On physical relations with slave-women in Islam
Discussion on the historical context, practical realities that underline Islamic rules about slaves. And answer to the misconception that Islam allows Muslim men to “use” slave-women for physical pleasure in the light of various laws governing the permission for physical intimacy with slave-women.
The Islamophobes and the critics of Islam continue with their insane and false rant on Islam making the females captives of war as “enslaved sex objects.” And they make it clear that they do it specifically to have the large number of non-Muslim women coming to Islam in our day “stop and think a second time before taking this serious step.” This is to highlight that inspiration for this propaganda are only the wounds of envy and jealousy. However, we must accept that lack of understanding and clarity of the issue on the part of Muslims themselves and therefore their general inability to explain it in a reasonable way does leave room for such liars and the rivals of the Truth.
In this particular article we shall try to have a wholesome understanding of the issue in the light of Islamic injunctions, historical context and realities about human nature.
2. The Historical Context
As highlighted in an earlier article, Islam did not initiate the institution of slavery. It was something that was prevalent in times and the environment in which the Islamic laws were being revealed in their final form that could suit humanity for good. So Islam had to deal with the idea of slavery in a non-reactionary, wise and practical way. Therefore, instead of letting all the slaves let go and invite trouble for the society with hundreds and thousands of people having nothing to survive or refusing to take captives of war and thus making the enemy bold and allowing them a much greater room for maneuvering Islam took a very practical approach of making it permissible to keep them as slaves while removing the greatest scourges of slavery as known to the world otherwise. Further, through the various statutes of the Islamic law and lessons in general Islamic etiquette with a promise of great reward a process was initiated to do away with the slavery even though there was no instruction to abolish it as such.
We have dwelt on the general context and treatment of slavery in Islam earlier. In the following lines we restrict ourselves to the treatment of slave-women with special reference to issue of physical intimacy.
3. The Fundamental Misconception
The basis of all the false propaganda and misconceptions on the subjects arise from the failure to understand the very purpose for which slavery is permitted in Islam. The very reason of permission is linked to the situation described above as the context. It is fundamentally kafalah (taking care and overlooking and managing of the affairs) of the captives of war making them productive part of the society with guarantee of rights rather than putting them in prisons while burdening the state apparatus and making them rust in spite of their productive potential.
People tend to think that female-slaves were allowed as “sex objects” and to let the Muslim men have unchecked physical pleasure by “using” them as such.
This, however, is most certainly not true even though Islam does allow physical intimacy by the way of possession of slave-women along with the permission of the same through marriage.
The Qur’an while speaking of the attributes of true believers says;
وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِفُرُوجِهِمْ حَافِظُونَ () إِلَّا عَلَى أَزْوَاجِهِمْ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ فَإِنَّهُمْ غَيْرُ مَلُومِينَ
“Who abstain from sex, Except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess,- for (in their case) they are free from blame.” (Qur’an, 23:5-6)
The verse maintains and provides the foundations of the idea that a person is “free from blame” for having physical intimacy with his slave-women. But this only denotes permissibility and we maintain that it is neither the purpose of their “master-slave” relation nor is this recommended.
The great classical scholar Abu Walid al-Baji al-Maliki (d. 474 A.H./1081 A.C.) writes;
لأن مقصود النكاح الوطء وليس مقصود الملك الوطء
“… the very purpose of marriage is (to make) intercourse (permissible) but the purpose of possession (of slave-women) is not intercourse.” (Al-Muntaqa Sharah al-Muwatta, Darul Kitab al-Islami, Cairo, 1332 A.H. vol.4 p.82)
Further both Qur’an and Sunnah, as we shall elaborate below, establish that even though permissible to have physical intimacy with his slave-woman the best for a man is to have her in proper married relation himself after manumitting her or to marry her to someone else.
Therefore, we must understand that even though permissible, physical intimacy with the slave-women is neither the purpose of having them as slaves nor a recommended practice.
The reason for permissibility of physical intimacy with slave-woman is twofold;
a) Chastity on the part of the slave-woman that she may not turn to lewdness. (Or we can say she may not be forced into that for not finding a legitimate way for what is instinctive)
b) Chastity of her owner/master.
