by Adam Watson
The Holy Book of Islam has been given various English spellings over the years. I have chosen to use Qur’an. Scholars have also used Quran or Koran. When they have done so in quotes I have used for my essay (or in the titles of their works I am quoting), I have retained their particular spelling so as not to alter their original intent. Likewise, and more importantly, there is an unfortunate male chauvinism pervasive in some of these scholars’ translations of the Qur’an, or in their comments; “Allah” and “humanity” as Male and men, respectively. (All but one of the scholars cited in my essay are male.) Although I try to be gender-neutral when using either concept, I retain their exact wording as given.
All verses quoted from The Qur’an are from Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation, unless otherwise noted (see Works Cited).
The existence of slavery is an ancient condition. It existed long before the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, starting in 610 C.E. What is interesting is comparing the depiction of slavery in the Qur’an to the Old and New Testament. In these older Jewish and Christian holy texts, a specificplan to eliminate the human bondage of our temporal present is never discussed. The Qur’an, on the other hand, not only recognized the immorality of slavery in seventh century Arabia, but sought to end it. The plan to do so is both implicit and explicit. To recognize this is to respect the Islamic attempt, in the name of Allah, to destroy an evil custom nearly thirteen centuries before America would legally and politically do the same.
The Qur’an is a pragmatic book. It recognizes that a negative institution that is deeply part of Arabic culture could not be eliminated instantly, with a single surah: “Slavery was widely prevalent in Arabia at the time of the advent of Islam, and the Arab economy was based on it” (Hassan 374). Instead, repetition of thoughts is often used that either collectively make God’s plan apparent, or build from criticism to condemnation. An example of the latter is how the Qur’an gradually forbids the consumption of intoxicating substances:
They ask you concerning wine . . . Say: “In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.” (2:219)
O you who believe! do not approach prayers with a mind befogged, until you can understand all that you say . . . (4:43)
O you who believe! intoxicants . . . are an abomination, – of Satan’s handiwork: eschew such (abomination), that you may prosper. Satan’s plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants . . . and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer: will you not then abstain? (5:90-91)
The Qur’an is always aware of humanity’s resistance to change. Fiery pronouncements may be more dramatic and gain immediate results, but water wisdom seems to be the path of Allah (rivers and streams are persistent images in the Qur’an); the Muslim has old habits and prejudices washed and eroded away, while simultaneously getting cleansed and purified. Extending this water metaphor, we can see how Islam will end slavery: with subtle trickles of revelation and rules that only become an unstoppable river when seen in context as a whole.
First, we will examine Qur’anic passages that specifically describe releasing slaves:
It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness . . . to spend of your substance . . . for the ransom of slaves. (2:177)
Never should a Believer kill a Believer; but (if it so happens) by mistake, (compensation is due): if one (so) kills a Believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave, and pay compensation to the deceased’s family . . . For those who find this beyond their means, (is prescribed) a fast for two months running: by way of repentance to Allah. (4:92)
Allah will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons . . . or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. (5:89)
Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); . . . for those in bondage and in debt . . . (9:60)
But for those who divorce their wives . . . then wish to go back on the words they uttered, – (it is ordained that such a one) should free a slave before they touch each other: this you are admonished to perform . . . And if any has not (the wherewithal), he should fast for two months consecutively before they touch each other. But if any is unable to do so, he should feed sixty indigent ones. (58:3-4)
Verily We have created Man into toil and struggle. . . . And what will explain to you the path that is steep? – (It is:) freeing the bondman . . . (90:4-13)
There are several important facts to glean from these verses. First, freeing slaves is shown as clearly an easier choice of penance, whether in expenditure of money or physical effort, when compared to fasting (from three days to two months) or feeding or clothing the poor (from ten to sixty people). Therefore, freeing slaves seems to be the choice that Allah prefers Muslims to take, since the All-Powerful always desires Muslims to avoid faith-tasks that overburden them, whenever possible. This also shows the importance of ending slavery for Muslims by determining the equivalence of freeing a slave with seemingly the more difficult tasks (part of Surah 90’s “steep path”) of fasting, or feeding and clothing many of the poor. Indeed, one slave is equal to days or months of fasting, or feeding/clothing ten or sixty needy persons. The Qur’an’s statistical analysis of slaves is important to note. Another example of this is the punishment of female slaves if they are found guilty of promiscuousness: “if they fall into shame, their punishment is half that of free women” (4:25). “In making such a distinction,” Riffat Hassan writes, “the Qur’an while upholding high moral standards . . . reflects God’s compassion for women slaves who were socially disadvantaged” (373-374). In quantitative logic, Allah constantly and consistently shows a preference of freeing slaves over other penances, even giving slaves more compassion than free Muslims.
