Islamic views on slavery

This article is about views of Muslims on the institution of slavery. For the history of slavery in Muslim lands, see History of Slavery in the Muslim World. For other uses, see Islam and slavery (disambiguation).

Bilal ibn Ribah (pictured, atop the Kaaba) an Ethiopian former slave, was appointed by Muhammad to perform as the first official muezzin. He had been emancipated through Abu Bakr paying his ransom upon Muhammad's instruction. As a Muslim, he accompanied Muhammad on the Hijra and was the bearer of Muhammad's mace and spear on the latter's military expeditions. In January 630, in a richly symbolic moment, he was the first ever Muslim to proclaim adhan in Mecca as depicted.

Islamic views on slavery first developed out of the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia,[1] and were at times radically different, depending on social-political factors such as the Arab slave trade.

In Islamic law, the topic of slavery is covered at great length.[1] The Quran (the holy book) and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) see slavery as being allowed, but only as an exceptional condition that can be entered into under certain limited circumstances.[2] Only children of slaves or non-Muslim prisoners of war could become slaves, never a freeborn Muslim.[3] They also consider manumission of a slave to be one of many meritorious deeds available for the expiation of sins.[4] According to Sharia, slaves are considered human beings and possessed some rights on the basis of their humanity. In addition, a Muslim slave is equal to a Muslim freeman in religious issues and superior to the free non-Muslim.[5]

In practice, slaves played various social and economic roles, from Emir to worker. Slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, pastoralism, and the army. Some rulers even relied on military and administrative slaves to such a degree that they seized power. In some cases, the treatment of slaves was so harsh that it led to uprisings, such as the Zanj Rebellion.[6] However, this was an exception rather than the norm, as the vast majority of labor in the medieval Islamic world consisted of free, paid labour.[7] For a variety of reasons, internal growth of the slave population was not enough to fulfill the demand in Muslim society. This resulted in massive importation, which involved enormous suffering and loss of life from the capture and transportation of slaves from non-Muslim lands.[8] In theory, slavery in Islamic law does not have a racial or color component, although this has not always been the case in practice.[9]

The Quran provides for emancipation of a slave as a means of religious atonement for sins.[10] One of the five pillars of Islam, zakāt, is meant to encourage Muslims to donate money to free slaves and bonded laborers in countries where slaves and bonded laborers may exist, in the hope that over time there will be no slaves left in that country.[11]

The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Africa. In the early 20th century (post World War I), slavery was gradually outlawed and suppressed in Muslim lands, largely due to pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France.[2] For example, Saudi Arabia and Yemen only abolished slavery in 1962 under pressure from Britain; Oman followed suit in 1970, and Mauritania in 1905, 1981, and again in August 2007.[12] However, slavery claiming the sanction of Islam is documented presently in the predominantly Islamic countries of Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, and Sudan.[13][14]

Many early converts to Islam were the poor and former slaves. One notable example is Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi.[15][16][17][18]

Slavery in pre-Islamic Arabia

Slavery was widely practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia, as well as in the rest of the ancient and early medieval world. The minority were white slaves of foreign extraction, likely brought in by Arab caravaners (or the product of Bedouin captures) stretching back to biblical times. Native Arab slaves had also existed, a prime example being Zayd ibn Harithah, later to become Muhammad's adopted son. Arab slaves, however, usually obtained as captives, were generally ransomed off amongst nomad tribes.[2] The slave population increased by the custom of child abandonment (see also infanticide), and by the kidnapping, or, occasionally, the sale of small children.[19] There is no conclusive evidence of the existence of enslavement for debt or the sale of children by their families; the late and rare accounts of such occurrences show them to be abnormal, Brunschvig states[2] (According to Brockopp, debt slavery was persistent.[20]) Free persons could sell their offspring, or even themselves, into slavery. Enslavement was also possible as a consequence of committing certain offenses against the law, as in the Roman Empire.[19]

Two classes of slave existed: a purchased slave, and a slave born in the master's home. Over the latter the master had complete rights of ownership, though these slaves were unlikely to be sold or disposed of by the master. Female slaves were at times forced into prostitution for the benefit of their masters, in accordance with Near Eastern customs.[2][21][22]

The historical accounts of the early years of Islam report that "slaves of non-Muslim masters ... suffered brutal punishments. Sumayyah bint Khayyat is famous as the first martyr of Islam, having been killed with a spear by Abū Jahl when she refused to give up her faith. Abu Bakr freed Bilal when his master, Umayya ibn Khalaf, placed a heavy rock on his chest in an attempt to force his conversion."[20]

Slavery in the Quran

"The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and (for) the wayfarer; a duty imposed by Allah. Allah is Knower, Wise."[23]

The mainstream view is that the Quran accepts the institution of slavery. It may be noted that the word 'abd' (slave) is rarely used, being more commonly replaced by some periphrasis such as ma malakat aymanukum ("that which your right hands own"). However the meaning and translation of this term has been disputed. W.G. Clarence-Smith has highlighted the point of view of Ghulam Ahmed Pervez on this issue, who argued that the term is used in the past-tense in the Quran, thus signalling only those individuals who were already enslaved at the dawn of Islam. This slight change in tense is significant, as it allowed G.A. Parwez to argue that slavery was never compatible with the commandments of the Quran and is in fact outlawed by Quranic Law.[24]

The mainstream view; however, is that the Qur'an recognizes the basic inequality between master and slave and the rights of the former over the latter. The historian Brunschvig states that from a spiritual perspective, "the slave has the same value as the free man, and the same eternity is in store for his soul; in this earthly life, failing emancipation, there remains the fact of his inferior status, to which he must piously resign himself."[2][25] Quran 24:32:[26] "And marry the unmarried among you and the righteous among your male slaves and female slaves. If they should be poor, Allah will enrich them from His bounty, and Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing" Quran 24:33:[26] But let them who find not [the means for] marriage abstain [from sexual relations] until Allah enriches them from His bounty. And those who seek a contract [for eventual emancipation] from among whom your right hands possess - then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you."

