The Life & Character of the Seal of Prophets –
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Conduct of the Holy Prophetsa with Slaves and His Teachings on the Issue of Slavery
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Translated from the Urdu by Ayyaz Mahmood Khan
Issue of Slavery and the Holy Prophetsa
War possesses a fundamental relationship with the issue of slavery and Badr was the first formal war to have taken place between the disbelievers and Muslims. For this reason, in mentioning the battle of Badr, the question naturally arises as to what teaching the Holy Prophetsa gave with respect to the issue of slavery and what practice he employed in this regard. Hence, prior to moving forward it would not be inappropriate to write a brief note on the issue of slavery. However, this issue is extremely vast and very sensitive. Furthermore, in order to comment upon this issue one is compelled to take up many other discussions, for which there is not sufficient room here. Moreover, in my capacity as a historian, I cannot overly involve myself in such academic discussions. Therefore, on this occasion, I shall only cast a brief glance upon this issue from a fundamental perspective; and even in this regard, I shall confine myself only to such issues as relate directly to the teachings of the Holy Prophetsa and his practice.
First and foremost it should be understood that as elaborated upon in Encyclopaedia Britannica, slavery actually began in the world as a result of war. Initially, the manner in which people were forced into slavery was through the aftermath of war between two tribes, two nations, or two countries. As a matter of fact, quite often, many or all of the males belonging to the defeated nation would be executed; and the women and children (except for those who were considered worthy of death), would be taken captive and made slaves. Thereafter, these slaves would be subjected to various types of work and labour. After this, on the one hand, civilisation and commerce progressed in the world, and the demand for labourers and servants also began to grow. On the other hand, the practical experience of making women and children into slaves demonstrated that an excellent and easy method by which service and labour could be generated, was to enslave the people of a defeated nation. For this reason, gradually the practice, which then became prevalent, was that except for those people who for some reason were considered worthy of death, even the men of a defeated nation were made slaves as opposed to being killed. They would then be subjected to forced labour in various domestic, national and individual tasks. As such, history reveals that this practice gradually became so widespread that the number of slaves in certain countries even surpassed the actual population of the residents themselves; and the practice of slavery became an essential part of civilisation and society. These slaves were considered to be the full property of their master, and he possessed the right to keep them as he so willed, use them for whatever task he wished, give them any punishment he desired and sell them to another individual whenever and however he so pleased.
Ultimately, this system took on such a vast nature that even the offspring of these slaves were considered to be the property of their master, and in this manner a continuous and never-ending practice of slavery became prevalent. Furthermore, people eventually realised that this was a very profitable practice, whereby service could be derived from servants and labourers for absolutely nothing. It was not necessary to give them a wage, etc., and the slave was compelled to perform any service in all circumstances. As a matter of fact, aside from service, other benefits could be derived from them as well. Hence, aside from the practice of taking in prisoners of war, people invented many other cruel means by which to acquire slaves. For example, without any reason, people would attack a weaker tribe or raid a caravan and capture all of its men and women and make them slaves. Then, the blemish of slavery would continue to forever taint the progeny of these unfortunate people. Therefore, gradually, both just and unjust means of making slaves became customary and established throughout the world. At the time of the advent of Islam, this practice was more or less present in all countries. In the kingdoms of Byzantium, Greece and Iran, etc., hundreds of thousands of slaves were living a life of grief and misery. There was no one to tend to them and in their collective capacity, their state was no better than that of animals. In this era, even in the country of Arabia, there were thousands of slaves. Moreover, the possession of a certain number of slaves was considered to be a necessary part of the property of the affluent. The people of Arabia particularly considered slaves to be immensely contemptible and disgraceful, and would treat them as cruelly as they desired. As such, the severe cruelties inflicted upon such slaves who became Muslim by the chieftains of the Quraish, have been mentioned in Volume I of this book.
