Ka’b bin Malik narrates: The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him, fainted for an hour. When he had a relief he said: “Fear Allah! Fear Allah! In the treatment of what your right hands posses (i.e. slaves). Cover their backs (i.e. clothe them), fill their bellies and be kind to them in speaking.” (Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Translated by S. Moinul Haq, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi 2009 vol.2 p.317 The narration has been authenticated by Albani in Sahih al-Targhib wal-Tarhib Hadith 2288)
This is what the Prophet of Islam said on his death bed amongst the last of his advices to his Ummah. And yet the adversaries of the truth say that he added to the troubles of humanity in the name of slavery and the treatment of slaves. What can be said of this attitude?
Why injunctions on slavery?
Some missionary haters of Islam, like silly Silas, try to fool people by saying that Islam justifies slavery as Qur’an ‘often mentions slaves’ and that ‘Whole chapters of Hadith are dedicated to dealing with the taxation, treatment, sale, and jurisprudence of slaves.’
Now the reason why Qur’an and Hadith do actually make a mention of and give rulings about slaves is the fact that slavery was such an essential and deep rooted practice in the pre-Islamic times that it was just not prudent to abolish it at once. Had it been so done, it would have created much upheaval in the society. The slaves, who were too large in number, owned virtually nothing and there was hardly any possibility for them to sustain in a reasonable and honorable way if they were all liberated at once. Their masters were at least providing free board and lodge.
This exactly is the reason no religious movement could ever do away with slavery in one go. L.D. Agate assigns the same reason for Paul and others in being ‘slow in condemnation’ of this institution;
“… the immediate abolition or attempted abolition of slavery in Roman empire would probably have led to the collapse of the society.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Edited by James Hasting, T & T Clark, London 2003 vol. 11 p.602 Art. Slavery (Christianity))
To summarize, the more we look at the background in which Qur’an and Hadith dealt with this issue and therefore gave instructions about it, ‘the less’, to put in the wording used by Agate in the Christian context, ‘shall we be inclined to be surprised.’ (pp. 602-603)
Religious injunctions and practical steps to do away with slavery:
Islam adopted a more pragmatic approach. While it accepted it at its place it made it obligatory on the believers to treat them justly and inspired people to set them free and to raise them to equal social status.
Virtues of manumitting a slave:
Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him, listed three people who will get the double reward. One of them is;
“Master of a slave-woman; who teaches her good manners, educates her in the best possible way (the religion), manumits her and then marries her.” (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 2358)
And he practically did it. The Prophet, may Allah bless him, manumitted Safiya bint Huyay, may Allah be pleased with her, and then married her. Same is true for Juveria, may Allah be pleased with her. These are the practical examples where the Prophet, may Allah bless him, raised the women from the status of slaves and thus they were blessed with the honor of being Mothers of the Believers, always to be respected by all Muslims essentially as a part of faith.
A large number of slaves were manumitted by him. Names of 22 of them are preserved in Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir of Ibn Sa’d. 6 additional are recorded in Tarikh al-Tabari. Maududi after a detailed study said that number of slaves manumitted by the Prophet, may Allah bless him, is 63. His wife ‘Ayesha, may Allah be pleased with her, set 67 of them free. Another 70 slaves were liberated by al-‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, the uncle of the Prophet. The number of those manumitted by another close companion ‘Abdul Rahman bin ‘Awf runs into thousands. (See Human Rights in Islam by Abu Al-A’la Maududi. Chapter 3, subsection 5)
On the other hand there is hardly any parallel to it in any other religious setup. The deeds and teachings of Jesus, may Allah bless him, as known through the Bible say nothing on this.
