Tuesday, September 18, 2012


What is the Qur'an’s approach towards slavery ?

Slavery is a tradition which is non-existent in our society today.
It is necessary to understand clearly the roots of slavery and the
influence that it exerted on the societies in which it was prevalent
when we set about to study this phenomenon in the present context.
Indeed, it is not possible to come to but one conclusion in a current
study of past phenomena. It is only when we realize what slavery
actually is, and the influence which it exerted on the past societies,
that we can truly appreciate the greatness of the Qur'an’s own
approach towards it.
By slavery is meant the state in which one person comes under
the complete domination of another. Indeed, he is a slave who
surrenders all that is of his own which includes his body, life, family
and all else to the control of another person. He is the property of the
owner. The owner may be an individual, a society or even a nation.
No matter who that owner might be, the slave is the one who is destined
to live under his master enjoying whatever the rights and privileges

that is allowed to him by his owner.
There are no relevent documents that serve to show the exact
way in which the institution of slavery developed or how, or when, it
originated. It is, however, certain that this institution was prevalent
about twenty centuries before Christ. Slaves are mentioned in the
legal code Ur Namu which existed around 2050 B.C. It is believed
that slavery must have originated from the practice of curtailing the
freedom of those caught as prisoners-of-war and of forcing them into
unpaid labour, This belief is founded on the names with which slaves
were referred to in the ancient Sumerian language. The male slave
was named Nida-koor and the female slave Munas-koor. The
meaning or these terms were ‘Foreign man’ and ‘Foreign woman’
respectively. It is believed that as the prisoners-of-war were brought
in from foreign lands and made slaves, they were referred to by these
very names.
Slavery, in one form or the other was prevalent in almost all
parts of the world. The Old Testament of the Bible, which describes
the ancient tales of Israeli society, is replete with many accounts
concerning slavery. It can be seen that the tradition of selling people
existed during the time of the patriarch Prophet, Abraham, itself.
(Genesis 17:13,14). It is the commandment of the Bible that prisonersof-
war are to be enslaved (Deuteronomy 20:10,11). The Bible, which
permits the torture of the slave by the master, nevertheless, stresses
the point that the slave is not to be killed during the course of torture.
The law which prevailed, in this matter, amongst the Israeli society
was that, “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the
slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be
punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his
property.’’ (Exodus 21:20,21)
The instituion of slavery was prevalent both during, and after,
the time of Jesus Christ. There is no sayings of Jesus, which serve to
show the treatment that was to be meted out to the slaves. But Paul
says: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and
with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not
only to win their favour when their eyes is on you, but like slaves of

Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly,
as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the
Lord will reward everyone for whatever good deed he does whether
he be a slave or freeman (Ephesians 6:5-8). The same advice to slaves
is repeated in the 22nd and 23rd verses in the 3rd chapter of colossians
in the Bible. Other than these references to slavery made by Paul in
these verses, we cannot find any significant references on the topic
anywhere in the New Testament. But it can be deduced that the cruel
and barbaric system of slavery that prevailed during the time of Greco
- Roman civilizations continued even during the time of Jesus. It is to
be particularly noted that even after christianity became the state
religion of the Roman Empire, the numerous stories of atrocities
committed against slaves are extremely shocking.
Slavery existed in ancient India as a part of the rigid caste system
that prevailed here. The caste system which originated as a result of
the hegemony of priesthood continued to be an essential part and way
of life of Hinduism. It is in the Rig Veda which is accepted as the most
important of the Shrutis that we find the first seeds of the concept of
caste system. (Purusha verse of the Rig Veda 10:90:12). It was but
natural that under the caste system that was based on the reference in
the Rig Veda that “the Brahman is created from the head, the Vaishya
from the hands and the Sudra from the feet of the Parampurusha”,
the Brahman was considered highly and the Sudra of a lowly stature.
All the books of Hinduism have only sought to justify the caste system.
