To most Muslims, the only slave-trade that existed in the world was the trans-Atlantic one, which they are very forthcoming to condemn. To them, the more extensive and barbarous practice of slavery of the Muslim world that continued well into the late twentieth century (indeed, continues today) never existed. This perception amongst them is undoubtedly the result of their ignorance about the history of Islam. Some Muslims—knowledgeable about it, or when presented with undeniable evidence—take recourse of the much familiar denials. They offer two common arguments to counter the undeniable facts about the widespread practice of slavery in the Muslim world. Firstly, slavery is not at all approved in Islam; its practice in the Muslim world resulted from the abuse or disregard of Islam. The second type of response comes from the more knowledgeable Muslims, who—failing to deny the approval of slavery in Islam and its widespread practice in the Muslim world—would agree that slavery was accepted in Islam, albeit reluctantly and on a limited scale, because of its overwhelming practice in Arabia at the time. They then come with a set of Quranic verses and prophetic traditions to claim that ‘Islam actually set the first example for the abolition of slavery.’
The first type of response definitely comes from the group of Muslims, the overwhelming majority, who are thoroughly ignorant of the theological content of Islam regarding the sanction of slavery and Prophet Muhammad’s engagement in enslavement, slave-trade and concubinage. The second group, deliberately using deceptive ploys, comes up with a set of arguments from the Quran and the Sunnah, which need addressing here. The commonly cited set of Quranic references are:
- Quran 4:36 urges Muslims to show kindness to orphans, parents, travelers and slaves.
- Quran 9:60 directs part of obligatory charity toward freeing of slaves.
- Quran 24:33 advises owners of well-behaved slaves to set terms for their release in writing.
- Quran 5:92 and 18:3 propose freeing of slaves as a means of expiation for sins.
- Quran 4:92 states that a Muslim should free a believing slave as expiation for involuntary manslaughter.
Based on such references, Ahmad Alawad Sikainga, Professor of History at the Ohio State University, explains away the Quranic recognition of slavery as ‘broad and general propositions of an ethical nature rather than specific legal formulations.’887 In a similar vein, famous Pakistani scholar and poet Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) held slavery in Islam as a benign institution, completely devoid of true servitude. According to him,888
[Prophet Muhammad] declared the principle of equality and though, like every wise reformer, he slightly conceded to the social conditions around him in retaining the name of slavery, he quietly took away the whole institution of slavery. The truth is that the institution of slavery is a mere name in Islam.
Other more emphatic apologists come up with such lofty claims that Islam has clearly and categorically forbidden the primitive practice of capturing a free man, to make him a slave, or to sell him into slavery. They affirm their position by quoting Prophet Muhammad: ‘‘There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgment. Of these three: he, who enslaves a free man, then sells him, and eats this money.’’889 Muslim scholar Syed Ameer Ali (d. 1928), widely read in the West, argued that Muslims should efface the dark page of slavery from the world ‘to show the falseness of the aspersions cast on the memory of the noble Prophet, by proclaiming in explicit terms that slavery is reprobated by their faith and discountenanced by their code.’890 Joining the tune of these Muslim apologists, Lewis argues: ‘The Islamic law and practice, from an early stage, severely restricted the enslavement of free persons… limiting it in effect to the non-Muslims captured or conquered in a war.’891
Those scholars, who claim that Islam categorically forbid the primitive practice of slavery, should pay attention to the words of Allah in Quranic verses 16:71, 16:76 and 30:28, which unequivocally and categorically state the division of human race into masters and slaves as natural, as His grace, and as part of His design. Iqbal and Ali should take note of the fact that Prophet Muhammad had owned no slaves prior to taking up the Islamic mission; and at the time of his death, he owned dozens of slaves and a few concubines, the majority of whom were obtained through brutal raids and attacks on innocent communities. Sikainga should not forget that, in Islamic thought, the Quran is the final words of the Creator of the Universe in all matters; and therefore, whatever the Quran sanctions becomes the eternal law for the Islamic society. This fundamental position of Islam contradicts Sikainga’s assertion that slavery is no “specific legal formulations” in Islam. In reality, slavery in Islam is a fundamental institution, repeatedly reiterated by Allah and widely practiced by Prophet Muhammad, which would stand unaltered until the end of the world. Furthermore, it is equally nonsensical and inexcusable to term the division of fundamentally equal human beings into masters and slaves as a formulation of “ethical nature” as Sikainga puts it. More so is the repeated Quranic sanction of violent enslavement of women for reducing them into sex-slaves.
