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Slavery from Islam’s Point of View

Slavery has been one of the most unfair practices in human history, something that any good conscience would reject. This is because all human beings are born free and none of them is entitled to enslave others. Although slavery in its most brutal form is no longer practiced, it still lives on in other forms in our time period.[1]

The question to be addressed here is: what is the stance of Islam on slavery? Does a religion, which claims to aim for the emancipation of mankind, have any strategies for the emancipation of slaves and for the eradication of slavery?[2]

These questions have need to be answered particularly in our time period when the materialistic schools of thought have leveled wild accusations against Islam in this regard. These schools are now using such issues as a means of turning the people’s minds and hearts against Islam.[3]

Who is a Slave?

A slave is a person who is owned completely by another human being and is bought and sold like any other commodity. The owner of a slave is free to use him/her in any way that he deems fit.[4]

Although slavery has taken different forms during various eras, “exploitation of human beings by human beings” has always been its characteristic and this is what is referred to as the essence of slavery.[5]

If exploitation of man by man is taken as the essence of slavery, then clearly slavery has been practiced in various forms in human societies although it is not referred to as slavery in many of these forms[6].

The History of Slavery

The genesis of slavery dates back to the genesis of human society; therefore, no matter how deep one plunges in to the history of man, one finds some form of slavery in every era. This is because slavery has been the result of the imbalance of power in human societies married up with man’s desire to exploit others.[7]

Some historians believe that slavery came in to being when the first battles between human tribes took place, as the first slaves were the ones taken captive in wars.[8] This however, could not be a correct view of the genesis of slavery. Slavery, as it was discussed above, stems from man’s greed for supremacy which brings him to enslave the less powerful humans. Therefore, it has existed in some form even before human tribe first went in to battle with one another because the greed for supremacy and dominance has always existed in mankind.

There are historical accounts which indicate that, in many eras, the poor debtors would sell themselves to their rich creditors in order to settle their debts and because they were pressured to pay their debts back. This has been a customary practice particularly in Rome. Such historical evidence are, in effect, a rebuttal of the view which considers slavery to have come in to existence with the emergence of tribal warfare.[9]

The Fall of Slavery

Until the mid-19th century, slavery was a customary practice in many areas of the world and it was not even frowned upon in many other areas. However, after 1850s, various anti-slavery movements sprang up in various corners of the world.[10]

These movements were largely the result of the brutal and inhumane treatment of the slaves by the slaveholders which, on the one hand, sparked slave revolts and, on the other, the strong reaction of the intellectuals and free-spirited men to such mistreatment of human beings. It was due to these reactions and revolts that traditional form of slavery was eliminated in the late 19th century.[11]

These movements first arouse in Europe, particularly in England quickly spreading to its various colonies around the world where slaveholding was finally declared illegal in 1840.[12]

25 years later in 1865 slaveholding was made illegal in the US too, something which sparked the bloody American civil war between the north Union and the south Confederate states. This was because the southern states of the US depended heavily on their black slaves for farming but the northern states had no need for slaves and sought to outlaw slavery.

Finally, after four years of civil war, sometimes referred to secessionist wars, the north Union overcame the southerners and slavery was declared illegal in the US. Finally, in the late 19th century all states were forced to ban slavery and slaveholding.

 However, this is something that they cannot take any pride in, as they banned slaveholding only because they were forced by the public opinion to do so not because they were against it.[13] Furthermore, they found new ways for enslavement of human beings afterwards.

It should be noted that the emergence of machines which largely substituted slaves in various fields also played a significant role in the eradication of slavery[14]. Not long after the traditional form of slavery was eliminated, a new, more pervasive form of slavery emerged in the form of globalization[15].[16]

Islam and Slavery

It should be kept in mind that slavery and slaveholding was a customary practice of numerous human societies, centuries before the advent of Islam. Therefore, not only Islam was not the initiator of slaveholding, it emerged in a time when slavery was a pervasive practice all around the world. As it was discussed above, slavery continued to live on in various forms in most human societies, centuries after the advent of Islam.[17]

At the time of the advent of Islam, slaves lived in terrible conditions in the Arabian Peninsula; this, however, was not an unexpected thing from a society where free women and girls were not entitled even to their own lives, some of whom were even buried alive upon birth[18].

