Lessons from Ma`ariful Qur’an: Slavery in Islam

by Shaykh Dr. Mateen Khan (Trenton, New Jersey)

The following is a brief, loose translation including the translator’s notes on a topic from the Qur’anic exegesis, Ma`ariful Qur’an, written by the late esteemed Mufti Muhammad Shafi`. Any ayahs and hadiths have also been translated loosely to convey a meaning rather than a strict literal translation.

Note: The following is written up merely as a historical discussion and note. Today, the people of the world—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—have agreed to end the institution of slavery. Muslims are divinely bound to keep this agreement.

فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَضَرْبَ الرِّقَابِ حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَثْخَنتُمُوهُمْ فَشُدُّوا الْوَثَاقَ فَإِمَّا مَنًّا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَاءً حَتَّىٰ تَضَعَ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا

After discussing in the previous ayahs about those non-Muslims during the time of the Prophet ﷺ that systematically harmed Muslims and prevented them from practicing their religion in peace, the Qur’an explains:

When you meet the non-Muslims in battle, strike their necks until you have thoroughly defeated them, then restrain your captives; thereafter you may either set them free as an act of grace, or in exchange for a ransom. You only have this option until the war ends. Thereafter, you may not take any captives. Surah Muhammad, ayah 4.

Throughout Islamic history, the majority opinion states that the leader of the Muslim nation has four options during war concerning combatant captives: set them free, ransom them, kill them, or enslave (explanation to come) them.

A question arises: Since no system upholds human rights more than Islam, how is it that slavery is allowed? The author explains this question can only arise if one misunderstands slavery in Islam or equates it to slavery found in other religions and peoples. The rights and position Islam gives slaves may be slavery in name, but in reality, it is closer to brotherhood. (For the remainder of the article, slavery in Islam has been translated as riqaq to highlight this difference.) In many situations, riqaq is the best path for a captive of war. Slavery, as it was known in the West and elsewhere, conjures up images of chains, yolks and whips; of meager food and pitiful living conditions. This was not the case with riqaq.

If we put aside slavery as an option for war captives, we are left with killing them, setting them free (with recompense or not) or imprisoning them forever. Often, there is harm in each of these options. Captives are human beings possessing skills and qualities. To kill them is to waste these talents and an overall loss for a community. Setting them free means they return to their homelands only to increase hatred against us and incite another attack, which they themselves are likely to join. Before the above ayah, a discussion arose among the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions after the Battle of Badr as to what to do with captives. Most of them chose to ransom, whereas a small number including `Umar ibn al-Khattab urged to kill them. Ultimately, the Prophet ﷺ chose to ransom them, but was later divinely shown the greater overall benefit lay in `Umar’s opinion. Later, this would be born out in the events of the next battle, `Uhud, when those same freed captives returned to cause greater harm to the Muslims. We are now left with two options: imprisoning them to rot on some island or the institution of riqaq. Riqaq is a path which intends to utilize an individual’s skills while looking after their human rights and furthering their development. The Prophet ﷺ said:

هم إخوانكم، وخولكم جعلهم الله تحت أيديكم فمن كان أخوه تحت يده فليطعمه مما يأكل ويلبسه مما يلبس ولا تكلفوهم ما يغلبهم، فإن كلفتموهم فأعينوهم

Your slaves are your brothers. Allah has placed them under your authority. He who has his brother under him, should feed him from whatever he eats, and dress him with whatever he wears, and do not task them beyond their ability; and if you task them, then help them. (Bukhari & Muslim)

Riqaq allowed slaves to marry and even encouraged their masters to assist them. They could marry other slaves or even marry free people. Historically, it was not uncommon for a slave to marry his master’s daughter. The Qur’an reads:

وَأَنكِحُوا الْأَيَامَىٰ مِنكُمْ وَالصَّالِحِينَ مِنْ عِبَادِكُمْ وَإِمَائِكُمْ

Arrange the marriage of the unwed among you, and the capable from among your men and women in riqaq. Surah al-Nur, Ayah 32

A dedicated book would be required to list out all the ayahs and hadiths on the topic of treating a slave honorably. The author instead suffices by citing the last words of the Prophet ﷺ as he instructed his followers to never forget two things, “The prayer (salah), the prayer… fear Allah concerning your slaves.”

His followers took heed of these words to such an extent that by the time of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan’s rule, every department of his government and echelons of respect were occupied by people in riqaq.

Many a time, the penance for a sin is to free a Muslim or non-Muslim slave. If one were to abuse a slave, prophetic guidance dictates freeing that slave. In addition, the Qur’an and Hadith list out so many rewards for freeing a slave that we saw Companions setting them free in numbers unheard of in Western history. For example, Sayyidah `Aisha set free 69 slaves, Sayyiduna `Abd Allah ibn `Umar 1000 slaves, Sayyiduna Dhul Kila` 8,000 slaves, and Sayyiduna `Abd al-Rahman ibn `Awf 30,000 slaves.

In this brief article, a couple things should be clear: the riqaq system is incomparable to the slavery system, it is only permitted—not mandatory nor even recommended (mustahabb)—in the context of war captives. If one looks at the spirit of divine law, it becomes apparent that freeing them when able is a better route in general. Finally, one should not forget when a mutual agreement exists to not take captives as slaves, as it does today, then it is forbidden for Muslims to break this agreement.

Additional Translator Notes:

There were two ways that one could enter into riqaq: 1) You became a prisoner of war, or 2) you were a slave prior to Islam. The former was explained above. As for the latter, initially there were thousands and thousands of enslaved people. How they got there didn’t matter because the institution existed for a long time and was wide-spread. These were people who were entirely dependent on their masters for everything. You could have set them free, but then what would happen to them? What jobs would they get? Where would they get their food? Did they even have homes to go back to? You would have created a homeless, foodless class that would have been in misery and destroyed the entire society. The men would be forced into stealing and the women into prostitution. So Islam instead improved their condition to the extent that they would eat and dress the same as their masters. Harming them wrongly became a grounds for punishment in the hereafter and the anger of Allah. Freeing them became a grounds for reward in the hereafter and the pleasure of Allah. In other words, it is a kafalah (sponsorship) system where the master is responsible for everything the slave requires (food, shelter, clothing, etc), fulfilling the rights of the slave, making them a productive part of society, and utilizing their potential.

Since this group could no longer grow in number, Islam had set up a system that almost guaranteed this form of slavery would eventually disappear. Yet it did it in a way that didn’t turn the system upside down at once leading to worsening of conditions for the slave and society.

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