Usually, slavery is linked with the socioeconomic status of a region or a country. Slaves are people deprived of basic human rights and are compelled to work without any compensation against their services. Historian proved that slavery was practiced in many ancient civilized countries; like ancient China, Egypt, Greece, Persia, and India, which there are many great monuments of the old world that were built on a carcass by slaves.
Generally, before the advent of Islam, slavery was widespread in Arabs. People were enslaved; during wars, debt defaulter or purchased from slave markets. Slaves do not have free will and were bound to execute laborious tasks day after day and during their trade journey to other counties.
History of Slavery
One can trace back the history of slavery as ancient as 5000 BC, however more appalling forms appear in fifteen to seventeenth-century particularly in Europe and America. There are many sayings clarifying the strong stance of Prophet Muhammad against slavery.
According to studies in 2017, slavery enters into human history with civilization. The man used to hunt or gather food at an individual or collective level and primitive farmers were unknown to a term “Slave”. As the world becomes more civilized and started claiming over natural and man-made resources, demand for cheap labor aroused. On a large farm or in a shop, having cheap labor is an added benefit. Getting a slave is an ideal solution for such work as it costs only food and lodging. Many archaeological sites tell the story that slaves had been used as cheap labor.
1) Egyptian Civilization
The ruins of Egyptians palaces and pyramids indicated that slaves were used in construction. The hieroglyphs written on the walls of these magnificent structures support that ancient Egyptian used slaves as personal servants, as labor during construction and as soldiers during wars. Many holy scripts like Torah, Bible, and Quran also indicate that the Prophet Joseph (Yusuf) was sold in Egypt as a slave (Al-Quran; Surah Yusuf). Later on, prophet Moses (Musa) saved Bani Israel from the slavery of Pharaoh of Egypt.
2) Greek Civilization
Greece was a great empire of ancient times, slavery was common, and apart from usual use as the servant, labor or soldier Greeks used them as gaming animals. Historical records unveil their brutality and cruelty against slaves. They were thrown in front of soldiers for military rehearsals or hunted by wild beasts as a recreational activity. The so-called democratic city of Athens was writing its history with the blood of innocent people. Most of the slaves were kidnapped from weaker coastal nations by Greek pirates and then sold like animals.
3) Roman Empire
The transition of Roman society from an agricultural nation to a trading center led to the bipolar society, upper ruling class, and lower working class which was actually manipulated by a ruling class. Slaves had no rights to marry, independent lodging, or any kind of freedom of expression. The masters should be protected by slaves and master had the right to give them any kind of punishment, even the death penalty.
4) Slavery among Arabs
Before the advent of Prophet Muhammad, slavery was a common practice in Arabs. Most of the slaves were of African origins which were captured during wars, but debt defaulters and slaves from other areas were also purchased. Like all other societies and civilization Arabs were no different, slaves do not enjoy any of the basic human rights. In Arab society, slaves with war skills were valued more. In Arab society, slaves can buy their freedom. They could utilize their skills to earn money and can pay back to get their freedom, some people used to free their slaves on special occasions as an act of generosity.
Like Abu Lahab, uncle of Prophet Muhammad freed his slave Soiba when she broke the news of the birth of Prophet Muhammad to him. On another occasion, Hind, wife of Abu Sufiyan freed her slave Wahshi according to her promise. Although slaves were freed or they had earned their freedom from their masters, but they were not accepted in the society. They did not have equal rights like other citizens.
Islam vs Slavery
Holy Prophet Muhammad announced his prophethood at the age of forty, his truthfulness, honesty, and affectionate nature was already established among Arabs. His message was primordially based on equality of all human beings. He led the foundations of a society that do not discriminate people on the basis of color, race, or ethnicity. He gave hope to the poor and underprivileged people of the society to live with dignity and honor.
1) The First Start
There are several sayings that endorse Islam through Prophet Muhammad, commitment to erode slavery and establish a state with equal human rights. It was narrated that Abu Dharr said (which means):
The Messenger of Allah said: “They are your brothers whom Allah has put under your authority, so if Allah has put a person’s brother under his authority, let him, feed him from what he eats and clothe him from what he wears, and let him not overburden him with work, and if he does overburden him with work, then let him help him.” [Narrated by al-Bukhari].
