Islam, Justice and the Abolition of Slavery

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Islam, Justice and the Abolition of Slavery

David Bone

You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, or your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly – if you distort justice, God is fully aware of what you do.

(Qur’an Chapter 4 Vs 135)i
The principle of Justice is absolutely central to the foundations of Islamic Law or Shariah. As Hashim Kemali puts it:
Justice is a supreme virtue and it is, in all its various manifestations, one of the overriding objectives of Islam to the extent that it stands next in order of priority to belief in the Oneness of God (tawhid) and the truth of the Prophethood (risalah) of Muhammad.”ii
Slavery and oppression in all its myriad forms is the antithesis of justice and is thus in direct opposition to the very foundations of Islam and its divinely inspired law, so why is it that so many of the anti-Islamic sites on the internet have for a long time promoted the view that Islam condones or even encourages the institution of slavery?
To develop a full and deep understanding of Islamic attitudes towards it as a concept, we need to address the very basic cosmology of Islam:
The Qur’an teaches that before creating human beings as earthly bodies God called forth the souls of every man and women and questioned them asking “am I not your Lord?” to which they all without exception replied in the affirmative. Here Lord may be understood politically correctly as nurturer and cherisher, however it may also be legitimately interpreted to me Master and Ruler. The purpose of mankind’s existence is made clear in Chapter 51 Verse 56 where God states that
“I have created Jinns and mankind only to worship me”iii. Here the word for worship is ibadah. This has the root abd which means servant or slave, so worship is linked to service and one who fulfils the purpose of their creation is one who places themselves in servitude to the creator.
This does not however mean that God enslaves His creation. In Arabic the word abd may be taken to mean slave or servant, the distinction comes through the element of free will. One who is forced to serve we would term a slave while one who chooses to serve we would call a servant and it is to this station that Islam invites mankind to aspire.
This distinction is further amplified in the story of creation where we are introduced to the earlier creation of Angels. The Angels are commanded to bow down to Adam indicating that Mankind is a superior creation, yet Angels we are told are incapable of disobeying their creator whereas man is. At first this seems strange and we may be led to wonder at the term angel when used to describe someone who’s behaviour is exemplary. The key difference here is that Adam as a ‘good’ man chose to serve his creator and become Abdullah or servant of God whereas the Angels were simply created with obedience as part of their character and thus they may appropriately be described as Abdullah meaning slaves of God. It is in this distinction that Mankind’s potentially elevated status is made clear.
From this we can see that slavery or perhaps more appropriately servitude does not have entirely negative connotations for the Muslim mind. Followers of a spiritual leader are often encouraged to effectively place themselves in servitude to that leader and there is the concept of Bay’at or allegiance to a leader which formally establishes a very distinct hierarchy between individuals. This relationship is however tightly constrained to ensure God always remains the unopposed lawgiver.
The socio-political environment in which the first Muslim community evolved was another factor that helps to explain why slavery did not disappear overnight. The Arabian peninsular and indeed the wider region around it was a war torn land where battles between tribes and nations were frequent and brutal. At the end of each battle the victors would either enslave the vanquished or simply massacre them. Had the early Muslim community taken any other path it would have been placed at such a severe disadvantage that it would in all likelihood have been overrun. So instead what transpired was a radical reform of slavery as it existed then.
In the present day the term slavery conjures up images of the subjugation of Black Africans in the USA, with the rape murder and mutilation depicted in Alex Haley’s best selling novel and long running television series ‘Roots’. For the Byzantines of 1400 years ago, this was the reality, however in the Muslim world Islamic law changed the face of slavery forcing massive reform that led to slaves and former slaves rising to positions of great power and influence.
The entire history of Islam proves that slaves could occupy any office, and many former military slaves, usually recruited from among the Central Asian Turks, became military leaders and often even rulers as in eastern Iran, India (the Slave Dynasty of Delhi), and medieval Egypt (the Mamluks”)iv
That is not to say mistreatment did not exist but rights were enshrined in the Law and these were enforced. Whereas in the USA as late of 1857 we have a court declaring that
The exclusion of slavery from a United States territory in the Missouri Compromise was an unconstitutional deprivation of property (Negro slaves) without due process, prohibited by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution”v
By contrast French journalist Roger Du Pasquier points out that 1200 years previous to that:
Islamic legislation subjected slaveowners to a set of precise obligations, first among which was the slave's right to life, for, according to a hadith, 'Whoever kills his slave shall be killed by us'. In consequence, the murder of a slave was punished like that of a free
And goes on to explain that owners were obliged to feed their slaves as they fed them selves, clothe them as they cloth themselves and in fact to not even refer to them as slaves but as ‘My man’ or ‘My woman’.
Of course no amount of rights can fully address the issue of one human being ‘owning’ another and so even under these greatly improved circumstances the manumission of slaves was made a singularly virtuous act and was prescribed as the preferred method of atonement for sins such as having marital relations with ones wife during the daylight hours in Ramadhan when one should be fasting.vii Thus the systems and attitudes that were established by the Prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago led naturally to the ultimate abolition of slavery, however it is possible that in moderating the extremes of abuse it may have made it less objectionable in the public eye and that this consequently slowed the pace of its ultimate elimination.
Much of the fear many in the modern world hold for the Shariah may be seen to be based in the understanding that it is rigid and oppressive and does not take account of the changing reality of modern society. This impression has been reinforced by both the critics of Islam and the literalistic interpretations of Muslim texts that have characterised the oppressive regimes in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia etc.
Wherever laws are subverted by people there is oppression, and wherever there is oppression it is the weak and powerless that suffer, and in all societies this has meant women and children. Chapter 4 of the Quran is entitled An-Nisa or the women and it is dedicated to the plight of the underdog; women, orphans etc, the victims of oppression be it deliberate or otherwise. In these verses the responsibility for eliminating oppression is placed firmly on those with power and authority. They forbid the usurping of the property of women and orphans etc. and repeatedly reiterate that the best way to avoid oppression is to keep God as the only Lord. These teachings profoundly influenced the raising of the status of women in Arabian society yet in the modern world it is often these same verses that are used to justify the domination of men over women.
Verse 34 states:

