Islamic Concepts and Beliefs

Islam and the Abolishment of Slavery

First ever serialisation of the newly translated Volume II of Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad’sra outstanding biography, Seerat Khatamun Nabiyyin, on the life and character of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa.

Translated from the Urdu by Ayyaz Mahmood Khan

Is it Permissible for Prisoners to be executed?

The question as to whether it is permissible to kill prisoners or not has been briefly answered above; Islam does not permit this. However, since various Muslim scholars have disagreed upon this issue and Christian historians have also made it a target of objection, it is necessary to write about this in some detail. Hence, first and foremost it should be known that from the verse of Surah Muhammadsa, which has been quoted above[1], it becomes very clearly evident that it is unlawful to kill prisoners of war. After a Qur’anic verdict, no individual possesses the right to propose another method. However, for the additional satisfaction of readers, we wish to mention that the translation we have rendered of this Qur’anic verse is not an invention of the current time. Rather, the Companions interpreted it in the same manner and their actions were according to this. As such, there is a narration in the Ahadith as follows:2015-March-Arabic_Inserts_pdf

Meaning, “Hasan relates that on one occasion a prisoner was presented before Hajjaj, and Hazrat ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umarra was also present. Hajjaj addressed Ibni ‘Umarra saying, ‘Stand up and take off his head.’ Ibni ‘Umarra responded, ‘We have not been ordered to do so. Allah the Exalted states, ‘When prisoners are taken in war, they should either be released as an act of benevolence or released on ransom. There is no commandment to kill them.’”[2]

Similarly, it is related by Hasan Basri and ‘Ata’ bin Abi Rabah:
2015-March-Arabic_Inserts_pdfMeaning, “A prisoner is not to be killed, rather, the commandment is that either he should be released as an act of benevolence or on ransom.”[3]

The clear verse of the Holy Qur’an which has been quoted above, coupled with this clear elaboration leaves no room for doubt or uncertainty that the issue of the legalisation of killing prisoners is absolutely incorrect and without foundation. Islam does not at all permit that a prisoner of war be killed. At this instance, if the question arises as to why certain Muslim scholars have fallen into error as regards to this matter, then the answer is that this misunderstanding has arisen due to the fact that allegedly, certain examples can be found in history where the Holy Prophetsa killed various prisoners of war. However, the people who have drawn conclusions from these examples have not paused to contemplate that those prisoners of war who were ordered to death by the Holy Prophetsa were not killed in their capacity as prisoners of war. Rather, the reason for their execution was because they were liable to be put to death on account of various other crimes. It is obvious that if a prisoner is guilty of a crime for which the punishment is death, his being taken captive cannot save him from this punishment. If a free individual may be executed in punishment of a crime, then why not a prisoner? Hence, as shall be proven at its appropriate place, every such prisoner who was ordered to death by the Holy Prophetsa, was not put to death on the basis that he was a warrior belonging to an enemy tribe or because he was an individual from a combatant nation. Rather, he was executed because he had become guilty of such a crime for which the punishment was death. However, upon witnessing the apparent state whereby certain prisoners were executed, various scholars have drawn the conclusion that it is permissible to execute a prisoner as well. However, such a concept is categorically incorrect and baseless in light of both the Islamic teaching as well as the practice of the Holy Prophetsa.

This is an outline of the teaching, which has been given by Islam with respect to prisoners of war. Every sensible individual can appreciate that this is a very just law granted to the world by God through the Holy Prophetsa. Even those nations, which are referred to as advanced and civilised in this day and age, have not been able to give the world a better law; whereby, on the one hand, if war lingers on unnecessarily, international injustice has been suppressed, and on the other hand, an aspect of benevolence and kindness has also been maintained in the best possible manner. As a matter of fact, if one contemplates, this law has given more importance to treating the enemy with compassion and benevolence, even more so than employing measures of self-defence. Indeed, to this day, there has been no nation which has ordered just and benevolent treatment towards such enemies who were thirsty for their blood and who sought to destroy them.