Gulam Ahmad Parwez (d. 1983), another Muslim scholar and activist of the subcontinent, uses a deceptive ploy of different kind. He argues that ‘those whom your right hand possesses’ in Quran 47:4, referring to slaves, should be read in the past tense; that is, as ‘those whom your right hand possessed.’ This way, he argues, slavery belonged to the past and the Quran closed ‘the door to future slavery.’892 Muslims should probably follow this crooked ploy and read the instructions of the Quran regarding prayers, fasting, pilgrimage and everything else in the past tense and relegate Islam to the dustbin of history.
Prophet Muhammad relocated from Mecca to Medina in 622, when he had only about 200–250 converts: from Mecca and Medina combined. With this small group of followers, he formed a raiding brigand expressly for the purpose of attacking caravans from Mecca to plunder them for booty. As his power grew, he scaled up his adventures by attacking the Pagan, Jewish and Christian communities that came within his reach and power for the purpose of plundering and capture of slaves. After Muhammad’s death in 632, this unconditional war on the infidels continued with greater vigor as Muslim power grew in leaps and bounds. They started undertaking campaigns of massive scales eventually bringing down world’s great powers: Persia, Byzantium and India. They often enslaved in tens to hundreds of thousands in a single campaign, besides putting large numbers of the vanquished non-Muslims to the sword.
At the advent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad’s raiding and warring brigand, consisting of just a few hundred neo-Muslim Bedouins of Arabia, declared an aggressive, unconditional and relentless holy war on the rest of humanity with the intention to subjugate and enslave them. Those like Lewis, who think that Islam “categorically forbade” or “severely restricted” the enslavement of a free man, should realize that Islam called for the unrestrained subjugation and enslavement of all free men and women of the globe at the hands of a few hundred Bedouin Arab raiders and plunderers. The Islamic legislation of enslavement is not of “severely restricted” nature, but of the highest scale imaginable, unprecedented in the history of mankind. The soldiers of Islam have executed this divine command with aplomb; the history of Islam has been the witness to that. By any standard, the sanction of slavery in Islam was the most devastating blow to the spirit and dignity of the free human being.
Humane treatment of slaves in Islam
It is true that Islam urges Muslims to treat slaves humanely. Verses of the Quran listed above encourage Muslims to set slaves free (manumission) for various reasons, including for the redemption of involuntarily killing a Muslim (not an infidel). In Islam, manumission is seen as an act of benevolence or expiation of sins. On the basis of these arguments, apologists of Islam would claim that ‘It is not true to say that Islam instituted, or was responsible for the institution of slavery; it is more correct to say that it was the first religion, which put the first steps necessary for its extinction’ (personal communication). Joining this camp of Muslims, Prof. Jonathan Brockopp of Pensylvania State Univerity writes:
Other cultures limit a master’s right to harm a slave but few exhort masters to treat their slaves kindly, and the placement of slaves in the same category as other weak members of society who deserve protection is unknown outside the Quran. The unique contribution of the Quran, then, is to be found in its emphasis on the place of slaves in society and society’s responsibility toward the slave, perhaps the most progressive legislation on slavery in its time.893
Concerning Islamic injunctions for good treatment of slaves and their manumission, there was nothing new in it. We have noted that, nearly a thousand years before the advent of Islam, Buddha had urged his followers to treat slaves well and not to overwork them. In Athens, the Greek statesman and political reformer Solon (c. 638–558 BCE) had enacted a decree abolishing enslavement for debts, a major cause of enslavement at the time.