Islam, however, was completely against slavery based on the principles of the freedom of human beings, freedom of belief, and the right of all human beings to security[19]. However, since such a deep-rooted culture could not be rooted out abruptly, Islam devised certain strategies[20] to extensively and slowly fight slavery[21] until it was totally eliminated.[22]

Islam’s Strategy for the Gradual Eradication of Slavery

What is largely neglected here is that, when fighting a deep-rooted problem like slavery, any sudden and rash action can have rather unfavorable results. This is very much like a patient with a high-stage cancer; any rash action against it could aggravate the disease and put the patient’s life in more danger. In situations like these, all actions toward the elimination of the problem need to be carefully planned and calculated and executed over a reasonable period of time[23].

The plan of Islam for the total emancipation of slaves was a gradual one; simply put, the plan was to free the slaves gradually so that they could be accepted in the community as free members and, on the other hand, eliminate ways in which more slaves could be acquired. Moreover, Islam had plans to eliminate the concept and culture of slavery from the society as well.[24]

The approach of Islam to the issue of slavery shows that, Islam considers all human beings equally free; it recognized the issue of slaves merely because they existed in that time period and also in order to move ahead with its plan for the eradication of slavery.

As it was discussed above, it was not possible for Islam to outlaw slaveholding abruptly. One reason was that sometimes slaves made up nearly half of the societies of that time.

Therefore, freeing a group of people with no jobs, money, or even skills to make a living would be like handing down a death sentence on them all. Clearly, then, an abrupt emancipation of all the slaves would have created great social turmoil and would have led to the death of most of the slaves.

The plan of Islam, however, was a reasonable twofold one: on the one hand it gradually restricted the acquisition of slaves so that no more new slaves were taken in to captivity and, on the other, it devised plans for a gradual freeing of slaves.[25]

In this manner, not only slaveholding was abolished, even the concept and culture of slaveholding was eliminated with minimum damage to the society and to the slaves themselves; this is yet another aspect of the genius plan of Islam for the effective eradication of slavery.[26]

The Introduction of Social Reforms Aimed at the Eradication of Slavery

In times when humanity was lost in darkness, Islam initiated a substantial social reform which aimed not only at the elimination of slavery, but at the improvement of all aspects of human life[27].

Initially, Islam taught the people that the slaves were also members of the societies in which they lived; therefore the saves were no longer considered as mere belongings but as human beings who belonged to the society.

In order to further institute this social reform, Islam extended all religious teachings and responsibilities so that they included slaves and the free people equally. It also abolished all the privileges and merits of the people except the ones that anyone could earn by cultivating piety and other human virtues in themselves[28]. Finally, Islam gave the slaves the right to file lawsuits like free people[29].

This, however, was not the only actions taken by Islam in the first phase of its strategy toward the eradication of slavery. The slaveholders were made, under the rule of Islam, to treat their slaves kindly and this went to the point where the slaveholders were encouraged to give a share of their properties to their slaves.[30]

For instance, the Prophet of Islam (ṣ) instructed the Muslims as follows:

“A person who has a brother of his working for him [as his slave] must give him from the food that he himself eats and from what he himself wears and he must not charge him with tasks which are beyond his ability.[31]

Similarly, another tradition indicates that Imam Ali (‘a) said the following to his servant, Qanbar: “I feel ashamed before Allah to wear better clothes than what I give you to wear, because I heard the Prophet say: “Clothe them with the same clothes that you yourselves wear and feed them with the food that you yourselves eat[32]””

According to yet, another related tradition, Imam Ṣādiq (‘a) stated the following: “My father was always caring about the slaves; whenever he assigned them a task and he understood that it was too hard for them, he would immediately go to help them.[33]

Moreover, Islam gradually blocked the various ways in which slaves were acquired in those times. For instance, taking a debtor or a thief as slaves [in return for their debts or as punishment for theft] was made illegal under Islamic laws. Additionally, Islam strictly prohibited poor people from selling off their children as slaves and also powerful people from captivating and selling free people as slaves.[34]

Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves

The abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves has been one of the major goals of Islam, something which was achieved gradually and over time.[35] The stance of Islam regarding slavery has been always clear: there should be no slavery. However this, as it was discussed above, had to be achieved gradually to prepare both the society and the slaves for it.[36]

In order to initiate the process of the emancipation of slaves, Islam first taught the Muslims that it was a great good deed to free slaves; it also taught them that great otherworldly rewards were in store for anyone who frees a slave.[37]

The Prophet (ṣ), for instance, emphasized the importance of freeing slaves on different occasions. According to an Islamic tradition, the Prophet (ṣ) is quoted as saying: “Anyone who frees a Muslim slave, Allah will deliver every single limb of that person from Hellfire for every limb of that freed slave.[38]

Such traditions, which were a part of the overall anti-slavery strategy of Islam, aimed at encouraging the people to free their slaves[39]; according to, yet, another tradition, the Prophet (ṣ) is narrated to have said the following:

شَرُّ النَّاسِ مَنْ باعَ النَّاس

 “There is no one worse than the person who sells slaves.[40]

In addition to their verbal fight against slavery, the Islamic leaders also fought it in practice too. For instance, one of the many honorable acts of Imam Ali (‘a) was that he freed nearly one thousand slaves during his lifetime with the money he made through farming.[41] Another example in this regard is the freeing of slaves by Imam Ḥassan (‘a); according to historical accounts, once the Imam (‘a) freed one of his slave girls merely because she gave the Imam a single flower as a gift.[42]

In addition to these teachings, Islam also has laws which are put in place with the intention of facilitating the freeing of slaves. For instance, the money earned through Zakāt, which is a sort of Islamic tax, must be used for eight legislated purposes; one of which is the freeing of slaves[43].

In other words, nearly 14 centuries ago, Islam set a fixed budget from the Muslim’s treasury for the emancipation of slaves so as to ensure that one day all slaves are finally freed.[44]

Moreover, there are certain Islamic rituals and prescribed punishments for certain misdeeds which require the Muslims to free slaves. For instance, if a Muslim makes a vow, takes an oath, or promises to do something and then fails to keep them, they must free some slaves as compensation[45].

Moreover, if a Muslim breaks his fast intentionally during the month of Ramadan, they must pay some compensation in addition to fasting again. One of the ways of paying the compensation in this case is the freeing of a slave. The same rule also applies to the case of compensation for murder.[46]

These Islamic laws were also another part of the general anti-slavery strategy of Islam. A quick glance at the history, particularly the early years of Islam, reveals that the Prophet (ṣ) used any opportunity to fight slavery and to free slaves; this, however, was no less than what is expected of the Prophet of Islam (ṣ), as he had been sent on the mission of freeing the whole of mankind in every way.[47]

Another provision in the Islamic law for the emancipation of slaves concerned the cases where the slaveholders did not agree to free their slaves because they had paid money for them. In this case, Islamic law taught them different ways in which the slave could make a contract with his owner based on which to buy his freedom by working for him or for someone else.[48]

All of these rules and teachings indicate that the Divine Legislator of the Islamic Law was extremely eager to eliminate slavery and see all human beings free.[49]

Therefore, hundreds of years before the Proclamation of Emancipation was issued in the US, Islam had formulated and executed a comprehensive strategy aimed at the gradual emancipation of all slaves and the eventual elimination of slavery.[50]

Conclusion: Islam and the Repudiation of Slavery for the Protection of Human Dignity

As it was discussed above, the abolition of slavery required a transition period in which both the slaves and the human societies got used to a world without slaves. It should be noted that, though Islam considered such a transition period necessary, it took effective measures in order to lessen the pain of the slaves and to enhance their quality of life in this period.[51]

Before the advent of Islam, slaves were considered no more than domestic animals; however, Islam eradicated such degrading beliefs regarding slaves and raised their social status to that of workers who had to be respected. After some time, some of the slaves were regarded as their owners’ right hand and advisor.[52]

Islam prohibited torturing and killing slaves and elevated their social status so that they were considered human beings like free people. It should be noted that such a dramatic change in the conditions of the slaves was the result of the words and deeds of the Islamic leaders.

