Slavery and Islam


"How could man enslave his fellow man when he was born free?"

This statement was made by the second leader, or Caliph, of the Muslims, Omar Bin Al-Khattab, more than 13 centuries ago and sums up the position of Islam on the basic human rights of equality, freedom and justice. It defies all pretences of human prejudice and echoes the magnificent oration of the Prophet (SA) during his farewell speech,

 "يا أيها الناس: إن ربكم واحد، وإن أباكم واحد، ألا لا فضل لعربي على عجمي ولا عجمي على عربي، ولا لأحمر على أسود ولا لأسود على أحمر إلا بالتقوى، "إن أكرمكم عند الله أتقاكم"[1]

“O People, your Lord is the same, and your forefather is the same. There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab and vice versa, nor for a red person over black person and vice versa. The most noble of you in the sight of God is the most pious”.

This statement declares the irrelevance of color, race, and ethnicity in society. It confirms position and status within Muslim societies are earned through good deeds and piety. It emphasizes the oneness of all humanity and reiterates the purpose of mankind as proclaimed in the Quran,

 " يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ"[2]

“O mankind, indeed, We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you”.

So, how can the religion of Islam so strongly advocate for human rights, while also permitting slavery? The reason is clear. Islam came as the final solution to end the centuries-old cycle of slavery. Its aim was two-fold, one, to introduce humanity and civility to those enslaved and, two, to put an end to slavery altogether. Slavery long predated Islam. Roman and Persian empires had thriving slave trades. Pre-Islamic pagans of the Arabian Peninsula commoditized slaves to inconceivable levels. Common practice at the time saw female slaves passed from father to son as inherited property.

Early Muslim society presented the opposite practice and revealed how working slaves should be treated and preached the virtues and rewards of their release. By the time of the death of the Prophet (SA), only one permissible source for slaves remained, prisoners of war. Even in the case of POWs, however, Islam professed the benefit of their release, as stated in this Quranic verse,

" فَإِمَّا مَنًّا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَاءً حَتَّىٰ تَضَعَ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا "[3]

“either [confer] favor afterwards [by releasing them] or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens”.

Islam went on to instruct that in a situation where the enemy enslaves your POWs, you have the choice to reciprocate. This reciprocation principle, however, serves as an inhibitory mechanism to discourage others from the practice of slavery, rather than an excuse to take POWs.

In support of the principle of the eradication of slavery, Islam opened endless doors from which to free slaves. Freeing slaves was regarded as a recommended deed for the sake of good. As a testament to the elevated status of slaves in Muslim societies, prominent companions of the Prophet (SA) were bought as slaves for the sole purpose of being freed. As an example, Bilal (RA) was purchased from his master by Abu Bakr, the first convert to Islam, and freed. Additionally, some of the greatest scholars of Islam were once slaves. Salem, the one-time servant of Ibn Omar, is only one example.

Muslims and the religion of Islam were largely influential in the abolition of slavery in the US. Not until nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, and nearly 1,000 years after Muslim societies had done so, did the United States begin to consider the abolishment of slavery. Massachusetts Senator, Charles Sumner even quoted the Qur’an on several occasions during his speeches attacking slavery

Islam and Muslims had a direct impact on the legendary Senator Sumner’s thinking regarding slavery. Sumner, was particularly impressed by the urging of the Qur’an towards fair treatment of slaves and their eventual emancipation. In one address, the future senator remarked on the comparatively better treatment of slaves held by Muslims. He also acknowledged that for Muslims, slavery was not a race-based nor an indelible mark of exclusion from power and influence. In fact, he pointed out, that often they (slaves) arrived at eminent posts in the state. Unlike slaves in the US, who were often taken from positions of power or prominence in Africa and thrust into new lives as slaves, like in the story of Omar ben Saeed. History provides many examples of freed slaves thriving in Muslim societies.

  • Sister Lubna of Cordoba (d. 984). Started a slave. Become palace secretary in Cordoba. Skilled mathematician. Presided over the royal library of over 500,000 books.
  • Sister Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257). Started as a slave. By 1250 became ruler of Egypt. Heavily involved in defeating the crusaders and taking King Louis IX of France captive.

In Islam, freeing slaves was expiation for many ritual violations or sins, such as not fasting Ramadan, not fulfilling an oath or as ransom for manslaughter. The Prophet (SA) required a person who insults, or physically or verbally offends his slave to free him/her to repent from the sin of offending a slave. Islamic teachings required masters to hold their slaves at uncompromised levels of human dignity. The Prophet (SA) stated:

"إِخْوَانُكُمْ خَوَلُكُمْ جعلهم الله تحت أيديكم، فمن كان أخوه تحت يده فليطعمه مما يأكل، وليلبسه مما يلبس، ولا تكلفوهم ما يغلبهم، فإن كلفتموهم فأعينوهم"[4]

“Your servants are your brothers, who Allah willed to be in your hands.  Whosoever has a brother in his hand, let him feed him the same as what he eats, clothe him the same as how he clothes himself, and not ask him to do things beyond his capability, and when assigning him a task, help him with it”.

Islam restored human dignity to slaves and raised their levels to that of their masters. This practice served as mental rehabilitation, so they may be independent and ready to be freed as full-functioning members of society as opposed to being released into a society in a state of alienation and disenfranchisement. The process of limiting slavery sources and maximizing the liberation of slaves allowed gradual transition without destabilizing society. Muslims owners were the hope for slaves in search of liberation.

In conclusion, Islam allowed Muslims to have access to slaves as a safety mechanism to limit slavery and to ensure proper treatment and the eventual emancipation of all slaves. Islam would finally clean up the mess left behind by previous fallen civilizations through the complete eradication of slavery in society.


[1]Al  Baihaki collection

[2] Quran:  Al-Hujurat (49:13)

[3] Quran:  Muhammad (47:4)

[4] Bukhari collection


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