Question # 141: How did the practice of slavery come during the prophet’s period and why were the women taken as slaves after the war?

bismi-llahi r-raḥmani r-raḥīm,

Assalamu ‘laikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh,

All praise and thanks are due to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى), and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger (صلى الله عليه و سلم).

Dear questioner,

First of all, we implore Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) to help us serve His cause and render our work for His sake.

Short Answer: When one thinks of slavery, he or she visualizes slaves being chained, manacled, imprisoned and flogged; however, the concept of slavery in Islam is totally different than the one in the West or elsewhere in any part of the world. Initially, we should understand that the practice of slavery is coeval with human existence and at the time of advent of Islam, slavery was rampant throughout the world and in the Arab land too, the institution of slavery and concubine was equally acceptable. In the previous religious traditions and scriptures (Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism), slavery was sanctioned without any hint to treating the problem – slave was regarded as a commodity to be bought and sold like livestock. The laws of Constantine ordered the slave to be burned alive while Laws of Manu enjoined beating with rope as a consequence of the slave’s fault. And the Hindu caste system further enshrined the slavery. So, the system of slavery was not an Islamic invention; however, Islam restricted the tributaries of slavery to only captives of war and widened the out channels to ultimately deplete the entire river of slavery. 

Prior to Islam, strong and dominant people, throughout the world, used to enslave weak class without any restraint by means of debt bondage, war captivation, coercion from elite class, and guardianship. Islam’s war against slavery aimed at changing the attitude and mentality of the whole society, so that after emancipation, slaves would become its full-fledged members. Islam did not abolish the institution of slavery at once and completely as freeing all slaves at once could have brought instability and insecurity to the society as the slaves, dependent on the master for provisions, would have found themselves helpless to suddenly provide for themselves.  Also, the masters were to a great extent dependent on the slaves for their businesses. The gradual manumission helped the society in receiving responsible people, who knew the value of work and labor and have moved from the ranks of the slaves to those of the free.

Next, the only avenue of slavery through war captivity was allowed to combat the unforeseen circumstances, wherein if the war captives were let go after the war, they may reassemble and attack again and if they are imprisoned, they would have no avenue to integrate in the society (especially women), so slavery was the best option. 

As for the treatment of slaves, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) ordered very humane treatment of the captives; in the Battle of Badr, they were freed on ransom (in form of teaching ten Muslim children how to read and write), while those on the Day of conquest of Makkah, were let go without any ransom. The slaves were also allowed to buy their freedom, either on payment of an agreed sum or on completion of service for an agreed period. Moreover, Allah made it incumbent upon the masters to help the slaves in getting liberated by helping the latter from their own wealth. The Muslims followed the command of the divine revelation to treat slaves with dignity and without any racial discrimination, as if they were their own brothers, which resulted in situations, when they were set free, they did not want to leave their masters. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) made it illegal to separate families, mother from children, siblings among slaves. Further, Islam encouraged emancipation as a form of charity, means of expiation and with promise for reward in the Hereafter.  Even the punishment meted out to a slave was half of the punishment meted out to others. Many of the slaves eventually became scholars and many were appointed as governors, commanders of army and administrators. 

As for concubines ( “what your right hand possesses”), it is important to reiterate that Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) did not create this institution, which already existed globally; on the contrary, he reformed it. His goal was to reintegrate them in the society in a dignified way as he mentioned in a hadith that the man who had a slave girl, and he fed her well, taught her manners and educated her, and then freed her and married her, will be doubly rewarded.  The concubines enjoy the privileges and rights of a wife, i.e., she was not allowed to be touched by anybody else, she could not be sold, the child borne by her was not born into slavery and when the master passed away, the slave woman would acquire freedom. This was first time in history, that the child of a concubine would by standard practice be recognized as legitimate child.

In conclusion, about 1400 years ago, Islam dealt in the most effective way a death blow to slavery. Islam is the first and the only religion which has prescribed liberation of slaves as a virtue and a condition of genuine faith. 

Although slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, modern-day slavery exists in the form of forced prostitution (sex slavery), forced labor, and the worst forms of child labor. 

(Note: I genuinely request the readers to go through the longer version of the answer to have a better understanding of the concept of slavery in Islam compared to other religious traditions)

Long Answer:


Anti-Slavery International, a human rights organization, defines a slave as:

  • A person who is forced to work by threat of mental or physical abuse;
  • A person who is owned or controlled by another person;
  • A person who is dehumanized and treated like a commodity (an item that is bought or sold) or as property; and
  • A person who is physically constrained and has no freedom of movement.

(‘Modern-Day Slavery’ by Linda Bickerstaff)

Therefore, when one thinks of slavery, he or she visualizes slaves being chained, manacled, imprisoned and flogged.  However, the concept of slavery in Islam is totally different than the one in the West or elsewhere in any part of the world.

Before we begin, we should understand that at the time of the advent of Islam (in 7th century CE) slavery was rampant throughout the world. In the previous religious traditions, slavery was sanctioned without any hint to treating the problem; therefore, it needed courage combined with wisdom to address the issue of slavery. This is when, Islam restricted the tributaries of slavery and widened the out channels, which ultimately depleted the entire river of slavery; and Islam did for the slave what the previous religions, including the divine legislations prior to Islam either failed to do or fell short from or simply God saved the salvation of the slaves to be the work of the last message.


Contrary to popular thought that slaves not Africans, the original slaves were European. In fact, the word “slave” is of European origin; it came into existence when the Franks used to supply the Spanish slave market with the “barbarians” and those captives happened to be mostly the people of Turkish origin from the region known as Slovakia (now a part of Czechoslovakia). These people are called “Slav” and so all captives came to be known as “slaves”.


[Irrespective of origin of the word ‘slave’, slavery is as old as the human history can be traced. The oldest document ‘Babylonian Law’, which is from 2000 years BC, has explicit references to everything that has to do with slavery and concubines. Historians say that slavery became a phenomenon in human history probably about 11000 years BC. Therefore,] the practice of slavery is coeval with human existence; …its traces are visible in every age and in every nation…The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans and the ancient Germans, people whose legal and social institutions have most affected modern manners and customs, recognized and practiced both kinds of slavery, praedial [I.e., relating to land or the cultivation of land] servitude as well as household slavery. With establishment of the Western and Northern barbarians on the ruins of the Roman empire, besides personal slavery, territorial servitude, scarcely known to the Romans, became general in all the newly settled countries…The barbaric codes, like the Roman, regarded slavery as an ordinary condition of mankind; and if any protection was afforded the slave, it was chiefly as the property of his master, who alone, besides the State, had the power of the life and death over him. (Ameer Ali, Spirit of Islam (London: University Paper-back, 1965), pp. 259-261; also see Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. III (New York, 1944), p.397)

At the time of the advent of Islam (in 7th century CE) slavery was rampant throughout India, Persia, Rome, the Arabian Peninsula, Rumania and Greece. The elite and educated class of these countries did not regard the slaves eligible even for the basic human rights. He was regarded as a commodity not worthier than cattle. Often he was sold cheaper than sheep and goat. (Durant, W., op. cit., vol. III, p., 397; vol. IV (New York, 1950), p.29)


Both eastern and western religions had slavery enshrined within their texts and the laws. The following historical evidences and excerpt from the various religious scriptures confirm to the practices of slavery that then existed. We have considered the top faiths (other than Islam) based on the size of major religious groups in the world i.e., Christianity and Hinduism for the purpose of our study.


