You said that Islam took measures to abolish slavery; what are those measures?

The Details of the Question

- Is slavery a crime against humanity?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

First of all, Islam restricted slavery to prisoners of war and did not allow other sources. In addition, it increased the ways for slaves to attain freedom by establishing the habit of voluntary slave emancipation, which was sincerely adopted by Muslims who wanted to attain the consent of Allah, and by stipulating the emancipation of slaves as atonement for certain sins. (al-Maida, 5/89; al-Mujadala, 58/3)

As a practice seen only in Islamic law, the state allocated a certain portion of its revenues to slave emancipation. (at-Tawba, 9/60)

On the other hand, Islam gave slaves a legal status close to that of free people in many respects; and by putting it into practice in social life, Islam provided them with the opportunity to live humanely until they regained their freedom. Encouragement of marriage with slaves and concubines (al-Baqara 2/221; an-Nisa 4/25), prohibition of mistreatment of slaves and making it a religious and legal responsibility to treat them well (an-Nisa 4/36; Musnad, I, 78; IV, 35-36; Bukhari, “Iman”, 22; Muslim, “Ayman”, 29-42) are examples of it.

In order to understand to what extent they reflect an advanced and humane understanding, it will be sufficient to compare the lives of slaves in Islamic society with the lives of slaves in other societies, especially in American society until recently.

After this brief introduction, let us try to answer the questions:

Answer 1:

Slaves and concubines are male and female human beings who are the property of a free person and have no rights of their own. Slavery and concubinage existed long before Islam. The way people viewed slaves and concubines, the rights they enjoyed and the way they were treated varied. When Islam emerged, slavery was widespread in the world and in Arabia. Sudden abolishment of slavery would have caused many social and economic problems because the economic and social life of slave owners was based on the existence of slaves. Slaves, who had never known and enjoyed freedom, would not have known what to do if they had suddenly been freed; perhaps they would have applied to their former masters and ask to become slaves. Therefore, instead of abolishing slavery all at once, Islam first preferred to reform the situation of slaves and grant them certain rights, including the right to work of their own free will and become free by paying for their labor. It also took measures and set rules for the complete abolition of slavery in the course of time.

Some examples of the measures taken to improve the situation of slaves:

Insulting and torturing slaves was forbidden; they were to be fed and clothed in the same way as their owners were fed and clothed; they were not to be forced to do work that they were not able to do or that would be difficult; and if they were, their owners were ordered to help them. These rights were so broad that Cevdet Pasha had to express the following concise sentence: “In Islam, to get a slave is to become a slave.”

For the measures taken to completely abolish slavery over time, it is enough to recall the following:

a) If a slave wants to become free by paying the price - provided that the slave is able to do so - the owner is to accept this offer and allow him to work for this purpose for some days.

b) Allowances were put in the zakah budget for the fee of the emancipation of slaves.

c) If the owner of a female slave sleeps with her and if she gives birth to a child, the child becomes free and the status of the mother changes; and the female slave, who is called “ummul-walad” after that, is no longer bought and sold; she becomes free when her husband dies.

d) The sources of permanent enslavement were eliminated, and it was deemed appropriate to distribute prisoners of war as slaves to the warriors on a temporary basis, mostly due to the necessity of retaliation. Apart from this, enslaving a free person was strictly forbidden; the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Those who do so will find me as a plaintiff against them on the Day of Judgment.” Since it is left to the rulers of the state to decide on the treatment of prisoners of war, if the rulers make a decision such as “freeing them for nothing, releasing them in return for a price and exchanging them with Muslim captives”, there will be no legitimate source of slavery left.

e) In many cases, such as breaking an oath, breaking the fast in Ramadan by sexual contact and killing a man by accident, the slave owner is obliged to free a slave. Great rewards have been promised to those who free slaves when there is no such obligation....

Despite all this, the continuation of slavery in the history of Islam, and the fact that other nations attempted to abolish this affront to humanity before the Muslims, albeit rather late, is the fault of some Muslims themselves; it happened because they did not understand their religion well, were not meticulous in realizing the purpose of Allah and His Messenger, and preferred the benefits of the world to those of the hereafter. (Hayrettin Karaman, Kölelik Meselesi)

Why did Islam not abolish slavery all of a sudden?

Why did Islamic law not abolish slavery all of a sudden though it aimed to abolish slavery gradually with such institutions? The Prophet (pbuh) gives an answer to the question that is very important from a socio-economic point of view: As it is known, the verse stipulates the following condition for the contract of emancipation: “If you know that it is good for them”. The Prophet (pbuh) explains this goodness with the following statement:

“That is, if they have a skill (profession) and are able to provide for themselves and have the strength to manage life on their own, make a contract. Otherwise, do not let them loose on people like dogs of prey.”

