Slavery, Women and Islam

Let us start with a suggestion: Abrogate the bold parts in the Quranic verses below.

  • Quran 23:1-6: Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers, and who shun vain conversation, and who are payers of the poor-due; And who guard their modesty – save from their wives or the (slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy.
  • Quran 33:50-52: O Prophet! Lo! We have made lawful unto thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesseth of those whom Allah hath given thee as spoils of war, and the daughters of thine uncle on the father’s side and the daughters of thine aunts on the father’s side, and the daughters of thine uncle on the mother’s side and the daughters of thine aunts on the mother’s side who emigrated with thee, and a believing woman if she give herself unto the Prophet and the Prophet desire to ask her in marriage – a privilege for thee only, not for the (rest of) believers – We are Aware of that which We enjoined upon them concerning their wives and those whom their right hands possess – that thou mayst be free from blame, for Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful. Thou canst defer whom thou wilt of them and receive unto thee whom thou wilt, and whomsoever thou desirest of those whom thou hast set aside (temporarily), it is no sin for thee (to receive her again); that is better; that they may be comforted and not grieve, and may all be pleased with what thou givest them. Allah knoweth what is in your hearts (O men), and Allah is ever Forgiving, Clement. It is not allowed thee to take (other) women henceforth, nor that thou shouldst change them for other wives even though their beauty pleased thee, save those whom thy right hand possesseth. And Allah is ever Watcher over all things.
  • Quran 70:29-31: And those who preserve their chastity save with their wives and those whom their right hands possess, for thus they are not blameworthy; But whoso seeketh more than that, those are they who are transgressors;

Now I don’t mean that they should be edited out of the Quran. That would open a Pandora’s box. I am thinking more on the lines of annotation and commentary saying these are no longer valid and do not apply now because they condone great crimes and sins. These clauses are from an era when humanity hadn’t progressed much and people didn’t have many rights that we take for granted nowadays.

I consider slavery to be a crime against humanity. Another common act associated with slavery was the abominable rape of female slaves. Yes, I classify sex between master and slave to be rape because a slave does not have the right to refuse. This is one of the worst crimes in my opinion.

Unfortunately, it seems from the verses above that the Quran itself allows sexual relations between masters and their female slaves. That is the interpretation of most scholars. A few modernist scholars disagree, however. Let’s take a look at our usual duo of conservative neorevivalist Sheikh Munajjid and modernist Moiz Amjad.

Sheikh Munajjid tries to argue that Islam limited an existing practice and gave more rights to slaves.

Islam limited the sources of slaves which existed before the mission of the Prophet […] to just one source, namely slavery resulting from capturing prisoners from among the kuffaar.

Islam treated female slaves more kindly in their enslavement than other cultures did. Their honour was not considered to be permissible to anyone by way of prostitution, which was the fate of female prisoners of war in most cases. Rather Islam made them the property of their masters alone, and forbade anyone else to also have intercourse with them, even if that was his son. Islam made it their right to become free through a contract of manumission; it encouraged setting them free and promised reward for that. Islam made setting slaves free an obligation in the case of some kinds of expiation (kafaarah), such as the expiation for accidental killing, zihaar (a jaahili form of divorce in which a man said to his wife, “You are to me as my mother’s back”), and breaking oaths. They received the best treatment from their masters, as was enjoined by the pure sharee’ah.

Secondly: A mujaahid does not have to be married in order to gain possession of a “slave whom one’s right hand possesses.” None of the scholars expressed such a view.

Here, he tries to distinguish between sex with a slave and prostitution. I guess nobody told him that the correct comparison would be with rape.

Slavery in Islam was originally prescribed because of Kufr. If there is jihaad between the Muslims and the kuffaar, and a number of kuffaar are taken prisoner, the commander is given the choice of sharing them out, doing them a favour (by releasing them) or paying their ransom. If they are shared out as part of the booty, they become slaves, subject to the laws governing products which may be sold. But at the same time, Islam urges the freeing of slaves and makes doing so an act of expiation for numerous sins. In principle, slavery is not something that is desirable; what is encouraged in Islam is the freeing of slaves. If a woman is enslaved according to sharee’ah, it is permissible for her master to have intercourse with her. This is unlike prostitution or zinaa, which Islam has forbidden as a precaution against mixing lineages and other reasons for which it is forbidden. There is no comparison between the two, because if a slave woman becomes pregnant, the child belongs to the master and she becomes free when he dies, because she has become the mother of the master’s child (umm walad), and is subject to the same rulings as a wife. And Allaah knows best.

