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Asking from a non-muslim's viewpoint, If Islam preaches equality, then why does it permit slavery?

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TLDR: it was the status quo at the time and place Islam came down. Islam added humanity to an inhumane system. Detailed answer coming soon inshaAllah. –  ashes999 Jun 20 '12 at 19:53
(non-Muslim questions) is not an appropriate tag. If you edit more, your question will go CW. –  Gigili Jun 20 '12 at 21:24
Does Islam permit slavery? Quran always encourages to find and free slaves if there are any. Muhammad (pbuh) clearly forbid slavery. –  hkBattousai Jun 21 '12 at 14:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Even though our Imams and Prophets has accepted slave system, but Islam had a plan to free slaves gradually. What people don't normally pay attention to is that if a wrong system has entered a society, removing it needs time and scheduling. If you do something without considering all aspects, it'll have opposite results. It's like something infected with a dangerous virus, or an addicted person who cannot just stop using drugs all of a sudden.

Now if Islam had ordered to free slaves, some of them could got perished when they were an important group in the society. Or a large group of people could became jobless without a place to live in.

Islam consider freeing slaves an "Ibadat", all Prophets and Imam tended to free slaves so simply to give other people a lesson on how it's done.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said:

«شَرُّ النَّاسِ مَنْ بَاعَ النَّاسَ » Reference

The worst people are the ones who sell humans.

This is a quite popular Hadith among Shi'as.

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Gigili, You should have mentioned that this reference is for Shi'a. –  user37 Jun 21 '12 at 12:43
@HaLaBi: It is not, I'd mention otherwise. –  Gigili Jun 21 '12 at 12:45
I am pretty sure Sunnis do not have this Hadith. –  user37 Jun 21 '12 at 12:47
This Hadith is not available in any Sunni Hadith Book. Not 'Albukari' nor 'Almuslim'. –  user37 Jun 21 '12 at 13:00
@Gigili, I have searched and I am positive that this Hadith is not recognized by Sunnis. Its not available in All Sunni recognized books. Therefore it is better of you mention this. –  user37 Jun 21 '12 at 13:18

In Islam, No human being has the right to restrict to prevent someone's freedom unlawfully. If he does, then he is an oppressor. But, yes, Islam permits slavery and it is a means to protect the war prisoners from other evil and not to oppress them. We should examine with fairness.

When Islam came, there were many causes of slavery, such as warfare, debt (where if the debtor could not pay off his debt, he became a slave), kidnapping and raids, and poverty and need.

Slavery did not spread in this appalling manner throughout all continents except by means of kidnapping; rather the main source of slaves in Europe and America in later centuries was this method.

The texts of Islam took a strong stance against this. It says in a hadeeth qudsi: “Allaah, may He be exalted, said: ‘There are three whose opponent I will be on the Day of Resurrection, and whomever I oppose, I will defeat … A man who sold a free man and consumed his price.’” Narrated by al-Bukhaari (2227).

It is worth pointing out that you do not find any text in the Qur’aan or Sunnah which enjoins taking others as slaves, whereas there are dozens of texts in the Qur’aan and the ahaadeeth of the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) which call for manumitting slaves and freeing them.

There were many sources of slaves at the time of the advent of Islam, whereas the means of manumitting them were virtually nil. Islam changed the way in which slavery was dealt with; it created many new ways of liberating slaves, blocked many ways of enslaving people, and established guidelines which blocked these means.

Islam limited the sources of slaves that existed before the beginning of the Prophet’s mission to one way only: enslavement through war which was imposed on kaafir (disbeliever) prisoners-of-war and on their womenfolk and children.

Shaykh al-Shanqeeti (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: The reason for slavery is kufr (disbelief) and fighting against Allaah and His Messenger. When Allaah enables the Muslim mujaahideen who are offering their souls and their wealth, and fighting with all their strength and with what Allaah has given them to make the word of Allaah supreme over the kuffaar, then He makes them their property by means of slavery unless the ruler chooses to free them for nothing or for a ransom, if that serves the interests of the Muslims. from Adwa’ al-Bayaan (3/387).

He also said:

If it is said: If the slave becomes Muslim then why keep him as a slave, when the reason for slavery is kufr (disbelief) and fighting against Allaah and His Messenger, so this reason no longer applies?

The answer is that the well known principle among the scholars and all wise people, which is that the previously established right cannot be erased by a right that is established later, and that what came first takes precedence, is obvious.

When the Muslims captured kuffaar (disbelievers), their right to possession was affirmed by the law of the Creator of all, Who is All Wise and All Knowing. So this right is confirmed and established. Then if the slave became Muslim after that, his right to escape slavery by embracing Islam was superseded by the mujaahid’s (Muslim who does Jihad) prior right to take possession of him before he became Muslim, and it would be unjust and unfair to annul the prior right because of a subsequent right, as is well known to all wise people.

