Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Slavery - an unfair criticism of the Qur'an?

A recent comment on a previous post summarises many of the objections to my posts (apart from the one about not speaking Arabic...) I receive from Muslims and illustrates the ignorance of their own religion under which some poor Muslims are still labouring.
"Everyone here is babbling about something in which they have no clue. Stop taking stories and verses out of context. How exactly did you judge Islam being male oriented? When Islam came at the time of Persians and Romans none of those empires gave rights to women let alone respect of any sort to them. Slavery was in its peak. Therefore....Islam at that time announced that:1-slavery is forbidden2-women have the right to choose who to marry3-women have the right to inherit4-women were given 3 times the respect to a father by a hadeeth of prophet (pbuh)5-women participated in battlefields as a part of the army6-and in heaven a woman is a lot more beatiful than the 70 virgin hoor alaien, rewarding a women with more beauty as to what she served in life.7-the story about (hell is made mostly of women) meant to teach women not to gossip. Also, not betray, resign their husbands.
Islam gave all of that 1400 years ago when most of the world lived under horrible laws.
The elections and democracy? We had that 1400 years ago, although some ppl out of greed changed it but that is not the point.
The point is, when you take the Quran, you take it all without leaving a part of it." 
There is much to take issue with here but let us for the moment focus on #1.
"Slavery is forbidden"
The commentor blithely claims that Islam "announced that slavery is forbidden" at a time when slavery was at its peak in the Roman Empire. Really? Even my convert friend admits that the Qur'an accepts slavery as a normal, if regrettable  part of society . He tries to defend this by stressing the references to how one should consider giving slaves their freedom in some circumstances and how one should treat one's slaves fairly:
The conditions on the slave master are quite stringent in Islam. The slave must be housed decently and given the same quality of food and clothing that the master has. I have the feeling that many supposedly free employees of modern times live in less dignity than slaves have had under Muslim rule. 
We should also remember, however, that despite my friend's valiant attempts to dress up the Qur'an's disturbing references to slavery as some sort of liberal social contract, the Qur'an in fact reveals what it really thinks of the position of slaves in the infamous ayat 33:50 wherein Allah tells Muhammad with whom sex is lawful: O Prophet! Lo! We have made lawful unto thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesseth of those whom Allah hath given thee as spoils of war (slaves). This seems to me to be a strange way of telling us that slavery is forbidden. Ah- but here I am taking words out of context again! So let's read the whole ayat:
O Prophet! Lo! We have made lawful unto thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesseth of those whom Allah hath given thee as spoils of war, and the daughters of thine uncle on the father's side and the daughters of thine aunts on the father's side, and the daughters of thine uncles on the mother's side emigrated with thee, and a believing woman if she give herself unto the Prophet and the Prophet desire to ask her in marriage, a privilege for thee only, not for the (rest of) believers. We are aware of that which We enjoined upon them concerning their wives and those whom their right hands possess that thou mayst be free from blame, for Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
Now I understand! It's not just Muhammad who can have sex with his slave girls without risking the ire of The  Almighty. In fact it's any Muslim...Because Allah is forgiving and merciful. (I wonder if the slave girls forced to submit to the desires of their masters thought Allah quite so merciful....)
Perhaps I'm interpreting these lines incorrectly (because I don't speak Arabic, of course). So let us go to the scholars for their expert opinion. Ibn Timiyya, inter alia, makes it clear for us: (Vol. 32, p. 89),
"The root of the beginning of slavery is prisoners of war; the bounties have become lawful to the nation of Muhammad."
And if that were not unambiguous enough, in Vol. 31, p. 380, he says this:
"Slavery is justified because of the war itself; however, it is not permissible to enslave a free Muslim. It is lawful to kill the infidel or to enslave him, and it also makes it lawful to take his offspring into captivity."
But surely we should look to the "best human ever" for our guide as to how to deal with slaves. If slavery was common at the time of the Prophet then he could have set an example for the billions of humans to come after him by NOT OWNING SLAVES HIMSELF. But wait, it seems that Muhammad, according to expert Muslim sources, was in fact a great slave owner. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, a respected scholar, in his book

"Zad al-Ma'ad" (Part I, p. 160), says,
"Muhammad had many male and female slaves. He used to buy and sell them, but he purchased (more slaves) than he sold, especially after God empowered him by His message, as well as after his immigration from Mecca.
But perhaps Muslims over the centuries since Muhammad have interpreted the evidence like my commentor and modern apologists and have done their best to rid the world of the the scourge of human bondage. That, after all, is what we would expect of the followers of a religion which apparently so unambiguously forbids it.

What then are we to make of of the fact that historians estimate that between 10 and 18 million Africans were enslaved by Muslim Arab slave traders and taken across the Red SeaIndian Ocean, and Sahara desert between 650 and 1900? Would these traders have so blatantly disobeyed their God if they believed that what they were doing was forbidden? Let us not forget, after all, that the "Christian" slave traders made reference to their holy book to justify their trade:

"Genesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave'. "

Christians traditionally believed that Canaan had settled in Africa and that thus all the dark-skinned people in the continent of Africa were there to be exploited. (How wonderful are the Abrahamic religions!) Even in the New Testament, where Jesus has many opportunities to tell his followers that slavery is a sin, nothing is heard.

Thus in all three books of the monotheistic religions - those religions deemed so much more advanced, sophisticated and civilised than their "pagan" alternatives - slavery is casually mentioned without criticism. More - the references therein have encouraged the followers of the Abrahamic religions to continue to enslave a large proportion of humanity for no other reason than the colour of their skin or because they worship the wrong god.