Specific Issue Relating to Bond-Women

Now, we close our discussion relevant to slavery by alluding briefly to the issue of bond-women or female-slaves. An allegation has been raised, that by granting unrestricted permission to maintain intimate relations with bond-women, the Holy Prophetsa has God-forbid, opened the door of lust for his followers. In this respect, firstly, we wish to state in principle, the fundamental purpose in allowing intimate relations between man and woman in Islam. In order to judge the deeds of the Holy Prophetsa and his Companions and in order to discern the intentions, which were hidden behind them, the most accurate method is to study the fundamental purpose for which such actions were carried out and permitted by the Holy Prophetsa and his Companions in accordance with the injunctions of the religion itself. In the Holy Qur’an we see that among the purposes of marriage, the purpose mentioned for intimate relations between man and woman by Allah the Exalted is as follows:

2015-March-Arabic_Inserts_pdfMeaning, “O ye Muslims! With the exception of such and such close female relatives, all other women are lawful and allowed to you, that you fix for them their dowries and marry them. Rather, your purpose for marriage should be to protect yourselves from vices and illnesses, and it should not at all be for the purpose of gratifying lust.”[4]

This teaching had such a deep influence on the dispositions of the Companions that in the likeness of a person who is influenced by something and submits to its very core, the honourable Companions would present themselves before the Holy Prophetsa and request permission to abstain from women all together. However, the Holy Prophetsa who possessed a balanced nature and desired to save his followers from ways of extremity and keep them grounded upon a position of moderation, prohibited them from following such a course. Therefore, it is mentioned in a Hadith:

2015-March-Arabic_Inserts_pdfMeaning, “Sa‘d bin Abi Waqqasra relates that ‘Uthman bin Maz‘unra sought permission of Holy Prophetsa to allow him to abstain from women all together, but the Holy Prophetsa did not grant permission. For if the Holy Prophetsa had granted permission, we were prepared to become as eunuchs.”[5]

In these circumstances, lust, etc., is completely out of the question and ill-thinking of this nature can only be harboured by such a person who is either completely oblivious of Islamic teaching and Islamic history, or he has himself become so entangled in this filth that he can see no other intention except for an indecent one, in the actions of others as well. However, the question as to what the Islamic teaching is regarding bond-women requires an answer. Hence, in this regard, first and foremost it should be known that in the general injunctions relevant to slavery, no differentiation has been made between the issue of a slave or a bond-woman. In other words, those rights which slaves are entitled to are also enjoyed by bond-women as well. Albeit, there is this much difference, that Islam has more emphatically encouraged that bond-women be given a good education and morally trained, freed and taken into a tie of matrimony.[6] Moreover, until bond-women remain in a state of slavery, it has been appreciated that free people settle relationships of marriage with them, so that this family union may result in a most speedy reformation in the civilisation and society of slaves. It is for this very fundamental purpose that the issue of bond-women has been excluded from the extreme limit of polygamy.[7] This is so that the greatest possible opportunities become available for the reformation of the civilisation and society of slaves and bond-women, and so that they become capable of manumission as quickly as possible. In this regard, various Qur’anic verses have been recorded in the exposition above, and as such, there is no need for reiteration here.

Now remains the question as to whether a formal announcement of marriage is required for bond-women or not. This is dependent on varying circumstances. Firstly, when there is a question of marriage between a bond-woman and a slave. Secondly, when there is a question of marriage between a bond-woman and a free man, who is not her owner and master. Thirdly, when there is a question of marriage between a slave and a free woman. Fourthly, when there is a question of marriage between a bond-woman and her master and owner. Among these four probable cases, it is universally accepted that for the first three cases, an official announcement of marriage is required, and without it a relationship of marriage cannot be established. However, in the fourth case, in the matter of relations between a master and bond-woman, most scholars do not deem an official announcement of marriage to be necessary. The summary of their argument is that since a master possesses a right of ownership over his bond-woman; therefore, in legal terms this should be considered as representing a right to marriage, and no separate and official announcement of marriage is required. The reason being that the safeguarding of morals, society and genealogy, which are taken into account at the official announcement of marriage, are equally attained by this relationship which is created as a result of a right of ownership as well.  2015-March-Arabic_Inserts_pdf [8]