Yes, it is good for the master to free the slave if he becomes Muslim. The Lawgiver enjoined and encouraged that, and opened many doors to it. Glory be to the Most Wise, the All Knowing. “And the Word of your Lord has been fulfilled in truth and in justice. None can change His Words. And He is the All‑Hearer, the All‑Knower” [al-An’aam 6:115].

“in truth” means in what He tells us, and “in justice” means in His rulings.

Undoubtedly this justice refers to owning slaves and other rulings of the Qur’aan.

How many people criticize something sound when their problem is their own misunderstanding. from Adwa’ al-Bayaan (3/389).

Capture of prisoners during war was the most common way of acquiring slaves. Prisoners would inevitably be captured during any war, and the prevalent custom at that time was that prisoners had no protection or rights; they would either be killed or enslaved. But Islam brought two more options: unconditional release or ransom. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (i.e. free them without ransom), or ransom (according to what benefits Islam)” [Muhammad 47:4]. During the battle of Badr the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) accepted ransoms from the mushrik prisoners of war and let them go, and the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) let many of the prisoners go for free, releasing them with no ransom. During the conquest of Makkah it was said to the people of Makkah: “Go, for you are free.”

During the campaign of Banu’l-Mustaliq, the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) married a female prisoner from the defeated tribe so as to raise her status, as she was the daughter of one of their leaders, namely the Mother of the Believers Juwayriyah bint al-Haarith (may Allaah be pleased with her). Then the Muslims let all of these prisoners go.

Islam is not thirsty for the blood of prisoners, nor is it eager to enslave them.

Thus we may understand the limited ways that can lead to slavery. Islam did not abolish it altogether, because the kaafir (disbeliever) prisoner who was opposed to truth and justice was a wrongdoer, or was a supporter of wrongdoing or was a tool in the execution or approval of wrongdoing. Letting him go free would give him the opportunity to spread wrongdoing and aggression against others and to oppose the truth and prevent it reaching people.

Freedom is a basic human right which cannot be taken away from a person except for a reason. When Islam accepted slavery within the limits that we have described, it put restrictions on the man who exploits his freedom in the worst possible way. If he was taken prisoner in a war of aggression in which he was defeated, then the proper conduct is to keep him in reasonable conditions throughout his detention.

Despite all that, Islam offers many opportunities to restore freedom to him and people like him.

The principle of dealing with slaves in Islam is a combination of justice, kindness and compassion.

One of the means of liberating slaves is allocating a portion of zakaah (charity) funds to freeing slaves; the expiation for accidental killing, zihaar (a jaahili (ignorant) form of divorce that is forbidden), breaking vows and having intercourse during the day in Ramadaan, is to free a slave. In addition to that, Muslims are also encouraged in general terms to free slaves for the sake of Allaah.

This is a brief summary of some of the principles of dealing with slaves in a just and kind manner:

1 – Guaranteeing them food and clothing like that of their masters.

It was narrated that Abu Dharr (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “They are your brothers whom Allaah has put under your authority, so if Allaah 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-Bukhaari (6050).

2 – Preserving their dignity

It was narrated that Abu Hurayrah (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: I heard Abu’l-Qaasim (peace and blessings of Allaah 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-Bukhaari (6858).

Ibn ‘Umar (may Allaah be pleased with him) manumitted a slave of his, then he picked up a stick or something from the ground and said: There is no more reward in it than the equivalent of this, but I heard the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) say: “Whoever slaps his slave or beats him, his expiation is to manumit him.” Narrated by Muslim (1657).

3 – Being fair towards slaves and treating them kindly

It was narrated that ‘Uthmaan ibn ‘Affaan tweaked the ear of a slave of his when he did something wrong, then he said to him after that: Come and tweak my ear in retaliation. The slave refused but he insisted, so he started to tweak it slightly, and he said to him: Do it strongly, for I cannot bear the punishment on the Day of Resurrection. The slave said: Like that, O my master? The Day that you fear I fear also.

When ‘Abd al-Rahmaan ibn ‘Awf (may Allaah be pleased with him) walked among his slaves, no one could tell him apart from them, because he did not walk ahead of them, and he did not wear anything different from what they wore.

One day ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab passed by and saw some slaves standing and not eating with their master. He got angry and said to their master: What is wrong with people who are selfish towards their servants? Then he called the servants and they ate with them.

A man entered upon Salmaan (may Allaah be pleased with him) and found him making dough – and he was a governor. He said to him: O Abu ‘Abd-Allaah, what is this? He said: We have sent our servant on an errand and we do not want to give him two jobs at once.

4 – There is nothing wrong with slaves having precedence over free men in some matters

  • with regard to any religious or worldly matters in which he excels over him. For example, it is valid for a slave to lead the prayer. ‘Aa’ishah the Mother of the Believers had a slave who would lead her in prayer. Indeed the Muslims have been commanded to hear and obey even if a slave is appointed in charge of their affairs.