In Leviticus, there are separate sets of law that governs Hebrew slaves and pagan slaves. Hebrew slaves within the kingdom of Israel fell into the category of debt and labor slavery.  Debt Slavery arose from owing huge debts until paid off and they would put their children to slavery until the debt is paid off. Pagan slaves i.e., Canaanites slaves, on the other hand, were captives from conquests. 

Most of the time in world history, slavery had nothing to do with race. The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade, that took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the 15th through 19th centuries, is one of the most brutal manifestation of racial slavery because slavery was based on the color of the skin. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported to the New World were West Africans from the central and western parts of the continent. However, before the fifteenth century, there was really no idea of having an entire slave society on the basis of their race. As for their basis in Bible and the New Testament, it goes back to the story of Noah. He had three sons and the name of one of his sons was Ham and this was the son that disobey his father and did not conceal him, when Noah went into the drunken state.  Therefore, Noah dooms Ham for his entire descendants to permanent slavery. Though the Bible does not mention that these were black people but mentions them as descendants of Canaan, who were black people according to historians. If one reads the early Christian discourse in North America justifying the slave trade, they always went back to the story of Ham and they believe that the entire black race was doomed on the basis they belong to descendants of Ham.

This is important to know because as you phase into Christianity – the role of Christianity is far more different from Judaism because the former does not have to address any law because it does not assume role of authority, whereas Judaism has the role of authority; Christianity, on the other hand, assumes the laws of the land, they go to.  So Christianity does not have to address this law of slavery and this is why when we talk of Paul’s revision of Christianity, there are not many laws. The entire law is abrogated from the Old Testament and the only thing that sticks is “love thy name”. Jesus came to fulfil the spirit of law not the letter of the law.  The law is in entirety is abrogated from a post-Paul Christianity perspective. Christians can argue that none of the laws of the Old Testament make sense and do not apply to them; but the idea here is that it’s the same God that inspires those prophets and writings of the New Testament. It is one thing to say that the God of the Old Testament legislated a different set of law and it is another thing to say that God was immoral back then and suddenly, became moral. Even though the Christians may argue that we are not subject to these laws from the Old Testament, they still have to defend to an extent.

When Jesus was born, half the population of the Romans were slaves. Since Christianity does not have state rule, it assumed the laws of the Roman Empire and carried out its practices. And the Romans had the worst laws with regard to slavery in human history. For example, in Roman Law, post-Constantine [a Christian emperor], when the Christianity actually became the State Religion, if a slave master/owner is found killed, each and every slave of his were to be killed. 

Will Durant describes the position of the Church as follows: The Church did not condemn slavery. Orthodox and heretic, Roman and barbarian alike assumed the institution to be natural and in-destructible. Pagan laws condemned to slavery any free woman who married a slave; the laws of Constantine [272 – 337 AD] ordered the woman to be executed, and the slave to be burned alive. The [Roman] Emperor Gratian [(Reign: 367 –375 AD)] decreed that a slave who accused his master of any offence except high treason to the state should be burned alive at once, without inquiring into the justice of the charge. (Lecky, W.E., History of European Morals, vol. II (New York, 1926), p.61, as quoted by Will Durant, op. cit., vol. IV, p.77)

It is interesting to note that the word “slave” of original Hebrew has been changed to “servant” in the Authorized Version of the Bible, and to “bond servant” in the Revised Standard Version, because, in words of The Concise Bible Commentary, “this word [i.e., slave] is avoided because of its association. (Clarke, Rev. W.K.L., The Concise Bible Commentary (London: S.P.C.K., 1952), p.976)

To prove that the system of slavery is not an Islamic invention, given below are certain verses from the very many in the Old and New Testament:


  • However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.  (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)  This passage shows that slaves are clearly property to be bought and sold like livestock. [This is racial form of slavery for people from gentile family]
  • If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.  If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year.  But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him.  If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master.  But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children.  I would rather not go free.’  If he does this, his master must present him before God.  Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl.  After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT) This passage describes how the treatment of Hebrew slaves as well as gender discrimination.
  • When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again.  But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her.  And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter.  If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife.  If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT) This passage describes the sickening practice of sex slavery and immoral act of selling one’s own daughter as a sex slave.
  • When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB) This passage describes the ill-treatment of slaves; it says you can beat both male and female slaves with a rod so hard that as long as they don’t die right away and you are cleared of any wrong doing.
  • They attacked Midian as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed all the men. All five of the Midianite kings—Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba—died in the battle. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder. They burned all the towns and villages where the Midianites had lived. After they had gathered the plunder and captives, both people and animals, they brought them all to Moses and Eleazar the priest, and to the whole community of Israel, which was camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho. Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the generals and captains[a] who had returned from the battle. “Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. “These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the Lord at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the Lord’s people. So kill all the boys and all the women who have had intercourse with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves. (Numbers 31:7-18 NLT)
  • As you approach a town to attack it, you must first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the Lord your God hands the town over to you, use your swords to kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the plunder from your enemies that the Lord your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14 NLT)
  • Suppose a man has intercourse with a young woman who is a virgin but is not engaged to be married. If they are discovered, he must pay her father fifty pieces of silver. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he may never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NLT)
  • Suppose a man meets a young woman, a virgin who is engaged to be married, and he has sexual intercourse with her. If this happens within a town, you must take both of them to the gates of that town and stone them to death. The woman is guilty because she did not scream for help. The man must die because he violated another man’s wife. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24 NLT)


Slavery is still approved of in the New Testament, as depicted in the following passages:

  • Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)
  • Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful.  You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts.  Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them.  (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)
  • And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required (Luke 12:47-48 NLT) In this passage, there is a clear approval for beating slaves even if they did not know, they were doing anything wrong.