The Bhagavath Gita, which is known to be the book of shruthi
of modern Hinduism, has itself said: “Chaturvarnyam Mayasrishtam
guna karma Vibagusha” (4:13). This means that, “I have created the
four castes according to the division of their deeds.” It was natural
then that the one who was created from the feet of God was destined
to a life of foot-service alone. Indeed, it was believed that the sudra
was specially created for the very purpose of service alone. The
religious scriptures had taught that one is born of a lower caste owing
to the sins of an earlier life and that if one is to attain salvation at least
in the next life, he is to render service to those of the higher castes and
employ himself in keeping them satisfied in this life. The

Chandoupanishad has compared those of the lower caste to pigs
and dogs. A reading of the Manusmrithi and the Parasharasmrithi
will serve to show that the attitude and conduet adopted towards them
was more cruel and wicked than that shown to the animals.
It can also be seen that along with the tradition of condemning
to slavery by virtue of one’s birth, there also existed, in India, the slave
trade that was accompanied by all the cruelty that goes with it. It is
also given to understand from the scrolls unearthed in Tamilnadu that
the slave trade which was associated with temples flourished both
during and after the period of the Cholas. Slave trade was prevalent in
Mysore, Bihar and Kerala as well. With the arrival of the English East
India company, the practice of taking away people from India, of
enslaving them and then taking them overseas also came into being.
Some historical documents record the incident wherein an Italian priest
from Trancubar sells off, for the sum of thirty pagodas, the wife and
four children of a Christian from Madurai to the captain of a ship
bound for Manila [Sarvavijnanakosham, Volume I, page 258]
According to a survey taken in 1841, there were between eighty to
ninety lakhs of slaves in India at that period. Moreover, it was in the
Malabar region, where the largest concentration of slaves in India
existed. Indeed, it has been remarked that 15 percent of the entire
population in the region were slaves! (Encyclopedia Britannica, vol.
27, p.289)
It is further given to understand that the most cruel form of
slavery had prevailed during the period which lasted between the
second century before Christ and the next long stretch of six hundred
years in the Roman empire. The slave in the Roman empire was merely
an object of trade with no rights in any form whatsoever. He was
treated as lowly as to be destined to a fate wherein he was even
doomed to death in a fight against another slave merely to provide
sadistic pleasure to his master. Indeed, it was the usual practice of the
masters to shout ‘hurray’ and to threaten the slaves at the point of the
whip when the loss of blood from the body of the slave, so involved in
a fight unto death, increased in quantity! The most cruel form of slavery
it certainly was’
It was Columbus discovery of America which had, in fact,
served to make slavery rampant in the modern world. The Negroes
were made slaves and were traded in the markets. It was a Spanish
bishop, Barthalocha De Lascasas, who had first initiated the American
system of slavery. There were companies in Europe which had been
registered for the purpose of slave trade alone. The trade of these
companies involved the bringing away of slaves from the coastal regions
of Africa and then selling them off in America. It is estimated that
nearly fifteen million slaves were thus imported into America during
the 17th to the 19th century. The slaves were taken away in pairs
abroad the ships bound in hand and feet chains to one another. A
sizeable portion of the slaves would perish during the voyage over the
Atlantic Ocean. There are no records which show the number of
persons who had died in this manner. How cheap, indeed, was the life
of the slave !
It has been as an introduction to the study of the Qur'an’s vision
on slavery as well as its approach towards it that the origins and history
of the said tradition has been dealt with in detail. Instead of an
impractical and unscientific approach whereby a centuries-old
institution was sought to be abolished by a single declaration, Islam
developed and implemented a very practicable system of eliminating
In this context, if the sheer practicability of Islam’s line of action
is to be fully appreciated, we will have to understand the very psychology
of the slave as well. There exists a vast difference between the mindset
of the slave and that of the free man. In the formation of the mindset
of the slave, a life of continual slavery exerts a very great influence
indeed. As a result of carrying the yoke of slavery upon himself for
generations, the habits of obedience and submission will have become
deep-rooted within his mind. He is, as such, incapable of executing
tasks on his own or taking up any responsibility. His mind, however, is
ever ready to take upon his head any command of the master and
knows, moreover, to carry forward all matters according to his master’s
wishes. Neverthless, he is able only to obey and execute orders. His
mind will be incapacitated in taking up responsiblities. His mind can, in

no wise, be so burdened. He is only able to flee from taking up
responsibilities. However, he will always be ready to take upon his
head whatever it is that the master commands.
