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Saeed Ahktar Rizvi

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Islam Attacks Slavery


Islam's war against slavery aimed at changing the attitude and mentality
of the whole society, so that after emancipation, slaves would become its full-fledged
members, without any need of demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience and racial riots.
And Islam achieved this seemingly impossible objective without any war. To say that Islam
waged no war against slavery would not be a true statement. A war it waged, but a war in
which neither sword was resorted to, nor blood was spilled.

Islam aimed at striking at the roots of its foe and created allies by
arousing the finer instincts of its followers. A three-pronged attack on slavery was
launched.

As 'Allamah Tabataba'i has described at great length, prior to Islam
strong and dominant people, throughout the world, used to enslave weak persons without any
restraint. Important among the "causes" of enslavement were the following three
factors:

1. War: The conqueror could do with the vanquished enemy whatever he
liked. He could put the arrested soldiers to death, condemn them to slavery or otherwise
keep them under his authority or clutch.

2. Domination: A chief or ruler could enslave, depending on his sweet
wish, anyone residing under his domain.

3. Guardianship: A father or grandfather had absolute authority over his
offspring. He could sell or gift him or her away; could lend him or her to someone else,
or exchange him or her with another's son or daughter.

When Islam came on the scene, it nullified and negated the last two
factors completely. No ruler or progenitor was allowed to treat his subjects or offspring
as his slaves. Every individual was bestowed with well-defined rights; the ruler and the
ruled, the progenitor and the offspring had to live within the limits prescribed by
religion; no one could transgress those limits.

And it drastically restricted the first cause, i.e., war, by allowing
enslavement only in a war fought against unbelieving enemy. In no other way could anyone
be enslaved. At the same time, Islam raised the status of slavery to that of a free man;
and opened many ways for their emancipation.

Before slave trade was started on a large scale by the Westerners (when
colonisation began), it was only in wars that men were made captives. But Islam did not
permit wars of aggression. All the battles fought during the life-time of the Prophet were
defensive battles. Not only this, an alternative was also introduced and enforced: "to
let the captives go free, either with or without any ransom "(The Qur'an 47:4).
In the battles forced upon the Muslims, the Prophet had ordered very humane treatment of
the prisoners who fell into Muslim hands. They could purchase their freedom on payment of
small sums of money, and some of them were left off without any payment. It all depended
upon the discretion of the Prophet or his rightful successors, keeping in view the safety
of the Muslims and the extent of danger from the enemy. The captives of the very first
Islamic battle, Badr, were freed on ransom (in form of money or work like teaching ten
Muslim children how to read and write), while those of the tribe of Tay were freed without
any ransom.

Even in such enslavement a condition was attached that a mother was not to
be separated from her child, nor brother from brother nor husband from wife nor one member
of a clan from his clan. The Prophet and the first Shi'ite Imam, 'Ali bin Abi Talib,
prescribed severest penalties for anyone who took a free man into slavery: cutting off the
hand of the culprit.

Ameer Ali writes in Mohammedan Law:

The possession of a slave by the Koranic laws was conditional on a
bona-fide war, waged in self-defence, against idolatrous enemies; and it was permitted in
order to serve as a guarantee for the preservation of the lives of the captives.. Mohammad
found the custom existing among the pagan Arabs; he minimised the evil, and at the same
time laid down such strict rules that but for the perversity of his followers, slavery as
a social institution would have ceased to exist with the discontinuance of the wars in
which the Moslem [sic] nation were at first involved.


The mutilation of the human body was also explicitly forbidden by Mohammad, and the
institution which flourished both in the Persian and the Byzantine empires was denounced
in severe terms. Slavery by purchase was unknown during the reigns of the first four
Caliphs, the khulafai-rashidin, 'the legitimate Caliphs' as they are called by the
Sunnis. There is, at least, no authentic record of any slave having been acquired by
purchase during their tenure of office. But with the accession of the usurping house of
Ommeyya [sic] a change came over the spirit of Islam. Mu'awiyah was the first
Muslim sovereign who introduced into the Mohammedan world the practice of acquiring slaves
by purchase. He was also the first to adopt the Byzantine custom of guarding his women by
eunuchs. During the reign of the early Abbasides the Shi'a Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq preached
against slavery, and his views were adopted by the Mu'tazila. Karmath, who flourished in
the ninth century of the Christian era ..seems to have held slavery to be unlawful.href="#r5" name="n5">


Thus we see that the earnest attempt of Islam to stop its followers from
acquiring new slaves was foiled by Banu Umayyah. And I must record to the lasting disgrace
of a large number of Muslims that, in later times, they utterly ignored the precepts of
the Prophet and the injunctions of the Qur'an, and the Arabs too participated with the
European Christians in the abominable slave-trade of East Africa. The West African
slave-trade was totally in the hands of the European Christians.

