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Measures to End the Institution
It should be remembered that the basic source of unnatural and iniquitous treatment—which existed since time immemorial and which Islam brought to an end—was the institution of slavery. It may not be possible for people today to appreciate the intimate link between slavery and the rise of global commerce and economy; indeed, this is the reason that Islam put a stop to the practice of slavery.
Role Played by Slave Labour in World Economy
Before the inception of Islam, in fact, even after its rise, the institution of slavery prevailed over a large part of the world. On examining the history of ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and Persia, we find that slave labour was used as the instrument of economic progress in all of these countries.
Slavery was made possible basically through two channels. One way was when countries at war with neighbouring states captured the citizens of their opponents and turned them into slaves. For example, when the opportunity arose, the Romans would capture the Persians as slaves, or the other way around. Thus, each side would enslave people of the other side, expecting thereby to deal a blow to the opponent’s political power. The second way to enslave people was to capture women and children from the backward parts of the world. While the first means of enslaving people was adopted at opportune occasions, the second method became a sustained practice over time.
In fact, that approach to slavery continued well into the 18th century when hordes of West Africans were brought over into the United States. Although slavery no longer exists in that country, some 20–30 million Americans are descendants of people who were brought as slaves.
The main motivation behind slavery in advanced countries was to further their economic might through cheap slave labour. The slaves were exploited in different ways. They were assigned to work in factories, or ships, or any other work involving heavy manual tasks required for economic development. Similarly, slave labour was used on plantations in order to minimise production costs and to maximise profit.
Prohibition of Unjust Forms of Slavery
In both of the above-mentioned forms, slavery denied equality in treatment to a cross-section of mankind. Islam categorically prohibited both channels of enslaving people. The Holy Qur’an says: 
Meaning that: It was not lawful for any Prophet before you, nor is it for you, to take prisoners without engaging in a war. If there is a war—and that too, religious—prisoners can be captured in the battlefield.
The condition laid down in this verse does not permit anyone to imprison the civilian population of any country where war has not been declared. Nor does it permit enslaving any citizen of the opponent who has not been part of the attacking force. The imprisonment of those who actively engage in combat is allowed because they would otherwise go back to join forces in attack.
Then Allah says in these verses that:
“You desire the frail goods of this world” meaning: O Muslims, do you desire to behave like other nations and enslave their people to augment your power nay, Allah does not want you to follow other nations. He wants to guide you to the course that is better for you in the end and entitles you to win Allah’s pleasure. God reminds Muslims that nearness to God is better than any worldly gain. And God decrees that it is better for you that you do not take any prisoners except when war is imposed on you.
This rule was strictly enforced in the early days of Islam. During the reign of Hazrat Umarra, a deputation from Yemen came and complained that before the advent of Islam, they had been made into slaves without any cause by a neighbouring Christian tribe. Hazrat Umarra replied that though the event took place before the Muslims were in power, he would look into the case and have them set free if their complaint was borne out by facts. In contrast to this enlightened Islamic stand, the Europeans continued to use slavery for advancing their trade and agriculture until the 19th Century.
There is no doubt that some instances of the un-Islamic custom of slavery can be found in Islamic history, but slavery was never practised to promote domestic industry or trade.
Exhortations for Freeing Prisoners of War
With respect specifically to prisoners of war, Islam decrees:
That is: Then afterwards either release them as a favour or by taking ransom.
No third option is given. The captor can either release prisoners of war out of compassion and rest assured that God is pleased with his action or if financial hardship does not allow the captors to set prisoners of war free without recompense, then it is permissible to charge the customary ransom for release. However, what happens if neither the prisoner nor his country or family have the resources to pay ransom? Islam then allows the prisoner to pay his ransom in regular instalments and thereby earn his freedom. Allah the Almighty says:
That is, If you have a prisoner whom you cannot release as a favour, and his relatives cannot pay the ransom, then if such a prisoner desires a deed of manumission in writing, write it for them if you know any good in them; and give them out of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you.
In situations where the slave is unable to pay the ransom, this verse enjoins that a bond be executed between a master and his slave, which binds the latter to pay the ransom in agreed instalments. After this bond has been executed, the slave is immediately restored to freedom, and he is free to take up any trade he may have an aptitude for. As a beautiful, crowning gesture of goodwill, the master, out of his own assets, is directed to provide the prisoner with some capital to start him on the new venture. Out of these earnings, the master is not entitled to anything beyond the agreed fixed instalment.
When one considers the Islamic teachings regarding slavery, it becomes clear that Islam leaves absolutely no avenue open for any person to make another person a slave. Even when prisoners of war are taken, the captors are encouraged to set them free as a favour or else they must be set free on payment of a reasonable ransom. If there is a prisoner who cannot ransom himself and his friends or his government take no steps towards paying his ransom, he can gain freedom by giving an undertaking that would enable him to pay his ransom in instalments out of his earnings. Destitute prisoners are even helped with some capital to enable them to earn their livelihood and gain freedom. If in the presence of such extraordinary concessions, a prisoner does not avail himself of the opportunities offered, it can only mean that he finds his ‘bondage’ among Muslims more agreeable than free life among his own people.