See, Al Mausu'ah Al Fiqhiyyah Al Kuwaitiyah (Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence), Dar al-Salasil, Kuwait, 1408 A.H. vol.11 p.297
By protecting chastity Islam also ensures the protection and preservation of lineage which is very important in Islam. In fact scholars even count it as one of the very purposes of the Islamic law.
Moreover, it also ensures that if the recommendation of getting the slave-women married is not practiced then the permitted physical relation itself becomes a source for eventual freedom of the lady and before actual freedom preserves many more rights, as we shall elaborate shortly.
Consider this against the fact that it is when the recommended is not possible or practiced.
In fact in many ways the slave-master relation that makes a slave-woman permissible for her master is like marriage. As in the case of marriage a man makes a woman lawful unto him and in return assumes the responsibility of all her fundamental requirements like boarding and lodging, other financial needs and social protection, in the case of slave-woman too, while she becomes lawful for her master, her master is then required to not only provide with basic necessities of life but also social security. This highlights significant similarity between the two relations though for a surety a free-woman regularly married has a lot more rights than a slave-woman.
4. Women are NOT enslaved for sex
Following arguments prove that even though physical relations are permissible, slave-women are not treated like “sex objects” in the House of Islam as falsely propagated by anti-Islamic polemicists and orientalists.
4. 1 Cohabiting randomly with slave-women is not allowed
Firstly when there are women among the captives it is not that every soldier has the right to lay with anyone of the captive women. This is simply not permissible. In fact the leader of the Muslims distributes the prisoners among the Muslims and only the one who is given to a person and becomes his slave is permissible for him. This is vital because this way the person becomes in charge of the slave that comes to him and is responsible for her (or him). Recall the above statement that in certain ways the relation is like marriage.
In fact anyone were to cohabit with a slave-women before the decision of the leader about them and before their due distribution, he was considered an adulterer and was liable to be punished. Consider the following report;
Khalid sent Dhirar bin al-Azwar in a party and they attacked an area of the tribe of Bani Asad. They captured a pretty woman, Dhirar liked her hence he asked his companions to grant her to him and they did so. He then had sexual intercourse with her, when he completed his mission he felt guilty, and went to Khalid and told him about what he had done. Khalid said: 'I permit her for you and make it lawful to you.' He said: 'No not until you write to Umar (about this)'. (Khalid informed ‘Umar about this) and ‘Umar wrote back that he (i.e. Dhirar) should be stoned (to death). By the time ‘Umar's message reached, Dhirar had died. Khalid said: 'Allah did not want to disgrace Dhirar.’ (Al-Bayhaqi’s Sunan al-Kubra, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyya, Beirut, 2003 vol.9 p.177 Hadith 18222)
Had the taking of captives only been for sensual pleasure there was no need to instruct for such a harsh punishment. This proves women are not slaved for physical pleasure.
4.2 A slave-woman jointly owned by two or more men is unlawful for all of them
During the distribution, at times a slave-woman may be allotted to more than one person. In such a case she remains unlawful for all of them.
Ibn Qudama al-Maqdasi (d. 620 A.H.) writes: “It is not permissible to have intercourse with a shared slave-woman.” (Al-Mughni, Matkaba al-Qahirah, Cairo, 1968, vol.6 p.64)
The famous example of this is the case of Sayyidah Juwariyah bint al-Harith who before being manumitted and married to the Holy Prophet –on him be the peace and blessings of Allah- was given as a slave to Thabit Ibn Qays and one of his cousins.
In the English translation of a section of Ibn Sa’d’s work often used by various anti-Islamic polemicists the translator, S. Moinul Haq adds the following footnote to the narration with the above mentioned fact about Sayyidah Juwayriyah;
“When a slave girl was allotted to more than one persons, none of them could cohabit with her.” (Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir vol.2 p.78 n.2)
This again kills the lie that women were taken as captives for physical pleasure. Had this been the case, multiple masters of a slave-woman would all have been allowed to seek pleasure with her. But this not the case!
