Can the practice of slavery in the Muslim world be tolerated by Muslims? That question and the lack of a definitive answer from Muslims has caused a divide between African American descendants of slaves and Muslim communities.
Pan-Africanists, Afro-centrists, Socialists, Secularists, and African Pagan scholars who are descendants of slaves have long voiced their animosity toward Arab and Turkish Muslims because their ancestors endorsed and participated in a ruthless African slave trade for many centuries. Some of them make their arguments against Islam based upon malicious motives and feelings but the issue itself is rightly expressed and warrants a response.
It is morally imperative that Muslim scholars and jurists directly address the issue of slavery to those communities because the historical fact is that some Muslims did practice slavery and some Muslims still think that the enslavement of human beings is sanctioned by both the Quran and Hadith.
It is an incontrovertible fact that Black Africans were enslaved, raped, tortured, and murdered, by Sunni Arabs, Orthodox Christians, and Sunni Ottoman Turks during the rise of Islamic empires and their fall. The leaders of those empires justified the institution of slavery on one or more of the 12 or 13 Hadiths or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). But the truth is that the rich and powerful of those empires were greedy and ambitious men who had insatiable appetites for worldly luxuries and used slavery as a way to drive their economies and thereby satisfy their lusts. But what now in the 2100 century?
I have often thought what would Malcolm X say today about the indorsement and institutionalization of slavery by Muslims in the past and present?
I think that he would argue, having been a descendent of slaves himself, that even though slavery was sanctioned as permissible (Halal) 1400 years ago by both the Quran and Hadith its place in the Muslim community has always a dubious one.
One example is prostitution. Prostitution is illegal in Muslims societies. Prostitution is an act by a male or female whereby they sell their body to another for money. Here the ‘body’ is used by a buyer for their sexual gratification. It is a kind of human enslavement. Here, the logical contradiction is clear. Some forms of slavery cannot be tolerated as moral while at the same time other forms of slavery are criminalized.
Another example can be found in both the Quran and Hadith. Both are ambiguous concerning the practice of slavery. On the one hand the Quran sanctions slavery and yet on the other hand it says the enslavement of a human being is contrary to the relation of a human creature to Allah.
For example, the Quran lays down the fundamental premise regarding slavery: “It is unacceptable for a mortal that Allah should give him the Book and the wisdom and ‘Nabuwah’ (prophethood), then he should say to men: Be my slaves rather than Allah’s;… “.[3:79]Here, the Quran forbids slavery to Muslims, Christians, and Hebrews; and in no uncertain terms, the Quran states that all souls belong to Allah.
Clearly, a general principle in the Quran takes precedence over all particular ancient tribal customs and voids them when such practices are contrary to it or contradict it.
We know that slavery predated the origin of Islam and its first community. We further know that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) freed slaves himself.
The practice of slavery was contradicted on many occasions when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) freed slaves for many different reasons including to prevent crimes against humanity, for marriage, for conversion to Islam, and as a penalty against Muslim slave owners who committed acts of human cruelty.
Slavery in Islam therefore was not then nor is now a doctrinal pillar of Islam nor did Islamic law legally ever qualify some human beings as being inferior by nature and thus subject to perpetual servitude.
Historically, systemic slavery was an economic innovation instituted by the Abbasid Empire (748-1258 C.E.) for exactly the same reasons the Roman Empire instituted slavery. To generate wealth.
“As the plantation economy boomed and the Arabs became richer, agriculture and other manual labor work was thought to be demeaning. The resulting labor shortage led to an increased slave market.
It is certain that large numbers of slaves were exported from eastern Africa; the best evidence for this is the magnitude of the Zanj revolt in Iraq in the 9th century, though not all of the slaves involved were Zanj. There is little evidence of what part of eastern Africa the Zanj came from, for the name is here evidently used in its general sense. The Zanj were needed to take care of the Tigris-Euphrates delta, which had become abandoned marshland as a result of peasant migration and repeated flooding, [which] could be reclaimed through intensive [slave] labor. Wealthy proprietors “had received extensive grants of tidal land on the condition that they would make it arable.” The rise of Shīʻa Islam [in an anti-slavery movement] also occurred around this time …”[i]
Nevertheless, the issue today is whether or not Muslim scholars and jurists can overcome their silence concerning slavery and make fatwa or opinions to the whole world against slavery in the world?
Furthermore, can Muslims engage in discussions about slavery in the Muslim world and not be charged with committing Bid’dah or harmful innovation?
I believe that Muslim scholars and jurists or ulema can come out of the deep dark intellectual hole surrounding the issue of slavery; I believe that Malcolm X would have made the argument that slavery is absolutely and categorically forbidden in Islam and that its practice is a crime against humanity.