Upon receiving revelation from God, when the Holy Prophetsa made his claim to Prophethood, one commandment from among his early teachings was that slaves should be treated with compassion and kindness. Moreover, it was in this early era when the Holy Prophetsa began to encourage the freeing of slaves as well. As a matter of fact, in this regard a Qur’anic injunction was revealed, that the freeing of slaves was a very good deed.1 Along with the merit and attraction of the Islamic teaching itself, this particular injunction had a very deep effect on the slaves of Arabia. They began to perceive the voice of the Holy Prophetsa as being the voice of a Saviour. It is for this reason that despite the very ruthless cruelties inflicted upon the Muslim converts by the chieftains of Makkah, Islam began to rapidly spread among slaves. Therefore, as mentioned in Volume I of this book, the ratio of slaves among the early Muslims was extraordinarily high. Moreover, history establishes that even in the early era, these people were not considered lower than others in any way. Subsequently, as Islamic injunctions continued to be revealed, the position of slaves became more and more strong and their conditions continued to improve. Ultimately, except for a difference in administration, where one individual was an officer and the other was his subordinate, no discrimination remained. On the other hand, the liberation movement of slaves continued to gain strength day by day, and the Muslims participated in this scheme with a spirit of healthy competition according to the emphatic teaching of the Holy Prophetsa and his practical example. Hence, the Holy Qur’an, books of Ahadith, and history are replete with these accounts.
However, in this regard, the question is whether the work of the Holy Prophetsa remained limited merely to that which has been mentioned above, and did the Holy Prophetsa not undertake any practical steps to abrogate the unjust and cruel practice of slavery? Even if that was all, the Holy Prophetsa would still prove be a Grand Benefactor to the world, in that he offered significant services in improving the state of slaves, introduced a movement to free them and gave this movement a practical form. Yet, despite all this, the practical efforts of the Holy Prophetsa in this regard, which may be described as the true motivating spirit of this movement, remain hidden. As far as our research is concerned—and this research is not the result of bias, rather, it is based on historical account—the Holy Prophetsa not only improved the state of slaves, but also did away with the unjust and cruel practices of slavery for the future as well. In other words, the teaching brought by the Holy Prophetsa relevant to the issue of slavery was divided into two categories, as far as efforts of reform were concerned: firstly, an improvement in the state of existing slaves and steps in securing their freedom; secondly, the establishment of fundamental injunctions for the future. At this point, we shall present a brief overview on both these aspects in light of the teaching presented by the Holy Prophetsa and his practical example.
Teaching of the Holy Prophetsa Regarding the Betterment of Existing Slaves
Taking natural sequence into consideration, first we take up the discussion which relates to existing slaves. Hence, it should be known that the Holy Qur’an states:
Meaning, “O ye Muslims! Allah the Exalted commands you to show kindness and benevolence towards parents, and to kindred, and orphans and the needy…and towards your slaves and bond-women; And know that surely Allah loves not the proud and boastful.”2
In this verse it has been commanded that slaves should be treated kindly and benevolently.
Then He states:
Meaning, “O ye Muslims! Marry not idolatrous women until they believe; And know that a Muslim bond-woman is better than an idolatress, although she may appear better to you; And O ye Muslims! Give not believing women in marriage to idolaters, until they believe; And know that even a Muslim slave is better than an idolater, although he may appear better to you.”3
In this verse, aside from the fact that the position of slaves has been made significantly stronger, a door has been opened for marriages of free Muslim men and women with slaves and bond-women, so that this relationship of equality and affinity improves the state of slaves as quickly as possible. As such, among other wisdoms, according to this principle, the Holy Qur’an has also commanded that after the final and exceptional limit of four wives has been reached, if the question of marrying a female servant arises for a Muslim, this fixed limit of four would not be a hindrance in his path. Such a person would be permitted to marry the female servant in all circumstances4 so that the path to the improvement of the state of slaves is never obstructed. Then He states:
Meaning, “O Messenger! The women you have married until now (are sufficient for your endeavours in preaching, training and governance), hence, it is not permitted that you marry any other women. Albeit, if the question of marrying a female slave arises then permission is granted.”5
This injunction is also due to the fundamental purpose mentioned above. Furthermore, another reason was so that an excellent model could be established for the Muslims by the practical example of the Holy Prophetsa.
Then He states:
Meaning, “O ye Muslim women! Display not your beauty and embellishments except to your husbands and to such and such near relatives. In other words, observe the limitations of Pardah which have been enjoined upon you. Albeit, you are not required to observe Pardah6 from your slaves.”7
From this verse it becomes evident that the actual purport of this Islamic teaching relevant to slavery was to ensure that Muslims treated slaves exactly as their own near relatives. This was to the extent that Muslim women were not required to observe Pardah from their slaves, so that feelings of alienation were dispelled completely and such interaction was developed as in the case of relatives.
