Foreign Policy

The Islamic view on Slaves and Slavery

The following discussion is based on a translation of two chapters from the fourth edition of the Arabic book Shakhsiya Islamiyya (Islamic Personality) volume 2 by Sheikh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani. The full Arabic book can be downloaded here.

Slavery existed for thousands of years before Islam. When Islam came the sharia addressed the reality of slavery that was prevalent at the time by bringing new legislation on the treatment of slaves that aimed at raising their status and eventually their freedom.

Although nowadays there are no sharia circumstances where slavery can return, the issue of Islam and slavery is the subject of much misunderstanding and propaganda by the enemies of Islam. Some even go as far as believing a future Khilafah would re-introduce slavery to the world.

The following discussion will address the issue of Islam and slavery in detail from the sharia evidences and refute the idea that a future Khilafah would re-introduce slavery.

Solving the issue of slaves

Islam treated slaves in a way that eased the position of slavery imposed upon them. The fuqaha (scholars) laid down many rules detailing the treatment of slaves that ultimately led to them being set free either compulsorily or voluntarily. These rules are summarised in the following issues:

Firstly, Islam found people owning slaves so it treated the problem of slaves by addressing the owners. It dealt with slavery in such a way that gave rights to the slave whilst also maintaining their humanity. The slave is the same as a free person in relation to the natural attributes man is endowed with.

Allah (swt) in the Noble Qur’an and the Messenger of Allah (SAW) in the honoured hadith exhorted the treating of slaves with kindness.

Allah (swt) says:

وَٱعۡبُدُواْ ٱللَّهَ وَلَا تُشۡرِكُواْ بِهِۦ شَيۡـًٔ۬ا‌ۖ وَبِٱلۡوَٲلِدَيۡنِ إِحۡسَـٰنً۬ا وَبِذِى ٱلۡقُرۡبَىٰ وَٱلۡيَتَـٰمَىٰ وَٱلۡمَسَـٰكِينِ وَٱلۡجَارِ ذِى ٱلۡقُرۡبَىٰ وَٱلۡجَارِ ٱلۡجُنُبِ وَٱلصَّاحِبِ بِٱلۡجَنۢبِ وَٱبۡنِ ٱلسَّبِيلِ وَمَا مَلَكَتۡ أَيۡمَـٰنُكُمۡ‌ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ مَن ڪَانَ مُخۡتَالاً۬ فَخُورًا

“Worship Allah; join nothing with Him. Be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans, to the needy, to neighbours near and far, to travellers in need and those whom your right hands possess. Allah does not like arrogant, boastful people.” [TMQ 4:36]

The meaning of “those whom your right hands possess” is your slaves.

The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “Fear Allah in regards of those whom your right hands possess. They are your brothers whom Allah placed under your hands (authority). Feed them with what you eat, clothe them with what you wear and do not impose duties upon them which will overcome them. If you so impose duties, then assist them.” [Muslim]

Muslim narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra that the Messenger of Allah (saw) said: “One of you should not say: My slave (abd) and my slave-girl (amati). All of you are the slaves of Allah and all of your women are the slave-girls of Allah. Rather let him say: My (ghulam) boy and my (jariyah) girl and my (fata) young boy and my (fatati) young girl.”

The Shar’a raised the rank of the slave and made his blood protected just like the free person, where the free person is killed for the deliberate murder of a slave.

Allah (swt) says:

يَـٰٓأَيُّہَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيۡكُمُ ٱلۡقِصَاصُ فِى ٱلۡقَتۡلَى‌ۖ ٱلۡحُرُّ بِٱلۡحُرِّ وَٱلۡعَبۡدُ بِٱلۡعَبۡدِ وَٱلۡأُنثَىٰ بِٱلۡأُنثَىٰ‌ۚ

“You who believe, retaliation is prescribed for you in cases of murder: the free man for the free man, the slave for the slave, the female for the female.” [TMQ 2:178]

Retaliation is reciprocity and punishing the sinner, so retaliation is recompense for the sin, and it is used for doing upon the doer similar to what he did.

The meaning of “retaliation is prescribed for you in cases of murder” is that it is obliged on you as a recompense for the sin of murdering to kill the killer. This is general (‘aam) covering the male and female, free person and slave. This is supported by what Ibn Majah narrated on the authority of Ibn Abbas that the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “Muslims are equal in their blood.” This is also general.

The free person and slave are equal in that the blood of each of them is protected and it is haram to kill them. So the killer is killed whoever he is.

Therefore, Islam made the life of the slave equal to the life of the free person, and his blood is protected like the blood of a free person.

