Looking at the abolition of slavery time line, Islamic countries such as Oman, UAE, Yemen and Saudi Arabia kept slavery legal up until the 1960s, despite non-Islamic countries taking a lead role a thousand years earlier.

Since Mecca is contained within the state of Saudi Arabia, it follows that Islam should have its greatest influence within this region, yet slavery was still legal there upto 1962. Maybe Islam allows slavery under certain conditions, such as Muslims enslaving non-Mulsims?

Why didn't Shariah law take a lead role in the abolishment of slavery?

  • The slavery that you may mean (treat your slave anyway that you want, kill him or leave him alive and etc) has never been allowed in Islam AFAIK, however, owning slaves as somewhat more strict form of a paid worker remained allowed, although still as @systemdown has mentioned in his answer freeing slaves have been always encouraged and sometimes forced as penalties. The form of slavery in Islam is far different than what you see in movies about slavery in US. Hopefully someone can bring you evidences for these claims. ;) Godspeed
    – owari
    Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 12:04
  • There's the economic/social damage of instantly abolishing something too deeply ingrained in society, similar to as if Islam tried to prohibit polygamy back then. But Islam has always had people freeing slaves as a Sunnah, and as a punishment for some sins.
    – Muz
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 8:35

3 Answers 3


First, we have to separate Islam from the implementation of Islam. The second one is subject to the whims of governments that historically have had different aims and priorities.

Now, to say that Islamic law plays no part in abolishing slavery is not accurate. There is a form of penalty in Shariah law called عتق رقبة Atq Raqaba, in which the penalty is to free a slave (yours or someone else's). Also, freeing of slaves has been described many times as an act that is very pleasing to Allah with many rewards in the hereafter.

The question becomes, obviously, why didn't Islam outright ban slavery? The answer is that Islam is tightly knit to society, and recognizes that societal change is a slow thing. Slavery was very much a cornerstone of society at the time, and completely banning it would've been unenforceable and would only result in a law that no one followed. Instead, Islam created a pathway to the eventual abolishment of slavery by making the act of freeing slaves a highly respected one that increased one's status in Allah's eyes.

A close analogue to this is the ban of alcohol. Alcohol too was a cornerstone of society. Many of the Prophet's companions were known to consume alcohol regularly. So the Prophet did not ban it outright. At first, the act of being sober was made a requirement for prayer. Then the act of making alcohol and profiting from it was banned. And only after those previous changes had taken effect did the complete ban on alcohol make sense.

But unlike alcohol, slavery was far too entrenched to go away during the Prophet's lifetime. Thus, it became the duty of the following generations to do so.

  • 1
    I don't understand your reasoning, given that Islam succeeded in banning alcohol outright from the start. Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 1:30
  • According to your good reasoning, 1400 years or so was not enough time to abolish slavery by the people but once non Muslim did away with Slavery, the last 100 years were so was good enough time to abolish slavery? This answer surely also means if for some reason, all non Islamic states perishes, Slavery will again be imposed in Islamic states. Am I wrong here?
    – muslim1
    Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 14:25
  • @LarryHarson - See the last paragraph Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 17:05
  • @Thecrocodilehunter - No. It only means that the prophet's lifetime wasn't enough to enact the change. After that it became the responsibility of the next generations, who IMO failed to follow through in that regard. Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 17:07
  • The best explanation. The rest is an interested mistake
    – abkrim
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 15:14

The OP's question is based on some implicit assumptions which need to be addressed - that of treatment of slaves (which is separate from the institution of slavery as usually understood today).

Had the slaves not been mistreated in non-Islamic countries, it is unlikely they would have revolted/demanded their rights or that anyone would have exerted enough pressure on the governments of these countries to force them to finally abolish slavery in the first place.

The OP's question assumes that the slavery in Islam is the same as that practiced by Godless colonizers or corporations or individuals who - when they take slaves - be they sex slaves, or debt slaves or slaves of personal assistance and physical labor - treat them as sub-human. The only slavery existent in Islam (which sets policies to end that as well) is that of labor and assistance. The other forms of slavery which are rampant today throughout the world including the developed world, are prohibited. As for physical/personal assistance, unlike the generally understood concept of slavery the questioner may be used to, masters in Islam are not "superior" to slaves anyway, neither are they ever allowed to mistreat their slaves.

'Your slaves are your brothers upon whom Allah has given you authority. So, if one has one's brethren under one's control, one should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them (in their hard job).' (Bukhari)

Further, the respect of a slave is such that the Prophet (S) prohibited the master from even calling to the slave using the word "slave". In another Hadith, "Whoever beats the slave or Servant unjustly, revenge will be taken from him on the Day of Judgment." We are commanded to consider them as are equals, and regardless of whether we are slaves or masters, Muslims are constantly reminded that we are all slaves on earth to our One King, God. "Be slaves of God, brothers", said the Prophet (S).

Slaves in Islam have legal rights as well - with plenty of leniency. If slaves commit crimes, their punishments are half of those of a criminal who was a free person. When asked how much the mistakes of slaves should be forgiven, the Prophet (S) said "seventy times" - meaning that even when mistaken, slaves should be treated with kindness. With the respect that masters are demanded to give their slaves in Islam, slaves are also required to respect and serve their masters back. And why not? When they are fed, sheltered, clothed, respected, often educated and treated as one of their own by their masters? In a Hadith, "When a slave or servant is faithful to his master and also worships his Creator, he is deserving of a double reward (in the hereafter)."

