Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and the most honorable prayer and peace be upon the master of the first and the last, our master, Muhammad, the chosen, the trustworthy, and upon his pious and pure family, his faithful companions, and those who followed them in goodness until the Day of Judgment, may Allah Almighty be pleased with them all.
Islam is a system of life. It has its unique legislations pertaining to politics, economy, society and so on. The freedom and justice among humans, are extremely important core values set out in Islamic law. This freedom on individuals is respected and protected even when it is related to believing or not believing in God, let alone the free market and freedom of property, as the Qur’an says: “Say: ‘This is the truth from your Lord. Let whosoever will, believe, and whosoever will, disbelieve it” (Surah 18, ayah 29). In this ayah we see that Allah even allows humans the free will to reject his call.
Islam, as we Muslims allege, has the solutions for all mankind problems. One of these problems, which Islam has dealt with, is slavery. This ugly status of a human being to be treated as a commodity, as we can find in pre-Islamic eras, where slaves were hurt and even killed is reviled by Islam. We can find abundant examples for that in the time of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Indians, Greeks and Arabs. It existed until the late 18th century, as some studies say. History tells us of the cruelest, ugliest and most brutal ways of humiliation and harm which were inflicted on slaves. The laws of men, then, did not state a clear way to end slavery in a humane way.
When Islam came slavery was a widespread practice in the society. It was very hard to end it abruptly, which was the issue with other practices as well, like drinking alcohol and usury. The Islamic procedures of addressing societal ills and building a better Islamic society are usually gradual, yet what might be slow is in the end certain. This gradual procedure is followed nowadays in rehabilitation centers all over the world that address alcoholism, mental health issues, even radicalization to violent extremism. Islam is no different in this regard of working slowly to eradicate an ill from society. The purposes of the Islamic law are the protection of mankind’s religion, life, sanity, property, freedom, honor. These purposes were the production of understanding the essence of the Islamic sacred texts, mainly the Qur’an and Sunna.
Let us now deal with two important aspects, the first is establishing the status of slavery, and the second is dealing with the status of slavery to maintain or to eliminate it. The status of slavery existed before Islam, which can be confirmed historically. There are many ways by which a free man could be enslaved in pre-Islamic eras such as: being a prisoner of war, being born to enslaved parents, committing certain crimes, being a victim of a piracy and robbery or even being a member of specific tribe or community.
When we review the sacred texts of Islam to find out if there are any texts which establish slavery we see scholars answering that there is NO text in the Qur’an or the Sunna which establishes this status. On the contrary, we can find that there are texts which exclude enslaving people. The Qur’an clearly states that when the war ends there are only two options pertaining to prisoners: “Therefore, when you meet the unbelievers smite their necks, then, when you have killed many of them, tie the bonds. Then, either free them by grace or ransom until war shall lay down its loads, in this way, it shall be” (Surah 47, ayah 4). There is no option for enslavement at all in this verse, although it talks specifically about prisoners of war, whom were turned abruptly into slaves before Islam in similar conditions. The ayah explains the procedure of capturing enemy warriors as war prisoners, then these prisoners are either released for free or released for a ransom taken from the enemy, which might be money, commodities or releasing Muslim prisoners captured by the enemy. There is no option for taking them as slaves, otherwise the ayah should say enslave them and then it is up to the owner to do whatever he wants with them.
Islam dealt with the issue of the relations between a slave and his owner. It was under the light of many sacred texts, to gradually lead to their freedom, also treating them with respect and a degree of equality to oneself, as the Prophet peace be upon him said: “Your slaves are your brethren upon whom Allah has given you authority. So, if one has one’s brethren under one’s control, one should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them (in their hard job)” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2545).
As for enslaving free men via various means, our Prophet peace be upon him said: “The Prophet said, Allah says, ‘I will be against three persons on the Day of Resurrection: One who makes a covenant in My Name, but he proves treacherous. One who sells a free person (as a slave) and eats the price, and one who employs a laborer and gets the full work done by him but does not pay him his wages” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2227). This general impression of freedom was continually present after Islam came. Even Omar -the second caliph-, may Allah be pleased with him, once said: “When did you enslave people when they were born free?”, which gives us a clear view of how freedom was protected and maintained as a general goal of the Islamic legislations.
Why, then, we see and hear many Muslims declare that slavery is still permissible in Islam, with even some terrorist groups like ISIS enslaving captured free people like Yazidis? To answer this question, we say that the methodology of understanding the Qur’an and Sunna has to be persistent and reasonable. We have to examine the similar Ayahs and Hadiths to see the full picture. Cutting some Ayahs or Hadiths out of their context does not give us the full view, on the contrary, it destroys it and creates discrepancies within the sacred texts. So, when certain groups took the gradual procedures legislated by the Qur’an and Sunna out of their real context they proclaimed that these are clear texts of how to deal with prisoners by enslaving them, claiming that the scriptures say implicitly that it is permissible to enslave non-Muslim prisoners of war, such as Yazidis. They brought weak hadiths which states some companions of the Prophet enslaved prisoners of war, which is actually a fabrication. The Yazidis were free people and those who enslaved them, raped the women and sold them for a certain price have committed a grave sin before Allah as the verses stated earlier make clear these are actions serious condemned by Allah. Islamic scriptures are plainspoken in stating that for those who enslave. Allah will be against them on the Day of Resurrection, as the Prophet said. Thus, for groups like ISIS who enslaved and facilitated the systematic rape of a whole group of women we know that Allah’s wrath and punishment is just around the corner.
We may ask then why didn’t Islam free all slaves in day one? This is a similar answer to how slavery had ended in many parts of the world. It was very hard to suddenly free that number of people as both the slaves were dependent on their masters and their masters could not suddenly dispense with them without loss and resentment. Islam came to solve problems, not to create them. Freeing this number of people on the spot would have created many social problems, most of the slaves did not know how to work and earn money. Many of them did not know what freedom means. Likewise, their masters needed to be instructed to be charitable, to treat all humans as equals and to love one another as brothers and sisters. To solve the problem of slavery, Islam came and put certain legislations to teach slaves working skills, and obliged the owners to free them after they paid their debts. Some sins were not forgiven unless the owner freed a slave, encouraging owners to dispense of slavery. So, how can a religion which drains slavery resources and encourages the believers to free slaves be a religion of slavery?! If we just do a simple math we will know that slaves were decreasing all the time, as Islam drained and banned the sources of slavery. I hope that this short article will give an insight of this subject.
Praise be to Allah the Lord of all Creation