As for Hinduism, the caste system enshrined the slavery. The sacred books of Hindus describes a society divided into four varnas (“colors” or castes): Brahmin (poet-priest), Kshatriya (warrior-chief), Vaishya (traders), and Shudras (menials, servants). The four basic divisions of society had their roots in the Vedic era (1500-800 BCE) and assumed definitive form by the sixth century BCE. The idea is further developed in the Laws of Manu (200 BCE-200 CE). The first three varnas are known as the twice-born, all of whom undergo a ceremony in their youth admitting them into high status. The varna caste division excluded the Untouchables, who were and are below the Shudras in any ranking, despised because they engaged in occupations that were considered unclean and polluting. Untouchable castes became a category as avarnas, without varna, probably sometime after the fourth century CE. The untouchables (ćaṇḍalas) are mentioned in the Upanishads and early Buddhist literature, as a “fifth caste” resulting from the polluting contact of Shudra males and Brahmana females. (‘Untouchability’ –

[Various] references in the Vedic and later literature show that slavery existed during the early and the later Vedic period… The Rigveda refers to the gifts of slaves at a number of places… The Samhitas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads all refer to the existence of slaves. That slaves were bought and sold is mentioned… in the… Dharmasastra literature [and Manu]. The Mahabharata records that Yudhishthira gave each of the 88000 snatakas engaged in the sacrifice, thirty female slaves. As regard the treatment of slaves… it depended on the temperament of the master that a slave receive good or bad treatment… Beating with rope as a consequence of the slave’s fault is also enjoined by Manu. (‘Life in North-eastern India in Pre-Mauryan Times: With Special Reference to C. 600 B.C.-325 B.C.’ by Madan Mohan Singh)

Manu Smriti (Chapter 8, verse 415) classifies ‘slaves’ into seven categories: war captive, a self-volunteered slave, born of a female slave, a slave purchased, slave given by parents, inherited through will and penalized by the king. Let’s read through some hymns from Manu Smriti for better understanding of the permissible treatment of Shudras:

  • Manu 8:270-272: “A once-born man (a Sudra), who insults a twice-born man with gross invective, shall have his tongue cut out; for he is of low origin. If he mentions the names and castes (gati) of the (twice-born) with contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth. If he arrogantly teaches Brahmanas their duty, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and into his ears.”
  • Manu 8.413-414: “But a Sudra, whether bought or unbought, he may compel to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent (Svayambhu) to be the slave of a Brahmana. A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude; since that is innate in him, who can set him free from it?”
  • Manu 8.417: “A Brahmana may confidently seize the goods of (his) Sudra (slave); for, as that (slave) can have no property, his master may take his possessions.”
  • Manu 10.129: “No collection of wealth must be made by a Sudra, even though he be able (to do it); for a Sudra who has acquired wealth, gives pain to Brahmanas.

(‘The Laws of Manu’ translated by G. Buhler)

Another form of slavery that has shadowed the Hindu society through many ages is that of the Devdasis or the ‘temple girls’ who were forced into prostitution in the guise of religion. These girls adorn temples especially in South India. They are offered to the temple in their childhood. As they reach maturity they are wedded to the temple deity. The privileged ones are kept by priests to satiate their lust. The not so fortunate ones become common prostitutes.


To fully comprehend, Islam’s war against slavery, which aimed at changing the attitude and mentality of the whole society, so that after emancipation, slaves would become its full-fledged members and the reason Islam did not abolish the institution of slavery at once and completely, we need to study the following aspects:

Attacking the Institution of Slavery

As far as slavery was concerned, Arabs in the pre-Islamic days were as bad offenders as their neighbors. Slaves were a commercial commodity, and slavery was an established institution. It was a source of livelihood for thousands and a source of labor for scores of thousands. To the elite, the number of slaves in the household was a symbol of status. This was the state of affairs at the advent of Islam. [So, Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was born in a society, where the institution of slavery and concubine was universally acceptable.] Slavery offended the spirit of Islam as much as idolatry did. But while the latter had its roots in spiritualism and hence could be countered by reason, slavery had its roots in commerce, in social structure, in agriculture undertakings; and reason alone was but a feeble weapon against a foe so insidious and so deeply rooted.

Firstly, Islam placed restrictions on acquisition of slaves. Prior to Islam, slavery was practiced with abandon. Debtors were made slaves, war captives were either killed or made slaves. In weaker nations, people were hunted like animals, killed or captured and reduced to slavery. Islam, in unambiguous terms, forbade its followers to enslave people on any pretext. The only exception was an idolatrous enemy captured in a war which was fought either in self-defense or with the permission of the Prophet or his rightful successors. This exception was, in words of Ameer Ali, “in order to serve as guarantee for the preservation of the lives of the captives.” (Ameer Ali, Muhammadan Law, vol.2, p.31)

Prior to Islam, strong and dominant people, throughout the world, used to enslave weak persons without any restraint. Important among the “causes” of enslavement were the following:

  • War: The conqueror could do with the vanquished enemy whatever he liked. He could put the arrested soldiers to death, condemn them to slavery or otherwise keep them under his authority or clutch.
  • Domination: A chief or ruler could enslave, depending on his sweet wish, anyone residing under his domain.
  • Guardianship: A father or grandfather had absolute authority over his offspring. He could sell or gift him or her away; could lend him or her to someone else, or exchange him or her with another’s son or daughter.
  • [Statutory slavery: An offender of certain crimes would become the slave of the victim family or tribe which was practiced among the Romans as well as Arabs.
  • Debt bondage: bonded labor is a person’s pledge of labor or services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation. The services required to repay the debt may be undefined, and the services’ duration may be undefined. Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation.
  • Forced marriage: Women were not allowed to get out from the wedlock by voiding the contract, if she complains of being forced into marriage.]

When Islam came on the scene, it nullified and negated all the factors completely except war captives. No ruler or progenitor was allowed to treat his subjects or offspring as his slaves. Every individual was bestowed with well-defined rights; the ruler and the ruled, the progenitor and the offspring had to live within the limits prescribed by religion; no one could transgress those limits.

And it drastically restricted the only cause, i.e., war, by allowing enslavement only in a war fought against unbelieving enemy. In no other way could anyone be enslaved. [In the words of Kamal El Mekki, “One would ask – why did Islam allow slavery through warfare and not eliminate it completely? It is because it did not make sense that if Muslims were captured in war, they were enslaved; but if the pagans were captured by Muslims, the latter should just let them go and allow them to return to fight again. So, this source of slavery was spared.  This practice acted as deterrent, whereby many were reluctant in attacking Muslims for fear of slavery.” Despite that, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) recommended the freeing of the captives in a hadith in which he said:  “Free the captives, feed the hungry and visit the sick” (Reported by al-Bukhari) Omar Suleiman says that “Al-Izza ibnu Abu as-Salaam said “The legislator desires through this the freedom of people” referring to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) as legislator. We have to understand the situation back then.  If the war captives were allowed to go after the war, they may reassemble and attack again and if they are imprisoned, they have no avenue to integrate in the society (especially women), so slavery was the best option.] At the same time, Islam raised the status of slavery to that of a free man; and opened many ways for their emancipation, (al-Tabataba’i, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn, al-Mizan fi Tafsir’l Qur’an, vol.16, 2nd ed. (Beirut, 1390/1971), pp. 338-358) as Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) says in the Qur’an: “… let the captives go free, either with or without any ransom” (Soorah Muhammad, 47:4).

