Islam and Slavery
(a) Sources on Islam and Slavery
The primary source of Islam is the Koran. This document is said to have been communicated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel from a copy created in heaven by God himself. It refers to slavery quite openly in several places without any attempt to conceal what it means. These matter-of-fact references indicate that Muhammad did not find anything unusual in this institution. We shall examine ten of the principal references to slavery in the next section of this chapter. There is also a second layer of Islamic jurisprudence. These related to the deeds and words on Muhammad when he was not making the prophetic utterances recorded in the Koran. They too have been compiled into a series of Books called the Hadith. In the Hadith, which are regarded almost as important as the Koran, there is quite unabashed reference to Muhammad as a slave owner. He is even held as an exemplar in this regard. Both the Koran and the Hadith are treated extremely reverentially by Muslims and there is always the cry of "Back to the Koran and Hadith" whenever enterprising theologians try to give an altered meaning. That is why we have to look at the attitude to slavery as shown in these two primary sources of Islam.
A third source lies in the interpretation and expansion of the sayings in the Koran and the Hadith by a number of Islamic jurists and scholars. They too deal with subjects of slavery and the treatment of non-Muslim people in the areas ruled by Muslims. However there is no new insight that is added, indeed it is not possible to add such new insights to a revelation that is considered closed. It is this codification that is now referred to as the Sharia law. Today there is a clamor for the re-institution of the Sharia Law in Muslim countries as many of them under modern influences have departed from the strict Sharia law. This has not so far led to a call to revive the institution of slavery, perhaps because of the extreme disgust with which this practice is now regarded by civilised society. But it is not inconceivable that it could happen if Islam secures the military means to expand its conquests as it did in its heyday. On the other aspects, denial of freedom of belief to non-Muslims in Muslim countries (except for the limited freedom given to the "People of the Book") there has been only a little relaxation.
A large number of books have been published on Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But very few of them deal with the subjects of slavery and the denial of freedom of belief. This is true of both modern Islamic writers as well as of Western scholars. This is surprising because such reticence is not seen in the classic writings of Islam. The reluctance of modern authors to deal with this question can be easily explained. The institution of slavery is now seen as one of most detestable institutions ever devised by man. To claim that this institution is sanctioned in sacred scriptures said to represent the word of God is highly embarrassing to those advancing these scriptures as a kind of divine revelation coming from an omniscient, omnipotent and totally benevolent source. It must be pointed that slavery is permitted not only in the Koran but also in the Bible. This latter fact may explain the reluctance of modern Christian critics to deal with the subject of Islamic slavery. But at one time Christian writers were quite open in their criticism of what they regarded as wrong in Islam. This included the great prominence given to slavery in the Koran. But this was the time when Christian countries were dominant and had colonised most of the non-Western world. They were also engaged in an anti-slavery campaign. Modern Christian writers have departed from this practice. This is not however a concession to a greater sense of tolerance. It has more to do with the fact that they themselves are guilty of the things they accuse the Muslims of. It is simply a matter of people in glass houses not throwing stones. Also the economic power of Muslim countries has greatly increased and many Western countries are dependent on them for raw materials like oil which is critically important for their economies. So they feel that they should not antagonize the Muslims too much. This matter will be dealt at greater length in the section on apologetics for Islamic slavery
(b) Slavery in the Koran
It is to the Koran that we have to go to find Muhammad's attitude to slavery. The subject is treated at many places in the Koran. We shall consider some of these statements in the order that they appear in the Koran, quoting the relevant part of the verse concerned.
(i) Sura 2 (The Cow) Verse 178
2.178: O you who believe! retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain, the free for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female, but if any remission is made to any one by his (aggrieved) brother, then prosecution (for the bloodwit) should be made according to usage, and payment should be made to him in a good manner; this is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy; so whoever exceeds the limit after this he shall have a painful chastisement.
