There are historical, social and psychological dimensions to this question, which we must work through patiently, if we are to arrive at a satisfactory answer.
First of all, it is useful to recall why the institution of slavery is thought of or remembered with such revulsion. Images of the brutal treatment of slaves, especially in ancient Rome and Egypt, provokes sorrow and deep disgust. That is why even after so many centuries, our conception of slaves is of men and women carrying stones to the pyramids and being used up in the building process like mortar, or fighting wild animals in public arenas for the amusement of their owners. We picture slaves wearing shameful yokes and chains around their necks.
Nearer modern times there is the practice of slavery on an enormous scale by the Western European nations; the barbarity and bestiality of this trade beggars all description. The trade was principally in Africans who were transported across the oceans, packed in specially designed ships, thought of and treated exactly like livestock. These slaves were forced to change their names and abandon their religion and their language, were never entitled to hope for freedom, and were kept, again like livestock, for hard laboring or for breeding purposes-a birth among them was celebrated as if it were a death. It is difficult to understand how human beings could conceive of fellow human beings in such a light, still less treat them thus. But it certainly happened: there is much documentary evidence that shows, for example, how ship-masters would throw their human cargo overboard in order to claim compensation for their loss. Slaves had no rights in law, only obligations: their owners had absolute rights over them to dispose of them as they wished-brothers and sisters, parents and children, would be separated or allowed to stay togather according to the owner’s mood or his economic convenience.
After centuries of this dreadful practice had made the West European nations rich from exploitation of such commodities as sugar, cotton, coffee, they abolished slavery-they abolished it, with much self-congratulation, first as a trade, then altogether. Yet the Muslim regions had also known considerable prosperity through the exploitation of sugar, cotton, coffee (these words in European languages are of Arabic origin), and achieved that prosperity without the use of slave labour. More important, let us also note, when the Europeans abolished slavery, it was the slave-owners who were compensated, not the slaves-in other words, the attitude to fellow human beings which allowed such treatment of them had not changed. It was not many years after the abolition of slavery that Africa was directly colonized by the Europeans with consequences for the Africans no less terrible than slavery itself. Further, because the attitude to non-Europeans has changed little, if at all, in modem times, their social and political condition remains, even where they live amid the Europeans and their descendants as fellow-citizens, that of despised inferiors. It is barely a couple of decades since the anthropological museums in the great capitals of the Western countries ceased to display, for public entertainment, the bones and stuffed bodies of their fellow human beings. And such displays were not organized by the worst among them, but by the best-the scientists, doctors, learned men, humanitarians.
In short, it is not only the institution of slavery that causes revulsion in the human heart, it is the attitudes of inhumanity which sustain it. And the truth is, if the institution no longer formally exists but the attitudes persist, then humanity has not gained much, if at all. That is why colonial exploitation replaced slavery, and why the chains of unbearable, unrepayable international debt have replaced colonial exploitation: only slavery has gone, its structures of inhumanity and barbarism are still securely in place. Before we turn to the Islamic perspective on slavery, let us recall a name famous even among Western Europeans, that of Harun al-Rashid, and let us recall that this man who enjoyed such authority and power over all Muslims was the son of a slave woman. Nor is he the only such example; slaves and their children enjoyed enormous prestige, authority and respect within the Islamic system, in all areas of life, cultural as well as political. How could this have come about?
Islam amended and educated the institution of slavery and the attitudes of masters to slaves. The Qur’an taught in many verses that all human beings are descended from a single ancestor, that none has an intrinsic right of superiority over another, whatever his race or his nation or his social standing. And from the Prophet’s teaching, upon him be peace, the Muslims learnt these principles, which they applied both as laws and as social norms:
Because of this compassionate attitude, those who had lived their whole lives as slaves and who are described in ahadith as poor and lowly received respect from those who enjoyed high social status (Muslim, Birr, 138; Jannat, 48; Tirmidhi, Manaqib, 54. 65). ‘Umar was expressing his respect in this sense when he said: ‘Master Bilal whom Master Abu Bakr set free’ (Bukhari. Fada’il al-Sahaba, 23). Islam (unlike other civilizations) requires that slaves are thought of and treated as within the framework of universal human brotherhood, and not as outside it. The Prophet, upon him be peace, said:
For this reason ‘Umar and his servant took it in turns to ride on the camel from Madina to Jerusalem on their journey to take control of Masjid al-Aqsa. While he was the head of the state, ‘Uthman had his servant pull his own ears in front of the people since he had pulled his. Abu Dharr, applying the hadith literally, made his servant wear one half of his suit while he himself wore the other half. From these instances, it was being demonstrated to succeeding generations of Muslims, and a pattern of conduct established, that a slave is fully a human being, not different from other people in his need for respect and dignity and justice.