And finally here is a case when the master is not allowed to have sexual relations with his slave.

It is not permissible for a man to have intercourse with his slave woman who is married; whoever does that has committed a haraam (forbidden) action and is to be punished.

Despite the fact that Sheikh Munajjid was a bit apologetic about the slavery issue, he considers any arguments about it being not allowed as wrong. For once, I agree with him that this has been the majority opinion of traditionalist and neorevivalist scholars. But I do think that not only should we declare it haraam [disallowed] (which is the position of some modernists), we should write in our translations and commentaries of the Quran that it is one of the biggest crimes/sins and a legacy of the barbaric past of Islam and humanity in general.

Islam allows a man to have intercourse with his slave woman, whether he has a wife or wives or he is not married.

This is indicated by the Qur’aan and Sunnah, and this was done by the Prophets. Ibraaheem (peace be upon him) took Haajar as a concubine and she bore him Ismaa’eel (may peace be upon them all).

Our Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) also did that, as did the Sahaabah, the righteous and the scholars. The scholars are unanimously agreed on that and it is not permissible for anyone to regard it as haraam or to forbid it. Whoever regards that as haraam is a sinner who is going against the consensus of the scholars.

[…]The wife has no right to object to her husband owning female slaves or to his having intercourse with them.

The modernist scholar Moiz Amjad claims that Islam did not abolish slavery because it would have caused a lot of social upheaval as it was too entrenched in society at the time. I have read similar arguments from other scholars as well. But I think the same can be said for a lot of other things that Islam proscribed as well.

[T]he reason why Islam did not give any macro-level directives for the eradication of slavery was precisely the socio-cultural, economic and technological development state of the human collectivity, in general. It was only at a very later stage that mankind reached a stage where the collectivity could plan and implement programs for the macro-level eradication of the vice. Till such time, no collective administrative action could have been taken against the vice, individuals could only prompted against it, and this, in my opinion, is precisely what Islam did.

In more detail:

Islam did not completely abolish and uproot the institution of slavery because of the simple reason that it was not possible to do so. The institution of slavery had such deep roots in the world societies of old that it was quite difficult to even imagine a civilized society without a large percentage of slave population. It was in this historical background that the revival of Islam, at the hands of Mohammed (pbuh), started in the 6th century AD.

[… T]he major hindrances in the complete abolition and prohibition of the institute of slavery were:

  1. The existing internationally accepted social status given to the slaves and their prevalent moral training and position;
  2. The social acceptability of interacting with slaves;
  3. The macro economic situation in the societies (including the lack of employment opportunities for the unproductive slave population);
  4. The serious socio-moral and political implications that were likely to follow a hasty action in this regard; and
  5. The international situation

The basic directives of Islam in this regard were aimed at:

  1. Promoting freeing of capable slaves through various directives;
  2. Improving the social status and the moral standards of the slaves;
  3. Abolishing any future chances of converting any free men into slaves; and finally
  4. Awarding the legal right to each and every capable slave, who wanted to live his/her life as a free person, to earn his freedom.

These directives, in my honest opinion, amounted to the best possible solution to the problem with the least potential of any negative repercussions on the society as well as the individuals.

Moiz Amjad seems to think that the Islamic rules regarding treatment of slaves played a role in the eradication of slavery from society, an unproven assertion at best. According to my knowledge, slavery was finally abolished because of the West and especially the British.

[E]ven though Islam accepted the existence of slavery in the society, yet this acceptance was not as a permanent approval of the existence of this institution, but as a social vice, which could not be avoided under the prevalent domestic as well as international social conditions. The mere fact that Islam took a series of steps for the initiation of a social reform, which ultimately resulted in the complete abolition of the institution of slavery, is evidence of the fact that, given a choice, Islam would never have approved the existence of the institution, in the first place.

