Among many other misconceptions about Islam is the notion that it gives sanction to slavery and permits its followers to enslave prisoners of war, particularly women and establish extra-marital relations with them. We strongly affirm that Islam has not the slightest link with slavery and concubinage. On the contrary, it completely forbids these practices. It is quite outrageous to associate such barbarities with a religion revealed to upgrade humanity.
The point which needs to be appreciated and which, perhaps, is the real cause of the misconception is that Islam had adopted a gradual process to abolish the institution of slavery because of the social conditions prevalent in Arabia at that time. It must be kept in mind that slavery was an integral part of the pre-Islamic Arab society. There were scores of slave men and women in almost every house. This was largely due to two reasons: First, during those times, the standard practice of dispensing with prisoners of war was to distribute them among the army who captured them. Second, there were extensive slave markets in Arabia in that period where free as well as men and women of all ages were sold like animals.
In these circumstances, in which slavery had become an essential constituent of the Arab society, Islam adopted a gradual way to eliminate it. An immediate order of prohibition would have created immense social and economic problems. It would have become impossible for the society to cater for the needs of a large army of slaves, who were, otherwise, dependent on various families. Also, the national treasury was in no position to provide them all on a permanent basis. A large number among them were old and incapable of supporting themselves. The only alternative left for them, if they were instantly freed, would have been to turn to beggary and become an economic burden for the society. The question of slave girls and women was even more critical, keeping in view their own low moral standards. Freeing them, all of a sudden, would have only resulted in a tremendous increase in brothels.
Perhaps, the reason behind this gradual eradication can be understood better if one considers the position which interest occupies in our economy today. No one can refute that our national economic structure is interest oriented. How the parasite of interest has crippled the national economy is apparent to every keen eye. However, there is no denying the fact that without it our present economic system cannot sustain itself. Every reasonable person will acknowledge that today if a government wishes to rid the economy from this menace then, in spite of its utter prohibition in Islam, it will have to adopt a gradual methodology. During this interim period interest oriented deals will have to be tolerated and temporary laws will have to be enacted to handle them, just as the Qur'an had given certain provisional directives about slaves during the interim period of their gradual eradication. An alternative economic framework will have to be steadily incorporated in place of the existing one. A sudden abolition, without another parallel base, will only hasten the total collapse of the economic system, which, of course, will be disastrous for the country.
To avert a similar disaster and to ward off a similar catastrophe, Islam had adopted a progressive and a gradual scheme, fourteen hundred years ago, to do away with the inhuman institution of slavery. Following are some of the measures it took in this regard:
In the early Makkan period, it pronounced that slave emancipation was a great deed of piety. The very initial Makkan surahs appealed to the Muslims to liberate as many slaves as they could.
The Prophet , unequivocally, directed the Muslims to raise the standard of living of the slaves and bring it equal to their own standard. This, of course, was meant to discourage people from persisting with them.
For the atonement of many sins manumission of slaves was divinely ordained.
All slave men and women who could support themselves in the society were directed to marry one another, in order to raise their moral and social status.
A permanent head in the public treasury was fixed to set free slave men and women.
Prostitution, which was largely carried out through slave women, who were mostly forced by their masters do so, was totally prohibited.
The affronting names of 'abd and amah by which slave men and women were called, were abrogated so that people should stop regarding them as slaves. In their place, the words fata (boy) and fatat (girl) were introduced.
Finally, the law of mukatibat provided very easy access for the slaves to the gateway to freedom. Every slave who was capable of supporting himself was allowed by law to free himself, provided that he either gave a certain monetary amount to his master or carried out certain errands for him. After this, he could live as a free man. A special head in the treasury was fixed for this purpose; also, wealthy people were urged to help the slaves in this regard. The net result of this law was that only handicapped and old slaves were left to be provided for by their masters, which not only went in their own favour but also prevented them from becoming an economic burden on the society.
As far as the case of prisoners of war was concerned, the Qur'an directed the Muslims to set them free, either as a favor or against some ransom. There was to be no second option:
When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads, and when you have thoroughly subdued them, bind your captives firmly - then grant them their freedom (either as a favour or) against some ransom - until the war lays down its armour. (47:4)
How the Prophet went about obeying this directive is a golden chapter of Islamic history, and we shall now briefly describe some of its salient features.
