The Concept of Slavery and Concubinage in Islam

With the recent instances of ISIS holding women and children of the Yazidi community as sex slaves and advertising about their virginity and beauty, I found myself bereft of speech. This was the only question to which I did not have any answer whenever I got into a debate with an atheist or a non-believer. Seeking accurate and relevant information seemed to be the only solution as this is one of the controversies that are brought up to vilify the peaceful religion of Islam. Dr Khalid Zaheer, an Islamic scholar who is currently a Fellow of Al-Mawrid and member of adjunct faculty at University of Central Punjab (UCP) Pakistan and Information Technology University (ITU), gave rational answers to all my concerns and helped me out in developing the right approach for studying the Holy Qur’an.

The tradition and custom of slavery has been recognised and accepted by both the Old and New Testament. Therefore, it is attested from the earliest written records of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and others. The Testaments frequently insist on the need to treat the slaves with humanity by repeatedly reminding the Jews that they too were slaves in Egypt. A verse in the Book of Job is often cited as an argument against slavery: “Did not He that made me in the womb make him [the slave]? And did not One fashion us both?” (Job 31:15). Even then, time distorted and blurred the meanings behind these commandments and made the masters forgetful of the rights of their slaves.

Slavery was an economic institution of the Arabs in pre-Islamic era. Male and female slaves, and even children, were sold and bought in markets like animals, and they undoubtedly formed the most depressed class of the Arabian society. There existed native Arab slaves but, as it seems, the earliest salves were captives taken in warfare and those brought in by Arab caravans, and these were the ones generally sold among the nomad tribes. A large contribution to the increase in slave population resulted by kidnapping and sale of small children, child abandonment, and as a consequence of committing certain crimes. This deep-rooted practice categorised the slaves into the purchased and those born in the master’s home. Masters enjoyed complete ownership of the slaves born in their homes and often forced female slaves into prostitution for their personal and economic benefits. The historical accounts narrate the tales of brutal punishments that were inflicted upon the slaves by their masters, the worst being put to death.

We all agree that the then prevalent customs and state of affairs had to be changed. We are also aware of the two modes to bring about a change – evolution and revolution. From this point starts the unceasing wide debate as to which one is a better option. The two words closely resemble one another but are used antagonistically. Evolution is synonymous with gradual and continuous development in ideas and is thought of as an appropriate mode if it is the existing entity, system or process that needs to be changed. Revolution, however, is considered to be the antithesis of evolution and refers to changes somewhat sudden in their action that entail some type of catastrophe. 

Replacing or displacing the aforementioned through pervasive transformation mostly results in disruption of the equilibrium of life, no matter how rotten and ugly. Evolution can be conveniently thought of as incorporating new customs and dropping the old ones simultaneously but gradually, while revolution may then be pictured as completely cutting off the roots and accepting the advancements suddenly and at once which definitely reduces the chances of the change’s survival.

If the above-mentioned concepts are applied to the problems of slavery and concubinage then the approach with which Islam dealt with these issues seems to be evolution. In order to determine why revolution would have been a better approach, we must first see why revolution was never a good idea.

There came the revolution. Slavery banned… Markets of slaves sealed… Warfare captives not to be sold anymore…All slaves set free. So what was next? I agree that slaves were deprived of their fundamental right to be considered humans, but their existence was what their masters needed, and for that they were fed, clothed and sheltered, let it be of the poorest quality. But after the sudden and abrupt change, from that moment on, every slave-turned-free person would be on his or her own. Slave men would have to helplessly beg to feed their mouths, while slave women would even have to resort to prostitution to earn bread. We know that the food and clothes they were given by their masters were not equal to what they chose for themselves, but at least there was something they called food and clothes. With the overnight change called revolution, they would have become below-nothing from just-nothing.

Some people would still argue that at least then they would be begging and prostituting for their economic benefit and not that of their masters. Let us be honest for just a moment. Keeping in view the arrogance and pride of the Arabs, had any single person given them alms or chosen any ex-slave girl to sleep with him? I think we all have our answers now. Some would still ponder and suggest the possibility of the society ‘eventually’ giving the newly free men and women their rights. My counter-argument is based on the fact that if time is the sole healer in this case, too, then why first make the slaves go through agonising torments and then give them recognition? Why do they have to first suffer at the hands of other people and then gain enough respect to be counted as equal humans? Such examples of abolition have been witnessed in South Africa and the United States of America, both resulting in large economic repercussions and the latter additionally kindling a civil war in 1860s.

So, what are we left with?


 Let us examine how evolution actually benefitted the slaves of that time. While the change was in the course of being fully implemented, the old ways were allowed. Furthermore, the prevalent practices were reformed in order to make the lives of slaves less vulnerable. The use of the phrase “Ma Malakat Aymanukum (that which your right hands own)” (4:3, 4:24, 4:25, 16:71, 23:5-6, 24:33, 24:58, 33:50) in the Holy Qur’an instead of ‘abd (slave)’ elevated their status, but the implications it had under Islamic law made them even more equal to their masters. Prisoner of wars were being enslaved, but Qur’an also prescribed the believers to free those in the shackles of slavery as a way of expiation from sins such killing by mistake (2:177) or breaking the oaths (5:89). Later, it was ordained to set free a slave if he asked for his freedom and also to help him in rehabilitation (24:33). Finally, the Qur’an abolished slavery by revealing the following ayah:

“So when you meet in the battle those who disbelieve [in battle], then strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon overcome them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favour afterwards or let them ransom [themselves] until the war terminates…” (47:4).

Therefore, there are only two options: either set them free as a favour or let them pay themselves off (Muktaba or manumission). While the verse 24:33 makes it binding to free the existing slaves if they demand freedom, 47:4 disallows making new. This leaves no gates open for enslavement. In fact, Zakah expenditures have been stated as a way of freeing captives in Ayah 60 of Surah 9 in the Holy Qur’an so as to emancipate the existing ones.

Since this puts an end to men and women being slaves, the only question left is about having physical relationships with slave girls at that time. Why was it such a necessity? Because it was a norm of that society at that specific time, but was being practised in its crudest form: slave girls were be raped and exchanged among the masters with their children getting no inheritance from their fathers. Islam only improved the situation by putting limitations on forced sex, mentioning their existence right next to the status of wives (4:3, 23:6, 70:30), and giving her the title of “umm al-walad (mother of the child)” after which she is freed (Muwatta Malik, Book 40, Hadith 8), and declaring children borne from them legit having a prescribed share in inheritance. The following Hadith further elevated status of slave girls:

“Narrated by Abu Musa: Allah’s Apostle said, “He who has a salve-girl and educates and treats her nicely and then manumits and marries her, will get a double reward.”” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 46, Number 720).

Despite all this what really needs to be understood today, in Dr Khalid Zaheer’s words, is: “Every word of the Qur’an is God’s message for all times to come, but every injunction of the Qur’an is not applicable for all times. There are mentions in the Qur’an that were clearly applicable for the Prophet’s (PBUH) time alone, like for example the guidance that the Prophet’s (PBUH) wives cannot get married to anyone after his death is a stipulation that is not applicable to our times. Similar is the case with many of the mentions in the Qur’an on slavery. An objective reading of the Qur’an itself clarifies which injunctions of it are time-barred and which of them are eternal.”

So, how do we know that this injunction is not applicable anymore? First, enslavement of men and women has been banned by the revelation of Ayah 4 of Surah 47 in the Holy Qur’an (as mentioned before). Second, all Muslims are bound to fulfil all their contracts by Ayah 1 of Surah 5, and as all Muslim countries have signed the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, we would have to send them back to their homelands.

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