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ISLAM & SLAVERY

Every schoolboy is aware of the horrific injustices and crushing of humanity that was found in the transatlantic slave trade less than two centuries ago. The American Civil War (1861-1865) finally saw the abolishen of slavery. The brutality and mindless disregard of human beings that was part and parcel of the trans-atlantic slave trade led to the death of 40 million africans.1 Needless to add that the rampant racism that festered in the hearts of men continued unabeted well in to the twentieth century and many blacks will argue is also alive and well today. Let us imagine ourselves back not two centuries ago but fourteen cneturies ago, in 7th century Arabia. How brutal and savage must slavery have been in 7th century Arabia? It certainly would have been similar to if not worse than what prevailed in the trans-atlantic slave trade. It was in to this couldron of racism, human depravity and barbarity that the religion of Islam arose. In fact, subjugating and horrificly exploiting others was the norm the worldover, then and for many centuries later. The famous philosophers Aristotle and Plato argued for slavery. Christianity and Judasim also considered it a natural aspect of life and validated it through divine texts such as Genesis 9:20-27 .2 In Hinduism though slavery was rejected, the caste-system ensured that the untouchable (dalit) class of people are as discriminated and socially despised as any slave. A child born to an untouchable mother and father was forever scarred with this stigma and could only aspire to perform the unpleasant tasks unbefitting the higher classes. Slavery was also a lucrative arrangement that had its powerful profiteers. Thus, any religion that wished to find a foothold in this hostile context would consider it a no-go area for reform. Indeed the very thought that slavery was bad and that slaves had to be treated humanely would have seemed preposterous and certain proof that a person had lost his intellect, as he was opposing what everyone considerd established truths. But the real truth is such that it knows no shame, fears no reproach and however absurd it may seem will decisively and unwaveringly take its stand. Thus against all expectations we see the prophet Muhammad going out of his way to tell people that all humans are equal, that slaves should be freed and treated with utmost respect. Thus in the entire Quran there is not a single order to make people in to slaves. On the contrary the Quran and Hadith are filled with commandments opposing slavery. It is also a historical fact that some of the leading companions were freed black slaves. The Holy Quran stated: And what may let you know what the elevated

course is? (It is) freeing of a slave, or giving food in a day of hunger to an orphan near of kin, or to a needy person lying in dust. (90:12-16)
The Prophet ( )said: Whoever frees a believing slave, God will free in exchange of it for each of the slaves limbs, each of the freers limbs from the hellfire, even his private parts for his private part.3 In another hadith the Prophet said if a slave is jointly owned by several people and one of them frees his share, that slave automatically gains the right to buy his freedom by paying off the remainder share the value of which would have to be determined by an impartial trustworthy party.4 Apart from the stress and virtousity in freeing slaves without financial consideration, Islam also instituted a way that any slave could inititate his own freedom. This was called mukaatabah and meant that a slave could buy his freedom by borrowing money from someone or earning the agreed price. The Holy Quran said: And those of your slaves who wish to enter the contract of

Kitbah (emancipation by paying money), contract Kitbah with them, if you recognize some good in them. (24:33)

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Zinn, Howard, Declarations of Independence, p.1, 1991. Website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/slavery/ethics/philosophers_1.shtml . 3 Jami al-Tirmidhi, The Book of Pledges and Oaths, Hadith no. 1541, p. 448. 4 Jami al-Tirmidhi, The Book of Rulings, Hadith no.1346, p. 388.

To further faciliate this path to freedom the Quran even told the Muslim community that the wealth that they are obliged to give in charity known as Zakah can be given to help such slaves free themselves: The prescrbed alms are (meant) only to be given to the poor, the needy, to

those employed to collect them, to those whose hearts are to be won, in the cause of the slaves and those encumbered with debt, in the way of Allah and to a wayfarer. This is an obligation prescribed by Allah. Allah is All-Knowing, Wise (9:60)
These texts clearly indicate that slavery is not a necessary aspect of life. Rather just like poverty it is an ugly phenomena that Islam decisively opposed. Islam did not merely preach against slavery it made this a major objective in its legal system. The law demanded that if a person did any of the following misdemeanours, it would be necessary to free a slave:

