in the hands of the nobility, without any divinely revealed religion or moral codes to protect people from tyranny and enslavement.
If one studies world history, it must be noted that slavery was an accepted part of human existence practiced by the people world-wide. It should also be noted that of the many people who fell victims to slavery, only a few of them were ever freed. The seven major sources of slaves were as follows:
Prisoners of wars.
Kidnapping and forced captivity.
Punishment for crimes like murder and robbery.
Failure to pay debts.
The sale of children as slaves by their parents.
Personal freedom exchanged for sums of money.
The Offspring of slave marriages.
With the advent of Islam, all the above channels were closed except two: children of slaves and the enslavement or prisoner of war. Islam, however, largely limited even these two by placing many restrictions on them in order to guarantee their gradual eradication. Islam limited the first by prohibiting the enslavement of offspring resulting form intercourse between a slave and her master and the second was limited by the requirement that war be for legitimate just causes and not mere imperialism. The condition of legitimacy sharply narrowed the chances of enslavement of other human beings. Especially since, Islam also permits ransom and the unconditional release of prisoners of war.
It is a fact that the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition do contain any statement which sanctions enslavement. On the contrary, there are many injunctions which call for emancipation, benevolence, grace and ransom. For example God says in Qur’an:
“Then bind the bond firmly; and afterwards either grace or ransom.” (Surah Muhammad 47:4)
“Ah, what will convey unto thee what the ascent is! It is to free a slave.” (Surah Al-Balad 90:13) “And feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner” (Surah Al-Dhar 76:8) In a Hadith Al-Qudsi (divine tradition), the Prophet (pbuh) quotes the Almighty as saying, “I am opponent of three people on Doomsday, and he who is My opponent will be the loser: A man who takes an oath by Me and then betrays it, a man who sells a free person and denies him his due and a man who hires a laborer, receives all that he requires from him and then refuse to pay him his wages”. The Prophet (pbuh) also said:, “Visit the patient, feed the hungry and release the sufferer” [Ibn Majah]. The Prophet’s (pbuh) campaigns against the unbelievers also demonstrated a spirit which aimed at the emancipating of slaves. In the campaign of Bar, Muslims accepted ransom and in the final victory over the pagans of Makkah, the Prophet (pbuh) said to the captives, “Go, you have all been set free” [Bukhari].
In the campaign against the Mustalaq tribe, the Prophet (pbuh) married a captive woman from that defeated tribe to honor her people. The victorious Muslim were too embarrassed to enslave anyone from the Prophet (pbuh) wife’s tribe to they released them. Islamic law honors freedom to such an extent that Muslim judges decided in certain cases, that it was better for boy to be related to a free non-Muslim than to a Muslim slave.
What more do the enemies of Islam want? Do they want Muslims to accept enslavement at the hands of their enemies while setting their enemies free? Islam did not abolish slavery which occurred as a result of wars as a counter measure simply because its enemies did not respond to its call. Despite this fact, Islam prescribed various procedures which would have led to the gradual elimination of slavery long ago had they been applied throughout the ages of Muslim supremacy. Some of these procedures are as follows: IF a man only in jest uttered a statement to the effect that he would set a slave free, that man was legally obliged to keep his word. If a master begot a son from his bondmaid, she would automatically be set free if he died and the child would be born free. If a slave is allowed by his master to work and ear enough to pay for his freedom, the master is obliged to set him free as soon as the money is earned. Islam also encouraged slaves to petition for their freedom by prescribing funds from the Zakah (obligatory charity on wealthier Muslims) specifically for that purpose. Islam also instituted obligatory means of setting slaves free for those Muslims who desire to expiate sins which they have committed such as breaking an oath, accidental murder, and the of abstaining from one’s wife by taking an oath to treat her like a mother. There are also Islamic recommendations for voluntary settings slaves free. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “…for whoever sets a Muslim slave free, Allah will set free one of his limbs from the fire” [Bukhari]. Islam guarantees that such people who happen to be slaves will not be ill-treated by their masters. In relationship to this, the Prophet (pbuh) said, “He who slaps or beats a slave should set this slave free as expiation” [Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Muslim]. Among the last commandments made by the Prophet (pbuh) was the following: “Fear God in the treatment of your slaves”. He also instructed those who had slaves to address them as my lass or my lad rather than my slave or my bondmaid. Among the note deeds of the Prophet (pbuh) is that he treated his salves as if they were members of his family and impressed this upon his companions. He said, “Your slaves are your brothers over whom God has given you control. So, he who has brother working for him should feed him from what he eats and clothe him from what he wears” [Ahmad, Bukhari & Muslim]. The Prophet’s (pbuh) companions put the Prophet’s (pbuh) advice into practice with their slaves, and history cannot ignore what the second caliph. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, did when he went to Jerusalem to sign a pact with its people after the Muslim victory over Palestine. The Caliph was accompanied by his slave, but they only had one camel to ride. To demonstrate the principle of fraternity in the true sense, the victorious Commander of the Faithful exchanged turns with his slave boy in riding the camel. And to illustrate the qualities of fairness and equality at their best. Caliph ‘Umar was not too proud to enter the city on foot while his slave, whose turn it was, rode. The greatness of Islam is that it has produced men who were able to set up exemplary patterns of conduct which refute whatever false accusations and lies are raised against Islam. Al-Ma’rur ibn Suwaid said, “We entered the house of the Prophet’s companion, Abu Dharr, at Al-Rabdhah and saw him putting on a short gown the same as his slave’s. We said to him, ‘Why do you not take your slave’s short gown and add it to your short gown to have complete suit of clothes? Abu Dharr said, ‘I heard the Prophet say that they are our brothers.”
Indeed, Islam has instituted unprecedented checks and balance on slavery and enabled that helpless, downtrodden sector of humanity to obtain freedom in the full sense of the word. Never before had slaves any opportunity to demand legal prosecution from free men who wronged them. Yet, there are countless example from the Prophet’s (pbuh) practice which point to the existence of this phenomenon is Islam. Umm Salamah11 said, Once when the Prophet (pbuh) was in my house with a siwak12 (tooth brush) in his hand, he called my bond-maid, but she did not answer. This made him angry. So I went to fetch her and found her playing. I said, You are playing and the Prophet is calling for you? The bondmaid said to the Prophet, By God. Who justly made you His messenger, I did not hear you. The Prophet then said to her, had it not been for my fear of being called to account, I would have hit you with this siwak.