The tradition of manumission of slaves existed in Greece about a millennium before the advent of Islam. Inscriptions in stones, belonging to the fourth century BCE and later, document emancipation of slaves in Greece, likely as voluntary acts of masters (predominantly male and also female from the Hellenistic period). To buy their freedom, slaves could either use their savings or take loan from friends or masters.894
The sense justice toward slaves in Greek Society can be guaged from Socrates’ encounter with Euthyphro outside a law-court. Euthyphro’s father had killed one of his slaves (accidentally, probably while discipling him), who had killed another slave. And Euthyphro took his father to court for his crime of killing the slave. On Euthyphro’s way to the court, Socrates stopped him so as to inquire about his motivation or the righteousness that inspired him to prosecute his own father. Euthyphro told Socrates that ‘although his family think it impious for a son to prosecute his father as a murderer, he knows what he is about. His family is ignorant about what is holy, whereas he has ‘an accurate knowledge of all that.’ He therefore had no doubt about the rightness of his action.‘895 While this case, undoubtedly, was an exception to norm, it nonetheless informs us of the sense of justice toward slaves that had penetraded into the then Greek Society (a housands years before Muhammad)—something impossible even today in any Muslim soceity.
The Islamic exhortation for treating slaves well and for freeing them was thus nothing new. Such benevolent practice existed in Greece nearly a millennium earlier. Solon had even enacted a ban on the major form of enslavement in Athens nearly twelve centuries before the birth of Islam. Neither the practice of emancipation of slaves was absent in Arabia during Muhammad’s life or prior to that; evidence for it comes from the following Islamic text [Bukhari 3:46:715]:
Narrated Hisham: My father told me that Hakim bin Hizam manumitted one-hundred slaves in the pre-Islamic period of ignorance and slaughtered one-hundred camels (and distributed them in charity). When he embraced Islam he again slaughtered one-hundred camels and manumitted one-hundred slaves. Hakim said, ‘I asked Allah’s Apostle, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! What do you think about some good deeds I used to practice in the pre-Islamic period of ignorance (jahiliyah) regarding them as deeds of righteousness?’ Allah’s Apostle said, ‘You have embraced Islam along with all those good deeds you did.’
Good treatment and freeing of slaves definitely existed in the seventh-century Arab society, prior to the founding of Islam. Muhammad himself had freed his only slave Zayd when he was a Pagan, some fifteen years before undertaking the Islamic mission. He even adopted Zayd as his son. These generous and humane gestures of Pagan Muhammad clearly reflected the existing benevolent pre-Islamic tradition and culture of the Arab society. Hence, Islam and Prophet Muhammad added nothing new to the humane aspect of slavery.
Islam aggravated slavery
Islam did not institute slavery, but embraced the age-old practice with open arms and gave it a divine validation to last for the eternity and promoted it to a hitherto unprecedented scale. It is groundless to claim that Islam closed the door to slavery or took the first step toward its abolition. In the Quran, Allah repeatedly gave approval of slavery as part of His divine plan, which must stand until the end of the world. Not only that, Islam aggravated the practice of slavery at its very inception, which worsened further over the centuries. Prophet Muhammad enslaved the children and women of Banu Qurayza, Khaybar and Banu Mustaliq [Bukhari 3:46:717], after slaughtering the men. This ideal protocol of the Prophet became the modus operandi for Muslim warriors through the ages until the West abolished its own engagement in slavery and enforced its ban in the Muslim world—much to the anger, disappointment and even violent opposition of Muslims.
One must take note of the way the Banu Qurayza, Banu Mustaliq and Khaybar Jews were slaughtered and enslaved by the Prophet. Nothing as barbaric and cruel, and on such large-scales, as these took place in the Arabian Peninsula during Muhammad’s life. Islamic history tells us that Muhammad’s father had only one Abyssinian slave-girl, named Barakat. The leading men of Mecca are not recorded to have possessed slaves in their dozens. The Prophet’s first wife Khadijah, despite owning a big business, possessed only one slave, Zayd, whom she presented to Muhammad after their marriage. Muhammad, a Pagan at the time, freed Zayd and adopted him as his son.
During the next fifteen years of his life as a Pagan, Muhammad owned no slave. Over the next twenty-three years of his life as a Muslim and the Prophet of Islam, he accumulated fifty-nine slaves and thirty-eight servants as listed by Ghayasuddin Muhammad Khondmir in Rauzat-us-Safa. Zubair, Muhammad’s close companion, had a massive 1,000 slaves at the time of his death.896
As a Pagan, Muhammad, and also possibly Zubair, owned no slaves. But after embracing the Islamic faith, they amassed slaves in dozens to a thousand. These examples make it clear that, instead of taking any step toward its abolition, the Prophet of Islam and his closest companions themselves had elevated the institution of slavery to a much higher scale, compared to what pre-existed in Arabia. Islam also introduced a most barbaric and cruel means, albeit with divine sanctions, for capturing slaves on a scale not seen in the then Arabia.