The psychology of the slave and the master is located at two
opposite poles or extremes. If one is that of arrogance, the other will be
that of meekness. The example of America is, in itself, the best case in
point to show that the emancipation of slaves that is not based on an
approach whereby these mindsets, which are located at opposite poles,
are first brought together on to the same plane, will never be emancipation
at all. It was through the activism of Abraham Lincoln that, through a
single proclamation, the slaves in America achieved freedom one fine
morning! But what was it that actually happened there? The slaves who
ultimately recieved their freedom were, however, unable to bear the
‘burden’ of this freedom. They looked around, not quite knowing what
it was that they were to do. Since there was none to command them
now, they were unable to do anything at all. Indeed, they returned back
to their masters and actually asked them to take them back as slaves.
Here, it is seen that it is futile to physically set free those who are
psychologically unprepared for that freedom.
The Qur'an, which has been revealed by God who is fully aware
of the physical and mental states of human beings, has provided a
completely practical code of action. The system of slavery was one of
the pillars of the economic set-up of Arabia. It’s roots had penetrated
much deeper than to enable its eradication by a mere order of
prohibition. As a system that had prevailed in the regions where Islam
flourished as well as in areas where it did not, not only would it be
practically difficult to abolish it, but such a course of action would,
far from being effective, be quite harmful, indeed. It was, therefore,
that Allah, who is most aware of the nature of human society, contrary
to bringing a law that would completely abolish slavery, accepted a
practical code of action for its eradication.
Islam had, firstly, sought to bring the two groups of people,
situated as they were at two extreme states of the mental condition,
on to a common platform. The Qur'an had put forward a programme
of civilizing both slave and master. Besides this, it kept open all the
ways for achieving freedom as a gift and as a product of one’s own
labour. The Qur'an had, by bringing the slave and the master on to the
same plane of psychological awareness, opened out the ways for
achieving freedom and, furthermore, enabled him (i.e., the slave) to
protect that freedom once he had attained it. Indeed, this alone is the
practical way in the matter.
What were the practical steps which the Qur'an adopted for the
eradication of slavery ?
It may be seen that the Qur'an had adopted five steps for the
eradication of slavery.
1. Created a sense of brotherhood.
The Qur'an had, firstly, created a notion that both master and
slave were brothers, one to the other, by inculcating an awareness
that all men are the creations of the same God and were the children
of the same parents. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair)
of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye
may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the
most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most
righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted
(with all things).” (Qur'an 49:13)
Here, the Qur'an has decimated the very root of all forms of
narrow mindedness that arose out of the feelings of superior birth.
Indeed, the Prophet had taught that righteousness was measured not
on the basis of colour, race or wealth, but on the basis of Godconsciousness
alone. “The Arab has no superiority over the non-Arab
or the non-Arab over the Arab; the white over the black or the black
over the white except in the matter of God-consciousness.” (Tabari)
Where slaves are mentioned, the Holy Qur'an remarked that
“some amongst you proceed from others.”(Qur'an:4:25).
Here the Qur'an has made it clear that both master and slave are
brothers, one to the other, and that it is circumstances alone which
force slavery upon some people.

2. It created an awareness concerning the rights of the slave.
The slave was a mere marketable commodity in all ancient
societies. His lot was confined to duties alone. His obligation was
simply to strive for an increase in the comforts and luxury enjoyed by
the master and in this regard, there was to be no compromise
whatsoever. It was a paramount necessity that the slave was in good
shape in order that he be able to work for his master. Indeed, it was
for this reason, and for this reason alone, that he was provided with
food. The slaves lived in yards which world not have sufficed to
accomodate not even cattle and other livestock. As for the clothes
that they were provided with, they were sufficient not even to cover
their nakedness such filthy pieces of clothes they were!
Islam brought about a transformation in the situation. It taught
that the slave was the brother of the master and that he had rights as
well. The Prophet commanded: “They are your brothers and relatives!
