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The Condemnation of Slavery in Islam
Social Issues
Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Among many other misconceptions is the notion that Islam gives sanction to slavery and permits its followers to enslave prisoners of war, particularly women and establish extra-marital relations with them. We strongly affirm that Islam has not the slightest link with slavery and concubinage. On the contrary, it completely forbids these practices. It is quite outrageous to associate such barbarities with a religion revealed to upgrade humanity.

The point which needs to be appreciated and which, perhaps, is the real cause of the misconception is that Islam had adopted a gradual process to abolish the institution of slavery because of the social conditions prevalent in Arabia at that time. It must be kept in mind that slavery was an integral part of the pre-Islamic Arab society. There were scores of slave men and women in almost every house. This was largely due to two reasons: First, during those times, the standard practice of dispensing with prisoners of war was to distribute them among the army who captured them. Second, there were extensive slave markets in Arabia in that period, where slave men and women of all ages were sold like animals.

In these circumstances, in which slavery had become an essential constituent of the Arab society, Islam adopted a progressive way to eliminate it. An immediate order of prohibtion would have created immense social and economic problems. It would have become impossible for the society to cater for the needs of a large army of slaves, who were, otherwise, dependent on various families. Also, the national treasury was in no position to provide them all on a permanent basis. A large number among them were old and incapable of supporting themselves. The only alternative left for them, if they were instantly freed, was to turn to beggary and become an economic burden for the society. The question of slave girls and women was even more critical keeping in view their own low moral standards. Freeing them, all of a sudden, would have only resulted in a tremendous increase in brothels.

Perhaps, the reason behind this gradual eradication can be understood better if one considers the position which interest occupies in our economy today. No one can refute that our national economic structure is interest oriented. How the parasite of interest has crippled the national economy shall be elaborated upon some other time, but there is no denying the fact that without it our present economic system cannot sustain itself. Every reasonable person will acknowledge that today if a government wishes to rid the economy from this menace then, inspite of its utter prohibition in Islam, it would have to adopt a gradual methodology. An alternate economic framework would have to be steadily incorporated in place of the existing one. A sudden abolition, without another parallel base, would only hasten the total collapse of the economic system, which, of course, would be disastrous for the country.

To avert a similar disaster and to ward off a similar catastrophe, Islam adopted a progressive and a gradual scheme, fourteen hundred years ago, to do away with the inhuman institution of slavery. The measures it adopted completely exterminated this social evil from the society without causing any harmful side effects. For the benefit of our readers, we briefly describe these measures:

1. The first step which Islam took in this regard was in the early Meccan period when it pronounced that slave emancipation was a great social virtue.

2. The Prophet (sws), unequivocally, directed the Muslims to raise the standard of living of the slaves, and equate it with their own standards.

3. For the atonement of many sins manumission of slaves was divinely ordained.

4. All slave men and women who could support themselves in the society were directed to marry each other, in order to raise their moral and social status.

5. A permanent head in the public treasury was fixed to set free slave men and women.

6. Prostitution, which was largely carried out through slave women who were mostly forced by their masters do so, was totally prohibited by Islam.

7. The affronting names of `abd and amah by which slave men and women were called, were abrogated so that people should stop regarding them as slaves. In their place, the words fataa (boy) and fataat (girl) were introduced.

8. The policy adopted about the prisoners of war was to either set them free as a favour or against some ransom, while the ringleaders were, if necessary, executed.

9. The last step: the law of mukaatibat practically uprooted slavery from the Arab society. Every slave who was capable of supporting himself was allowed by law to free himself, provided that he either gave a certain monetary amount to his master or carried out certain errands for him. After this he could live as a free man. A special head in the treasury was fixed for this purpose; also, wealthy people were urged to help the slaves in this regard. The net result of this law was that only handicapped and old slaves were left to be provided for by their masters, which not only went in their own favour but also prevented them from becoming an economic burden on the society.

Inspite of these measures, if someone still insists that Islam gives sanction to slavery, he has all the right to do so. There are many people in this world whose claims are actually their desires in the guise of religion.


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