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Slaves in Islam – The Concept & Their Rights

“Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (Hell) Fire"

By Ebrahim Saifuddin / 13 Apr 2013

Slavery is a concept that existed since pre-recorded history. However the way it was practiced in the Islamic world differs greatly than how it was practiced in the rest of the world. Even in the more recent times, centuries after the introduction of Islam, the non-Muslims have practiced slavery in the most barbaric manner. The whole Trans-Atlantic nonsense that was practiced by the Americans is one of the worst forms of slavery man has witnessed. The slaves were not treated as humans and did not have any rights. This way was much similar to the form practiced before the advent of Islam in the Times of Ignorance (Ja’hilah). Islam indeed came as a blessing to all Mankind and it was seen that slaves were given rights, something which the rest of the world never gave them.

Treatment of Slaves

Apart from giving the slaves their rights, Islam also took it a step ahead and discouraged slavery from being practiced. It is seen in history that slaves were mistreated in the non-Islamic world. Not only were they verbally abused, they were physically abused as well. The master would overburden the slave and make them work all day. Slaves would wear torn and tattered clothes while the masters would dress with the finest threads available. When it would come to food, the slaves would get leftovers or if not, very little food which would certainly not include good quality food. Some would not even get meat or fruits which their masters ate. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) with Divine Inspiration from Allah(SWT) forbade such acts. Masters could not abuse their slaves and had to give them the same that they ate and wore.

Narated by 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 (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) 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.’” – [Bukhari, Vol.1, Book 2, #29]

The introduction of Islam and with the application of Islam by Muslims, slavery had a new meaning altogether. It no longer meant that you have a beast under your control and hence you could abuse it, make it work like a donkey all day and at the end of the day give it crumbs to eat so that it stays alive. Islam made it clear to every follower that a human being who is a slave is yet the brother of a Muslim and the slave had their rights which is compulsory for a Muslim to fulfill. It taught that slaves and masters are equal in the sights of Allah(SWT) and if a Muslim was given a brother under his command then he had to make sure that the brother was given the rights which Islam prescribed.

In another narration the importance of giving slaves education and teaching them good manners is stressed by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him):

Narrated Abu Burda’s father: Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said “Three persons will have a double reward:

1. A Person from the people of the scriptures who believed in his prophet (Jesus or Moses) and then believed in the Prophet Muhammad (i .e. has embraced Islam).

2. A slave who discharges his duties to Allah and his master.

3. A master of a woman-slave who teaches her good manners and educates her in the best possible way (the religion) and manumits her and then marries her.” – [Bukhari Vol.1, Book 3, #97A]

Here it is seen that not only education has been given importance but slavery is also discouraged. It is well known that a person belonging to the People of the Book would receive a double reward for accepting Islam. Similarly the same double reward is offered to a person who would free his woman-slave and marry her after giving her education and teaching her good manners. This way slavery is discouraged in the Islamic world. The Muslims were also forbidden from forcing their slave-girls into prostitution so that they would earn money out of it. There was an incident when the slave-girl of an Ansari was forced after which a verse relating to the act was revealed by Allah (SWT).

Narated by Jabir ibn Abdullah: Musaykah, a slave-girl of some Ansari, came and said: My master forces me to commit fornication. Thereupon the following verse was revealed: “But force not your maids to prostitution (when they desire chastity).” – [Abu Dawud, Book 6, #2304]

The Lessons of Equality

There can be found numerous evidences in the Islamic traditions which teach us that slaves are to be treated like any other human being. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) has taught us that slaves are equal to everyone else. People belonging to the days of ignorance would not stand next to a slave while Muslims stand next to them in prayers showing a sign of unity and uniformity in their status in front of Allah (SWT). Hazrat Bilal was one of the first slaves to accept Islam. He was tortured by the pagans so that he would renounce Islam and come back to the pagan ways. However he did not reject Islam and adhered to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). He was also the first person to stand on top of the Ka’aba and give the Adhan (the Muslim call for prayer). It is also important to note that further evidence for the equality and recognition of slaves as normal human beings is seen in the numerous ahadith narrated by the slaves and freed slaves that are considered as true and followed by millions of Muslims in the world today. This means that their testimony is also recognized and accepted. We can also see from the traditions that slaves would not only stand shoulder to shoulder with others Muslims during prayer but would also lead the prayers.

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him): When the earliest emigrants came to Al-’Usba a place in Quba’, before the arrival of the Prophet- Salim, the slave of Abu Hudhaifa, who knew the Qur’an more than the others used to lead them in prayer. – [Bukhari, Vol.1, Book 11, #661]

In the Quran one can see clearly that the woman-slaves and man-slaves who have accepted Islam are better than the free women and men from the disbelievers. Muslims are advised to get the son or daughter married to a woman-slave or man-slave rather than a free woman or man from among the idolaters.

Do not marry unbelieving women (idolaters), until they believe: A slave woman who believes is better than an unbelieving woman, even though she allures you. Nor marry (your girls) to unbelievers until they believe: A man slave who believes is better than an unbeliever, even though he allures you. Unbelievers do (but) beckon you to the Fire. But Allah beckons by His Grace to the Garden (of bliss) and forgiveness, and makes His Signs clear to mankind: That they may celebrate His praise.– [Quran 2:221]

Islam goes a step ahead in giving respect to the slaves and it is narrated that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) asked people not to refer to a slave saying “this is my slave” but rather to say “this is my man” or “this is my woman”.