Slavery, theologically & historically, an integral part of Islam
Despite widespread denials about the existence of slavery in Islam and the claim that Islam took the first step toward its abolition, slavery is indisputably a divinely sanctioned institution in Islam, which will stand valid until the end of the human race. In Islamic doctrine, slavery is integral in Allah’s eternal plan; it’s a part of His divine grace to humankind. All Schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the Sharia, and the religious doctors of Islam throughout history have unequivocally and proudly accepted and preached slavery as an integral part of Islam. The great Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun recognized mass enslavement of non-Muslims in gloating religious pride when Muslims had transformed Africa into a slave-hunting and -breeding ground. In practicing slavery, writes Lewis, ‘‘(Muslims) were upholding an institution sanctioned by scripture, law (Sharia), and tradition (Sunnah) and one which in their eyes was necessary to the maintenance of the social structure of Muslim life.’’897 Hughes correctly asserts that in Islam, ‘slavery is interwoven with the Law of marriage, the Law of sale, and the Law of inheritance… And its abolition would strike at the very foundation of the code of Mohammedanism.’898
Ibn Khaldun thought the extensive enslavement of Blacks in Africa by Muslims was justified, ‘because they have attributes that are quite similar to dumb animals.’899 In the annals of Muslim historians, enslavement in general, especially of the allegedly barbarian Blacks, became a matter of pride. It was also deemed as an act of generosity toward curing them of their barbaric nature and sinful religions by bringing them into the true faith and civilized world of Islam. About this line of thinking of the devout Islamic thinkers, writes Arnold, ‘devout minds have even recognized in enslavement God’s guidance to the true faith…’900
The Negroes from the Upper Nile countries were violently enslaved in massive numbers and converted to Islam. They were summarily castrated and transported across great distances; in the course of this, the majority of them (80–90 percent) perished. Of those, transported across the Atlantic to the new world, some 30–50 percent perished ‘in transit to the coast, in confinement awaiting shipment and at sea on the way to Americas.’ The mortality of slaves on board ships in their passage to the New World is estimated at 10 percent.901
This tragic doom of captives of mammoth proportion was also seen as a generosity and ‘God’s grace’ in Islamic mindset of which, writes Arnold, ‘God has visited them in their mishap; they can say ‘it was His grace’, since they are thereby entered into the saving religion.’902 Even many religious-minded Western historians, echoed this tune of Muslim thinkers about the massive enterprise of enslavement of Blacks in Africa. Bernard Lewis summarizes the general sentiment in this regard as thus: ‘…slavery is a divine boon to mankind, by means of which pagan and barbarous people are brought to Islam and civilization… Slavery in the East has an elevating influence over thousands of human beings, and but for it hundreds of thousands of souls must pass their existence in this world as wild savages, little better than animals; it, at least, makes men of them, useful men too…’903
This divine justification, indeed inspiration, for the enslavement of Blacks was so strong amongst Muslims in Africa that they had ‘given up wholly to the pursuit of commerce or to slave hunting’; and as a result, they were hated and feared by the people as slave-dealers, notes Arnold.904 Sultan Moulay Ismail (d. 1727), as noted already, had slave-breeding nurseries in Morocco. In the Sudan region of Africa, there were firms that specialized in the breeding of Black slaves for sale like cattle and sheep even in the nineteenth century. Hudud al-Alam—a Persian geographical manuscript written in 982 for the Ghaurivid ruler Abu al- Harith Muhammad ibn Ahmad, records of the Sudan that, ‘no region is more populated than this. The merchants steal the children there and take them away. They castrate them and take them to Egypt, where they sell them.’ Slavery reached such a level that ‘Among them there are people who steal each others children to sell them to the merchants when they come,’ adds the document.905
Muslims had integrated the institution of slavery into the African society so thoroughly that when the Europeans, particularly their missionaries, tried to liberate them, the slaves felt it preferable to remain under their masters than embrace the challenging free life of taking their destiny into their own hands. A report on the first three years of British administration in Central Africa noted that slave-trade stood as ‘‘a rival kind of civilization to that of white man which it is of a much easier notion for the Negro mind to accept.’’906 Enslavement became so widespread in Africa that as ‘Africa became almost synonymous with slavery, the world forgot the eagerness with which the Tartars and other Black Sea peoples had sold millions of Ukrainians, Georgians, Circassians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Slavs, and Turks,’ laments BD Davis.907 The most precious commodity that Muslim traders brought from the trading centre of Volga in the tenth century was white slaves, normally sold by the Vikings.
