The slavery system among Muslims in many aspects was different from other societies, and what many people envision about slavery according to practices among the Greeks, Romans and European colonialists.
Islam initially accepted the slavery system because it was an accepted and necessary part of the economic and social conditions in those times. The system of slavery was a worldwide phenomenon with many vital sectors of livelihood dependent on slave labor. Slavery was accepted and recognized in the previous religions. As it is stated in the Bible:
“10. When you came nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 11. And it shall be, if it make your answer of peace, and open unto you, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto you, and they shall serve you. 12. And if it will make no peace with you, but it will make war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13. And when the Lord your God has delivered it into your hands, you shall smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. 14. But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shall you take unto yourself, and you shall eat the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15. Thus shall you do unto all the cities which are very far off from you, which are not of the cities of these nations. 16. But of the cities of these people, which the Lord your God does give you for an inheritance, you shall save alive that breathes. 17. But you shall utterly destroy them.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-17)
And a master in the Judaic Law could even beat his slave to death as this next text states:
“And if a man smites his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
Notwithstanding, if he [the slave] continues (to live) a day or two, he (the slave owner) shall not be punished: for he (the slave) is his money (property).” (King James Version Exodus 21:20-21)
Nowhere are there any indications in the Bible about the prohibition of slavery and this lead many to boldly proclaim, as Jefferson Davis the president of the Confederate States of America said:
“(Slavery) was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.” (Dunbar Rowland quoting Jefferson Davis in “Jefferson Davis”)
Considering this world environment, Islamic law followed a long-term and gradual plan to eliminate slavery from society.
We do not find any direct command to abruptly stop all dealings with slavery but, rather wisely, the sources of slavery were gradually restricted and diminished and emancipation of slaves encouraged. Moreover, strict rules of fair and honorable conduct were applied in dealing with slaves and allowing them o buy their own freedom.
The first stage was liberating themselves from within their hearts and minds. They were instructed to feel strong, healthy and capable within, and discouraged from feeling weak and inferior. Islam reconstructed the human feeling and integrity in the hearts and minds of the slaves by calling them brethren to their masters and owners.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said,
“Your workers are your brethren. The Almighty Allah placed them under you (for your services). Whosoever has one (of his brethren) under him (working for him), he must feed him of what he eats, clothe him of what he clothes himself and do not assign them to do what they cannot do. If you do, then help them.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Worship Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are your kin, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet) and what your right hands possess (slaves): for Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious. (An-Nisaa’ 4:36)
The Prophets longstanding concern about the slaves is evidence by the fact that on his deathbed, the Messenger of Allah ordered the Muslims as a dying request to guard their prayers and the rights of the slaves.
He (peace be upon him) is also reported to have said:
“Whosoever castrated a slave we will castrate him.” (Al-Hakim)
The article is an excerpt from the author’s book “Misconceptions on Human Rights in Islam”.