This series, entitled ‘Islam and Slavery’ will examine the practice of the Prophet Muhammadsa with regards to the institution of slavery. Here we analyse the practical methods that the Prophet Muhammadsa employed in physically abolishing the institution of slavery.
Christianity is often described as the religion of peace; the faith in which one must offer the other cheek if struck on the first and in which one must strive for goodness, tolerance and harmony. Indeed, the message of Jesus Christ was certainly that of compassion and love, however what he did not initiate was a complete social transformation in those he preached to. Despite being a Prophet of peace, the scope and extent of Jesus’ teachings, unlike those of the Prophet Muhammad, did not encompass all the ills of the world.
Slavery in the Bible
One such example of this can be found with respect to slavery. Far from condemning this practice, the Bible appears to wholeheartedly condone it.
In the Gospel of Luke, for example, it is stated that that slave which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.1 Ephesians orders slaves to obey your earthly masters with respect and fear…2 and 1 Peter goes a step further, commanding slaves to accept the authority of their masters not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel.3 Nowhere in the Bible does it mention the abolition of slavery, nor suggest any methods for removing this practice from the face of the earth.
In contrast, Islam, as a complete system of moral, social and spiritual progress, not only calls for the abolition of slavery but gives clear guidelines and instructions to ensure that this social revolution can be accomplished fairly and safely. The first article in this series explored how the Prophet Muhammad liberated slaves from the shackles of oppression by teaching that they should be treated by their masters as equals or close relatives, rather than as underlings. However the process of abolishing slavery was accomplished by the Prophet Muhammad in form as well as in spirit.
Islam’s Teachings to Free Existing Slaves
There were two main methods in which the Prophet Muhammad freed slaves. The first was through recommendation where, in accordance with the Qur’anic teachings, the Prophet declared that the freeing of a slave was a virtuous act, which would lead one to attain nearness to God. In this regard the Qur’an states:
“And what should make thee know what the ascent [of goodness] is? It is a freeing of a slave.” 4
Elaborating on this topic, it is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad said that such a Muslim who frees a slave, would be granted complete protection by Allah the exalted from hell.5 Freeing a slave was further described in the Qur’an as an action which could atone for past sins:
“He who kills a believer by mistake shall free a believing slave, and pay blood money to be handed over to his heirs…but whoso finds not one, then he shall fast for two consecutive months.” 6
In this manner, the Qur’an suggests liberating slaves as a means of attaining forgiveness from God for a number of other sins, and suggests this course of action unless an individual is unable to find a slave, in which case an alternative act of goodness is recommended. In Arabia at the time of the beginning of Islam, the practice of slavery was ubiquitous. Therefore the fact that the Qur’an describes circumstances in which one may be unable to find a slave provides strong evidence for the fact that Islam sought to end the practice of slavery completely, eventually creating a time in which there were no slaves left to free.
The second method the Prophet Muhammad used to free slaves was not simply through exhortation but through compulsion. In a large number of circumstances, the Prophet ordered that slaves were to be set free. For example, on one occasion a Muslim slapped a slave due to anger, and when the Prophet was informed he commanded that the slave be freed7. From that command, the precedent was set in Islam that any kind of physical abuse of a slave required the liberation of the slave immediately. On the occasion of a solar eclipse, the Prophet ordered that a slave be set free.8 If an individual acquired a slave who turned out to be a close relative, that slave was commanded to be set free.9 If a slave was under the joint ownership of more than one master, the decision by a single master to free the slave meant that his freedom was guaranteed.10 Moreover, Islam established a system known as Mukatabat, in which a master was obliged to free his slave if the slave wished for freedom and was willing to take up work to endeavour to pay an agreed sum to his master.11 This was not an optional system based on the wishes of the master, but was compulsory.
Islam Abolishes the Taking of Slaves
In addition to all these methods of promoting the liberation of slaves, the Prophet Muhammad’s greatest act for these deprived people was to forbid the taking of slaves under any circumstances, thus laying the groundwork for its complete abolition. The only circumstances under which a person could be deprived of their liberty was by waging an aggressive war against Muslims, as a result of which they would be taken as a prisoner of war.
“It does not behove a Prophet that he should captives until he engages in regular fighting in the land.” (8:68)
This temporary state of bondage was not the same as slavery however, since they were to be released as a favour, for a ransom or at the end of the war12. The Prophet Muhammad’s own practice in this regard was to free prisoners of war if they could teach ten Muslim children how to read13. The Qur’an declared it forbidden to take any new slaves except for prisoners of war, since doing so would demonstrate that the culprits cared only for worldly gains and not the love of God14.
Muhammad- the True Prophet of Peace
In short, the Prophet Muhammad left no stone unturned in both condemning the practice of slavery and ensuring that slaves were able to be freed at every possible opportunity. Due to the reasons discussed in the previous article, it would have been impractical and ineffective to free all slaves at once, but Islam ensured both that existing slaves were treated kindly, and that they could be released whenever possible. Such a comprehensive system is entirely absent in Christianity, demonstrating that the faith that is truly capable of liberating the poor and the oppressed is the one founded by the Prophet Muhammad.
By Damir Rafi
The third article in the series will explore this topic from the perspective of slaves themselves during the days of early Islam.
- Luke 12:47
- Ephesians 6:5
- 1 Peter 2:18
- Surah Al Balad 90:13-14
- Sahih Bukhari, Hadith No. 6715
- Surah al Nisa 4:93
- Sahih Muslim, Kitabul-Iman, Hadith no 4304
- Ṣaḥīḥul-Bukhārī, Kitābul-‘Itq, Ḥadīth No. 2519
- Sunanu Ibni Mājah, Kitābul-‘Itq, Ḥadīth No. 2525
- Ṣaḥīḥul-Bukhārī, Kitābul-‘Itq, Ḥadīth No. 2523
- Surah Nur 24:34
- Surah Muhammad 47:5
- Khan, Muhammad Zafrulla, Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets, Chapter 6: Regulation of Fighting
- Surah Al Anfal 8:68
The header image was initially posted by thisisbossi, and can be found here