When we speak about slavery, the first impression we get are mal-nourished and half naked men and women tied up in chains and some cruel master hitting them with whips. Either shivering in extreme cold weather or working in the fields in extremely hot weather. Slave women being raped by multiple owners and the resultant children either being aborted, killed or used as slaves. The state in which POWs are kept is even worse. I often wondered that how come Islam has allowed such a practice? In Ma’ariful Quran (English), Mufti Muhammad Shafi explains that Islamic concept of slavery is totally different and should not be mixed with the impression one derives from other forms of slavery.
Did Islam start Slavery
Islam did not start slavery, in fact this was a common practice before the advent of Islam. However Islam provided strict guidelines, based on equality, which resulted in the harmonious and total integration of slaves in a Muslim society. In-fact Islamic Sharia made it difficult to acquire and easier to free slaves, which resulted in the general reduction of this practice.
Stages of Slavery
You can define three stages of enslavement.
Acquisition which is the stage where the owner enters into a bond to enslave a man or a woman.
Treatment i.e. during the stage where the slave lives with his master.
Release which is the stage where the slave is released from his bond.
As you will see below, Islam made it quite difficult to enslave someone but made it very easy to relieve a slave of his bond.
Islam is a religion which guides us through all walks of life. Therefore to decide the fate of Prisoners of War Islam provides ‘Enslavement’ as one of the acceptable practices, the others being, ‘Imprisonment’, ‘Execution’ and ‘Release’.
The choice has been given to the leader of the Muslim armies, who has to decide keeping in view the existing circumstances. e.g. Imprisonment can be an option if the Muslims are looking for a bargain. Execution can be performed (for only combatants) if the back and morale of the enemy needs to be broken. Release if the purpose is to exchange them with Muslim POWs or if there is no fear that the released prisoners will not attack the Muslims again. And if no menace is expected of the prisoners and the wish is to award the Muslim fighters and also to integrate the prisoners into the Muslim society, then enslavement is also an option.
Treatment of Slaves
There is a massive difference between Islamic Law and other laws on the treatment of slaves. With the rights and social status given to slaves in Islam, they can hardly be called slaves in the generally accepted sense of the word.
The below Hadith, will be enough to clarify
I am sure none of the other communities have called their slaves as their brothers, or fed them what they eat and dress them with what they dress up in.
If all injunctions in Quran and Hadith regarding good treatment of slaves are collected together, they would constitute a voluminous book. Therefore just some examples are listed below to prove the point.
Slaves can marry a free person.
A slave’s share from the spoils of war is equal to that of a free Muja’hid.
If a slave agrees to provide refuge to an enemy, it would be respected in the same way as given by a free individual.
Slave women cannot be interchanged between owners.
They are to be provided with food, shelter and clothing.
If the husband of the slave woman is alive and is also captured then intercourse with her is not allowed.
Children through slave women are treated as equals to children from other wives.
The rights of slave women are so high, that Islamic scholars observe that the only difference between a slave woman and a wife, is that for slave woman the contract is not initiated through a ‘Nikah’, but is initiated through the award of contract by the leader of the Muslim army.
Freeing / Release of Slaves.
Islam gradually abolished or reduced slavery by placing a lot of rewards on the freeing up of slaves. There is a huge number of verses in Quran and Holy Prophetic Traditions which set out the virtues and merits of setting the slaves free. There is no act better than emancipation of slaves. In juristic injunctions, pretexts were created to emancipate slaves e.g. expiation for violating fast, for murder, for zihar, for violating oaths and vows – in all these cases the first compulsory command is to emancipate a slave. A Hadith tells us that if a person has slapped a slave, its expiation is to set him free. Thus, the Companions used to emancipate slaves in large numbers. In Maariful Quran, Mufti Muhammad Shafi quotes an example in which just seven companions (Sahaba) set free around 39, 259 slaves.
Also the Quran asks Muslims to arrange marriage of their bondsmen and bondswomen.
24:32 – Arrange the marriage of the spouseless among you, and the capable from among your bondmen and bondwomen.
Does Islam Still Allow Slavery
Yes, but as mentioned above, such a practice has been made very difficult due to Islamic Sharia Law. But if all parameters and all Islamic laws are followed then the slaves can be allotted to Muslims.
Also in this context what needs to be seen is whether the Muslims have entered into a compact with the enemies or not. If there is an agreement with the enemies which includes a clause to the effect that neither the enemies will enslave Muslim POW nor will the Muslims enslave the enemy POW, the clause will be binding. In our times, many countries have entered into such covenants. If Muslim countries have participated in such covenants, it would not be lawful for them to enslave as long as this agreement stands.
In conclusion, holding POW in bondage is only up to the point of permissibility which means that if an Islamic State deems it appropriate, it may hold them in bondage, but it has not been taken as an obligatory or as a commendable act.
Mufti Muhammad Shafi, discusses this topic in detail in Volume 8 Page 36 of Maariful Quran (English Version). Click Here to read.