From these
instances, some of them trivial but deeply ingrained in Arab culture, one can see how
religious laws were enacted for the emancipation of slaves, and the total eradication of
the curse of slavery from the society.

It may well be argued that by prescribing emancipation of slaves as
penance for sins, Islam envisaged continuance of slavery as a permanent institution. This
was not so. For every instance emancipation of a slave was prescribed as a penance, an
alternative was also prescribed - clearly indicating that Islam's objective was in time to
create a society free from this pernicious institution.

Islam also declared that any slave woman who bore a child by her master
could not be sold and, on her master's death, she became automatically a free woman.href="#r8" name="n8"> Moreover; in contrast to all
previous customs, Islam ordained that the child born to a slave woman by her master should
follow the status of the father.
Slaves were given a right to ransom themselves either on payment of an agreed sum or on
completion of service for an agreed period. The legal term for this is mukatabah.
Allah says in the Qur'an:


And those who seek a deed [of liberation] from among those [slaves] whom your right
hands possess, give them the writing (kitab) if you know of goodness in them, and give
them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you.. (Qur'an 2433)


The word kitab in the verse stands for the written contract between
the slave and his master known as "mukatabah - deed of contract". The
significant factor in mukatabah is that when a slave desires to get into such a
mutual written contract, the master should not refuse it. In the verse quoted above, God has made it incumbent upon
Muslims to help the slaves in getting liberated. When a slave wants to get himself freed,
the master has not only to agree to it, but he is also directed to help the slave from his
own wealth, the only
provision being the satisfaction to the effect that the slave would live a respectable
life after earning his freedom. Thus, about 1400 years ago Islam dealt in the most
effective way a death blow to slavery.

It also directed that the slaves seeking freedom should be helped from the
public treasury (baytul mal).
Thus, as a last resort, the Prophet and his rightful successors were to provide ransom for
the slaves out of state coffers. The Qur'an recognises the emancipation of slaves as one
of the permissible expenditures of alms and charity. (See the Qur'an 9:60, 2:177.)

It is worth remembering that a slave automatically became free if the
master cut his ear or blinded his eye.
Also if the slaves, living in an Islamic state, accepted Islam before their masters, then
they would become free automatically. If the slave became blind or handicapped he would
become free. According to
Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him), if a slave is Muslim and has worked for seven
years then he should be set free. Forcing him to work after seven years is not
permissible. It is because
of this tradition (hadith) that the religious scholars are of the opinion that
freeing the slave after seven years is a highly recommended deed of virtue.

In addition to these compulsory ways of emancipation, voluntary
emancipation of slaves was declared as the purest form of charity. Imam 'Ali emancipated
one thousand slaves, purchasing them from his own money. The same was the number of the slaves emancipated by the
seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. The fourth Imam, 'Ali bin al-Husayn, used to emancipate every
slave in his household on the eve of 'Idd (the annual celebration of Muslims). It is
important to note that in all the above cases, the freed slaves were provided with
sufficient means to earn their livelihood respectably.

Islam is the first and the only religion which has prescribed liberation
of slaves as a virtue and a condition of genuine faith in God. No religion other than
Islam has ever preached and enjoined how best we can show our love for fellow human beings
in bondage. In chapter ninety of the Qur'an, liberating a slave has been prescribed as a
cardinal virtue of the faith:


Certainly We have created men [to dwell] in distress. What! Does he
think that no one has power over him? He shall say, "I have wasted much wealth"
Does he think that no one sees him? Have We not given him two eyes, a tongue and two lips,
and We pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways [of good and evil]? But he would not
attempt the uphill road. What will make you comprehend what the uphill road is? It is the
setting free of a slave....


It should be mentioned that the setting free of a slave has been highly
commended. Islam controlled slavery in such a graceful and practical way that it made the
maintaining of a slave a great responsibility for the master, and at the same time it
enjoined so much care and kindness to the slaves that in many cases when the slaves were
set free they did not like to leave their masters.

It is stated in reliable traditions from the Prophet that one should feed
his slave what he himself eats and should dress him with what he himself dresses. In his
famous sermon in 'Arafat, on 9th Dhul-hijjah 9 AH, during his last pilgrimage, the Prophet
said, "...and your slaves, see that you feed them such food as you eat yourselves and
dress him with what you yourself dress. And if they commit a mistake which you are not
inclined to forgive then sell them, for they are the servants of Allah and are not to be
tormented...".