One final point. Many Islamic apologists assume that slavery under the Romans was far less humane than that practised under the new enlightened system of Islam.  In fact, as we are discovering with the latest research from places such as Herculaneum, slaves in the Roman Empire were generally well treated, could buy their freedom and even become full citizens of the Empire. So even the last desperate resort of the apologist - the social improvement of Islamic style slavery - holds no water whatsoever.


  1. The Koran is the first major scripture to recommend the freeing of slaves. Here are two such verses:

    Q.4:92 And it does not behove a believer to kill a believer except by mistake, and whoever kills a believer by mistake, he should free a believing slave, and blood-money should be paid.

    Q.24:33 ...And (as for) those who ask for a writing from among your slaves, give them the deed (to earn their freedom for a certain sum), if you know any good in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you; and do not compel your slave girls to prostitution.

    The second verse even recommends the sharing of your wealth with the slaves you have freed. It even warns against the using of slave girls as prostitutes to make money.

    The continual freeing of slaves would eventually result in its eradication.

    1. wat does it mean nd it does not behove a believer to kill a believer except by mistake, and whoever kills a believer by mistake, he should free a believing slave, and blood-money should be paid.

      and wat bout non beliver who are slave

  2. you don't answer any of the points made by spinoza in his post. You just quote two verses which are hardly unambiguous in their outlawing or even disapproval of slavery. Your first verse even stresses that you should free a slave ONLY if he/she is a believer!
    So it's all right to enslave those who don't believe in Allah.

  3. Anon, Let me just pick apart the two verses you quoted:

    Essentially what this verse is saying is that should a Muslim kill a fellow Muslim by mistake, manslaughter, the convicted Muslim should free one of his slaves as the punishment.
    Firstly this is hardly an incentive to free slaves, and also note that the key characteristic of the slave being freed is that he/she must be Muslim. Therefore an unbelieving slave has no such avenue for freedom. Also Muhammad assumes that Muslims own slaves as a matter of course and slavery was legal, otherwise institutionalising such a penalty for such a severe crime would be pointless.

    It should be noted that at the time of this revelation, Muhammad and the Muslims were conquering many Jewish and Pagan tribes in Arabia. As the verse says to the slave master, ‘give of the wealth Allah has given you’. The wealth that Allah had given to the Muslims was the booty they obtained from holy war, Jihad. Hence a surplus of slaves would have been expected and therefore became an excess commodity from which a select few could be freed. This was beneficial to increasing the Ummah of Islam.

    So Muhammad's decree of freeing slaves who had accepted Islam, who were good and who could afford an agreed sum, resulted in the Muslim community becoming larger, one of the goals of Muhammad.

    So to replenish stocks Muhammad had revelations from Allah permitting continued enslavement of peoples. So contrary to ending slavery, verses recommending manumission of slaves only perpetuated its practice throughout history.

    Q.33:50 - O Prophet! We have made lawful to you your wives and those whom your right hand possesses (slaves) out of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war...

    The above verse indicates that prisoners of war were to become your slaves and you had a lawful right to sex with them just as you do with your wives


  4. Any muslims who thinks Islam prohibited slavery is is ignorant as one gets. For a scholarly overview of Slavery within Islam, consult this paper (authored by Bernard Freamon, a Professor of Islamic Law and History who is also a Muslim);


  5. Anon says, "The continual freeing of slaves would eventually result in its eradication"

    Yeah. That explains why the Islamic Slave trade went on for for 14 centuries. The ottoman empire in the 19th century would not even have outlawed if it weren't for the pressure from Britian (who abolished it with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833). If you do not know anything about History, why talk about it?

    On top of that Muhammad never prohibited slavery. The manumission of slaves was a form of a paying a fine. In other words, the law was trying to deter citizens with the thought of losing their slaves (much like the thought of losing money or gold). You wouldn't argue that fines are practiced to get rid of money; so please be consistent in the case of your prophet as well. He is paradoxically enforcing slavery.

    P.S. Btw, Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century CE was the first abolitionist to condemn slavery on the basis of Human Equality. Way better than Muhammad.

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  7. No understanding muslim will say that all forms of slavery are completely abolished or that slavery itself is abolished. Slavery is usually justified in the context of war. Here, we talk about prisoners of war. And as prisoners of war, they have to work and are hence slaves. Although slaves at the time of the prophet were given wages. Working POW's are common as in WW2. These slaves must also be treated with respect and must not be punished as mentioned in various hadiths in Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood etc.

    You mention that the Roman Empire allows slaves to pay for their freedom. But you have failed to mention that the Quran also allows this, and states it clearly. And how does slaves buying their freedom have anything to do with how poorly slaves were treated by their masters?

    The Quran does not need to abolish slavery in general. It has not only commanded fair treatment towards slaves, but it has also created a great reward in freeing slaves. Therefore it has effectively denounced slavery as we know it. There are no chains or whips involved. There is no starvation or harsh labour conditions involved. Slaves can even take their masters to court to be judged impartially under sharia law. There is even encouragement not to own slaves, but to free them. This can be seen when the prophets daughter Fatima requested one, but the prophet said that to recite the words of Allah (and fear him) would be better for her.

    Although you try to attack Islam and sometimes try to pass of your own opinions as facts, I do agree with some things you say and your input on matters are valuable as they allow muslims like myself to research and understand certain aspects of Islam better. But, that being said, I can't take your articles seriously or have much respect for them because they are so biased and lack thorough research, which often leads to mistakes in interpretation or context. We must understand the context of the Qurans setting and the prophets teachings as to why Slavery could not be abolished but was rather frowned upon and reformed. As a famous English judiciary once said: “We must not look at the 1947 incident with 1954 spectacles.”