The Holy Koran and Slavery


Figure 1.--The Islamic Koran unlike the Christian Bible not only condones slavery, but speaks in great detail about it. This explains why there was nothing like the Christian abolitionist movement in the Islamic world. Here we have a depiction of a slave market in Cairo. Click here for a more detailed view of a transaction. We don't think it was the major Cairo slave market, but do not have Ebers text describing it. The drawing came from a book published by Georg Ebers. He was a noted German academic and Egyptologist. He traveled to Egypt twice in the 1860s-70s before the British established a protectorate and moved to supress the slave trade.

While the European Atlantic slave trade was conducted over four centuries, the Arab African slave trade was conducted over 14 centuries, and has not finally ended even in the 21st century. Ending slavery in the Muslim world was primarily the work of the Christian abolition movement. It is no accidental that abolition movements never developed in the Islamic world. The simple truth is that slavery is clearly sanctioned in the Holy Koran. This is important. Slavery is mentioned as existing in the Bible, but not really sanctioned. In fact, the central story of the Old Testament is the Hebrew escape from Egyotian sklavery, seeking freedom and the Promised Land. The Koran is very different. Allah in the Koean clearly sanctions slavery. And many Arabs and othet Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God which can not be questioned by our more enlightened modern humane attitudes on social values and human rights. There are many references to slavery in the Koran. Some authors desribe this as Mohammed's attitude toward slavery, but this is not how many Muslims view it. Remember that Mohammed was a prophet--God's messenger. More correctly, the Koranic verses to many Muslims provide a statement of God's views on slavery. The clear conclusion from all these passages is that God saw slavery as a natural aspect of human relations. This explains why there was been no abolitionist movement within Islam and why it was the Brirish Royal Navy that ended the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The many passages in the Koran mentioning slavery are rather ambigious, not unlike the Bible. Often the point of the passage is not clear. We can offer some suggestions as to the meaning. But we certainly do not pretend to be Islamic scholars. Reader comments are invited to help us better understand these various passages. One interesting aspect here is the number of references to which a Muslim might free a slave as the consequence for violating a Koranic injuction. This would make holding slaves a useful practice beyond the actual services they might render. It is notable the number of the 114 surah/sura (chapters) of the Koran that have refences to slavery.

Surah 2 (The Cow)

Verse 2.178

2.178: "O you who believe! retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain, the free for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female, but if any remission is made to any one by his (aggrieved) brother, then prosecution (for the bloodwit) should be made according to usage, and payment should be made to him in a good manner; this is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy; so whoever exceeds the limit after this he shall have a painful chastisement."

This is one of many passages in the Koran which reflect prevailing pre-Islamic Arabian social and legal precepts. Several interprtations can follow from this. One that the Koran is Mohammed's work and not that of God. Or conversely that God chose to speak to man in terms appropriate the the people and times. This of course would suggest that the Koran over time should be open to reinterpretation. This passage is also an instance of different legal treatment of men and women. The legal precept is that there should be different legal consequences if a person kills a freeman, woman and slave and this will depend on the status and gender of the person responsible for the killing. The passage clearly indicates that slavery is an established and acceptable legal institution and there is no hint of criticism for slavery. Note that the appropriate legal consequences are not detailed. For example if a free man kills another person's slave, he would not face the death penalty. Rather Islamic legal codes eventually evolved to require that a slave of the killer would be killed. This would be the same as if a man killed the cow of another person. It is the loss to the owner which has to be readdressed.

Surah 4 (The Women)

Verse 4.3

The Koran permits a master to marry a slave.

Verse 4.92

4.92: "And it does not behoove a believer to kill a believer except by mistake, and whoever kills a believer by mistake, he should free a believing slave, and blood-money should be paid to his people unless they remit it as alms; but if he be from a tribe hostile to you and he is a believer, the freeing of a believing slave (suffices), and if he is from a tribe between whom and you there is a covenant, the blood-money should be paid to his people along with the freeing of a believing slave; but he who cannot find (a slave) should fast for two months successively:"

Some modern Islamic scholars claim that this passage promoted the freeing of slaves. This seemes a kind of strained interpretation. If freeing slaves was a goal, why would it be linked with manslaughter. A more coherent interpretation would seem that forceing a man who has inadvertedly killed another man to free a slave is a penalty or fine imposed upon him. Again an important additional point is that slavery is not only widespread, but completely acceptable by Islam. The option of an additional two months fast for non-slave owners provides an insight on the value of a slave.