The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “Whoever kills his slave, we will kill him.” (narrated by Ahmad and Abu Dawud on the authority of Sumra bin Jundub).

Islam also gave the slave the right to marry, divorce, study and to be a witness upon others whether a free person or slave.

As for the right given by Islam to the owner of a slave-girl to enjoy sexual relations with her, this raises the status of the slave and results in her freedom. This is because the enjoyment of the owner with his slave-girl is like the enjoyment of the husband with his wife, lifting the status of the slave girl to the status of the free wife and gives her a status before her master. In addition, if the slave-girl falls pregnant and bears a child she is freed compulsorily after the death of her master.

Secondly, Islam urged the freeing of slaves. It made the freeing of the slave as helping the human being to be grateful for the splendid favours of Allah and assists him to attempt the steep path.

Allah (swt) says:

فَلَا ٱقۡتَحَمَ ٱلۡعَقَبَةَ (١١) وَمَآ أَدۡرَٮٰكَ مَا ٱلۡعَقَبَةُ (١٢) فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ (١٣

“Yet he has not attempted (iqtiham) the steep path (‘aqabah). What will explain to you what the steep path (‘aqabah) is? It is freeing the neck.” [TMQ 90:11-13]

Al-iqtiham is the entry and cross over with severity and difficulty, and ‘aqabah is difficulty. It made the righteous deed as ‘aqabah and made its performance as Al-iqtiham due to what is therein of difficulty and the struggling with one’s soul. “Freeing the neck” is liberating it from slavery so Allah urged the freeing of slaves in this ayah. Similarly the Messenger (SAW) urged the freeing of slaves.

He (SAW) said: “Whichever man frees a Muslim man, Allah ta’ala will liberate for each of his organ an organ from the Fire” (narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).

This demonstrates that Islam urged the freeing of slaves and gave it a great reward.

Thirdly, Islam legislated practical rules obliging the freeing of slaves. Any slave owned by one of his mahram (unmarriageable) relatives is automatically free whether the owner consents or not. Therefore anyone who owns a relative by purchase or inheritance, his relative is freed from him by force once he owned him without need for his freeing.

Abu Dawud narrated from Samurah that the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “If anyone gets possession of a relative who is within the prohibited degrees (mahram), that person becomes free.”

It also made punishing the slave by burning, cutting or damaging an organ, or hitting him violently as obliging his freedom. Therefore, if his owner does not free him, the ruler frees him by force from his owner.

He (saw) said: “Whoever slaps his slave or strikes him, his atonement (kaffara) is to free him.” (Narrated by Muslim on the authority of Ibn Umar).

The meaning of the hit is the (mubrih) violent strike for there are ahadith that permit the owner to chastise his slave for disciplining.

Islam made the freeing of the slave as a compulsory atonement (kaffara) for many sins. So whoever kills a believer accidentally, his atonement is freeing a believing slave.

Allah (swt) says:

وَمَا كَانَ لِمُؤۡمِنٍ أَن يَقۡتُلَ مُؤۡمِنًا إِلَّا خَطَـًٔ۬ا‌ۚ وَمَن قَتَلَ مُؤۡمِنًا خَطَـًٔ۬ا فَتَحۡرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ۬ مُّؤۡمِنَةٍ۬ وَدِيَةٌ۬ مُّسَلَّمَةٌ إِلَىٰٓ أَهۡلِهِۦۤ إِلَّآ أَن يَصَّدَّقُواْ‌ۚ فَإِن كَانَ مِن قَوۡمٍ عَدُوٍّ۬ لَّكُمۡ وَهُوَ مُؤۡمِنٌ۬ فَتَحۡرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ۬ مُّؤۡمِنَةٍ۬‌ۖ وَإِن ڪَانَ مِن قَوۡمِۭ بَيۡنَڪُمۡ وَبَيۡنَهُم مِّيثَـٰقٌ۬ فَدِيَةٌ۬ مُّسَلَّمَةٌ إِلَىٰٓ أَهۡلِهِۦ وَتَحۡرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ۬ مُّؤۡمِنَةٍ۬‌ۖ

“Never should a believer kill another believer, except by mistake. If anyone kills a believer by mistake he must free one Muslim slave and pay blood money (diyya) to the victim’s relatives, unless they charitably forgo it; if the victim belonged to a people at war with you but is a believer, then the compensation is only to free a believing slave; if he belonged to a people with whom you have a treaty, then blood money should be handed over to his relatives, and a believing slave set free.” [TMQ 4:92]

Whoever broke his oath, then one of those things that atones for his mistake is freeing a slave.

