His Names
ISLAMIC LAW & SLAVERY - by Yusuf Estes

We offer a close examination of one of the most controversial subjects within Islam - Slavery

Critics of Islam say,

"Why does Islam promote or allow slavery?"

For those who are ignorant to the facts of Islam, we offer the following information from the Quran and the hadeeth (sayings and teachings of Muhammad, peace be upon him) - We say:

"It is well established and authentically recorded throughout the last fourteen centuries, Islam by way of the teachings of the Quran (in Arabic) and the authenticated hadeeths of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), clearly call for and promote: Rights for all humans - Dignity for all - Justice and freeing of slaves."

Human rights and freedom for all of humanity to live together in peace under just and fair laws, is the exact goal of the message of Islam itself. The problem for non-Muslims is a lack of exposure to the true teachings of the principles and ordianances of Islam based on the Arabic Quran and the authentic sunnah (way of Muhammad, peace be upon him).

Today as strange as it may sound, even some Muslims, ignorant of Islamic teachings are saying things about Islam that are quite misleading, incorrect or in some cases, the very opposite of what Islam really teaches.

Consider this question being offered to us by people born of Muslim parents, yet do not even have the basic teachings established in their own thinking:

"Why didn't Muhammad, peace be upon him, abolish slavery altogether?"

For them we say:

"It is easy to take a pen and write beautiful statements or lovely sounding ideals, but to actually put these into affect in real communities and bring about sufficient change to any society is obviously a very real job".

This is an effort to provide a detailed, authentic reference in the English language for those people who might be interested in discovering the real truth concerning the message of Islam regarding human rights in general and freedom for slaves in particular.
We ask Allah to accept from us this effort and to guide the reader to keep an open mind and open heart, ameen.



First, let us consider the condition we find ourselves in today.

People everywhere are talking about Islam on many levels. It is no longer a simple comparison of religious scriptures and loafty ideals or a study in historical findings amongst scholars in secluded libraries or simple presentations of academic thesis.

We hear from broadcasters, politicians, lawyers, journalists and even the common man on the street or housewife in the kitchen, talking about aspects of the principles of Islam, without even having the slightest inclination as to comprehensiveness and complexity of the subject matter they are discussing.

Many publications in English offer distorted and corrupted translations and even outright lies, attempting to present Islam as a violent and oppressive form of religion and government at the same time.

While most of the western media along with some very imaginative and emotionally charged politically or religiously prejudiced individuals offer a very distorted picture of Islam, the Quran and the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, we should mention they are not entirely alone in their misguidance.

Only the Divine intervention of Almighty God, through a prophet having the Commandments and Orders for mankind can achieve the real task of bringing about true freedom of all people on earth.

The fact of the matter is, Islam does forbid slavery, except in times of war and then on limited terms and conditions and offers great rewards for the one who cares for "captives of war" and betters their affairs and releases them as productive citizens in the society.

When Abraham Linclon lived, the form of slavery exisiting in the United States was one of horrible discrimnation, racism and radical religious oppression as well.

In other parts of the world slavery was being recognized for what it had become in the west. There existed at that time a strong trend to eliminate this horrid practice in countries that had previously contributed to the European and western slave market.

President Linclon was simply following the trend and responding to the outcry of many Americans who would no longer tolerate the degrading and humiliating treatment of fellow human beings.


Histrorically, we can show the teachings of Islam based on the Quran and the hadeeth (sayings of Muhammad, peace be upon him) concerning slavery have been already been implemented over the centuries. In very clear cases we are able to show some very positive and progressive advances toward freeing people from different forms of enslavement, even by today's standards.

Basic principles of human rights taught by Islam over 1,400 years ago have found their way into many documents and standards of law being set forth today.

Islamic teachings concerning freedom and slavery are such that reformers within Islam have reduced and in some cases even eliminated slavery within their own societies.


Freeing of slaves is part of being a believer in Islam based on many verses in the Quran. Here are a few:

"The steep upward road!
What will make you understand what it is, that steep upward road (leading to God's salvation)?
It is to free a slave from bondage;
Or the feeding on a day of hunger
An orphan near of kin,
Or some needy stranger lying in the dust."

This is an early Makkan passage. But since the orientalists love to say that Muhammad's Makkan message was one of love and compassion which he later abandoned in Medina, we also quote a passage from a late chapter of the Medinan period:

"Virtue is not that you turn your faces to the East or the West. But virtuous is he who has faith in God and the last day and gives his wealth, for love of God, to his relatives and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask for help, and to free the slaves..."

The freeing of slaves is not only to be done at an individual level, but also a portion of the government or community funds is to be used for this purpose.

"And the offerings are only for the poor.. to free the slaves and those overburdened with debt [this is] a Commandment from God; And God is All-Knowing and All-Wise.

If a believer does not free one of his slaves, it is only because the slave does not want to be freed or is incapable of supporting himself. For the Quran lays down the law:

"And if any slaves you own desire freedom, write it down for them (free them), if you know of some good from them.
Also, give them some of your wealth that Allah has given to you."

Not just ordering the release of any good person amongst the captives, slaves or servants - but also a commandment to give them from your wealth.

"And serve God and do not associate any partners in his Godhead.
Show kindness to your parents, and to near kindred, and orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbor who is a relative and to the neighbor who is not a relative, and the companion near to you, the traveler and (show kindness to) slaves."