Moreover, this was good for the slave who had to be weaned from dependence on the master for provisions, which could make them face problems, if suddenly found themselves responsible to provide themselves with food, clothes and shelter (you should not underestimate what this could have meant to the stability and security of the society if the frees were all freed at once by a mandate). And it was good for the masters who were to a great extent dependent on the slaves for their businesses. This was also good for the community, so that it would have responsible people, who know the value of work and labor move from the ranks of the slaves to those of the free.

In an essay ‘Muhammad the Abolitionist: Slavery in the Qur’an’, Adam Watson writes “The existence of slavery is an ancient condition. It existed long before the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, starting in 610 C.E. What is interesting is comparing the depiction of slavery in the Qur’an to the Old and New Testament. In these older Jewish and Christian holy texts, a specific plan to eliminate the human bondage of our temporal present is never discussed. The Qur’an, on the other hand, not only recognized the immorality of slavery in seventh century Arabia, but sought to end it. The plan to do so is both implicit and explicit. To recognize this is to respect the Islamic attempt, in the name of Allah, to destroy an evil custom nearly thirteen centuries before America would legally and politically do the same.”

Empowering the Slave Community

Islam was the universally empowering message to everyone, especially the slave community and the downtrodden. If you listen to the early words of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions, Islam resonated most with the slaves, poor and the oppressed. Mughira ibn Shuba (رضي الله عنه) was sent by Sa’d ibn Waqaas (رضي الله عنه) as representative to the court of Rustam, the king of Persia to answer questions. Mughira said: “[Allah has sent to us a prophet with His message]… To remove men from the slavery of men and to lead them towards the worship of Allah…” Further, the first people to accept Islam were slaves. This was unusual because generally a religion is picked up by an authority (an elite community) that implements in a way that is friendly to state authority and government.

Zayd bin Harithah, an Arab boy, was abducted in his childhood and sold as a slave. This happened before Islam. Hakim bin Hizam bin Khuwaylid purchased him in the market of ‘Ukaz, and presented him to his aunt, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, who gave him to the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم). Zayd’s father was searching for him. After a long time he came to know that Zayd was in Makkah. He came to Makkah and offered to pay ransom so that Zayd might be set free. The Prophet said that if Zayd wanted to be united with his family, then there was no need of any ransom. He was free to go. But Zayd declined to go with his father and preferred to remain with Muhammad. Harithah, Zayd’s father, was extremely grieved and said, “O son, do you prefer to remain a slave rather than a free man? And do you prefer to leave your own father and mother for Muhammad?” Zayd said, “What I have seen of the life of Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) is compelling me that I should not leave him for any person”. Anyhow, Harithah was shocked and announced in Ka’bah that from then on neither he was father of Zayd nor Zayd was his son. It was then that Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) announced that “I declare that from now on Zayd is my son.”

Unlike the Prophets of Israelites, Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was the descended of a slave woman (Hajar); also he (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was born into the hands of a slave girl, Barakah (Umm Aiman) (رضي الله عنها). He was surrounded his entire life with the people from the slave community. Before even he (صلى الله عليه و سلم) start his call to Islam, he has certain relationship with the slave community and when he started calling, it is those people, who felt most empowered by the message of Islam.

Good Treatment of Warfare Slaves

Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) says in the Qur’an: “…Thereafter (i.e., after the battle is over) either for generosity (i.e. free them without ransom), or ransom, until the war lays down its burden…” (Soorah Muhammad, 47:4)

In the battles forced upon the Muslims, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) had ordered very humane treatment of the prisoners who fell into Muslim hands. They could purchase their freedom on payment of small sums of money, and some of them were left off without any payment. It all depended upon the discretion of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) or his rightful successors, keeping in view the safety of the Muslims and the extent of danger from the enemy. The captives of the very first Islamic battle, Badr, were freed on ransom (in form of money or work like teaching ten Muslim children how to read and write), while those of the tribe of Tay were freed without any ransom. (al-Waqidi, Muhammad bin ‘Umar, Kitabul Maghazi, ed. M. Jones, vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p.129; Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqatul Kabir, Vol. II: 1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1912), pp.11, 14)

Also, during the conquest of Makkah, technically every living beings then could have been enslaved, but the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, “O you people of Quraish! What do you think of the treatment that I am about to accord to you?” They replied: “O noble brother and son of noble brother! We expect nothing but goodness from you.” Upon this he (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “I speak to you in the same words as Yusuf (عليه السلام) spoke unto his brothers: He said: “…go your way, for you are freed ones.” (‘The Sealed Nectar – Biography of the Noble Prophet’ by Safiur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri)

Emancipation – Mutual Written Contract

Slaves were given a right to ransom themselves either on payment of an agreed sum or on completion of service for an agreed period. The legal term for this is mukatabah, whereby a slave, who desires to get into such a mutual written contract, the master should not refuse it. In the following ayah, Allah made it incumbent upon Muslims to help the slaves in getting liberated also directed them to help the slave from their own wealth or from public treasury (bayt ul-mal). Allah says in the Qur’an: “And those who seek a deed [of liberation] from among those [slaves] whom your right hands possess, give them the writing (kitab) if you know of goodness in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you…” (Qur’an Soorah an-Noor, 24:33) meaning don’t send the slaves back in the society vulnerable, be generous and give from the money that was given to you.

Abu Huraira (رضي الله عنه) narrated: The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, “Whoever frees his portion of a common slave should free the slave completely by paying the rest of his price from his money if he has enough money; otherwise the price of the slave is to be estimated and the slave is to be helped to work without hardship till he pays the rest of his price.” (Al-Bukhari)

In order to protect the rights of slaves, the chapter of Mukataba is one of the thickest chapter in the books of fiqh because of the enormous amount of details as it is so easy to exploit people. For example, the master cannot change the terms of agreement, he cannot sell the slave after the agreement, etc.

