Status of Slaves in the history of Islam

Status of Slaves in the history of Islam

Dr. A F M Khalid Hossain

The slaves in Islam enjoyed ranks and position unparalleled in the history of the world. The first Muazzin (prayer called) in Islam was Bilal  (RA), a Negro-slave. He was right hand companion of the Prophet (SAW) and was appointed commander of an army. Salman al Farsi (RA), a slave of Jew was one of the attendants of the Prophet (SAW) and made an outstanding contribution to the battle of the Ditch ( أحزاب ) in 627 CE as an Adviser to the Prophet (SAW). The people of Persia honored him as a national hero for his unprecedented sacrifice for the cause of Islam.[1] Slaves were exalted to the position of military commanders and leaders. Thus, when the Holy Prophet (SAW) sent out an army to Basra in 08 Hijra, which consisted of the closest of companions. Ansar and the Mujahideen, the acknowledged leaders of the Arabs; he entrusted Zayd Ibn Haritha (RA), the slave, with the generalship of the army.[2] After the passing away of Zayd the Holy Prophet (SAW) appointed his son Usama (RA) as the commander of army[3] consisting of such illustrious personages as Hadrat Abu Bakr (RA) and Hadrat ‘Umar Ibn Khattab (RA). Thus slaves were given not only status equal and similar to others but were at the same time raised to the exalted position of leading the armies of freemen. The following event is the clear instance of this truth; “Take away that 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 Abu ‘Ubaidah as the ablest of them all. To the Archbishop’s astonishment, he was told that this man was commissioned by General ‘Amr Ibn al-‘Aas; that the Muslims held Negroes and white men in equal respect, judging a man by his character and not by his color.”[4]

Muslim slaves led military campaigns, ruled kingdoms and founded dynasties.Alaptagin (962-976CE) the ruler of Khurasan, Sabuktagin (977-997 CE) founder of the Ghazani dynasty, Qutubiddin Aibak (1206-10 CE) the founder of slave dynasty, Iltutmish (1211-36 CE) the great emperor of Delhi and Giasuddin Balban (1266-87 CE) the mighty ruler of India who saved his empire from internal trouble and external danger through ‘Blood and Iron Policy’ all were but slaves. However, the Apostle of Allah could not abolish the primitive institution of slavery all together due to the circumstances prevailing in the society at that time but wonderfully mitigated their sufferings by a sort prescribed manumission, forbidding enslavement of Muslim men and women, raising the slaves to higher positions and ranks and giving repeated advice in the treatment towards them regarding food, clothing and abode and promising great rewards in manumission of slaves as exoneration from sins.[5]


Slave trade is a worldwide business from antiquity whose traces are visible in the chronicles of almost all the centuries. Prior to the advent of Islam, slavery was a prominent feature of civilizations of the Roman, Egypt, Arabia, Iran, India, Africa, Greek, Mexico, the Mediterranean and the Near East. The life of the slaves more or less in every society was very miserable, outcast and abject. All the nations of the world other than Muslims maltreated the slaves without any exception. They kept the slaves hungry without reason, beat them up and forced them to do most menial tasks beyond their capacity. They had neither right to marry nor to accumulate property. Sick slaves were neglected and the dead were dumped into the sea without funeral rites. The bodies of the slaves were branded with fire and different parts of the body were hacked ruthlessly. The slaves were termed as ‘living luggage’. The Romans kept the slaves with chattels having tied them with shackles. They were traded, given away as gifts and they had no chance to escape from cruelty of bondage.[6] The African slaves who managed to escape were hunted down and their body parts were displayed to other potential escapees.[7] Slaves were packed in low hods, where is no ventilation, shackled to each other by chains and forced to lie in their own excrement. Despite all the efforts slavery continued to be widespread throughout the centuries. For nearly four centuries the African continent was raided to meet the demand for labour in the New World. Economist Ralph Austen has estimated that between 11 and 20 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean over a four-century period.[8] Scholars are of the opinion that some 30,000,000 were brought from Africa to North and South America in the course of the slave trade. For Brazil alone the estimates vary from 3,000,000 to 18,000,000. By 1580 CE Portugal imported more than 2000 African slaves a year to work the sugar plantations of northeastern Brazil. This demonstrates the cruel trade in human beings between Africa and Americas, which flourished from 16th century to the mid of 19th century. The slave trade was one of the greatest and most prolonged evils committed by the Western World. By the 18th century Britain led the world in trading slaves from Liverpool. The abuse of slaves was widespread to such an extent that the then British Premier, William Pitt, the Younger, Admitted in the House of Commons in 1792 CE “No nation in Europe has plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain.”[9] As for practices analogous to slavery, debt bondage is still a serious problem in several countries, especially in India. Peonage prevails in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and perhaps elsewhere in Latin America. Wife-purchase has not been eliminated in Africa. Children are still exploited in Far East by sham adoption.[10]