Retaliation for murder and other crimes was sanctioned by Arabian usage and accepted by Muhammad. Here it is said that a free(man) could be killed for the murder of a free(man) and similarly for a (free) woman and a slave. The mention of these three categories quite casually indicates that slavery is accepted along with the other two categories as an acceptable state for a human being. What is not clear is whether the person put to death is the person responsible for the killing. While this may be true of free persons this is not necessarily true of slaves. Thus if a slave is killed then it is not the killer of the slave that has to be killed but a slave of the killer! What this shows is that slaves are treated as pure merchandise of the slave owner. If a slave is killed then it is a loss to its owner and the retaliation for this is the killing of a slave belonging to the offender. Of course the slave killed may be quite innocent.
Of course it may be argued that the free people may have been responsible for the crime but to a kill an innocent slave for the crime of his master is truly a perversion of justice. The casual way in which slaves as a category of humans are mentioned along with free men and women in the application of this law shows that Muhammad completely accepted the slave status of humans to be a perfectly normal status.
(ii) Sura 4 (The Women), Verse 92.
4.92: And it does not behoove a believer to kill a believer except by mistake, and whoever kills a believer by mistake, he should free a believing slave, and blood-money should be paid to his people unless they remit it as alms; but if he be from a tribe hostile to you and he is a believer, the freeing of a believing slave (suffices), and if he is from a tribe between whom and you there is a covenant, the blood-money should be paid to his people along with the freeing of a believing slave; but he who cannot find (a slave) should fast for two months successively:
This verse has been adduced by Muslim apologists who claim that Muhammad urged the general freeing of slaves. This is certainly not the case. What this verse tells is that manslaughter (killing by mistake) of a Muslim (presumably by another Muslim) could be paid for by freeing one slave for each act of manslaughter. The freeing of the slave is a kind of penalty imposed on the offending Muslim for his act of manslaughter. It could be compared to imposing a fine on the person. Slaves are seen as a kind of legal tender - instead of being fined for the misdemeanor the offender is forced to free a slave. Surely this is a far cry from a requirement that slaves should be freed as a general principle.
To free a slave the person concerned must own slaves; this Sura therefore assumed implicitly that slavery is permitted in the Koran. There are some peculiarities that deserve notice. It is only a "believing slave" (i.e a slave who is a Muslim) that can be freed. A non-Muslim slave does not have even this route of escape from slavery. This verse is laying down penalties for killing, not trying to free slaves.
The verse also says that if a slave cannot be found the punishment is a two month fast(9). This is perhaps a case of extending the fast at Ramadan from one to two months. It gives some idea of the value attached to a slave in Islam.
(iii) Sura 5 (The Dinner Table), Verse 89
5.89: Allah does not call you to account for what is vain in your oaths, but He calls you to account for the making of deliberate oaths; so its expiation is the feeding of ten poor men out of the middling (food) you feed your families with, or their clothing, or the freeing of a neck; but whosoever cannot find (means) then fasting for three days; this is the expiation of your oaths when you swear; and guard your oaths. Thus does Allah make clear to you His communications, that you may be Fateful.
The expression "freeing of a neck" in this verse has been cited by some Muslim apologists as showing that Muhammad urges slave-owners to free their slaves. This does nothing of the sort. In the first place it is not clear whether the phrase in question refers to slavery at all. It could refer to the freeing of a man condemned to capital punishment, because under Islam the relatives if the dead man can waive the execution of the murderer for a sum of money. Even if considered as freeing a slave it is another penalty for a transgression (the making of a deliberate oath), As in Sura 4.92 we are looking at penalties for various infringements (manslaughter, oaths) and the setting-free of a slave is used as a kind of payment or retribution for offence dealt with.
This kind of penalty can be prescribed only if slavery is permitted as a legal institution, which it is in Islam. This kind of penalty can even be considered as encouraging slavery as people might think it prudent to have a stock of slaves so that they can be used to pay off various penalties.
(iv) Sura 12 (Yusuf), Verses 29-30
12.29: O Yusuf! turn aside from this; and (O my wife)! ask forgiveness for your fault, surely you are one of the wrong-doers.