To say that Islam treated slaves on the basis of equality would be an
understatement. Because, in fact, for a number of offences, the punishment meted out to a
slave was half of the punishment meted out to others. This was in contrast to the established practice of every
nation to punish slaves more severely than the free men. Professor Davis writes, "The
criminal law was almost everywhere more severe for slaves than freemen."href="#r20" name="n20">

The Prophet of Islam always exhorted his followers to treat their slaves
like family-members. He and his household always treated their servants as such. A female
servant in the employ of Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter, testifies that her mistress had
made it a rule to share all household drudgery with her and insisted that the servant
should have rest every alternative days when she, Fatimah, would attend to the work. Thus,
there was equal division of work between the mistress of the house and the maid-servant

It is also recorded that once 'Ali and his male servant Qambar went to a
shop where 'Ali selected two garments, one a cheap coarse dress, the other expensive. He
gave the expensive garment to Qambar. Qambar was shocked. "Oh Master!", he said,
"This is the better one and you are the ruler of the Muslims. You should take this
one." 'Ali replied, "No, Qambar, you are young and young man should wear better
clothes." Could such a treatment produce any sense of inferiority in slaves? Masters
were forbidden to exact more work than was just and proper. They were ordered never to
address their male or female slaves by the degrading appellation, but by the more
affectionate name of "my young man', or "my young maid"; it was also
enjoined that all slaves should be dressed, clothed and fed exactly as their masters and
mistresses did. It was also ordered that in no case should the mother be separated from
her child, nor brother from brother, nor father from son, nor husband from wife, nor one
relative from another.

At the end of the 18th century, Mouradgea d'Ohsson (a main source of
information for the Western writers on the Ottoman empire) declared:


"There is perhaps no nation where the captives, the slaves, the very
toilers in the galleys are better provided for or treated with more kindness than among
the Muhammedans."


And not only in ancient civilisations; even in the modern Christian
civilisation the ingrained belief of racial supremacy is still manifesting itself every
day. A. J. Toynbee says in Civilization on Trial:


"The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of
the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it
happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue..." Then he
comments that "in this perilous matter of race feeling it can hardly be denied that
(the triumph of English-speaking peoples) has been a misfortune."name="n24">



. Toynbee, A. J., Mankind and Mother
Earth, (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1976), p.12.

. Ameer Ali, Muhammadan Law, vol.2,
p.31.

. al-Tabataba'i, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn, al-Mizan
fi Tafsir'l Qur'an, vol.16, 2nd ed. (Beirut, 1390/1971), pp. 338-358.

. al-Waqidi, Muhammad bin 'Umar, Kitabul
Maghazi, ed. M. Jones, vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p.129; Ibn
Sa'd, al-Tabaqatul Kabir, Vol. II:1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1912), pp.11, 14.

. Ameer Ali, Muhammadan Law, vol. 2,
pp. 31-2.

. al-Khu'i, Sayyid Abu'l Qasim, Minhajus
Salihin, 3rd ed., vol. II (Najaf, 1974), pp. 328-331; also see the Qur'an, 4:92, 5:89,
58:3.

. Ibid.

. al-'Amili, Hurr, Wasa'ilu 'sh-Shi'ah,
vol.16 (Tehran, 1983), p.128.

. Ibid.

. al-'Amili, op. cit., vol.16,
p.101.

. Ibid, p. 111.

. Ibid, pp. 121-2.

. al-Hilli, Muhaqqiq, Sharaya'ul
Islam, (kitabul-'itq); also see The Encyclopaedia of Islam:, vol. I
(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960), p. 31.

. Ibid, pp. 31-3.

. Ibid, pp. 43-4.

. Ibid, p. 3.

. al-Tabataba'i, op. cit.,
vol.16, pp. 338-358.

. Ibn Sa'd, op. cit., vol. II:1,
p. 133; al-'Amili, op. cit., vol.16, 21.

. al-Amili, op. cit., vol.18, pp.
401f, 527-8, 586-7; vol. 19, pp. 73, 154f.

. Davis, D.B., The Problem of Slavery
in Western Culture (N.Y.: 1969), p. 60.

. Hurgronje C., Mohammedanism,
(N.Y., 1916), p. 128 as quoted by W. Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. IV
(N.Y., 1950), p. 209.

. As quoted in The Encyclopaedia of
Islam, vol.I, p. 35.

. Riviere P.L., Revue Bleaue
(June 1939).

. Toynbee, A.J., Civilization on
Trial (New York, 1948), p. 205.

. Cherfils, Bonaparte et l'Islam
(Paris, 1914), p. (?).

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