He does the right thing in saying that now that slavery is no more, it is against Islamic principles to revive it.

Keeping the foregoing explanation in perspective, it should be easy to derive that Islam would never approve any steps that may, in any way, contribute toward the reestablishment of the institution. Thus, as I understand it, once the institution of slavery has been completely abolished, Islam would not allow its reestablishment.

Another aspect, which clearly goes against making slaves of prisoners are the prevalent international laws and treaties, which are agreed upon by all Muslim as well as non-Muslims nations of the contemporary world. These laws and treaties have considerably changed the status of the prisoners of wars as well as any territory that is conquered during such aggression. No Muslim country remaining faithful to its international contracts and agreements can make slaves of its prisoners of wars, just as other nations cannot make slaves of the citizens of an Islamic state.

His defence of concubines is pretty weak.

Islam does not advocate Kanizes (Slave girls).

Islam has always been against the very existence of the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, like most of the other social phenomena, slavery too, because of its deep roots in the society, could not have been abolished by a single stroke of the ruler’s pen. It needed not only the provision of settlement opportunities for these slaves but also altering the social attitudes towards them. Islam, from the very beginning aimed at altering the social attitudes of the people towards slaves and slave girls. However, we see that the roots of this institution were so deep that even after twenty-three years of education, it was still not possible to completely abolish the institution. The maximum that could have been done was to give the slaves the choice of freedom, and that is exactly what Islam did.

During this process, it was necessary not only to better the social status of the slaves in the society but also to recognize the relationship between the slaves and their masters. It is in this context, that Islam has recognized the existing sexual relationship between a master and his slave girls. It must, however, be remembered that Islam has not promoted a new relationship but has accepted and recognized an existing one. In other words, Islam did not, for the first time allow sexual relations with slave girls but only recognized an already existing relationship between a slave girl and her master to be legal, for as long as the institution of slavery existed.

Although Sheikh Munajjid does not advocate reviving slavery, he does think it wrong to declare it “haram” [forbidden by Islamic law]. Moiz Amjad on the other hand does think of Islam as a somewhat evolving religion. Though I am disappointed in the Quran in allowing the rape of slave girls, I also think of Islam as not a rigid religion but something that evolves and progresses as we become better human beings. I also recognize the progress humanity has made in the last millenium or two. Hence, my interpretation of the following Quranic verse (5:3) is different than some others.

This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you as religion al-Islam.

I don’t believe “perfected” above means perfectly and completely defined, especially not at all a rigid definition that a lot of the neorevivalists care for. In my opinion, a lot of the human rights standards of 7th century Arabia were atrocious and we have come a long way but still have a lot to do. This progress and evolution of religion and morality is a good thing. Most people agree that slavery was wrong and we should not practice or revive slavery today just because the Quran and Sunnah seem to provide a cover. However, we need to go further and forcefully reject some of these old barbaric ideas.

If you are interested about some history of slavery in the Muslim world, here is an interview with Ronald Segal discussing this topic. Ronald Segal also wrote a couple of books on slavery, one on the Atlantic slave trade and the other on the African slaves in the Middle East.

UPDATE: If you are wondering why I am talking about slavery when it is no longer a modern issue (there are exceptions, for example, Sudan and Mauritania) and no one, either scholar or layman, is defending slavery or trying to bring it back, well here is the reason: Look at Moiz Amjad; he says slavery is wrong today but gives lots of reasons/excuses defending the Quranic sanction. All well and good but all he had to do to get me on his side was to say that whatever the reasons, slavery was still wrong then just like it is wrong now. He is typical of the attitude of quite a few Muslims who hesitate to condemn slavery in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. If it’s so difficult for a dead issue, how can we expect something on a live curent-day issue?

