A few Western writers claim that Islam is based on slavery. And they support their claim by referring to Arabs who carried on the slave trade. In fact, they were the few opportunists taking advantage of a system that started long before Islam came on the scene - a system that Islam was geared to eradicate.
Why islam didn’t abolish the institution of slavery
It must be kept in mind that slavery was an integral part of the pre-Islamic Arab society. There were scores of slave men and women in almost every house. This was largely due to two reasons:
A)During those times, the standard practice of dispensing with prisoners of war was to distribute them among the army which captured them.
B)There were extensive slave markets in Arabia in that period where free as well as men and women of all ages were sold like commodities.
In these circumstances, in which 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 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 the 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.
How Islam gradually abolish the 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. Prophet Muhammad urged Muslims to liberate slaves
“Whoever liberated a Muslim slave, the Almighty in return for every limb of that slave would shield every limb of that person from Hell.”[Muslim, No: 1509. ]
2. People were urged that until they free their slaves they should treat them with kindness.
“Slaves have a right to food and clothing and he shall not be asked to carry out an errand that is beyond him.”[Sahih Muslim, No: 1662. ]
“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.” [Sahih Muslim, No: 1661.]
“Whoever slapped a slave or beat him up should atone this sin by liberating him.” [Muslim, No: 1657.]
3. In cases of un-intentional murder, zihar, and other similar offences, liberating a slave was regarded as their atonement and sadqah.[The Qur’an, 4:92, 58:85, 5:89]
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.[The Qur’an, 24:32-33]
5. Those muslims who were unable to marry free women because of financial problem were given permission to marry their slave women with her consent so that when she give birth to the child that child will be free and after the husband’s death she will also be free woman
6. In the heads of zakah, a specific head الرِّقَاب فِى (for [freeing] necks) was instituted so that the campaign of slave emancipation could receive impetus from the public treasury.[The Qur’an, 9:60]
7. People were told that they were all slaves of Allah and so instead of using the words slave-man and slave-woman, the words used should be boy/man and girl/woman so that the psyche about them should change and a change is brought about in age old concepts.[Sahih Muslim, No: 2249]
8. Finally directive was given in Quran 24:33 according to which a slave 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 fulfills either of these two options, he would stand liberated. In the above 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.
“The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sick and release (set free) the one in captivity (by paying his ransom)." (Sahih Bukhari, Book 65, Number 286)"
Textual evidence from the Qur’an needs to be analysed before forming an opinion on the matter.
A careful study of the text reveals that the Qur’an initiates a gradual process of improvement in status of those in bondage and culminating in the very abolition of this institution. The process started with:
“…ye…may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands posses….wed them with the leave of their families, and give them their dower…”[Quran 4:25]
This conferred upon servant girls all the rights and privileges of a wife. Verse 36 of Sura 4 brought another big change in the status of slaves by enforcing the obligation to do good to one’s parents and in the same breath, also to servants:
“…do ‘Ihsan’ (goodness) to parents …and (to) what your right hands posses.”[4:36]
verse 60 of Sura 9 exhorts Believers to give monetary help to those in bondage in order to alleviate their economic status:
“Alms are for…those in Bondage..”[9:60]
Verses 2:177,4:29,5:89 etc make another quantum change in this matter by urging the believers to free those in the shackles of slavery:
“…But it is righteousness…to spend of your substance out of love for Him…for the ransom of slaves..”[2:177]
“And whoever kills a believer by mistake, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave..”[4:92]
“He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation…give a slave his freedom..”[5:89]
According to Quran if a slave asks for his freedom ,the believer is left for no other choice but to accede to his request and is also required to help him with funds in order to rehabilitate him as a free man:
“And if any of your slaves ask you for a deed in writing (for emancipation) give them such a deed; If ye knew any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you…”[Quran 24:33]
The basic and fundamental teaching of the Quran is that subservience and bondage is due to God alone and not to any human or group of humans. Unlike the Bible, which states:
“ye, shall take them (the slaves) as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them (the slaves) for a possession, they shall be, your BONDMEN (slaves) for ever . . ." LEVITICUS 25:46
The Qur’an unambiguously states that no man no matter how high a status he may occupy, be that status of Prophet hood, no human being has the right to enslave any other human:
“It is not meet for a mortal that Allah should give him the Book and the wisdom and prophecy, then he should say to people: Be my slaves rather than Allah’s; but rather (he would say): Be sustenance providers (Rabaniyoon) because of your teaching the Book and your studying (it yourselves).”[Quran 3:79]
The above clarifies the basic teaching of the Qur’an that no human has the right to enslave another human being, even though he be a Prophet of God. If Prophets are not allowed to enslave people, how can ordinary believers do the same? The fact of the matter is that there is no IMPERATIVE or COMMAND issued to believers to enslave anybody. If someone used to do it but has now become a believer, his obligation as a believer, in numerous verses is to free those in bondage, and not to keep them shackled.
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