Emancipation – Form of Charity

In Islam, there is different form of legal theories, al ahqam al taklifi, things that are required (fard) and things that are recommended (mustahabb). The second category is to show greater appreciation of Allah’s mercy or to go extra mile, not doing it will not held any Muslim accountable, but doing it will bring extra reward. So acts of mustahabb are from goals of Islam. From the societal point of view, Islam requires at the minimum removal of injustice, which is fard; what is mustahabb is compassion. Therefore, in terms of slavery, what was fard was treating slaves with so much dignity that they are not technically slaves anymore, and the emancipation was encouraged.  There was no system in the entire world before or during the time of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) or maybe around 700-800 years after him that encouraged emancipation. From the Qur’an and the ahadith of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم), multiple avenues were created to emancipate the slaves. These are as follows:

  • Allah says in the Qur’an: “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah-fearing.” (Soorah Al-Baqarah, 2:177)
  • Allah says in the Qur’an: “We pointed out to him [man] the two conspicuous ways [of good and evil]? But he would not attempt the uphill road [to righteousness]. What will make you comprehend what the uphill road is? It is the setting free of a slave…” (Soorah al-Balad, 90:11-13)
  • Abu Huraira (رضي الله عنه) narrated: The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, “Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (Hell) Fire as he has freed the body-parts of the slave.” Said bin Marjana said that he narrated that Hadith to `Ali bin Al-Husain and he freed his slave for whom `Abdullah bin Ja`far had offered him ten thousand Dirhams or one-thousand Dinars. (Al-Bukhari)
  • Abu Hurairah (رضي الله عنه) narrated that: the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “A son could not do enough for his father, unless he found him as a slave and purchased him to set him free.” (Jami` at-Tirmidhi, graded sahih)
  • Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari (رضي الله عنه) reported: The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, “Three kinds of people will have a double reward: A man from the People of the Book who believes in his Prophet and (also) believes in Muhammad; a slave who discharges properly the duties towards Allah and towards his master; and a man who possesses a slave-girl and teaches her manners, educates her well, and frees her and then marries her.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
  • Abu Hurairah (رضي الله عنه) reported: The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, “Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) says: ‘I will contend on the Day of Resurrection against three (types of) people: …one who sells a free man as a slave and devours his price…”’ (Al-Bukhari)

These things were mentioned by Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) because freeing a slave in Islam is likened to giving life and that’s why the penalty for accidentally killing somebody is freeing a slave. Moreover, even for unrelated sins, broken oath, breaking fasts intentionally, intercourse during fasting, the very first expiation is freeing slaves, which is greatest form of charity. The scholars say this is very significant because fasting is supposed to create a sense of empathy and that is why, when you cannot fast, you resort to charity.

  • If a man failed to fast without any reasonable excuse during the month of Ramadan, he had to free a slave for each day, in addition to fasting afterwards. Humaid b. ‘Abd al-Rahman reported that Abu Huraira had narrated to him that the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) commanded the person (who) broke the fast in Ramadan to free a slave or observe fasts for two (consecutive) months or feed sixty poor persons. (Sahih Muslim)

So there are different things within the idea of recommended acts that clearly shows that Islam seeks the eventual emancipation of all slaves i.e., the institution of slavery. Further, Allah put it in the category of zakah, whereby one of the permanent category of zakah is to free slaves.

  • The Qur’an recognized the emancipation of slaves as one of the permissible expenditures of alms and charity. Allah says in the Qur’an: “As-Sadaqat are only for the Fuqara’, and Al-Masakin and those employed to collect (the funds); and for to attract the hearts of those who have been inclined (towards Islam); and to free the captives; and for those in debt; and for Allah’s Cause, and for the wayfarer; a duty imposed by Allah. And Allah is All-Knower, All-Wise. (Soorah At-Tawbah, 9:60)

From these instances, some of them trivial but deeply ingrained in Arab culture, one can see how religious laws were enacted for the emancipation of slaves, and the total eradication of the curse of slavery from the society. It may well be argued that by prescribing emancipation of slaves as penance for sins, Islam envisaged continuance of slavery as a permanent institution. This was not so. For every instance emancipation of a slave was prescribed as a penance, an alternative was also prescribed – clearly indicating that Islam’s objective was in time to create a society free from this pernicious institution.

All the Sahabah emancipated certain number of slaves in their lifetime, for e.g., Aisha (رضي الله عنها) freed 67 slaves in her lifetime. Abdullah ibn Umar freed his slave Nafi’, but the latter still stayed with Abdullah and became his student. Ibn Umar had a particular affinity to freeing religious slaves and he freed 1,000 slaves during his lifetime. Abdur Rahman ibn Awf, the richest companion of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم), freed 30,000 slaves during his lifetime. So it developed into a cultural for those willing to get closer to Allah.

Hassan al-Basri, one of the greatest Tabi’een (students of the Companions (رضي الله عنهم)), once, after giving the Friday sermon, a group of slaves came to him and said, “Shaykh please, next week, give a speech about freeing the slaves!” Hassan agreed and next week there, waiting anxiously, were the slaves. Hassan ascended the pulpit as the sun rises to the heavens. His speech moved hearts and brought tears to dry eyes, but he failed to mention anything about freeing slaves? The slaves thought to themselves that the Shaykh must have forgot, thus, once again, the following week they took the 50 yard line seats and waited hoping soon to be free. However, the Shaykh failed to mention anything again? After a number of weeks the slaves were sure that the Shaykh sold them out, gotten cold feet and they began to hold the Shaykh in contempt. One year passed and the tired slaves entered the Masjid of the Shaykh. They had long since forgotten their request and were taken aback, when suddenly he began to mention the conditions of slaves and the importance of freeing them! Their faces looked like bright lamps as the Shaykh encouraged all to free their slaves in exchange for Allah’s mercy and pleasure. After the sermon the slaves were freed and they ran to the Shaykh asking why he waited one year to give the speech. Hassan al-Basri responded: “At the time you ask me to give the speech I readily agreed. However, after you left I realized that I had no slave of my own. Being a poor man I had to save some money for around one year’s time in order to purchase a slave. Today, alhumdulillah! I was able to purchase a slave. After I purchased him I went to the market and freed him. Finally, I went to the Masjid and gave my sermon.” Looking baffled the freed men asked, “But why? Why did you go to all this trouble?” The Shaykh responded, “If I gave that speech a year ago I would have been encouraging the people to do something that I had not done. Thus, I decided to wait until I freed a slave so that my actions and words would be equal.”

Equal Treatment (and no Racial Discrimination)

It should be mentioned that Islam controlled slavery in such a graceful and practical way that it made the maintaining of a slave a great responsibility for the master, and at the same time it enjoined so much care and kindness to the slaves that in many cases when the slaves were set free they did not like to leave their masters.

Islam restored dignity to slaves and enhanced their social status. It made no distinction between a slave and a free man, and all were treated with equality. It was this fact that always attracted slaves to Islam. Islam recognizes no distinction of race or color, black or white, citizens or soldiers, rulers or subjects; they are perfectly equal, not in theory only, but in practice, and the only criterion of superiority or honor is piety (complete obedience to Allah) as He says in the Qur’an: “O you men! We have created you of a male and a female, and then We made you (into different) races and tribes so that you may know (and recognize) each other. Surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one who is most pious among you; surely Allah is All-Knowing and Aware.” (Soorah Al-Hujurat, 49:13) Consequently, slaves like Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi came from Abyssinia, Salman Farsi from Persia and Suhayb ar-Rumi from Rome.