12.30: And women in the city said: The chief's wife seeks her slave to yield himself (to her), surely he has affected her deeply with (his) love; most surely we see her in manifest error.
This is the story of the slave Joseph who was bought by a person simply described as an Egyptian. The Egyptian's wife tried to induce the slave to have sexual relations with her, which though tempted Joseph resisted. The Egyptian believed the slave and asked the wife to apologize. This is only important as highlighting the complex relations that developed between slaves and their owners. In Islam male owners of slaves were entitled to have sexual relations with their slave women whether the women liked it or not, but this incident shows that the reverse was not necessarily true. It is perhaps another example of the discriminatory treatment of women as against men.
(v) Sura 16 (The Bee), verse 71
16.71: And Allah has made some of you excel others in the means of subsistence, so those who are made to excel do not give away their sustenance to those whom their right hands possess so that they should be equal therein; is it then the favor of Allah which they deny?
This requires that those Muslims who are better off should share some of their "subsistence" with their slaves. While this is a good maxim it presupposes that the ownership of slaves is a normal state of affairs.
(vi) Sura 16 (The Bee), verse 75
16.75 Allah sets forth a parable: (consider) a slave, the property of another, (who) has no power over anything, and one whom We have granted from Ourselves a goodly sustenance so he spends from it secretly and openly; are the two alike? (All) praise is due to Allah!
This is one of the clearest instances where the institution of slavery is justified in the Koran as a divine dispensation. It deserves close scrutiny. This "parable" contrasts two people a slave who is owned by another and is completely powerless and a freeman on whom Allah has granted "a goodly sustenance" which he can spend openly or secretly as he pleases (perhaps acquiring slaves for himself). Since Allah claims for himself the position of the granter of all benefits (or lack of them) both the freeman's fortune and the slave's misfortune are ultimately determined by Allah. By his rhetorical question "Are the two alike?" Muhammad is actually justifying the inequality between the slave and the freeman as if it was a natural thing. Thus a Muslim will have no compunctions or qualms in employing and exploiting slaves (subject only to any conditions that Muhammad may have imposed) because it is what Allah has ordained and "all praise is due to Allah".
(vii )Sura 23 (The Believers), Verses 1-6
23.1-6: Successful indeed are the believers, Who are humble in their prayers, And who keep aloof from what is vain, And who are givers of poor-rate, And who guard their private parts, Except before their mates or those whom their right hands possess, for they surely are not blameable.
This is the Sura which gives the slave owner the right of sexual access to u\his female slaves. The term "guarding the private parts" is a synonym for sexual intercourse, and it is said that this is not blameable if indulges with wives and slaves.
(viii) Sura 24 (The Light), Verse 31
24.31: And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful.
This is the famous Sura enjoining the veiling of women. Amongst those before whom the women need not be covered are slaves (who under included in those that "the right hand possess" a term that is used throughout in the Koran as a synonym for slaves). This is probably because slaves were such a common occurrence in Muslim households that they are taken for granted and women need not use the dress code prescribed for outside wear while they are at home even in front of their slaves.
(ix) Sura 24 (The Light), Verse 32
24.32: And marry those among you who are single and those who are fit among your male slaves and your female slaves; if they are needy, Allah will make them free from want out of His grace; and Allah is Ample-giving, Knowing.
This is said to sanction marriages of slaves with slaves and slaves with free persons (including the owner). Owners did not usually marry slaves as they could use them for sexual purposes at will. This dispensation has been used to make slaves marry other slaves. In Islam a child born to a slave couple also is a slave from birth, so this verse gives a great incentive to slave owners to breed slaves. This is another obnoxious aspect of Islamic slavery. Whatever be the other circumstances in which people are made into slaves to make a new-born infant a slave is one of the most cruel and callous. Ye this did not evoke a protest from the Prophet and has been extensively resorted to by Muslims.