There are several historical accounts regarding the humane and kind behavior of the Islamic leaders toward slaves, by which they set a good example to their followers.

One such accounts indicates that Imam Ali (‘a) would always take Ghanbar, his servant, with him when he wanted to shop for clothes, and he always bought two garments; he would then ask Qanbar to choose the one he liked the most and then the Imam himself would take the other one. Moreover, he would always ask Qanbar to take the better garment.[53]

Furthermore, according to the laws of Islam a slave could take up important positions such as prayer-leader, judge, and army commander. Clearly, then, a slave who is treated like that and who can take up the most important positions in the society is no longer a slave![54]

According to other historical accounts, when food was prepared for Imam Riḍā (‘a), he refused to begin eating until all the maids and servants came to eat with him.[55] Finally, the Islamic traditions indicate that the Prophet freed one of his slaves and appointed him as his speaker.[56]

It is noteworthy that all the above-mentioned pieces of evidence are from the aforementioned transition period; obviously, even in the transition period, the conditions of the slaves under the rule of Islam was much better than the conditions of the simple workers in today’s advanced countries.

This special attention paid by Islam to the elimination of slavery shows the religion’s great respect for human beings and the importance it places on protecting human dignity.[57]



[1] Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 2, p. 177.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 6

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Worldwide Rule of Mahdi (‘a), p. 26.

[12] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 7.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kitāb Al Nikāḥ, vol. 7, p. 116.

[15] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 7

[16] The Worldwide Rule of Mahdi (‘a), p. 26

[17] Tafsīr Nemūneh, vol. 21, p. 413.

[18] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 10.

[19] The Message of the Quran, vol. 8, p. 285.

[20] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 13.

[21] Kitāb Al Nikāḥ, vol. 2, p. 63.

[22] Tafsīr Nemūneh, vol. 21, p. 415.

[23] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 16.

[24] The Message of Imam Amīr Al Mu’minīn (‘a), vol. 9, p. 291.

[25] Kitāb Al Nikāḥ, vol. 7, p. 115.

[26] One Hundred Eighty Religious Q&As, p. 450.

[27] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 10.

[28] Ḥujurāt, 14.

[29] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 11.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Biḥār Al Anwār, vol. 15, p. 41; Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 11.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] The Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 10, p. 338.

[35] Ibid, vol. 1, p. 351.

[36] The Message of the Quran, vol. 10, p. 338.

[37] For more information refer to: Wasā’il Al Shi’a, vol. 16, Abwāb Al ‘Itq, chapter 1.

[38] Ibid; Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 11.

[39] Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 2, p. 178.

[40] Mustadrak Al Wasā’il, vol. 13, Abwāb Mā Yuktasab bih, chapter 19, hadith No. 1; Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 2, p. 178.

[41] Wasā’il Al Shi’a. vol. 16, Abwāb Al ‘Itq, chapter 1, hadith No. 6.

[42] Mustanad Al Imam Al Mujtabā (‘a), p. 702; Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 2, p. 178.

[43] One Hundred Eighty Religious Q&As, p. 451.

[44] Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 2, p. 178.

[45] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 12.

[46] Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 1, p. 352.

[47] Islamic Ethics as Reflected in Nahj Al Balāghah [based on the Muttaqīn sermon], vol. 2, p. 25.

[48] There is a distinct chapter in this regard in Islamic jurisprudence called “Mukātabah”. For more information in this regard refer to: Tafsīr Nemūneh, vol. 14, p. 459 & 467;  Tafsīr Nemūneh, vol. 21, p. 418.

[49] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 12.

[50] Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 1, p. 353.

[51] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 18.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Biḥār Al Anwār, vol. 40, p. 324, hadith No. 20.

[54] Beautiful Parables of the Quran, vol. 2, p. 179.

[55] Islam and the Emancipation of Slaves, p. 18.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

Researched and edited by the news editorial of the website of Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi’s office

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