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

55 thoughts on “Slavery, Women and Islam”

  1. Salamalaikum,
    I can see there are no more comments after the last was posted on September 30th, 2008 at 15:53 so is this means this discussion is closed, if yes what is the conclusion after discussing this topic i mean what are we agreed on or end result I can see Zack’s comment and his full discription on top which is very informative and against slavery which is realy interested to read than Emullah came in and he solved the problem (this is my opinion maybe some of u disagree) and I agree with Emullah about some scholars who misinterprate the actual text for their own good it could be for money or for authority both. Than Mike came in and he explain further in detail and that was realy informative as well and i have no doubt what he said except his Point no 2 not incase of promoting the Idea of raping slave but in many other conditions they interprate verses as they want or like specialy in those muslim countries where people dont speak Arabic (but they can read cant understand how funny is that) and not bother to understand because they believe in scholars and what they say is compelsory for them. In the end it would be great if Zack put some words in conclusion. Sorry for my english its not as good as u guys but still i think i conveyd my msg if not let me know. And what I wrote maybe offended some one if yes than i appologize for that and as i said this is my opinion maybe some of you dont agree. May God bless us all.


  2. Fahad: well we need to understand it in context
    Fahad: at the time of Prophet (s) and from before that slaves were taken as wealth, just as we have properties today
    Fahad: now there were two ways to handle this situation
    Fahad: 1. to abolish this at once
    Fahad: 2. to abolish this with time
    Fahad: 1. was not a possible option
    Fahad: the reason being that since it was used as property by people, from before islam, abolishing all at once is like, telling a person to let go his property, which he would not be willing to do
    Fahad: also if all these slave girls and men were to be freed at one time, who would have taken care of them, since they were under the care of the masters
    Fahad: also if all of them were to be freed, the corruption in the society would have been more than the benefit
    Fahad: so islam gave a solution to abolish it with time
    Fahad: so you will see at numerous places, as an atonement, it says “free a slave”
    Fahad: so slaves were freed with time
    Fahad: and this problem was almost done with during the life time of prophet Muhammad
    Fahad: to an extent that later a freed slave became the governor of eygpt
    Fahad: so this gradual abolishment was to protect the rights of the masters ads well as the slaves
    Fahad: so that none is overburdened
    Fahad: and to have sex with the slave girls was part of this tradition, and thus rather than abolishing it, it was legalized so as to prevent corruption in the society

    1. Fahad: You claim that Islam was for gradual abolishment of slavery. Then why did Prophet Muhammad and his followers capture new slaves all the time? And when did the Muslim Caliph finally abolish slavery?

  3. Zack said: “I consider slavery to be a crime against humanity. Another common act associated with slavery was the abominable rape of female slaves. Yes, I classify sex between master and slave to be rape because a slave does not have the right to refuse. This is one of the worst crimes in my opinion.”

    Mohammed had sex with slaves who could not say no = he was one of the worst criminals because he made it virtuous.

    Koran 70:22 “Not the devout, who pray constantly and whose wealth has a fixed portion set aside for beggars and the destitute, and those who believe in the Judgment Day, and those who fear their Lord’s punishment-because no one is safe from their Lord’s punishment-and who control their sexual desires, except with their wives or slave-girls, with them there is no blame; but whoever indulges their lust beyond this are transgressors), and who keep their trusts and promises, and who tell the truth, and who are attentive to their prayers. These will live with honors in Gardens.”

    This is an interesting verse. It is an ethical list of behaviors: pray, give charity to the poor, truth telling and having sex with your slave-girls.

    At first the jihadists were reluctant to have sex with the captive women because of their husbands being nearby. But the Koran established that it was not immoral for them to rape kafir women because they had husbands.

    Abu Muslim 008, 3432
    Mohammed sent an army to Autas and encountered the enemy and fought with them. Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being kafirs. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that: “And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)”.

    As long as the kafir woman was not pregnant or having her period, the Muslim can rape her. Of course, a kafir should not even see the Muslim woman, hence, the veil, but a Muslim can have sex with a captured kafir woman. This is as good an illustration of Islam’s dual ethics as any other.

    Islam has supremacist ethics. Cruelty against kafirs is moral because it is eternally mandated in the Koran which has existed in paradise from eternity!

Comments are closed.