How Did Islam Deal with Slavery?

How Did Islam Deal with Slavery
By C. Mofty

Islam did not initiate the system of slavery

How Did Islam Deal with Slavery?

Shari`ah Law severely limited the channels in which the number of slaves could multiply.

Slavery existed in Judaism, Christianity, India, and China before Islam. Since the earliest times, Islam had opened doors to free slaves and to eventually end slavery.

The Islamic paradigm did not ignore the realities of the world, nor did it endorse it. Islam regulated it. As Annemarie Schimmel, a German scholar, noted, “…therefore slavery is theoretically doomed to disappear with the expansion of Islam.”(1)

Shari`ah Law severely limited the channels in which the number of slaves could multiply. The only source of slavery was captives of legitimate war and the children born to slave parents. After limiting the sources of new slaves, Islamic law dealt with the reality of the existing slaves.

People are born free, slavery is temporary

The Quran states,

O mankind, indeed We have created you from a male (Adam) and a female (Eve) and made you into various families and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most honored of you in God’s sight is the most pious of you. (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) declared, “All of you are from Adam and Adam was created from dust.” (Abu Dawud)

The principle that human beings are born free and slavery is accidental is accepted by all the scholars of Islam. Few important consequences of this principle are:

  • Voluntary slavery is not allowed. A free person cannot become a slave even if he wants to.
  • A free person cannot be enslaved. The interesting point is that Muslim theologians did not decide it, but the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him) declared it to be a sin 1400 years ago. He said, “There are three types of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgment. Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him, and consumes this money.” (Al-Bukhari)
  • An unclaimed child with unknown parentage was to be treated as a free person even if the child appeared to have slave parents.

A slave was granted respect and human dignity

The very word “slave” in English has extremely negative connotations of barbaric treatment. Compare it with how the Prophet of Mercy spoke about slaves 1400 years ago, “Your slaves are your brothers! God has placed them in your care. So, whose brother is under his care, he should feed him what he eats and dress him how he dresses. And do not burden them beyond their capacities; but if you burden them (with an unbearable burden), then help them (by sharing their extra burden).” (Al-Bukhari)

“When the servant of anyone amongst you prepares food for him and has undergone its hardship of heat and smoke, he should make him (the servant) sit along with him and make him eat (along with him), and if he does not do that, then he should spare some portion for him.” (Muslim)

The Prophet of Mercy forbade hitting the slaves. He declared that the atonement of hitting or slapping a slave is to set him free. (Muslim)

Moreover, a slave is not be addressed with hurtful words. The Prophet of Mercy stated not to address them as, ‘My slave boy or my slave girl.” He said, “All of you are slaves of God!” Address them with, “O my young man, O my young lady!” (Muslim)

`Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, was so fond of Salim, a freed slave that he wished to appoint Salim to be the caliph if he were alive. Salim used to lead the Muslims in prayer, which is considered an honor in Islamic tradition.

Islam granted equal religious rights to the free and the slave

Slaves were at the same footing of a freeman in terms of religious obligations, as well as reward and punishment from God. A slave’s testimony was considered acceptable. A slave had right to personal belongings and property. They were to be helped to legally win their freedom if they so choose through a mechanism known as mukatabah and tadbir. This mechanism is enshrined in the Muslim scripture as God says,

And those who seek a contract [for eventual emancipation] from among whom your right hands possess – then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you. (An-Nur 24:33)

Freeing slaves is an act of worship

Islam set freeing of slaves as atonement of sins and for specific acts of transgression. Muslims were encouraged to willingly set slaves free to release themselves from the torment of Hell Fire. The state was also a source of setting the slaves free as Islamic Law dictates that zakah (obligatory charity) given by wealthy Muslims to the state – is to be spend on setting slaves free among other things. God says,

Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise. (At-Tawbah 9:60)

Islam integrated slaves into the mainstream society

The issue of integration of freed slaves into the mainstream society has been discussed by some contemporary scholars. The Islamic solution was to integrate them into the society by making them part of the tribes and families. The system was known as “wala.” The Prophet of Islam said, ‘Freeing slaves is like establishing relations by blood.’ (Ad-Darimi)



[1] Annemarie Schimmel, Islam: An Introduction (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 67

[2] Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam: A History of the Evolution and Ideals of Islam with a Life of the Prophet, Revised ed., (London: Christophers, 1922), p. 264


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