The Quran, Surah 90:13 cleary stated , the act of freeing of a slave [27] will make those people who do such deed to be categorized as the Companions of the Right,[28] a term for the blessed people in hereafter.[29]

The Quran urges kindness to the slave[30] and recommends their liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiation of sins[31] and as an act of simple benevolence.[32] It exhorts masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their own freedom (manumission contracts)."[33]

Slaves are mentioned in at least twenty-nine verses of the Qur'an, most of these are Medinan and refer to the legal status of slaves. The legal material on slavery in the Qur'an is largely restricted to manumission and sexual relations.[20] According to Sikainga, the Qur'anic references to slavery as mainly contain "broad and general propositions of an ethical nature rather than specific legal formulations."[34]

The Quran accepts the distinction between slave and free as part of the natural order and uses this distinction as an example of God's grace,[35] regarding this discrimination between human beings as in accordance with the divinely established order of things.[20][36] "The Qur'an, however, does not consider slaves to be mere chattel; their humanity is directly addressed in references to their beliefs,[37] their desire for manumission and their feelings about being forced into prostitution.[38] In one case, the Qur'an refers to master and slave with the same word, rajul. Later interpreters presume slaves to be spiritual equals of free Muslims. For example,[39] urges believers to marry 'believing maids that your right hands own' and then states: "The one of you is as the other," which the Jalaalayn interpret as "You and they are equal in faith, so do not refrain from marrying them." The human aspect of slaves is further reinforced by reference to them as members of the private household, sometimes along with wives or children.[20] Pious exhortations from jurists to free men to address their slaves by such euphemistic terms as "my boy" and "my girl" stemmed from the belief that God, not their masters, was responsible for the slave's status.[40]

There are many common features between the institution of slavery in the Quran and that of neighboring cultures. However, the Quranic institution had some unique new features.[20] Bernard Lewis states that the Qur'anic legislation brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects: presumption of freedom, and the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances.[33] According to Brockopp, the idea of using alms for the manumission of slaves appears to be unique to the Quran, assuming the traditional interpretation of verses [Quran 2:177] and [Quran 9:60]. Similarly, the practice of freeing slaves in atonement for certain sins appears to be introduced by the Quran (but compare Exod 21:26-7).[20] The forced prostitution of female slaves, a Near Eastern custom of great antiquity, is condemned in the Quran.[22][41] Murray Gordon notes that this ban is "of no small significance."[42] Brockopp writes: "Other cultures limit a master's right to harm a slave but few exhort masters to treat their slaves kindly, and the placement of slaves in the same category as other weak members of society who deserve protection is unknown outside the Qur'an. The unique contribution of the Qur'an, then, is to be found in its emphasis on the place of slaves in society and society's responsibility toward the slave, perhaps the most progressive legislation on slavery in its time."[20]

Muhammad's traditions

Main article: Muhammad and slavery

The Islamic prophet Muhammad encouraged manumission of slaves, even if one had to purchase them first. On many occasions, Muhammad's companions, at his direction, freed slaves in abundance. Muhammad personally freed 63 slaves, and his wife Aisha freed 67.[43] In total his household and friends freed 39,237 slaves.[44] The most notable of Muhammad's slaves were: Safiyya bint Huyayy, whom he freed and married; Maria al-Qibtiyya, given to Muhammad by a Sassanid official, whom he freed and who may have become his wife;[45] Sirin, Maria's sister, whom he freed and married to the poet Hassan ibn Thabit[46] and Zayd ibn Harithah, whom Muhammad freed and adopted as a son.[47]

Islamic jurisprudence

Traditional Islamic jurisprudence


In Islamic jurisprudence, slavery was an exceptional condition, with the general rule being a presumption of freedom (al-'asl huwa 'l-hurriya — "The basic principle is liberty") for a person if his or her origins were unknown.[2] Lawful enslavement was restricted to two instances: capture in war (on the condition that the prisoner is not a Muslim), or birth in slavery. Islamic law did not recognize the classes of slave from pre-Islamic Arabia including those sold or given into slavery by themselves and others, and those indebted into slavery.[2] Though a free Muslim could not be enslaved, conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave did not require that he or she then should be liberated. Slave status was not affected by conversion to Islam.[48]