War has been plaguing human history from time to time, war causes untold miseries, lamentation of widows, cry of orphans and the affliction of homeless destitutes. The main practice that prevalent from remotest part to the modern time was that the war captives were either enslaved or put to death. History witnessed in its passage many brutal and barbaric behaviors of victors to the defeated captives.

For instance, in 599 A.D.; the Roman Emperor Marius motivated by his love for economy refused to ransom a few of the millions of those prisoners that had been captured by his forces in wars. He instead put them all without a single exception to sword.[11] Besides in order to satisfy the greedy lust of the Roman imperialists the slaves toiled for the self-aggrandizement of the lords in the field and they were encumbered with cumbrous duties and obligation. They had no rights whatsoever, when working in the fields they were fettered in heavy manacles so as to prevent their running away. They were never fed properly but given just sufficient to keep them ‘Alive and fit to do their work. During the work the slaves were whipped just for the savage pleasure of it, which was much relished by their sadist lord.[12]

In the camps, the honor of the woman was violated in a most flagrant manner; several men-fathers, sons and friends- all jointly shared a single captive woman with no regard whatever to any rule or law; or respect for her womanhood.[13] Before the advent of Islam in Arabia and elsewhere in the world, the slaves were not allowed to marry either among themselves or with a free person for which frightful penalties were imposed upon them.[14]

We also find that after modern wars, war captives are put to concentration camps, extermination centers, Jail etc. and their sufferings know no bounds, Severe tortures are inflicted on them and they remained unfed, unclad or ill-fed, ill clad. History bears testimony that by the end of World War II about 4,00,000 gypsies had been liquidated in the German concentration camps, which were established in 1983 for confinement of opponents of the Nazi Party- Communists and Social Democrats. The inmates of the camps were required to work for their wages in food; those unable to work usually died of starvation and those who did not starve often died of over work.[15] Extermination centers, the most shocking extension of the system of concentration camp, set up by Hitler after 1940 in Poland annihilated unwanted Jews, Gypsies and Slavic racesen masse in the conquered territories. One of the major centers was Anchwitz where in 1,00,000 persons were housed; the poison-gas chambers could accommodate 2,000 at one time; and 12,000 could be gassed and incinerated each day. Prisoners who were deemed able-bodied were initially used in industrial labor battalions or in the tasks of genocide until they were virtually worked to death and then exterminated.[16]

On the contrary, war was there during prophet’s time also. The Holy Prophet (SAW) had to fight 26 wars[17] imposed on him by the followers of falsehood. The victors were enjoined that they should be fair and good in their dealings with the war prisoners during their captivity. As far as the women were concerned, Islam respected them even in their captivity if they were taken prisoners from foreign enemy lands. No one was allowed to violate their honor or treat them merely as a part of booty captured in the war. But it made lawful for a master to have a number of slave women captured in the wars and enjoined that he alone may wed them by giving their portions ( مهر ) in kindness.[18] The provision for the marriage of slave girls has been kept by Islam to gratify the biological need of the womanhood. The captive woman under the charge of the different masters in absence of the provision for their marriage had, however, physical needs. To fulfill them the masters were allowed to feed them and clothe them equally the permission to fulfill their other physical needs. This provision is tremendous improvement upon the tortures inflicted previously upon the woman slaves, as is the case of the Roman captive women. Man is by nature polygamous. In his hunger for more and more women is almost unlimited. Islam allowing sex-relation with the captive women has, however, recognized nature ( فطرت ) of human being while dealing kindly and equally with the slave women.

