Slavery

Surah 16 (Al-Nahl/The Bee): 71

Allah has made some of you excel in sustenance over the others;
those who are so favored, do not give away their sustenance to their slaves so as to make them their equals.
How can you think that Allah will allow other deities to be His equals?
Would they refuse to acknowledge the favors of Allah?

 

The Qur’an frequently uses the word ‘’abd’ (from the Hebrew ‘‘ebed’) meaning slave or servant, usually within a pious context meaning that a person is a slave/servant of God. The notion of a ‘servant of the Lord’ (‘abdi’el’) is a prominent concept in the prophecies of Isaiah (42.1-4 , 49.1-7 , 50.4-11 , and 52.13-33 ) and the name ’Abd’allah’, is known from inscriptions to have been a common Arab name prior to the announcement of the Qur’an (reputedly the name of Muhammad’s own father). Throughout the Qur’an, God addresses His people as His slaves, for example in His statement that he will not wrong His slaves: {3.182}, {8.51}, {22.10}, {41.46} and {50.29}, with the implication that man should be slavish when following God’s word 〈86.〉; and in the lauding of Noah, Jesus, ‘Al-Khidr’ and Job for being either ‘thankful’ or ‘excellent’ ‘slaves’ ({17.3}, {18.65}, {19.30} and {38.44} respectively), as indeed is the Qur’an’s announcer himself, {25.1}, {53.10} and {57.9}. When the Qur’an addresses the ownership of one human by another it uses the idiom ‘mā malakay aymānukum‘, which future generations of Muslims would shorten to ‘mamluk’, generally translated as ‘those whom your right hands possess’. Self-evidently, this term emphasises both physical control and legal right of ownership, although, both the two terms for slave appear in close proximity, and in some contexts could be used  interchangeably (see for example {16.71 & 75}).

 

Several verses in the Qur’an regulate the ownership of slaves:

It has been seen above 〈57.〉 that the Qur’an permits a man to marry his own or another’s slave, and a believing man also is entitled to have intercourse with his own slaves, see 〈65.〉 following,

 

{4.36} exhorts believers to be ‘virtuous’ towards several categories of people including ‘those whom your right hands possess’,

 

{33.58} instructs ‘those whom your right hands possess and those who have not come of age‘ to seek permission before disturbing believers ‘before the dawn prayer, when you doff your garments art noon and after the night prayer. Three times of privacy for you’, and

 

{24.31}, one of two verses instructing believing women to adopt modest dress, is subject to an exemption clause this requirement does not apply in respect of a woman appearing before certain categories of people including ‘those her right hands possess’.

 

Six passages of the Qur’an prescribe the manumission of slaves:

  • as act of piety:
    • {90.12} ‘And what will apprise thee of the steep pass?
  •  
    • {90.13} (It is) the freeing of a slave,
  •  
    • {90.14} Or giving food at time of famine…’

See also {2.177},

 

  • out of charity: ‘The charitable offerings are only for the poor, and the indigent … and for (the ransoming of) slaves and for debtors’, {9.60},

 

  • as a penance to be performed for accidentally causing the death of a Muslim 〈73.〉 or for breaking the terms of an oath, {5.89} and {58.3-4}, and

 

  • in return for payment: ‘… For those … who seek a contract (of emancipation) with you, contract with them if you know of any good in them,’ {24.33}.

 

However, no verse of the Qur’an disapproves of the institution of slavery. Indeed, the divinely ordained sanction of releasing a slave for certain types of wrongdoing would seem to not only presume but to require the continued availability of slaves to free. The only verse that considers the institution of slavery itself is {16.71} above, in which it is hailed as one of God’s means of blessing the slave owner. Freeing slaves for the purpose of making the slave and master equal is clearly discouraged.

 

{16.71}’s defence of the strict division between slave and master may have been intended as a metaphor by which to denounce Christians’ presumptuous assertion that they were the children of God, rather than his slaves (see also {16.75-76} and 〈62.〉) A similar metaphor appears at {30.31}, and the sentiment is also evident in the Qur’an’s ridiculing of the notion that angels are God’s daughters in {37.150} 〈11.〉 However, such a metaphor, in {16.71}, would only work if the Qur’an’s author, whom of course for Muslims is God, and his audience shared the understanding that slavery was unobjectionable.

 

The traditional Islamic narrative makes numerous references to Muhammad owning, buying and selling slaves and enslaving people who had hitherto been free. See, for example, the mass enslavement of the women and children of the Banu Qurayza 〈44.〉 and of the Banu Hawazin 〈48.〉 above, and 〈65.〉 following. At least two, and possibly three, of Muhammad’s own wives had been claimed by him as his share of the spoils of war after the deaths of their husbands in battle against his fighters. In addition to these, it is said that he received a slave, Maryam, as a gift from the king of Egypt, who bore him a son (see 〈D.〉 The wives and concubines of Muhammad above.) Other examples from the classical literature of Muhammad dealing in slaves without any appearance of moral compunction, are legion, and Muhammad’s own slaves even gain a brief mention in the Qur’an at {33.55}, in which they are excepted from the rule that his wives may only be addressed across a veil 〈79.〉