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In Islam, Slavery is Allah's Eternal Design and Blessing for Humanity

by Alamgir Hossain

06 Mar. 2011

Slavery is a divine institution, which Allah has made integral to Islamic society; it was practised my prophet Muhammad and later Muslims on a grand scale until Europe forced Islamic countries to stop it...

While growing up as a Muslim, I have always hated the West mainly for three reasons: 1) its past imperialism and slavery (which affected the Muslim world most); and 2) its ongoing support for Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

Depiction of Prophet Muhammad's slaughter of the adult men of Banu Quraiza (judged by pubic-hair growth). Their women and children were enslaved and sold.

I always thought that Islam had no such role, namely imperialism and slavery, to play in history; Islam, unlike Christianity, is untouched by such horrible practices. Then when I started reading Islamic theology (Quran, Hadith and Sira) and history, I was shocked to discover that Islam has not only engaged in imperialism and slavery, but these are also divinely sanctioned institutions in Islam. Moreover, the Christian West was only a smaller player as compared to Islam in the practice of imperialism and slavery.  

I have felt pain on many instances while reading cruelties in history, but nothing has pained me more than Islam's barbaric exercise of slavery, which was initiated by Prophet Muhammad himself. For example, Prophet Muhammad attacked the Jewish communities of Banu Quraiza, Mustaliq and Khaybar for no reason or on flimsy accusations; and after defeating them, he slaughtered all of their grown-up males except rare ones who embraced Islam, and took their women and children as slaves.

The female-slaves were used as sex-slaves. Prophet Muhammad used to choose the prettiest and noblest of the young captive women in the lot to be his own sex-slave. Amongst such great catches were Raihana of Banu Quraiza, Juwariya of Banu Mustaliq and Safiyah of Banu Nadir (at Khaybar). (See Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press, Karachi; p. 461-70, 490-93, 509-23). Following the Prophet's protocol, Sultan Mahmud, one of the great heroes of Indian Muslims, left with 500,000 enslaved women and children from his attack to India in 1001-02 and brought them to his capital in Ghazni, while Amir Timur (Taimur Long) returned to his capital Samarkand from his barbaric invasion of India in 1399 with about 2.5 million enslaved women and children.

Despite all these horror stories of Islam's perpetration of slavery, you will hear from Muslims that there is no place of slavery in Islam. Instead, Islam was the first to abolish slavery.  
How? Because the Quran says -- according to our Muslim brothers like Strange Love -- that "And what will explain to thee the path that is steep?- (It is:) freeing the bondman‚€¶" (Quran 90:12-13).

It is true that the Quran (4.92) advises Muslims to free a slave for getting relief from sins of criminal actions such as killing a Muslim (for killing a non-Muslim, it doesn't apply. In other words:  If you kill a Muslim, free a slave; that's it.).

To Muslims like Strange Love, only this verse about slavery in the Quran matters. There are dozens of other verses that deal with slavery, but to this brand of Muslims, those verses don't count.

Now if you ask such Muslims, where one finds a slave for setting free, if Islam has abolished slavery, they will reply: "Slavery existed in Arab society before; many Muslims owned slaves; this verse talks about freeing those slaves."

Makes sense! With those slaves Muslims entered Islam, if freed, as the above verse urges -- slavery indeed becomes abolished by Islam.

Arab slave-hunters returning with their booty of Black slaves.

But the verses of the Quran are timeless; they must apply to Muslims at all time. Doesn't Allah sound stupid to tell me today, or Muslims 10,000 years later from today, to free slaves -- when slavery was abolished 1400 years ago and when there are no traces of slavery on earth for so many centuries?  

Allah does appear, thanks to Muslims like Strange Love, to be stupid. But Allah, the Almighty Creator of the Universe and the most Judicious, cannot be stupid. It's the shortcomings of mortal followers of Him, such as Strange Love, who make Allah appear stupid.

Slavery: Allah's eternal design for humanity!

