Among many other misconceptions about Islamic is the
notion that it gives sanction to slavery and permits its followers to enslave
prisoners of war, particularly women and establish extra-marital relations with
them. We strongly affirm that Islam has not the slightest link with slavery and
concubinage. On the contrary, it completely forbids these practices. It is quite
outrageous to associate such barbarities with a religion revealed to upgrade
The point which needs to be appreciated and which,
perhaps, is the real cause of the misconception is that Islam had adopted a
gradual process to abolish the institution of slavery because of the social
conditions prevalent in Arabia at that time. It must be kept in mind that
slavery was an integral part of the pre-Islamic Arab society. There were scores
of slave men and women in almost every house. This was largely due to two
reasons: First, during those times, the standard practice of dispensing with
prisoners of war was to distribute them among the army who captured them.
Second, there were extensive slave markets in Arabia in that period where free
as well as men and women of all ages were sold like animals.
In these circumstances, in which slavery had become an
essential constituent of the Arab society, Islam adopted a gradual way to
eliminate it. An immediate order of prohibition would have created immense
social and economic problems. It would have become impossible for the society to
cater for the needs of a large army of slaves, who were, otherwise, dependent on
various families. Also, the national treasury was in no position to provide them
all on a permanent basis. A large number among them were old and incapable of
supporting themselves. The only alternative left for them, if they were
instantly freed, would have been to turn to beggary and become an economic
burden for the society. The question of slave girls and women was even more
critical, keeping in view their own low moral standards. Freeing them, all of a
sudden, would have only resulted in a tremendous increase in brothels.
Perhaps, the reason behind this gradual eradication can be
understood better if one considers the position which interest occupies in our
economy today. No one can refute that our national economic structure is
interest oriented. How the parasite of interest has crippled the national
economy is apparent to every keen eye. However, there is no denying the fact
that without it our present economic system cannot sustain itself. Every
reasonable person will acknowledge that today if a government wishes to rid the
economy from this menace then, in spite of its utter prohibition in Islam, it
will have to adopt a gradual methodology. During this interim period interest
oriented deals will have to be tolerated and temporary laws will have to be
enacted to handle them, just as the Qur’ān had given certain provisional
directives about slaves during the interim period of their gradual eradication.
An alternative economic framework will have to be steadily incorporated in place
of the existing one. A sudden abolition, without another parallel base, will
only hasten the total collapse of the economic system, which, of course, will be
disastrous for the country.
To avert a similar disaster and to ward off a similar
catastrophe, Islam had adopted a progressive and a gradual scheme, fourteen
hundred years ago, to do away with the inhuman institution of slavery. Following
are some of the measures it took in this regard:
1. In the early Makkan period, it pronounced that slave
emancipation was a great deed of piety. The very initial Makkan sūrahs appealed
to the Muslims to liberate as many slaves as they could.
2. The Prophet (sws), unequivocally, directed the Muslims
to raise the standard of living of the slaves and bring it equal to their own
standard. This, of course, was meant to discourage people from persisting with
3. For the atonement of many sins manumission of slaves
was divinely ordained.
4. All slave men and women who could support themselves in
the society were directed to marry one another, in order to raise their moral
and social status.
5. A permanent head in the public treasury was fixed to
set free slave men and women.
6. Prostitution, which was largely carried out through
slave women, who were mostly forced by their masters do so, was totally
7. The affronting names of `abd and amah by which slave
men and women were called, were abrogated so that people should stop regarding
them as slaves. In their place, the words fatā (boy) and fatāt (girl) were
8. Finally, the law of mukātibat provided very easy access
for the slaves to the gateway to freedom. Every slave who was capable of
supporting himself was allowed by law to free himself, provided that he either
gave a certain monetary amount to his master or carried out certain errands for
him. After this, he could live as a free man. A special head in the treasury was
fixed for this purpose; also, wealthy people were urged to help the slaves in
this regard. The net result of this law was that only handicapped and old slaves
were left to be provided for by their masters, which not only went in their own
favour but also prevented them from becoming an economic burden on the society.
As far as the case of prisoners of war was concerned, the
Qur’ān directed the Muslims to set them free, either as a favour or against some
ransom. There was to be no second option:
When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike
off their heads, and when you have thoroughly subdued them, bind your captives
firmly – then grant them their freedom (either as a favour or) against some
ransom – until the war lays down its armour. (47:4)
How the Prophet (sws) went about obeying this directive is
a golden chapter of Islamic history, and we shall now briefly describe some of
its salient features.