Secondly, as 2:177 and 9:60 shows, Islamic society is directed to create a permanent fund for freeing those in bondage. This is an example of the Qur’an’s pragmatism. These particular verses do not argue if people should not be slaves on principle. Instead, the Qur’an talks to the Muslims that consider slaves property; and, like any assets that are “lost,” want compensation for freeing them. Very well, you can almost hear the Qur’an say, here is your money, if you need a reason to free them. But, it would be better if you freed them without compensation, if you only knew. Finally, putting the above verses in context with the rest of the Qur’an is important. Nowhere can you find verses that prescribe slavery as punishment, that creates slaves. The freeing of slaves even includes those gained in war with the enemy, Muslim and non-Muslim alike (Maudoodi 187). In fact, by freeing POWs, the elimination of slavery was unavoidable, since “[t]he major source of slaves – men and women – was prisoners of war” (G.A. Parwez, qtd. in Hassan 375). Allah’s mathematical intent is clear. By having rules for reducing the amount of slaves instead of rules adding more to the total, the phasing out of human bondage will inevitably occur.
Other verses address the treatment of slaves. “The believers must (eventually) win through, – Those who . . . abstain from sex, except those joined to them in the marriage bond” (23:1-6) is an indictment against sex with slaves. “When slavery existed in early Islam and the master had sexual rights over his slaves,” Fathi Osman writes, “Islam, as part of its plan to gradually end slavery, commanded that a sexual relation with a slave was lawful only through marriage” (840, my italics). “[T]hey may wed [believers] from among those whom your right hands possess,” the Qur’an tells us (4:25); it also implores us to “Marry those among you who are single, or the virtuous ones among your slaves, male or female” (24:32). A slave is equally fit for marriage as a freeperson, the beginning of a process that asks: if slaves and freepersons are equal for marriage, why are they not therefore equal in other ways? The condemnation of forcing slaves to have sex with their masters (or others) is also stressed: “[D]o not force your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity” (24:33).
Earlier in the same verse indicated above, the Qur’an gives more details on the emancipation of slaves. Muslims should not only grant them freedom, but help them financially so that they may begin their new life with dignity:
And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if you know any good in them; yes, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. (24:33)
“According to the Quran, and the juristic inference from it,” Osman writes, “helping the slave to become free is an individual and social obligation” (851). The end of the verse is a warning to the person who believes what he or she owns – whether it is personal riches, or slaves – as belonging “only” to him or her, accomplished without outside help: “The Quran here reminds the individual and the society that the wealth they have belongs initially to God . . . and any individual or society is only entrusted by God with the wealth and has to deal with it . . . according to God’s guidance” (Osman 852). Ownership becomes a temporary privilege, not a permanent right:
Allah has bestowed His gifts of sustenance more freely on some of you than on others: those more favored 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 favors of Allah? (16:71, my italics)
The Qur’an’s equalization of slave and master works to further eliminate any distinction between the two in the eyes of Allah:
[W]ith regard to those whom “one’s right hand possess,” an authentic tradition of the Prophet indicates that they are merely brothers whom God has placed under one’s authority and they should all eat the same food and be equally clothed. Morever, they should not be required to do what would over-burden them, otherwise the one who has them himself/herself should help in such a case. (Osman 781-782)
M. Umaruddin’s description of Muhammad echoes the above:
He led an absolutely frugal and temperate life, subsisting on the simplest fare, consisting mainly of dates and barley. He patched his own sandals and repaired his own clothes. He meted out equal treatment to all, free or slave. . . . No Muslim, says the Prophet, is a believer unless he desires for his brethren what he desires for himself. This injunction is one of the corner-stones of the moral order of Islam. (45, my italics)
This “corner-stone” of Islam, this equality for all men and women, is perhaps the main teaching of the Qur’an. In a verse quoted earlier that allowed Muslims to marry a slave, it continues: “Allah has full knowledge about your Faith. You are one from another” (4:25). (Osman translates the last sentence as “each one of you is (equally) a part of the same wholeness” .) In an earlier verse, this phrase is repeated; it is the work of the Believer that will be judged, not whether the work comes from master or slave, man or woman:
[Allah tells them:] “Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: you are members, one of another . . . verily, I will blot out from them their iniquities, and admit them into Gardens with rivers flowing beneath; – a reward from the Presence of Allah, and from His Presence is the best of rewards.” (3:195)
Of the equality of humanity, Muhammad could not be more explicit:
The sermon of the Holy Prophet on the occasion of his last pilgrimage declares: “All men are like brothers: the black has no superiority over the red, nor has an Arab any preferential claim on a non-Arab. All are sons of Adam and Adam was made out of clay.” This was in fact a charter of equality and freedom for the enslaved people of the world from whom loyalties of diverse types were expected. The doctrine of tauhid (Unity of God) broke all these chains. (Dar 19)
[Muhammad] releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who believe in him, honor him, help him, and follow the Light which is sent down with him, – it is they who will prosper. (7:157)
The removal of the slave’s chains, the slave’s burdens; indeed, the removal of the yoke of slavery itself – this is a crucial gift from Allah, made clear by the Prophet.
