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7.8 Emancipation of “Slaves” I

 

Host:  What was the situation in regards to “Slaves” when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) came with the message?

 

Jamal Badawi:

One major characteristic was that slavery was wide spread in all parts of the world.  It may have taken different forms but some form of it did exist everywhere and in some cases it was not limited to a particular ethnic group or color.  Some people use the term Slave to refer to Slav which refers to people from Europe (for example form Yugoslavia or other European origin) who were enslaved during the medieval times.

 

The other major characteristic is that slavery had several sources.  Prisoners of war was one source of slavery.  There were also cases where people simply kidnapped people who were free and then they enslaved them.  Some cases which slaves were taken were raids, or failure to pay debt (one is taken as a slave in payment of the debt).  It is very difficult to generalize but during the 7th century (when Prophet Muhammad came) and for some time afterwards the nature of slavery seemed to be brutal and in many cases the person was stripped of their humanity.  Many legal systems including Roman Law allowed the master to do whatever he wished with the slave.  The salve was regarded as a commodity (thing) not a person.  Sometimes torturing or killing the slave was regarded as being perfectly legal because they were regarded as possessions.  Also, many people are familiar with the Roman sport where they let their slaves (carrying swords and lances) fight and kill each other for their personal entertainment.

 

In this kind of atmosphere the task before Islam was challenging and difficult.  It not only required physical emancipation but it also required the psychological and human emancipation.  It required changing people themselves, the psychology of both the salves and their enslavers in order to bring them back to the original concept of human equality and brotherhood.

 

Host:  Can you expand on the issue of psychological emancipation?

 

Jamal Badawi:

The corner stone of Islam is based on the removal of any servitude of one human to another and that all servitude is to God.  Islam literally means to achieve peace through submission to God (not to another human being).  This basic notion was reflected by many of the first Muslims when he went to the battle against the Persians and the ruler asked them “What brought you here?” and he said beautiful words which are widely quoted “We came to bring people from the worship of other human beings to the worship of the one who created all of them.”  This basic notion has been emphasized over and over in the Quran that, regardless of their state, human are all brothers (example in chapter 4 of the Quran that all mankind was created from a single soul so that there is not one type who is superior to the other).  We quoted (in the last 7 programs) the saying of Prophet Muhammad that we are all created from Adam and Adam was created from dust.  The Quran in chapter 30 indicated quite clearly that the differences between people’s languages or colors is not a basis of superiority but rather is a sign of God’s mosaic of creation.  The Prophet (PBUH) emphasized over and over again that all the notions of superiority (other than piety) during the Time of Ignorance is rejected.  In the collection of Hadith in Bukhari he says that there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or black over white or white over black except by virtue of piety.

 

In addition to this Islam made it preferable for a person to marry a slave believer (be it male or female) than to marry someone who is not a believer even though they are “free” or attractive as found in (2:221) of the Quran.  The Quran and in chapter (4 it almost urges Muslims to marry the good slave girls “Ye are one from another.”  The foundation is to establish the basic conception of the human as such and that all of these variations by way of superiority or inferiority mean nothing.

Host:  How should people in bondage be treated?  What basic rights are recognized?

 

Jamal Badawi:

The Quran and the sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) are full of examples of this.  For example in (4:36) which commands the believer to worship God and not to associate others with Him and it talks about kindness and compassion in the treatment of: parents, relatives, neighbors, wayfarers and what one’s right hand possess who are people in bondage.  The Quran indicates that the state of bondage is nothing but a transitory stage and something that should not be regarded as something inherent.  In one of the explanations by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) he was appealing to people to be kind and compassionate towards people in bondage, he said “These are you brothers and if was the Will of God the situation could have been reversed.”

 

A person under bondage is only in a transitory stage and are equated in their basic human rights with any other person.  A person under bondage, temporary as it may be, has the full right to believe whatever they believe and practice their faith.  This is emphasized in the Quran in (2:252) where it prohibits any compulsion in faith regardless of the people involved.  Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as narrated in Bukhari and Muslim (the most important collections of Prophetic sayings) indicated that a person in bondage should be treated as a brother not as a slave.  In one saying he said “Your slaves are your brothers; and whomever has a brother of his with him let him feed him of what he eats, clothe him of what he wears and let him not charge him with any labor that is beyond his power and if he does he must give him a hand.”  In terms of punishment we quoted in a previous program about a person who asked the Prophet how many times they should forgive a slave and the Prophet said seventy times a day!  The Prophet (PBUH) very strongly objected to the harsh treatment of people in bondage.

 

In matters of leadership the Prophet says in Bukhari he says “Listen and obey even if the ruler selected among you is an Ethiopian slave so long as he establishes the Book of Allah among you.”  The Prophet did not leave any aspect but worked on it.  In one of his sayings as narrated by Abu Hurira he says “Let no one of you say “my slave boy” or “my slave girl” but let him say fataiya or fatati.”  Fataiya or fatati can be translated as my son and my daughter or some translate it as my man and my maiden.  Till the last moment of his life, when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was on his death bed he said “Prayer, prayer and what your right hand possess.”  Which means I commend  you to be observant of two things: prayer and to be kind and compassionate to people who are still in bondage.

 

Host:  How did these teachings influence the attitude of Muslims at the time?

 

Jamal Badawi:

These teachings influenced them tremendously both in the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH) and after him.  Any aberration or deviation that might have taken place by some Muslims or people claiming to practice Islam has nothing to do with true Islam.  One of the most close companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Bilal was an Ethiopian slave and when he turned to Islam his master used to torture him severely (there are lots of stories about the torture that he endured).  Once Abu Bakr, one of the companions of the Prophet, passed by him while he was being tortured was appealing to Bilal’s master to have compassion on him.  The master refused and finally told Abu Bakr that if he wanted he could buy Bilal.  Abu Bakr used his own funds to buy Bilal and set him free.  Bilal turned out to be one of the most prominent figures in the history of Islam and he was the personal Muathin (call to prayer) of the Prophet.

