Islam Attacks Slavery 2

Islam Attacks Slavery 2

Secondly, Islam commenced an active campaign to emancipate the slaves. Emancipation of slaves was declared to be expiation for a number of sins. This question is related to canonical laws of Islam, but we shall enumerate a few of them to show how for small sins of commission the penalty imposed was manumission of slaves. For instance, if a man failed to fast without any reasonable excuse during the month of Ramadan, or if he failed to observe fast of i'tikaf or vow, etc, he had to free a slave for each day, in addition to fasting afterwards.

Similarly, a slave had to be freed for every breach of vow; or for tearing one's garment as a demonstration of grief on the death of a spouse or child; or if a woman beat herself or cut or pulled her hair in grief over the death of anyone; or for accidental homicide and, in some cases, even for intentionally killing a Muslim; or if a husband told his wife that she was to him like his mother, and for many other trespasses.(1) From these instances, some of them trivial but deeply ingrained in Arab culture, one can see how religious laws were enacted for the emancipation of slaves, and the total eradication of the curse of slavery from the society.

It may well be argued that by prescribing emancipation of slaves as penance for sins, Islam envisaged continuance of slavery as a permanent institution. This was not so. For every instance emancipation of a slave was prescribed as a penance, an alternative was also prescribed - clearly indicating that Islam's objective was in time to create a society free from this pernicious institution.(2)

Islam also declared that any slave woman who bore a child by her master could not be sold and, on her master's death, she became automatically a free woman.(3) Moreover; in contrast to all previous customs, Islam ordained that the child born to a slave woman by her master should follow the status of the father.(4) Slaves were given a right to ransom themselves either on payment of an agreed sum or on completion of service for an agreed period. The legal term for this is mukatabah. Allah says in the Qur'an:

And those who seek a deed [of liberation] from among those [slaves] whom your right hands possess, give them the writing (kitab) if you know of goodness in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you.(5)

The word kitab in the verse stands for the written contract between the slave and his master known as mukatabah - deed of contract. The significant factor in mukatabah is that when a slave desires to get into such a mutual written contract, the master should not refuse it.(6) In the verse quoted above, God has made it incumbent upon Muslims to help the slaves in getting liberated.

When a slave wants to get himself freed, the master has not only to agree to it, but he is also directed to help the slave from his own wealth.(7) The only provision being the satisfaction to the effect that the slave would live a respectable life after earning his freedom. Thus, about 1400 years ago Islam dealt in the most effective way a death blow to slavery.

It also directed that the slaves seeking freedom should be helped from the public treasury (baytul mal).(8) Thus, as a last resort, the Prophet and his rightful successors were to provide ransom for the slaves out of state coffers. The Qur'an recognizes the emancipation of slaves as one of the permissible expenditures of alms and charity.(9)

It is worth remembering that a slave automatically became free if the master cut his ear or blinded his eye.(10) Also if the slaves, living in an Islamic state, accepted Islam before their masters, then they would become free automatically. If the slave became blind or handicapped he would become free.(11) According to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him), if a slave is Muslim and has worked for seven years then he should be set free. Forcing him to work after seven years is not permissible.(12) It is because of this tradition (hadith) that the religious scholars are of the opinion that freeing the slave after seven years is a highly recommended deed of virtue.

In addition to these compulsory ways of emancipation, voluntary emancipation of slaves was declared as the purest form of charity. Imam 'Ali emancipated one thousand slaves, purchasing them from his own money.(13) The same was the number of the slaves emancipated by the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. The fourth Imam, 'Ali bin al-Husayn, used to emancipate every slave in his household on the eve of 'Idd (the annual celebration of Muslims). It is important to note that in all the above cases, the freed slaves were provided with sufficient means to earn their livelihood respectably.

