Among many other misconceptions about Islam is the notion that it gives sanction to slavery and permits its followers to enslave prisoners of war, particularly women and establish extra-marital relations with them. The fact is that Islam has not the slightest link with slavery and concubinage. On the contrary, it completely forbids these practices. It is quite outrageous to associate such an atrocious thing with a religion revealed to upgrade humanity.
The point which needs to be appreciated and which, perhaps, is the real cause of the misconception is that Islam had adopted a gradual process to abolish the institution of slavery because of the social conditions prevalent in Arabia at that time. It must be kept in mind that slavery was an integral part of pre-Islamic Arab society. There were scores of slave men and women in almost every house. This was largely due to two reasons: First, during those times, the standard practice of dispensing with prisoners of war was to distribute them as slaves among the army which captured them. Second, there were extensive slave markets in Arabia during that period where men and women of all ages were sold like commodities.
In those circumstances where slavery had become an essential constituent of the Arab society, Islam adopted a gradual way to eliminate it. An immediate order of prohibition would have created immense social and economic problems. It would have become impossible for the society to cater for the needs of a large army of slaves who were, otherwise, dependent on various families. Also, the national treasury was in no position to provide for them all on a permanent basis. A large number among them were old and incapable of supporting themselves. The only alternative left for them, if they were instantly freed, would have been to turn to beggary and become an economic burden on society. The question of slave girls and women was even more critical keeping in view their own low moral standards. Freeing them, all of a sudden, would have only resulted in a tremendous increase in brothels.
Perhaps, the reason behind this gradual eradication can be understood better if one considers the position which interest occupies in the economy of many Muslim countries today. No one can refute that the economies of these countries are interest-oriented. How the parasite of interest has crippled their national economies is apparent to every keen eye. However, there is no denying the fact that without it, their economic systems cannot sustain itself. Every reasonable person will acknowledge that today if a government wishes to rid the economy of this menace then, in spite of its utter prohibition in Islam, it will have to adopt a gradual methodology. During this interim period interest-based deals will have to be tolerated and temporary laws will have to be enacted to handle them, just as the Qur’ānhad given certain provisional directives about slaves during the interim period of their gradual eradication. An alternative economic framework will have to be steadily incorporated in place of the existing one. A sudden abolition, without another parallel base, will only hasten the total collapse of the economic system which, of course, will be disastrous for that country.
To avert a similar disaster and to ward off a similar catastrophe, fourteen hundred years ago, Islam had adopted a progressive and a gradual scheme to do away with the inhuman institution of slavery.
Various directives were given at various stages because of which it gradually became possible for this evil to be eradicated from the society. These are summarized below:
1. In the very beginning of its revelation, the Qur’ān regarded emancipation of slaves as a great virtue, and urged people in a very effective way to do so. The tremendous appeal found in the words it adopted فَكُّ رَقَبَة(release of necks) can be well appreciated by a person who has a flair for the language. It is evident from the context of such expressions – wherever they are found in the Qur’ān – that it has regarded this virtue to be the first as well as the greatest step in pleasing God.
In a similar manner, the Prophet (sws) also urged Muslims to liberate humanity from the yoke of slavery in the following words: “whoever liberated a Muslim slave, the Almighty in return for every limb of that slave would shield every limb of that person from Hell.”
2. People were urged that until they free their slaves, they should treat them with kindness. The way their masters had total and unchecked control on them in the age of jahiliyyah was put to an end. They were told that slaves were human beings too, and no one should in any way violate the rights they possess as human beings.
Abū Hurayrah (rta) narrated from the Prophet (sws): “a slave has a right to food and clothing, and he shall not be asked to carry out an errand that is beyond him.”
Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī(rta) narrates from the Prophet (sws): “They are your brothers. The Almighty has made them subservient to you. So whatever you eat, feed them with it, whatever you wear, clothe them with it and never ask them to do something which is beyond them and if there is such a task, then help them out with it.”
Ibn ‘Umar (rta) narrates from the Prophet (sws): “whoever slapped a slave or beat him up should atone this sin by liberating him.”
Abū Mas‘ūd (rta) says: “Once when I was beating my slave I heard a voice from behind me: ‘O Abū Mas‘ūd! You should know that the Almighty has more power over you.’ When I turned back, I found that it was the Prophet. I immediately remarked: ‘O Messenger of God! I liberate him for the sake of God.’ The Prophet said: ‘Had you not done this, you would have been given the punishment of the Fire.’”