Commentators on the Qur’an further elaborate Muhammad’s intention. Osman mentions al-Nasafi (d. 1142 C.E.), and the following long excerpts are invaluable in illuminating Allah’s attitude toward slavery:
[al-Nasafi] points out that freeing a human being from bondage is the only way to make up for killing another human being, as freeing a person is comparable to giving life in its true meaning to a person deprived of it (commentary on 4:92). . . . Considering bondage equal to death, al-Nasafi states that slavery is related to a society dominated by the stubborn concealing of the truth, “kufr“, and the injustice of such a society made its life in its real sense mere death . . . Thus, Muslims inherited slavery from previous societies, and Islam has strongly indicated that its principles are against it, and has presented a comprehensive plan to liquidate it. (Osman 944)
[al-Nasafi says] that freeing a slave means actually bringing him/her back to life after the allegorical destruction of the human personality caused by slavery, and this is the only possible way to make up for killing an innocent person, since it is impossible to bring the victim back to life. This can be supported by the Quranic expression for freeing a slave which is “freeing or releasing the neck” . . . and it implies that slavery is a chain which strangles the essential human merit of free will. . . . [S]lavery was not accepted except as a temporary transitional solution that had to be terminated by the collective efforts of the people . . . [Also, the] Quran did not initiate slavery or determine it as one of its laws . . . [In fact, the] Prophet taught that even the word “slave” should not be used, but one could only say “my boy” or “my girl” . . . (Osman 989)
Muhammad wanted even the word “slave” eliminated, and we should have affection for them as we would a member of our family. After all, we are all equal members in the family of Allah. The word “master” should only be used for the Creator: “God Himself is the sole master, ruler, director, and administrator of His creation” (Maudoodi 191). This idea extends into politics. Humanity has and needs leaders, but they only lead their people; the leader does not own the people, and Allah forbids an unjust dictator. While Abu Ala Maudoodi may claim the Qur’an ultimately allows slavery, his own description of a proper Islamic State show how the master-slave relationship is untenable: “[A]n Islamic Caliphate cannot claim an absolute or unlimited obedience from the people. They are bound to obey it only so far as it exercises its powers in accordance with the divine Law . . . There can be neither obedience nor co-operation in sin and aggression” (194). Certainly one of the definitions of “slave” is a person forced against their will to serve another, unable to quit their servitude with their own volition without risking death or punishment. Traditionally, slaves were forced to do services that Muslims would consider sinful: sexual acts with someone other than their spouse, work without fair reward, and other humiliations that destroy their dignity. For these reasons, as Maudoodi points out above, Allah supports their disobedience, their refusal to be slaves. Conversely, the masters themselves are guilty of actions not congruent with Allah’s will. How can these so-called masters gain the obedience of their slaves? Ultimately, only with coercion and aggression — two actions forbidden by Allah. Slaves also increase the chance of sin-doing for the Believers; they provide an opportunity to have sex outside of marriage, and create idleness by doing work he or she could do himself/herself. It is clear that slavery hurts the master as well as the slave.
Furthermore, Maudoodi notes:
[T]he relations between State and individual are so balanced in this system that neither the State has been vested with absolute authority reducing individuals to virtual slavery, nor has individual freedom been allowed to turn itself into licence threatening the interest of society. (198, my italics)
What is true politically between the government and its citizens is also true between “master” and “slave”; if the State cannot impose “virtual slavery” on its citizens, how could Allah allow one person to impose actual slavery onto another? As Hassan says, “A Book which does not give a king or prophet the right to command absolute obedience from another human being could not possibly sanction slavery in any sense of the word” (375).