5 – A slave may buy himself from his master and be free.

If a person is enslaved for some reason but then it becomes apparent that he has given up his wrongdoing and forgotten his past, and he has become a man who shuns evil and seeks to do good, is it permissible to respond to his request to let him go free? Islam says yes, and there are some fuqaha’ who say that this is obligatory and some who say that it is mustahabb.

This is what is called a mukaatabah or contract of manumission between the slave and his master. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):

“And such of your slaves as seek a writing (of emancipation), give them such writing, if you find that there is good and honesty in them. And give them something (yourselves) out of the wealth of Allaah which He has bestowed upon you”

[al-Noor 24:33]

This is how Islam treats slaves justly and kindly.

One of the results of these guidelines is that in many cases, the slave would become a friend of his master; in some cases the master would regard him as a son. Sa’d ibn Haashim al-Khaalidi said, describing a slave of his:

He is not a slave, rather he is a son whom [Allaah] has put under my care.

He has supported me with his good service; he is my hands and my arms.

Another result of the Muslims treating slaves in this manner is that the slaves became part of Muslim families as if they were also family members.

Gustave le Bon says in Hadaarat al-‘Arab (Arab Civilization) (p. 459-460): What I sincerely believe is that slavery among the Muslims is better than slavery among any other people, and that the situation of slaves in the east is better than that of servants in Europe, and that slaves in the east are part of the family. Slaves who wanted to be free could attain freedom by expressing their wish. But despite that, they did not resort to exercising this right.

Source: Slavery in Islam

So, in reality, slavery in Islam is not the same as the Western definition. Slavery comes as a protection to the war prisoners.

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There is no need to explicitly mention the sunni view in all your answers, unless there is something in it that is exclusively sunni about it. –  ashes999 Jun 21 '12 at 12:51
Thank you, I will keep that in mind next time I answer. I am not used to answer in forums where opinions other than Sunni is tolerated. So, just was being cautious. –  Abdullah Jun 21 '12 at 12:56
@Gigili there's nothing in it that's exclusive or specific to sunnis, as far as I know -- all other groups will agree with it. Plus, we are hardly going to go back and re-label all the answers. Even if we did, I think that's detrimental to the site. –  ashes999 Jun 21 '12 at 13:16

Islam permits slavery for those who come to fight against muslims and Islam. Slavery is a kind of blessing for those who are slaves.
To understand this let me explain. Whenever someone is arrested obviously he is an enemy so should be killed straight away because he is enemy but Islam restricts the owner of slaves to keep slave at their homes , provide them as much and good food to them as they have for themselves. Provide them as good clothes as they own have. Let them walk around , let them get education.
These are all benefits he gets. Islam says they should be kept at home because if there were so many prisons it would be a burden to keep them there. Government(Khilafat) would have to provide everything to them. Instead the way I mentioned above is followed so that they (slaves) see how muslims live and how good their morals and habits are. This means Islam is giving them an opportunity to observe Islam closely.
In the eyes of Islam those who are not muslims are going to hell so slavery is giving them chance to save themselves from fire of hell and see how good Islam is.
In the end those who observe Islam closely embrace Islam. Also Prophet SAW has already told too many fazail(benefits) for releasing slaves. Therefore in the past we see many top scholors after the Era of Prophet SAW who used to be slaves, people(muslims) followed them because they became muslims and able to lead them.
Sorry I couldn't give any reference here because these are all logical things. References can be seen in other answers.

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Islam does not permit slavery to muslims. In fact one of the requirements of being a muslim is to not enslave one another (3:64).

But Islam does not force other adherers to other ideology to conform to Islam's belief system (15:3,23:54,43:84,52:45,70:42) even at the expense of death to uphold their beliefs(6:112) at one extreme.

So if there is a citizen (a mushrik/polytheist or kaafir/rejecter of the concept of Prime Creator) amongst the nation and he has a slave who is a muslim, the nation has no right to take away from the citizen his muslim slave, because it's part of the belief of this citizen to own a slave, and the nation has no right to take it away from him. Otherwise there would be bloodshed amongst muslim and non-muslim to fight for an ideological point of view, which Islam does not want. This is what is meant in the verse 24:32.

وَأَنكِحُوا الْأَيَامَىٰ مِنكُمْ وَالصَّالِحِينَ مِنْ عِبَادِكُمْ وَإِمَائِكُمْ ۚ إِن يَكُونُوا فُقَرَ‌اءَ يُغْنِهِمُ اللَّـهُ مِن فَضْلِهِ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ ﴿٣٢﴾

And marry those unmarried amongst you and the righteous amongst your male and female slaves...(24:32)

that is amongst your male and female citizens that are being enslaved. If we take it that islam allows slavery amongst the muslims, it would be contradicting verse 3:64.

so in this verse Allah SWT is talking to us as a nation (with muslim and non-muslim citizens) and not as a group of muslims.

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