Then, it has been mentioned in a Hadith:
Meaning, “Abu Dharrra narrates that the Holy Prophetsa would state, ‘Your slaves are your brethren. Hence, if an individual has a slave under his control, then he should feed him what he eats himself and he should clothe him with what he wears himself. Do not burden your slaves with a task that is beyond their capacity and if you do, then assist them in this task yourselves.’”8
The words “assist them” also indicate that the task assigned should not be of a nature that if the master was required to do it himself, he would consider it degrading. Rather, the task should be of such as could be performed by the master as well and one he was prepared to perform himself. This Hadith is very clear in its meaning and it is categorical evidence of the fact that the teaching brought by the Holy Prophetsa has not only commanded that slaves be treated well, but also with the utmost kindness. Most definitely, the like of this cannot be found in any other religion or nation. Moreover, the true objective of this teaching was actually to ensure that Muslims fully considered their slaves as brothers. They were taught to keep slaves exactly as they lived themselves, so that their civilisation and society was elevated to exactly the same level as those who were free, and feelings of inferiority were dispelled from their hearts completely. Otherwise, such an in-depth teaching would not have been given, whereby it was instructed that slaves should be kept exactly as a person lived himself, merely for the purpose of treating them well. After all, there is such a thing as giving regard to status, and Islam accepts this as well.
Then it is narrated in a Hadith:
Meaning, “Abadah bin Walidra narrates that, ‘On one occasion we met a Companion of the Holy Prophetsa named Abul-Yusrra. At the time, one of his slaves also accompanied him and we noticed that he was clothed in a streaked cloth and Yemeni cloth. Similarly, his slave was also wearing a streaked cloth and Yemeni cloth. I said, “O Uncle! Why did you not take his streaked cloth and give him your Yemeni cloth, or take his Yemeni cloth and give him your streaked one, so that both of you could wear a matching pair of clothes?” Abul-Yusrra stroked my head, supplicated in my favour and said, “O nephew! My eyes have seen, my ears have heard and my heart has given place to the statement of the Holy Prophetsa that, ‘Feed your slaves what you eat and clothe them with what you wear yourselves.’ Hence, I prefer greatly to give my slave an equal share of the wealth of this world, as opposed to losing my spiritual reward on the day of resurrection.”’”9
This Hadith is even more emphatic in its wording than the previous Hadith. Furthermore, this also demonstrates that the Companions would act upon this exhortation of the Holy Prophetsa. As a matter of fact, they were so absorbed in the fulfilment of this admonition that they could not even accept there being discrimination in the standard of their own clothing and that of their slaves. Rather, even the slightest difference in apparent form was not left unnoticed. Then, it is narrated:
Meaning, “Abu Nawarra, who was a merchant of cotton cloth, narrates that on one occasion Hazrat ‘Alira came to his shop. At the time he was accompanied by one of his slaves. ‘Alira purchased two thin shirts and said to his slave, ‘Select the shirt you desire from among these two.’ Hence, the slave chose a shirt and Hazrat ‘Alira wore the one which was left behind.”10
This narration demonstrates that according to the instruction of the Holy Prophetsa, at times, selected Companions would act so cautiously, that the first opportunity to choose from things belonging to them was given to their slaves. Then, they would take whatever was left behind. This is the highest degree of generosity which an individual can show to someone else. Most definitely, such a level of generosity towards slaves cannot merely be for the purpose of treating them well. Rather, in this conduct, the very same far-reaching objective was in view, whereby these slaves should be made to attain the level of free people in terms of their morality and society, so that they became capable of manumission.
Then, it is narrated in a Hadith:
Meaning, “Abu Hurairahra narrates that the Holy Prophetsa would state, ‘O ye Muslims! You should not say, “My slave, my bond-woman.” Rather, you should say, “My lad, my lass.” A slave should also refrain from calling his owner “Rabb” i.e., my Lord; rather, he should address him by saying, “My master” or “My guardian.”’11
In this Hadith, the mindset of both master and slave has been set aright. In other words, on one hand, thoughts of pride and arrogance have been effaced from the heart and mind of the Master; and on the other hand, feelings of confidence and self-respect have been instilled in the heart of the slave. Moreover, coupled with the practical and societal reformation, which has been mentioned above, this mental reform was like gold further beautified by ornament. After this, there remained no hindrance in the complete transformation of circumstances and thoughts. Similarly, there are many other Ahadith and Athar12 as well, which prove that Islam has laid very emphatic stress upon the reformation, well-being, comfort and convenience of slaves. Moreover, in this teaching, the actual objective of Islam was to bring the civilisation, society, respect and dignity of slaves and their masters to an equal level, so that slaves could become capable of release as quickly as possible, and so that they could become beneficial and useful citizens of the country.