(x) Sura 24 (The Light), Verse 33
24.33: And let those who do not find the means to marry keep chaste until Allah makes them free from want out of His grace. And (as for) those who ask for a writing from among those [slaves] whom your right hands possess, give them the writing if you know any good in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you; and do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, when they desire to keep chaste, in order to seek the frail good of this world's life; and whoever compels them, then surely after their compulsion Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
This is another verse often quoted by apologists for the Prophet. There are two references to slaves here. One is that a "good" slave could be freed by the slave owner. However it is not a simple ex gratia freedom that is meant but one subject to a formal agreement ("writing"). This document lays down the conditions attached to the freeing of the slave, and usually involves the payment of a sum of money by the slave who is to be freed. Since a slave would not normally have a lot of money, someone else (perhaps a relative of the slave) has to put up the money, or the slave himself agrees to pay the money out of future income. What really happens is that the slave becomes an indentured worker for the former owner. How this can be described as complete freedom for the slave is difficult to see. It is simply a monetary transaction with the slave buying his own freedom, or somebody else doing it for him. It may actually be to the advantage of the slave-owner depending on the actual terms of the contract.
Even if no conditions are attached what this Sura says is that owners can free slaves who have been good slaves and not given any trouble. But slaves being the absolute property of their masters can be disposed of at the master's will just as he can give away any other of his property. So this "dispensation" given in the Koran does not really amount to much; it cannot be seen as a move towards the elimination of slavery. There is no obligation for any slave owner to follow that is recommended in this Sura. There is also the question whether a "bad" slave can be freed even if the owner wants to free this slave subject to the stipulated conditions.
The verse also states that women slaves should not be used for prostitution. While we must be grateful to the Prophet for this tender mercy it must also be remembered that the Prophet did not restrict the master's access to his female slaves for his own sexual gratification! This is the implication of this prohibition against prostitution; if the Prophet wanted to protect female slaves from sexual exploitation by their owners he would have said so. Nowhere is this restriction put on slave owners and they have liberally used this to their advantage.
(xi) Sura 33 (The Clans), Verse 50
33.50: O Prophet! surely We have made lawful to you your wives whom you have given their dowries, and those [slaves] whom your right hand possesses out of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war, and the daughters of your paternal uncles and the daughters of your paternal aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncles and the daughters of your maternal aunts who fled with you; and a believing woman if she gave herself to the Prophet, if the Prophet desired to marry her -- specially for you, not for the (rest of) believers; We know what We have ordained for them concerning their wives and those whom their right hands possess in order that no blame may attach to you; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
Here, as elsewhere, the term "possessions of the right hand" mean slaves. It is expressly stated that Muhammad's slaves are given to him by Allah himself to be taken out of his share of the captives in war. It also records the special dispensation given to Muhammad, not available to other Muslims, in the number of wives.
(xii) Sura 39 (The Companions), Verses 29
39.29: Allah sets forth an example: There is a slave in whom are (several) partners differing with one another, and there is another slave wholly owned by one man. Are the two alike in condition? (All) praise is due to Allah. Nay! most of them do not know.
The example set out here compares joint ownership of a slave by many owners and the single ownership by one person. Muhammad asks rhetorically whether the two cases are the same. Of course they are not and it is clear that Muhammad prefers single ownership. In fact this is why he established the rule that after a military campaign the captives were allocated to each of his soldiers individually not collectively, with himself keeping a fifth of the captives as his personal slaves.
(xiii) Sura 70 (The Ways of Ascent) verses 29-35
70: 29-35 And those who guard their private parts, Except in the case of their wives or those whom their right hands possess -- for these surely are not to be blamed, But he who seeks to go beyond this, these it is that go beyond the limits -- And those who are faithful to their trusts and their covenant And those who are upright in their testimonies, And those who keep a guard on their prayer, Those shall be in gardens, honored.
These verses are similar to Sura 23.93-96 and gives the right to slave owners to have sexual relation with female slaves. The only difference is that the earlier reference may leave some doubt as to whether both males and female slaves are meant. These verses clearly show that it is only female slaves that are meant.
