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Slavery an Islam

Slavery an Islam


Assalamuu Aliakum, I’m really confused about slavery and Islam. Why was slavery allowed in Islam? Did the Prophet SAW have slaves and concubines? What about Maria Qibtiyya? I thought a relationship between a male and female was not allowed outside the bounds of marriage in Islam, but they had a son? I’m very confused. I tried finding the info online, but I ‘m not sure what is reliable or not. Thanks in advance!

Wa alykum as-salaam,

This is a very interesting question and one that forces us to view humanity at its most despicable, but when we discuss slavery and Islam we have to force ourselves to take a very different view of slavery to the one that we have been socialized into. What I mean is that, when we speak of slavery, we generally refer to the Western experience with slavery, in which particular people were put into slavery and their bondage was justified due to their “particulars,” i.e. because they were black.

In some portions of the Muslim world, slaves were, indeed black, but slavery within the Muslim world was not based upon race, and slaves did not experience the same brutality, nor did they occupy the same place within society as in other parts of the world, let alone the West.

As far as slavery being “allowed” in Islam, I’m not sure if Islam really takes that stance on slavery at all. Again, in discussing slavery, we have to understand the economic structures and the incentive structures of Muslims as one issue and contrast that with how Islam actually addresses slavery as another.

With regard to the vast majority of problems afflicting a society, the injunctions found in The Qur’an are generally designed to bring immediate change. However, illustrating a level of understanding of human inclinations, The Qur’an, in several instances, provides injunctions and incentives to bring an end to several different kinds of behaviors, that cannot be broken immediately.

For instance, many times, those who are addicted to certain kinds of substances, cannot just stop “cold turkey.” People can die from withdrawal symptoms, and even if that is not the case, I do not know of any therapist who would suggest going about recovering from something that way.

Now, as corny as this sounds, applying this thought process to humanity is applicable. Before you freak out on me, let me just say, there is already tremendous literature that is directed and structured at this very problem, of changing human (political) behavior. It’s normally referred to as “the transitions literature,” and I’m sure many of you have read it, especially if you’re reading stuff about the World Bank, IMF, or other various organizations directed towards assisting and changing people’s lives.

I’m sure you thinking, “uh… fantastic Osama, why do you tell me these useless things?” The point is that today, 2012, we are utilizing this exact method of “pacted transitions,” so that the methodology within The Qur’an is designed, in my opinion, with this characteristic and with this advanced understanding of humanity.

Now, the “pacted transitions” literature might have problems in terms of their particular cases, the reality is that, in all major changes to any societal construct, it takes time, and the key towards a successful transition is not just the goal, but the correct identification of what steps are necessary in order to ensure you get to that goal.

So, in order to get someone (or some country) to do what “you” want, you give them incentives to change their behavior. This “incentive structure” is in not only in making slavery only permissible in very confined instances, but, that when you look at The Qur’an as a whole, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that slavery is an institution that is to be abolished.

The Qur’an restricts slavery to captured combatants from enemy armies, which also, very interestingly, is the verse where The Qur’an implicitly states that what is required of The Prophet is expected of his followers, thus establishing our shared humanity, but also, our connection, as humans to those who will be slaves. The ayah, from Surah Al-Anfal says the following:

“It does not behove a prophet to keep captives unless he has battled strenuously on earth.” [8:67]

It is from this ayah that we get the restriction of slavery to combatants in war, and this practice was used, according to many scholars, because they did not have prisons to keep these captives in the first place. I am inclined to agree with this perspective, but also, the tradition of The Prophet and through the understanding of this verse is that they should be freed after the war is over, which solidifies the idea that what slavery was “justified” in The Qur’an, really was meant for a practical purpose and for a very small point in time.

The Qur’an also provides random places where you are supposed to free a slave. For instance, if you killed someone (I’m sorry that sounds so casual…) and it was by accident, The Qur’an does not just ask you to pay compensation to the grieving family, but to free a slave. This is literally, in The Qur’an, in Surah An-Nisa:

“And it is not conceivable that a believer should slay another believer, unless it be by mistake. And upon him who has slain a believer by mistake there is the duty of freeing a believing soul from bondage and paying an indemnity to the victim’s relations,” [4:92]

However, the firmest place in which The Qur’an’s stance towards slavery, as something to be abolished, is within one of my favorite ayahs in The Qur’an. It is within this ayah, in Surah Al-Baqarah, in which I believe that the central tenants of, not just a Muslim but a human being, is outlined clearly:

“True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west — but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day, and the angels, and revelations, and the prophets; and spends his substance — however much he himself may cherish it — upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage;and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God.” [2:177]

I felt that the entire ayah was worth quoting. I could (and I think I will) write an entire article on this ayah alone, because it is so wonderful, especially when you look at the structure and how God puts what should be our priorities as human beings. Regardless, looking at what I italicized, the point here is that, when God is referring to our most basic obligations as human beings, that freeing people from slavery is central towards Islam.