It was narrated that Abu Hurayrah said (which means):
I heard Abu’l-Qaasim (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) say: “Whoever accuses his slave when he is innocent of what he says will be flogged on the Day of Resurrection, unless he is as he said.” [Narrated by al-Bukhari].
Ibn ‘Umar manumitted (release) a slave of his, then he picked up a stick or something from the ground and said (which means):
There is no more reward in it than the equivalent of this, but I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) say: “Whoever slaps his slave or beats him, his expiation is to manumit him.” [Narrated by Muslim].
Moreover, The Prophet convinced people that Allah Almighty created all human equal and will only consider your virtues and devotion. It is clear from the Quran (which means),
“Now, indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favored them far above most of Our creation” [Al-Quran, Surah Al-Isra, verse 70]
2) Emphasis on Rights of Slaves
There are many occasions when Prophet Muhammad emphasized on the rights of the slaves and strictly ordered their masters to treat them well with the provision of all basic rights like marriage, independent lodging, and participation in other social events. He applied the principle of “eye for an eye” for the rights of slaves. Samara reported that he heard that Prophet Muhammad said (which means):
“Whoever kills his slave, we will kill him and whoever cuts off his slave’s nose, we will cut off his nose”[Narrated in Sunan an-Nasa’i].
Prophet Muhammad condemned any kind of physical abuse against slaves. It was a usual practice in Arabs to cut nose or ears of slaves as a punishment, in extreme furry masters have the authority to even kill their slaves. Ibn Umar reported that once he slapped his slave and then freed his slave as he heard Prophet Muhammad saying (which means):
“Whoever slaps his servant, his expiation is to liberate him” [Narrated by Muslim].
These accounts clearly indicate his stand on the rights of slaves. Many neutral historians reported the kindness and concern of Prophet Muhammad for the acceptance of slaves as dignified members of society. It is reported by Arnold Joseph Toynbee that the extinction of race consciousness among Muslims was one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world, there is, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue.
3) Initiatives to Erode Slavery
Islam was the first religion that took many concrete steps to erode slavery in accordance with orders of God Almighty and Prophet Muhammad. It clearly defines that slaves are bound to do physical work, but their minds are free to make independent decisions. War slaves can be freed after paying ransom or any productive service to the Islamic state. Like prisoners of War of Badar were freed by Prophet Muhammad after teaching Muslims how to read and write.
The Slaves cannot be physically abused and must be treated on the basis of equality. Al-Ma’rur bin Suwaid quoted a Hadith (which means):
“I noticed that Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari wearing a cloak, exactly like his slave. We inquired that both were dressed alike? He told that once he abused his slave and he complained about him to the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet inquired him, ‘Did you abuse him by slighting his mother?’ and added, ‘Your slaves are your brethren, but Allah has given you authority over them. So, if one has his brethren under his control, he should feed them with the like of what he eats and clothe them with the like of what he wears. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them.“
Islamic history is full of events when Prophet Muhammad and his companions treated their slaves with mercy, freed them, and fought for their rights. As pre-Islamic Arab society was dependent on slaved labor so Prophet Muhammad did not prohibit it at once, but gradually molded the society in a direction where slaves should be accepted as equal citizens. He conveyed the message of Allah to the people that they should spend money to free a slave as it is an act of piety and has the greatest reward in the hereafter.
“The offerings given for the sake of God are only for the poor and the needy, and those who are in charge thereof, and those whose hearts are to be won over, and for the freeing of slaves, and those who are overburdened with debts, and in God’s path, and to the traveler; an ordinance from God – and God is all-knowing, wise” [Al-Quran, Surah Al-Tawbah, verse 60].
Similarly, on another occasion Allah the almighty appreciated the freeing of slaves and gave them two options Mukataba (agreement) and Kitab. Muslims were encouraged to pay their religious taxes to free slaves or free them for the sake of God or free them if they pay back their costs. Allah said (which means):
“And those of your slaves who wish to enter the contract of Mukataba (a written agreement between master and slave, where slave pay back money to his master) with them, if you recognize some good of them. And give them out of the wealth of Allah that he has given to you.” [Al-Quran, Surah An-Nur, verse 33]
This message led the foundation of Islam as in the beginning poor and enslaves people embraced Islam to gain self-respect. Whenever the history of slavery is discussed role of Prophet Muhammad in the erosion of slavery cannot be denied. He will always be remembered as a source of inspiration, a symbol of humanity and mercy for people suffering from torments of life.