In the instance of illness it would be required for the slave to be looked after. Manumission is considered a meritorious act. Based on the Quranic verse (24:33), Islamic law permits a slave to ransom himself upon consent of his master through a contract known as mukataba.[2] Azizah Y. al-Hibri, a professor of Law specializing in Islamic jurisprudence, states that both the Qur'an and Hadith are repeatedly exhorting Muslims to treat the slaves well and that Muhammad showed this both in action and in words.[49] Levy concurs, adding that "cruelty to them was forbidden."[50] Al-Hibri quotes the famous last speech of Muhammad and other hadiths emphasizing that all believers, whether free or enslaved, are siblings.[49] Lewis explains, "the humanitarian tendency of the Qur'an and the early caliphs in the Islamic empire, was to some extent counteracted by other influences,"[1] notably the practice of various conquered people and countries Muslims encountered, especially in provinces previously under Roman law. In spite of this, Lewis also states, "Islamic practice still represented a vast improvement on that inherited from antiquity, from Rome, and from Byzantium."[1] Murray Gordon writes: "It was not surprising that Muhammad, who accepted the existing socio-political order, looked upon slavery as part of the natural order of things. His approach to what was already an age-old institution was reformist and not revolutionary. The Prophet had not in mind to bring about the abolition of slavery. Rather, his purpose was to improve the conditions of slaves by correcting abuses and appealing to the conscience of his followers to treat them humanely."[51] The adoption of slaves as members of the family was common, according to Levy. If a slave was born and brought up in the master's household he was never sold, except in exceptional circumstances.[50]

Sexual intercourse

In Islamic law (Sharia), Ma malakat aymanukum is the term for slaves or captives of war. The purchase of female slaves for sex was lawful from the perspective of Islamic law, and this was the most common motive for the purchase of slaves throughout Islamic history.[52]

Al-Muminun 6 and Al-Maarij 30 both, in identical wording, draw a distinction between spouses and "those whom one's right hands possess", saying " أَزْوَاجِهِمْ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ" (literally, "their spouses or what their right hands possess"), while clarifying that sexual intercourse with either is permissible. Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi explains that "two categories of women have been excluded from the general command of guarding the private parts: (a) wives, (b) women who are legally in one's possession".[53]

unlike male slaves concubines and wives were not inherited by heirs of deceased.

O believers it is not lawful for you to inherit women forcefully; and do not confine them to take them from what you have given them except if they commit open lewdness; and socialize with them in recognized manner; so if you dislike them perhaps you dislike something and God has put in it much goodness.(Al-Quran 4:19)

And (also forbidden are) all married women except those whom your right hands possess (this is) Allah's ordinance to you,and lawful for you are (all women) besides those, provided that you seek (them) with your property, taking (them) in marriage not committing fornication. Then as to those whom you profit by, give them their doweries as appointed; and there is no blame on you about what you mutually agree after what is appointed; surely Allah is Knowing, Wise. And those of you who cannot afford marriage with free believing women then from those whom your right hands possess from your slave believing women ; and God knows better about your beliefs; so marry them with the permission of their owners by paying them (Women) their dowery in recognized manner provided that they are chaste not commiting fornication not making mistresses; when they are married then if they commit lewdness their punishment is half to that of free women; this is for those who fear sin out of you; and if you keep patience that is better for you; and God is forgiving and merciful. (Al-Quran 4:24-25)


Slave women were required mainly as concubines and menials. A Muslim slaveholder was entitled by law to the sexual enjoyment of his slave women. While free women might own male slaves, they had no such right.[54] The property of a slave was owned by his or her master unless a contract of freedom of the slave had been entered into, which allowed the slave to earn money to purchase his or her freedom and similarly to pay bride wealth. The marriage of slaves required the consent of the owner. Under the Hanafi and Shafi'i schools of jurisprudence male slaves could marry two wives, but the Maliki permitted them to marry four wives like the free men. According to the Islamic law, a male slave could marry a free woman but this was discouraged in practice.[55] Islam permits sexual relations between a male master and his female slave outside marriage. This is referred to in the Qur'an as ma malakat aymanukum or "what your right hands possess".[56][57] There are some restrictions on the master; he may not co-habit with a female slave belonging to his wife, neither can he have relations with a female slave if she is co-owned, or already married.[2]

In ancient Arabian custom, the child of a freeman by his slave was also a slave unless he was recognized and liberated by his father.[58] In theory, the recognition by a master of his offspring by a slave woman was optional in Islamic society, and in the early period was often withheld. By the High Middle Ages it became normal and was unremarkable in a society where the sovereigns themselves were almost invariably the children of slave concubines.[59] The mother receives the title of "umm walad" (lit. mother of a child), which is an improvement in her status as she can no longer be sold. Among Sunnis, she is automatically freed upon her master's death, however for Shi'a, she is only freed if her child is still alive; her value is then deducted from this child's share of the inheritance.[2] Lovejoy writes that as an umm walad, they attained "an intermediate position between slave and free" pending their freedom, although they would sometimes be nominally freed as soon as they gave birth.[60]

There is no limit on the number of concubines a master may possess. However, the general marital laws are to be observed, such as not having sexual relations with the sister of a female slave.[2][60] In Islam, "men are enjoined to marry free women in the first instance, but if they cannot afford the bridewealth for free women, they are told to marry slave women rather than engage in wrongful acts."[61] One rationale given for recognition of concubinage in Islam is that "it satisfied the sexual desire of the female slaves and thereby prevented the spread of immorality in the Muslim community."[62] Most schools restrict concubinage to a monogamous relationship between the slave woman and her master,[63] According to Sikainga, "in reality, however, female slaves in many Muslim societies were prey for members of their owners' household, their neighbors, and their guests."[64]