Ibn ‘Umar (rta) narrates that once a person came to the Prophet (sws) and asked: “How many times should we forgive our servant?” [At this], the Prophet kept quiet. He asked again and the Prophet again kept silent. Upon being asked the third time, he answered: “seventy times a day.”
3. In cases of un-intentional murder, zihār, and other similar offences, liberating a slave was regarded as their atonement and sadaqah.
4. It was directed to marry off slave-men and slave-women who were capable of marriage so that they could become equivalent in status – both morally and socially – to other members of the society.
5. If a person were to marry a slave-woman of someone, great care was exercised since this could result in a clash between ownership and conjugal rights. However, such people were told that if they did not have the means to marry free-women, they could marry, with the permission of their masters, slave-women who were Muslims and were also kept chaste. In such marriages, they must pay their dowers so that this could bring them gradually equal in status to free-women. The Qur’ān says:
وَمَنْ لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ مِنْكُمْ طَوْلًا أَنْ يَنكِحَ الْمُحْصَنَاتِ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ فَمِنْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ مِنْ فَتَيَاتِكُمْ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِإِيمَانِكُمْ بَعْضُكُمْ مِنْ بَعْضٍ فَانكِحُوهُنَّ بِإِذْنِ أهْلِهِنَّ وَآتُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ مُحْصَنَاتٍ غَيْرَ مُسَافِحَاتٍ وَلَا مُتَّخِذَاتِ أَخْدَانٍ …ذَلِكَ لِمَنْ خَشِيَ الْعَنَتَ مِنْكُمْ وَأَنْ تَصْبِرُوا خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ(25:4)
And if any of you does not have the means wherewith to wed free believing women, he may wed believing girls from among those whom you own: and Allah has full knowledge about your faith. You are one from another: so wed them with the permission of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to the norms; [the only condition is that] they should be kept chaste, neither being lustful, nor taking paramours … This permission is for those among you who fear sin; but it is better for you that you practice self-restraint. And Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most-Merciful. (4:25)
6. In the heads of zakāh, a specific head الرِّقَاب فِى(for [freeing] necks) was instituted so that the campaign of slave emancipation could receive impetus from the public treasury.
7. Fornication was regarded as an offence as a result of which prostitution centres that were operated by people on the basis of their slave-women were shut down automatically, and if someone tried to go on secretly running this business, he was given exemplary punishment.
8. People were told that they were all slaves of Allah and so instead of using the words عَبْد(slave-man) and اَمَة(slave-woman), the words used should be فَتَى(boy/man) and فَتَاة(girl/woman) so that the psyche about them should change and a change is brought about in age old concepts.
9. A big source of the institution of slavery at the advent of the last Prophet (sws) was the prisoners of war. When such a situation arose for the Muslims, the Qur’ān emphasized that they cannot be kept as slaves and must be kept as prisoners of war. After this, if they were to be released, then there were two possibilities: they could be freed either by accepting ransom or as a favour by not taking any ransom money. No other option was available to the Muslims.
10. Finally the following directive was given:
وَالَّذِينَ يَبْتَغُونَ الْكِتَابَ مِمَّا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ فَكَاتِبُوهُمْ إِنْ عَلِمْتُمْ فِيهِمْ خَيْرًا وَآتُوهُمْ مِنْ مَالِ اللَّهِ الَّذِي آتَاكُمْ (24 :33)
And thoseof your slaves who ask for mukātabat, give it to them if you know any good in them and [for this] give them out of the wealth which Allah has given to you. (24:33)
The above quoted verse of Sūrah Nūrmentions the directive of mukātabat. It is a term which means that a slave make a contract with his master according to which he would be required to pay a certain sum of money in a specific time period or would carry out a specific service for his master; once he successfully fulfils either of these two options, he would stand liberated. In the above quoted verse, the Almighty has directed the Muslims to necessarily accept this contract made by a slave if he wants to make it and has the required ability to become financially independent. It is further stated that a Muslim government should spend money from the public treasury, which here is called the treasury of God, in helping such slaves. It is evident from the words of the verse that just as this right of mukātabat was granted to slave-men, it was also granted to slave-women. This, in other words, was in fact a declaration that slaves could now be masters of their destiny and could liberate themselves whenever they wanted.