by Farhan Iqbal, Missionary, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Canada
The issue of slavery in relation to Islamic teachings is perhaps one of the most misunderstood subjects. Critics use the example of slavery to paint Islam as a violent religion that only seeks to oppress people. Intricately related to this issue is that of female prisoners of war, who are sometimes referred to as “those whom the right hands possess”, in the Holy Quran.
In this article, I will discuss the issue of slavery, Islamic methods to bring it to an end, and the numerous misunderstandings related to the concept of female prisoners of war.
First of all, it should be clear that Islam did not introduce slavery to the world. On the contrary, Islam condemned slavery in clear terms and prohibited making slaves in any way whatsoever. The confusion arises when prisoners of war are seen as “slaves” by the critics of Islam. It is true that prisoners of war may appear to be slaves, but they are taken in the middle of a battle in order to guard one’s country against the harms of the enemy.
A Slave or a Member of the Family?
When we study the teachings of Islam regarding such so-called “slaves”, we find that they cannot be termed “slaves” as perceived in the minds of many. Islam on the other hand instructs Muslims to be kind to their slaves:
وَ اعۡبُدُوا اللّٰہَ وَ لَا تُشۡرِکُوۡا بِہٖ شَیۡئًا وَّ بِالۡوَالِدَیۡنِ اِحۡسَانًا وَّ بِذِی الۡقُرۡبٰی وَ الۡیَتٰمٰی وَ الۡمَسٰکِیۡنِ وَ الۡجَارِ ذِی الۡقُرۡبٰی وَ الۡجَارِ الۡجُنُبِ وَ الصَّاحِبِ بِالۡجَنۡۢبِ وَ ابۡنِ السَّبِیۡلِ ۙ وَ مَا مَلَکَتۡ اَیۡمَانُکُمۡ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ لَا یُحِبُّ مَنۡ کَانَ مُخۡتَالًا فَخُوۡرَا
And worship Allah and associate naught with Him, and show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful. [4:37]
Emphasizing the same teaching, the Holy Prophet(sa) says:
Slaves are your brothers whom Allah has put under your control, so feed them with the same food that you eat, clothe them with the same clothes you wear, and do not burden them with so much that they are overwhelmed; if you do burden them, then help them. [Sunan Ibn Majah, Book of Etiquette, Chapter: Beneficence towards slaves; Book 33, Hadith 34]
These are just highlights of many Islamic teachings on the kind treatment of slaves. If these teachings are followed, it would mean that a “slave” no longer remains a slave and would instead be like a member of the family.
Furthermore, Islam teaches the emancipation of slaves in numerous verses of the Quran such as the following:
وَ مَاۤ اَدۡرٰٮکَ مَا الۡعَقَبَۃُ۔ فَکُّ رَقَبَۃٍ
And what should make thee know what the ascent is? It is the freeing of a slave. [90:13-14]
Similarly, the Holy Prophet(sa) said:
He who emancipates a slave, Allah will set free from Hell, limb for limb.[i]
In light of these teachings, Muslims played a great role in the emancipation of slaves. According to historical records, Prophet Muhammad(sa) himself freed 63 slaves during his life-time, Hazrat ‘Ā’ishah(ra) freed 67, Hazrat ‘Abbās(ra) freed 70, Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin ‘Umar(ra) freed 1,000, and Hazrat ‘Abdur Raḥmān bin ‘Auf(ra) freed 30,000.[ii]
Why not emancipation for all, as a single commandment?
At this point, some critics ask why Islam did not give a single commandment to end slavery? Why was it not done with a single stroke of the pen?
The answer to this question is that Islam did not come to make an empty show of greatness by doing something like this. Instead, its objective was to slowly and gradually reform and improve the society at large. It was neither feasible, nor wise, to suddenly abolish the institution of slavery which had become interwoven into the very texture of society since pre-Islamic times.
The slaves were dependent upon their masters for food, clothing, and shelter, and a sudden abolishment would have caused a large number of people to lose a source of income and livelihood, without there being any social safety-net in place to prevent the potential crisis which such a measure would have plunged the society into. A portion of them would then have turned to illegal ways of earning a living, and the society as a whole would have taken a moral downturn. Therefore, although Islam sought to abolish all slavery, it proceeded to do it gradually and effectively.
Steps to Emancipation
With this gradual reformation in mind, Islamic teachings followed two steps. First, a teaching was given that put an end to forcing a free person into slavery. Second, it was taught that slaves who already existed should be treated kindly and with love so that they start to live independent lives and are gradually prepared for freedom.
The first teaching is expressed very strongly in the following narration:
Prophet Muhammad(sa) said, “Allah says, ‘I will be displeased with three persons on the Day of Resurrection: (1) One who makes a covenant in My Name, but does not fulfill it; (2) One who sells a free person (as a slave) and personally usurps the sale-proceeds; (3) and one who employs a laborer and gets the full work done by him but does not pay him his wages”.[iii]
The second teaching was followed in two ways. Either the Muslims set free the slaves in their possession as a virtuous act in accordance with Islamic teachings, or the slaves were given the option of earning their freedom through a system called mukaatabat [i.e. an agreement between a slave and his master, where the slave offers to pay his own monetary value in order to be set free, by working the number of hours required to pay the settled amount].