(xiv) Sura 90 (The City)
Sura 90. In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Nay! I swear by this city. And you shall be made free from obligation in this city -- And the begetter and whom he begot. Certainly We have created man to be in distress. 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, And a tongue and two lips, And pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways? But he would not attempt the uphill road, And what will make you comprehend what the uphill road is? (It is) the setting free of a slave, Or the giving of food in a day of hunger To an orphan, having relationship, Or to the poor man lying in the dust. Then he is of those who believe and charge one another to show patience, and charge one another to show compassion. These are the people of the right hand. And (as for) those who disbelieve in our communications, they are the people of the left hand. On them is fire closed over.The meaning of this verse is very cryptic but has been made clearer by various commentators. The city is Mecca and this Sura is said to have been revealed after Muhammad's taking of that city. The "I" in line 1 is Allah and the "you" in line 2 is Muhammad but there is some debate as whom "he" in line 4 means. Some take it to be al WalidEbn al Mogheira, one of Muhammad's Meccan opponents, others as Abu'lAshaddEbnCalsa, another opponent. Whoever this opponent may have been it is clear that he has not understood "the uphill path" which involves doing the things mentioned, one of which is the freeing of a slave. So this is similar to verse 24.33 considered earlier. It is good to free a slave, just as it is good to give to charity, but having slaves is not prohibited just as having money is not prohibited.
This Sura applies to the specific individual referred to as "he" and therefore cannot be taken as a general rule applying to all Muslims.
(c) Aspects of Islamic Slavery
(i) Recruitment of Slaves in Islam
We have already mentioned that newborn children could be recruited into Islamic slavery if the parents of the infant were slaves. But the most common method of getting slaves was capture (see Sura 33.50 given above). Sometimes this takes place on the battlefield, but as soldiers were usually men women could rarely be enslaved in this way. Thus in the Battle of Badr, the first of Muhammad's victories, all the captives were males. Some of these captives were released after a bounty was paid by their relatives others were freed if they converted and joined Muhammad's army
Males of mature age were not always desirable as slaves as the primary use of slaves in that pre-industrial society was to do domestic chores, and men did not excel in this. Thus Muslims always prized females not only because they could be used to do domestic work, but also because they could used to used to satisfy their carnal appetites of their owners and also be used as breeding stock to breed more slaves. Children were also prized because they could be converted into Islam by their captors without requiring their consent.
So in course of time the Prophet shifted his tactics and when an army was defeated the entire community which the army defended was enslaved. This ensured a supply of women and children the most prized of slaves. This was often combined with the wholesale slaughter of the men. The classic example of this is what the Prophet did after he defeated the Jewish tribe of BanuQuraiza. All 700 men left in the tribe were slaughtered in one day the unfortunates being forced to dig their own graves before their heads were struck off. So it was not simply a question of killing people in the heat of battle. All the women and children of the tribe were then enslaved.
Later on Muslims conducted organised raids into Africa to enslave Negroes. These were then sold in the slave bazaars of Mecca, Baghdad, Tripoli and other places in the Islamic world. This trade was only stopped by the European powers in the nineteenth century.
(ii) Muhammad as a Slave Owner
A stumbling block to those want to present Muhammad as a potential liberator of slaves is the he himself was a slave owner. We have already seen in Sura 33.50 that Allah says that he has given Muhammad slaves. Since the main route to servitude was capture in war Allah gives a fifth of the spoils of war to the Prophet to be used as he wishes:
8.41: And know that whatever thing you gain, a fifth of it is for Allah and for the Apostle and for the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, if you believe in Allah and in that which We revealed to Our servant, on the day of distinction, the day on which the two parties met; and Allah has power over all things
According to this Sura a fifth share of the booty was taken by Muhammad some of which was distributed to near kin, etc. as stipulated in the Sura. But this distribution was at Muhammad's discretion. The booty included the captives who were made slaves. After the first successful campaign, the Battle of Badr, Muhammad released the captives who were not ransomed by the Meccans. This clemency had been opposed by some Muslim leaders like Umar who wanted them executed. However in later battles the general rule was that the men who refused to convert were executed while women and children where taken into slavery.
