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Islam and slave women

I have been repeatedly inquired about the concept of enslaved women in Islam. It is questioned that if they are mentioned in the Qur’an, then because of the eternal nature of the rules of the Qur’an, it should still be permissible to have intercourse with them. In fact, many people still have relationship with domestic servants or with helpless girls on the same basis. In response, some quarters argue that salve-women are also married wives. But it is clear that many statements in the Qur’an explicitly deny this, so this argument is totally rejected. Today, God willing, I will try to answer such questions.

Two categories of rulings

The main problem in this case is that, the nature of the rulings mentioned in the Qur’an in this regard are not understood correctly or stated. In our view, there are two kinds of rules regarding the relationship between men and women in the Qur’an. During the revelation of the Quran, considering the situation, some of the regulations were addressed explicitly for that era. The other directives are those which are given as the eternal law.

The first kind of ruling is; when Allah (SWT) allowed masters to have intercourse with slave women despite their presence in society. It is an indisputable historical fact that at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an, there were slave women in every house. However, when the Qur’an was revealed, it did not prevent people from establishing marital relations, and we do not see any legal impediment in this regard. The following are examples of these Quranic statements.

It is mentioned in two Surahs of Makkah’s time (Al-Quran 70:30, Al-Quran 23:6).

“those who preserve their chastity except from their spouses and those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock], for which they incur no blame – but those who go beyond that limit are transgressors.”

This is the most explicit verse in the sense that the Qur’an allowed the practice of maintaining relations with slave women other than wives at the time of its revelation. This situation continued after the migration to Madina. In the battle of Uhud, many Muslims were martyred; consequently, the problem of widows and orphans arose in every other household. The Qur’an on this occasion offered another Arab custom, i.e., second marriage, as a solution. But in more than one marriage, it was restricted that there should not be more than four marriages. At the same time, Allah made polygamy conditional on justice. He said that if you cannot do justice to the wives, you should not have more than one wife; however, relationship with slave women is allowed. Allah says:

“If you fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then marry only one or marry [from among] those whom you rightfully possess. That is more likely to keep you from committing an injustice. (Al-Quran 4:3).

The previous verses mentioning slave women along with the wife clearly show that the Qur’an made it permissible to have intercourse with the slave women who were already present at that time and they did not require any marital relationship like the wives.

In this regard, the last verse of the Holy Qur’an refers to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) himself, in which he was exempted from the strictly observed conditions mentioned above for ordinary Muslims regarding marriage and justice.

Almighty Allah says:

“O Prophet, We have made lawful for you your wives whose bridal dues you have paid, and the slave-girls you possess from among the prisoners of war, and the daughters of your paternal uncles and paternal aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncles and maternal aunts who have migrated with you, and a believing woman who gives herself to the Prophet and whom he wants to take in marriage. (O Prophet), this privilege is yours alone to the exclusion of other believers. We know well what restrictions We have imposed upon them as regards their wives and those whom their right hands possess, (and have exempted you from those restrictions) that there may be no constraint upon you. Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Of them you may put off any of them you wish, and you may take any of them whom you wish, and you may call back any of those whom you had (temporarily) set aside: there will be no blame on you (on this account). It is likelier that they will thus be comforted, and will not grieve, and every one of them will be well-pleased with what you give them. Allah knows what is in your hearts. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Forbearing.

Thereafter women will not be lawful for you, and it will not be lawful for you to take other wives in place of them, even though their beauty might please you, unless they be those whom your right hand owns. Allah is watchful over everything.” (Al-Quran 33: 50-52)

The last verse obviously shows that no woman is lawful for the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) outside the prescribed circle. The only exception is the slave women he(PBUH) could keep even without marriage.

It is clear from these rulings and statements that it was permissible to have intercourse with a slave women without any marriage contract due to the customs of that time. Due to the right of ownership, a man can have a relationship with a slave woman, just as he can have with a free woman, by marrying her.

 The eternal rulings                                                  

The second type of rulings regarding the relationship between men and women are those that are part of the eternal law of the Qur’an. In these rules, the Qur’an explains on what basis men and women can have a mutual relationship. It is noteworthy that in these places, only marital relationship is mentioned. Hence it has been made clear that this is the only relationship between a man and a woman who can have intercourse. There is no mention of slave women in these places, and where it has been mentioned, it emphasizes marriage. These rules are as follows.