Hence, in order to save humanity from calamities of helplessness Prophet (SAW) retained and humanize inhuman slavery conferring upon them equal status in food, cloth etc. and even confer on them the right to rule over the free men with the proviso that they must follow the Book of Allah.



Although the United States claim to have put an end to slavery as that institution is here defined, a form of it persisted in tenant farming, debt peonage, and migrant labor, in the sense of work contracts that yield the worker little or no profit from labor or leave the worker perpetually in debt to the employer.[19] In North America, blacks, Hispanics and Mexicans suffer the most from such systems. Elsewhere in the world, notably in parts of Africa, Asia and South America, these and more literal form of slavery persist.[20]

The Anti-slavery society for the protection of Human Rights in London estimates that debt bondage (in which impoverished, illiterate people work for every low wages, borrow money from their employer and pledge their labor as security) serfdom that is called contract labor, Sham adoptions, servile forms of marriage and other forms of servitude still oppress more 2000 millions poor people in the developing world. In the late 1980, the society concentrated its effort to improve the lot of such people in South East

Asia because of magnitude of child labor servitude there.[21] The society estimated that 50 million children in India alone were being exploited. The sale of children into bondage and the self-sale of impoverished persons also continue in Asia. In some Asian nations there are young people of both sexes living in enforced prostitution; they are kept illiterate and deprived of all personal rights.[22]

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has alleged that in spite of repeated commitment, Indian Government has not adopted any worth mentioning measure for eradicating the menace of child labor from its root. According to the statistics supplied by this organization there are at lest five crore and 50 lakh bonded children in India at this moment. This is the consequence of the prevalence of the curse of debt trap. These children can be sold and be exploited for whole lifetime without providing wages. They have virtually no leisure whatsoever and they work from dawn to dusk with bone grinding labor.[23] They are subjected to exacting labor form of servitude. Angola officially abrogated slavery in 1960 in which subsequently, however, contract workers in mines and on plantation, highways and rail roads seemed to be involuntarily conscripted and paid the equivalent of only a few cents a day.[24]


Although there is a declaration of French Revolution in 1789 for abrogation of serfdom, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and finally constitutionally abolition of slavery in United States through 13th Amendment in 1865, outlaw of slavery and slave trade by the British parliament in 1833, UN declaration of Human Rights specifically prohibition of servitude in 1945 and condemnation of forced labor made by Security Council under UNO, the heinous institution persisted all the world over in 20th century.

Some eleven hundred years before the modern world’s aim at putting an end to slaves, Islam had earlier enunciated the principle of emancipation and manumission of slaves effectively, enforced it practically. Prophet (SAW) practically abolished slavery by encouraging emancipation of slaves as an act of piety and himself showed the example by freeing about 63 of his slaves and also by providing equal food, cloth and other human rights for the slaves, Slaves practically enjoyed almost equal status with masters in the society as a whole. The prophet sermon enjoying upon Muslims obedience to the mangled Abyssinian slaves in case he becomes a ruler and runs the affairs of the state in accordance with the Quran and Sunnah. Here it is clear that Prophet has kept the way open even for a slave to become a ruler if he is a man of piety.

This picture of so-called slavery if it is compared with the worst conditions of slaves in other societies and in the slavery prevalent in modern societies despite all pious declarations of abolition of slavery, is practically no slavery at all even in a worst of system and institution, the Prophet (SAW) has provided the best of human condition conferring upon them their basic dignity and rights.

This is how, the Prophet liberated men from all chains of societies in order to bind them to the enlightened bondage of Allah, which is the real emancipation of men. Piety alone is held in highest esteemed in Islam. Slave or free man who has piety enjoys equal and respectable status in Muslim societies.

The question of abolition of slavery came up in western mind in the year 1789 that is towards the end of 18 century and in America towards the end of 19 century whereas Prophet took steps to emancipate slaves and humanize the institution of slavery. The prophet’s measures were divinely inspired whereas western measures were political expediency. Therefore, in spite of all western declaration of abolition slavery still persists with all horror in many modern societies. Whereas practical measures for the abolition of slavery have culminated in Muslim societies.