L.D. Agate had to accept;
“There is no explicit condemnation of slavery in the teaching of our Lord.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics vol.11 p.602)
Infact Agate even goes on to say that;
“Our Lord accepted the political and social conditions of His time, leaving His teachings to work out its consequences in the Christian Church and in the course of history.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics vol.11 p.602)
Even Paul, the real founder of the religion attributed to Christ, did nothing in this regard;
Same author writes;
“It is a mistake to say that St. Paul consciously addressed himself to the task of abolishing slavery …” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics vol.11 p.603)
He then quotes M.R. Vincent, who said;
“It is not likely that he saw the way to its destruction at all.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics cf. The Epistle to the Philippians and Philemon (ICC), Edinburg 1897, p.166)
Manumission of slaves in the Law:
There are many verses of the Qur’an and countless Ahadith about manumission of slaves. In the following lines we briefly see the situations in which manumitting a slave is asked for in the Islamic sources.
For many sins, Islam has determined manumission of slaves as a penalty along with sincere repentance as a way to seek atonement.
If someone kills one of his fellows by mistake then as a way to seek repentance, freeing of a slave is required;
“Never should a believer kill a believer; but (If it so happens) by mistake, (Compensation is due): If one (so) kills a believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave …” (Qur’an 4:92)
Among the Arabs at the time of the Holy Prophet, may Allah bless him, people at times used to make their own wives unlawful to themselves calling them akin to their mothers. The practice was called Zihar. Islam not only condemned this senseless practice but also asked for freeing of slaves in case one does it;
"But those who divorce their wives by Zihar, then wish to go back on the words they uttered, (It is ordained that such a one) should free a slave before they touch each other: Thus are ye admonished to perform: and God is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do." (Qur’an 58:3)
There are more examples of this kind.
Other than this, manumission of slaves has been emphasized as a great deed of virtue generally too.
Narrated Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari: The Prophet said, "Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sick and release (set free) the one in captivity (by paying his ransom)." (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 4954)
The Prophet, may Allah bless him, ordered people to manumit slaves on many other occasions too. One Hadith says;
“The Prophet, may Allah bless him, ordered people to manumit slaves during the solar eclipse." (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 2335) The same is true for lunar eclipses cf. Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 2336
All these facts clearly indicate that Islam by virtue of its clear injunctions worked out the abolition of slavery. But when we look at the Christian side, there is not even a remote similarity.
Agate had to confess;
“But it remains true that the abolitionist could point to no one text in the Gospels in defence of his position, while those who defended slavery could appeal at any rate to the letter of Scripture.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics vol.11 p.602)
Treatment of slaves:
The importance of just treatment of slaves, before they are manumitted, is very clear from the what the Prophet, may Allah bless him, said in his final advice to the Ummah;
“Fear Allah! Fear Allah! In the treatment of what your right hands posses (i.e. slaves). Cover their backs (i.e. clothe them), fill their bellies and be kind to them in speaking.” (Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir)
Furthermore Islam made it compulsory for a person to set the slave free if he had beaten him in order to receive please Allah.
The Prophet , may Allah bless him, was narrated to have said; "He who slaps his slave or beats him, the expiation for it is that he should set him free" (Sahih Muslim, Hadith 3130)
Abu Mas'ud al-Ansari reported: "When I was beating my servant, I heard a voice behind me (saying): Abu Mas'ud, bear in mind Allah has more dominance over you than you have upon him (i.e. that slave). I turned and (found him) to be Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him). I said: Allah's Messenger, I set him free for the sake of Allah. Thereupon he said: Had you not done that, (the gates of) Hell would have opened for you, or the fire would have burnt you." (Sahih Muslim, Hadith 3136)
Abdullah Ibn Umar narrated that a man came to the Prophet, may Allah bless him, and asked: "Messenger of Allah! How often shall I forgive a servant?" He gave no reply, so the man repeated what he had said, but he still kept silent. When he asked a third time, he replied: "Forgive him seventy times daily." (Abu Dawud, Hadith 5164 Classified as Sahih by Albani)
The Bible nowhere takes exception to maltreatment of the slaves. At one point Bible tells us;
“If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” (Exodus 21:20-21)
So Bible says, one can beat the slaves, he only ought to make sure he or she doesn’t die.
