Islam and Slavery

The subject of Islam and slavery is vast. This brief introduction will focus on the following specific areas in an attempt to sketch the basic interplay of the ideals and realities of Muslim slavery:

The Qur’an
Islamic Law
Muslim History
Slavery and Quasi-Slavery in the Contemporary Muslim World

The Qur’an, which Muslims believe to have been revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, makes numerous references to slaves and slavery (e.g., Q. 2.178; 16.75; 30.28). Like numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Qur’an assumes the permissibility of owning slaves, which was an established practice before its revelation. The Qur’an does not explicitly condemn slavery or attempt to abolish it. Nonetheless, it does provide a number of regulations designed to ameliorate the situation of slaves. It recommends freeing slaves, especially “believing” slaves (Q. 2.177). Manumission of a slave is required as expiation for certain misdeeds (Q. 4.92; 58.3) and another verse states that masters should allow slaves to purchase their own freedom (Q. 24.33).

The Qur’an also suggests certain means of integrating slaves, some of whom were enslaved after being captured in war, into the Muslim community. It allows slaves to marry (either other slaves or free persons; Q. 24.32; 2.221; 4.25) and prohibits owners from prostituting unwilling female slaves (Q. 24.33). Despite this protection against one form of sexual exploitation, female slaves do not have the right to grant or deny sexual access to themselves. Instead, the Qur’an permits men to have sexual access to “what their right hands possess,” meaning female captives or slaves (Q. 23.5-6; 70.29-30). This was widely accepted and practiced among early Muslims; the Prophet Muhammad, for example, kept a slave-concubine (Mariya the Copt) who was given to him as a gift by the Roman governor of Alexandria.

Traditional Islamic law (fiqh) elaborates significantly on the Qur’anic material concerning slavery. The enslavement of war captives is regulated, along with the purchase and sale of slaves. While it is not permissible to enslave other Muslims, the jurists clarify that if a non-Muslim converts to Islam after enslavement, he or she remains a slave and may be lawfully purchased and sold like any other slave. (This rule closes a potential loophole allowing for slaves to gain their freedom by the simple fact of conversion.) The law also prescribes penalties for slave owners who maltreat or abuse their slaves; these penalties can include forced manumission of the slave without compensation to the owner.

Islamic law devotes special attention to regulating the practice of slave marriage and concubinage, in order to determine the paternity and/or ownership of children born to a female slave. A man cannot simultaneously own and be married to the same female slave. The male owner of a female slave can either marry her off to a different man, thus renouncing his own sexual access to her, or he may take her as his own concubine, using her sexually himself. Both situations have a specific effect on the status of any children she bears. When female slaves are married off, any children born from the marriage are slaves belonging to the mother’s owner, though legal paternity is established for her husband. When a master takes his own female slave as a concubine, by contrast, any children she bears are free and legally the children of her owner, with the same status as any children born to him in a legal marriage to a free wife. The slave who bears her master’s child becomes an umm walad (literally, mother of a child), gaining certain protections. Most importantly, she cannot be sold and she is automatically freed upon her master’s death.

How have these laws played out in Muslim history? Slavery was a social fact in most of the Muslim world for nearly 1400 years, with large numbers of slaves employed in domestic service as well as commerce. Large-scale agricultural slavery, like the plantation slavery of the U.S. South, was seldom practiced in the Muslim world. This was not due to any prohibition against such forms of slave labor, but rather to economic and geographical factors. This does not mean that Islamic slavery was not harsh, as some apologists have argued, or that masters were not sometimes brutal to their slaves.

However, slavery did not always equal low social status. In medieval Egypt, the Mamluk (literally, “owned”) dynasty ruled for some time, with manumitted military slaves rising to govern others. The conscript slave troops (janissaries) of the Ottomans are another example. Most striking is the case of the royal concubines who wielded tremendous influence and amassed considerable wealth in the later centuries of the Ottoman empire.

The issue of slavery in Muslim societies is not purely historical but has lingering contemporary effects, especially in certain parts of Africa and the Gulf states. Some majority Muslim nations – Saudi Arabia, for example – were among the last to outlaw slavery in the twentieth century. Vestigial effects of domestic slavery still exist in certain Gulf nations in the failure of police and lawmakers to protect immigrant household workers against potential abuses by employers. Women employed as maids and nannies have little recourse against sexual coercion or harsh beatings; in some cases, those who have escaped and sought refuge with police have been forcibly returned to their employers. It is important to note that these women are not legally enslaved, and they generally receive compensation for their work that differentiates their situation from that of those in debt bondage. However, because of the acceptance of controls on their mobility (employers often take their passports), and the refusal of law enforcement officials to respond to complaints of maltreatment, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

In some African nations, actual slavery continues. Repeated attempts to outlaw slavery in Mauritania have had little effect. The most recent declaration of abolition, in 1980, has been largely ineffective, with 90,000 black Mauritanians remaining essentially enslaved to Arab/Berber owners (citation). In the Sudan, Christian captives in the ongoing civil war are often enslaved, and female prisoners are often used sexually, with their Muslim captors claiming that Islamic law grants them permission (citation).

The existence of actual and quasi-slavery is by no means unique to the Muslim world; slavery and slavery-like practices are found in numerous nations world-wide. Further, they are not found everywhere in the Muslim world; there specific socio-economic and political factors that help to account for their existence. Still, the claiming of religious justification for slaveholding in some of these cases makes them particularly urgent to address.

While the vast majority of contemporary Muslims agree that there is no place for slavery in the modern world, there has not been a strong internally developed critique of past or present slaveholding practices. In fact, modern Muslims have generally devoted little attention to thinking about or discussing the religious, ethical, and legal issues associated with slavery, perhaps because it is difficult to acknowledge and confront the scriptural and traditional permission for it. Yet it is possible to analyze slavery (as well as other forms of gross social inequity) as inconsistent with basic Qur’anic precepts of justice and human equality before God. The enslavement of human beings to other human beings is, in fact, marginal to the Qur’anic worldview. In contrast, slavery of a different type is conceptually central: the status of each Muslim as a slave before God is a slavery that can never be abolished.

Content by Kecia Ali
Senior Research Analyst, FSE
Revised 2/2/2004