In Shiite jurisprudence it is unlawful for a master of a female slave to grant a third party the use of her for sexual relations. The Shiite scholar Shaykh al-Tusi stated:ولا يجوز إعارتها للاستمتاع بها لأن البضع لا يستباح بالإعارة "It is not permissible to loan (the slave girl) for enjoyment purpose, because sexual intercourse cannot be legitimate through loaning"[65] and the Shiite scholars al-Muhaqiq al-Kurki, Allamah al-Hilli and Ali Asghar Merwarid made the following ruling: ولا تجوز استعارة الجواري للاستمتاع "It is not permissible to loan the slave girl for the purpose of sexual intercourse"[66]

Under the legal doctrine of kafa'a(lit."efficiency"), the purpose of which was to ensure that a man should be at least the social equal of the woman he marries, a freedman is not as good as the son of a freedman, and he in turn not as good as the grandson of a freedman. This principle is pursued up to three generations, after which all Muslims are deemed equally free.[67] Lewis asserts that since kafa'a "does not forbid unequal marriages", it is in no sense a "Muslim equivalent of Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany or the apartheid laws of South Africa. His purpose, he states, is not to try to set up a moral competition - to compare castration and apartheid as offenses against humanity."[2][68]

Within Islamic jurisprudence, slaves were excluded from religious office and from any office involving jurisdiction over others.[69] Freed slaves are able to occupy any office within the Islamic government, and instances of this in history include the Mamluk who ruled Egypt for almost 260 years and the eunuchs who have held military and administrative positions of note.[70] With the permission of their owners they are able to marry.[71] Annemarie Schimmel, a contemporary scholar on Islamic civilization, asserts that because the status of slaves under Islam could only be obtained through either being a prisoner of war (this was soon restricted only to infidels captured in a holy war)[1] or born from slave parents, slavery would be theoretically abolished with the expansion of Islam.[70] Fazlur Rahman agrees, stating that the Qur'anic acceptance of the institution of slavery on the legal plane was the only practical option available at the time of Muhammad since "slavery was ingrained in the structure of society, and its overnight wholesale liquidation would have created problems which it would have been absolutely impossible to solve, and only a dreamer could have issued such a visionary statement."[72] Islam's reforms stipulating the conditions of enslavement seriously limited the supply of new slaves.[1] Murray Gordon does note: "Muhammad took pains in urging the faithful to free their slaves as a way of expiating their sins. Some Muslim scholars have taken this mean that his true motive was to bring about a gradual elimination of slavery. An alternative argument is that by lending the moral authority of Islam to slavery, Muhammad assured its legitimacy. Thus, in lightening the fetter, he riveted it ever more firmly in place."[73] In the early days of Islam, a plentiful supply of new slaves were brought due to rapid conquest and expansion. But as the frontiers were gradually stabilized, this supply dwindled to a mere trickle. The prisoners of later wars between Muslims and Christians were commonly ransomed or exchanged.

According to Lewis, this reduction resulted in Arabs who wanted slaves having to look elsewhere to avoid the restrictions in the Qur'an, meaning an increase of importing of slaves from non-Muslim lands,[74] primarily from Africa. These slaves suffered a high death toll.[1][74] Patrick Manning states that Islamic legislations against the abuse of the slaves convincingly limited the extent of enslavement in Arabian Peninsula and to a lesser degree for the whole area of the whole Umayyad Caliphate where slavery had existed since the most ancient times. He however notes that with the passage of time and the extension of Islam, Islam by recognizing and codifying the slavery seems to have done more to protect and expand slavery than the reverse.[75]

In theory free-born Muslims could not be enslaved, and the only way that a non-Muslim could be enslaved was being captured in the course of holy war.[55] (In early Islam, neither a Muslim nor a Christian or Jew could be enslaved.[76]) Slavery was also perceived as a means of converting non-Muslims to Islam: A task of the masters was religious instruction. Conversion and assimilation into the society of the master didn't automatically lead to emancipation, though there was normally some guarantee of better treatment and was deemed a prerequisite for emancipation.[60] The majority of Sunni authorities approved the manumission of all the "People of the Book". According to some jurists -especially among the Shi'a- only Muslim slaves should be liberated.[77] In practice, traditional propagators of Islam in Africa often revealed a cautious attitude towards proselytizing because of its effect in reducing the potential reservoir of slaves.[78]

Rights and restrictions

"Morally as well as physically the slave is regarded in law as an inferior being," Levy writes.[79] Under Islamic law, a slave possesses a composite quality of being both a person and a possession.[2] The slave is entitled to receive sustenance from the master, which includes shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention. It is a requirement for this sustenance to be of the same standard generally found in the locality and it is also recommended for the slave to have the same standard of food and clothing as the master. If the master refuses to provide the required sustenance, the slave may complain to a judge, who may then penalize the master through sale of her or his goods as necessary for the slave's keep. If the master does not have sufficient wealth to facilitate this, she or he must either sell, hire out, or manumit the slave as ordered. Slaves also have the right to a period of rest during the hottest parts of the day during the summer.[80]

Evidence from slaves is rarely viable in a court of law. As slaves are regarded as inferior in Islamic law, death at the hands of a free man does not require that the latter be killed in retaliation.[81] The killer must pay the slave's master compensation equivalent to the slave's value, as opposed to blood-money. At the same time, slaves themselves possess a lessened responsibility for their actions, and receive half the penalty required upon a free man. For example: where a free man would be subject to a hundred lashes due to pre-marital relations, a slave would be subject to only fifty. Slaves are allowed to marry only with the owner's consent. Jurists differ over how many wives a slave may possess, with the Hanafi and Shafi'i schools allowing them two, and the Maliki school allowing four. Slaves are not permitted to possess or inherit property, or conduct independent business, and may conduct financial dealings only as a representative of the master. Offices of authority are generally not permitted for slaves, though a slave may act as the leader (Imam) in the congregational prayers, and he may also act as a subordinate officer in the governmental department of revenue.[2][82] Masters may sell, bequeath, give away, pledge, hire out or compel them to earn money.[50]