(iii) Position of Women Slaves
One of the worst aspects of Islamic slavery is the sexual exploitation of women slaves by their masters. Some Muslims try to deny this but as we have seen there are at least three Suras in the Koran which give the slave owner the power to cohabit with his female slaves at will. Even without the taint of slavery the plight of women was deplorable under Islam. If on top of this slavery is attached their plight is magnified manifold.
Amongst those who try to assert that concubinage with female slaves was not permitted in Islam is Maulana Muhammad Ali (The Religion of Islam, pp. 6667-670). His main argument is that Muhammad allows slave owners to marry female slaves (e.g. in Sura 24.32-33 which we have considered above). But the fact that marriage is allowed does not mean that concubinage was not. In Islam a girl was given in marriage with the consent of her guardian (usually the father). But a slave has no guardian other than the slave-owner so the slave-owner marrying his own slave cannot be a free contract. A Muslim can have only four wives but he can keep an unlimited number of slave concubines; that is why marriage to one's slave was rather rare. Finally even Maulana Muhammad Ali is forced to admit that in the Islamic jurisprudence (the Fiqh) "we find the rule laid down that a master may have sexual relations with his slave girl simply because of the right of ownership which she has in her" (p. 670).
The sexual exploitation of women slaves has also existed in other countries, e.g. in the United States with respect to Negro slavery. But never so extensively and commonly as under Islam, and never under the sanction of divine command. The harems and seraglios of the richer Islamic potentiates became massive and they were replenished regularly by slave women. This is amply documented in the cases of the Moghul and Ottoman rulers as well as the smaller Arab sheiks.
Muhammad himself accumulated a small harem of women for each of whom he built an apartment around the Mosque at Medina. Most were wives, the number greatly exceeding the number of four which was allowed for ordinary Muslims. The extra wives were generally authorised by a special dispensation from God granted through the archangel Gabriel.
One of Muhammad's concubines, Mary the Copt, was a slave as she was a gift from the ruler of Abyssinia. Even though Mary refused to give up her Christian religion she became one of Muhammad's favorites (giving him one of his rare children) and was involved in one of the scandals in Muhammad's married life.
After the slaughter of the men of the Jewish tribe of Quraiza, and the enslavement of the women and children, Muhammad took Rihana, the wife of the chief of the Clan as a concubine. Of this incident Gairdner asks: "What of Rihana, the beautiful Jewess, taken to Muhammad's tent on the very night of the slaughter, she with a face yet wet for a husband massacred in cold blood, he with a soul newly stained by the blood of that husband?".Rihana later tried to poison Muhammad.
(d) Apologetics for Islamic Slavery
In this section we review some representative opinions on the subject expressed by scholars and commentators usually involving some kind of defence of the institution of slavery in Islam. As we have mentioned earlier many writers on Islam ignore this question entirely. This could be described as the defence of Islamic slavery by silence. But it probably indicates that we are dealing with an obvious fact which needs no further elaboration. However silence can be misconstrued as absence of slavery and sometimes the silence may be deceptively used.
However many writers do refer to this institution, often in passing, but sometimes acknowledging its infamy but also trying to provide some justification of it. No one can be found who expressly states that Islam does not permit slavery for this is too obvious in almost every aspect of the religion. We cannot be exhaustive in a survey like this. We shall first look at a few books on Islam written by non-Muslims and then consider the defence of Islam on this question by Muslim writers.
Jacques Jomier's book How to Understand Islam is partly critical partly apologetic. We are told "Islam accepted slavery as a social fact and no one felt the need to react against it immediately." Muhammad had no compunction in denouncing "social facts" that he did not agree with (e.g. infanticide, some arrangements relating to marriage and divorce) so the fact that he accepted the "social fact" of slavery must mean that he approved of it. And as to the lack of immediate reaction there is no evidence of any important Muslim reacting against it even several centuries later. The abolition of slavery was imposed on Muslim rulers by the Western colonial powers in the nineteenth century. Jomier writes:
But the question has been inflamed by an anti-Muslim apologetic which seeks to heap on Islam all the shame for a practice which has now been abolished. It may indeed have been the case that the raids of Muslim slavers were the last to take place when elsewhere this kind of traffic had already disappeared. However, it is for those whose ancestors have never practised slavery to cast the first stone.