Let each one provide for the brother under him with the food that he
himself eats and with the clothes that he himself wears. Place not
upon them any task that is overbearing for them. If you do assign
them a difficult task, you must help them in its execution.” (Bukhari,
The duty of the slave, in primitive societies, was never confined
to mere labour. He was also doomed to be at the receiving end of his
master’s sadistic pleasures like. The most cruel flogging while at work
and to be always ready to kill and to be killed for the sake of his
master’s pleasure. TheQur'an commanded that such a state of affairs
must change. It insisted on the humane and proper treatment of the
slaves. “Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good
- to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are of
kin, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the
way-farer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess: for
Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”(Qur'an 4:36)
The Prophet had clearly stated, “If anyone kills a slave, we
shall kill him. If anyone maims a slave, we shall maim him as well. If
anyone castrates his slave, we shall castrate him.”(Muslim, Abu
From being the choice commodity for the master’s foibles and
intricacies, the slave was being transformed into a being with his very
own personality and rights. It was in a society in which existed the
heinous practice of castrating slaves that the Prophet had, in the most
unambiguous terms, declared that the master who castrates his slave
will, in turn, ‘be castrated by us.’ The slaves were castrated in order
that their sexual impulses be destroyed, whereby, they could then be
made to work like animals. Islam, which prohibited this practice,
particularly instructs that means should be made available for the
satisfaction of the sexual instincts of the slave also. “Marry those
among you who are single, and the virtuous ones among your slaves,
male or female: if they are in poverty, Allah will give them means out
of His grace: for Allah is Ample-giving, and He knoweth all things.”
(Qur'an 24:32)
Furthermore, the Qur'an prohibited the system of forcing female
slaves into prostitution. “Let those who find not the wherewithal for
marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allah gives them means out of
His grace. And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (for
emancipation) give them such a deed if ye know any good in them;
yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah
has given to you. But force not your maids to prostitution when they
desire Chastity, in order that ye may make a gain in the goods of this
life. But if anyone compels them, yet, after such compulsion, is Allah
Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur'an 24:33)
The Prophet had taught against even uttering anything that might
injure the self-respect of the slave. The Prophet, who had taught that
had made it clear that the slave, too, enjoyed self-respect upon which
none had the right to trespass. The Prophet had admonished his
companion, Abu Dharr, who, in an angry tussle with his slave, had
called him ‘the son of a black woman’, in the following manner: “ O
Abu Dharr.... There remains in you something of the culture of the
days of darkness.”
Islam teaches that the slave has the right to become even a

leader and that in the event that he does get appointed as a leader, it is
obligatory to obey him. “Even if it be a negro slave, with hair like dried
grapes, who is appointed as your leader, you must hear and obey him.”
Abu Hurairah, the companion of the Prophet, once scolded a man
who had his slave walking behind the camel on which he was riding,
“Seat him behind thee for he is thy brother and it is the same soul as
yours that is within him.”
Islam gave new dimension to the relation between master and
slave by insisting that the master and the slave both had the same soul.
It is true, neverthless, that the slave does come under the jurisdiction
of the master. However, the master is duty-bound to fulfill the rights of
the slave. It is his duty to meet the slave’s requirements of food, clothing,
sexual gratification and the like. The slave is never to be harmed. He
should not be put into difficulty by entrusting him with burdensome
tasks as well. In such fashion did Islam create a revolution of sorts in
raising the slave, for the first time in history, to the position of a free
It was through these means that it became possible for Islam to
bridge the wide gap that existed between the mental states of the
master and the slave. The end result of this revolution was that the
owner was emancipated from the belief that the slave was a commodity
on which he could carry out any inhuman act according to his whims
and fancy. At the same time, the slave was freed of the notion that he
was doomed to a fate in which he was to bear with patience all the
hardships and forever indulge in back-breaking toil.
3. Declared the emancipation of slaves to be an act of
By declaring the slaves to be human beings who had rights of
its own, Islam had technically made slavery non-existent. Without
stopping at that point, however, it went further by turning to a course
of action which would, in time, serve to eliminate the system in a very
practical sense indeed. This practical step which Islam had adopted to
make slavery virtually non-existent was its act of declaring the
emancipation of slaves to be an act of righteousness. The position of
the Prophet as regards the emancipation of slaves was such that it
only reinforced the meaning of the Qur'anic reference that “Those
who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find
mentioned in their own (Scriptures) - In the Taurat and the Gospel; for
he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he
allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them
from what is bad (and impure) : He releases them from their heavy
burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who
believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the Light which is sent
down with him, it is they who will prosper.” (Qur'an 7:157)
The Qur'anic verse which makes it clear that the emancipation
of slaves is an act of the highest virtue goes as follows: “And what will
explain to thee the path that is steep? (It is) freeing the bondman; or the
giving of food in a day of privation, to the orphan with claims of
relationship, or to the indigent (down) in the dust.” (Qur'an 90:12-16)
As far as the emancipation of slaves was concerned, the Prophet
had exhorted his companions towards it by, firstly, making an example
himself. He set free the slaves who were in his possession. His
companions, too, followed the same path. In this context, it may be
seen that Abu Bakr (r), a man of prominence amongst the companions,
spent countless wealth in purchasing slaves from the pagans for setting
them free.