By the view of some madh'hab (but not others), a master may compel his/her slave(s) to marriage and determine the identity of their marriage partner(s)[83][84]

The mahr that is given for marriage to a female slave is taken by her owner, whereas all other women possess it absolutely for themselves[85]


The Qur'an and Hadith, the primary Islamic texts, make it a praiseworthy act for masters to set their slaves free. There are numerous ways in which a slave may become free. One way is through expiation for certain sins committed by the master, such as involuntary manslaughter or perjury. Other ways include emancipation through becoming an umm walad, who is freed upon her master's death along with her children, or an independent act of piety by the master, as recommended by the Quran. It is also commendable to manumit a slave who demands his freedom and is considered worthy of it; however, Richard Francis Burton states in a footnote to the "Tale of the Second Eunuch", commenting on the proposed emancipation of a slave without employable skills, that "Here the slave refuses to be set free and starve. For a master so to do without ample reasons is held disgraceful. I well remember the weeping and wailing throughout Sind when an order from Sir Charles Napier set free the negroes whom British philanthropy thus doomed to endure if not to die of hunger."[86] Another method is the mukataba contract: Levy states that "the slave may redeem himself if his master agrees and contracts to let him go on payment of a stipulated sum of money, which may be paid in two or more instalments, or on the giving of stipulated services or other consideration. If the consideration is a sum of money, the master must grant the slave the right to earn and to own property."[2][87]

If the master makes a declaration of the slave's freedom, whether in jest or earnest, in the presence of the slave or another, then such a declaration becomes legally binding. Similarly, the master may promise manumission (verbally or in writing) that the slave is to be freed upon the former's death. Lastly, a slave is also freed automatically if she or he comes into the possession of a master who is directly related to her or him.[87]

Gordon opines that the Quran in particular and Islamic jurisprudence in general have not placed a premium on manumission but held it out as one way for atonement of sin. He states that "Manumission was only one of several virtuous observances that the pious could avail themselves of and was by no means the most important,"[4] noting that other options include reaffirming faith in God and giving food to the poor. He concludes that "there was no contradiction between being a devout Muslim and a slave-owing one as well."[88]

Modern interpretations

The abolition movement starting in the 19th century in England[89] and later in other Western countries influenced the slavery in Muslim lands both in doctrine and in practice.[2] One of the first religious decrees comes from the two highest dignitaries of the Hanafi and Maliki rites in the Ottoman Empire. These religious authorities declared that slavery is lawful in principle but it is regrettable in its consequences. They expressed two religious considerations in their support for abolition of slavery: "the initial enslaving of the people concerned comes under suspicion of illegality by reason of the present-day expansion of Islam in their countries; masters no longer comply with the rules of good treatment which regulate their rights and shelter them from wrong-doing."[2]

According to Brunschvig, although the total abolition of slavery might seem a reprehensible innovation and contrary to the Qur'an and the practice of early Muslims, the realities of the modern world caused a "discernible evolution in the thought of many educated Muslims before the end of the 19th century."[2] These Muslims argued that Islam on the whole has "bestowed an exceptionally favourable lot on the victims of slavery" and that the institution of slavery is linked to the particular economic and social stage in which Islam originated. According to the influential thesis of Ameer Ali, Islam only tolerated slavery through temporary necessity and that its complete abolition was not possible at the time of Muhammad.[2]

According to Brockopp, some modern interpreters have accused the medieval interpreters of having subverted the Qur'an's demand for manumission contracts (see Mukataba). They have used the dramatic change in the institution of slavery in the 7th and 8th centuries to argue that the Qur'an would not have condoned the slaving practices common in Islamic history. Others have argued that the original intent of the Qur'an, when understood properly, was to abolish slavery altogether (cf. Arafat, Attitude).[20]

The idea that Islam only tolerated slavery due to necessity has to some extent found its way into the circle of the Ulema.[20] It has been unable to gain support among the Wahhabis.[2]

Slavery in the contemporary Muslim world

The issue of slavery in the Islamic world in modern times is controversial. Critics argue there is hard evidence of its existence and destructive effects. Others maintain slavery in central Islamic lands has been virtually extinct since the mid-20th century, and that reports from Sudan and Somalia showing practice of slavery is in border areas as a result of continuing war[90] and not Islamic belief.