Men are protectors and maintainers of women because God has given them fadl.’

Here I have italicised the word ‘Men’ because the Arabic word used is significantly rijaal; a word, the root meaning of which is to be independent or literally to stand on ones own feet. Fadl indicates a preference or authority however it does not necessarily imply superiority as is often assumed. The same term is also used in other verses to indicate a hierarchy amongst the messengers of God, however in that case the believers are commanded not to make any differentiation between them. The distinction thus is one or role not status. Taking these points into consideration we can legitimately derive the more general understanding that the strong have a responsibility to care for the weak.
In a society dominated by men we should not be surprised to find the simplistic and misleading translation ‘Men are superior to women’. Some people have had their faith in the law of Islam severely challenged by the way that women’s rights are so often heralded by religious leaders but this is not seen in the practical realities of daily life. Where once the modest headscarf was a tool by which women could be liberated from the lecherous gaze of men, now it is felt by some to be wielded as a tool of suppression, to identify them as people that are alien and not to be approached. Worse still we have fabricated traditions being widely narrated, such as that determining the voice of a woman to be part of the awra or private parts and thus forbidden to men outside the family. This is a position few in authority have dared to challenge but the voices are now starting to accumulate.
In ‘The conference of the Books: searching for the beauty in Islam’ Khalid M. Abou el Fadl, a classically trained scholar now living in the USA puts it this way:
..I fear that the seclusion of women has taught them that what is secluded is to be possessed and owned. And, all possessions are to be used. Yet, some possessions are forgotten until thrown away, some are recycled or replaced. The fact is that those who ache to regulate women are those who invariably violate them, and those who are obsessed with defining the limits for women are those who observe no limits with women.’viii
The term ‘possession’ here perhaps more than any other rings alarm bells in the context of slavery. We recall the use of the term as applied to Negro slaves in America to justify barring them from holding ‘human’ rights.

Abuses of the divine law such as these that have led some from both outside and within the Muslim community to call for an ‘Islamic Enlightenment’ that would echo the reforms that swept away many of the shortcomings in the Christian Church. Abou El Fadl however makes it clear that far from condemning the traditional Shariah, he mourns the waywardness of its contemporary interpreters.

One of the key principles of Shariah that classical scholars used to mitigate the extremes possible by literal or out of context interpretation is that of Public Interest; that is that the Shariah by definition acts in the Public interest and that if a Law maker or Mufti’s decision goes against this they have made a mistake. Far from being a modern idea this was first developed by the Sunny Maliki scholars (Followers of the teachings of Imam Malik ibn Anas) in the first two hundred years of the Muslim era. This principle was later expanded upon in great depth by the Andalucian scholar Al-Shatibi. An account of his teachings, giving examples of the many scholars before him on whose work he built his ideas is given in Ahmad Al-Raysuni’s ‘Imam Al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law’ix
It was the principle of justice that saw a plethora of women scholars, judges and businesswomen appearx when the Muslim empire was thriving and it is an absence of that justice that sees the dearth of women in leading roles in public life today. To return the Shariah to its Godly origins requires that the learned traditionalists raise their voices above the vulgar rantings of the ignorant and restore the Justice and beauty to Islam.

i Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. (2004) The Qur’an ( Oxford, Oxford University Press) p63

ii Kamali, M.H. (2002) Freedom, Equality and Justice in Islam (Cambridge, Islamic

Texts Society) p107

iii Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. (2004) The Qur’an ( Oxford, Oxford University Press) p344

iv Schimmel, A.(1992) Islam: An Introduction (State University of New York Press)


v ( ) (13/6/2006)

vi Du Pasquier, R. (1992) Unveiling Islam (trans T.J.Winter) (Cambridge, The Islamic

Texts Society)

vii Malik, Imam (2001) Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas (trans Aisha

Abdurrahman Bewley) (Inverness, Madinah Press)

viii Abou El Fadl, K (2001) Conference of the Books: the search for the beauty in Islam

(Oxford, University Press of America, Inc)

ix Al-Raysuni A. (2005) Imam Al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and

Intents of Islamic Law (London, The International Institute of Islamic Thought)

x Abd-Allah, U.F. (2004) Famous Women in Islam (14 disk Audio Presentation plus

lecture notes) (Chicago, An-Nawawi Foundation)

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