The first mu’azzin (herald of the prayer call) of Islam, a devoted adherent of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and an esteemed disciple, was a Negro slave (Bilal ibn Rabah). Islam enjoined that a master should treat his slave as one of his family-members; he must be given all the necessities of life, just like any other dependent. The Prophet used to eat together with his slaves and servants, and sit with them; he himself did not eat or dress better than them, nor did he discriminate against them in any way. The masters were obliged not to put them under hardship; slaves were not to be tortured, abused or treated unjustly.

The slaves could marry among themselves (with their master’s permission) or with free men or women. They could appear as witnesses, and participate with free men in all affairs. Many of them were appointed as governors, commanders of army and administrators. In the eyes of Islam, a pious slave has precedence over an impious free man.

To say that Islam treated slaves on the basis of equality would be an understatement. Because, in fact, for a number of offences, the punishment meted out to a slave was half of the punishment meted out to others. This was in contrast to the established practice of every nation to punish slaves more severely than the freemen. Professor Davis writes, “The criminal law was almost everywhere more severe for slaves than freemen.” (Davis, D.B., The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (N.Y.: 1969), p. 60)

Masters were forbidden to exact more work than was just and proper. They were ordered never to address their male or female slaves by the degrading appellation, but by the more affectionate name.

One of his last recommendations to the Muslims prior to his death was to fear Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) regarding their slaves.  Abu Dawood and Ibn Majah narrated that ‘Ali (رضي الله عنه) said: The last words that the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) spoke were, “The prayer, the prayer! And fear Allah with regard to those whom your right hands possess.” (Classed as sahih by al-Albani in Sahih Abi Dawood)

Slavery is a symptom of greater problem in the society, the greatest of which is inequality. So even if slavery is abolished technically, but inequality is allowed to grow in society, say, in the form of racism, it means slavery still exists. And Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) instead effective countered racism, tribalism and inequality in society.  So he put black, Persian and others in position of authority. Narrated Ibn ‘Umar (رضي الله عنه) that the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) gave a Khutbah (sermon) to the people on the day of the conquest of Makkah, and he said: “O you people! Verily Allah has removed the slogans of Jahiliyyah (Days of Ignorance) from you, and its reverence of its forefathers. So, now there are two types of men: A man who is righteous, has Taqwa (piety) and honorable before Allah, and a wicked man, who is miserable and insignificant to Allah. People are children of Adam and Allah created Adam from the dust. Allah said: O you people! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is the one who has most Taqwa. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware (49:13).” (Jami` at-Tirmidhi, graded hasan)

Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) in his last sermon said “…All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by taqwa (piety) and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood…” He was signaling that there is a change in the system here, it’s not technical emancipation but actual emancipation with the ultimate goal to reintegrate the slaves into society.

When Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) introduced rights for slaves, it made it undesirable to have them in the first place and basically put them in the position of a member in the household. The form of dignity is that the slaves should not be abused. Abu Mas’ud said, “I was beating a slave of mine when I heard a voice behind me, ‘Know, Abu Mas’ud that Allah is able to call you to account for this slave.’ I turned around and there was the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم). I said, ‘Messenger of Allah, he is free for the sake of Allah!’ He said, ‘If you had not done that, the Fire would have touched you (or the Fire would have burned you).’“ (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, graded sahih by Al-Albani); Ibn ‘Umar said, “I heard the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘The expiation for someone who slaps his slave or beats him more than he deserves is to set him free.’“ (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, graded sahih by Al-Albani)

Another example of social justice – Once in Egypt one of the children of another of the Prophet’s companions ‘Amr ibn al-‘ Aas (رضي الله عنه), was racing with a Coptic Christian. And when he lost the race, he hit the Christian man in the face in the name of his father, saying, “I am the son of the nobles”. The Christian knew the Caliph was a just man. So he went to Madinah to complain to ‘ Umar ibn Al Khattab (رضي الله عنه) and when he got to Madinah he found ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab and complained. ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab summoned his governor, ‘Amr ibn al-‘ Aas and his son to Madinah to stand in front of the Christian Coptic. Umar questioned both parties to confirm the story and he gave the Coptic a whip and he said, ‘lash the one who lashed you and you also should lash his father.’ He said, ‘Why would l do that?’ So ‘Umar ibn AI-Khattab said, ‘Because you were hit in his name.’ Umar ibn Al-Khattab actually commanded this Christian who was living under his rule, to lash both ‘Amr ibn al-‘ Aas and his son. Then, Umar said to Amr and his son: “How can you enslave a man that was born free?”

Also, it is not allowed to call slaves with the names they do not like; it is not even allowed to call a slave a slave. Abu Huraira (رضي الله عنه) narrated: “The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: None of you must say: “My slave” (abdi) and “My slave-woman” (amati), and a slave must not say: “My lord” (rabbi or rabbati). The master (of a slave) should say: “My young man” (fataya) and “My young woman” (fatati), and a slave should say “My master” (sayyidi) and “My mistress” (sayyidati), for you are all (Allah’s slave and the Lord is Allah, Most High.” (Abu Dawood; graded sahih by Al-Albani)

Slaves have to be given the same clothes, the master wears and the same food, the master eats. Ma’rur b. Suwaid said: “We called on Abu Dharr at al-Rabadhah. He wore a cloak and his slave also wore a similar one. We said; Abu Dharr! If you took the cloak of your slave and combined it with your cloak, so that it could be a part of garments (hullah) and clothed him in another garment, (it would be better). He said; I heard the Messenger of Allah (May peace be upon him) say; they are your brethren. Allah has put them under your authority; so he who has his brother under his authority must feed him from what he eats and clothe him with what he wears, and not impose on him work which is too much for him, but if he does so, he must help him. Abu Dawud said: Ibn Numair transmitted it from al-A’mash in a similar way. (Sunan Abu Dawood, graded sahih by Al-Albani)

So, the companions strictly complied with the order given by Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) to treat the captives well. One of the captives of Battle of Badr, Huzayr ibn Humayr, who later accepted Islam said: On the day I was taken as captive by the Ansar, when the latter had their dinner, they use to give me their bread and suffice themselves with dates. I use to wonder why they ate less than me and they clothe me, then I realized that they feared disobeying the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم), when he commanded to treat the captives well.

Furthermore, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) made it illegal to separate families, mother from children, siblings, etc. Abu Musa reported that he (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said “May he be cursed, he who separates a mother from her child or a brother from his sibling” (Reported by at-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah and others).

