Revealed Truths About Slavery
Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain the moral or ethical imperative on which Allah bases His instructions. For example, His condoning of slavery and His condemning the practice of lending money at interest. Both convey an economic advantage to the slave-owner and the money-lender respectively.
The transaction involving only money however, can be to the benefit of both contracting parties. The transaction in humanity, on the other hand, usually benefits only the title-holder while confining the other (the slave) to a life of miserable servitude.
A God’s Dilemma
In 2002, the United Nations reported that the number of people forced into slavery around the world had risen to an estimated twenty-seven million. Irshad Manji in The Trouble with Islam, A Wake-up Call For Honesty and Change mentions the resurgence of the slave trade in African countries that have adopted the Koran as the equivalent of their constitution. Countries such as her native Uganda, Mali, Mauritania “where little boys are seduced into slavery by Muslim hustlers” to the Sudan where “Khartoum’s onslaught has rekindled the trade in black slaves” to Nigeria “where Islamic governments encourage the enslavement of Christians.”
The young Muhammad celebrated his marriage to the twice widowed Khadijah “by giving Barakak (the slave girl he had inherited from his father) her freedom. For her part, Khadijah gave her new husband a fifteen-year-old male slave named Zayd as a wedding gift.”
This marriage of the future Prophet, his first, took place more than twenty years before Allah would confirm the righteousness of both transactions in humanity in His Koran.
Allah is of two minds when it comes to slavery. His instructions concerning slavery exhibit this dichotomy. The most prominent is in revelations dealing with the treatment of female slaves.
Whenever in these verses you encounter the phrase “what your right hands possess” or a variation thereof it means slave-girls. Slave-girls are captives of war; the wives of an enemy defeated in battle or females given as settlement of a debt or other obligations, such as compensation to resolve a blood-feud. There are no revealed truths, to my knowledge, that offer specific advice on the treatment and disposal of male slaves.
The second type of verse on slavery deals mainly with situations where a slave might be freed; as penance for example. These revelations, if you are so inclined, can be interpreted as Allah encouraging slave owners to grant their human chattel their freedom.
This interpretation notwithstanding, the Koran unambiguously allows slavery, including the enslavement of young women and girls and, what the Koran allows no one can deny, not even God’s Messenger; that would be like contradicting God. Yet, in many verses like those that follow, Allah appears to go out of his way to find excuses for freeing slaves. He even, in the following verse, calls “righteous” those who would spend their money to buy a slave’s freedom.
2:177 Righteousness is not to turn your faces towards the East and the West; the righteous is he who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the Prophets; who gives of his money, in spite of loving it, to the near of kin, the orphans, the needy, the wayfarers and the beggars, and for the freeing of slaves; who performs the prayers and pays the alms-tax. Such are also those who keep their pledges once they have made them, and endure patiently privation, affliction and in times of fighting (in the Way of Allah). Those are the truthful and the God-Fearing.
Allah’s suggestion about what believers should do with they money would have meant little, if anything, for female slaves. Under normal circumstances, you only freed slaves that had the means to look after themselves.
In traditional Islamic society, the forced seclusion of women and their property-like status meant that a female slave could never be expected to be able to look after herself. Therefore, her slave status was more or less a lifetime thing, unless she was a believer and her proprietor decided to make her one of his four permanent wives or give her in marriage to another believer in return for some benefit or to settle an obligation.
One of the ingenious contrivances which Allah uses to compel slave owners to free some of their slaves is requiring the freedom of a slave as penance for a transgression. In the following verse Allah makes the freeing of a believing slave part of the payment for the accidental killing of a believer by another believer.
4:92 It is not given to a believer to kill another believer except by mistake; and he who kills a believer by mistake should free a slave who is a believer and pay blood-money to his relatives, unless they remit it as alms. If he happens to belong to a people who are your enemies, but he is a believer, then you should free a believing slave. If he belongs to a people bound with you by a compact, then blood-money should be paid to his relatives and a believing slave should be freed. As for him who has not the means, he should fast for two consecutive months, as a penance from Allah. Allah is All-Knowing, Wise!
A slave could also find freedom in death as retribution for the deliberate killing of another slave-owner’s property.
2:178 O believers, retaliation for the slain is prescribed for you; a free [man] for a free [man], a slave for a slave and a female for a female. But if he is pardoned by his brother (the aggrieved), usage should be followed (capital punishment would be replaced by blood-money) and he should pay him (the aggrieved) liberally and kindly. This is remission and mercy from your Lord. He who transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.
The freeing of a slave is also the penance if you ignore your wife’s sexual needs, claiming she reminds you of your mother, and then wish to get back together to indulge in more than social intercourse. These verses, which do not stipulate whether the slave to be freed must be a believer, are found in the somewhat aptly named surah, The Pleading Woman.
58:2 Those of you who ignore their wives saying: “You are like our mother’s back”, should know that they are not really their mothers. Their mothers are only those women who gave them birth, and they are certainly making a reprehensible statement and a lie. But Allah is indeed Al-Pardoning, All-Forgiving.