Salafi and traditionalist juridical support for slavery

In recent years, according to some scholars,[91] there has been a "reopening"[92] of the issue of slavery by some conservative Salafi Islamic scholars after its "closing" earlier in the 20th century when Muslim countries banned slavery and "most Muslim scholars" found the practice "inconsistent with Qur'anic morality."[93][94]

In 2003 in what one scholar called a "ominous and disturbing development", a controversial high-level Saudi jurist, Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan, said in a lecture "Slavery is a part of Islam. Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam."[95] He further dismissed Muslim writers who maintained otherwise as ignorant and "blind followers".[96] At the time of the fatwa, al-Fawzan was a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, a member of the Council of Religious Edicts and Research, the Imam of Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh, and a professor at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud Islamic University, the main Wahhabi center of learning in the country. Another prominent Saudi cleric, Saad Al-Buraik has urged Palestinians to enslave women of "the Jews".[97]

Islamist opinions

Earlier in the 20th century, prior to the "reopening" of slavery by Salafi scholars like Shaykh al-Fawzan, Islamist authors declared slavery outdated without actually clearly affirming and promoting its abolition. This has caused at least one scholar (William Clarence-Smith[98]) to bemoan the "dogged refusal of Mawlana Mawdudi to give up on slavery"[99] and the notable "evasions and silences of Muhammad Qutb".[100][101]

Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb, the scholar of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood said in his (Tafsir) of the Quran

"And concerning slavery, that was when slavery was a world-wide structure and which was conducted amongst Muslims and their enemies in the form of enslaving of prisoners of war. And it was necessary for Islam to adopt a similar line of practise until the world devised a new code of practise during war other than enslavement"[102]

Qutb's brother Muhammad Qutb contrasted sexual relations between Muslim slave-owners and their female slaves with (in his view), the widespread and depraved practice of casual consensual sex in contemporary Europe:

"Islam made it lawful for a master to have a number of slave-women captured in wars and enjoined that he alone may have sexual relations with them ... Europe abhors this law but at the same gladly allows that most odious form of animalism according to which a man may have illicit relations with any girl coming across him on his way to gratify his animal passions."[103]

Abul A'la Maududi of Jamaat-e-Islami has said:

Islam has clearly and categorically forbidden the primitive practice of capturing a free man, to make him a slave or to sell him into slavery. On this point the clear and unequivocal words of Muhammad are as follows:
"There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgement. Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats this money" (al-Bukhari and Ibn Majjah).
The words of this Tradition of the Prophet are also general, they have not been qualified or made applicable to a particular nation, race, country or followers of a particular religion.....After this the only form of slavery which was left in Islamic society was the prisoners of war, who were captured on the battlefield. These prisoners of war were retained by the Muslim Government until their government agreed to receive them back in exchange for Muslim soldiers captured by them.....[104]

Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, a shariah judge and founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, gives the following explanation:

When Islam came, for the situations where people were taken into slavery (e.g. debt), Islam imposed Shari’ah solutions to those situations other than slavery. ... It (Islam) made the existing slave and owner form a business contract, based upon the freedom, not upon slavery ... As for the situation of war, ... it clarified the rule of the captive in that either they are favoured by releasing without any exchange, or they are ransomed for money or exchanged for Muslims or non-Muslim citizens of the Caliphate.[105]

The website of the organization stresses that because sharia historically was responding to a contract, not the institution of slavery, a future Khilafah could not re-introduce slavery.[106]

While prominent clerics of Twelver Shia Islam have joined in declarations against contemporary slavery,[107] at least one powerful Shi'a Islamist ayatollah (Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a member of Iran's Assembly of Experts,[108][109] the body responsible for choosing the Supreme Leader of Iran[110]) has made several statements declaring the permissibility of slavery in modern times.[111] In a 2006 interview he stated,

Today, too, if there's a war between us and the infidels, we’ll take slaves. The ruling on slavery hasn’t expired and is eternal. We’ll take slaves and we’ll bring them to the world of Islam and have them stay with Muslims. We’ll guide them, make them Muslims and then return them to their countries.[112][113]

In response to the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram's Quranic justification for kidnapping and enslaving people,[114][115] and ISIL's religious justification for enslaving Yazidi women as spoils of war as claimed in their digital magazine Dabiq,[116][117][118][119][120][121] the 126 Islamic scholars from around the Muslim world, in late September 2014, signed an open letter to the Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rejecting his group's interpretations of the Qur'an and hadith to justify its actions.[122][123][n 1] The letter accuses the group of instigating fitna – sedition – by instituting slavery under its rule in contravention of the anti-slavery consensus of the Islamic scholarly community.[124]