There are numerous sayings of the Prophet which encourage
the freeing of slaves. “If anyone sets free a believing slave, each of
his body parts will be set free from Hell so much so that it will be the
hand for a hand, the leg for a right up to the sexual organ for the
sexual organ.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
Once the companion, Abu Dharr (r), asked the Prophet, “Which
is the highest act in the emancipation of slaves ?” The Prophet replied,
“To set free the most valuable slave of the master.”
The Prophet, while talking about those who become deserving
of God’s reward twice, said, “He who confers a proper behaviour
upon the female slave under him, then gives her the best education,
sets her free and then marries her will become entitled to a double

reward.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
Thus it was that the believers, both during the time of the Prophet
and afterwards, began to set slaves free expecting, in return, the reward
from the Lord Creator itself. Besides this, a situation came up wherein
even the wealth of Zakat began to be used for the emancipation of
slaves. It may be seen from history that during the reign of Umar bin
Abdul Azeez, when there was not a single needy person to accept the
wealth of Zakat, this money was used to purchase slaves in order to
set them free.
4. Emancipation of slaves was made the act of expiation for
many types of sin.
In addition to encouraging the believers towards its commission
by declaring the emancipationof slaves to be a virtuous deed, Islam
recommended it as an act of expiation for many types of sin. The
atonement for sins like unintentional murder and breaking one’s vow of
not approaching his wife was the freeing of one slave. As for those who
were not ready to free slaves in expectation of divine reward alone, the
command which made the emancipation of slaves an atoning act for
sins committed, nevertheless, made it necessary for them to do so.
5. The facility of providing the slave with his freedom in exchange
of the ransom value was made possible.
Let us suppose that it was still not possible for a slave to become
free by any of the means listed above. Even then freedom is not
unattainable for him. Islam has opened a way out for any slave who
desires his freedom. This becomes possible through a emancipation
deed known by the technical name Mukathaba. If the yearning for
freedom becomes entrenched within, it becomes possible for any slave
to become a free man through the Mukathaba. The master and the
slave get together to decide upon a ransom value and a time-frame for
its payment on mutually agreeable terms. It is further possible for the
slave to go out and work to earn this ransom value himself. Thus, the
slave is enabled to pay the ransom value in instalments. With the
completion of this payment he becomes a free man.
Through this facility, Islam has made possible the opportunity
for fulfilling the dream of independence of any slave in whose heart
arises such a desire. What if the slave, after having written down the
document for his freedom, is unable to pay the ransom amount within
the stipulated time period? Islam has provided the solution for this as
well. One of the eight heads under which the Zakat wealth is to be
expended is for the emancipation of slaves (Qur'an 9:60). If it happens
that a slave is unable to pay his ransom value according to the
Mukathaba, he can approach the Baithulmal (public treasury) for
the purpose. It is the responsibility of those who handle it to set the
man free by making use of a stipulated amount from it. Here Islam
has devised a way which makes use of a portion of the wealth of the
wealthy to emancipate slaves.
As far as the problem of slavery is concerned, Islam adopted a
line of action which provided for the freedom from the binding chains
by teaching the slave what freedom actually means and by enabling
them to free themselves from dependence on others. In reality, there
has been no other course of action to which anyone could point and
say that that was a better way than the method adopted by Islam in
the case of slavery. If that is to be really appreciated it would be
necessary to view the problem from the perspective of the time and
the society in which it prevailed as an established institution in itself.
Has not the Qur'an actually legalized adultery by allowing for
the master to have sexual relationships with his female slaves?
Female slaves are the natural by-product of the system of
slavery. The situation that prevailed in all societies where the institution
of slavery existed was such that slave women were used at will and
were employed to gain economic advantage by inciting them towards
prostitution. As for Islam, it provided for a facility which would, in the
course of one generation, bring an end to the system through the slave
women themselves.