Islam Stresses on Freeing Slaves

Importance was stressed upon manumitting slaves a lot by Allah (SWT) through his last and final prophet(saw). Even if a disbeliever practiced slave-manumitting before accepting Islam, it is told that he would yet be rewarded for this good deed after accepting Islam. In Islam there is a concept that all good done for the sake of Allah (SWT) will be rewarded and all those done for other causes e.g. fame, fortune etc will not be rewarded in the Hereafter. Manumitting slaves is among those good deeds which are rewarded even if done before accepting Islam.

Narrated Hakim bin Hizam: I said to Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), “Before embracing Islam I used to do good deeds like giving in charity, slave-manumitting, and the keeping of good relations with Kith and kin. Shall I be rewarded for those deeds?” The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)replied, “You became Muslim with all those good deeds (Without losing their reward).” – [Bukhari, Vol.2, Book 24, #517]

Allah (SWT) through His prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) stressed the good in freeing a slave. A person once came to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) saying that he had sexual intercourse with his wife while he was fasting and thus wished to seek guidance in that matter. The first form of compensation which Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) informed him of was the freeing of a slave.

Narrated by Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him): While we were sitting with the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) a man came and said, “O Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)! I have been ruined.” Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)asked what was the matter with him. He replied “I had sexual intercourse with my wife while I was fasting.” Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)asked him, “Can you afford to manumit a slave?” He replied in the negative. Allah’s Apostle (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) asked him, “Can you fast for two successive months?” He replied in the negative. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)asked him, “Can you afford to feed sixty poor persons?” He replied in the negative. The Prophet kept silent and while we were in that state, a big basket full of dates was brought to the Prophet. He asked, “Where is the questioner?” He replied, “I (am here).” The Prophet said (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) (to him), “Take this (basket of dates) and give it in charity.” The man said, “Should I give it to a person poorer than I? By Allah; there is no family between its (i.e. Medina‘s) two mountains who are poorer than I.” The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)smiled till his pre-molar teeth became visible and then said, ‘Feed your family with it.” –[Bukhari, Vol.3, Book 31, #157]

There were times when a slave was jointly owned by two people. In such cases there were times when one owner, for the sake of Allah (SWT) would want to manumit his share in the joint ownership. Under such circumstances it was told that the person manumitting his share of the ownership should also pay for the remaining share to ensure that the slave is freed completely. However if he could not do so, the remaining price would then be estimated and the slave had the right to work and pay the amount required for his freedom to the other owner.

Narrated Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him): The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Whoever manumits his share of a jointly possessed slave, it is imperative for him to get that slave manumitted completely by paying the remaining price, and if he does not have sufficient money to manumit him, then the price of the slave should be estimated justly, and he is to be allowed to work and earn the amount that will manumit him (without overburdening him)”. – [Bukhari, Vol.3, Book 44, #672]

Further in the Quran it is seen that people are encouraged to marry the slaves. If a person cannot marry a free woman for whatever reason, to prevent him from committing sin, the Quran asks them to marry from among the slave women.

If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess: And Allah hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another: Wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to what is reasonable. –[Quran 4:25]

They can take the permission of the master and marry the slave. This was yet another example of Allah (SWT) ensuring that slaves would be freed as marriage with the slave of another would make the slave a free person.

Why Gradual Elimination?

There is no doubt that Islam encouraged the freeing of slaves. However one would ask that as slavery is a social disease, why Islam did not make it forbidden. Firstly slavery as seen in Islam is poles apart than the one practiced by those who do not follow the guidelines presented by Islam. Secondly slavery could not have been forbidden in those days. Islam did not allow the selling of free people as slaves. Majority of the slaves were the people captured in the wars fought by the Muslims against the non-Muslims. Due to the lack of prison systems in those days, it was important to keep the captured people as slaves. If these people would be allowed to live freely within the Muslims, they would have regrouped and not only attacked the Muslims but probably would have also tried to assassinate the Sahabah or even Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). By giving these people as slaves, they were distributed and thus could not regroup and attack the Muslims.

Islam never started slavery and it is well known that slavery was practiced much before the introduction of Islam. Islam actually laid down all the rules so that eventually slavery would be eliminated completely. There are many great rewards for freeing a slave. Allah (SWT) has given man all the incentive to free slaves which would in return eventually eradicate slavery completely. Another narration goes as follows:

Narrated Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him): The Prophet(peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)  said,“Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (Hell) Fire as he has freed the body-parts of the slave.” Said bin Marjana said that he narrated that Hadith to ‘Ali bin Al-Husain and he freed his slave for whom ‘Abdullah bin Ja’far had offered him ten thousand Dirhams or one-thousand Dinars. – [Bukhari, Vol.3, Book 46, #693]

Islam’s Stand on Slavery

Islam teaches its followers to respect all Mankind regardless of their color, race or their bank balance. Slaves were given rights which were not heard of in other societies. Islam gave them protection and asked people to treat them as brothers and give them to eat of what they ate and to wear what they wore. The Bible too speaks about slaves and lays down laws regarding the treatment of slaves.

“If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.”– [Exodus 21:20-21]

As it can be seen, the Bible allows a person to beat their slave and the master will not be punished unless the slave dies. The slave is treated as a personal property of the master. Islam came to correct such manmade rules regarding not only slavery but a lot of concepts. Islam has been the original advocate for humanity and has always taught men the importance of humanity.

With the introduction of Islam slaves were treated as human beings rather than personal property. Moreover Islam made sure that gradually people will not perform this act and encouraged the freeing of slaves. Manumitting a slave was encouraged for the smallest of reasons. If there was a solar eclipse, people were recommended to free a slave – If there was a lunar eclipse, people were recommended to free a slave. It can be seen that Muslims were encouraged to free slaves for any and every reason. Islam gave security to the slaves and laid down directions so that slavery would eventually be eliminated completely.


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