Allah (swt) says:

لَا يُؤَاخِذُكُمُ ٱللَّهُ بِٱللَّغۡوِ فِىٓ أَيۡمَـٰنِكُمۡ وَلَـٰكِن يُؤَاخِذُڪُم بِمَا عَقَّدتُّمُ ٱلۡأَيۡمَـٰنَ‌ۖ فَكَفَّـٰرَتُهُ ۥۤ إِطۡعَامُ عَشَرَةِ مَسَـٰكِينَ مِنۡ أَوۡسَطِ مَا تُطۡعِمُونَ أَهۡلِيكُمۡ أَوۡ كِسۡوَتُهُمۡ أَوۡ تَحۡرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ۬‌ۖ

“Allah does not take you [to task] for what is thoughtless in your oaths, only for your binding oaths: the atonement for breaking an oath is to feed ten poor people with food equivalent to what you would normally give your own families, or to clothe them, or to set free a slave.” [TMQ 5:89]

Whoever says to his wife ‘you are to me like my mother’s back’ and then returns to her, his atonement is freeing a slave.

Allah (swt) says:

وَٱلَّذِينَ يُظَـٰهِرُونَ مِن نِّسَآٮِٕہِمۡ ثُمَّ يَعُودُونَ لِمَا قَالُواْ فَتَحۡرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ۬ مِّن قَبۡلِ أَن يَتَمَآسَّا‌ۚ ذَٲلِكُمۡ تُوعَظُونَ بِهِۦ‌ۚ

“Those of you who say such a thing to their wives (i.e. ‘you are to me like my mother’s back’), then go back on what they have said, must free a slave before the couple may touch one another again.” [TMQ 58:3]

Whoever invalidates the fast of Ramadan by sexual intercourse, his atonement is freeing a slave.

Narrated by Abu Hurayra: While we were sitting with the Prophet (SAW) a man came and said, “O Allah's Messenger! I have been ruined.” Allah’s Messenger asked what was the matter with him. He replied: “I had sexual intercourse with my wife while I was fasting.” Allah’s Messenger asked him, “Can you afford to free a slave?” He replied in the negative. Allah’s Messenger asked him, “Can you fast for two successive months?” He replied in the negative. The Prophet 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 (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 smiled till his pre-molar teeth became visible and then said, “Feed your family with it.” [Bukhari]

The Prophet (SAW) commanded first with freeing the slave, and he did not move to anything else except after the inability of doing so was clear to him. All these rules of atonements oblige the atoner to free the slave.

Islam also gave the slave a method of freeing himself by entering into a manumission contract (mukatab) with his owner. This contract is where the slave agrees a value of money with his owner in exchange for his freedom in the future. Islam encouraged this contract.

Allah (swt) says:

وَٱلَّذِينَ يَبۡتَغُونَ ٱلۡكِتَـٰبَ مِمَّا مَلَكَتۡ أَيۡمَـٰنُكُمۡ فَكَاتِبُوهُمۡ إِنۡ عَلِمۡتُمۡ فِيہِمۡ خَيۡرً۬ا‌ۖ وَءَاتُوهُم مِّن مَّالِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلَّذِىٓ ءَاتَٮٰكُمۡ‌ۚ

“If any of your slaves wish to pay for their freedom, make a contract with them accordingly, if you know they have good in them, and give them some of the wealth Allah has given you.” [TMQ 24:33]

If the master contracts his slave by saying to him: “If you give me so much, in such and such time, then you are free,” it is obligatory upon the master to enable his slave to attain the money which he contracted upon him. It is obligatory upon the master to free the slave if he brings the money, and it is not correct for him to withdraw from this manumission contract.

The fuqaha recognised the manumission contract as the immediate freeing of the slave, and the future freeing of his neck. Once the contract is validated then the slave goes out of the hands of his master and whenever the slave pays the amount due to his master he goes out of his ownership as well.

All of these rules are for freeing slaves. These rules are implemented by individuals motivated through their taqwa to abide by them. They are also implemented forcefully by the Islamic State if the individual’s taqwa fails to motivate him to abide by these rules. All of these rules generate thinking and action by the owners to free slaves. They also generate thinking and action among the slaves themselves so they can work to free themselves from their slavery. This shows how the Islamic society aims to abolish slavery through the sharia rules and application of the system.

Fourthly, Islam was not only satisfied with encouraging the freeing of slaves and legislating rules to compel their freeing. Rather Islam made the freeing of slaves one of the eight categories the Bait ul-Mal (state treasury) spends Zakat money on.