The slave woman is the property of the master. However, the
master has no right, whatsoever, to incite her towards adultery. Like

the male slaves, the female slaves, too, have rights of their own. It is
the duty of the master to provide her with food, shelter, clothes and
other necessities. Moreover, the Qur'an has asked the owner to make
the necessary arrangements for her marriage as well (Qur'an 24:32).
This, in effect, means that the Qur'an has prompted the owner
towards having sexual relations with an unmarried female slave. This
permission is however restricted to the owner alone. No one else is
allowed to use her in this fashion even if it be with the permission of
the master!
In giving birth to the child of the master, the slave woman
becomes entitled to new rights. Thenceforth, the master has no right
to sell her. She becomes the mother of her master’s children. These
children, too, become entitled to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by
the master’s other children. Islam disagrees with the Jewish stand
that the children born through a slave woman have none of the rights
that should naturally be given to them by virtue of paternity. These
children are, in all respects, his own children. There is to be no
discrimination of any kind between them and the other children. With
the death of the master, the slave woman, who is the mother of his
children, becomes a free woman. She is then protected by her own
children. They, too, like the other children, will becomes entitled to a
share in their father’s inheritance.
The permission to accept slave women as one’s life-partner
was, in fact, a provision which would, in the course of one generation,
cut out the very root of slavery. In reality, therefore, the permission
granted for having relations with slave women was one among the
many unique steps taken by Islam in practically eradicating slavery.
It is not possible to equate the permission given for having
relations with slave women to adultery. These acts stand at two extreme
poles. One is the case of the woman who lives under her master
enjoying the protection that he confers upon her. It is a relationship in
which he fully agrees to take up the responsibilities that may result as
a product of that relationship. It is a relationship in which her personality,
beyond the contours defined by sex, is accorded full recognition. It is
a relationship which opens to her the door to freedom. As for the
second, it is nothing but a carnal relationship with a prostitute without
any sort of commitment. The position of the prostitute is, in fact, much
worse than that of the slave woman. For, she is nothing more than a
soul less animal. Her function is restricted solely to the gratification of
the animal passions of man. There is not even a grain of love and
compassion in that relationship, not the slightest touch of personal
fulfillment even. It is but a transaction made solely for money. Flesh
trade! The man who comes for the satisfaction of carnel of his desire
is never prepared to take up the responsibility that may accrue from it.
He has no obligation towards her. She is only an animal destined to
satisfy his sexul appetite. Each one of her relationships will serve only
to immerse her even deeper into the mire that is the inhumanity of
prostitution. Even the very dream of freedom is alien to her. She is one
doomed to embrace the loneliness of orphanhood when in a diseased
state, with her skin wrinkled and faded, she ends up being the object
of nobody’s concern.
What, then, of the tradition which lays open, before the slave,
the very door to freedom? And what of the rottings system which
drives the woman from one dependence to the other? Any comparison,
whatsoever, between these two is impossible because they stand at
two opposing and extreme poles. One recognized by benign humanism,
the other which leads to depredation and frustration.
Why did the Qur'an not make marriage mandatory for having
sexual relations with the slave woman?
The Qur'an does provide permission for those who wish to marry
slave women (4:27). Indeed, the Prophet had said that such marriages
will confer a double reward. “He who provides the slave woman under
him with proper manners, provides her with the best education, then
frees her and ultimately marries her will be given a double reward.’’
(Bukhari, Muslim)
The guardian of the slave is the master whether it be a male or
a female slave. The guardianship of the slave woman who is under a
male master rests with that man. Even if she is to be married off, it is

he who will have to carrry it out. It is also he who is to take care of all
her affairs. It is for this very reason that there is not the need for the
act of marrying her. In Islam, marriage is a contract that is solemnized
by the guardian of the woman and the bridegroom. In this case, he is
both the master and bridegroom. Then the marriage ceremony becomes
irrelevant in itself.
The Qur'an instructs that the maximum number of wives for a
man must be four (4:3). Let us suppose that there is a slave woman
under the care of a man who has four wives He cannnot, in that case,
marry her. If he is not ready to grant her freedom, liberation from
dependence will remain for her a dream. She will then be forced to
resort to adultery in her bid to satisfy her sexual desire. But since
there is the law that the master can engage in sexual relations with her
without recourse to marriage, a solution for all such problems manifests
itself. It becomes possible for her to walk into freedom when she
gives birth to her master’s child. It will also be the solution for her
sexual needs. In a society where slavery prevails, if a solution is not
provided for such problems it will lead to a large scale erosion of
values. Along with this, there will also be the problem of the children
born from adulterous relationships. Naturally, they ,too,will end up as
slaves. The end result of all this will be that slavery becomes entrenched
as a system that can, is, no wise, be terminated.
