Does Islam allow slavery?
I heard that Prophet Mohammad PBUH had slaves and it is allowed to have slaves in Islam. Please clarify, thank you very much.
Submitted by on Fri, 05/12/2014 - 14:23
Dear Brother / Sister,
The prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was given many slaves for many reasons such as gift, booty etc. However, he freed all of these slaves. When the prophet died, he didn't have any slaves.
In our religion, freeing slaves has been accepted as a very good deed and regarded the same as worshipping. There are a lot of Hadiths which encourage it to be done. One of those hadiths is as follows:
"Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (Hell) Fire as he has freed the body-parts of the slave." Muslim, Itq: 21; Bıı/tnn , Itq: 1.
The status of slavery and female slavery was not something that Islam introduced but something that Islam improved first and aimed to abolish it completely in the course of time; when all of the nations in the world attained the same point, slavery disappeared. However, we should not forget that there are still hungry, poor, homeless and weak people in many places in the world; some of them are used like former slaves and female slaves; poverty and freedom do not exist together; necessities enslave man. Therefore, humanity fulfilled only a small part of what he needed to do by abolishing slavery.
The target of Islam is freedom and justice that man deserves all over the world. Humanity is responsible and will be regarded as guilty unless it attains these two targets in a new world order; those who do not believe in religion should have on their conscience the blood and tears that are shed unjustly and their suffering; those who believe in religion should not forget that Allah will question them because of it.
There is no slavery legally. In this sense, this situation can not be valid in today’s world. That is, someone cannot say that “this man is my slave”.
Every man has been created as free. He worships only Allah. Freedom is the fundamental right and feature of a man. However, man’s right of freedom that he has had by birth has been taken from him throughout the history. As a result of many wars and raids, people had been deprived from their freedom, bought and sold like goods. Especially the law of Rome and the philosophy of Greeks caused the slavery to be seen as a necessity and people were bought and sold in the market like commercial goods.
On the other hand, every nation found it necessary to maintain the institution of slavery in order to weaken their enemies, shrink their population, and increase their own power. Before Islam, slavery was very common among Arabs. Plundering and fights among tribes went on without interruption. Men, women, and children taken captive by them were made into slaves. The slavery was regarded as inferior to being an animal by Arabs in the Jahilliyyah period. Therefore, they made them work in very hard jobs, and tortured and oppressed them. Sometimes, they left them to die not by giving them any food and sometimes they killed them for nothing. They used women as concubines. As a matter of fact, it was encouraged to have slaves. Just for this reason, they made attacks on the other tribes and took women captives by killing men. Islam arose in such a time. As it was not possible to completely remove such an issue which was the problem of the humanity in that period, the atmosphere that time was not suitable for it. The removal of the institution of slavery could have caused some difficulties for the new-founded Islamic State.
As it is the case in every issue, the understanding of war (Jihad) of our religion is different from the understanding of war of the other nations. The aim of Jihad is not to shed blood, tyrannize, or conquer some lands aimlessly; its aim is to inform people about Allah’s laws, prevent attacks against Islam, and direct people to the true path and the happiness in both worlds. For this reason, it was forbidden by our Prophet to kill children and women even if they were enemies unless they actually attacked muslims.1 However, it was also clear enough that freeing them would pose a danger to the new-founded Islamic State. Since their population would increase within a few years, it would be possible for them to pose a danger to Muslims. In such an atmosphere, it was obligatory to take them captives.
On the other hand, the other side was always taking Muslims captive. For the balance, Muslims needed to take captives from them. In this way, both the balance was constructed and the other side was weakened. Moreover, captive Muslims were saved from slavery by exchanging them with captives of the enemies. Besides, freeing captives on ransom financed the spreading of Islam.
As it is seen, Islam did not, for the first time, invent the slavery and making women into slaves. Because of some drawbacks, Islam could not eliminate it completely but tried to remove it step by step. Slaves who were inhumanly tortured and exploited in many ways in every period of history felt relieved thanks to Islam. Our religion made the institution of slavery humane by destroying the wild and cruel face of it. Slaves have been given many human rights and they were taken under protection by law.
There is a chapter telling about those rights under the title of “freeing slaves” in Hadith and Fiqh books.
In our religion a strong affection and protection had been shown towards people deprived of their freedom and some laws were made in order to make people losing their freedom be free again. For example, a Muslim who commits a sin must make atonement for it. Those who break Ramadan fast, kill someone by accident, or do not keep their promises must make atonement. The atonement is generally freeing male and female slaves. There are many verses regarding the issue.
It should not be forgotten that slaves and concubines who lose their freedom as a result of wars are human beings though they have a different status. For this reason, in our religion, freeing slaves has been accepted as a very good deed and regarded the same as worshipping. There are a lot of Hadiths which encourage it to be done. One of those hadiths is as follows:
"Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (Hell) Fire as he has freed the body-parts of the slave."2
Another way of freeing a slave is “a slave’s making a contract of emancipation with his master in return for a payment” (mukatabah). The master assesses a certain amount of money for the slave, and the slave works to earn that money and then pays it to free. Allah has ordered Muslims to do it and said the following:
“Those your right hand owns who seek their freedom, make a contract with them accordingly if you know some good in them, and give them from the wealth of Allah that He has given you.” 3
On the other hand, it has been said that giving sadaqa (alms) to such a person who seeks his freedom is more precious than the other kinds of sadaqa.