4.3 When the slave-woman’s previous marriage remains intact
And once a woman is given in protective custody of a Muslim man, it may happen that she is actually unlawful for him right from the time of being captured as her earlier marriage may actually be intact. This is when a woman is captured along with her husband or when they are captured after each other and are brought together to area under Muslim jurisdiction. Muhammad bin al-Hasan al-Shaybani - the student of Abu Hanifa, the Imam- said:
“When the army takes a woman captive followed by her husband who is also taken captive sooner or later and either the woman does not have menses during that period or has had upto three menses but she is not taken out of the Territory of War before her husband is taken, their marriage shall continue.” (Kitab Al-Siyar Al-Saghir- The Shorter Book on Muslim International Law- Translated by Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi, Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad, 1998 p.51)
So again, a woman is taken as a captive and she must be taken care of according to Islamic teachings about slaves, but she remains unlawful for her master and anyone else except her husband. This could have not been the case if slave-women were to be used as “sex objects.”
4.4. Command to arrange for the marriage of slave-women
Further Muslims are actually instructed to get the slave-women married. The Holy Qur’an says:
وأنكحوا الأيامى منكم والصالحين من عبادكم وإمائكم
“Arrange the marriage of the spouseless among you, and the capable from among your bondmen and bondwomen.” (Qur’an 24:32)
“So it is incumbent upon the masters of the slaves and the slave girls that those among them who have the ability to get married, their marriage should be arranged. It is purported to mean here that if they show their need and desire to get married, then according to some jurists it is binding on the owners to marry them off. But the majority of jurists have ruled that in such a situation it is incumbent upon the masters not to place any hindrance in their marriage and allow them to get married, because the marriage of slaves and slave girls cannot be performed without the permission of their owners … The gist of this all is that the owners are instructed here not to make any delay in granting permission of marriage to their subjects …” (Mufti Muhammad Shafi’, Ma’ariful Qur’an- Translation by Muhammad Ishrat Husain, Karachi, n.d. vol.6 pp.423-424)
So the owners are asked to arrange for the marriage of their slaves or at least not to stop them from doing so, if they wish to. This again proves our point, because when a slave-woman is married off to someone, she becomes unlawful for her master. And here we see the master being asked to marry her off or at least not to make it difficult for her to marry. Had the purpose of taking slave-women been sexual pleasure, there was no point in asking the masters to make it easy for the slave-women to get married and become unlawful for the masters.
During the time of ‘Umar- may Allah be pleased with him- a person was brought to him for cohabiting with his slave-woman who was married to someone, he punished him severely with hundred lashes. See Musannaf Ibn Abi Shayba, Narration 29152-29153, Muhammad Awwama ed.
In fact the best is that one manumits his slave-girl and he marries her as a free woman.
Narrated Abu Musa: Allah's Messenger said, "He who has a slave-girl and educates and treats her nicely and then manumits and marries her, will get a double reward." (Sahih Bukhari, Book 46, Hadith 720)
And once she is a free-woman and properly married then there is no question of being a “sex object” unless one considers marriage the same.
4.5. Pagan slave-women are unlawful for their masters
Further, not all slave-women are lawful for their masters. Just like Islam does not allow Muslim men to marry pagan women i.e. those who are neither Muslims nor from the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) it does not allow Muslim men to have physical intimacy with pagan slave-women.
Though such slave-women will be taken care for their general needs but they will be unlawful for their masters unless they become Muslims or follow another Abrahamic faith.
Al-‘Ayni (d. 855 A.H.) writes: “The imams with ruling have agreed that it is not permissible to have intercourse with pagan (slave-women),” (‘Umdatul Qari, Dar al-Ahya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, n.d. vol.7 p. 103)
This is further evidence that slave-master relationship that makes physical intimacy lawful is in many ways akin to marriage.
