Getting to Know Allah
Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain the moral or ethical imperative on which Allah bases His instructions; for example, His condoning slavery and condemning the practice of lending money at interest. Both convey an economic advantage to the slave-owner and the money-lender respectively. However, the transaction involving only money 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 servitude.
A God’s Dilemma
Allah seems to be of two minds when it comes to slavery. The Koran unambiguously condones slavery, and what the Koran allows, no one can deny; that would be like contradicting God. Yet, in many verses like those that follow, God appears to go out of his way to find excuses for freeing slaves. He even calls “righteous” those who would spend their money “for the freeing of slaves.”
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 that believers spend some of their wealth “for the freeing of slaves” would have meant little, if anything, for females in bondage. Under normal circumstances, you only freed slaves that had the means to look after themselves. In Muhammad’s time, and in traditional Islamic society, the forced seclusion of women and their property-like status meant that a female slave could never be expected 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 contrivances that God uses to compel slave owners to free some of their slaves was requiring the freeing of a slave as penance for a transgression, such as 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.
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 All-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 slaves, in this instance a female slave, by making her a respectable woman.
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.
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. You should be kind to your slave-girls, whom Allah refers to as “what your right hands possess” or variations thereof.
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,
Being kind to what “your right-hands possess”, e.g., your female captives, did not prohibit non-consensual sex.
Abu Sirma said to Abu Sa'id al Khadri (Allah be pleased with him): O 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
Kindness does not extend to sharing with your slave-girls all the extra that Allah may have given to you.
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?
Why Slavery Can Never Be Abolished
The question remains: Why did Allah, in revelations that were meant to guide mankind for thousands of years, not simply abolish slavery? 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? 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 this would mean 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 you 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’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.
Slavery and the Prophet
Judging from a sample of the sayings and examples of Muhammad, he too is in favour of slavery, perhaps even more so than the god for whom he claimed to speak. He even rebuked one of his wives for freeing (manumitting) a slave-girl instead of giving her to an uncle.
The freed slave of Ibn 'Abbas, that Maimuna bint Al-Harith told him that she manumitted (freed) a slave-girl without taking the permission of the Prophet.
On the day when it was her turn to be with the Prophet, she said, "Do you know, O Allah's Apostle, that I have manumitted my slave-girl?"
He said, "Have you really?"
She replied in the affirmative.
He said, "You would have got more reward if you had given her (i.e. the slave-girl) to one of your maternal uncles."
Muhammad helped a man in need of money by selling his slave for him.
Narrated Jabir bin Abdullah:
A man decided that a slave of his would be manumitted after his death and later on he was in need of money, so the Prophet took the slave and said, "Who will buy this slave from me?"
Nu'aim bin Abdullah bought him for such and such price and the Prophet gave him the slave.
Muhammad cancelled a dying man’s wish that six of his slaves be freed, freeing only two and keeping the other four for himself or perhaps for someone else.
Imran b. Husain reported that a person who had no other property emancipated six slaves of his at the time of his death. Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) called for them and divided them into three sections, cast lots amongst them, and set two free and kept four in slavery; and he (the Holy Prophet) spoke severely of him.
Muhammad cancelled the freeing of a slave and sold it on behalf of its owner who had no other chattel.
A man manumitted a slave and he had no other property than that, so the Prophet cancelled the manumission (and sold the slave for him).
No'aim bin Al-Nahham bought the slave from him.
One last hadith about what Muhammad had to say about slavery; it’s somewhat of a confounding one.
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
The Prophet said: "The freed slave belongs to the people who have freed him."