On the other hand, our religion lays the equal life and livelihood down as a condition between the slave and the master. It has been recommended that slave and master should eat together and the slave should be seen as a member of the family. According to our religion, the master should make the slave eat what he himself eats and make him wear the same kinds of clothes as he wears. The master should not hurt his slave..4
It is not suitable to call a slave in a hurtful way. It has been recommended that the master should call his slave as “ son”, “daughter” not as “slave” or “concubine”. 5
Since male and female slaves are deprived of education, teaching them good manners and improving their education are among the duties of the master.
As it is seen, not to set a slave free or to have a slave under those conditions entails a big responsibility. Ahmad Cevdet Pasha has expressed the difficulty of having a slave with this concise sentence: “In Islam, having a slave is being a slave."
Yes, it can be seen how big a reform Islam has realized regarding the issue when one thinks that it has improved the institution of slavery and defended slaves by making a lot of laws. If we remember the fact that the West, which teaches the lesson of civilization to the world, exploited people especially the Islamic World by the idea of invasion and colonialism, and that even today the United states and the Republic of South Africa treat the black people as second class citizens, then can one not understand which nation made slavery keep on? The oppression and torture Russia inflicted on people in the Iron Curtain countries made people be tired of living. No one can deny that Russia expelled people from their homes and tortured them inhumanely in the camps of Siberia.
It is clear enough that the institution of slavery was not invented by Islam and on the contrary Islam improved it a lot. In the light of that knowledge, it can easily be understood that Islam has brought the real freedom and the right path to the mankind.
Female slaves and their position
Women and girls taken captive by the enemy during the war were taken as female slaves. Because they were regarded as the spoils by the law, they were given, by the Islamic State, to ghazis (warriors) who needed a servant. They were bought and sold as if they were commercial goods unless they were set free. After that moment, the female slaves were accepted and treated as a member and part of family. The master who had a female slave could employ her in the daily and personal works of him and if he wished, he could have a sexual relationship with her. Although it seems unusual at first sight, it was accepted normal in the historical conditions of that time. In fact, there is a permission about it in the Quran. In the Surah of Al-Mu’minun the permission is expressed as follows:
“Except from their wives or (the captives and slaves) that their right hands possess, for then, they are free from blame.”10
There are two important advantages of, for the benefit of female slave, that the master sexually has a relationship with his female slave. The first and most important one is that those women whose husbands died at war can be prevented from being neglected. Otherwise, it would be unavoidable that they would prostitute themselves. In this way, she would be dependent on her master’s home.
The other advantage: if she gave birth to a child from her master, she would be called “ummul walad” (the mother of the child). That child from the female slave is considered as free. Her mother becomes free and does not pass to the heirs by inheritance when her master dies. If she did not have the child or if her master did not set her free, like the other goods, the female slave would pass to the heirs by inheritance.
It was not obligatory that the master and female slave should be wife and husband. The master can employ her only as maidservant. If husband of the female slave was among the captives, their marriage will continue; then it is not religiously permissible to have a sexual intercourse with the female slave. Even if their masters are different, the master cannot sexually benefit from that female slave. 6
Along with those matters, Islam encouraged people (masters) to marry the male and female slaves with each other. In the Surah of an-Nur the following is stated:
And marry those among you who are single (i.e. a man who has no wife and the woman who has no husband) and (also marry) the Sâlihûn (pious, fit and capable ones) of your (male) slaves and maid-servants (female slaves). If they be poor, Allah will enrich them out of His Bounty. 7 Thus, slaves can be made equal to some extent. Islam always recommends masters to set slaves free and encourages them to get married with female slaves. In a Hadith, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) explains the issue as follows:
"He who has a slave-girl and educates and treats her nicely and then manumits and marries her will get a double reward."8
Paying attention to those explanations, one can understand how well Islam has defended the rights of male and female slaves. A female slave was not seen just as a human whose womanhood would be exploited. She, at the same time, was a member and part of the family. She was the most responsible woman at home after her mistress.
A man could liberate his female slave by setting her free; he could also give her to someone as a present. The two female slaves that Muqawqis, the Emperor of Egypt, sent to the Prophet (pbuh) were like that. Those two female slaves had become Muslims by changing their religion on the way to Makkah. As it is known, the Prophet (pbuh) got married to one of those female slaves, Maria. Then she gave birth to Abraham. After Abraham was born, the Prophet set Maria free. Thus, she was in a position that the other wives of the Prophet desired to be in her place. The Prophet married the other female slave called Shirin with his poet, Hassan Bin Sabit.
Today a Muslim cannot keep a woman as a female slave from non-Muslim countries referring to the example above because the institution of slavery which was a historical event is not present any more in today’s world. On the other hand, the female slave given as a present to our Prophet was also a female slave even with Muqawqis. Muqawqis had not sent a woman from his own nation as a present.
1. Muslim, Jihad: 24; Ibn Majah, Jihad: 30.
2. Muslim, Itq: 21; Bıı/tnn , Itq: 1.
3. The Surah of an-Nur, 33.
4. Bukhari, Itq: 15.
5. ibid 16.
6. Istılâhat-ı Fıkhiyye Kamusu, 3:402.
7. The Surah of an-Nur, 32.
8. Bukhari, Itk: 15.
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