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Slavery & Islaam: Why Was Slavery Not Abolished Outright?

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On January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that mandated freeing all slaves in the Confederate States of America. By summer 1865, about four million slaves were freed, and in December 1865 the constitution of the United States was amended for the thirteenth time to permanently effect the emancipation.

President Lincoln, also known as the Great Emancipator, is famous and admired around the world for his role in ending slavery in the United States.

I, being a staunch admirer of Abe Lincoln, became speechless with surprise when a limo driver in New York told me that the Emancipation Proclamation was not as positive as it appears, and that it actually was a major setback for the freedom of black man in the United States.

There are recollections in one’s memory that are carved in stone; simply unforgettable. My conversation with Andy, the Jamaican limo driver, was one such instance. My wife and I were driving from a New Jersey hotel to JFK airport in a private limo that was arranged for us by a kind front-desk receptionist who was pregnant. The receptionist’s kindness, I thought, was amplified by her knowledge that my wife was also pregnant with our first child, so she used personal connections to ensure the best limo service for our trip to JFK.

Nouran, my wife, was asleep during the trip to JFK, whereas Andy and I were discussing a school in East Saint Louis that I read about in a book by Jonathan Kozol (a famous educator and campaigner for educational reform in the United States.) When I expressed my astonishment with the disparity between two public schools in Illinois, the first in East Saint Louis (the poorest school district in the United States) and another public school separated by only 150 meters but was one of the richest public schools in the country, Andy said: “This is a direct result of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

I thought Andy was joking, but he was not. He was very serious. He explained: “When the slaves were emancipated following the famous proclamation, what happened to them?” I answered that most of them went up north. “This is true,” he said, and added: “But what did
the millions of freed slaves ended up doing?”

I still had no glimpse of where he was heading with his argument when he said: “When the slaves were freed, the state had no rehabilitation programs for them, no training, no education, nothing. Millions of slaves whose skills were mostly in farming and servitude relocated to areas where they had to carve a living for themselves and their families without any proper transition.

The only way out from the situation the freed-slaves found themselves in was to work in low-skill and low-paying jobs; mostly in factories in the north, such as in Gary, Indiana. The slaves were freed from slavery to masters, but were in reality enslaved by a capitalistic society that strongly discriminated against blacks and never gave them any chance to get out of the hole they found themselves in following their emancipation. There was no federal, state, or county programs that financed or organized training, education or rehabilitation for former slaves to introduce them to the new jobs; jobs for which former slaves had no training.”

Taking a deep breath, Andy added: “And to add insult to injury, the public education system is fully and only financed by property tax, which means that the schools for the poor are financed by property tax collected from the poor. There was not, and there still is not, a way for blacks out of their dilemma, except through becoming athletes or performers; only a trickle otherwise finds a way out, but barely. The majority of former slaves are still shackled by their ancestors’ emancipation.”

I had never looked at the Emancipation Proclamation and its consequences from that angle before. The point elucidated by Andy, however, was as clear as it was eye-opening. One cannot fault President Lincoln for emancipating slaves the way he did, especially during the tumultuous period of the Civil War between the Union and the Confederate States. But the fact remains that emancipation was one step that needed other steps to integrate former slaves into the society and rectify their collective situation; no steps, however, followed until the late 20th century and the Civil Rights movement.

In the ride back to the hotel, I remember asking myself: “What about slavery in Islaam? How was it dealt with?”

Fundamentally, Islaam used a gradual approach whenever it sought to improve a habit or correct an injustice or change a practice, except in one case only, namely, the Oneness of God. Islaam came with the call to monotheism; straight, loud, clear-cutting, uncompromising and immediate. Every other worship or social reform, however fundamental in Islaam, was introduced gradually.

’Salaat in the form of the five daily prayers, which is the second pillar of Islaam after affirming monotheism, was mandated during the eleventh year of the prophethood of Mu’hammad (PBUH). During the first eleven years of Islaam, Muslims used to pray sporadically either with the Prophet (PBUH) or separately in their own dwellings. Fasting was also practiced but the mandated fast came three years after that of ’Salaat.

Wine consumption was also prevalent in the Makkan society and throughout Arabia upon the advent of Islaam, and the majority of Muslims drank it. Its prohibition came in three steps that are mentioned in the ’Qura~n: First came a warning against its consumption, second came a prohibition of praying while drunk, and since mandatory prayer was spread throughout the day, drinking was significantly curtailed, and afterward, a complete prohibition was finally ordered.

Here is a more drastic example: There is an A~yah (verse) in the ’Qura~n in the Chapter of Annoor (the 33rd verse in the 24th chapter) that forbids Muslims from forcing their maids into prostitution. This A~yah was revealed in Madinah, several years after the Prophet’s migration there. Chastity was encouraged and adultery was strongly condemned until prostitution was forbidden outright eventually.