Surah 5 (The Dinner Table)

Verse 5.89

5.89: "Allah does not call you to account for what is vain in your oaths, but He calls you to account for the making of deliberate oaths; so its expiation is the feeding of ten poor men out of the middling (food) you feed your families with, or their clothing, or the freeing of a neck; but whosoever cannot find (means) then fasting for three days; this is the expiation of your oaths when you swear; and guard your oaths. Thus does Allah make clear to you His communications, that you may be Fateful."

This is another passage used by modern Islamic scholars to show that the Koran urges slave-owners to free their slaves. Again this is a strained interpretation. If God meant to tell man to free slaves, why did he not come out and say so. Islamic scholars who argue otherwise are in effect saying that God was not capable of clearly expressing his ideas. It is not really clear that this is a reference to slavery. The term slave or slavery does not appear in the passage. The reference to "freeing if a neck" could refer to freeing a slave. It could also refer to freeing a condemned man. And again if the reference does refer to a slave, than it is yet another Koranic verse regognizing slavery as a legal and acceptable institutions.

Surah 12 (Yusuf)

Verses 12.29-30

12.29: "O Yusuf! turn aside from this; and (O my wife)! ask forgiveness for your fault, surely you are one of the wrong-doers."
12.30: "And women in the city said: The chief's wife seeks her slave to yield himself (to her), surely he has affected her deeply with (his) love; most surely we see her in manifest error."

These verses are part of the account of the slave Yusuf (Joseph) who was bought by an Egyptian. Once encounced in the household, the Egyptian's wife tried to have sexual relations with him. Joseph was tempted, but in the end resisted. The Egyptian minself concluded that the slave had asked the wife to apologize. This fascinating episode reflects not only Islamic attitudes toward slavery, but sharply different moral codes for men and women. Muslim men had the right to demand sexual relations with their female slaves. The women had no right to refuse. This was different for male slaves owned by women.

Surah 16 (The Bee)

Verse 16.71

16.71: "And Allah has made some of you excel others in the means of subsistence, so those who are made to excel do not give away their sustenance to those whom their right hands possess so that they should be equal therein; is it then the favor of Allah which they deny?"

Here the Koran requires that Muslims who are affluent to share their "subsistence" with their slaves. This is one of several Koranic passages that require a Muslim to treat his slaves humanely, but it isalso one of many passages which recognizes slavery as a acceptable practice and part of the normal structure of society. There is no hint of duisapproval for slave holding.

Verse 16.75

16.75: "Allah sets forth a parable: (consider) a slave, the property of another, (who) has no power over anything, and one whom We have granted from Ourselves a goodly sustenance so he spends from it secretly and openly; are the two alike? (All) praise is due to Allah!"

This is a particularly important passage because it addresses slavery in more than a passing manner. Many other Koranic references are indirect or deal with the humane treatment of slaves. This passage strikes at the essential inequality of man and essentially justifies both inequaliy and savery as aform of inequality. Here slavery is presented as a divine dispensation--essentially God in the Koran tells Muslims that slavery is not only acceptable but that he endorsed it. This is one of many parables in ghe Koran. It compares two individuals: 1) a slave who is owned and thus completely powerless and 2) a freeman who God has granted "a goodly sustenance" which he is free to spend. Since the vision of God expressed in the Koran is the granter or denier of all benefits. The freeman's fortune and the slave's misfortune are both the work of God. Then the Koran poses a rhetorical question "Are the two alike?" Muhammad in the Koran is clearly justifying inequality. It is seen as the natural order of society. Thus a Muslim need have no concerns about in employing and exploiting his slaves, subject only to the Koranic provisions concerning the treatment of slaves.

