Muhammad and slavery

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Photo ReportingMuhammad and slavery

The Prophet Muhammad did not try to abolish slavery, and bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves himself. But he insisted that slave owners treat their slaves well and stressed the virtue of freeing slaves.

There are two different ways of interpreting this:

some modern writers believe that Muhammad intended his teachings to lead to the gradual end of slavery by limiting opportunities to acquire new slaves and allowing existing slaves to become free. This idea doesn't appear in early writings.

Others writers argue that by regulating slavery the Prophet gave his authority to its continued existence, and that by having slaves himself he showed his approval

Muhammad treated slaves as human beings and clearly held some in the highest esteem.

For example, he personally ensured the freedom of Bilal, an African slave who had converted to Islam. Bilal was chosen as the first muezzin of Islam because of his beautiful voice. A muezzin is the person who calls the community to the daily prayers, and is a position of great prominence and responsibility.

Zayd was a young boy who had grown up in the household of the Prophet as a slave, and remained with the household, almost as an adopted son, even after he was freed. He was amongst the first four people to adopt Islam. Indeed when Zayd's father (a wealthy nobleman) tracked his son down and offered to buy his freedom from Muhammad, Muhammad told Zayd that he was free to go with his father with no money changing hands, and to his father's astonishment Zayd chose to stay with Muhammad.

The Prophet also married a Coptic Christian slave girl.

In his lifetime the Prophet introduced the following rules about slavery:

Stated that freeing slaves was the act that God found most acceptable

Zakat (charity - the third Pillar of Islam) was often used by the state to free slaves

Stated that freeing a slave was the appropriate way to gain forgiveness for certain wrongs

Ordered that those who committed certain wrongs should be penalised by having to free their slaves

Stated that slaves should be allowed to buy their freedom, and if necessary should be given the opportunity to earn money, or be lent money by the state, in order to do so

Allowed slaves to be freed in certain circumstances

Stated that slaves' contracts should be interpreted in favour of the slaves

Stated that the duty of kindness towards slaves was the same of that towards family, neighbours and others

Stated that when a slave owner had a child with a female slave, the child should be freed and could inherit from their father like any other child (as in the case of Ibrahim)

There are a number of hadith that show that the Prophet treated slaves well and expected others to do the same...

" He will not enter Paradise who behaveth ill to his slaves. The Companions said, 'O Apostle of God! have you not told us, that there will be a great many slaves and orphans amongst your disciples?' He said, 'Yes; then be kind to them as to your own children, and give them to eat what you eat yourselves. The slaves that say their prayers are your brothers.

Be kind to slaves as to your own children...and those that say their prayers are your brethren.

They (slaves or servants) are your brothers, and Allah has put them under your command. So the one under whose hand Allah has put his brother, should feed him of what he eats, and give him dresses of what he wears, and should not ask him to do a thing beyond his capacity. And if at all he asks him to do a hard task, he should help him therein.'

'There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgement. Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats this money'.

al-Bukhari and Ibn Majjah

"Narrated Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari: "The Prophet said, 'Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sick and release (set free) the one in captivity (by paying his ransom).'"


Compared to the Atlantic slave trade

Slavery in Muslim cultures and the Atlantic slave trade

Slavery in Muslim history lasted much longer than the Atlantic slave trade - although slavery had existed in many cultures long before Islam.

The Muslim slave trade from Africa seems to have enslaved roughly similar numbers (estimates vary between 11 and 14 million Africans) to the Atlantic slave trade, and the transportation conditions endured by victims of the Eastern trade were probably just as horrible in their own way as those of the Atlantic slave trade.

One poignant fact is that when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished the Eastern trade expanded, suggesting that for some Africans the abolition of the Atlantic trade didn't lead to freedom, but merely changed their slave destination.

Slavery played a significant part in the history of Muslim civilisation, but it was a form of slavery that was inherently different from the 'slave trade' in that the Muslim concept of slavery regarded those enslaved as people who had some, albeit fewer, human rights that must be respected.

"What was notably different from the slavery of the western world, however, was the degree to which they [slaves] were protected by Muslim law. When the law was observed, their treatment was good. They might expect to marry and have families of their own, and they had a good chance of being freed. There were also built in avenues of escape.

Gwyn Campbell; Frank Cass, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, 2004

But even though slavery under Islam could be significantly less harsh that that of the Atlantic slave trade, both involved serious breaches of human rights and restricted liberty. However well they were treated the slaves still had restricted freedom, and when the law was not obeyed their lives could be very unpleasant.

"The relationship between slave and master in Islam is a very different relationship from that between the American plantation labourer and owner. It was a much more personalized relationship and relatively benevolent. Everything here is relative -- being a slave is being a slave and it shouldn't be romanticized.

Ronald Segal, interview with Suzy Hansen in Salon magazine, 2001

Here are some of the main differences between Muslim slavery and the Atlantic slave trade:

The Atlantic trade lasted from the 15th to 19th centuries, the Eastern trade from the 7th or 9th century to the 20th

Under Islam slaves were considered people first, and then property. In the Atlantic trade slaves were considered property not people, and often just regarded as units of productive labour

Islamic law laid down considerable protection for slaves; those taken for the Atlantic trade had very little protection

Islamic law only permitted those conquered in legitimate warfare to be enslaved, all other methods being illegal - although this was often ignored - whereas the Atlantic trade enslaved anyone who had commercial value

In Islam, slave-owners were forbidden to take young children from their mothers, something common in the Atlantic trade

The owner-slave relationship could be kinder in Islam than in the Atlantic trade, and often more personal

Islam recommends the freeing of slaves in itself as a 'good' religious act and says that slaves who convert to Islam should be freed. Zakat (the requirement for charity) was used by Muslim states to free slaves. There were many other avenues whereby a slave could be freed, for example as expiation for irregularities in other religious rituals; as a result many more slaves were freed than in the Atlantic trade

Under Islamic law a slave could take his/her master to the Islamic courts to address a grievance, and the judge had the right to grant freedom against the master's wishes and/or other compensations; there was no such protection for slaves taken by the Atlantic trade

Islam permitted slaves to attain high office; those taken for the Atlantic trade stayed at the bottom of society

In the Atlantic trade there were two males to every female; in the Islamic trade, there were two females to every male

Islam permitted women to be enslaved for sexual purposes, although not for prostitution Africans were enslaved in the Atlantic trade to work on an industrial scale in agricultural labour; in the Islamic trade they had a far wider variety of roles

The Atlantic trade only involved black Africans; Muslim slavery involved many racial groups

Slavery in the Atlantic trade was highly racist, something prohibited in Islam where there was much less institutionalised racism. Both masters and slaves had a wide range of colours and backgrounds; the result is that former slaves became absorbed into the Islamic world, while former slaves remained a discriminated-against underclass in the USA until comparatively recently

"The nature of the Atlantic trade and therefore the survival of racism in the West has been one of segregation. There wasn't this separation in Islam. Whites didn't push blacks off the pavement. They didn't forbid restaurants to serve them. I don't think that there's any disputing that slavery was a more benevolent institution in Islam than it was in the West.

Ronald Segal, interviewed in Chicago Sun-Times, 17/02/2002

Source: BBC



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