I add that it is also necessary that individual Muslims everywhere disavow slavery. I think Muslims should because the enslavement of human beings is the practice of tyranny and oppression and Islam is against oppression. To pretend to be the master over another human being as property when Allah is the only Master over all of humanity is an act of defiance against God.
Furthermore, the practice of making people slaves voids one’s claim to be a Muslim. All the prayers of such a person will fall like lead balls onto the ground. There is a legal basis under Sharia Law to make this clear.
I have heard many Muslims argue on the basis of Hadith or the ‘Book of Sayings’ of the Prophet that slavery is justified simply because it is qualified as permissible in both the Hadith and the Quran.
If you counter their arguments for slavery then some of them go so far as to claim that you are committing ‘Bidah’ or innovation which is a change contrary to Islam or they claim that you are not Mujtahid (one qualified to give opinion on Hadith and Quran.) Then I’ve seen them walk away and instead of getting on a horse they get in their car, a bad innovation, and drive away.
They drive away without the least concern that they are tearing the ‘fitrah’ (Fitra, or fitrah, in Arabic) or fabric of creation by poisoning the environment we all depend upon to live with carbon dioxide.
Those kind of Muslims deny any argument on the basis of ‘bid’ah hasana’. ‘Bid’dah Hasana’ means ‘good innovation’. Good innovations are permissible in Islam. Yet those same kinds of people claim to be for what is good and claim that they have faith in Allah. But the truth is, you cannot claim to fight against injustice everywhere while at the same time you preserve an unjust practice upon others in the form of slavery. Those two orientations are mutually exclusive. You either stand for justice or you stand for injustice.
According to the Holy Quran and the Hadith, the practice of taking slaves in Islam was neither obligatory in times of peace nor war. Muslims were not compelled by law to own slaves. What is not obligatory need not be practiced. Therefore, slavery can be banned in the Muslim community because it is not necessary.
Neither can it be argued rightly that the practice of taking slaves was ‘highly recommended’ or ‘Mustahabb’ for Muslims because over ninety percent of Muslims in the past did not own slaves nor aspire to do so. Nor did official policies exists as incentives to encourage Muslims to aspire to own slaves.
It can be argued that enslaving other human beings in the past was generally frowned upon. It thus could be classified as ‘offensive’, ‘detestable’, or ‘abominable’ ‘Makrooh’ (Arabic) because of the unavoidable cruelty or oppression to another human being which follows. That would have qualified Arab, Turkish or Muslim slave traders as immoral and to have been practitioners of what is evil called forbidden in Islam at that time as well as today.
For example, countless thousands of African boys who were enslaved from southern Sudan and Congo were taken to slave markets in Cairo, Egypt. There they would be auctioned like animals to Turkish slave traders. But, before being auctioned the African boys would be castrated. Most of them would die from bleeding to death or from infection. Those who didn’t die would be auctioned to Ottoman Turks who then would assign them to the harams of rich Turks and in the palace of the Ottoman Sultan. Muslims were not alone in this barbaric practice.
Here is a scholarly account, and I quote: “The concubines were guarded by enslaved eunuchs, themselves often from pagan Africa. While Islamic law forbade the emasculation of a man, Ethiopian Christians had no such compunctions; thus, they enslaved and emasculated members of territories to the south and sold the resulting eunuchs to the Ottoman Porte. The Coptic Orthodox Church participated extensively in the slave trade of eunuchs. Coptic priests sliced the penis and testicles off boys around the age of eight in a castration operation. The eunuch boys were then sold in the Ottoman Empire. The majority of Ottoman eunuchs endured castration at the hands of the Copts at Abou Gerbe monastery on Mount Ghebel Eter. Slave boys were captured from the African Great Lakes region and other areas in Sudan like Darfur and Kordofan then sold to customers in Egypt.
During the operation, the [Christian] Coptic clergyman chained the boys to tables and after slicing their sexual organs off, stuck bamboo catheters into the genital area, then submerged them in sand up to their necks. The recovery rate was 10 percent. The resulting eunuchs fetched large profits in contrast to eunuchs from other areas.”[ii]
That practice was a crime against humanity and the people who practiced it were evil and thus are not qualified to be remembered as Muslims nor Christians.
Every Muslim scholar in the United States and Jurists such as the Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb of Al-Azhar in Egypt and the Chief Imam Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais of Masjid al-Haram in Mecca are advised to make fatwas against the practice of slavery. Today, the Arab and Turkish world has decayed beyond regeneration. The handwriting is on the wall; when you institute mass dehumanization there are two losers. The victims and the abusers.