So before questioning the idea of abolishing slavery in Islam, one should first recognize that the only slave-master relationship allowed in Islam is that of respect, loyalty, love and protection, and even cooperation in the work, if it is hard work. The slave-master relationship is absolutely not the one that today's non-Islamic countries conceive it to be, based on their own historical realities.

With the Islamic treatment of slaves, it is unlikely that slaves would revolt against their masters or that others would rise up on their behalf in the first place, in the kind of uprisings seen in non-Islamic countries. Why would such a thing happen if slaves were not being abused in the first place?

Despite demanding this respect for those under one's service, Islam still sets policies towards a slavery-free world. The act of setting slaves free is important enough in Islam for there to be more to it than simply "abolishing slavery".

'A bedouin came and said, 'Prophet of God! Teach me an action which will enable me to enter the Garden.' He said, "The question is a broad one, even though you have asked it in only a few words. Free someone. Set a slave free.' He said, 'Are they not the same thing?' 'No,' he replied, 'Freeing someone is setting someone free yourself. Setting a slave free is to contribute to the price of setting him free...' (Bukhari)

The Quran and Hadith give several ways that Muslims should "free slaves".

  • Freeing a slave is one of the highest virtues in Islam, mentioned over and over again as simply a beautiful that should be done for the sake of itself, for God.
  • Freeing slaves (as someone mentioned above) has also been set as the penalty to be paid for certain sins in Islam (such as breaking oaths, or making up to your wife after certain marital problems, etc.)
  • Slaves (especially slave girls) are encouraged to be married out of slavery.
  • Slaves have the right to ransom themselves out of slavery.
  • Freeing a slave in Islam is not as simple as heartlessly placing a "ban on slavery", because in a world where slaves are skilled in a specific labor - then banning slavery doesn't do much for them. Having spent years in someone's service, most have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do anyway. Hence freeing a slave in Islam means giving them a new life, and then freeing them to it. That would include providing them with education, vocational training, wealth, marriage, and more.

Since Islam is a universal religion which must be practical in all times and all ages, it does not make statements which are unreasonable in certain communities or for some people. For example, as it was in Arabia at the time that the Quran was revealed, with so much of the agriculture and livelihood being based on the work of slaves, abolishing it could likely bring the economy to a grinding halt - and what of food and sustenance for everyone else? Hence rather than proclaiming it outlawed in one step, the approach taken was more practical and humane. For another example, if certain individuals are unable to take care of themselves or for any other reason really need permanent assistance, it would be unfair or impractical for them to be considered sinners because they took slaves, despite their good treatment of them.

In addition to this answer, I recommend you to view the slavery related issue being discussed at 22:35 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-uHDxm1oHE

Again, do keep in mind that countries such as Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia etc are hardly "Islamic" countries. The majority population in these countries happen to be Muslim, but the laws that are practiced are not all Islamic, they are cherry-picked to suit the rulers' convenience.

  • By the way - all the conditions of respect and kindness to slaves under which Islam allows slavery - all of them are irrespective of whether the slaves are Muslims or non-Muslims. Slaves can be either Muslims or non-Muslims.
    – user961627
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 12:08
  • Slavery for comprising the message of Allah, and still ended to either inherit the last verse of Coran. Anyone who allows, understand, or try to minimize, or accept slavery, did not come out of the dark times, (Jahiliyya) or did not understand the message.When it comes to understanding the message, is curious as Arabs and other non-Arabs, have destroyed throughout history, the message to suit your misierias as chauvinistic as oppressors, or any other form of perversion.
    – abkrim
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 15:12

I've recently begun to explore this question and definitely find there is a huge gap in awareness and reflection on the practice of slavery in Muslim history, a practice which still (illegally) continues to this day in some places.

I don't believe it is enough to simply point tothe ideals of islamic ethics and principles and not consider historical legal positions by jurists as having been part of 'islam' and that there may even have been problems with those positions. I am very interested to know what contemporary scholars felt and argued regarding the abolition movement - from my reading it does seem to have been a contentious issue between the ottoman empire and the arabian gulf.

As for the transatlantic slave trade being utterly incomparable to slave trade in Muslim countries/ empires- I think it's important to note that the horrors and inhumanity of slave experiences in the Americas is well documented, including personal narratives, and is ingrained in our consciousness. Yes it was a unique historic phenomenon and an extremely degrading form of slavery, but it is also the most common cultural reference point for slavery, so if other societies have different forms it needs to be explained in this context.

While the Quran and hadith did explicitly call for certain rights and obligations towards slaves, a humane approach, even to be treated as family- the actual forms of slavery that took place were of a wide range. It's paradoxical maybe to the modern ear that some slaves had great social mobility and positions of great prestige and influence. That doesn't mean that having markets in Makkah into the modern age is anything other than troubling or why gross violations of islamic principles like wanting eunuchs (boys castrated in a horrific manner) and concubines, or kidnapping and enslaving Africans going on pilgrimage could have occurred and openly sanctioned rather than causing outrage.

I hope it's clear that my knowledge on the matter is very imperfect and incomplete, and God forgive me if it is incorrect, but my main point is that this is a huge, complex and problematic issue that deserves greater study and reflection. In the West we can still clearly see how the legacy of the slave trade affects so many social issues and people are still struggling to come to terms with the truth and realities of the practice even so many years after abolition. Surely we can have the moral courage to analyse the truths of the practice in Muslim contexts and even be able to consider how it relates to our current reality. I don't think we should assume it barely existed or naturally declined through an enlightened islamic approach or was a wholly benign practice or is completely irrelevant today.

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