Even if slavery is now abolished it does not prevent us from studying how it was treated by Muhammad, the apostle of God. It is not a matter of heaping shame because even modern Muslims try to device some kind of apologetic for this institution. As to Jomier's reference to casting stones, this is also an argument advanced by Jesus who said that "he who is without sin should cast the first stone". Bu this is a dubious argument. If taken seriously it would mean that many criminals will have to be allowed to go free because there may be no one who is "without sin". The modern judicial principle is to judge people on the evidence, not the morals of the judge, and it is this test that has to be applied to the Koran.
After saying that Christianity too had accepted slavery Jomier says: "The main difference between Christianity and Islam was that in Islam sexual relations with female slaves are officially permitted in addition to legitimate marriage; hence there was a supplementary traffic to supply the harems." Jomier also states: "... female slaves who gave a child to their masters were put in a separate legal category. They are called umm walad(mother of a child) and cannot be sold. They have to be freed on the death of their master".
Another difference that is claimed was that Christian slavery was used for economic purposes while Islamic slavery was mainly domestic. While there is some truth in this it does not in any way mitigate the infamy of slavery. Also slaves had been used for economic purposes in Islamic countries, and there have been some noted slave revolts under Islam, e.g. the Zanj revolt in ninth century Iraq when slaves transported from East Africa to work plantations revolted. This is scarcely different to the transportation of Negro slaves to work in the plantations of the United States.
A more recent book put out by a leading academic publisher is David Waines' An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge University Press, 1995), which has a section on "dhimmis and slaves". It says very much less than what has been considered in this work. Waines says that "the slave, was not recognized by the law as fully responsible as a free Muslim" which is something of an understatement. He says: "A slave was either born to his or her station or was a non-Muslim who fell into captivity, most often as a consequence of war. Slaves were also purchased by Muslim rulers ..." Here he is on sound ground.
Islam the Straight Path, while mentioning slavery tries to minimise its import. Thus referring to the enslavement of the women and children of the Qurayza Jewish tribe he says: "... the motivation for this was political rather than racial or theological". This is wrong; it was religious to the extent that it fell under Muhammad's grand plan of ridding Arabia of all non-Muslims.
The opinion of D. S. Margoliouth on this subject is as follows: "How the doctrine of the equality of all Moslems was to the reconciled with this institution [slavery] was not obvious; for it might seem that a slave had merely to adopt Islam in order ipso facto to become free; and indeed the doctrine that no one already a Moslem may be enslaved seems to be orthodox. Omar is said to have advanced the that no Arab might be enslaved and in the main these living chattels came from other races" (Mohammedanism, pp 88-89). Clearly this refers to Muslims becoming slaves but as we have seen Muslims were indeed made slaves.
On the defense of slavery by Muslims we can quote two writers Maulana Mohammad Ali and Muhammad Qutb.
Maulana Mohammad Ali's The Religion of Islam (Lahore 1936) is a substantial scholarly volume which contains a section on slavery. He cannot however deny outright that Islam does not permit slavery. He writes:
"Slavery was an institution recognised by all people before Islam. To Islam lies the credit of laying down principles which if developed on the right lines, would have brought about its destruction" (pp 661-2)
Unfortunately for Maulana Islam did not try to destroy slavery but perpetuated it for a longer period than otherwise would have been the case. The principles it added were of the most obnoxious and vile kind.
