This series, entitled ‘Islam and Slavery’ will examine the practice of the Prophet Muhammadsa with regards to the institution of slavery. The first part of this series will take an initial look at the topic, in particular, judging the social legacy that both Lincoln and Muhammadsa left behind.
No social revolution or upheaval can be completely accomplished within the space of a few days. To truly change the culture of a people steeped in inequality and racial hatred requires care, time, and the changing of hearts and minds.
Last week saw the USA celebrate Abraham Lincoln Day, and for good reason. In 1861 Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, and found himself presiding over a deeply fractured nation. He led the country during tumultuous times, as the country became steeped in civil war, largely due to the divisive issue of slavery. Hailed as one of the greatest of U.S. presidents, Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st 1863, and in doing so, liberated several million enslaved people in a single instant. When the war was over, this proclamation was solidified further with the 13th amendment, which abolished the institution of slavery entirely. The political courage of Abraham Lincoln stands tall in the hearts of the world even to this day. A ‘new birth of freedom’ had seemingly dawned upon a country previously consumed by discrimination.
150 years on, however, the echoes of slavery remain. A recent study found that an average African-American household possesses just 6% of the wealth of a typical white household.1 White individuals have far greater rates of home ownership than African-Americans, graduate college at higher rates, and have significantly lower rates of mortality.2 Anti-black hate crimes are still widely prevalent in the US, and show no sign of decreasing.3 Furthermore, the downtrodden status of black people was such that for much of the 20th century, many white people believed, perhaps accurately, that having a black family in a white neighbourhood would lower property prices in that area. Needless to say, throughout the past century and a half since the 13th amendment was passed, black people in America have suffered manifest cruelties – from segregation to violent hate crimes.
The question therefore becomes this: although African-Americans are no longer slaves, can we truly say that they are treated equally? In his capacity as a political leader, Lincoln proved commendable in his quest to establish freedom. However, admirable though it was, in the mindset of the ex-owners, former slaves were still considered inferior. Though they were no longer legally slaves, they were still bound to a degree by cultural chains of oppression. The reality is that no social revolution or upheaval can be completely accomplished within the space of a few days, and certainly not simply through the enactment of legislation. To truly change the culture of a people steeped in inequality and racial hatred requires care, time, and the changing of hearts and minds.
The Prophet Muhammadsa was not simply a political ruler. He was a spiritual leader, a champion of morality and justice. As such, the liberation which he desired for slaves, in an Arab culture devoured by barbarism, did not simply entail a sudden declaration of freedom. Rather, he sought to shift the entire mentality of the oppressors and the oppressed. He knew that simply releasing all the slaves at once would lead to more problems than benefits – for many would become homeless and penniless. Even somehow providing these freed slaves with wealth would still not be sufficient, for they would forever be downtrodden by those who once owned them. Even though they may be politically liberated, in their own hearts and in the hearts of their ex-owners, they would still be slaves. The Prophetsa, in other words, sought to prevent the exact problems that America still faces today.
The first step that the Prophetsa employed, therefore, was not simply to free slaves, but to change the ways in which they were treated. For a start, he completely abolished the sexual mistreatment of female slaves, a practice which was commonplace in pre-Islamic Arabia. The Holy Qur’an makes it abundantly clear that the use of female slaves as a means of sexual gratification in a non-consensual way is completely forbidden: “And force not your unmarried maids to unchaste life by keeping them unmarried if they desire to keep chaste, in order that you may seek the gain of the present life…”4
Not only did the Prophetsa speak out against cruelty, but he taught, in accordance with the Holy Qur’an, that all slaves were to be treated kindly – not simply as one would treat an outsider, but as one would treat a close relative.5-6 But the Prophet did not stop there. He made it clear that owners should treat their slaves just as well as they treated themselves:
“Abu Dharra (ra) narrates that the Holy Prophetsa would state, ‘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.’”7
The teachings of the Holy Prophetsa were implemented well by those who followed him. When shopping, Hazrat Alira, a close companion, would purchase two sets of the same clothing, one for himself and one for his slave, and allowed his slave to choose the clothes first. In this way, through the teachings of the Prophetsa, the slaves had, in a short space of time, attained a liberation even more prized than that proclaimed by Lincoln. The slaves at the time of Muhammadsa had been endowed with a genuine value – an unparalleled respect from their owners such that they considered them their equals. The love of slaves towards Muhammadsa was so great that his own freed slave Hazrat Zaid bin Harithahra, preferred to remain with him than return to his parents, such was his love for the Prophetsa. For Hazrat Zaidra, serving the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa was more pleasing to him than a lifetime of freedom. Moreover, within the space of a few years, the slaves who had previously been downtrodden by all sections of society had become great leaders, teachers and military commanders – a feat not accomplished by Lincoln’s America until over a century after emancipation.
Lincoln’s achievement stands out in the history of America as an epoch-making moment of justice, an unparalleled attempt to right a wrong that had stretched back generations. However 1400 years on, it is still the light of the Prophet Muhammadsa that shines brighter than all the others.
The second article in this series will explore the practical methods that the Prophet Muhammadsa employed in physically abolishing the institution of slavery.
- Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, Lars Dietrich, Thomas Shapiro, “The Racial Wealth Gap – Why Policy Matters,” Institute for Assets & Social Policy, 2015, http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/RacialWealthGap_1.pdf.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Hate Crime Statistics”, 12 August 2014, https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/december/latest-hate-crime-statistics-report-released.
- Christopher Ingraham, “The Ugly Truth about Hate Crimes – in 5 charts and maps,” June 18 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/18/5-charts-show-the-stubborn-persistence-of-american-hate-crime/.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nur, Verse 34.
- Holy Qur’an, Sura Al-Nisa, Verse 37.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nur, Verse 32.
- Ṣaḥīḥul-Bukhārī, Kitābul-‘Itq, Bābu Qaulin-Nabiyyisa Al-‘Abidu Ikhwanukum, Ḥadīth No. 2545.
The header image was originally posted by Gage Skidmore, and can be found here