“Do not marry women who associate partners with God until they believe. A believing bondwoman is better than a woman who associates partners with God, however pleasing she may appear to you. Nor give believing women in marriage to men who associate partners with God, till they have believed; a believing bondman is certainly better than a man who associates partners with God, even though he may please you.” (Al-Quran 2:221)

This is a crucial directive of the Qur’an regarding marriage which states that marriage cannot be performed with a polytheistic man or woman. The Qur’an clearly states that a believing slave woman is better than a free polytheistic woman for marriage. The same is the case with a believing slave man. It is better to marry a believing slave man than a free polytheistic man.

When the religious rulings were ending, and the final decisive rules of Shari’ah were announced in Surah Al-Maidah, one exception was stated in that ruling that the marriage with women of the People of the Book is permissible. Look, on that occasion, the mention of slave women has been entirely omitted.

Today, all good things have been made lawful to you….The chaste believing women and the chaste women of the people who were given the Book before you, are lawful to you, provided that you give them their dowers. (Al-Quran 5:5)

The following are the key verses of Surah An-Nisa regarding the relationship between men and women. In which it is stated which women are forbidden to marry. Allah says:

“You are forbidden to take as wives your mothers, daughters, sisters, paternal and maternal aunts, your brothers’ daughters and your sisters’ daughters, your foster mothers and foster sisters, your wives’ mothers and stepdaughters in your protection and the daughters of your wives with whom you have consummated your marriage; but if you have not consummated your marriage then you will not be blamed [if you marry their daughters.] You are also forbidden to marry the spouses of your sons or two sisters together, except what has already passed. Surely, God is ever-forgiving and merciful.

Also forbidden are married women, except those who have passed into your hands as prisoners of war. This is a commandment of God to you. All women other than these are lawful to you, provided you seek them with your wealth in honest wedlock…..

If any of you cannot afford to marry a free believing woman let him marry one of his believing maids whom he possesses. God best knows your faith. You are one of another. So marry them with their owner’s permission, and give them their dower according to what is fair.” (Al-Quran 4: 23-25)

The above verses mention slave women in two places and emphasize marriage. If a free married woman gets captured in the war as an enslaved person, she does not need a divorce from her previous husband for a new marriage. Her last marriage will be considered null and void. Similarly, it has been further explained that a slave woman can be married with her owner’s permission.

These are the places in the Qur’an in which the relationship between men and women has been discussed. Even a quick study of these ayahs clarifies that in Islamic Shari’ah, whose rules are till the day of resurrection, marriage is the only and only basis of a relationship between men and women. In the eternal laws of Islam, ownership of a slave woman or a relationship between man and woman on any other basis do not exist.

Quran and Slavery

After clarifying this issue of Islamic shariah, the question arises: why the Qur’an justified intercourse with slave women at the time of its revelation? Why didn’t it happen that keeping male and female slaves would be declared forbidden by a decree? On the contrary, not only the first type of commandments are found in the Qur’an, which allows intercourse with female slaves but also in many places, slaves are mentioned as servants. Do these rulings and statements really prove that the Qur’an wanted to maintain slavery? Was it really Quran’s intention for Muslims to wage war and enslave other people? Innocent boys, girls, and adults from all over the world should be abducted like Prophet Hazrat Yusuf and auctioned in Muslim markets. The slaves of the Muslims were running their fields and factories and countless concubines were present in their harem as luxuries.

We can say with complete satisfaction and confidence that this was not the intention of the Quran at all. The Qur’an did not allow people to be enslaved, and no such order was ever given. We would like to reiterate that the Qur’an did not allow people to be enslaved, and no such directive was ever delivered. The problem was that the curse of slavery had been present in human societies for thousands of years. The Qur’an definitely wanted to end this curse. But for this purpose, Islam did not adopt the revolutionary method of freeing all enslaved people by a single decree.