We must end our discussion of slavery with two final questions. First, if Allah did not want slavery to exist, why not simply forbid it, as the eating of swine and the consumption of intoxicants are forbidden? We must first remember this: “Because the Qur’an does not state explicitly that slavery is abolished, it does not follow that it is to be continued, particularly in view of the numerous ways in which the Qur’an seeks to eliminate this absolute evil” (Hassan 375). Still, it is true that some things in Arabic society, such as alcohol, were considered so destructive that an outright, unconditional, and immediate ban was necessary. (Even then, as pointed out in the beginning, intoxicants were gradually banned over the course of three different surahs.) Slavery, however, was more difficult to eliminate. As noted earlier, it was an integral part of the Arab economy. In order to successfully destroy the weed of human bondage, the roots had to be carefully examined, discovered to be harmful, then slowly pulled out. The culture of slavery was so ancient a condition it was considered normal, intractable, inevitable; thus, the Qur’an had to force Muslims to firstrationally conceive that slavery was evil, so that it would eventually be eliminated: “Through the use of their own intellect they will determine their responses – of course, in the light of the broad principles laid down by the Qur’an – to the changing socio-moral situations that we are bound to come across in life” (Khaliq 112-113). The dynamic nature of the Qur’an laid the groundwork for Muslims to examine the social and moral evils of human ownership. An Islamic State that understands the universal principle of equality also understands the particular principle of why slavery cannot exist in a just society.
The second question is more philosophical; although it may sound cynical and antagonistic, it is a valid point to logically address. If one accepts that Allah wants slavery eliminated among the Believers, does not the submissive nature of Islam itself create slaves of its Believers? More to the point, does Allah wish us to be slaves of God? I turn to Toshihiko Izutsu’s translation of two Qur’an verses (207):
Verily, We have written in the Psalms, after the remembrance, “The earth shall my [righteous] slaves inherit.” (21:105, my italics)
[Solomon] said, “My Lord, urge me to be thankful for Thy favor wherewith Thou hast favored me and my parents, and to do good work that shall be pleasing unto Thee; do Thou admit me by Thy mercy in the number of Thy [righteous] slaves.” (27:19, my italics)
Yusuf Ali’s translation of the same verses is similar, but he pointedly chooses to use the term “servants” instead of “slaves.” Is this simple mistranslation? I could argue it is, since the obvious negativity associated with the word “slave” seems not intended here; for further proof, we can remember Muhammad’s own objection to using the word “slave,” as noted earlier. Yet I can strongly show the difference goes beyond mere semantics. Ethically speaking, the relationships of Allah-Believer and master-slave are shown in the Qur’an to be completely different. There are two core differences.
The first is: Allah warns, the slavemaster threatens; furthermore, Islam is a system of reward, slavery a system of punishment. It is true that both Allah and slavemaster cause destruction, and fear is an important component of both Believer and slave. The slavemaster’s destructiveness and the slave’s fear of him or her is obvious, so we will instead concentrate on Allah. The most obvious, visceral, and repeated examples of Allah’s destructiveness is the annihilation of several ancient towns for immoral and unjust behavior. However, the Qur’an clearly shows these acts are carried out in the name of justice, and only done after Allah has given repeated warnings to the townspeople to repent. The townspeople’s transgressions are not as trivial as refusal to work or give sexual favors. Very well, you may say; but does the slavemaster not “warn” the slave of the consequences of not following his or her commands; what is the difference between a slavemaster’s “threats” and God’s “warnings”? And if one must obey the law, is it not justice for the slave to follow the word of the slavemaster? To the latter, I repeat the assertion that if the law is unjust to Allah, disobedience is not only allowed, but encouraged. To the former, I answer: the difference is in selfness and definition of terms. Allah is unselfish because the Believers are warned to save themselves from eternal damnation, for their own sake (“if they only knew,” the Qur’an repeats over and over!); whereas a slavemaster is selfish because he or she threatens the slave to follow his or her bidding (actions that do nothing positive for the slave) for the sake of the slavemaster. If the difference between warning and threatening is not yet clear, here is a metaphor. Consider a driver, driving at night down an unfamiliar road while talking on a mobile phone with an operator. The driver casually mentions a bridge over a ravine she is beginning to cross; the operator knows this bridge recently collapsed in the middle, and the driver will certainly plunge to her death. The operator does not personally know this driver; what personal value does the driver have to her? None, but because the operator cares, she must do the unselfish act of saving the woman’s life. When she shouts for the woman to hit her brakes, is she threatening her? Or warning her?