In the case of Islam, however, the provision is made such that
the masters are permitted to have sexual relations with woman slaves,
whereby, within the span of a single generation, slavery is made extinct.
If ‘marriage’ is made a condition for it, it is not possible then to obtain
the results envisaged by Islam. Certainly, all masters would not be
willing to marry their slaves woman Besides, it is impossible for those
who already have four wives.
Why did Islam not limit the number of one’s slave woman ?
Islam, which commanded that marriages should be restricted to
four, has, however, not imposed any restriction on the number of
woman-slaves who may be kept in one’s possession. This means that
a man may keep as many slave-women as he likes under him. Why
did Islam allow this?
Slaves comes into the possession of the master in three ways.
These ways are: as inheritance, personal purchase and as captured
prisoners-of-war. Of these three, a man can decide the number of
slaves to be under him only in the case of personal purchase. He is,
however, unable to control, or limit, the number of slaves who come
into his possession by way of inheritance and as prisoners-of-war who
are captured and enslaved. If the governments decision is to enslave
the captured prisoners-of-war, the usual practice is to divide them
amongst all those who participated in the war. In the event that a large
number of prisoners-of-war are captured, then the number of slaves
who come into the possession of each individual will increase. It may
be seen from history that nearly six thousand men were captured in
the Battle of Hunain.
The prisoners-of-war who were captured were, however, made
slaves only under inevitable circumstances . The Muslims were not in
the habit of capturing women and children when, in battle, the enemies
were defeated at their hands. It may be seen that during the wars that
took place in the time of the Caliphs, nobody was enslaved in Syria,
Palestine, Iraq and Egypt. If in war, the men were killed or taken as
prisoners, the women and children will, as a result, become orphans.
Islam has commanded that they are never to be killed in war. Even if
the children and women who went to war with their men are captured
as prisoners, more often than not they were exchanged for Muslim
prisoners. However, in some instances, Islam did permit their
enslavement. It will be remembered that this permission was granted
in a society in which slavery was prevalent.
In any case, to limit the number of slaves who came into one’s
possession, by these means under the existing circumstances was quite
impractical. This was so in the case of slave women also. The question
here is what could be done with the slaves that come into one’s
possession through various ways. They could be married off, indeed,
but to find suitors for slave women is not an easy task. If they are
married to male slaves who are in his possession, the children that

they beget will belong to the master. It is only natural that the children
of slaves have no option but to be the possession of the master who is
the owner of their parents.
This meant that they, too, would end up being slaves. Apart
from either option, they may be unconditionally set free. But such
freedom will lead to their being rendered orphans, and to a serious
erosion of values as well. Another option will be to allow her the
exercise of all her human rights without yet marrying her and to let her
live with her master. (After all, it would not be practical for all masters
to set her free and then to marry her). The number of slaves living in
such wise is limited, the question arises as to what is to be done with
the other slave women who come beyond this limit but are still staying
with the master. There would then be no means for them to attain
their freedom. Their sexuality will then be either neglected or exploited.
This will thus become the cause of great moral degeneration.
If these problems are seen in the context of a society in which
slavery is in existence, the fact that the laws envisioned by Islam in
the matter are, indeed, very practical ones will become clearly
manifested. In such a society, it is not possible to fix a limit for the
number of male slaves who will come into one’s possession. This is
also the case with slave women as well. Such restrictions are never
practical in such a society. It was for the same reason that Islam
never took the trouble to impose them.
Why was it that the Qur'an did not go to the extent of completely
prohibiting slavery ?
Islam, which had undertaken a practical course of action
necessary for the eradication of slavery, however, never went to the
extent of issuing an order of total prohibition against it which it had
done in the cases of intoxicants and adultery. Why was this so?