In regard to this topic, it is worth mentioning the opinions of some of the renowned historians and philosophers:

  • At the end of the 18th century, Mouradgea d’Ohsson (a main source of information for the Western writers on the Ottoman Empire) declared: “There is perhaps no nation where the captives, the slaves, the very toilers in the galleys are better provided for or treated with more kindness than among the Muhammedans.” (The Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. I, p. 35)
  • On the attitude of Muslim master with his slaves, Will Durant says, “…he handled them with a genial humanity that made their lot no worse – perhaps better, as more secure – than that of a factory worker in nineteenth-century Europe.” (Hurgronje C., Mohammedanism, (N.Y., 1916), p. 128 as quoted by W. Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. IV (N.Y., 1950), p. 209)
  • J. Toynbee says in Civilization on Trial: “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue…” Then he comments that “in this perilous matter of race feeling it can hardly be denied that (the triumph of English-speaking peoples) has been a misfortune.” (Toynbee, A.J., Civilization on Trial (New York, 1948), p. 205)
  • L Riviere writes: “A master was enjoined to make his slave share the bounties he received from God. It must be recognized that, in this respect, the Islamic teaching acknowledged such a respect for human personality and showed a sense of equality which is searched for in vain in ancient civilization” (Riviere P.L., Revue Bleaue (June 1939))
  • Slavery in Islam was color blind, so there were Asians and Europeans who were slaves as well as the Africans. The following quotation shows how the issue of color was irrelevant to the early Muslims: “Take away the black man! I can have no discussion with him,” exclaimed the Christian Archbishop Cyrus when the Arab conquerors had sent a deputation of their ablest men to discuss terms of surrender of the capital of Egypt, headed by Negro ‘Ubaydah as the ablest of them all. To the sacred Archbishop’s astonishment, he was told that this man was commissioned by General ‘Amr; that the Moslems held Negroes and white men in equal respect judging a man by his character and not by his color.  (Leeder, S.S., Veiled Mysteries of Egypt (London, 1912), p.332) Thus, Islam absorbed the slaves in Muslim society without any regard of their color or origin.


In Islamic era, the slaves were able to assume positions of leadership, for example:

  • Bilal – `Umar used to say about him, Bilal is our master and the freed slave of our master (Abu Bakr);
  • Osama bin Zayd – the first commander of Muslim Army;
  • Imam Malik’s greatest of all teachers was Nafi’ the slave of Ibn Umar (رضي الله عنه). Imam Malik learned with him for twelve years and attained the knowledge of Hadith and Diraayah (Fiqh). It is for this reason that many narrations are from Nafi’ (رضي الله عنه). This was called the golden chain of narrators because it was the best chain in Muwatta;
  • Narrated `Abdullah bin `Amr: I heard the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) saying, “Learn the recitation of Qur’an from four persons: Ibn Mas`ud, Salim, the freed slave of Abu Hudhaifa, Ubayy b. Ka’b and Mu`adh bin Jabal.” (Bukhari) – Salim was the person, Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) appointed to lead the companions in salah in Masjid al-Quba. Moreover, when Umar (رضي الله عنه) was passing away, he said that there are two men, if either of them is alive, I will make them the khalifa without any shura, one Abu Ubaiydah Ibn Aljarrah and Salim.
  • ‘Ikrimah Mawla Ibn ‘Abbas (رضي الله عنه), born to the Berber people, he was a slave of Abd Allah ibn Abbas (رضي الله عنه) and became one of his most talented disciples. ‘Ikrimah brought back ahadith from Abd Allah ibn Abbas, Abdullah ibn Umar, Abu Hurairah, Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri, Hasan ibn Ali and Aisha. He was one of the main Tabi‘un and was a law expert of Makkah. He was constantly going from one town to another so Abd Allah ibn Abbas told him to stay in Mecca to deliver Fatwas and to teach Islam. (

From the above, it can be seen that Islam put the system in place, whereby freed slaves and their children could become governors and caliphs. For example, in the rulers of Mamluk dynasty, from 1200 to 1500 AD, were all children of slaves. Further, the last caliph of the Ayyubid Dynasty, Najm ad-Din Ayyub was the son of a concubine. He fought and defeated the crusaders in my different places. Also, there were many scholars from the period of Tabieen, which was known as ‘Era of freed slaves’.

Napoleon Bonaparte is recorded as saying about the condition of slaves in Muslim countries: “The slave inherits his master’s property and marries his daughter. The majority of the Pashas [(i.e., higher rank in the Ottoman Empire political and military system)] had been slaves. Many of the grand viziers… began their lives by performing the most menial services in the houses of their masters and were subsequently raised in status for their merit or by favor. In the West, on the contrary, the slave has always been below the position of the domestic servants; he occupies the lowest rug. The Romans emancipated their slaves, but the emancipated were never considered as equal to the free-born…” (Cherfils, Bonaparte et l’Islam (Paris, 1914)

Some examples of horde reformation from the Seerah of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم):

  • Campaign against Banu Al-Mustaliq: This tribe were subject to a pre-emptive attack by Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) as he had received news that the tribe was gathering together against the Muslims under the leadership of al-Harith ibn Abi Dirar, their chief. The Muslims defeated them; while their chief fled, some of their men were killed, other men, women and children of the disbelievers taken as captives, and a lot of booty fell to the lot of the Muslims. Among the captives taken by the Muslims was al-Harith’s daughter Juwayriya. She initially fell among the booty of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم)’s companion Thabit b. Qays b. Al-Shammas. Troubled by this, Juwayriya sought a deed of redemption from Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم). Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) proposed to marry her and as a result freed her from the bondage of Thabit and consequently ameliorated the condition of her captured tribe.
  • This is a very significant point here, if Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) wanted to he could have taken her as captive, instead he (صلى الله عليه و سلم) listened to her and gave her a choice of either he can give her the money, set you free and you can go back or become my wife. She chose to marry the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم). In compensation, the companions had to manumit hundred others of the enemy prisoners who were then the Prophet’s in-laws. Aisha said that over a 1000 households were freed as a result. I do not know of a woman other than Juwayriya who brought more blessing to her people. Consequently, Banu al Mustaliq becomes one of the close tribe to Islam; even al-Harith embraced Islam when he came to know of this treatment of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم).
  • Battle of Hunayn: The battle ended in a decisive victory for the Muslims, who captured enormous spoils with over 6000 captives. Post battle, an old Bedouin woman came to Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and says: I still have the bite marks from the time, you were a kid. I am Shaima bint Al Harith, daughter of Haleemah As-Sa’diyah, who breastfed Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم). She was the foster sister of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) in rida’a (breastfeeding).  Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) had not seen her from 60 years, Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: Welcome my sister; he kissed her forehead, hugged, cried and walked her over. Jabir says the companions were shocked. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) took off his Burda and put it under a tree and made her sit there and he himself sat in the dirt. They kept laughing and crying entire day. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) proposed her to stay with him and gave her the option of returning to her people. She decided to return and the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) fetched a nice camel for her comfortable departure. The companions watched this and questioned Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) about the captives. He decided to let go all the captives with possessions, money and goods.