The difference between Allah and slavemaster lead to two different systems. Islam is a system of reward. The Qur’an makes clear, in several passages, that bad deeds are met by Allah with equal punishment, no more, no less; however, good deeds are rewarded with interest: “Allah is never unjust in the least degree: if there is any good (done), He doubles it” (4:40); “But those who have earned evil will have a reward of like evil” (10:27). Although bad deeds have negative consequences, we can see the emphasis is on rewarding good deeds. On the other hand, slavery is a system of punishment; the definition of “good” and “bad” is perverted. To the slavemaster, obedience is the most important “virtue.” It is imperative for slavery’s existence that rebellion is not only quelled but discouraged to occur in the first place. If a slave does the good deed of obeying, he or she is only allowed to live without damage or harm; as farmers do for their horses, so will slavemasters give their slaves food and shelter. If a slaves does the bad deed of disobeying, he or she is punished above and beyond the necessary means, for the end is not merely retribution, but as a warning (to this slave and all slaves) never to disobey. The emphasis clearly is on punishing bad deeds. A slavemaster more concerned with being humane, with rewarding slaves abundant luxuries, will only undermine his or her authority, and appear “soft”; the slavemaster only cares what slaves can do for him or her, and certainly cannot truly love them.
Allah does love humanity, as any Creator does its Creation, as any parent would a child. This brings us to the second core difference between Allah-Believers and slavemaster-slaves; fear is in both relationships, yet the fear of the former is one of deserved awe and respect, the latter is one that only leads to hatred and contempt. The divine Allah created all of humanity; humans only created slavery, but not the slave. We should therefore honor not slavemasters, but our parents and our Parent. Of course, human parents do not own their children as slavemasters own slaves, but there is an undeniable and unshakable bond between parent and child. The Qur’an only asks for Believers to recognize this bond and give thanks, as they should give thanks to the Ultimate Creator:
We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents: in pain did his mother bear him, and in paid did she give him birth. . . . . At length, when he reaches the age of full strength and attains forty years, he says, “O my Lord! Grant me that I may be grateful for Your favor which You have bestowed on me, and upon both my parents, and that I may work righteousness such as You may approve; and be gracious to me in respect of my offspring. Truly have I turned to You and truly do I bow (to You) in Islam. (46:15)
Serve Allah . . . and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the Companion by your side, the way-farer (you meet), and what your right hands possess [i.e. your slaves] . . . (4:36)
By teaching us to be grateful for being created, to “do good” to both our parents and our “slaves,” the Qur’an once again emphasizes the equality of Allah’s creation. A Creator so concerned with equality deserves respect.
The Prophet Muhammad did not believe that only the slaves of a particular race, religion, or ethnicity should be freed; instead, he desired to break the chains of slaves all over the world. The fact that the Qur’an did so with a specificity unparalleled in a monotheistic holy text makes it one of the greatest of anti-slavery books, and Muhammad himself one of the greatest of abolitionists. Peace be upon him.
Special thanks to Dr. Riffat Hassan; without her class or instruction, my greater awareness of Islam would not have occurred, and this paper would not have been written.
Dar, Bashir Ahmad. Qur’anic Ethics. 4th ed. Lahore, Pakistan: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1993.
Hassan, Riffat. “Rights of Women Within Islamic Communities.” Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective. Eds. J. Witte Jr. and J.D. van der Vyver. Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 1996. 361-386.
Izutsu, Toshihiko. The Structure of the Ethical Terms In the Koran: A Study in Semantics. Volume II. Republished in Louisville, Kentucky: Gray’s College Bookstore, 2002.
Khaliq, Abdul. Qur’an Studies: A Philosophical Exposition. Lahore, Pakistan: Victory Book Bank Lahore, 1990.
Maudoodi, Abul Ala. “Economic and Political Teachings of the Qur’an.” A History of Muslim Philosophy. Volume One. Ed. M.M. Sharif. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1963. 178-198.
Osman, Fathi. Concepts of the Quran: A Topical Reading. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: MVI Publication, 1999.
Qur’an, The. 6th ed. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Elmhurst, New York: Tahrike Tarsite Qur’an, Inc., 2001.
Umaruddin, M. The Ethical Philosophy of Al-Ghazzali. Lahore, Pakistan: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1988.
‘Many Africans and critics of Islam look at the erroneous behaviors of certain cruel Muslims who partake in Slave trade without examining the Real Islamic Teachings and how Islam made it a duty for the gradual abolition of slavery. Adam Watson did a great work by going to the Qur’an and stating the steps taken to practically eliminate slavery. Therefore, no form of slavery should be practiced in any society today, no category of people should be seen as of lower social class in any country or society if the people go by the steps and teachings of the Qur’an.’ Suntou Touray, Kairo News Culture/Politics Editor