Islam’s History of Slavery

Learn about how Islam addresses slavery and its long, often unknown, history in the Islamic world.

While much of the world is very familiar with slavery as it was practiced by Western nations, Islam’s record on slavery is not nearly as well known. This is a story that needs to be told as it involved even more people over a longer time period.

Slavery in Islam
Slavery is mentioned in the Quran at least 29 times, in addition to numerous times in the hadith (many hadith etc. can be found here). As covered in slavery and religion, although one would think any just and merciful god would want to clearly condemn slavery, Islam, in fact, codifies it due to the way it gives rules to how to handle slaves without ever condemning the practice of turning human beings into property.

Some of the ways Islam mentions slavery includes freeing slaves as a form of penance (as other property is given up) and rules on how they can be treated. However, these rights are only enlightened in comparison to the very barbaric practices of the time. For example, while children under seven cannot be sold away from their mothers, Islam still allows others to be ripped from their mothers and sold. Another example is that slaves are not allowed to testify in court, stripping them of any legal recourse and real rights.

As a whole, slavery in Islam does not even come close to the most basic human rights standards moral people agree on today. Far from liberating slaves, Islam codified the practice of slavery and made it possible for pious Muslims to practice it into modern times.

Sexual slavery in Islam
The keeping of women as sex slaves, or concubines, is also codified in Islam. This can be seen in 4:3 in the Quran which allows a man to have up to four wives and as many concubines as he can afford.

In the Quran, what “your right hand posses” is frequently used to refer to slaves. It is used in a number of places such as the following, which is giving men to have their way with (rape) their female captives, even if they are married.

4:24 And all married women are forbidden unto you save those captives whom your right hand possess. It is a decree of Allah for you

The Quran even goes so far as to give Muhammad permission to have his concubines, and he had a number of them.

33.50 O Prophet! surely We have made lawful to you your wives whom you have given their dowries, and those whom your right hand possesses out of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war, and the daughters of your paternal uncles and the daughters of your paternal aunts…

More on how Islam treats women slaves and concubines can be found at captives and concubines.

Although the image of the Muslim sultan and his harem of sex slaves brings up male sexual fantasies, it had very tragic effects for many women and girls throughout history. This is best illustrated in the slave trade. According to Wikipedia:

“In contrast to the Atlantic slave trade where the male-female ratio was 2:1 or 3:1, the Arab slave trade usually had a higher female to male ratio instead, suggesting a general preference for female slaves. Concubinage and reproduction served as incentives for importing female slaves (often Caucasian), though many were also imported mainly for performing household tasks.”

Muhammad’s example
According to Islamic sources, Muhammad himself had slaves and even bought and sold them. One of the most well-known of them was Mary, a Coptic Christian given to Muhammad. See the following names of Muhammad’s slaves for a more complete listing.  islam slavery

It should be remembered that Islam claims Muhammad was an example to follow, and Muslims seek to emulate him. As bad of an example that keeping slaves and practicing slavery was, Muhammad also took new slaves. This is best illustrated in what is known Banu Qurayza incident. Muhammad basically had an entire tribe, which had surrendered to his mercy, mass murdered and enslaved. What happened is covered more at Muhammad and the Banu Qurayza.

This example set by Muhammad certainly has something to do with the little-known fact that the Islamic slave trade started earlier, lasted longer and was more far reaching than the Atlantic trade. While the Atlantic trade only enslaved Africans and lasted from the 15th to 19th centuries, the Islamic slave trade started around the 8th century, lasted until the 20th and enslaved Africans, Europeans and Asians. Islamic nations were the last to outlaw slavery, and movements to do so often took their inspiration from the West. Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, had slave markets into the 21st century and was one of the last nations to ban it (it was outlawed in 1962).

A look at the slavery time line at Wikipedia shows that, in virtually every circumstance, Islamic lands were the last to outlaw slavery and many did not do so until the 20th century.

The word Islam, which means submission, symbolizes the slavish mentality of Islam. The name Abdullah, meaning “slave to Allah,” is very popular in the Islamic world. However, it does seem odd that Allah would have any need for human slaves.

Muslim defense
Perhaps one of the reasons why Christians have not talked about how ingrained slavery is in Islam more is because of their own history of enslaving people, and the way slavery is condoned in the Bible. While this point is often raised by Muslims when others point out how slavery is condoned in Islam, it does not excuse why the supposed perfect word of a god treats slavery like medieval society did and not by enlightened standards.

Muslims will also say slavery was necessary at the time. This can be debated as many societies throughout history did fine without slavery, and it can be argued that slavery has always been bad for society as a whole. Besides, why would Allah create a world in which treating human beings as property was necessary?

Other times, Muslims will say that it was Islam’s intention to gradually end slavery. If that was the intent, then Islam and Allah clearly failed as it took 1400 years for the practice to stop in the Islamic world, and this made Islam the worst, rather than the best example that could be expected from the perfect word of a god. Surely, a god could do better than that.

More reading
Free Thought Nation has an interesting article on slavery in Islam.

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Faith can be a very dangerous thing if not backed up by evidence. Question everything and do not blindly follow. Certainty does not necessitate truth. If your God is almighty, he can certainly stand up to human questioning.

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