So, in short, is slavery really allowed in Islam, or was it something to be tolerated, and to be phased out as human society progressed? I think, as far as Islam and the structure of The Qur’an goes, it’s abundantly clear that slavery is abhorred and problematic, especially since Islam places as human beings as equals before the eyes of God, but instead of pretending it doesn’t exist or that it shouldn’t, The Qur’an tackles slavery, head on, and even though Muslims in history did not follow what The Qur’an commanded, I think that, even with human weakness, the status of slaves within the Muslim world has meant that many of the ugly sides of slavery that afflicted other societies, is largely absent from Muslim societies.

As far as The Prophet having slaves or concubines, to my knowledge, the most routinely discussed possible concubines that he had were three women: Safiyya bint Huyayy, Maria al-Qibtiyyah, and Rayhanna. I can’t think of any primary source evidence (like The Qur’an, for example) that I could give you (here) to assure you that they were his wives, but, from what I have read, the evidence seems to be pretty clear that he married these women. One of the main reasons why scholars have found it doubtful that The Prophet would marry these women, is because they were not Muslim, which is especially true of Maria al-Qibtiyyah.

Her conversion to Islam is not certain, though it seems it is possible, but, again, her name denotes that she might have maintained her faith. Regardless, the issue of their status as “wives” is predicated on how the scholar sees the relative problem of The Prophet being married to someone who was not Muslim. I’m not sure if this is as much of an issue, especially since it would have been permissible anyways… So, I don’t get it.

As far as slaves, I believe he owned slaves prior to his prophethood, and even then, he freed them. The woman Barakah, who helped raise him, is one of the examples that I can think of. Another slave was Zayd ibn Harithah, who was The Prophet’s adopted son (before direct adoption was made impermissible) and who was, not only Black, but one of the first Muslims. The Prophet offered to free him, which Zayd rejected, The Prophet then freeing him and adopting him, again, before adoption rules were stated revealed to Muhammad.

Zayd’s son, Osama ibn Zayd, would become the youngest Muslim general, and would later have an awkward child named after him.

As far as whether having sexual relations with a concubine being permissible, again, this is actually more disputable than Muslims believe. This centers upon the phrase “who your right hand possess,” and when it comes to sexual relations, historical scholars, not just modern ones, offer a very different hypothesis.

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, frequently known as simply Tabari, and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, referred to as simply Razi, have both argued in their works that these phrases in The Qur’an are very restrictive. Tabari argued that this phrase should mean that “women whom you rightfully possess through wedlock,” that that understanding was implicit within The Qur’an. Razi, argues that because the famous phrase (about right hand possessing) is within reference to “all married women” and is designed to stress the prohibition of sexual relations with any woman other than one’s lawful wife.

That being said, other commentaries justify the ability to have sexual relations with women other than your wife to, again, a very specific instance. The arguments focus on two issues:

Back in the day, if you did not have sons, when you got old, you would die. Without heirs, without someone protecting you, there was nothing that could really protect you. There were no 401K’s, so your “retirement plan” was your kids. Yes, The Prophet did not have sons, but he did not live in the same situation as others. So, in order to maximize the chance that someone would have children (since so many died in childbirth) having children with concubines was seen as acceptable, because of this practical need. It must be stressed, that in pushing this view, many scholars would argue that the alleged concubines discussed earlier, were not wives, but concubines.

The second possible justification was that, and this is somewhat related to the first issue, that when the Muslim men were in non-Muslims lands, especially on military expeditions, they generally did not bring their wives. Thus, this was considered a right during military campaigning, and again, like the first category, is predicated on the perception of The Prophet’s relationship with the women mentioned above and the interpretation one has of the sexual rights granted in The Qur’an.

However, even if the above interpretations were correct, they are ultimately tied to slavery. Thus, once the basis of slavery is abolished, as is required by Islam, so is the possibility of having sexual relations with a concubine.

Again, slavery in the Muslim experience created very different societal outcomes. I literally hate reading Western interpretations on Muslim slavery, mostly because they try and make parallels that do not exist. The most striking examples are the Mameluks and the Janissaries, who were ostensibly slaves, but were either rulers of entire Empires or the backbone of the Ottoman Empire. People would push their children into these forms of slavery, because it would mean education, and advancement.

Is slavery a good thing? Absolutely not, which The Qur’an and The Prophet agreed with and thoroughly combated. The most important factor is that you separate the Western narrative on slavery, which is informed by its particular brand of slavery, and the slavery experienced by Muslims, who by even continuing to have slaves, were not following the injunctions in The Qur’an, but, again, the experience was very different.

Just because The Qur’an addresses slavery, does not mean that it is justifying slavery. The Qur’an addresses violence, does that mean The Qur’an condones violence? Of course not, but a human being will come into contact with violence and thus must deal with, just as the Muslim would have to deal with slavery (back then) and thus, what would be the purpose of being silent on the issue?

That is the beauty of The Qur’an, it does not give a message that you want to hear, it gives you the message that you need to hear.

Insha Allah, I hope I answered your question, and I hope that if you or anyone else has a question on this, or another topic that you do not hesitate to ask me.

For further elucidation on this topic, please read this post.

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