A Question of Female Prisoners

At this instance it is also necessary to mention that Islam has instituted a special system for those women who participate in war against the Muslims on behalf of the disbelievers, and are taken captive as prisoners. Muslims may establish a bond of marriage with such female prisoners whose husbands do not arrive quickly to have them released on ransom, or who do not demand their own release as per the method of Mukatabat. The fundamental purpose for this as stated by Islam, is to prevent the moral deterioration of these female slaves and the people who hold them captive; and so that immorality and promiscuity does not spread. History shows that generally, whenever a nation has been faced with a large-scale war, usually, the ills of adultery and fornication have become widespread. The reason being that: firstly, the ratio of women generally increases after war; secondly, due to the hardships of war, the nerves of men are affected in such a manner that their faculties of self-control generally fall weaker. Hence, since Islam gives more precedence to the safeguarding of individual and national morality above all other civil and societal issues, it was necessary to institute special precautionary injunctions for circumstances of this nature. As such, on the one hand exceptional permission for polygamy has been granted. On the other hand, Muslims have been permitted as an exception, to maintain intimate relations with those women who are taken captive in such wars wherein a nation has waged an attack against the Muslims in order to destroy their religion; if their husbands are not taken captive along with them; or if they do not arrive quickly to have them released; or if these female prisoners do not demand freedom according to the method of Mukatabat themselves. This is in order to ensure that the morals of these female prisoners are not corrupted, and also to prevent the spread of fornication within the Muslim society on their account. Additionally, in order to prevent a mix-up or confusion in lineage, a condition has been stipulated which states that this relationship should only take place with these female prisoners after the assurance that they are not already pregnant.[9] Perhaps this system may appear strange to a lover of modern civilisation and culture. However, if the circumstances are kept in mind, for which this system was proposed, at least, those people who know how to sacrifice other ideals for the thought of safeguarding individual and national morality, can appreciate that this was a very wise system according to the circumstances in which it was instituted. As such, in these exceptional circumstances it was considered necessary for the true interests of mankind. In addition to this, it should also be remembered that when the door of Mukatabat is open to every female prisoner, it shall be assumed with regards to such a woman who does not benefit from this, that she desires to sever her past relations and become a part of the Islamic society. Hence, in this case it cannot be objectionable for a relationship to be established between her and a Muslim man.

The question may arise as to why women were captured during wars in the first place, so that dangers of this nature would arise. The answer to this is that in that era, it was a general practice in Arabia for women to frequently participate in war. At times, they would even physically participate as well. The task of rousing the spirits of the warriors was primarily entrusted to women. Hence, in these circumstances, there was no reason why they should not have been taken captive. If a woman may be imprisoned in criminal cases and this practically occurs in every country and nation, why then should a combatant woman not be taken captive in the field of battle? In addition to this, during that era, the disbelieving people would take Muslim women as captives; as a matter of fact, they would even keep them as bond-woman. Moreover, in these early wars, a general ultimatum given by these wicked souls was that they would take the Muslim women as captives, make them bond-women, and would have intimate relations with them as if they were slaves.[10] For this reason, the God of Islam, Who is forbearing on the one hand, but possesses great indignation on the other, permitted the Muslims that if needed, they may treat the disbelievers in a similar manner, if not exactly the same, in order to bring them to their senses and so that they do not grow bolder and more daring in their persecution. Those who are aware of the requirements of war can understand that every so often it becomes necessary to employ a retributive strategy, and this is why the law of warfare is always different from civil law. Hence, this was a necessity of unavoidable circumstances, without which there was no other option.

When a state of affairs came about that women were taken captive, and the disbelieving people would consider it lawful to treat the Muslim women in any way desirable, it was also necessary to institute a special law so that the inevitable and dangerous results of this conduct could be prevented. Albeit, in the current era, the disbelieving people do not treat the Muslims in this manner, and even if women are imprisoned, they are kept as state prisoners. Therefore, according to the fundamental Qur’anic injunction mentioned above, in this era it would be unlawful for Muslims to take disbelieving women as captives without any real necessity or to give them into the custody of individual Muslims after their being taken captive, and thus practice a form of enslavement.[11]