Allah (swt) says:

إِنَّمَا ٱلصَّدَقَـٰتُ لِلۡفُقَرَآءِ وَٱلۡمَسَـٰكِينِ وَٱلۡعَـٰمِلِينَ عَلَيۡہَا وَٱلۡمُؤَلَّفَةِ قُلُوبُہُمۡ وَفِى ٱلرِّقَابِ وَٱلۡغَـٰرِمِينَ وَفِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ وَٱبۡنِ ٱلسَّبِيلِ‌ۖ فَرِيضَةً۬ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ‌ۗ وَٱللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ حَڪِيمٌ۬ (٦٠)

“Alms are meant only for the poor, the needy, those who administer them, those whose hearts need winning over, and for (riqab) and helping those in debt, for Allah’s cause, and for travellers in need. This is ordained by Allah; Allah is all knowing and wise.” [TMQ 9:60]

His (swt) statement: “and for (riqab)” means freeing slaves. Islam did not specify a specific amount of money for this category. If required the State can assign some of the Zakat for freeing slaves or it can assign the entire amount of Zakat for freeing slaves. This is because the Zakat is not obliged to be spent on all the eight categories, but rather on those categories the Khaleefah of the Muslims views as a priority.

Solving the issue of Slavery

In the old systems before Islam the categories of slavery practiced in the world were many. A bankrupt debtor could be enslaved. So when a debtor became poor and bankrupt, his creditor could enslave him. Slavery was also used as a punishment for some crimes and offences. A free person could accept slavery upon himself, so he sells himself to another upon condition that he frees him after a period of time they agreed upon. The strong tribes allowed themselves to enslave the individuals of the weak tribes. Wars and battles would result in the enslaving of captives and allow the enslaving of all the people of a country if they were conquered. Some of them would limit slavery to those they took as captives in the war of men, women and children. Whoever was taken as a captive in a legal war and was enslaved therein he was considered a slave and was acknowledged as being a slave.

When Islam came it determined the situations where slavery can occur. It clarified that in relation to the bankrupt debtor the creditor should grant him time till he can repay.

Allah (swt) says:

وَإِن كَانَ ذُو عُسۡرَةٍ۬ فَنَظِرَةٌ إِلَىٰ مَيۡسَرَةٍ۬‌ۚ

“If the debtor is in difficulty, then delay things until matters become easier for him.” [TMQ 2:280]

Islam also clarified in detail the punishments for sins particularly the punishment for stealing whose punishment in the old systems used to be slavery.

Allah (swt) says:

قَالُواْ جَزَٲٓؤُهُ ۥ مَن وُجِدَ فِى رَحۡلِهِۦ فَهُوَ جَزَٲٓؤُهُ ۥ‌ۚ كَذَٲلِكَ نَجۡزِى ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ (٧٥

“And they answered, ‘The penalty will be [the enslavement of] the person in whose bag the cup is found: this is how we punish wrongdoers.’” [TMQ 12:75]

So Islam clarified the punishment for stealing as cutting the hand.

Allah (swt) says:

وَٱلسَّارِقُ وَٱلسَّارِقَةُ فَٱقۡطَعُوٓاْ أَيۡدِيَهُمَا جَزَآءَ بِمَا كَسَبَاۢ

“Cut off the hands of thieves, whether they are man or women, as punishment for what they have done.” [TMQ 5:38]

It made the contract between the slave and owner upon freedom, not slavery. It prohibited the enslaving of free people in a decisive manner.

Narrated Abu Hurayra: The Prophet (SAW) said, “Allah says, ‘I will be against three persons on the Day of Resurrection: One who makes a covenant in My Name, but he proves treacherous. One who sells a free person (as a slave) and eats the price. And one who employs a labourer and gets the full work done by him but does not pay him his wages.’” [Bukhari]

So Allah (swt) will dispute with the seller of the free person.

As for the situation of war, Islam prevented the enslaving of captives absolutely. In the second year of Hijrah, the rule of captives was clarified. Either they are favoured by releasing them free without any return, or they are ransomed by money or captives like them of Muslims or dhimmi.

Allah (swt) says:

فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمُ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ فَضَرۡبَ ٱلرِّقَابِ حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَآ أَثۡخَنتُمُوهُمۡ فَشُدُّواْ ٱلۡوَثَاقَ فَإِمَّا مَنَّۢا بَعۡدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَآءً حَتَّىٰ تَضَعَ ٱلۡحَرۡبُ أَوۡزَارَهَا‌ۚ

“When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly – later you can release them by grace or by ransom – until the toils of war have ended.” [TMQ 47:4]

The ayah is explicit in this meaning – Release by grace or ransom, and it absolutely does not bear any other meaning. The Arabic language requires restricting the rule of the captives in one of these two matters—release or ransom. This is because إِمَّا “imma” is for giving a choice between two matters and for restriction in the two things. Here it gave a choice between release or ransom, and restricting the rule to these two alone. When it came to expressing that with إِمَّا “imma” it indicates the restriction of that mentioned after it: “release them by grace or by ransom.”