 

On a different occasion Abu Bakr was seen wearing a simple garment while his slave was wearing better material and some people asked him how come his slave was wearing something better than himself.  He replied that he was old and his slave was a young man who liked to wear new things of fine material and should enjoy it.  Omar, second Caliph after the Prophet, said that if Salim (who was a slave) was living today I would have appointed him a regional ruler (and he meant it).  Abu Hurira, the famous narrator of Prophetic tradition, once saw a man on riding on his horse or camel and his slave was walking behind him.  Abu Hurira got angry and told the man to “Carry him behind you because he is your brother and his soul is just like your soul.”

 

Even in cases when the companion of the Prophet were off track like Abu Zar got into an argument with a black man and out of anger he said “You! Son of a black woman.” and the Prophet (PBUH) got very angry and his face turned red and said “Things have exceeded the limits.  Things have exceeded the limits.  There is no superiority of the son of a white woman over the son of a black woman.”  In another narration the Prophet was reported to have said to Abu Zar “You are a person with traces of ignorance of the days proceeding Islam.”  This effected the feelings of Abu Zar to the point that he put his cheek on the earth and begged the black man that he insulted to put his foot over his cheek.  Of course the black man was so noble that he did not do it.

 

Indeed it is a well known fact that all of the companions of the Prophet were engaged in tremendous activities of emancipating slaves and ones who were rich (like Abu Bakr) did spend logs of money from their own wealth to buy slaves and set them free.  Many of the sons of these slaves came to occupy very prominent positions in Islamic history.  An example is Osama Ibn Zaid, the son of a slave, was appointed commander of an army that had many of the noble Kurishites under his command.  Among the scholars and jurists of Islam there were people like Atta’a Ibn Rabah, a black man, who was regarded as a prominent jurists, Imam or religious leader in Mecca (the Holiest shrine in Islam).  Other very famous companions other than Bilal include Almuktad Ibnul Aswad who were very prominent and accepted without any issues.  All the credit goes to Islam as we know that the background of Arabs was no better than any other place where races and superiority of ethnic background was quite prominent.

 

Host:  Did Islam provide any legal provisions to emancipate those who were under bondage?

 

Jamal Badawi:

First of all, their rights are protected not just out of goodness but legally.  One of the sayings of the Prophet found in five collections of Hadith; Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmithi, Nasa’ai and Abu Dawood where the Prophet says “Whoever kills a slave, we will kill him.  Whoever mutilates the nose of a slave we will mutilate his nose.  Whoever sterilizes a slave we will sterilize him.”  This puts them from a legal sense at the same level as any other person.

 

Islam greatly encourages the emancipation of slaves.  In (90:13) of the Quran one of the main things that can save someone from being thrown into the Hell fire is to free a slave.  In the saying of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as narrated in Al Nassai and Abu Dawood he mentioned a number of things that would help in saving a person in the Hereafter which included feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and then he added emancipate those who are in bondage.

 

Islam legalized emancipation in some circumstances which would help a person atone for certain sins.  For example in (5:92) one of the punishments in the case of involuntary man slaughter that the person would be subjected too.  In other cases that have to do with family this also can apply: for example if a man swears not to sleep with his wife and he wants to go back on it then he has to free a slave.  Some jurists say that a person who deliberately breaks his fast, for even one day during the month of Ramadan, the atonement would be to free a slave.  These sins are constantly being committed because we are only human and thus there are always slaves being emancipated.

 

Another thing that the Prophet indicated is that if a person jokingly says to his slave that he is free then he automatically becomes free.  If a person severely beats or slaps his slave on the face, the only atonement for it is to set him free as narrated in Muslim.  If two people have claim on a person in bondage and one of them frees him then he is automatically free.  It is quite obvious that Islam teaching on the spiritual, moral and legal level were all geared towards gradually getting rid of slavery.

 

Host:  Why didn’t Islam just make slavery illegal from the beginning and thereby it would have brought about faster change?

 

Jamal Badawi:

In order to bring about change to something that is deeply rooted like slavery one has to look at the methodology of change and how to stop the sources of slavery and then one can consider additional positive steps to free those who are in bondage.  The main problem here is that slavery was a deep rooted social, political and  economic institution and it is very difficult to rid a society from it by just issuing an order.  We know what happened in the US when it was ordered without first freeing people spiritually, morally and psychologically.

 

Secondly, Islam dried all the resources of slavery.  The Prophet (PBUH) considered it a big sin to try to take anyone is free and enslave them.  For example one can not enslave someone because they are in debt but rather they have to help him.  The only source that remains at least for a temporary basis is in the case of war captives or prisoners of war until such times as arrangements can be made with the enemy.  Otherwise all other sources were totally forbidden.

 

Third, the door was opened by way of atonement, encouragement and charitable activity to free whomever remained a slave.  It required more time to move in a smooth and sure way rather than creating commotion that would not lead to any benefit.

 

Host:  The final prohibition of intoxicants took place during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad why didn’t the final prohibition of slavery also take place during his lifetime?

 

Jamal Badawi:

Intoxication is a personal habit and within the ten years of the establishment of the Islamic state in Medina it was enough time to detoxify society.  Slavery, however, was so deeply rooted that it required more than ten years.  As I indicated before once one dries the sources and opens the door all it takes is one or two generations to totally rid society from this.  If the true spirit of detoxification from slavery was followed then slavery would have completely disappeared in no more than one or two generations.  The fact that some people violated this whether they were Muslim or non-Muslims has nothing to do with the spirit of Islam as the path was clearly established.

 

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