In fact there are many others rules related to marriage that apply to this relation like combining two sisters or close relatives in this relation. For this reason Muslim jurists state;
“ … Intercourse with the slave-woman is (in certain ways) like the marriage contract.” (Al Mausu'ah Al Fiqhiyyah Al Kuwaitiyah. vol.11 p.300)
And this is the reason why the “imams of ruling” have sought evidence against intercourse with slave-women with the following rule mentioned in the Book of Allah;
وَلَا تَنْكِحُوا الْمُشْرِكَاتِ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنَّ
“Do not marry (la tankihu) the polytheist women, unless they come to believe (in Islam);” (Qur’an 2:221)
Therefore, once again we have a point; had the purpose been free “use” of women there was no reason to make pagan slave-women who are so much averse to Islam in their beliefs as unlawful for Muslim men.
4.6 The waiting period (iddah) rule
And if the master actually decides to have physical intimacy with his slave-woman, it must be noted that Islam does not allow men to lay with slave-women as soon as they capture them. Instead a certain waiting period is prescribed.
Following Hadith needs a careful reading;
Abu Sa’id Khudri narrated the following statement from Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) regarding the captives of Awtas: “There must be no intercourse with a pregnant woman till she gives birth, or with one who is not pregnant till she has had one menstrual period.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Hadith 2152. Albani classified it as Sahih)
In fact it was stressed in very strong words;
Narrated Ruwayfi' ibn Thabit al-Ansari: Should I tell you what I heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say on the day of Hunayn: It is not lawful for a man who believes in Allah and the last day to water what another has sown with his water (meaning intercourse with women who are pregnant); it is not lawful for a man who believes in Allah and the Last Day to have intercourse with a captive woman till she is free from a menstrual course; and it is not lawful for a man who believes in Allah and the Last Day to sell spoil till it is divided. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Hadith 2153 Classified as Hasan by Albani)
Further the rule of waiting for one menstrual period with regards to the woman who is not pregnant is applicable to both virgins and those who already married as stated by Mulla Ali Qari (d. 1014 A.H.) in his commentary to Mishkat al-Masabih (vol.5 p.2189 Dar al-Fekr ed.)
This waiting period serves also to help the slave-woman to regain her composure, seek an adjustment with new realities of life and a kind of a training course in the Islamic lifestyle.
Once more it highlights that women are not “sex objects.” Islam does care for preservation of the lineage. The whole idea is to keep the sanctity and honor of the women and their possible children. Had it been about enjoyment there was no reason to cater for all these issues.
4.7 If a master cohabits with his slave-woman, no one else can
And if a man actually sleeps with his slave-woman she becomes unlawful for everyone else. Then at least until child-birth or purity after menses she cannot even get married, nor can anyone else have intercourse with her. (See Shub-hat al-Mushakkikin, Islamic-Council.com, Egypt, 2002, No.137)
Imam Malik (d. 179 A.H.) said: "In our view man who rapes a woman, virgin or non-virgin, if she is free, he must pay the dower of the like of her. If she is a slave, he must pay what he has diminished of her worth. The hadd-punishment in such cases is applied to the rapist, and there is no punishment applied to the raped woman.” (Muwatta, Book 36, Chapter 16, Narration 14)
There is some difference on the financial penalty but not on the offender getting the hadd-punishment i.e. stoning to death or hundred lashes depending on his marital status.
Again, if the slave-women were taken only for sexual pleasure why severely beat or even kill a person for this? The fact that comes out clear is, they are not taken for such a purpose. Their honor is protected and in most ways they are indeed treated like free Muslim women.
4.8 The case of “umm walad”
And lastly if the man actually has intercourse with his slave-woman and she bears him a child she becomes more than an ordinary slave-woman. After that she cannot be sold and is guaranteed freedom at the death of the master, if she is not manumitted till then despite great virtues for doing it.