The New Testament is mum like anything on this issue.
The Prophet, may Allah bless him, even took into consideration the condition of slaves among those who came to fight him. The ransom taken from the slaves amongst the pagans captured at Badr was half of that demanded from freemen. For freemen it was 40 ounces of silver and for the slaves it was 20 ounces cf. Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah, Hadith 37889
Status of freed-slaves:
Also let us also consider the status of freed-slaves in the society whether they were given equal rights and just treatment or were they still consider the ‘other.’
The same writes, Leonard D. Agate, tells us that in the Roman Empire, “The existence of a large class of freedmen was a further misfortune, for their freedom was not entire—it took several generations to remove the stigma of slavery, and freedmen still retained many of the vices of the slave.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics vol.11 p.604)
And he could count three Roman bishops who had been slaves. They were, “Evaristus, Anicetus, and Calixtus I.” (p.603)
While in the House of Islam the situation was entirely different. The freedmen were easily assimilated into the society and enjoyed full respect, many times more than people of esteemed lineage.
Salim, who was the freed-slave of Abu Hauzaifa, may Allah be pleased with them both, was held in utmost esteem both by the Prophet, may Allah bless him, and his companions.
The Prophet of Allah, may Allah bless him, recommended four people to learn Qur’an from. Salim, may Allah be pleased with him, was one of them. (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 3475)
He used to lead the companions in the prayers. (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 651)
And Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, used to say;
“If Salim, the freed-slave of Abu Huzaifa were alive I would have made him the Caliph.” (Tarikh al-Tabari 2/420)
The Prophet, may Allah bless him, said; "You should listen to and obey, your ruler even if he was an Ethiopian (negro) slave whose head looks like a raisin." (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 6609)
Can anyone show a parallel to this from any religious scripture? Did any religious leader ever say something like this for the slaves?
The Prophet, may Allah bless him, married one his freed-slaves, Zaid bin Harith, may Allah be pleased with him, to one of his own cousins.
Also we have learnt that; “From thirteen to nineteen mawlas (i.e. freed-slaves) were present at Badr. Proper shares were allotted to them [in booty].” (Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir vol. 2 p.21)
Salman the Persian and Bilal, two highly respected companions of the Prophet were also freed-slaves.
‘Ikrama who is one of the greatest authorities in Tafsir (i.e. Qur’anic commentary) among the second generation of Muslims was a freed-slave of Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.
Similarly Tawus, who was one of the well known students of Ibn Abbas, Ibn Mas’ud, Ibn ‘Umar, Zaid bin Thabit etc., Allah be pleased with them all, and one of the top scholars of his time was a freed-slave.
‘Ata bin Rabah, Zaid bin Aslam, Hassan al-Basri, Nafi’, all of whom were the leading scholars of the generation after the companions were freed-slaves. Same is true for Ka’b al-Qurazi and many others. Ibn Sirin, another undisputed authority of the same era was son of a freed-slave. Abu Hanifa, recognized as the greatest Muslim jurist of all times, was also from such a family.
Thus we find that while Christians can boast of three, or may be few more, among the Church bishops who managed to rise to their religious stature after having been slaves; more often than not freed-slaves were the leaders of the Muslims in the religious sciences.
I think the above is enough to give a glimpse of how the two great religions look at the problem of slavery. The details of various aspects ought to be dealt with separately. To conclude I’ll simply quote a narration from a companion and a student of the Holy Prophet, may Allah bless him which best sums up the purpose of a Muslim’s life inspired by his faith.
Rabi’ bin ‘Amir said in the court of the Persian warlord, Rustam; “Allah has raised us to rescue whoever he wills from the slavery of (fellow) humans and to make them (devoted) servants of Allah. And to deliver them from the cage of materialism guiding them to the magnanimity of spirituality. And to liberate them from tyranny of [different religions and] systems] leading them to the equity of Islam.” (al-Bidaya wal Nihaya 7/46)
Indeed Allah knows the best!