This constructive and positive treatment necessarily had a consequence on the attitudes of slaves to their masters. The slave as slave still retained his humanity and moral dignity and a place beside other members of his master’s family. When (we shall explain how below) he obtained his freedom, he did not necessarily want to leave his former master. Starting with Zayd bin Harith, this practice became quite common. Although our Prophet, upon him be peace, had given Zayd his freedom and left him a free choice, Zayd preferred to stay with him. Masters and slaves were able to regard each other as brothers because their faith enabled them to understand that the worldly differences between people are a transient situation-a situation justifying neither haughtiness on the part of some, nor rancour on the part of others. There were, in addition, strict principles enforced as law:
Whosoever kills his slave, he shall be killed, whosoever imprisons his slave and starves him, he shall be imprisoned and starved himself.
Beside such sanctions which made the master behave with care the slave also enjoyed the legal right to earn money and hold property independently of his master, the right to keep his religion and to have a family and family life with the attendant rights and obligations. As well as personal dignity and a degree of material security, the Islamic laws and norms allowed the slave a still more precious opening-the hope and means of freedom.
Human freedom is by Allah, that is, it is the natural and proper condition which must be regarded as the norm. Thus, to restore a human life, wholly or partly, to this condition is one of the highest virtues. To set free half of a slave’s body has been considered equal to saving half of one’s own from wrath in the next world. In the same way to set free a slave’s whole body is considered equal to assurance of one’s whole body. Seeking freedom for enslaved people is one of the causes for which the banner of war may be raised in Islam. Muslims were encouraged by their faith to enter into agreements and contracts which enabled slaves to earn or be granted their freedom at the expiry of a certain term or, most typically, on the death of the owner. Unconditional emancipation was, naturally, regarded as the most meritorious kind, and worthiest of recognition in the life hereafter. There were occasions when whole groups of people, acting together, would buy and set free large numbers of slaves in order to obtain thereby the favour of Allah.
Emancipation of a slave was also the legally required expiation for certain sins or failures in religious duties, for example, the breaking of an oath or the breaking of a fast: a good deed to balance or wipe out a lapse. The Qur’an commands that he who has killed a believer by mistake must set free a believing slave and pay the blood-money to the family of the slain (al-Nisa’, 4.92). A killing has repercussions for both society and the victim’s family. The blood-money is a partial compensation to the family of the victim. Similarly, the emancipation of a slave is a bill paid to the community-from the point of view of gaining a free person for that community. To set free a living person in return for a death was considered like bringing someone back to life. Both personal and public wealth were expended to obtain the freedom of slaves: the examples of the Prophet, upon him be peace, and of Abu Bakr are well known; later, especially during the rule of ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al‘Aziz, public zakat funds were used for this purpose.
A possible question: ‘It is true that Islam has commended humanity in the treatment of slaves, and encouraged most forcefully their emancipation. We can see from the history of many different peoples in the Islamic world that slaves quickly integrated into the main society and achieved positions of great prestige and power, some even before they gained their freedom. And yet, if Islam regards slavery as a social evil, why did the Qur’an or the Prophet not ban it outright? There are, after all, other social evils which pre-existed Islam, and which Islam sought to abolish altogether-for example, the consumption of alcohol, or gambling, or usury, or prostitution. Why does, Islam by not abolishing slavery, appear to condone it?’
Answer: Until the evil of the European trade in black slaves, slavery was largely a by-product of wars between nations, the conquered peoples becoming the slaves of their conquerors. In the formative years of Islam, no reliable system existed of exchanging prisoners of war. The available means of dealing with them were either (i) to put them all to the sword; or (ii) to hold them and attend to their care in prison; or (iii) to allow them to return to their own people; or (iv) to distribute them among the Muslims as part of the spoils of war.