It is a well known historical fact that in the battle of Badr - the first main encounter with the Quraish - about seventy prisoners were captured by the victorious Muslim army. Most of these prisoners were freed against some ransom money, while those who could not arrange for this money were freed if they taught a certain number of children of the tribe of Ansar how to write.
In the battle of Bani Mustaliq, the prisoners captured were either freed in the battlefield as a favour while some others were freed on ransom. The Prophet brought the remaining prisoners to Medinah and while waiting for their families to procure them, gave them into the temporary custody of his Companions. Among them was Sayyidah Jawairiyah as well. Her father arrived with some camels as ransom. The Prophet inquired about the two well-bred camels he had hid behind. This astounded him so much - for he knew that there could be no way that the Prophet could have had knowledge of them - that he accepted faith. At this, Sayyidah Jawairiyah also accepted faith. The Prophet proposed for her to which her father consented. Upon this, the marriage was solemnized. The result of this marriage was that all the remaining prisoners of war were set free by the Muslim soldiers, since they thought that it was not appropriate to keep the Prophet's in-laws in captivity.
In the battle of Khaibar, after a peace treaty had been concluded with the enemy, the Muslim forces came across Safia binti Huyee - a helpless widow of an aristocratic family. Her father, Huyee bin Akhtab - a prominent leader of the Jews had been killed in the battle of Quraizah. The Prophet set her free and gave her the option to go to back to her family or to marry him if she wanted. Saffiyah showed her consent to marry the Prophet. The marriage subsequently took place.
In the battle of Hunain, thousands of prisoners were captured by the Muslim army. The Prophet waited for many days for their people to come and fetch them but they never turned up. At this, the Prophet returned to Medinah and distributed them among the soldiers. However, after a lapse of many days, their people showed up. The Prophet said that he had no objection in giving away his share back to them but as far as the other tribes were concerned, he could only appeal to them. Later on, almost all the people surrendered their prisoners when the Prophet , subsequently, offered six camels for each prisoner from the spoils they would obtain in the very next battle. This was enough for them to forfeit their share as well.
Thus the Prophet throughout his reign followed the Qur'anic directive of setting free the prisoners of war either as a favor or against some ransom. However, there is, perhaps, just one instance in the Prophet's life which may become a source of misconception in this regard. This was the battle with the Jewish tribe of Banu Quraizah in which all the male prisoners were executed and the women and children were made slaves. An analysis of the whole matter shows that the Muslim army had surrounded their fortress for almost a month. At last, they requested to appoint Sa'ad bin Muazz (rta), the leader of the tribe of Aus, as an arbitrator and promised to willingly accept his decision. They reckoned that since they had remained the allies of the Aus, Sa'ad would be lenient to them in his decision. But Sa'ad bin Muazz, much to their dismay, gave his decision in accordance with the Jewish Shariah. According to the Jewish Shariah, the male prisoners were to be executed while the women and children were to be enslaved 1 . It is, therefore, clear that the Islamic Shariah could not have come to their rescue in this regard since they were dealt with according to their own law by a person they themselves had appointed as an arbitrator.
During the term of the Rightly Guided Caliphate also, the practical abolition of the institution of slavery continued with full force. However, in spite of all these extensive measures spanning almost half a decade, it is known fact that it was not until the turn of this century that mankind was actually able to rid itself completely of this institution. We believe the reason for this must be sought in the social complexities which exist in a community. It is extremely difficult to eradicate customs and traditions which are deeply rooted in a society. The society, as a whole did not accept the reformation started by Islam. A similar instance can be observed in the case of the political set up envisaged by Islam. It totally condemned the institution of dictatorship in which a despotic ruler and his few henchmen exercised absolute powers. It established a government which was democratic in the sense that it came into power by a majority mandate. Throughout the term of the Rightly Guided Caliphate this principle remained in force for the election of the ruler. However, after the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphate, the Arab society rejected this system and reverted to dictatorship.
1. When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labour and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, and children, the livestock and everything else in the city you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. (Deuteronomy. 20:10-15)
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