A question may arise concerning the subject of captives, because some fuqaha deduced that the Khaleefah can enslave captives if he so wishes. This ayah was revealed after the Battle of Badr in the second year after Hijrah at the beginning of the war between the Messenger (SAW) and the disbelievers of Quraysh. However, the Messenger (SAW) enslaved in the Battle of Hunayn which came after the Battle of Badr. The Messenger’s (SAW) action is considered legislation as it is also considered an explanation of the verses of Allah. So how could enslaving of captives be prevented by this ayah though the Messenger enslaved after its revelation in Hunayn?

The answer is that the action of the Messenger (SAW) and his speech in relation to the Qur’anic ayaat is either detailing of a mujmal (ambivalent), restricting of a mutlaq (absolute) or specifying of an ‘aam (general). The action of the Messenger (SAW) and his speech cannot be an abrogation of the Qur’an. The ayah of captives is neither mujmal such that it needs detailing, nor are its words ‘aam so as to be specified, nor mutlaq so as to be restricted. So if it was proved that the Messenger (SAW) enslaved after its revelation, his action would abrogate it and this is not permitted. In addition, the Messenger’s (SAW) enslaving of captives is individually narrated news (khabr ahad) which contradicts the ayah: “later you can release them by grace or by ransom.” When the khabr ahad contradicts the definite ayaat and ahadith the khabr ahad is rejected by its meaning.

Accordingly, there is no regard to what is narrated that the Messenger (SAW) enslaved after the revelation of the ayah of captives. However, what actually happened in the battle of Hunayn was that women and children accompanied the fighters of the mushrikeen to increase their numbers and incite their men to fight. So when they were routed in the battlefield the women and children became war booty (sabaya) and the Messenger (SAW) divided them between the Muslim fighters. When he (SAW) was requested to reconsider this matter he asked the Muslims to grant their right in this war booty (sabaya) voluntarily and returned this sabi to their people. This indicated the permissibility of enslaving women and children that accompany the men in the battlefield to increase their numbers and for encouraging them to fight.

Despite this, the Messenger (SAW) did not enslave at Khaybar. When he (SAW) invaded Khaybar and overpowered its residents, he left them as free persons and left the land under their hands to farm it over half of its produce.

Abu Ubaidah said about booty (sabi): ‘The Imam is given a choice in them as long as they have not been divided. Once they are divided there is no way over them except by gift and free will of those for whom they belonged to, like the action of the Messenger of Allah (SAW) with the people of Hunayn. None of the sabi was returned by anyone of them except by gift and free will because he had divided them. He did not do this with the people of Khaybar but rather left them as free persons nor were they gifted by anyone for division had not occurred over them.’

As for other than this sabiyy, such as the fighters when they are taken as captives, the Messenger (SAW) never enslaved any of their men. It is not proved that he enslaved a captive of the fighting men from the Arabs, Jews or Christians. The word aseer when used unrestricted in the language indicates the male fighter. As for the woman and child, the word used for them in the language is sabiyy not asra. Accordingly, it is clear that Islam prevented enslaving captives of the male fighters, and gave the Khaleefah a choice in the sabiyy between enslaving and liberation and there is no ransom in them.

This is what the Messenger (SAW) did in the sabiyy of Hunayn – he enslaved them and then freed them, and with the sabiyy of Khaybar, he (SAW) left them free without enslaving them. This is only if women and children accompany the army in war. If, however, they stay at home there is nothing upon them, neither captivity nor sabiyy. The actions of the Khaleefah in the question of enslaving the sabiyy proceeds according to what the war policy requires in dealing with the enemy. Its objective is not enslaving rather it is one of the war transactions whose matter is left to the Khaleefah who does what he sees fit and what the position in relation to the enemy requires.

Thus it is clear that Islam solved the problem of slavery. It prevented all the situations in which enslaving occurs, and left for the Khaleefah the choice in the situation of sabiyy according to the position in relation to the enemy.

In modern warfare, women and children no longer accompany the army to increase its numbers and encourage its men to fight, so there does not remain even one situation in which enslaving occurs. Therefore, Islam has abolished slavery and there are no situations where slavery would return in a future Khilafah.

TMQ – Translated Meaning of the Qur’an.
The English translation of the Qur’an by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem has been used.