It should also be remembered that the rights of slaves, which have been presented above by way of example, were not mere recommendations. Rather, they were religious and legal orders. Furthermore, the rights of slaves were very strictly guarded by the Islamic State.
As such, it is narrated in a Hadith:
Meaning, “Abu Mas‘ud Badarira relates that, ‘On one occasion, due to some reason, I hit my slave. At that time, I heard the voice of a person from behind me saying, “Look here Abu Mas‘ud! What are you doing?” But in my anger, I could not recognise the voice, and continued beating my slave. During this time, the voice began to move closer. When I turned around, I found the Holy Prophetsa approaching me, repeating the same words, “Look here Abu Mas‘ud! What are you doing?” Upon seeing the Holy Prophetsa my staff fell from my hands. The Holy Prophetsa angrily looked towards me and said, “O Abu Mas‘ud! There is a God above you, Who possesses more power with respect to you than you possess over this slave.” I submitted, “O Messenger of Allah! I free this slave for the sake of God.” The Holy Prophetsa said, “If you had not done so, the fire of hell would have burned your face.”’”13
Meaning, “Ibni ‘Abbasra relates that once, a slave presented himself before the Holy Prophetsa and began to say, ‘O Messenger of Allah! My master married me to his bond-woman, but now he desires to annul our marriage and separate us from each other.’ Upon hearing this, the Holy Prophetsa took to the podium angrily and addressed the people saying, ‘O ye Muslims! What is the matter with you that first you marry your slaves to your bond-women and then you desire to separate them of your own accord? Listen well! This can never happen. It is the right of the husband to give a divorce but you cannot compel your slaves to do so.’”14
Then it is narrated in a Hadith:
Meaning, “Imam Malik relates that it was a practice of Hazrat ‘Umarra to go to the suburbs of Madinah every week. Whenever he would notice a slave being subjected to work that was beyond his capacity and ability, he would order the work to be lightened.”15
Continues in the next edition….
1. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Balad, Verse 14.
2. Holy Qur’an, Surah An-Nisa’, Verse 37.
3. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 222.
4. “And if you fear that you will not be fair in dealing with the orphans, then marry of women as may be agreeable to you, two, or three, or four; and if you fear you will not deal justly, then marry only one or what your right hand possess. That is the nearest way for you to avoid injustice.” Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nisa’, Verse 4.
5. The Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Ahzab, Verse 53.
6. Pardah is the Islamic injunction of veiling.
7. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nur, Verse 32.
8. Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitabul-‘Itq, Babu Qaulin-Nabiyyisa Al-‘Abidu Ikhwanukum, Hadith No. 2545.
9. Sahihul-Muslim, Kitabul-Zuhdi War-Raqa’iq, Babu Hadithi Jabiriṭ-Ṭawil, Hadith Nos. 7512-7513.
10. Usdul-Ghabah Fi Ma‘rifatis-Sahabah, by ‘Izzuddin Ibnul-Athir Abul-Hasan ‘Ali bin MuHammad, Volume 3, p. 599, ‘Aliyyubnu Abi Talib, Darul-Fikr, Beirut, Lebanon (2003)
11. Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitabul-‘Itq, Babu Kirahiyatit-Tatawuli ‘Alar-Raqiq, Hadith No. 2552.
12. Sayings of the Companions of the Holy Prophetsa.
13. Sahihul-Muslim, Kitabul-Iman, Babu Suhbatil-Mamalik, Hadith Nos. 4306, 4308.
14. Sunanu Ibni Majah, Kitabut-Talaq, Babu Talaqil-‘Abd, Hadith No. 2081.
15. Al-Muwatta, by Imam Malik bin Anas, Kitabul-Ist’idhan, Babul-Amri Bir-Rifqi Bil-Mamluki, Hadith No. 1837, Darul-Fikr, Beirut, Lebanon.