The characteristic of revolutionary change is that where it eliminates one evil, it gives rise to ten new evils. That is why Islam adopted the method of gradual evolution instead of revolution to eradicate evils. The status of slaves in the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was precisely that of today’s employees on whom the whole economy is dependent. The following example will be easy to understand if you consider the strategy for the abolition of slavery. Remember that we are not calling employment an evil like slavery in this example. Still, we are presenting an illustration from a strategic point of view that can be easily understood by today’s man.

Example of employment

In today’s world, many employers are exploiting their employees. They are forced to work for long hours without pay. Employers try to pay the minimum wage, occasionally withhold their salaries, and sometimes female employees are sexually harassed. In these circumstances, you are a reformer. You want the world to quit jobs, and all people can do business independently. Not only are you a reformer, but you have power over a vast region of the world, and you can do a lot to achieve your goal.

What would be your first step in these situations? Would you make it a law that all employees are laid off today, and it is a punishable offense to employ someone after today? If you make such a law, it will result in millions of unemployed. These unemployed will, of course, resort to theft, robbery, begging, and prostitution for bread, clothing, and shelter. It will upset the whole system of society. A thousand more evils will be emerged by eradicating one evil through a revolutionary attempt.

It is vividly clear that gradual reform is the only way to solve the problem of employment. According to this method, a new relationship will be created instead of the employer-employee relationship. Awareness will be created among the people to prioritize their business. They will be trained to do business. Those who go ahead with it will be given interest-free loans. Gradually, all people will be freed from the bondage of employment.

This whole process probably took centuries. A thousand years later, when the world has solved this problem, many of them may criticize that reformer that why did the reformer not do it immediately? But the just people of that time will appreciate this great reformer who adopted the natural method of gradual solution to this problem. And if this was not done, society would be ruined.

Now apply the same example to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and his Companions. Islam was not the originator of slavery, but it inherited slavery. Islam had to deal with this problem. There were, of course, thousands of slaves in Arabia. They were working in every field of life. If all those slaves were released in one day, the result would be nothing but the emergence of thousands of prostitutes, robbers, thieves and beggars. No one would probably be able to handle them. So Islam gradually solved this problem. Some of the crucial steps taken in this regard are:

Steps to End Slavery

Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) trained the companions (Sahaabah) to treat slaves well. He commanded them to feed them what you eat, clothe them what you wear, and help them in their work. Think of slaves as your brothers; take care of them and not oppress them. The outcome of this training was that the Companions began to treat their slaves well, and their standard of living rose. There are many such examples in the collection of Sirah (life history of the Prophet) and Hadiths (Sayings of the Prophet).  Seeing Abu Dharr Ghaffari (RA) and his slave, it was difficult to know who was the master and who was the slave. Syeda Asma (RA) used to treat her slaves like sons etc.

The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) ordered the Companions to give high moral training to their slaves and set them free. After freeing the slaves, marrying them was considered a noble act with a promise of double reward from Allah Almighty. Later on, in history, many slaves or freed slaves have been mentioned whose knowledge was akin to highly dignified scholar companions (Sahaabah). An example was Salem (RA), who is counted among the glorious companions like Abi bin Ka’ab, Abdullah bin Masood and Mu’adh bin Jabal (RA).

To set an example, the Prophet (peace be upon him) freed all his slaves until he had no slaves at the time of his death. This was also the practice of glorious companions. Abu Bakr (RA) used his wealth to buy slaves and set them free who were being persecuted by their masters for converting to Islam. The history of the Companions mentions many enslaved people who were freed. Many books have been written on their conditions, known as Kutub-ul-Mawali.

Even the slaves who were liberated had no social status in the pre-Islamic era. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) declared them as equal to their previous masters.

The Qur’an opened the door to “Mukatibat (correspondence)” for the liberation of slaves who sought freedom. According to it, a slave seeking freedom could be set free by paying his master in installments according to his market value.The Companions provided financial support to the slaves who wanted to be freed through correspondence. Hazrat Aaisha (RA) also paid for the liberty of slave-woman Barirah (RA) from her master. The Qur’an has commanded the financial support of such enslaved people from the government treasury. This was the order that laid the foundation for the gradual and legal elimination of the scourge of slavery.