In other words, it is not always good to free slaves whether through a contract of emancipation or by other means. Imagine that fifty percent of the members of a society are slaves. Imagine that they were all freed at once and set loose on the streets. The life of society would be paralyzed. If you suddenly released people who were accustomed to working for others for years, maybe centuries, and who never tried independent life, it would mean leading those people to disaster both socially and economically. That is one of the most important reasons for the gradual abolition of slavery. (1)

Why did Islam not ban slavery and abolish it completely?

Since Islam found slavery to be established and accepted as natural in ancient civilizations and powerful contemporary states, it chose not to abolish it with a unilateral and decisive decision; it chose to form an environment that would allow it to disappear over time. There are three main reasons for it:

1. The most important and continuous source of slavery is the prisoners of war. The first of the common ways of eliminating prisoners of war is to kill them. This method, which has been used very frequently in every era and is still practiced today, has always disturbed human conscience and has not provided any benefit to the victors other than the satisfaction of their revenge feelings. The second is the release of prisoners of war through ransom or prisoner exchange.

However, this solution is also blocked in cases in which the defeated party is unable to pay ransom or does not have prisoners to exchange, or in which the victor is unwilling to take such a path that could result in strengthening the defeated party militarily. The release of prisoners of war gratuitously is a very humanitarian act, but it was rarely practiced, especially in the past.

The third way to eliminate prisoners of war is to keep them in a separate status from free people, that is, to use them as slaves.

Therefore, when it is not possible to release prisoners of war through ransom or gratuitously, one of these two ways remains: To be killed or to live as slaves.

Accordingly, slavery appears as an alternative to death. As a matter of fact, in today’s world, where slavery is prohibited, in cases where prisoners of war are not released, the fate awaiting them has often consisted of being killed individually or collectively in concentration camps. The principles developed today in international law regarding the treatment of prisoners of war are not always carried out in practice to the same extent. Therefore, Islam did not abolish slavery completely, but left the door open for it in practice, as it is usually an alternative to death. However, there is no rule in Islamic law that prisoners of war must be converted into slaves; they can be freed mutually or gratuitously depending on the circumstances. According to Islam, what is essential for human beings is freedom, not slavery. (2)

2. Knowing that the captured prisoners of war will be used as slaves prevents unnecessary bloodshed during the war to a certain extent, and it also prevents the massacre of prisoners after the end of the war because if the victorious soldier kills captives in the meantime, it will only result in reducing his share of the booty.

3. It is clear that abolishing slavery by a unilateral decision would have been to the detriment of the Muslim community at that time because freeing the captives in the hands of the Islamic state would have caused it to weaken while non-Muslim states practiced slavery and enslaved the Muslim captives they had.

Therefore, Islam did not abolish slavery, but it took successful steps to minimize its sources through various measures, to reduce the existing slaves gradually, to ensure that they were treated humanely when they were slaves, and finally to reintroduce them to humanity as free people.

What did Islam introduce as new aspects of slavery? What are its differences from other systems?

Islam transformed the institution of slavery, which existed in previous legal systems, into a civilized form in two respects:

The first: It decreased the reasons for slavery. It reduced the reasons for slavery from nine or ten, especially in Roman and similar legal systems, to two. Besides, it also took various measures to eliminate this institution, which is contrary to the nature of humanity. Examples of them include encouraging the freeing of slaves, giving slaves the opportunity to be freed on condition that they pay the price (mukataba), recommending zakah to be given to slaves in order to save them from slavery, and stipulating the freeing of slaves as the first alternative to the atonement (kaffarah) imposed as a religious sanction for some sins such as zihar, breaking oaths and similar crimes.

The second: The second way of Islam’s trying to civilize slavery is through insisting that slaves should be treated well within the legitimate framework. While some Muslims are killed by people who claim to be civilized just because they are Muslims even today and even their basic rights and freedoms are deemed too much for them, Islam has accepted and protected slaves as members of the family they are in. In fact, according to the court decisions found in the Ottoman archives, Christian slaves swore an oath in accordance with their religious beliefs; for example, saying, “I swear by God, who revealed the Bible to Jesus Christ...” is the clearest evidence of what we have mentioned.

In that case, we can describe the institution of slavery in Islamic law as a stage of transition from captivity and slavery to freedom. We will explain in detail how it worked a little later. When the religion of Islam emerged, slavery was a social phenomenon that continued horribly. By taking measures as we have explained above, Islamic Law made slavery an exceptional rather than a regular institution.