The Muslim writer who has set out to provide the longest defence of Islam on the score of slavery that I am aware of is Muhammad Qutb. His book is entitled Islam the Misunderstood Religion. The longest chapter in this book (some 50 pages long) is entitled "Islam and Slavery". His arguments however are not too cogent but they deserve consideration. Much of the book is written as a diatribe against Communism as if all those who accuse Islam of slavery are Communists.
Qutb's line of argument is given by this quotation:
"Now as Islam came to the world at a time when the stage of slavery was coming to an end and that of feudalism just beginning, it brought with itself laws, creeds and a discipline of life all of which were in concord with the prevalent circumstances of economic existence. That is why it approved of slavery as well as permitted feudalism, for Islam could not anticipate the next stage of economic development nor give any system to the world for which the economic circumstances were not ripe..." (p. 64-5)
At least Qutb does not try to deny that Islam permitted slavery, as some of the more ignorant Muslims do. According to Qutb when Islam arose slavery was ending. Why then did it embrace a dying system and give it a new lease of life? Muhammad rejected many other economic institutions prevalent in his day, e.g. loans on interest, gambling, etc. So there was no reason for him to accept anything simply because it was there. In fact Muslims take pride in saying that Muhammad rejected some current practices like infanticide. So why did he not reject slavery? The plain fact is that he approved of it and indeed used it both for his personal benefit and that of the Muslim community.
Qutb's claim that Islam could not anticipate the next stage of economic development may be accepted if the official line is that the Koran is the work of Muhammad. But it is claimed that it is Allah's work. If so the alleged power of omniscience attributed to Allah would have enabled him to see all of the past and of the future. So the Koran's justification of the institution of slavery must be God's design. Qutb then goes into a long digression on how bad slavery was under the Romans and claiming that Islamic slavery was "better" than that of Rome, Persia, India, etc. This kind of argument of course is puerile. In any slave system one may be able to find slave owners who acted better than those in another system and some who are worse. Even if it were possible to compare evil systems, the degradation in Islamic slavery may well be amongst the worst. There is unanimous agreement that in respect of the carnal exploitation of slave women by their masters Islamic slavery was infinitely worse than any other system.
Qutb also claims that as slavery in Islam was domestic slavery while elsewhere slaves were used in industry or agriculture it was better. The domestic nature of slavery arose from the economic circumstance of Arabia; it was pre-industrial and the dessert nature of the country prevented large-scale agriculture. But when Islam moved to other areas it did employ slaves in plantations (e.g. the ninth century slave revolt in Iraq). Also domestic slavery leads to the odious institution of sexual exploitation of slaves. Thus Qutb's argument here is not sound.
Qutb then cites two aspects of Islamic slavery which he says "signified a great practical advancement achieved by Islam in the history of slavery" (p. 79). These institutions are: (1) Al Itq or the voluntary freeing of slaves and (2) Mukatabah or freedom by written agreement. The first of these is simply not enough. Slavery is a violent institution and it cannot be ended voluntarily, especially if it has divine sanction. The source cited for this is Sura 4.92 which we have examined earlier and shown not to be a voluntary freeing but the payment of a restitution for manslaughter. The second one is the "written agreement" we have discussed above in connection with Sura 24.33 where its limitations were exposed. Thus Qutb's "advancements" prove to be no advancements at all. The only advancement in slavery is to abolish the institution altogether and this Muhammad signally failed to do.
Qutb finds great difficulty in answering the question why Islam did not abolish slavery. His answer is that because slavery was deep rooted at the time "its abolition required a far longer period of time than the life of the Holy Prophet". But the brevity of his life did not prevent the Prophet from introducing other reforms of institutions equally deep-rooted. Besides there was not even a declaration of intention, and as we have seen the Prophet fully used the advantages of the institution both personally and communally for his group. Not only the prophet but none of his successors attempted to abolish slavery. Surely Qutb cannot argue that the many centuries of Muslim power was not long enough to abolish this institution. The sad fact is that slavery increased in its scope as the power of Muslim empires grew.
Qutb illustrates very well the futility of many Muslims in trying to justify an unjustifiable institution. Above all an institution which more than anything else condemns Islam.