See also

Further reading



  1. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, a Nigerian extremist group, said in an interview "I shall capture people and make them slaves" when claiming responsibility for the 2014 Chibok kidnapping. ISIL claimed that the Yazidi are idol worshipers and their enslavement part of the old shariah practice of spoils of war.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Lewis 1994, Ch.1
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Brunschvig. 'Abd; Encyclopedia of Islam
  3. Du Pasquier, Roger, Unveiling Islam, p.67
  4. 1 2 Gordon 1987, page 40.
  5. See: Martin (2005), pp.150 and 151; Clarence-Smith (2006), p.2
  6. Clarence-Smith (2006), pp.2-5
  7. William D. Phillips (1985). Slavery from Roman times to the early transatlantic trade. Manchester University Press. p. 76. ISBN 0-7190-1825-0.
  8. Lewis 1990, page 10
  9. Bernard Lewis, Race and Color in Islam, Harper and Row, 1970, quote on page 38. The brackets are displayed by Lewis.
  10. Chapter 24 (Surat Al-Nur), Verse 33
  11. Medani Ahmed and Sebastian Gianci, Zakat, Encyclopedia of Taxation and Tax Policy, p. 479
  12. Martin A. Klein (2002), Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition, Page xxii, ISBN 0810841029
  13. Segal, page 206. See later in article.
  14. Segal, page 222. See later in article.
  15. The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English By Ali Ünal page 1323
  16. Encyclopedia of the Qur'an, Slaves and Slavery
  17. Bilal b. Rabah, Encyclopedia of Islam
  18. The Cambridge History of Islam (1977), p.36
  19. 1 2 Lewis (1992) p. 4
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Encyclopedia of the Qur'an, Slaves and Slavery
  21. Mendelsohn (1949) pp. 54—58
  22. 1 2 John L Esposito (1998) p. 79
  23. "The Quran". Retrieved 6 August 2015. External link in |website= (help)
  24. Clarence-Smith, William. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford University Press. p. 198. ISBN 0195221516.
  25. ([Quran 16:71], [Quran 30:28])
  26. 1 2
  27. [Quran 90:13]
  28. [Quran 90:18]
  29. [Quran 56:27][Quran 56:90][Quran 56:91]
  30. ([Quran 4:36], [Quran 9:60], [Quran 24:58])
  31. ([Quran 4:92], [Quran 5:92], [Quran 58:3])
  32. ([Quran 2:177], [Quran 24:33], [Quran 90:13])
  33. 1 2 Lewis 1990, page 6. All Qur'anic citations are his.
  34. Sikainga (2005), p.5-6
  35. [Quran 16:71]
  36. EoI
  37. ([Quran 2:221], [Quran 4:25])
  38. ([Quran 24:33])
  39. [Quran 4:25]
  40. Marmon in Marmon (1999), page 2
  41. [Quran 24:33]
  42. Gordon 1989, page 37.
  43. Human Rights in Islam. Published by The Islamic Foundation (1976) - Leicester, U.K.
  44. Nadvi (2000), pg. 453
  45. from "Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir" (Book of the Major Classes) by Ibn Sa'd's
  46. Aydin, p.17 (citing Ibn Abdilberr, İstîâb, IV, p. 1868; Nawavî, Tahzib al Asma, I, p. 162; Ibn al Asîr, Usd al Ghâbe, VI, p. 160) Archived July 21, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  47. Hughes (1996), p. 370
  48. Lewis 1990, page 9.
  49. 1 2 Azizah Y. al-Hibri, 2003
  50. 1 2 3 Levy (1957) p. 77
  51. Gordon 1987, page 19.
  52. Brunschvig. 'Abd; Encyclopedia of Islam, page 13.
  53. Surah - Al - Muminoon
  54. Lewis 1990, page 14.
  55. 1 2 Sikainga (1996) p.5
  56. See Tahfeem ul Qur'an by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, Vol. 2 pp. 112-113 footnote 44; Also see commentary on verses [Quran 23:1]: Vol. 3, notes 7-1, p. 241; 2000, Islamic Publications
  57. Tafsir ibn Kathir 4:24
  58. Lewis 1990, page 24.
  59. Lewis 1990, page 91.
  60. 1 2 3 Paul Lovejoy (2000) p.2
  61. Nashat (1999) p. 42
  62. Sikainga(1996), p.22
  63. Bloom and Blair (2002) p.48
  64. Sikainga (1996) p.22
  65. Shaykh al-Tusi stated in Al-Mabsut, Volume 3 page 57
  66. al-Muhaqiq al-Kurki in Jame'a al-Maqasid, Volume 6 page 62, Allamah al-Hilli in Al-Tadkira, Volume 2 page 210 and Ali Asghar Merwarid in Al-Yanabi al-Fiqhya, Volume 17 page 187
  67. Lewis 8586
  68. John Joseph, Review of Race and Color in Islam by Bernard Lewis, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3. (Jun., 1974), pp. 368-371.
  69. Lewis 1990, page 7
  70. 1 2 Schimmel (1992) p. 67
  71. Esposito (2002) p.148
  72. Fazlur Rahman, Islam, University of Chicago Press, p.38
  73. Murray Gordon, "Slavery in the Arab World." New Amsterdam Press, New York, 1989. Originally published in French by Editions Robert Laffont, S.A. Paris, 1987. Page 19.
  74. 1 2 Lewis (1990) p. 10
  75. Manning (1990) p.28
  76. John Esposito (1998) p.40
  77. Lewis(1990) 106
  78. Murray Gordon, "Slavery in the Arab World." New Amsterdam Press, New York, 1989. Originally published in French by Editions Robert Laffont, S.A. Paris, 1987, page 28.
  79. Levy, p.78
  80. Khalil b. Ishaq, quoted in Levy (1957) p. 77
  81. Except according to Hanafis, who make a free man liable to retaliation in cases of murder
  82. Levy (1957) pp. 78-79
  83. Khalil bin Ishaq, II, 4
  84. Sachau, p.173
  85. Levy, p.114
  86. Burton, Richard Francis. "Tale of the Second Eunuch". The Book of The Thousand Nights And A Night.
  87. 1 2 Levy pp. 80-81
  88. Gordon 1987, pages 42-43.
  89. Oldfield, John (2011-02-07). "British Anti-slavery". British History in depth. BBC History. Retrieved 2016-10-03.
  90. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, "slavery", p.298
  91. Khaled Abou El Fadl and William Clarence-Smith
  92. Abou el Fadl, Great Theft, HarperSanFrancisco, c2005. p.255
  93. Abou el Fadl, Great Theft, HarperSanFrancisco, c2005.
  94. "Islam and Slavery", William G. Clarence-Smith
  95. "Author of Saudi Curriculums Advocates Slavery". SIA News. Archived from the original on November 7, 2003. Retrieved 27 May 2014.