There is more than one reason for this. The line of action of the
Qur'an which refrained from completely prohibiting slavery has, in
fact, made clear its applicability for all time. From the stand adopted
by it in this issue we has been given to understand the fact that the
Qur'an is, indeed, a revelation from the Lord God Himself who is best
aware of the changing trends and evolutionary processes of human
society. If the Qur'an’s act of not imposing total prohibition on slavery
is studied in some depth, it will be a conclusive testimony to the statement
of fact that Islam is, indeed, adaptable to the exigencies of time and
that its recommendations are practical in any age.
The beginnings of the system of slavery traces itself to the
prisoners who were captured in war. Before the proclamation made
by modern states which imposed a total prohibition on slavery, it was
the usual and prevalent practice to enslave prisoners captured in war.
Prisoners-of-war were either to be killed or enslaved. This was the
practice. Indeed, these were the only practical solutions available. After
all, there was no provision to accommodate them as prisoners in those
What was to be done with those who were captured as prisonersof-
In this regard, the recommendation of the Qur'an is as follows:
“Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers (in fight), smite at their
necks; at length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind (the
captives) firmly: therefore (is the time for) either generosity or ransom:
until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if
it had been Allah’s Will, he could certainly have exacted retribution
from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some
with others. But those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will never
let their deeds be lost.” (Qur'an 47:4). In this verse, which instructs to
kill the enemies on the battle field, there is also the command to either
ransom or set free those captured in war. In the light of this verse, all
the eminent companions of the Prophet have opined that prisoners-ofwar
were not to be killed.
The Prophet has himself set the precedent in handling prisonersof-
war in four ways:
1. Set them free without any ransom. Prisoners-of-war may be
set at liberty if it is clear that it will not be harmful for the Muslim
society to do so.
2. They may be exchanged for the Muslims captured by the

3. They may be freed after securing a ransom.
4. They may be divided amongst the Muslims soldiers as slaves.
It may be seen that the Prophet had, in different battles, employed
all the different types of options listed above. Amongst those four
options, the last option of enslaving the prisoners-of-war was used
only when the other three options were wholly impractical. Indeed, if
slavery was totally prohibited, a situation would have come up wherein
the Muslims would never be able to accept this option at all. In actual
fact, therefore, such a situation would have created many a difficulty
for the Muslims especially in a social context wherein such slavery
prevails as an established institution.
Those who where engaged in warfare with the Muslim society
were people who accepted slavery as an option and were warring to
acquire slaves as well. Furthermore, when warring with them, they
either enslaved or killed the Muslims captured by them. If slavery had
been abolished, the Muslims would never have been able to enslave
those captured from their side. This would then have enabled the
enemies to perpetrate even greater cruelty towards the Muslim
prisoners. The Muslims would, moreover, be unable to use the captured
prisoners of the enemy to effectively engage in the negotiation forthe
release of those who were captured from their own side.
The enemies were aware that if slavery was abolished in Islam,
the Muslims would become powerless to enslave or kill those captured
from their side. Thus, the enemies would never settle for a mutual
understanding that would allow for an exchange of their prisoners in
return for the freedom of those captured from the Muslims.
As for the Muslims, the prisoners captured from the enemy
ranks will merely end up being a headache. Their accommodation will
become the responsibility of the Muslim community. It need not be
said that on occasions where thousands of prisoners are captured,
accommodating all of them will be an enormous task. The Muslim
community will then become obliged to provide them with food and
clothes as well. While they gladly live here under the protection of the
Islamic community, those captured from the Muslim side will live
suffering the cruelties inflicted upon them by the enemies of Islam and
executing the heavy tasks imposed by them. This can never be just.
Indeed, this can, only become the cause of the destruction of the
Muslim community. A situation will then come up in which war can
only serve to annihilate the Islamic community. Therefore, under a
context in which slavery was not prohibited worldwide, it would have
been suicidal if Islam had ventured to prohibit slavery. It was then for
the same reason that Allah, the Knower of all Space-Time, refrained
from prohibiting slavery.
In reality, because slavery existed in the world as an established
institution, there was bound to be greater harm than good if Islam had
abolished it. Islam, while allowing for slavery, did, however, teach that
the slave and the master were brothers one to the other and that the
slave had rights of his own and that he was to be treated humanely,
and that he was never to be insulted and humiliated. Thus, for a slave
living under a Muslim, slavery would never be a burden. Furthermore,
it is possible for him to become a free man at any point of time. He
can attain his freedom when he is inclined towards it.