The most significant source of slavery was prisoners of war who were enslaved. The Qur’an commanded prisoners of war to be either released free of charge or be released after receiving a ransom. Thus the process of forming new male and female slaves stopped.

Ruling on the prohibition of slavery in the Quran

Despite the teachings of Islam regarding the abolition of slavery, many people still question where the Quran prohibits slavery. As this command is not present, they are right in capturing free women and enslaving them. The most straightforward answer which I give is that those who make this argument admit that they will be okay if an influential person or an enemy country forces the enslavement of their own ladies. Will they be able to justify this oppression even for a moment?

The intellectual answer is that the Quran uses two approaches to make things forbidden. In the first approach, Quran prohibits things by naming them as Quran forbids curiosity by saying that you should not be curious (Al-Quran 49:12). The second method is to ban the general category of sins. Everything that comes under this category is automatically prohibited. There is no need to look for its prohibition in the Holy Quran. For example, one person says that in the Holy Quran it is forbidden to eat pork but not a snake. So, it would be permissible to eat snakes. This is the case with all beasts, feces, and urine. You will not find any direct command of prohibition in the Quran.

The Quran prohibits similar things in the general category. So, it applies the same principle that forbids impurity and commands that Allah Almighty has permitted only pure things to eat and drink (Al-Quran 5:5). Therefore, snakes, lions, leopards, urine and feces, etc., become forbidden because man knows them as naturally impure things. Keep in mind that, exceptionally, if an event happens so that a person or group starts eating these unclean things, it does not change their natural state.

One such category of prohibition in the Quran is forbidding abuse (Al-Quran 7:33). Thus, it was no longer necessary for the Quran to pronounce all kinds of oppressions; that so and so exploitation or oppression is unlawful or forbidden. Whatever human nature and societies think of tyranny, it will become forbidden automatically on the same principle. To deprive a person of his freedom and enslave him is the same kind of thing. Hence, slavery is forbidden on the same principle. It involves enslaving people by attacking their freedom and violating their honor and liberty. They are taken and oppressed in different ways, so slavery was evil in every case. Islam couldn’t tolerate it. But It has been repeatedly specified that this evil was so widespread that the whole societal system was dependent on it and perceiving slavery as evil was unimaginable. Therefore, Islam adopted a gradual approach to constrain that evil. Islam is a religion of nature, and it does not even eliminate vice unnaturally.

Therefore, today’s people who favor practicing slavery, especially women as slaves, argue that there is no command in the Quran to abolish slavery are utterly mistaken. In the Quran, all forms of oppression and abuse are prohibited. Slavery is the worst form of that abuse, and its resumption is the worst crime. Furthermore, it should be clear that the most significant source of slavery in ancient times was the enslavement of prisoners of war. The Quran states that they will be released on ransom; otherwise, they will be freed without compensation (Al-Quran 41:4). In no case will they be enslaved. The most remarkable example is the poor prisoners of the Battle of Badr who were released by the Prophet (PBUH) in exchange of taching Muslim children to read and write.

One last question: why slavery could not be abolished?

One final and most crucial question is why slavery could not be repealed in Muslim society even after all these measures? Why is it that slaves were sold in the slave markets even in the twentieth century in the Arabic society?

In our view, the real tragedy, in this case, emerged when the Arab Muslims conquered the non-Arab world in the reign of the Righteous Caliphate. These conquests resulted in the influx of millions of slaves who were present in the great empires of Caesar and Cyrus spread over millions of square miles at once in the Islamic society. If thousands of enslaved people in the Arab society had not been freed in a single directive during the Prophet’s (PBUH) era,  this would not be possible in the case of millions of non-Arab slaves either. The Companions continued this noble work to the best of their abilities. Still, their main focus was on Jihad, and then in the last half of the Righteous Caliphate, the Muslims started fighting with one another. In the meantime, the number of Companions who understood the Qur’an and the Islamic spirit decreased rapidly.

Even during the Umayyad period after the Righteous Caliphate, when this series of civil wars came to an end, the Muslim society had fallen victim to the collective slavery of the monarchy. What could a society try to curb individual slavery which is suffering from collective slavery? So everyone accepted slavery as an unchangeable reality, and over time, the curse of slavery also found religious justification.