Until slaves are released, the orders are also clear - you must treat them with the same kindness we must extend to our own mothers, relatives and close friends.


This understanding is further stressed in the sayings and teachings of Muhammad (Hadeeth).

There is a well known story about the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and Zayd bin Harithah, a slave who had been given to Muhammad, peace be upon him, prior to prophethood.

Zayd's father and uncle came to take him with them. They were willing to pay any price. The Prophet said that they need not pay anything; they can take him if Zayd so chooses. But Zayd decided to stay with the Prophet rather than go with his father and uncle. Later the Prophet adopted him as his son.

The following traditions, which give rules about the treatment of slaves, are quoted from Bukhari, fi al-'itaq wa fadl hi:

The Prophet said: Your slaves are your brothers upon whom God has given you authority. So, if one has one's brothers under one's control, one should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them with the work.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said:
One should not say to any one, "my slave" ('abdi) or "my slave-girl" (amati), but should say, "my lad" (fatai),, "my lass" (fatati), and "my boy" (ghulami).

The Prophet, peace be upon him also said:
He who (already has) a slave-girl and teaches her good manners and improves her education and then manumits her and marries her, will get a double reward.


  1. Classical Islamic law prohibits enslaving of a free person unrelated to war.
  2. No Muslim or any non-Muslim dhimmi (tax paying citizen in a Muslim society) can be put into slavery - EVEN IN WAR!
  3. Prisoners of war may be enslaved only in a nation that would enslave Muslim prisoners of war.
  4. In the presence of an international treaty about the treatment of prisoners, enslaving prisoners of war will also be prohibited.
  5. We see clearly, Islam does prohibit slavery - Just not in the way some folks today want it prohibitied. Perhaps they are waiting for a revelation from "Above" saying something like, "Free all the slaves and prisoners, do not take any new prisoners or slaves, fight against anyone who has or keeps any indentured servants, prisoners or slaves.
  6. Real live examples to the contrary are happening every day all around the world and on different levels, and not even a prophet of Allah has been able to totally stop these situations or stop the causes related to the outcomes of these circumstances.

The Quran and Hadith have the wisdom to take into account factors that produced slavery in the first place, as well as the consequences of freeing slaves by a legal decree.

We might imagine some of these consequences from America's own experience. Lincoln only needed to use legal instruments to eliminate slavery.

However, this still did not prevent a back lash and start the civil war. Only now, 150 years later, have the descendants of these slaves begun to gain some measure of acceptance and integration into the economic and social life of the country.

All Muslims and most Americans stand side by side in welcoming President Barak Obama as the first ever, descendent of the "slave race" as the President of the United States.

In contrast, in the Muslim world slaves to the extent that they existed enjoyed as slaves greater acceptance and integration than did blacks in America as free men for most of their history after the emancipation. This is dramatically illustrated by the fact that slaves could rise to become kings, as is shown by the fact that there was a "slave dynasty" of kings in India.

They leave no need of some "new prophet" to eliminate slavery.

The Quran's revelation provides enough basis for Muslim reformers to come forward and legally ban slavery, if at any time it becomes clear that this is the wisest thing to do. A new major prophet is only expected when earlier revelation does not provide enough basis to move forward. This can be seen in relation to the emergence of Islam.


Many things were never achieved by people following the earlier revelations coming from Moses, the prophets and Jesus, peace be upon all of them.

Take for example, the children of Israel claiming salvation and revelation were only related to them and their race. Or the belief amongst most Christians even today, that they are the only ones believing correctly in Jesus, peace be upon him, and as such are the only ones to be "saved". As a result, no real or practical explanation for a universal view of salvation, redemption and revelation can be established within today's Judeo-Christian traditions.

Also, the belief of a man being a "son of God" or "God in flesh". This has taken deep roots in the Christian tradition, to the extent it can not be objectively viewed from within their traditions.

It was only through the advent of another prophet, coming with fresh and lasting revelation, that these incorrect notions and mistakes could be properly corrected.


  1. Everyone is born in a state of "Islam" (free and innocent, already a believer in God)
  2. No one is allowed to oppress anyone, whether or not they are followers of Islam.
  3. All the creation of Allah has rights - especially the human beings.
  4. When enemies are taken in custody, they are to be treated with respect and dignity.
  5. Indentured servants are to be treated on the same level as anyone else, without discrimination.
  6. No one ever has the right to apply physical abuse, induce pain or torture to slaves, servants or even prisoners of war.
  7. Slaves, prisoners and indentured servants are to be released as soon as they are deemed fit and have paid their debt to society.
  8. Releasing slaves is highly rewarded by Allah in this life and in the Next Life.
  9. The real "slavery" for Muslims is only for the believers and it is "The voluntary state of servitude" known in Arabic as "Islam".

Now contrast all of this with the so-called "prohibition of slavery" being discussed in various other societies around the world today.

When, in the history of Islam, did Muslims ever believe slavery was desirable and the world must always have slaves?

At the most one could say - Muslims were not doing enough to realize the Islamic ideal of ridding the world of slavery.
However this hardly requires a new prophet. Any reformers really concerned with fully eliminating slavery could achieve the task within the existing Islamic Law (Shari'ah).

Considering the understanding and light of the Quran's verses, prophetic traditions, and fiqh positions reviewed above, it is clear:


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