The modern age claims to have abolished the ancient and mediaeval practice of slavery but it has re-appeared in modern societies on a large and more horrible scale. Slavery is established on social and state level. In Godless totalitarian states all men are made slaves to state. People have no individual rights even in capitalist democracies the privileged few has inflicted slavery on deprived many. Men are made subservient to heartless capitalist demons. Modern age has created slavery in a worst form by tying the large majority of mankind in totalitarianism, capitalism and so-called brute majority’s oppression i.e. democracies.

Slum and large-scale unemployment in modern societies have thrown millions of mankind into most terrible form of slavery of man-to-man, of man to machine and man-to-man made ism and system. It is more oppressive than the slavery of the ancient and modifiable form. The slum people are deprived of minimum food, cloth and shelter. So, the nominal ‘Declaration of Emancipation’ of ancient and mediaeval slavery does not indicate any palpable progress of the so-called progressive and developed states. In fact, modern states have snatched away the old slaves from family security in order to throw into state cruelty, whereas Prophet of Islam humanized slavery by permitting a slave to enjoy equal status in respect of food, cloth, shelter and sex with his masters.

Therefore, within social framework of 7th century this enlightened prophetic step of manumission of slaves are yet to be realized. This concept still hold good in respect of all other people under the subjugation of different kinds of control in modern societies. Modern men the labors, the peasants and the working people are under the subjugation of various other classes of people who run the states, factories, business enterprises and hold the lands. For them also ruling people should pursue the measure of feeding them with the food they eat and clothing them with the cloth they wear. This will be antidote to slaveries in modern societies. Prophet’s declaration transcends limits of time and territory and is applicable to human society till the Dooms Day.

The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) through his exemplary pioneering role and act paved the way for the annulment or abrogation of the dastardly system of slavery. Today the entire Muslim world is free from the scourge of slavery notwithstanding the political and economic status of the concerned country or apartheid in any form. The chronic scar of slavery can only be effaced from the fabric of modern society by acting upon the true spirit and sublime teachings of the noble Prophet of Islam high lighted in his different discourses.



[1]  Shorter Islamic Bishawkush, vol. ii, p.432.

[2]  Ibn Hisham, Sirat al- Nabuwiyyah, vol. ii, p.373.

[3]  Ibid, p.642; Tarikh Ibn Kathir, vol. iv. p.441.

[4]  S.S. Leeder, Veiled Mysteries of Egypt, pp.232-5.

[5]  Moulana Fazlul Karim, Al Hadith, vol. i, p.222.

[6] The MWL Journal, Makkah, vol.27, no. 10, Jan. 2000, pp.36-38

[7] Thomas E. Skidmore, ‘Brazil, five centuries of change,’ Latin American Histories, pp. 17-18

[8] Faiza Rady ‘Turning a blind eye’, Al Ahram Weekly, 6-12 Sept, 2001, p.6

[9] Christopher Hudson, ‘Guilt, penance and the truth about Britain’s slave trade,’

   Daily Mail, Sept.2001, p.45  

[10] The MWL Journal, Makkah, vol.27, no. 10, Jan. 2000, p.39

[11]  Universal History of the World, p.2273.

[12]  Muhammad Qutb, Islam the Misunderstood Religion, p.48.

[13]  Ibid, p.63

[14]  Dr .Majid ‘Ali Khan, Muhammad, the Final Messenger, p.33.

[15]  The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. iii, p.513.

[16]  The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. iv, p.637.

[17]  Ibn Athir, Al Kamil fit Tarikh, vol. ii, p.303.

[18]  Al-Quran, Sura Nisaa: 36, 25.

[19]  The Macmillan Family Encyclopaedia, vol. xvii, p.357.

[20]  Ibid.

[21]  The Macmillan Family Encyclopaedia, vol. xvii, p.357.

[22]  The Macmillan Family Encyclopaedia, vol. xvii, p.357.

[23]  The Ananda Bazar Patrika, Calcutta, 29-06-1994, p.03.

[24]  The Macmillan Family Encyclopaedia, vol. xvii, p.357.

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