-Killing a person by mistake -Breaking an oath -Performing Zihar (a means by which a man can issue divorce) -Breaking a fast of the holy month of Ramadan -Beating a slave The Holy Quran, on zihar, states: But those who divorce their wives by Zihar, then wish to go back on the words they uttered,- (It is ordained that such a one) should free a slave before they touch each other: Thus are ye admonished to perform: and God is wellacquainted with (all) that ye do. (58:3) Again it is the Holy Quran that outlines the way a believer atones for a broken oath and manslaughter: Allah will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for the oaths ye have sworn. But keep to your oaths. Thus doth Allah make clear to you His signs, that ye may be grateful. (5:89) Regarding manslaughter it says: It is not for a believer to kill any believer, except by mistake. Whoever kills a believer by mistake, then, a believing slave has to be freed, and the blood money must be paid to his family, unless they forgo it. (4:92) The Hadith5 of the Prophet Muhammad inform us that if a person invalidates his fast in Ramadhan he should first try (if he is able to) to free a slave, if he is unable to then to fast two months, from dawn to sunset, and if he is unable to, then to feed sixty poor people.6 It is also in the hadith that a person who merely slaps a slave or beats him unjustly must free him to atone for this.7 If one adds to this surge to free people, the mountain of rights to protect slaves whilst in slavery one could only conclude that the Prophet Muhammad was the first and most successful reformer of slavery in the History of mankind. Let us record some of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that evidence the rights Islam established for this voiceless, right-less community.

Hadith are the reports that preserve the sayings and deeds of the Prophet of Islam .The Holy Quran is the word of God. 6 Sahih al-Bukhari, The Book of Fasting, p. 311, Hadith no. 1936. 7 Al-Adab al-Mufrad, Hadith no. 177 Also in Musnad Ahmad

In one hadith, Suwayd bin Maqran says that his entire family possessed only one slave. On an occasion one of his brothers slapped the slave. When the Prophet learnt of this he ordered for the slave to be freed, as legally that was the stipulated atonement for this crime.8 In another hadith the Prophet said: Feed them from the food that you eat, clothe them from the clothes that you wear and never torment those created by Allah.9 On another occasion the Prophet said: A slave is to have his food and clothing and he is not to be required to do more than he is capable of doing.10 Once Ibn Masud says that he was in the middle of giving his slave a beating, and suddenly he heard the voice of the Prophet : Beware Abu Masud! Indeed it is far simpler for God to beat you than it is for you to beat him. Terrified, Abu Masud turned around and said: O Messenger of God , he is this moment free for the pleasure of God. The Prophet said: Had you not freed him the fire of Hell would have touched you.11 The Prophet said: When a slave brings his master his food, if the master does not seat him with him to eat with him then he should give him some of the food as a way showing kindness to the slave.12 The Arabs considered slaves to be lowly and considered lineage a matter of great honour. Thus for them to marry a slave was unthinkable. The Prophet emphasised that people should consider slaves equal to themselves, and as their brothers. He said: Your slaves are your brothers, so do good to them. Let them help you when you are overcome (with work) and help them when they are overcome.13 This discrimination also meant though they may free a slave they would disdain marrying from them. The Prophet corrected this thought telling the people not only were slaves suitable for marriage but it was a virtous act. He said: Whoeve had a female slave and provided education for her, and was kind to her and married her, he will have two rewards.14
Through this constant wave of persuasion and its humanitarian laws, the cruelty that was part and parcel of slavery was significantly checked and the institution itself slowly faded into oblivion. Eventually it was wiped out from the Muslm world without it requiring the kind of long ghastly struggles witnessed elsewhere. One also needs to keep in mind that if some Muslim rulers or individuals in history were not interested in promoting this humanitarian objective, motivated by materialistic ends instead, this cannot be made a criticism of Islam.

[Taken from Islam, Friend or Foe of Humanity? 2012]

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Jami` al-Tirmidhi, The Book of Pledges and Oaths, Hadith no. 1542, p. 448. Al-Adab al-Mufrad, hadith no. 188. 10 Al-Adab al-Mufrad, Hadith no. 192. 11 Al-Adab al-Mufrad, Hadith no. 171. 12 Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith no. 5460. 13 Al-Adab al-Mufrad, Hadith no. 190. P. 89 14 Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith no. 2544, p. 411.