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Abolition of Slavery: Islamic Ethics


In the dark chapters of human history, social relations were characterized by exploitation, oppression, subjugation, domination and hegemony. Perhaps slavery represents the worst example of this social order. On the other hand, Islam seeks to create an egalitarian social order where traditional practices that unjustly discriminate against fellow beings will be contained and eventually abolished. Islamic teachings are, thus, designed to reduce and abolish the class differences and the institutional vestiges of inequality in society. Islam imagines a social space where diversities lead to creative ensemble and the flowering of the human spirit and not to oppression and injustice and the unjust enrichment for a few over the many. [Inset: Watercolor by unidentified artist, depicting plantation slaves dancing and playing musical instruments; banjo player and a percussion player (possibily playing a gourd) at right.  Image courtesy of The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record  ]

In his Friday Sermon of 01 February 2013 the Khalifatullah Hadhrat Munir Ahmad Azim Sahib (atba) of Mauritius explained the Islamic attitude towards the ancient problem of slavery. Drawing upon the express verses of the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (sa), the Messenger of Allah of our times demonstrates the spirit of human equality and empathy for the victims of slavery apparent in the teachings of Islam. In a world characterized by neo-slavery mind-set of modern men who consider women as chattels and sexual trafficking of women and girl children are everyday occurrences, the Islamic teachings are a reminder to the oft-blaming conscience of man.  

Read the Extracts from the Friday Sermon:

The year 2013 marks the 178th year since the abolition of slavery in Mauritius. Thus, every 1st February is a public holiday in Mauritius. A section of the Mauritian population is made of African originated slaves, thus the appellation of these types of people, Creoles. But as a generality, every Mauritian is known as Creole despite his or her religious or cultural background and beliefs, and our mother tongue is Creole.


Let us learn what Allah, Islam and our noble Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) have said or taught us about slaves and slavery, and the treatment which should be given to them.

We all know that our greatest master among the humans and prophets of Allah was a gentle soul. Whether in poverty or wealth, he was ever the same man, a man who sticks to a humble way of life and living as a humble slave of Allah. According to a Hadith by Imam Ahmad and narrated by Abu Huraira, we have come to know that the choice of being a Prophet-King (with kingly riches) or a Slave-Messenger was put before our beloved prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) by an angel who had never before descended except that one time to get an answer from Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him). At that moment Hazrat Jibreel (upon him be peace), the angel of revelations was with the prophet of Allah (peace be upon him). Through further Hadiths (not mentioned in the main six books of Sahih Hadiths), it is reported that Hazrat Jibreel (upon him be peace) advised Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) to be humble and thus he chose to remain a slave-messenger, and verily he lived in this humble yet mighty condition till his last breath on earth. There is even a Hadith which mentions that Hazrat Aisha (May Allah be pleased with her) narrated that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “I eat like a slave eats and I sit like a slave sits.”

The existence of slavery is an ancient condition. It existed long before the Holy Quran was revealed to the beloved prophet and slave of Allah Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him). What is interesting is comparing the depiction of slavery in the Holy Quran to the Bible, both the Old and New Testament. In these older Jewish and Christian scriptures, a specific plan to eliminate the inhuman bondage of our temporal present is never discussed. The Holy Quran, on the other hand, not only recognised the immorality of slavery in ancient Arabia, but sought to end it. The plan to do so is both implicit and explicit. To recognize this is to respect the Islamic attempt, in the name of Allah, to destroy an evil custom which existed nearly thirteen centuries before any country of the West would contemplate to legally and politically copy the Islamic teachings. Mind you, if the West follows the divine commandments of the Holy Quran, it is a great thing, but unfortunately while they emulate certain aspects of the Islamic teachings, but they do not recognise the perfect beauty of Islam publicly. They prefer to take credit for any good rather than praising Allah, Islam and Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) for it.

Unfortunately, many non-Muslims, the Islam haters keep launching attacks on the person of Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) that he encourages slavery in Islam. This is a very delicate matter. If one studies the problem of slavery since the Middle-Age, and even before that, and treatments of slaves are compared between those high-class people who treated slaves like dogs and the treatment which Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave to the slaves in the period prior to Islam and even in the times of Islam, then we shall understand that the missiles of hatred of the hate-mongers are just campaigns to blacken the image of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), whereas the real inhumane monsters are found among them and their ancestors who tolerated the ill-treatments of slaves and were reluctant to put an end to it.

Hazrat Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) advent was like a fresh breeze of freedom for the slaves. One has to realise that prior to his becoming prophet, he was a father-like figure to the slaves of his time. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he used to free the slaves and give them respect and consideration in society. Upon his marriage to his first wife, the latter gave him all that she possessed, but instead of enjoying the wealth which was at his disposal, he gave the majority in charity and participated in the freeing of slaves, and one among them, a youth at that time, Zaid ibn Harith became his adopted son, his protégée. His fatherly love for the freed slave was so much that the Meccans used to refer to Zaid as the son of Muhammad (peace be upon him), calling him Zaid ibn Muhammad. It was only with the advent of Islam and the Holy teachings of Allah that Allah clearly specified that the adopted sons cannot be fully considered as blood-related sons, but that they are to be taken as brothers or comrades in religion. This clause in the verse specifies the believers from among either the slaves, free-slaves or all that involves adoption.