At this instance, the doubt may arise in someone’s heart that in certain circumstances the verdict of the Islamic Shari‘at is one thing, and in others, it is something else. The answer is that such a practice is not a deficiency, rather, if one contemplates, it is this very point that is evidence of the complete and universal nature of the Islamic Shari‘at. For this proves that varying circumstances have been fully taken into account by the Islamic Shari‘at. On the one hand, certain injunctions, which are fundamental in principle, have been kept in a firm and unchangeable nature, where there is no room for alteration. On the other hand, there are many such injunctions as well where the form of the commandment is flexible along with a change in circumstances; or in accordance with varying circumstances there is room for modern, but lawful interpretations of the law. As such, the Holy Qur’an states itself:

2015-March-Arabic_Inserts_pdfMeaning, “God has revealed the Holy Qur’an in a form where certain verses are decisive in meaning, i.e., which are fundamental principles that are applied in all circumstances in the same manner – and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations, i.e., they possess such flexibility as can take on different forms which are similar to one another in varying circumstances.”[12]


In summary, the Islamic teaching on slavery is divided into two parts. Firstly, that teaching which relates to such people, who for some reason or other had drawn into a cruel circle of slavery and their morals and habits were generally very inferior and ignoble; the very quality which makes a person capable of living a free life in the world were absent in them. With regards to such people, Islam proposed that first their morals and values be set aright, and as they continue to be reformed, so too they continue to be released. Furthermore, it proposed such a system be set in place that after their manumission, the freedom of such people proves to be a freedom in the true sense of the word, and not merely an orthodox and superficial freedom. Moreover, the task of supervising this system was included among the obligations of the Islamic State, so that people did not act lazily or negligently in any way. Secondly, the fundamental teaching given by Islam relevant to the issue of taking in slaves, and in light of which all forms of cruel slavery were categorically abolished. Then remains the issue of prisoners of war. As regards to this issue, undoubtedly, in various circumstances permission to take slaves has been granted as a method of retribution. However, if one contemplates the details of this, it becomes clearly evident that this is not slavery of the type generally known in the non-Muslim world. Rather, this is actually a form of imprisonment, and even this retaliatory and pseudo-slavery which has been permitted, is impermissible and unlawful in the current era. The reason being that now a system of state prisons has been established, and non-Muslims do not enslave the Muslims, rather, they are kept as state prisoners. Hence, it is also impermissible for Muslims as well to distribute disbelieving prisoners into the individual custody of Muslims, and create a form of slavery. As far as the issue of the treatment of slaves and prisoners of war is concerned, Islam has given such a just and benevolent teaching, that the like of it cannot be presented by any nation in any era.2015-March-Arabic_Inserts_pdf




1. Holy Qur’an, Surah Muhammad, Verse 5.

2. Qadi Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub bin Ibrahim, Kitabul-Kharaj, (Baulaq, 1302 A.H.), 212.

3. Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hajar Al-‘Asqalani, Fathul-Bari Sharhu Sahihil-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Kitabul-Jihad Was-Siyar, Babu Fa-Imma Mannan Ba‘du Wa Imma Fida’an….., Qadimi Kutub Khanah, Aram Bagh (Karachi), 187.

4. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nisa’, Verse 25.

5. Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitabun-Nikah, Babu Ma Yukrahu Minat-Tabattuli Wal-Khisa’i, Hadith No. 5073.

6. Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitabun-Nikah, Babuttikhadhis-Sarariyyi Wa Man A‘ataqa Jariyatan Thumma Tazawwajaha, Hadith No. 5083.

7. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nisa’, Verse 4.

8. And Allah knows best. [Publishers]

9. Sunanut-Tirmidhi, Kitabus-Siyar, Babu Ma Ja’a Fi Karahiyati Wat’il-Hubala Minas-Sabaya, Hadith No. 1564.

10. Sunanu Abi Dawud, Kitabul-Kharaji Wal-Imarati Wal-Fai’i, Babu Fi Khabarin-Nadir, Hadith No. 3004.

11. Chashmah-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, Vol. 23, p. 253 (Footnote), Edition 1.

12. Holy Qur’an, Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, Verse 8.. .

13. O Allah! Bless Muhammadsa and the Companions of Muhammadsa, and grant peace and prosperity. [Publishers]