Surah 23 (The Believers)

Verses 23.1-6

23.1-6: "Successful indeed are the believers, Who are humble in their prayers, And who keep aloof from what is vain, And who are givers of poor-rate, And who guard their private parts, Except before their mates (spouses) or those whom their right hands possess, for they surely are not blameable."

This is the Koranic verse that gives the slave owner the right of sexual favors over his female slaves. The term "guarding the private parts" is a polite way of expressing sexual intercourse. , and it is said that this is not blameable if indulges with wives and slaves. The passage seems to be gender neutral. (Perhaps gender is more apparent in the Arabic original.) Een so it has been interpreted by Koranic scholars as meaning males slave owners have a right for sexual favors from their female slaves, but nor from male slaves which is prohibited by the Koran nor do femle slave owneers have the right of sexual favors from male slaves. It is also a Koranic verse that clearly descriminates against women. The verse also affects how the humane treatment od slaves is defined in Islam. I do not believe that the Bible allows slave owners sexual privliges. Of course slave owners in America and Latin America commonly took advantage of their slaves. It was, however, something seen as distateful and not openly admitted. The Koran does not address the question of the status are responsibility of the children fathered by slave owners.

Surah 24 (The Light)

Verse 24:31

24.31: "And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful."

This is a very important Koranic verse. It is the verse used to justify modest dress for women. The verse is a little vague and does not provide precise detail as to just how women should be covered. Muslim fundamentalists insist that the veil and even the burqa are required and that women who fail to comply should be arrested or beaten. More moderate Muslims maintains that it only requires modest dress and head scarves. As regards slavery there is an interesting passage. Included in the list of indiciduals before which women need nor be covered are the family slaves and here the reference in context is to male skaves. The Koran uses the phrase those that "the right hand possess"--a commonly used term in the Koran meaning slaves. I am not entirely sure why the Koran refers to slaves "not having need" (of women). This may be a reference to eunchs, but more likely it is just the assumtion that male slaves had no right to sexual relations outside of those sanctioned by his owner. It is not entirely clear why Mohammed included slaves on this list. Perhaps it was that slaves were so common in Arabia and important to the running of the household thst it was not practical. Or perhaps slaves were just taken dor granted. It woukd be interested to know just how Koranic scholars explain thrir inclusion on the list.

Verse 24:32

24.32: "And marry those among you who are single and those who are fit among your male slaves and your female slaves; if they are needy, Allah will make them free from want out of His grace; and Allah is Ample-giving, Knowing."

Koranic scholars use this passage to justify the marriages of slaves with other slaves and slaves with free individuals, including their owners. Muslim slave masters did not normally marry their slaves. There were of course instances when this did occur resulting from particularly strong bonds of affection developing between an owner and a particular slave. It was, however, not the normal practice. It could cause problens with a man's other wives. And as Islam gives a male (but not a female) skave owner to demand sexual favors from female slaves, men for the most part at no real incentive to marry a slave. Koranic scholars have also used this verse to give a slave owber the right to order a slave to marry and to decide who they should marry. He could also decide to prohibit a slave from marraying. There was, however, a financial incentive in permitting slave marriages. Under Islam, children born to slave couple are legally slaves. This verse essentially provides religious sanction for breeding slaves.

Verse 24.33

24.33: "And let those who do not find the means to marry keep chaste until Allah makes them free from want out of His grace. And (as for) those who ask for a writing from among those [slaves] whom your right hands possess, give them the writing if you know any good in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you; and do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, when they desire to keep chaste, in order to seek the frail good of this world's life; and whoever compels them, then surely after their compulsion Allah is Forgiving, Merciful."

