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In Qur'an translations, we see that the phrase right hands possess is used in many ayahs. What exactly does that phrase refer to?

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this is easily googlable. See this en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_malakat_aymanukum –  Ashu Jul 21 '12 at 14:44
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2 Answers 2

It means a female slave. There is no need for marriage to her be Halal to her owner man. Buying her or receiving her as a share in Jihad spoil is enough that she be Halal to the man who poses her.

Before Islam, Arabs heavily had slavery culture but Islam had many rules about slaves but at the same time offered very high rewards for making them free. The Prophet and Ahl Bayt bought many slaves but made them free and many of them became best sahaba of the prophet and Ahl Bayt. In fact rules of Islam about slave are for control slavery and not for encouraging them. Also for some sins slaves must be freed so that the sin or mistake is forgiven. Islam encourage making the slaves free. Making slaves free is kind of punishment in Islam. If Islam wanted to oppose slavery strictly from first, Indeed tribal Arabs killed prophet and never accepted Islam. but Islam fought slavery step by step by controlling it.

Reference:

Enlightening Commentary of the Holy Quran - Volume 4

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Please quote the relevant part of your sources. You frequently just post links with a lot of content; instead, paste relevant parts and block-quote and cite it properly. –  ashes999 Jul 21 '12 at 19:02
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The Quran clearly states that to be a muslim one must not enslave one another.(Q 3:64).

قُلْ يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ تَعَالَوْا إِلَىٰ كَلِمَةٍ سَوَاءٍ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمْ أَلَّا نَعْبُدَ إِلَّا اللَّـهَ وَلَا نُشْرِ‌كَ بِهِ شَيْئًا وَلَا يَتَّخِذَ بَعْضُنَا بَعْضًا أَرْ‌بَابًا مِّن دُونِ اللَّـهِ ۚ فَإِن تَوَلَّوْا فَقُولُوا اشْهَدُوا بِأَنَّا مُسْلِمُونَ ﴿٦٤﴾

[3:64] Sahih International

Say, "O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah." But if they turn away, then say, "Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him]."

Taking one another as lords in here is a kin to enslaving one another as arbaban would also have the notion of master/slave concept.

In order for one to be a mu'min (a faithful/believer) one must be a muslim (in peace) first according to 49:14.

قَالَتِ الْأَعْرَ‌ابُ آمَنَّا ۖ قُل لَّمْ تُؤْمِنُوا وَلَـٰكِن قُولُوا أَسْلَمْنَا وَلَمَّا يَدْخُلِ الْإِيمَانُ فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ ۖ وَإِن تُطِيعُوا اللَّـهَ وَرَ‌سُولَهُ لَا يَلِتْكُم مِّنْ أَعْمَالِكُمْ شَيْئًا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ غَفُورٌ‌ رَّ‌حِيمٌ ﴿١٤﴾

[49:14]

The Arabs say, "We have believed." Say, "You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], 'We are in peace,' for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful."

Then according to 23:1-6 a mu'min must have the following attributes

إِلَّا عَلَىٰ أَزْوَاجِهِمْ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ فَإِنَّهُمْ غَيْرُ‌ مَلُومِينَ ﴿٦﴾

[23:6] Sahih International

Except from their wives or those their right hands possess, for indeed, they will not be blamed -

Hence, it would be contradictory to assume that ma malakat aymanahum (MMA) has the notion of slave as part of it's meaning since that would violate the requirements of being a mu'min and hence being a muslim also.

IMO the range of possible meaning to MMA can not intersect the meaning of wives, otherwise it would be redundant to pair them in one verse.

So, one possible meaning of your right hands possesses/MMA would be whomever you have acquired their consent from. This would not violate the requirement of being a mu'min

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