When we analyse the Quran in a profound way and we ponder over the teachings and sayings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we will understand that slavery was meant to be put to an end, not at once, but gradually so that people may realise that all humans are equal, and as the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) beautifully puts it (in his last sermon), except in piety. The Quran at first seeks to make the Muslims and people in general get used to the idea that slaves are humans and must be treated with consideration, and the first step Allah took was to make the freeing of slaves come as a compensation for sins committed or non-fulfilment of promises. We see in Quranic chapters two and four how Allah leads the Muslim believers to remit their sins or breach of oaths with specifications to free a slave. Thus this is one of the ways that Allah has driven Arabia (at first) at the beginning of Islam towards the actual and complete abolition of slavery. As the Holy Quran is a book for mankind as a whole, especially for the truly god-fearing from among humankind, therefore we see how Allah wants that the world becomes involves in mutual respect. If one respects the other, then the latter will respect the former.

In the Arabia of barbarians in the times of ignorance, sex with slave girls or servants was quite the custom. It was even the custom in the other countries outside Arabia, where slave masters used to rape their slave girls and did not honour them in any way, despite that these women gave them children. But with the advent of Islam, even though Allah did not abolish the custom all at once, but a Muslim believer had to contract marriage with a slave-girl before consummating their union. The slave girl or woman should belong to him, like the Quran describes it: “what your right hand possesses.” But the Quran also ventures to specify:

“But let those who cannot find (the means for) marriage keep chaste (abstain from sexual relations) until Allah enriches them from His bounty. And those who seek a contract (for eventual emancipation or marriage) from among whom your right hands possess – then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you. And do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, if they desire chastity, to seek (thereby) the temporary interests of worldly life. And if someone should compel them, then indeed, Allah is (to them, that is, the slave girls), after their compulsion, Forgiving and Merciful.” (24: 34)

The verse under comment is an eye-opener in the sense that Muslim believers should not only grant them freedom, but help them financially so that they may begin their new life with dignity. Or if they do not manumit these female slaves, but rather want to marry them, then marriage is in a way a freedom for them when they cease to be slaves and become an equal partner for their husbands. And the wealth to be given to them may also refer to the dowry that these Muslim men who desire to marry them should give them, like for any free Muslim woman who receives her dowry as a gift from her husband, a security that Allah has ordained for her and which the husband has to pay.

Moreover, the verse reminds us that our wealth verily is from Allah, and we are but temporary proprietors while Allah is the Permanent Proprietor. Therefore any individual or society is only entrusted by Allah with the wealth and has to manage it as per the will of Allah, as per the guidance of Allah. If Allah says, spend in charity, or give away Zakaat, then if we are really Muslim believers, we must comply with the will of Allah, and not be avaricious, keeping our wealth to ourselves. These are temporal and whatever the will of Allah dictates us, then we must comply.

Good treatment to slaves was a must in the prime time of Islam. Even though there is no slave (like the olden times) in our modern era, but there is concealed slavery everywhere where women are forced to prostitution, raped and forced to a miserable life of servitude without a basic education and academic knowledge. This is all in our present era, where governments reassure us that everything is fine when nothing is actually fine. The teachings of the Holy Quran are daily trampled under the feet of people who seek to take women as objects of pleasure and make them completely subservient to them like the abominable of creatures.

If slaves like the olden times have somewhat disappear, but it is a reality that many people now works as servants or maids in the house of people. Even for these types of people, deep respect is to be given to them. They may be poor, but they are also creatures of Allah and our equal, especially if they are believers.

The Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “Your brothers, your servants (or slaves), Allah has placed them under your authority. So whoever’s brother is under his authority, he should feed him from what he eats and clothe him from what he wears. Do not burden them with what overpowers them, and if you burden them, help them. (Bukhari) He (peace be upon him) further said: “One of you should not say ‘my male slave’ or ‘my female slave’ and the slave should not say ‘my lord’ or ‘my lady.’ The owner should say ‘my boy’ and ‘my girl,’ and the slave should say ‘my master’ and ‘my mistress.” (Abu Dawud)

In his farewell sermon, during the pilgrimage in Mecca, the noblest of all prophets and men Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety (taqwa) and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”

Overall, Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) did not believe that only the slaves of a particular race, religion, or ethnicity should be freed; he instead desired to break the chains of slaves all over the world. The fact that the Holy Quran did so with a specificity which has never before been witnessed in other Holy Scriptures and teachings makes it one of the greatest of anti-slavery books, and Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself the greatest of abolitionists. Even his concern at the time of death was for the slaves under the care of the Muslims. He is reported to have said: “(Be steadfast on) prayer, and (take care of) what your right hands possess (that is, the slaves and captives).” (Ibn Majah). In another version, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “(Be observant of) prayer, (be observant of) prayer! And fear Allah in what your right hands possess.” (Abu Dawud)

If we analyse ourselves, our own lives and beings, we will realise that we are all slaves of Allah. We can choose to be a good slave or a bad slave, and the mighty Master shall deal with us the way He wants. If He wants to deal with us with mercy and kindness, then He has the full right to do so, and if He wants to punish us, He has full right to do so. We are but instructions in His hands. If we reflect good in our selves, He shall deal with us with kindness and consideration, but if we go beyond limits, and involve ourselves in the satanic evils, then it is to our own lost.

Following the divine precepts assures us the Master’s satisfaction, while going against His will invites upon us His wrath. It is in our best interest that we remain ever obedient to our Rab, our Allah, for being the most subservient slave to Him is the most enviable position that any human can reach. Our beloved prophet Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) reached to that glorious state when he chose to remain close to the heart of His Master and close to the hearts of the people, by remaining humble like a slave in behaviour but having the heart of a King, a king who is anointed by none but Allah.

May Allah help us to follow the excellent example of the beloved prophet and slave of Allah. Even if we can never be the primary best slave of Allah, but we can strive to become second-best by following in the footsteps of the best of mankind, Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him). May Allah enable us to do so. Insha-Allah, Ameen.

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