This is a rather difficult passage to understand. It seems to say that a slave should be permitted to earn their living if they chose to do so and they could not be compeled to earn money for their master, except when an agreement was reached between the slave and the owner. And such work can not include prostitution. (Prostitution here does not include the owner demanding sexual favors which is authorized by the Koran.) In such cases part of the money earned should be use for eventual emancipation--mukatabah. Islamic tradition promotes, but does not require mukatabah. Mukatabah was normally not a simple matter, but often required a formal written agreement. The "writing" or agreement details the conditions required fir freedom. This usually included the payment of a stated sum of money. The question arises as to just where the slaves acquires the needed funds. Perhaps a relative would pay for his freedom. Or a slave promoses to repay his owner out of future earnings. He thus becomes an indentured servant as if he fails to pay the persc=scribed sum, he reverts to slavery.

Surah 33 (The Clans)

Verse 33.50

33.50: "O Prophet! surely We have made lawful to you your wives whom you have given their dowries, and those [slaves] whom your right hand possesses out of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war, and the daughters of your paternal uncles and the daughters of your paternal aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncles and the daughters of your maternal aunts who fled with you; and a believing woman if she gave herself to the Prophet, if the Prophet desired to marry her -- specially for you, not for the (rest of) believers; We know what We have ordained for them concerning their wives and those whom their right hands possess in order that no blame may attach to you; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful."

Interpretation

The Koran is writen to a large extent as poetry. The meaning of many verses seem very clear. Others verses are much more difficult to understand. Thus after the various verses here, we have attempted to assess just what point Mohammed or if you are a Muslim God was attempting to make. What the Koran says is of course fixed, although translarions from the original Arabic vary. Interpretations can, however, be highly variable. We have attempted to the bst of our ability assess the meaning of these veses. We incourage readrs to agree or disagree with out assessment or to provide insights of their own so we can beter understand just swhat the Korn says about slavery.

Importance

The subject of slavery and Islamic law is much more extensive than just the Koran. There are the Hadiths, a vast body of law and scholarly writing. What the Koran say about slavery, howver,is of centeal importance. To most Muslims, the Koran is the actual world of God and its teachings can not be questioned. Varying interpretations are possible, although in many Mulims countries, interpretations varying from the majority view can be dangerous. Given the centrality of the Koran to Muslims, Koranic verses overide all other scholarly sources such as the Hadiths. Thus any assessment of slavery in the Muslim wrld has to begin with an understanding of what the Koran says about the institution.

Assessment

slavery is clearly scationed in the Koran and many Arabs and othet Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God which can not be questioned by our more enlightened modern attitudes on social values and human rights. There are many references to slavery in the Koran. Some authors desribe this as Mohammed's attitude toward slavery, but this is not how many Muslims view it. Remember that Mohammed was a prophet, God's messenger. More correctly, the Koranic verses to many Muslims provide a statement of God's views on slavery. The clear conclusion from all these passages is that God saw slavery as a natural aspect of human relations. This explains why there was been no abolitionist movement within Islam and why it was primarily the British Royal Navy that ended the Arab slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The many passages in the Koran mentioning slavery are rather ambigious, not unlike the Bible. Often the point of the passage is not clear. We can offer some suggestions as to the meaning. But we certainly do not pretend to be Islamic scholars. Reader comments are invited to help us better understand these various passages. One interesting aspect here is the number of references to which a Muslim might free a slave as the consequence for violating a Koranic injuction. This would make holding slaves a useful practice beyond the actual services they might render. It is notable the number of the 114 surah/sura (chapters) of the Koran that have refences to slavery. Sharia (Islamic) law based on the Koranic verses here regulateed all aspects of the slave's status. Sharia detailed the obligations of masters and slaves and created a legal foundation for the the relations between them. Shaira encourages manumission, but does not require it. It is important to note that there is no Koranic distinction between types of slaves such as race, work assignments, or origins of the slaves. There is one exception here. There are detinctions associated with gender related to sexual relations. Despite the lack of Koranic justification, however, social strarification in the Muslim world based on race did emerge. White slaves were considered the most valuable and raked higest in social status. Among the black Africans, Ethiopian slaves were ranked highest. [Toledano, pp. 3-5.]

Sources

Toledano, Ehud R. The Ottoman Slave Trade and its Suppression, 1840-1890 (Princeton University Press, 1982), 307p..






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Created: 5:05 AM 4/29/2006
Last updated: 2:37 PM 3/19/2008