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Saeed Ahktar Rizvi

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Christianity and Slavery


Though slavery was an ancient institution which started in pre-historic era of mankind,
it is safe to say that the volume of this trade reached its zenith through the Christian
nations of Europe and America who, as is their nature, turned it into a meticulously
organised commerce and started capturing slaves by thousands. Before we describe the
nefarious trade in slave started by the Portuguese, the Spaniards and other maritime
powers of the Christian West for their newly acquired colonies, let us see if
Christianity, as a system and as a creed, did anything in the earliest period to alleviate
the lot of slaves.

Justice Ameer Ali writes about Christianity:


It found slavery a recognised institution of the empire; it adopted the system without
any endeavour to mitigate its baneful character, or promise its gradual abolition, or to
improve the status of slaves. Under the civil law, slaves were mere chattels. They
remained so under the Christian domination. Slavery had flourished among the Romans from
the earliest times. The slaves whether of native or foreign birth, whether acquired by war
or purchase, were regarded simply as chattels. Their masters possessed the power of life
and death over them.. Christianity had failed utterly in abolishing slavery or alleviating
its evil.


Will Durant describes the position of the Church as follows:


The Church did not condemn slavery. Orthodox and heretic, Roman and barbarian alike
assumed the institution to he natural and in-destructible. Pagan laws condemned to slavery
any free woman who married a slave; the laws of Constantine [a Christian emperor] ordered
the woman to be executed, and the slave to be burned alive. The Emperor Gratian decreed
that a slave who accused his master of any offence except high treason to the state should
be burned alive at once, without inquiring into the justice of the charge.NAME="n7">


The only redress prescribed by Christianity is seen in the letter of St. Paul to a
certain Philemon sending back to him his slave, Onessimus, with a recommendation to treat
him well. Nothing more. It is interesting to note that the word "slave" of
original Hebrew has been changed to "servant" in the Authorised Version of the
Bible, and to "bond servant" in the Revised Standard Version, because, in words
of The Concise Bible Commentary, "this word [i.e., slave] is avoided because
of its association. One
wonders whether a translator has a right to change the original just because of
"associations"?

It would be of interest to note here that the word "slave" is of European
origin. It came into existence when the Franks used to supply the Spanish slave market
with the "barbarians," and those captives happened to be mostly the people of
Turkish origin from the region known as Slovakia (now a part of Czechoslovakia). These
people are called "Slav" and so all captives came to be known as
"slaves".

The following quotation graphically shows the attitude of Islam and Christianity on the
subject of slavery and race:


"Take away the black man! I can have no discussion with him," exclaimed the
Christian Archbishop Cyrus when the Arab conquerors had sent a deputation of their ablest
men to discuss terms of surrender of the capital of Egypt, headed by Negro 'Ubaydah as the
ablest of them all. To the sacred Archbishop's astonishment, he was told that this man was
commissioned by General 'Amr; that the Moslems held Negroes and white men in equal respect
judging a man by his character and not by his colour.


This episode gives you in a nutshell what I propose to explain at length in this
booklet.


. Ameer Ali, op. cit., pp.260-261.

. Lecky, W.E., History of European Morals, vol.II
(New York, 1926), p.61, as quoted by Will Durant, op. cit., vol. IV, p.77.

. Clarke, Rev. W.K.L., The Concise Bible Commentary (London:
S.P.C.K., 1952), p.976.

. Leeder, S.S., Veiled Mysteries of Egypt (London,
1912), p.332.

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