SPECIAL CRUELTY AND CASUALTY OF ISLAMIC SLAVERY
Possibly the most devastating aspect of Islamic slavery was the castration of male captives. The majority of the enslaved African males were emasculated before selling them in the Muslim world. In India, we have noted of large-scale castration of male captives from the beginning to the end of the Islamic rule. Even top generals, namely Malik Kafur and Khusrau Khan, were castrated, which suggest that the castration of male captives was widespread in India, too. There was also widespread castration of European slaves.
The worst casualty of castration was obviously the robbing of man’s most fundamental identity and treasure—his manhood, which he is born with. The greatest tragedy of castration was, however, the massive mortality in the operation. According to Koenraad Elst, ‘Islamic civilization did indeed practice castration of slaves on an unprecedented scale. Several cities in Africa were real factories of eunuchs; they were an expensive commodity as only 25 percent of the victims survived the operation.’908 Furthermore, a large number of captives perished during their passages to markets of the Muslim world, often thousands of miles away; this constituted another huge tragedy of Islamic slavery. The casualties in the raids for harvesting slaves could also be enormous. In Central Africa, recorded Commander VL Cameron, Islamic slave-raiders left the trails of
burnt villages, of slaughter and the devastation of crops. The loss of life caused by these raids must have been enormous, though it is of course impossible to give any exact figures. Burton, a British explorer, estimated that in order to capture fifty-five women, the merchandise of one of the caravan he observed, at least ten villages had been destroyed, each having a population between one and two hundred souls. The greater part of these were exterminated or died of starvation.909
On the magnitude of the mortality of slaves, writes Segal,
‘The arithmetic of the Islamic black slave trade must also not ignore the lives of those men, women and children taken or lost during the procurement, storage and transport. One late nineteenth century writer held that the sale of a single captive for slavery might represent a loss of ten in the population—from defenders killed in attacks on villages, the deaths of women and children from related famine and the loss of children, the old and the sick, unable to keep up with their captors or killed along the way in hostile encounters, or dying of sheer misery.’910
Segal collates a number of incidents of slaves being perished in their transportation.911 Explorer Heinrich Barth recorded that a slave caravan of his friend Bashir, wazir of Bornu, on the way to Mecca during pilgrimage season lost forty slaves in the course of a single night, killed by severe cold in the mountain. One British explorer came across over 100 human skeletons from a slave caravan en route to Tripoli. The British explorer Richard Lander came across a group of thirty slaves in West Africa, all of them stricken with smallpox, all bound neck to neck with twisted strips of bullock hide. One caravan from the East African coast with 3,000 slaves lost two-thirds of its number from starvation, disease and murder. In the Nubian Desert, one slave caravan of 2,000 slaves literally vanished as every slave had died.
Various estimates put the number of black Africans reduced to slavery in the Islamic world from eleven to thirty-two million. Since 80–90 percent of the captives had perished before reaching their destination, it is not difficult to imagine the quantum of human lives lost as a result of the cruel and barbaric institution of Islamic slavery. Ronald Segal, despite being sympathetic to Islam, puts the number of enslaved black Africans at eleven million and admits that well over thirty million of people might have died at the hands of Muslim slave hunters and traders or ended up as slaves in the Muslim world. From the data presented so far, the institution of Islamic slavery, undoubtedly, has been one of the greatest tragedies to befall humankind.
For the complete references to the above excerpt, please refer to M. A. Khan’s book: Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Imperialism, Forced Conversion and Slavery. A free copy is available online.