Islam is the first and the only religion which has prescribed liberation of slaves as a virtue and a condition of genuine faith in God. No religion other than Islam has ever preached and enjoined how best we can show our love for fellow human beings in bondage. In chapter ninety of the Qur'an, liberating a slave has been prescribed as a cardinal virtue of the faith:

Certainly We have created men [to dwell] in distress. What! Does he think that no one has power over him? He shall say, “I have wasted much wealth” Does he think that no one sees him? Have We not given him two eyes, a tongue and two lips, and We pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways [of good and evil]? But he would not attempt the uphill road. What will make you comprehend what the uphill road is? It is the setting free of a slave... .(14)

It should be mentioned that the setting free of a slave has been highly commended. Islam controlled slavery in such a graceful and practical way that it made the maintaining of a slave a great responsibility for the master, and at the same time it enjoined so much care and kindness to the slaves that in many cases when the slaves were set free they did not like to leave their masters.

Thirdly, Islam restored dignity to slaves and enhanced their social status. It made no distinction between a slave and a free man, and all were treated with equality. It was this fact that always attracted slaves to Islam. It is painful to see that those who never cease to be vociferous in their unjust criticism of Islam should take no notice of this principle of equality, when even in this enlightened age there are countries where laws are made discriminating against the vast majority of population, to keep them in practical servitude.

Islam recognizes no distinction of race or color, black or white, citizens or soldiers, rulers or subjects; they are perfectly equal, not in theory only, but in practice. The first mu'azzin (herald of the prayer call) of Islam, a devoted adherent of the Prophet and an esteemed disciple, was a Negro slave. The Qur'an lays down the measure of superiority in verse thirteen of chapter forty-nine. It is addressed to mankind, the whole human race, and preaches the natural brotherhood of man without distinction of tribe, clan, race or color. It says:

O you men! We have created you of a male and a female, and then We made you (into different) races and tribes so that you may know (and recognize) each other. Surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one who is most pious among you; surely Allah is All-Knowing and Aware.(15)

This verse makes clear the view point of Islam as regards human life on earth. It lays down only one criterion of superiority or honor and that is piety, which means complete obedience to the will of God. It annihilates all man-made and artificial distinctions of race and color which we find all over the world even now. To explain the qualities of piety, let us note what Allah says:

It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, righteousness is this that one should believe in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the Prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin, the orphans, the needy, the wayfarer, the beggars and to those in bondage and keep up prayers, pay the poor-rate; and those who fulfil their promise and the patient ones in distress and affliction and in the time of war - these are they who are the truthful and these are they who are pious.(16)

This verse clearly shows that by itself there is no specific virtue in turning towards any particular direction for prayer. (The unity of the Qiblah indicates the unity of faith which leads to spiritual unity and culminates in physical harmony.) The belief and practice enjoined in the verse are the real virtues, and apart from being ordered by God, they appeal to human reasoning. Please mark that to give away wealth out of love for God to...those in bondage is one of them.

continue in the next article: ( Islam Attacks Slavery 3 )



1. al-Khu'i, Sayyid Abu'l Qasim, Minhajus Salihin, 3rd ed., vol. II (Najaf, 1974), pp. 328-331; also see the Qur'an, 4:92, 5:89, 58:3.

2. Ibid.

3. al-'Amili, Hurr, Wasa'ilu 'sh-Shi'ah, vol.16 (Tehran, 1983), p.128.

4. Ibid.

5. (The Qur'an 24:33)

6. al-'Amili, op. cit., vol.16, p.101.

7. Ibid, p. 111.

8. Ibid, pp. 121-2.

9. See the Qur'an 9:60, 2:177.

10. al-Hilli, Muhaqqiq, Sharaya'ul Islam, (kitabul-'itq); also see The Encyclopaedia of Islam:, vol. I (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960), p. 31.

11. Ibid, pp. 31-3.

12. Ibid, pp. 43-4.

13. Ibid, p. 3.

14. (The Qur'an 90:4-13)

15. (The Qur'an 49:13)

16. (The Qur'an 2:177)