Through this system, the master was obliged to set a slave free if he made himself qualified for emancipation. This is something to be judged by the court or the government. The Holy Quran says:
وَ الَّذِیۡنَ یَبۡتَغُوۡنَ الۡکِتٰبَ مِمَّا مَلَکَتۡ اَیۡمَانُکُمۡ فَکَاتِبُوۡہُمۡ اِنۡ عَلِمۡتُمۡ فِیۡہِمۡ خَیۡرًا ٭ۖ وَّ اٰتُوۡہُمۡ مِّنۡ مَّالِ اللّٰہِ الَّذِیۡۤ اٰتٰٮکُمۡ
And such as desire a deed of manumission in writing from among those whom your right hands possess, write it for them if you know any good in them; and give them out of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you. [24:34]
Here, the Holy Quran is very clear in its teaching that if a slave desires to have freedom by payment of an amount, the master is obliged to fulfill the slave’s wish and to set him free provisionally, so that the slave has an opportunity to earn the amount fixed for his release. On top of this, the master is told that he should return some of this money back to the freed slave. This is a system of mukaatabat through which Islam ensures that slavery comes to an end eventually.
Prisoners or Slaves?
A common issue that causes confusion in relation to this topic is that of semantics. Prisoners of war are sometimes conflated with slaves, even though they are completely different. It is true that prisoners of war tended to be called “slaves” and this may have been due to the fact that they were obliged to lived with Muslim families without liberty. However, clear injunctions in the Holy Quran show that prisoners of war are very different from slaves. For instance, the Holy Quran states prisoners of war can only be obtained from among the enemy during a time of a pitched battle:
مَا کَانَ لِنَبِیٍّ اَنۡ یَّکُوۡنَ لَہٗۤ اَسۡرٰی حَتّٰی یُثۡخِنَ فِی الۡاَرۡضِ ؕ تُرِیۡدُوۡنَ عَرَضَ الدُّنۡیَا ٭ۖ وَ اللّٰہُ یُرِیۡدُ الۡاٰخِرَۃَ ؕ وَ اللّٰہُ عَزِیۡزٌ حَکِیۡمٌ
It does not behove a Prophet that he should have captives until he engages in regular fighting in the land. You desire the goods of the world, while Allah desires for you the Hereafter. And Allah is Mighty, Wise. [8:68]
Then, the Holy Quran says that after the war is over, the prisoners should not be kept:
فَاِمَّا مَنًّۢا بَعۡدُ وَ اِمَّا فِدَآءً حَتّٰی تَضَعَ الۡحَرۡبُ اَوۡزَارَہَا
…[after the battle] either release them as a favour or by taking ransom — until the war lays down its burdens. [47:5]
This means that prisoners are to be released in good will after the battle or by taking ransom in some way (such as money from the family, exchange of prisoners, or some other such means). Further, the Holy Quran states that prisoners are only to be treated strictly to the extent that the enemy is strict to Muslim prisoners:
وَ اِنۡ عَاقَبۡتُمۡ فَعَاقِبُوۡا بِمِثۡلِ مَا عُوۡقِبۡتُمۡ بِہٖ ؕ وَ لَئِنۡ صَبَرۡتُمۡ لَہُوَ خَیۡرٌ لِّلصّٰبِرِیۡنَ
And if you desire to punish the oppressors, then punish them to the extent to which you have been wronged; but if you show patience, then, surely, that is best for those who are patient. [16:127]
Even here the Muslims are told to restrain themselves and to exercise patience. In brief, regarding prisoners of war, the Quranic teaching is as follows:
The term of imprisonment should terminate with the termination of fighting
No prisoner is to be put to death
No prisoner should be called upon to do anything which is beyond his abilities
The comfort of the prisoner should not be neglected
As a result, it is clear that there is no trace of slavery in Islamic teachings regarding prisoners of war. If terrorist organizations have made slaves out of prisoners of war, or kidnapped people who are free and not even engaged in battle, they have clearly acted against these teachings.
Distribution of Prisoners of War (POWs)
It is true that during the time of the Prophet Muhammad(sa), prisoners of war were distributed and assigned to individuals. Such distribution is one of the reasons why prisoners of war are sometimes confused with slaves.
First, it must be noted that the entire practice of assigning POWs to families or individuals was a retributory measure. Since the enemies of Islam were enslaving Muslims captured in battle, the Muslims assigned POWs to families, as a form of retaliation. Regardless, as shown above, even such assignments did not mean that they were pushed into slavery. The rules were clear in that they were to be treated with kindness and compassion, and to be set free after the war ends. It was in fact such kind treatment meted out to POWs that they started to convert to Islam during the time of Prophet Muhammad(sa).