  96. "Taming a Neo-Qutubite Fanatic Part 1" (PDF). salafi publications, p. 24. Retrieved 27 May 2014. Questioner: ... one of the contemporary writers is of the view that this religion, at its inception, was compelled to accept the institution of slavery ... [but] ... that the intent of the Legislator [i.e. God] is to gradually end this institution of slavery. So what is your view on this?
    Shaikh Salih alFawzaan: These are words of falsehood (baatil) ... despite that many of the writers and thinkers -- and we do not say scholars -- repeat these words. Rather we say that they are thinkers (mufakkireen), just as they call them. And it is unfortunate, that they also call them `Du'at' (callers). ... These words are falsehood ... This is deviation and a false accusation against Islaam. And if it had not been for the excuse of ignorance [because] we excuse them on account of (their) ignorance so we do not say that they are Unbelievers because they are ignorant and are blind followers .... Otherwise, these statements are very dangerous and if a person said them deliberately he would become apostate and leave Islaam. ..."
    [Source of Q&A: Cassette Recording dated 4/8/1416 and subsequently verified by the Shaikh himself with a few minor alterations to the wording.]
  97. "It is hard to imagine a serious person calling for America to enslave its enemies. Yet a prominent Saudi cleric, Shaikh Saad Al-Buraik, recently urged Palestinians to do exactly that with Jews: 'Their women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don't you enslave their women?'""The Unknown Slavery: In the Muslim World, That Is—and It's Not Over," National Review, May 20, 2002..
  98. Archived April 17, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  99. Clarence-Smith, W. G. (2006). Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford University Press. p. 188. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
  100. at p.6 - 'Islam and Slavery' by William Gervase Clarence-Smith
  101. Clarence-Smith, W. G. (2006). Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford University Press. p. 186. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
  102. in Fi Zilal al-Qur'an, Surah Tawbah (3/1669) also in Tafsir of Surah Baqarah (/230), tafsir of Surah Mu'minoon (4/2455), tafsir of Surah Muhammad (6/3285)
  103. Qutb, Muhammad, Islam, the Misunderstood Religion, Markazi Maktabi Islami, Delhi-6, 1992 p.50
  104. From "Human Rights in Islam" by 'Allamah Abu Al-'A'la Mawdudi. Chapter 3, subsection 5
  105. al-Shakhsiyah al-Islamiyyah (The Islamic Personality) by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, Volume 3, Slavery Section
  106. "The Islamic view on Slaves and Slavery", 13 May 2008]
  107. Belardelli, Guilia (2 December 2014). "Pope Francis And Other Religious Leaders Sign Declaration Against Modern Slavery". Huffpost Religion. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
  108. 16 نماينده استان تهران در مجلس خبرگان مشخص شدند
  109. Freeman, Colin; Biouki, Kay (19 November 2006). "Ayatollah aims to be Iran's next spiritual leader". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 7 March 2008.
  110. Battle for Iran shifts from the streets to the heart of power. Peter Beaumont. 28 June 2009 Reyrieved 15 July 2009
  111. see also: Rajaee, Farhang (2007). Islamism and Modernism: The Changing Discourse in Iran. Austin TX: University of Texas Press. p. 176. Retrieved 3 November 2015. Islam has devised solutions and strategies for ending slavery, but this does not mean that slavery is condemned in Islam. If, in a legitimate war, Muslims gain dominance over unbelievers and take them captive, in the hand of the victorious Muslims they are considered slaves and the ordinances of slavery apply to them. [source: Ettela'at, 10 Mehr 1372/October 1, 1993]
  112. Transcript of TV interview with Dr. Soroush by Dariush Sajjadi, Broadcast, Homa TV, 9 March 2006 Retrieved 15 July 2009
  113. see also "متن مصاحبه داريوش سجادی با دکتر سوش". Dr. Soroush. Retrieved 7 March 2008.(Persian)
  114. Lister, Tim (6 May 2014). "Boko Haram: The essence of terror". CNN. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
  115. Ferran, Lee (5 May 2014). "Boko Haram: Kidnappers, Slave-Owners, Terrorists, Killers". ABC News.
  116. "Islamic State Seeks to Justify Enslaving Yazidi Women and Girls in Iraq," Newsweek, 10-13-2014
  117. Athena Yenko, "Judgment Day Justifies Sex Slavery Of Women – ISIS Out With Its 4th Edition Of Dabiq Magazine," International Business Times-Australia, October 13, 2014
  118. Allen McDuffee, "ISIS Is Now Bragging About Enslaving Women and Children," The Atlantic, Oct 13 2014
  119. Salma Abdelaziz, "ISIS states its justification for the enslavement of women," CNN, October 13, 2014
  120. Richard Spencer, "Thousands of Yazidi women sold as sex slaves 'for theological reasons', says Isil," The Daily Telegraph, 13 Oct 2014.
  121. "To have and to hold: Jihadists boast of selling captive women as concubines," The Economist, Oct 18th 2014
  122. Lauren Markoe (24 September 2013). "Muslim Scholars Release Open Letter to Islamic State Meticulously Blasting Its Ideology". The Huffington Post. Religious News Service. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
  123. Smith, Samuel (25 September 2014). "International Coalition of Muslim Scholars Refute ISIS' Religious Arguments in Open Letter to al-Baghdadi". The Christian Post. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
  124. "Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi". September 2014. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
  125. When Europeans Were Slaves: Research Suggests White Slavery Was Much More Common Than Previously Believed
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