The first option must be ruled out on the grounds of its barbarity. The second is practicable only for small numbers for a limited period of time if resources permit-and it was, of course, practised-prisoners being held in this way against ransom, many so content with their treatment that they became Muslims and changed sides in the fighting. The third option is imprudent in time of war. This leaves, as a rule for general practice, only the fourth option, whence followed the humane laws and norms instituted by Islam for what is, in effect, the rehabilitation of prisoners of war.
The slave in every Muslim house had the opportunity to see at close quarters the truth of Islam in practice. His heart would be won over by kind treatment and the humanity of Islam in general, especially by the access the slave had to many of the legal rights enjoyed by Muslims, and, ultimately, by getting his freedom. In this way, many thousands of the very best people have swelled the numbers of the great and famous in Islam, whose own example has then become a sunna, a norm, for the Muslims who succeeded them-imams such as Nafi’, Imam Malik’s sheikh, and Tawus bin Qaisan, to name only two.
The reality is that in Islam it is overwhelmingly the case that being a slave was a temporary condition. Unlike Western civilization, whose values are so much in fashion, slavery was not passed down, generation after generation in a deepening spiral of degradation and despair, with no hope for the slaves to escape their condition or their status. On the contrary, regarded as fundamentally equal, the slaves in Muslim society could and did live in secure possession of their dignity as creatures of the same Creator and had steady access to the mainstream of Islamic culture and civilization-to which, as we have noted, they contributed greatly. In the Western societies where slavery was widespread, particularly in North and South America, the children of the slaves, generations after their formal emancipation, remain for the most part on the fringes of society, as a sub-culture or anti-culture-which is only sometimes tolerated, and mostly despised, by the still dominant community.
But why, our critics will ask, when the Muslims were secure in their conquests did they not grant emancipation wholesale to former captives or slaves? The answer has, again, to do with realities not theories. Those former captives or slaves would not have either the personal, psychological resources or the economic resources needed to establish a secure, dignified independence. Those who doubt this would do well to examine the consequences upon the slaves in the former European or American colonies of their sudden emancipation- many were abruptly reduced to destitution, rendered homeless and resourceless by owners who (themselves compensated for their loss of property) no longer accepted any kind of responsibility for their former slaves. We have already noted the failure of these ex-slaves to enter upon or make a mark in the wider society from which they had been so long excluded by law.
By contrast, every good Muslim who embraced his slave as a brother, encouraged him to work for his freedom, observed all his rights, helped him to support a family, to find a place in the society before emancipating him, might well be pleased with an institution that opened to him a means of pleasing Allah. The example that comes first to mind: Zayd bin Harith who was brought up in the Prophet’s own household and set free, who married a noblewoman, who was appointed as the commander of a Muslim army which included many of noble birth. But one might swell the list of examples to many thousands if one had the space.
There are two important points to emphasize concerning the attitude of Muslims to slavery, one on the part of Muslims themselves, the other of slaves and non-Muslim countries. Although slavery is accidental to the Islamic fiqh, a matter which is to be solved step by step until it almost completely disappears in the course of time in parallel with spiritual, cultural and social developments, it was sometimes observed that some Muslims, especially some Muslim rulers, continued to hold slaves in their possessions. Islam, however, cannot be blamed for this practice, which came from the spiritual deficiency of such Muslims in practising Islam in their lives. The other point is that habits and the lifestyle of a man cause him to develop a second nature in him. When Lincoln legally abolished slavery in the US in the previous century, most of the slaves had to return to their owners because they had already lost initiative and the ability to make a free choice so as to be able to lead their life as free people. It is because of this psychological fact that the prisoners of war were first distributed among Muslims so that they, after their emancipation, would be able to lead a true Islamic social life as free human beings in a Muslim society and to enjoy their legal rights fully. Islam, thus, sought to solve the problem by steps: in the first step it enabled slaves to realize their true human consciousness and identity; then, it educated them in Islamic, human values, and inculcated in them love of freedom. When, at last, the slaves were emancipated, they found themselves to be fully equipped with all kinds of possibilities to be useful members of the community as farmers, artisans, teachers, scholars, and commanders, governors and ministers or even prime ministers.
Islam attempted to destroy the institution of ‘individual slavery’, and never envisaged nor tried ‘national slavery’. So, as a Muslim, I pray to God that enslaved-coIonized, oppressed-peoples of the world should enjoy real freedom.