Blood retribution (revenge killing) was annulled twenty two years after the advent of Islaam, and the first blood to be annulled by the Prophet (PBUH) was that of his own cousin. Usury was also strictly forbidden around the same time, and all interest on loans was cancelled, starting with the interest that the Prophet’s own uncle demanded from people he lent money to. The road towards this end was paved through previous years by ’Qura~nic revelations and Prophetic traditions that showed the way and prepared Muslims for the fateful day when injustices are to end.

This gradual approach was the choice with which Islaam dealt with the question of slavery, in contrast to the sudden emancipation that followed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Islaam, undoubtedly, accepted the institution of slavery, just like Judaism and Christianity did earlier. Islaam, however, parted way with earlier practices of slavery, both in religious societies and in pagan ones. Bernard Lewis explained that Islaam: “… brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects: “the presumption of freedom” and “the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances”.” [1]

Of the early followers of Prophet Mu’hammad (PBUH), there were several slaves; most notable was Bilaal Ibn Rabaah (an Ethiopian slave) who was chosen by the Prophet (PBUH) to climb the Ka’bah and call for the prayer, despite misgivings by some notable Arabs. Bilaal, and many former slaves, were appointed rulers of major Islaamic cities thereafter.

Lest I lose focus of the main thread, I shall recap the important points here:

A. Islaam accepted the institution of slavery, as it did with several other institutions at first. It then gradually changed and reformed.
B. Islaam presumed freedom of every individual as the basic condition of humans; slavery was an aberration.
C. A free person cannot be enslaved, except in very special circumstances that are clearly defined.

Islaam closed the door on slavery, and opened many doors for manumission. The only door of enslavement that was left open, and even this is disputed by some scholars, was capture in war.

Islaam came to people who practiced slavery, so it had to deal with an existing problem. The Prophet (PBUH) set the rules for dealing with slaves: “Your slaves are brothers of yours. Allaah has placed them in your hand, and he who has his brother under him, he should feed him with what he eats, and dress him with what he dresses himself, and do not burden them beyond their capacities, and if you burden them, (beyond their capacities), then help them.” (This ’hadeeth is narrated in the book of Muslim).

Manumission of slaves was mandatory on several occasions, which included:

1. If the owner wrongs the slave or abuses him/her, either verbally or physically, the slave must be liberated. There is no other form of expiation.
2. A maid, who has been taken by the owner as a concubine, has her condition of slavery suspended automatically and permanently upon giving birth to her owner’s child.
3. The expiation of manslaughter is manumission.
4. A child born to a couple with one slave parent is born free.

There are also several other occasions in which the expiation of sin is either manumission or monetary compensation, and manumission is the preferred choice. And to encourage manumission, the Prophet (PBUH) said: “He who emancipates a slave, Allaah will set free from Hell every limb (of his body) for every limb of his (slave’s) body, even his private parts.” (This ’hadeeth is narrated in the book of Muslim).

There are scholars who have interpreted the acceptance of the slavery institution by Islaam, and the continued practice of enslaving some or all of those who were captured at war, as the only method through which free men could become enslaved. Those are the majority of scholars. Other scholars, however, argued that the ’Qura~n abolished this practice in the fourth A~yah of the Chapter of Mu’hammad, which states: “… then bind a bond firmly (on them, i.e., take them as captives). Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (i.e., free them without ransom), or ransom (according to what benefits Islaam), until war lays down its burden.” No other option was given, which renders enslavement obsolete.

An additional practice that was encouraged by Islaam, as reported in the ’Qura~n, is the practice of Mukaatabah, which is a contract between a slave and his/her owner through which the slave buys his/her freedom, by practicing a trade or working in the market. The initial capital for this trade is generally given by the owner him/herself. This is evidenced by this A~yah: “And such of your slaves as seek Kitaab (contract for emancipation) give them such contract, 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.” [Chapter of Annoor, 33]

The practice of Mukaatabah was meant to give slaves a head start in their new lives as the masters of their own destinies, by making sure that they receive proper initiation into the job market under the supervision of their owners.

This is how Islaam dealt with slavery, which should have ended slavery a long time ago in the Muslim land.
This is not, however, how Muslims dealt with slavery. Unfortunately, many Muslims succumbed to the lucrative business of slave trading, especially from Africa, that they violated their own religious code of ban on enslaving free men and women. The Prophet (PBUH) warned very strongly against enslaving a free man and selling him, and said that he, the Prophet (PBUH), will take up the case of the enslaved man before Allaah against the slaver on the Day of Judgment.

Slavery was a dark page in the history of humanity. Islaam came with a prescription that would have gradually ended this practice, had Muslims abided by their own code of ethics. We, unfortunately, have failed to do so. The only consolation I see is that our failure to uphold the rights of slaves and end slavery was part of a general ethical failure that befell the Muslim nation; a failure that manifested itself in slavery, usury, blood retribution, and wine consumption: all of which should’ve been abolished had we heeded the call of our beloved Prophet (PBUH).

[1]. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/lewis1.html


Ibrahim Babelli -

Ibrahim Babelli [Ibraaheem Baabilly] is a research scientist working for Schlumberger Dhahran Carbonate Research Center. He did his undergraduate work in Saudi Arabia and his graduate work in the USA.Read More >>

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