The word concubines come from Latin concubina (fem.), from concumbere “to lie with, to lie together, to cohabit,” Recognized by law among polygamous peoples as “a secondary wife.” (Online Etymology Dictionary) Concubines is as old as human history as well; they existed in ancient China, Roman as well as Greek Society.  As for concubines, within Judaism, according to Jews Scholars, one of the reason for encouraging concubines in Judaism in Old Testament was to have populate (having more children), and according to few, particularly after the great flood of Noah. Therefore, in the Bible, you find Solomon who lived 1000 years before Jesus, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Some of Jews scholars also say that people cannot be converted to Orthodox Judaism, which is only possible in the reformed tradition of Judaism; so, the only way to preserve the religion was to have as many children as possible.

As for Islam, concubines (ma malakat aymanukum “what your right hand possesses”) has been the most controversial topic. To reiterate, first and foremost, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) did not create an institution, he reformed and depleted this institution to an extent that it almost ceased to exist. Possessing concubines was a global practice; then and now. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) limited the practice to captives because in the days of ignorance, when women were captured, one of two things happened, either they would escape and become prostitutes for earning livelihood or their capturers would force them into that process. Allah say in the Qur’an: “…do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, when they desire to keep chaste, in order to seek the frail good of this world’s life; and whoever compels them, then surely after their compulsion Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Soorah an-Noor, 24:33) Allah revealed this ayah because “among the people of the Jahiliyyah, there were some who, if he had a slave-girl, he would send her out to commit illegal sexual acts (zina) and would charge money for that, which he would take from her every time… According to the reports of a number of earlier and later scholars of Tafseer, [the ayah was revealed with respect to]… `Abdullah bin Ubayy bin Salul; he had slave-girls whom he used to force into prostitution so that he could take their earnings and because he wanted them to have children which would enhance his status, or so he claimed.” (Tasfir ibn Kathir)

In the Islamic Legal Theory, there is ideal and there is recommended and there is the bare minimum i.e., to remove the injustice. The mustahabb (recommended) here was as mentioned in the hadith “He will be doubly rewarded,…the man who had a slave girl, and he fed her well, taught her manners and educated her, and then freed her and married her” (Reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim), as the goal of Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was to reintegrate them in the society in a dignified way. Further, Allah says in the Qur’an: “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” (Soorah an-Noor, 24:32)

It is worth noting that Islam does not reward intimacy with concubines (either in the Qur’an or ahadith) as in the Judaism (stated earlier), it was praiseworthy to be intimate with concubines to have more believing children. The very early scholars of Islam said that what is desired through that is not more children, even though there is general rule in Islam to have more children, because Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said “…I will be proud of your great numbers before the other nations.”  (Classed as sahih by al-Albaani in Irwa’ al-Ghaleel)

Before discussing the conditions to be intimate with “what the right hand possesses” in Islam, one has to keep in mind that this is ugly reality was faced 1400 years ago; it was not an ideal situation and need of the hour was to find a solution to this gruesome institution:

  • If her husband is alive, she has to remain with her (even if her husband was taken as a captive) and the master could not get intimate with her.
  • She should a Muslim or from the People of the Book according to majority of the scholars. Imam an-Nawawi in his Sharh, mentioned that those who aren’t Muslim or People of the Books, it is impermissible to be intimate with them, until they accept Islam.
  • The period of iddah was to be observed by her for mourning and purification. One of the maqasid of shari’ah is to protect the lineage.
  • Only one person can be intimate with her and it has to be known. This was unheard before all around the world.
  • She cannot be already in the state of Mukataba.
  • This is one of the dirtiest accusation against Islam and which unfortunately, Muslims themselves cannot refute. Consent was necessary before intimacy and rape was not allowed. The proof for that is common sense, if Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) prohibited slapping a slave, which will set him/her free, rape is far greater of an abuse than that. Secondly, there are narration of the Companions punishing men, who raped concubines.

The concubines enjoy the privileges and rights of a wife, i.e., she cannot be touch by anybody else, she cannot be sold, the child borne by her was not born into slavery and when the master passes away, the slave woman acquires freedom. This was first time in history, that the child of a concubine would by standard practice be recognized as legitimate child. Up until the 20th century, morganatic marriage, whereby two people of unequal social rank get married but the husband’s titles and privileges would not pass to the wife and any children born of the marriage, was practiced in Europe. (Morganatic literally means the gift given by the groom to the bride on the morning after the wedding, morning gift. The literal meaning is explained in a 16th-century passage quoted by Du Cange as, “a marriage by which the wife and the children that may be born are entitled to no share in the husband’s possessions beyond the ‘morning-gift’“. It is also known as a left-handed marriage because in the wedding ceremony the groom held his bride’s hand with his left hand instead of his right.) Imam Al-Qurtubi mentions that Allah did not mention about “what the right hand possesses” except that he mention it along with the wife to show that the concubine gets the same rights as the wife.

In conclusion, about 1400 years ago, Islam dealt in the most effective way a death blow to slavery. Islam is the first and the only religion which has prescribed liberation of slaves as a virtue and a condition of genuine faith.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that slavery by purchase was reintroduced sometime after the reigns of the first four rightly-guided Caliphs. A large number of Muslims, in later times utterly ignored the precepts of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and the injunctions of the Qur’an, and the Arabs too participated with the European Christians in the abominable slave-trade of East Africa. The West African slave-trade was totally in the hands of the European Christians.


In the US, the 13th amendment, which followed the Emancipation Proclamation, banned slavery in December 1865. China abolished slavery in 1910 and Morocco abolished it in 1922. Afghanistan abolished slavery in 1923 and Iran ended it in 1928. Saudi Arabia ended slavery in 1962. Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, in 1981. (‘A Brief History of Slavery’ by Tim Lambert)

Although slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, modern-day slavery exists in the form of forced prostitution (sex slavery), forced labor, and the worst forms of child labor. The United Nations estimates that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry with India having the most slaves at roughly 18.4 million. (‘Contemporary slavery’ – The International Labor Organization estimates that in 2000, 352 million children between the ages of five and seventeen worked worldwide. Not all of them were slaves, but many were. (‘Modern-Day Slavery’ by Linda Bickerstaff)

(The main source of information for the above answer, unless stated otherwise, are the following:

  • Video Lecture on ‘Slavery: A Past and Present Tragedy’ with Sheikh Omar Suleiman
  • Fatwa of Dr. Hatem al-Haj, Member of the Fatwa Committee of Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America

Online Book ‘Slavery from Islamic and Christian Perspectives’ by Sayyid Sa’eed Akhtar Rizvi)

Allahu A’lam (Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) knows best) and all Perfections belong to Allah, and all mistakes belong to me alone. May Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) forgive me, Ameen.