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Islam and Slavery

Slavery as a social institution existed in different parts of the world for a very long period of time.  It is a stark reminder of the dark episodes in world history when men- including in Muslim lands- had had no qualms about treating his fellow beings as mere chattel. [Illustration: "Slave-dealers and slaves—a Street Scene in Zanzibar" ]. In this post-modern age, ideas of basic human dignity and fundamental rights have gained widespread acceptance all over the world. And, the very notion of slavery militates against the concepts of decency, propriety and equality in human relations.

The teachings of Islam are designed to gradually eliminate evil practices such as slavery. While all Muslims cannot absolve themselves of not indulging in slave trade in the past,  Islam as practiced by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) certainly envisions a social order designed to reflect the sublime spiritual values it espouses: live in this world with a wider consciousness about your duties towards the Creator and the fellow beings. Learn to recognize the essential unity and common brotherhood of all mankind. Discharge your responsibilities towards fellow human beings. Empathy and understanding, compassion and consideration for people who are in need of assistance is a Qur’anic obligation on believers, reminds the Khalifatullah Hadhrat Munir Ahmad Azim Sahib (atba) in a recent article on the subject in “Le Socialiste” Newspaper of Mauritius on February 15, 2012.

Read the Article: 

The advent of Islam was to be known as the absolute way of life of a human being. Islam verily means complete submission to the Creator of the Universe, the Supreme God, our Master and Guide.

As a Creator, Almighty God does not differentiate between His servants and thus, so as to guide us all to His path, He sends from time to time His elects to make people understand His Divine Message. Muhammad (saw) was such an Elect, who through his perseverance and absolute obedience to Almighty God received the distinction of Seal of Prophethood, the Best of Mankind and the best example and role model to follow. He indeed was the personification of the divine laws as established in the Holy Quran.

To know Islam, one must analyse deeply the life of Muhammad (saw). In fact, his life reflect many aspects of life as lived by both the poor and the rich, and among the poor there was of course the slaves who were devoid of rights in the pre-Islamic times. Muhammad’s (saw) compassion to the poor and the slaves knew no bound.

As a young man he was ever ready to help the needy and poor, wanting to remove them from their lives of miseries. This profound sentiment of pity and mercy applied also to the slaves whom he did not lose time to liberate once he got the opportunity to become their master. This occasion presented itself when after his wedding to his pious, rich and beautiful wife Khadija (ra), the latter offered him all her riches and along with these properties there were also slaves in dozens.

Muhammad (saw) did not hesitate to manumit them all. He was so caring that he could not tolerate that humans like himself be treated worst than animals. After their manumission, the majority left, grateful for such kind consideration from their new master. Only a handful stayed behind, especially the young Zaid bin Harith (ra) who could not bear separation from such a kind human being as Muhammad (saw). Therefore Zaid stayed with him, not as a slave or domestic but as an equal, a liberated person.

With the advent of Islam, the compassion of this religion reached such heights that it made provisions for the liberation of slaves at every opportunity. The Holy Quran states:

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but righteousness is one who believes in Allah (Almighty God), the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, those who ask (for help), and for freeing slaves (2: 178)

Moreover, as way of expiation (of sins) of believers, Almighty God ordains His servants “to manumit a slave.” (4: 93; 5: 90; 58: 4-5)

Moreover, as a Prophet of God, Muhammad (saw) is reported to have said: “When the slave of anyone amongst you prepares food for him and he serves him after having sat close to (and undergoing the hardship of) heat and smoke, he should make him (the slave) sit along with him and make him eat (along with him), and if the food seems to run short, then he should spare some portion for him (from his own share). (Muslim)

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)

The Holy Prophet’s sincere consideration for slaves is shown also in the reminiscence of the excellent way he and his closest companion Abu Bakr (ra) went to buy a slave (with the purpose of liberating him) by the name of Bilal bin Rabah Al-Habashi who suffered all kind of tortures from his master due to the fact that he believed in the message of the Prophet of God (saw). The story of his liberation from the clutches of slavery is a heart-melting one. This same person, a former slave became the first “Muezzin” (Caller to Prayer) in Islam.

Now a question can be asked as to why Islam did not put a stop to slavery at once. When the divine messages were first revealed upon Muhammad (saw), this was done little by little, in a measure so that these commandments can act as spiritual cure to the people, much like “serum” being administered to a patient, drop by drop. Therefore, slavery could not be eradicated at once, but little by little, because first it was the perception of man which had to change, and Islam through its teachings succeeded in promoting the liberation of slaves little by little till it disappeared. 

The life of Muhammad (saw) is in every facet a model for not only Muslims, but for all humans. Whatever knowledge we have, we share, and we embrace compatibility for the sake of unity. Rich and poor are meant to be…brothers for eternity, if only we could peep in the book of life, and get rid of slavery to this beautiful but oh so temporary world!


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