The Prophet of Allah –may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- said: “Do not sell the slave-woman who bears you a child (umm al-walad).” (Mu’jam al-Tabarani al-Kabir, Hadith 4147, Albani placed it Silsala Ahadith Sahiha No. 2417)
‘Umar- may Allah be pleased with him- said: “Her child makes her free, even if it is dead.” (Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah, narration 21894)
Qadi Ibn Rushd (d. 595) known to the West as Averroes writes: “ About the question, with what does she become an umm walad, Malik said it is anything that she delivers from which it can be known that it was to be a child, even if it is an embryo or a blood-clot. Al-Shafi’i said it is necessary that physical appearance and features be discernible in this.” (Bidayat al-Mujtahid- The Distinguished Jurist’s Premier, Translated by Imran Ahsan Nyazee, Garnet Publishing, vol.2 p.476)
In fact Ibn Rushd has recorded that consensus has taken place on the prohibition of her sale even during the time of her pregnancy. (See, Bidayat al-Mujtahid vol.2 p.475)
Yet again it proves that slave-woman is not to be used as an “object” rather if a person actually gets into intimate relations with his slave-woman and impregnates her then he cannot sell her rather he must take care of her and her child when delivered. He cannot relieve himself of the responsibility thereafter. And whether or not she delivers alive and healthy child, it guarantees her freedom with the death of her master, if he does not manumit her before that. (See, Kanzul Ummal, Hadith 29654)
And her child most certainly is free and gets share from the inheritance of his/her father.
4.9 Summary of the arguments against slave-women as “sex objects” allegation
All these points are categorical and unquestionable evidence that Islam does not anyway view slave-women as objects to be used for the pleasure of Muslim men; rather it views them as dignified citizen with secured rights and provides for them multiple ways to freedom.
It collective evidence above also verifies our assertion that physical intimacy is not the purpose of taking women as captives. It is most certainly not the recommended practice for Islam actually wants them to be properly wed. And even the intimate relation is developed between the slave-girl and her master, she is given honor, her chastity is protected, rights of her children are guaranteed and her freedom is ensured.
5. The rape allegation and consent issue
As shown above while Islam makes a person in charge of the slaves and makes him responsible for their sustenance along with the instruction to treat them with care and respect and requires him to arrange for their marriage, it does not divorce with facts of life rather it seeks to combine reality with humanity. And for this reason masters are allowed to have physical intimacy only with their slave-women if they cannot follow the much recommended course of arranging for their marriage. However, it does not tantamount to allowance for raping them, through their exclusive right for intimacy is recognized.
Following arguments prove that neither is the “rape” allowed in the light of prophetic guidance with regards to treatment of slaves, nor was this done by the blessed companions of the Prophet – on him be the peace and blessings of Allah- during the earliest days of Islam.
1- A narration reported by Abu Dharr tells us that: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Feed those of your slaves who please you from what you eat and clothe them with what you clothe yourselves, but sell those who do not please you and do not punish Allah's creatures." (Sunan Abu Dawud, Hadith 5142. Albani classified it as Sahih)
Now this import of this Hadith is very generic and on the issue being discussed it tells us that if a slave-woman were to refuse to please her master by not willing to let him lay with her, the person is not to force her, rather at best he should sell her and get away with her. It is hoped with the new master her issues get resolved. And any idea about “raping” the slave-woman is actually termed as “punishing Allah’s creatures” which is most certainly a heinous crime.
2- All the various conditions and rules governing the permission for sexual intimacy between the master and his slave-woman shared above make it clear beyond doubt that Islam does not allow “raping” the slave-women.
3- As to the question of possibility of a slave-woman agreeing to have physical intimate relations with someone from amongst the people who separate them from their own relations, there are two factors to be considered.
Firstly, the general Islamic instructions regarding treatment of slaves and women once practiced are always likely to placate a slave-woman, especially considering the waiting period rule that served the purpose of helping her regain her composure, and see the realities in the new setup where she was treated in way too different than a woman could expect to be treated as a slave-woman.
Secondly, psychologically and historically such a proposition is not really wonderful.
Rev. Samuel Burder (d. 1836 A.C.) writes;
“It was customary among the ancients for the women, who accompanied their fathers or husbands to battle, to put on their finest dresses and ornaments previous to an engagement, in order to attract the notice of the conqueror, if taken prisoners.” (Oriental Customs Or, an Illustration of the Sacred Scripture, Williams and Smith, London, 1807 vol.2 p.79)
These factors are clear indications that there is nothing novel in the idea that slave-women would agree on having physical intimacy with those who took them as captives, when women have a natural inclination towards strong, brave and victorious men who treated them well and further that women knew if nothing else such a relation itself would ensure their freedom or at the very least guarantee many rights.