In a situation where nearly half of the society were slaves, it was socially and economically impossible to abolish the institution of slavery all of a sudden both for the slave owners and for the slaves who had always taken refuge with a master. It is also against the spirit of guidance for a prophet, whose goal is to save people from unbelief, to suddenly abolish this institution with which the members of the society had become accustomed for years, and with which they had been united morally and in terms of life. Therefore, Islam did not abolish the institution of slavery immediately. However, Islam did not leave it as it was. In order to abolish it gradually, it first encouraged people to dry up the source of slavery, to reduce its traces, and to treat slaves as normal human beings, contrary to the provisions in force at the time. I think it would be appropriate to quote the following observations of Gustav Lebon at this point:

“When the word slavery is spoken to a European who reads American novels and tales of the last thirty years, he pictures poor people shackled in iron chains being whipped. People who are not even fed enough and made to live in shabby, dingy cabins. It does not concern me whether the European slaves face these things or not, but there is no doubt the picture of a slave in Islam is absolutely different from the picture of the European slave.”

In other words, what we want to say with this second point is this: The institution of slavery and concubinage in Islam is not like the slavery known in the world of Christianity, and it is not as people who do not know Islam describe it. (3)

Answer 2:

It is necessary to evaluate everything in its own time. There are many things that were regarded as good at one time but as bad later. It can also be the other way around. Therefore, the institution of slavery, which preceded Islam by thousands of years, was never perceived as a crime against humanity in Islam. A slave was perceived as a servant, a wage earner. However, in pre-Islamic times, this institution was humiliated by unscrupulous people and a slave was virtually treated as an outcast inhumanely.

Islam has treated this institution humanely and restored it to a position where it can live humanely within the humanity.

According to this new status, which had never been seen before:

- No master is more valuable in the eye of Allah than his slave, except for virtue and piety. On the contrary, the slave who is more pious and virtuous is more valuable than his master in the eye of Allah.

- The fact that the Prophet (pbuh) appointed his freed slave Zayd and his son Usama as commanders over his Companions is an indication of the level this institution has reached - thanks to Islam.

- This positive practice of Islam, which encourages the freeing of slaves at every opportunity and which prescribes the liberation of slaves as an atonement for sins, is indeed worthy of applause.

- The fact that Muslim masters, in line with the recommendations of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), ate together with their slaves, clothed them with what they wore, made them eat and drink what they ate and drank, and did not expect any service from them beyond their abilities, are innovations unprecedented in the history of mankind.

- If the fact that bosses employ workers for very little wages or that a civil servant cannot go beyond the orders of his superior today is a crime against humanity, then we can call it a crime against humanity at that time. Do not misunderstand it; we do not equate them with slaves. Our intention is to draw attention to the fact that despite many years that passed, a status close to it can still be considered as such, depending on the perception. Trade unions have only recently emerged. Until now, the bosses - either individuals or corporations - gave whatever they wanted for a meager livelihood and the worker had no right to object. However, no one called it a crime against humanity. It is like that...

“If any slave runs away from his master, he is regarded as an unbeliever until he returns to his master.” (Muslim, Iman, 122).

Hadiths like that are statements intended to protect social order. When workers and civil servants do not fulfill their duties today, the state and society may be in a state of anarchy; similarly, certain drastic measures had to be taken in order to prevent the slaves, who were in a different status as workers and civil servants at that time, from leaving their jobs and running away.

However, the concept of unbelief used in this and similar hadiths has been interpreted in a number of ways:

- He who does so is regarded to have committed deeds like the deeds of the people of ignorance and unbelievers.

He who does so is regarded to have acted unthankfully, which means being ungrateful to his benefactor.

- It is an expression intended to draw attention to the fact that “In every sin is a path leading to unbelief.” (cf. Nawawi, the explanation of the hadith in question)

Answer 3:

In the status of slavery, the slave himself is the property of his master. Therefore, all his earnings are recorded in his master’s account. We think it is more useful to talk about modern slavery institutions rather than this institution, which does not exist today. Islam has not contributed anything to the continuation of the institution of slavery other than the good things like the positive positions it introduced to slavery.

Footnotes:

1) The Quran, the chapter of an-Nisa, Verse, 3; Qurtubi, Muhammad bin Ahmad, al-Jami’ li Ahkamil-Quran, Beirut 1965, Vol. V, pp. 17-18; Qasani, Badayi’us-Sanayi’, Vol. IV, p. 134; Kâmil Miras, Sahîh-i Buhâri Muhtasar-ı Tecrid-i Sarih Tercemesi ve Şerhi I-XIII, 3rd Imp. Ankara, 1973-1975, Vol. VII, pp. 465-467.
2) Ibn Qudama, al-Mughni, VI, 112.
3)Zarqa, Mustafa Ahmad, al-Fiqhul-Islami Fi Thawbihil-Jadid, Damascus 1967-1968, Vol. I, p. 44;  from Gustav Lebon, The Civilization of the Arabs, quoted by Ahmed Şefik Beğ, Ar-Riqqu Fil-Islam, Istanbul 1314, pp. 50-51.

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