It is a well known historical fact that in the battle of
Badr – the first main encounter with the Quraysh – about seventy prisoners were
captured by the victorious Muslim army. Most of these prisoners were freed
against some ransom money, while those who could not arrange for this money
were freed if they taught a certain number of children of the tribe of Ansar how
In the battle of Bani Mustaliq, the prisoners captured
were either freed in the battlefield as a favour while some others were freed on
ransom. The Prophet (sws) brought the remaining prisoners to Medinah and while
waiting for their families to procure them, gave them into the temporary custody
of his Companions. Among them was Sayyidah Jawairiyah as well. Her father
arrived with some camels as ransom. The Prophet (sws) inquired about the two
well-bred camels he had hid behind. This astounded him so much – for he knew
that there could be no way that the Prophet (sws) could have had knowledge of
them – that he accepted faith. At this, Sayyidah Jawairiyah also accepted faith.
The Prophet proposed for her to which her father consented. Upon this, the
marriage was solemnised. The result of this marriage was that all the remaining
prisoners of war were set free by the Muslim soldiers, since they thought that
it was not appropriate to keep the Prophet’s in-laws in captivity.
In the battle of Khaibar, after a peace treaty had been
concluded with the enemy, the Muslim forces came across Safia binti Huyee – a
helpless widow of an aristocratic family. Her father, Huyee bin Akhtab – a
prominent leader of the Jews had been killed in the battle of Quraizah. The
Prophet (sws) set her free and gave her the option to go to back to her family
or to marry him if she wanted. Saffiyah showed her consent to marry the Prophet.
The marriage subsequently took place.
In the battle of Hunain, thousands of prisoners were
captured by the Muslim army. The Prophet (sws) waited for many days for their
people to come and fetch them but they never turned up. At this, the Prophet (sws)
returned to Medinah and distributed them among the soldiers. However, after a
lapse of many days, their people showed up. The Prophet (sws) said that he had
no objection in giving away his share back to them but as far as the other
tribes were concerned, he could only appeal to them. Later on, almost all the
people surrendered their prisoners when the Prophet (sws), subsequently, offered
six camels for each prisoner from the spoils they would obtain in the very next
battle. This was enough for them to forfeit their share as well.
Thus the Prophet (sws) throughout his reign followed the
Qur’ānic directive of setting free the prisoners of war either as a favour or
against some ransom. However, there is, perhaps, just one instance in the
Prophet’s life which may become a source of misconception in this regard. This
was the battle with the Jewish tribe of Banu Quraizah in which all the male
prisoners were executed and the women and children were made slaves. An analysis
of the whole matter shows that the Muslim army had surrounded their fortress for
almost a month. At last, they requested to appoint Sa’ad bin Mu’aaz (rta), the
leader of the tribe of Aus, as an arbitrator and promised to willingly accept
his decision. They reckoned that since they had remained the allies of the Aus,
Sa’ad would be lenient to them in his decision. But Sa’ad bin Mu‘azz, much to
their dismay, gave his decision in accordance with the Jewish Shariah. According
to the Jewish Shariah, the male prisoners were to be executed while the women
and children were to be enslaved. It
is, therefore, clear that the Islamic Shariah could not have come to their
rescue in this regard since they were dealt with according to their own law by a
person they themselves had appointed as an arbitrator.
During the term of the Rightly Guided Caliphate also, the
practical abolition of the institution of slavery continued with full force.
However, in spite of all these extensive measures spanning almost half a decade,
it is known fact that it was not until the turn of this century that mankind was
actually able to rid itself completely of this institution. We believe the
reason for this must be sought in the social complexities which exist in a
community. It is extremely difficult to eradicate customs and traditions which
are deeply rooted in a society. The society, as a whole did not accept the
reformation started by Islam. A similar instance can be observed in the case of
the political set up envisaged by Islam. It totally condemned the institution of
dictatorship in which a despotic ruler and his few henchmen exercised absolute
powers. It established a government which was democratic in the sense that it
came into power by a majority mandate. Throughout the term of the Rightly Guided
Caliphate this principle remained in force for the election of the ruler.
However, after the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphate, the Arab society
rejected this system and reverted to dictatorship.