One logistical reason why POWs were distributed in this manner is that state prisons did not exist at that time. It was a common practice to distribute them in such a way, and Muslims followed the same practice. Over time, this system has become obsolete, and has been replaced by prisons.
The Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as), writes:
It is a matter of great joy that in our era, those people who are referred to as disbelievers in opposition to Islam, have abandoned this practice of injustice and oppression. For this reason, it is now impermissible for Muslims as well to take their prisoners as bond-women and slaves, because God states in the Holy Quran that you may retaliate against a combatant group to a degree, only when they have first taken the lead. Hence, when now such a time no longer exists and the disbelieving people do not act so violently and unjustly towards the Muslims in a state of war, whereby they themselves as well as their men and women are taken as bond-women and slaves; rather, they are considered to be state prisoners, for this reason, in this era, it is now impermissible and unlawful for Muslims as well to do so. [iv]
Female Prisoners of War
The most contentious issue in the course of this discussion is that of female prisoners of war. Such prisoners are seen as “slave wives” or an excuse for institutional rape. The truth is that the word “slave”—as understood by most people today—cannot be applied to POWs, as this article has adequately shown. Distribution of female prisoners of war to individuals—similar to male prisoners of war—was due to the circumstances and needs of the time, in light of the absence of state prisons. As state prisons now exist in almost every country, there is no longer a need to distribute male/female prisoners of war among individuals.
Regardless, even when this was allowed, Islamic teachings followed the dictates of justice and compassion, and never created the conditions for oppression or cruelty. Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-din Mahmud Ahmad, the second Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has commented on this issue at length in his commentary of the Holy Quran, known as Tafsīr-e-Kabīr.
In the discussion of 23:7, he lists the following conditions that had to be met before a female prisoner could be handed over to a Muslim soldier (a summary of these points can be seen in the Detailed Commentary of the Holy Quran, and an explanatory list can be found in the book, Life and Character of the Seal of Prophets – Volume II, pages 220-225):
Prisoners can only be obtained during times of war
They should be released through ransom
If the prisoner cannot afford to pay the ransom, or his/her people or his/her home country is unable to pay the ransom, then the Muslim government should release him/her as a gesture of good will
If the government has reasons to not do that, then Zakāt funds should be used for the release
If that is also not possible, then the prisoner should be given the option of mukaatabat
If the female prisoner chooses not to use option 5, it clearly means that something is preventing her from going back to her home country as she has clearly refrained from exercising her right to earn her release. In such a case, her Muslim master was allowed to marry her involuntarily as a last resort. After that, if the female prisoner gives birth to a child, she automatically becomes a free woman.[v]
Does Islam allow rape with slaves?
Despite all the logic and care for justice in the teachings of Islam as shown above, some critics still make objections. At this stage, they ask why Islam has allowed “rape” with such slave-wives?
As shown in this article, there is no such thing as “slavery” for such women, as far as the common understanding of the term “slavery” is concerned. However, there is no doubt that such women who skip all the aforementioned steps to take their freedom will be obliged to get married to Muslim soldiers.
It should be remembered that war-time commandments in the Holy Quran are meant to combat the immorality that spreads during the chaos of war. Whenever wars take place, rape of innocent women becomes rampant. In fact, rape is considered “an unfortunate but inevitable accompaniment of war”.
Islamic teachings combat such evil systematically by giving two important instructions:
Women who are not participating in battle cannot be captured. Only those women (or men) who are actively participating in the battle can be captured and made POWs. [8:68]
Women who are made POWs have five different avenues to work for their release [Detailed Commentary of the Holy Quran].
It is only in those cases where the female prisoners of war did not make use of the five avenues available to them, Islam obliged them to get married as a last resort, in the interest of preventing immorality from spreading. As noted earlier, state prisons did not exist in the past and such women could not be held as prisoners in any one facility, and had to be assigned to soldiers or families. Hence, it is these women who are referred as those “whom the right hands possess”.
Considering these beautiful teachings of Islam, it would take a very mischievous critic of Islam to term such a union as rape. Instead, critics of Islam should appreciate the lengths to which Islam has gone even to protect female enemy combatants from being treated with barbarity. Had they been left alone, they would be exposed to numerous dangers and may even become the cause of the spread of immorality in the army and the society at large.
[i] Sahih Muslim, The Book of Emancipating Slaves, Chapter: The Virtue of Manumitting Slaves; https://sunnah.com/muslim/20/26
[ii] Islam and Slavery, page 25
[iii] Sahih Bukhari, Book of Sales and Trade, Chapter: The sin of a person who sells a free man; http://sunnah.com/bukhari/34/174
[iv] Chashma-e-Ma‘arifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, Vol. 23, p. 253 (Footnote) [as translated in Life and Character of the Seal of Prophets – Volume II, page 224]
[v] Tafsir-e-Kabir, volume 6, page 130