58:3 And those who say of their wives: “You are like our mother’s back”, then retract what they said, have to free a slave before touching each other. That is what you are admonished, and Allah is Fully Aware of what you do.
A slave could also be freed as penance for a broken oath.
5:89 Allah will not take you to task for what is unintentional in your oaths, but will take you to task for the oaths you intentionally take. Expiation for it, is feeding ten poor people with such average food as you would feed your own families, clothing them or freeing one slave. But he who cannot find [the means] should fast three days. That is the expiation for your oaths when you have sworn (those oaths which you have not kept). Keep your oaths; that is how Allah makes clear His Revelations to you, that you may be thankful.
If you have a choice between marrying a believing slave or an unbelieving free-woman, Allah recommends that you marry a believing slave. This could also be construed as Allah, again, doing what he can to free the slaves, in this instance a female slave, by making her a respectable women.
Considering the significant demands placed on “free” Muslim women in traditional Islamic society, for many, this change of status may not have been an improvement. For example, unlike the female slave who could be given as a token offering to an unbeliever thereby perhaps improving her lot in life, a free woman could not marry an unbeliever.
2:221 Do not marry unbelieving women (polytheists) until they believe. A believing slave-girl is certainly better than an unbelieving woman, even if the latter pleases you. And do not give your women (believing women) in marriage to polytheists until they believe. A believing slave is certainly better than a polytheist, even if the latter pleases you. Those (the polytheists) call to the Fire and Allah calls to Paradise and Forgiveness by His Leave; and He makes clear His Revelations to mankind so that they may be mindful.
Fakhry’s translation of verse 2:221 is the only translation consulted that uses the term polytheists i.e. idol worshippers instead of unbelievers. In his translation “marrying your women” to Christians and Jews would appear to be permitted. Since this seldom happens in practice, I side with what appears to be a majority of translators that a believing women can not be given in marriage to a non-Muslim.
For a believing woman, revelation 2:221 is a divine imperative; for a believing man, not necessarily so. An unbelieving female in the midst of believers would face extreme pressure to convert – slavery and death not being excluded – and become eligible to be claimed by a believing man for matrimonial purposes.
You should be kind to your slave-girls.
4:36 Worship Allah and do not associate with Him anything. Show kindness to the parents, to kinsmen, to orphans, the destitute, the close and distant neighbour, the companion by your side, and those whom your right-hands possess. Allah does not love the arrogant and the boastful,
4:37 Those who are niggardly, and order other people to be niggardly, and conceal what Allah has given them of His Bounty, We have prepared for the unbelievers a demeaning punishment.
Kindness does not extend to sharing the extra that Allah may have given you with your slave-girls.
16:71 Allah has favoured some of you over the others in provision; but those favoured will not give their provision to those [slaves] whom their right hands possess so as to be equal therein. Will they then deny Allah’s blessings?
And being kind did not necessarily prohibit having non-consensual sex.
Abu Sirma said to Abu Sa'id al Khadri (Allah be pleased with him): 0 Abu Sa'id, did you hear Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) mentioning al-'azl?
He said: Yes, and added: We went out with Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) on the expedition to the Bi'l- Mustaliq and took captive some excellent Arab women; and we desired them, for we were suffering from the absence of our wives, (but at the same time) we also desired ransom for them.
So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing 'azl (withdrawing the male sexual organ before emission of semen to avoid conception).
But we said: We are doing an act whereas Allah's Messenger is amongst us; why not ask him?
So we asked Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him), and he said: It does not matter if you do not do it, for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born.
Imam Muslim 8:3371
Why Slavery Cannot Simply Be Abolished
The question remains: Why did Allah, in revelations that were meant to guide mankind for thousands of years, not simply abolish slavery?
Believers would say it is because Allah sees nothing wrong in enslaving your fellow men, women and children as long as it is done in accordance with the standard slavery practices prescribed in the Koran; and they are probably right.
Also, in the brutal, inescapable logic of Islam, how could a believer make amends for a transgression where a slave is part of the penance if he was not allowed to own slaves in the first place?
And then, there is revelation 30:30, the single most significant and probably insurmountable obstacle to the Islamic World formally renouncing slavery in all its forms, for it would be altering the original nature of Allah’s Creation of which slavery always was and is an integral part.
30:29 Yet, the wrongdoers have followed their fancies without knowledge. Who, then, will guide those whom Allah has led astray and who have no supporters?
30:30 So, set your face towards religion uprightly. It is the original nature according to which Allah fashioned mankind. There is no altering Allah’s Creation. That is the true religion; but most men do not know.
30:31 Returning unto Him. Fear Him, perform the prayer and do not be like the idolaters;
30:32 Those who have rent their religion asunder and split into factions, each party rejoicing in what they had.
The Koran is not so much a philosophy of life as a set of rules. Allah will judge the believers based on their strict adherence to these rules. A slaver who follows Allah’s revelations, including those governing slavery, is being a good Muslim.
The Koran’s explicit condoning of slavery and the increase in the number of slaves around the world, especially in countries where traditional Islam finds acceptance, has to be particularly worrisome for non-traditional believers and unbelievers alike.