6. Why take captives in the first place?
Someone might say that while it is fine that Islam gives so many guarantees to captured women but why capture them in the first place? The answer is in the on ground realities. In the past centuries it was common with armies to capture men and women of the conquered nations. It was true even before Islam and the people with whom Muslims had encounters often resorted to this. Now if the Muslims were not to capture their people it would have made the enemy bold knowing that Muslims were barred by their faith to respond in kind. Therefore, Islam did not declare it unlawful rather allowed the Muslims to the same. It served two purposes i.e. weakening the morale of the enemy plus opportunity to get Muslim prisoners with the enemies frees through exchange of captives. However Muslims generally treated the captives in the best possible way. An example of exchange of prisoners is the hadith of Sahih Muslim which states a slave-girl given in the custody of Salama bin al-Akwa was taken back and sent back to the pagans to get the Muslim prisoners released. (Sahih Muslim, Hadith 4345)
While Islam does permit taking captives, it is neither a religious obligation nor something advised. If the nations of the world, however, agree not to harm the civilians or take them as captives and making them slaves, then Muslims should also follow the same as long as other nations do not betray. (See, Takmila Fath al-Mulhim, Dar al-Ahya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, 2006 vol.1 pp.268-269)
If, however, other nations do not follow the agreements Muslims will have but no choice except to take their prisoners and find possibility for the release of their own people. This arrangement of prisoner swap has found success for Muslims in the Middle East lately and the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqi also highlights its importance.
7. Summary and Conclusion
1- Sexual intimacy is not the purpose of having slave-women. The great classical Muslim scholar from Spain, Abu Walid al-Baji clarified this in categorical wording:
“… the very purpose of marriage is (to make) intercourse (permissible) but the purpose of possession (of slave-women) is not intercourse.” (Al-Muntaqa Sharah al-Muwatta)
2- The recommended practice after owning a slave-woman is to manumit her or at least arrange for her marriage.
3- Even when permissible and considered as an option Islamic law does not allow a man to “use” the slave-women. There are rules governing the permissibility that go with the general Islamic ideals of morality and chastity along with the protection of lineage.
4- It is therefore false to say that Islam allows raping slave-women.
Indeed Allah knows the best!
 This may apparently appear to contradict the following hadith narrated by Abu Sa’id al-Khudri:
“They took captives (women) on the day of Autas who had their husbands (lahunna azwaj). They were afraid (to have sexual intercourse with them) when this verse was revealed: ‘ And women already married except those whom you right hands posses.’ (iv. 24)” (Sahih Muslim, Hadith 3433)
But this narration only says they had their husbands, it does not say whether they were also taken as captives or not. However, the narration in Jami’ al-Tirmidhi shows they were not taken as captives. It reads;
“On the day of Awtas (the Battle) we got some women captives who had their husbands among their people (azwaj fi qawmihinna).” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1135, Translation by Rafique Abdur Rehman, Darul Ishat, Karachi, 2007, vol.1 p.477)
This proves their husbands were not taken as captives along with them, therefore their marriage was considered void then.
This is further supported by the following narration given by Al-Jassas (d. 370 A.H.);
Muhammad bin ‘Ali narrated: “When it was the day Awtas, the (disbeliever) men fled to the mountains and their women were taken as captives.” (Ahkam al-Qur’an, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyya, Beirut, 1994 vol.2 p.173)
For further discussion on the point see, Takmila Fath al-Mulhim, vol.1 p.83-87
 One may find an apparent contradiction with the following narration;
Narrated Jabir ibn Abdullah: “We sold slave-mothers during the time of the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) and of Abu Bakr. When Umar was in power, he forbade us and we stopped.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Hadith 3943)
However, looking at various other evidences scholars have explained that it was during the early days and later the Holy Prophet –may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- forbade it and it sometimes happened during the time of Abu Bakr as a rare event and without his knowledge. However, later when perhaps such cases were reported during the time of Umar, he pronounced and propagated the Prophetic instruction. (May Allah bless them all) See Fath al-Qadir of al-Manawi, vol.6 p.385