Careful consideration of these injunctions makes it obvious that Islam leaves no room for anyone to enslave another free person. The first commandment is to free the slaves as a favour, without any ransom. If that is not possible, Islam enjoins freeing the prisoners with an appropriate ransom. If a prisoner cannot arrange for the ransom from his own resources, or from his relatives, he can execute a bond and would, for all practical purposes, be totally free owing nothing more than the agreed instalment.
The slave who stabbed and martyred Hazrat Umarra was himself set free according to the ransom guidelines given above. One day, the slave approached the Muslim who he lived with, and proposed payment of a fixed instalment of ransom out of his income in exchange for his freedom. A contract was signed that mandated the slave to earn his freedom by paying the agreed instalments. However, one day he complained to the Khalifah that his instalment was too heavy and that it should be reduced. On investigation, Hazrat Umarra found that the man’s income was many times greater than the agreed instalment. His application was therefore rejected, which made him furious. He thought that justice had been denied to him on racial grounds, as he was a Persian while his former master was an Arab. So the next day he stabbed Hazrat Umarra with a dagger, who was martyred because of the wounds.
To sum up, Islam gives a right to any prisoner of war to gain his freedom by paying ransom in cash or in agreed instalments. If he is then unable to embark upon an economic activity for lack of capital, the master or the government is enjoined to assist him in procuring the needed funds to gain his freedom.
Fair Treatment of Prisoners
Islam instructs that, when working at the master’s home, a prisoner of war must not be given tasks beyond his capacity. If the task is too onerous for the prisoner to do by himself, the master should help him. In any case, he must not be abused. If he is a freedman, working for wages, he should be paid promptly. If the master happens to physically hit a freedman, he has the right to lodge a petition with Qaza (Islamic judicial system) and sue his master for compensation. A servant, who has not yet been freed, can also go to a court of law, for physical abuse. If the complaint is justified, the courts are instructed in such cases to determine that the master is not fit to keep the prisoner, and grant him freedom.
A person possessing prisoners is instructed to feed them the same food as he eats and to clothe them in the manner he clothes himself. It is no wonder that many prisoners of war in Muslim hands refused to go back to their own people. They felt that if they went back home, they might not get the same quality of food as they got as prisoners and their quality of life would actually be worse. Thus, when Muslims became rulers, prisoners of war often refused to return home, even though they were offered payment of their ransom to gain their freedom. This was so because they realised that their life was more comfortable as ‘slaves’ than as free men back home. If, under such circumstances, a few men chose to remain slaves, who can object?
Slavery and Economics
Although the subject of my address today is not slavery, economics and slavery are inextricably woven together in human history. The development of Siberia in Russia was dependent on the work of serfs and political prisoners. Similarly, the United States of America developed because of the hard work of millions of Africans brought across from West Africa. America today takes pride in its wealth and economic might, but it owes a debt of gratitude to the slaves. Similarly Greek and Roman history tells us that their commerce and industry was for the most part based on slave labour; it is the same for ancient Egypt. The economic development in France and Spain two or three hundred years ago was also mainly due to slave labour. Thus, slavery and world economy are intertwined in history no matter where we look. But Islam put a ban on this institution from its inception and pronounced that the development achieved thereby could not be considered moral or praiseworthy.
Impact of Religion Upon Economic Systems
Before discussing the prevailing economic systems in the world, I wish to point out that any religion that believes in the life after death has to firmly uphold the individual’s right to economic freedom.
The fact is that the world contains two kinds of nations: those who believe in religion and those who don’t. The latter may adopt any economic system that appeals to their reason; however, those who follow religion would insist upon an economic system that does not bear adversely on the life in the hereafter. From this perspective, religions that believe in the life hereafter, must insist on individual choice and freedom. It is only then that a person’s good actions will find him a place in heaven, where he will attain God’s nearness, cognition and pleasure. God’s Holiness will protect him and free him of the weaknesses that afflicted him in this world. The nonbelievers may dismiss this conviction as false, but believers in the hereafter will always give preference to the permanent life in the hereafter, in contrast to the temporary abode here on earth. The idea of spiritual merit in the life to come is fundamentally dependent upon virtuous acts performed voluntarily in this world. These voluntary acts turn life in this world into a field where you cultivate the spiritual seed and gather its fruits in the life to come. A farmer would not plant a seed that gave no yield; human actions performed under duress are similar to the seed that remains barren in the next life. However virtuous a person’s actions may seem on the surface, they yield no reward if done under compulsion. Meritorious life in the hereafter is wholly dependent on good deeds done in this world voluntarily. Those who believe in the hereafter can never support a system that compels humans to behave in a specified way, for in a system based on compulsion, the field of moral excellence and virtue is greatly constricted. A believer therefore, must out of necessity, demand an economic system where he is free to choose, except in areas where state intervention is unavoidable.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Anfal, Verse 68.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Muhammad, Verse 5.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nur, Verse 34.