Allah will continue advising Muslims, through the Quran, to free slaves until the end of the world, because Allah has made slavery an "eternal institution" in Islam. Author M. A. Khan in his "Islamic Jihad" has done a fine analysis of the foundational concepts of slavery in Islam. I'm taking liberty to quote the relevant section from Khan's book:

Quranic sanction of slavery

The institution of slavery in Islam was formalized in the following Quranic verse, in which Allah distinguishes free human beings or masters, who exercise justice and righteousness, from the dumb, useless and burdensome ones, the slaves:

Allah sets forth (another) Parable of two men: one of them dumb, with no power of any sort; a wearisome burden is he to his master; whichever way he directs him, he brings no good: is such a man equal with one who commands Justice, and is on a Straight Way? [Quran 16:76]

Allah warns the believers against taking the slaves as equal partner in status and in sharing their wealth, lest they have to fear them as anyone else:

‚€¶do ye have partners among those whom your right hands possess (i.e., slaves, captives) to share as equals in the wealth We have bestowed on you? Do ye fear them as ye fear each other? [Quran 30:28][1]

Allah recognizes some human beings, namely the masters, as more blessed by Himself than the less favored slaves as part of His divine plan. He warns Muslims against sharing His gifts to them equally with their slaves. Those who would take slaves as equal, warns Allah, would deny Him:

Allah has bestowed His gifts of sustenance more freely on some of you than on others: those more favoured are not going to throw back their gifts to those whom their right hands possess, so as to be equal in that respect. Will they then deny the favours of Allah? [Quran 16:71]

Allah does not only sanction the institution of slavery, He also gave divine blessing to masters (Muslim men only can own slaves) to have sex with the female slaves:

And those who guard their private parts, Except in the case of their wives or those whom their right hands possess‚€”for these surely are not to be blamed [Quran 70:29‚€“30]

And who guard their private parts, Except before their mates or those whom their right hands possess, for they surely are not blameable [Quran 23:5‚€“6]

Therefore, if there are women amongst the captives or slaves, Muslims are divinely sanctioned to have sex with them as they do with their wives. This verdict of Allah founded the institution of sex-slavery or slave-concubinage in Islam, which was widespread in the pre-colonial Muslim world and continued well into the mid-twentieth century. As far as legal marriage is concerned, there is a limitation of four wives for a man at one time [Quran 4:3], but no such limitation on the number of sex-slaves.

Allah also gave a divine sanction to Muslims for acquiring female slaves for sexual engagement by waging wars against the infidels:

O Prophet! surely We have made lawful to you your wives whom you have given their dowries, and those whom your right hand possesses out of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war‚€¶ [Quran 33:50]

And here is how Allah commands Muslims to capture slaves:

‚€˜(Allah) brought those of the People of the Scripture‚€¶ and cast panic into their hearts. Some (adult males) ye slew, and ye made captive some (women and children).‚€™ (Quran 33:26‚€“27)

In other words, to help Muslims to fulfill Allah's command of engaging in slavery, Allah will strike terror into heart of the infidels (Jews, Christians and others) -- so that Muslims can easily defeat them. After defeating, commands Allah, Muslims will slay some of the surrendered, namely the men, and make the rest, the women and children, captives (i.e. slaves).

And that's exactly the protocol Prophet Muhammad had put into action in his lifetime -- a few instances of which have been cited above. And later Muslims could not ignore Allah's command and Prophet Muhammad's examples, emulating which is incumbent upon Muslims at all times. Islamic history, since Muhammad, has witnessed exactly that until the West, having abolished slavery in their own backyards, worked hard and diligently to suppress slavery in the Muslim world, and later banned it globally through the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Europe banned slavery in 1815, but Saudi Arabia banned it only in 1962 and Islamic Mauritania in 1980. Yet, beyond what Islamic nations have accepted on pen and paper, slavery still exists in Saudi Arabia and Mauritania, while it has been revived in Sudan after Islamists took power in 1985; Sudanese government-sponsored Islamic militia have raided and enslaved tens of thousands of the predominantly Christian women and children in Southern Sudan, just as did Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad is, indeed, an ideal example for Muslims to follow at all time as says Allah (Quran 68:4, 33:21).


[1]. Famous scholar Abu Ala Maududi in his interpretation of this verse notes: ‚€œWhen you do not make your own slaves partners in your wealth, how do you think and believe that Allah will make His creatures partner in His Godhead?‚€ [Maududi AA, Towards Understanding the Quran, Markazi Muktaba Islami Publishers, New Delhi, Vol. VIII]. In other words, associating partners with Allah, which is the most abhorrent thing to do in Islam, is tantamount for a man to take his slaves as equal partner.   [Hit Counter]