When speaking about slavery, we must define the term to ensure clarity and understanding. This is important because the Islamic term “slavery” differs from the Western definition of the word, as it holds a different connotation in the English language than in Islam. The term slavery in the West is more closely associated with brutal depictions seen in Hollywood movies and disturbing accounts found in the annals of American history.
When European settlers first arrived in America at the beginning of the 16th century, they abducted and enslaved approximately 11 million Africans for 300 years to work under abhorrent, inhumane conditions, generating wealth and opportunity for the American people. At the same time, two million enslaved people died at sea on their way to America. The Islamic term slavery does not reference such abhorrent conditions. Never would Islam allow such horrific treatment of human beings.
This brings us to the Islamic understanding of slavery. There was a time in history when slavery was not considered immoral, and almost every middle-class family owned a slave. They would kidnap free people from other lands and sell them into slavery. The act of enslaving people was a common practice in many areas. At a time when the inability to pay off one’s debt could result in the enslavement of the debtor, Islam was the only religion to prohibit this form of practice and initiate laws about slavery.
Islam states that all human beings are free and that no human has the right to withhold freedom from anyone unlawfully. Therefore, Islam did not allow free people to be taken, sold, or turned into enslaved people. It prohibited all forms of slavery except for instances in which captives of war were claimed, an act having nothing to do with race or skin color.
To reaffirm, the only type of slavery Islam allowed was the taking of prisoners of war during the fighting of a battle. If two tribes were at battle and one side reigned victorious, taking enemy soldiers and citizens as captives of war, they could keep them. In modern times, soldiers of the opposite side can be imprisoned if captured because we now have prison institutions to house thousands of prisoners of war when needed.
However, back in the Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s time, such institutions did not exist. At that time, prisoners of war would be killed, ransomed, or taken into homes as enslaved people. Instead of killing them, Islam allowed them to live humanely in the homes of Muslims without any form of abuse. The faith initiated laws dealing with prisoners of war that were not ransomed.
For those offended by the concept of wartime imprisonment: What else would Muslims have done with the prisoners they captured, enemies who had tried to fight and kill them? If they released them, those people could make another attempt on their lives. They didn’t have prisons then, and even if they had housed captives of war, the prisoners would have lived in a harsher environment, especially when kept in the desert. Islamic scholars state that the law regarding treating war captives no longer applies today.
Whereas Islam allowed only the taking of prisoners of war, the faith did not abruptly abolish slavery altogether, commanding everyone who had slaves to release them. Islam decreased the practice of slavery by degrees to maintain social and economic stability. If everyone freed their slaves simultaneously, the act would have negatively affected their economy and society, putting thousands of people out of work without shelter. Islam encouraged and offered many avenues for people to release their slaves. Islam mandated freeing enslaved people as a requirement for forgiveness for specific sins. The Holy Quran referenced the freeing of an enslaved person as a sign of piety.
Numerous Ahadeeth (sayings of Prophet Muhammad PBUH) taught the humane way of treating enslaved people. This was unheard of at a time when other cultures did not have laws regulating the treatment of war captives and slaves, and they even would lend their female slaves to others for a night in exchange for a profit.
Islam allowed military commanders to exchange their captives for the other tribe’s captives that were in battle with them or ransom them. Islamic law states that one cannot physically or sexually abuse a slave. If one harms or slanders a slave, he must set them free. One cannot force a slave to perform tasks that they cannot bear or that are too difficult for them. Islamic law required the master to clothe, feed, and house them as they would their families and to treat the slaves humanely as if they were their brothers and sisters.
Prophet Muhammad PBUH stated: Your slaves are brothers of yours. Allah has placed them in your hand, and he who has his brother under him, he should feed him with what he eats, and dress him with what he dresses himself, and do not burden them beyond their capacities, and if you burden them, (beyond their capacities), then help them (Sahih Muslim 1661).
This brings us to the matter of the treatment of female prisoners of war and the permissibility of marrying them. Islam prohibited killing female captives of war, substituting the slaying with enslavement, and even allowed the master to marry female prisoners of war. Although this mandate is no longer practiced today, Islam allowed the practice in the past for a necessary reason.
To fully understand this concept, put yourself in the shoes of people who lived more than 1400 years ago. This was at a time when women dressed in their best finery to go to the battlefield with their families, just in case their men lost, and they needed to go to the winning side. This warped tradition might sound harsh, but this was the reality for women of this time.
If women and children remained on the battlefield after the defeat of their people, when their husbands had been killed or escaped battle, the victors would come and claim them. Islam allowed this because if the Muslims did not take them, another tribe would come by and take the wives and kids and likely mistreat them. Islam allowed marriage and intercourse with female captives because the prohibition of these acts would deny these female captives their conjugal rights. Women, like men, have needs; the human desire for sexual fulfillment must be met, or the impact on the female body could be problematic.
Islam does not allow a master to abuse or rape women, and the Holy Quran prohibits masters from prostituting slaves. If the female captive of war is captured with her husband, she may not be taken as a concubine of her captor. If a child is born from a female prisoner, they are treated like a child born from a traditional marriage and cannot be born into slavery, as was done in Arabia before Islam. The slave mother’s status also would be upgraded in that the master would not be able to sell her to anyone, and she would be freed if the baby’s father died.
Those offended by the concept of enslaving female captives of war need to ask themselves where else people would have placed their female prisoners of war at that time. As stated, they didn’t have prisons then. Islamic law mandates that if a slave requests a contract to repurchase themselves by working for a particular period or paying the master a specified monetary price to be freed, the master must honor it. This means the master would have to allow the slave to work and earn money. If a slave wants to marry another slave, the master must facilitate the marriage.
It’s important to realize that, before modern times, no one criticized Islam regarding the treatment of captives of war because this treatment is not unjust. Enslaving an enemy that tried to kill you in battle is the lesser evil when compared to taking his life. Christians and Jews also had no issue with these laws regarding prisoners of war because they held similar laws for war captives during battle.
The Biblical narrative states that Prophet Abraham PBUH took Hagar as his concubine because his wife was barren. Some Christian scholars believe that he took her as a wife. The Old and New Testaments also don’t prohibit or denounce slavery in general and sometimes go as far as to endorse it. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ tells his people to fulfill the law until the Heavens and Earth meet their end. Islam, as stated, does not allow any act of slavery, except for the taking of prisoners of war, unlike Christianity and Judaism.
There are now people of a liberal belief system who think that taking captives of war throughout history was wrong, but they fail to consider the alternative. For example, would it have been logical to release those who tried to kill you and your family, allowing them an opportunity to strike again? Meanwhile, these liberals have no issues with what their government is doing today to attain political power, such as bombing other countries’ innocent civilians and other horrid acts.
On the other hand, Islam does not allow the fighting of non-combatants. Islam does not allow the bombing of innocent civilians who are not soldiers fighting. Military conflicts should be directed against only fighting soldiers and not against innocent civilians. Islam does not allow the torture of prisoners of war, mutilation, treason, rape, cutting down of fruitful trees, destroying cultivated fields or gardens, or destroying property.
Islam also does not allow the slaughter of animals except for the cultivation of food. Muslims are also forbidden from attacking wounded soldiers unless the wounded soldier continues to fight them. Islam only mandates combat strategies with minimum necessary force, unlike what you see now in many countries. All Islamic laws are fair and ethical because they come directly from God — and God is All-Wise, All-Just.
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