Religion and Slavery

Figure 1.--Slavery is sanctioned by the Koran. An although the Koran encourages humane treatement it accepts slavery. As a result, there has been no Islamic abolitionist movement. This photograph was taken in Sudan. It shows a group of slave children kidnapped or 'purchased' from families. We are not sure just where and when the photograph was taken, but it looks fairly recent. Notice how the Arab slave dealer is covering his face.

Religion has played a major role in both justifying and perpetuating slavery and ironically ending slavery. It hs also played a major role in largely ending slavery. The major religions have taken different views on slavery which affected the nature of the institution. Judaism did not play a significant role in slavery, in part because it has been since the Roman supresion of the Jewish Revolt, a minority religion. Christianity helped to end slavery in Europe, but tolerated the African slave trade and a race-based slave system. Islam has sanctioned slavery and played a major role in the African slave trade. In the wars between Christian and Muslim states, adherence to the oposing religion was often grounds for enslavement. One of the main objectives of the Bsrbary pirates was to seize Christians for sale as slaves. The Christian-centered abolitionist movemdnt helped end the African slave trade and slavery in much of the modern world. Islam unlike Christianity never developed an abolitionist movement. We know nothing about Hinduism and slavery, but untouchability jad some aspects of slavery. We also know nothing about Buddhism at this time. A point to be considered is the the vzrious times in which the various grrat religions appeared.



The advent of Christianity did not mean an abrupt end to widespread slavery. Jesus as far as we know did not address the subject. The New Testament does not provide any indication as to Jesus' assessment of slavery. Jesus did speak to human dignity and the value of the individual. And the early Church was influenced by the more benigh Jewish concept of slavery. Jesus and his early deciples spoke with passion about social inequities. And the early Church following its Jewish roots did not denigrate mannual labor. Jesus himself was a carpenter like his father Joseph. Thus the slaves and poor of the Roman world were early adherents to Chritianity. With the conversion of Constantine, the Christian emperors began to legislate the more humanitarian tratment of slaves. The number os slaves began to decline, but this changed with the Barabarian invasions. Barbarian Empires enslaved people in large numbers. Gradually the Feudal system emerged in Europe. Slavery continued in Byzantium, but in the Roman West the enslavement of fellow Christians gradually disappeared with the advent of Feudalism. Although feudal serfs were only slightly more elevated than slaves. Feudalism survived into our modern era as serfdom in Russia. While slavery largely disappeared in Europe, Europeans with the colonization of the New World used Africans as a major source of slave labor. There was for three centuries no substantial opposition from Christian churches. It was the churches, however, that were to prove the foundation od the abolitionist movement rgat finally ended slavery in the 19th century.



Islam from the very beginning accepted slavery and Mohammed in effect institutionalized it in the Koran. This reflected accepted practices in pre-Islamic Arabia. Arabs commonly made captives taking in raids against neigboring tribes into slaves. Also prisionors taken in wars were commonly made slaves. Islam was spread by warriors who had little regard for mannual laborers. This basic fact strongly colored slavery in the Islamuc world. Muhammad after he escaped to Medina and begun to acquire power began taking slaves in conformance with existing practice. Islam permits the taking of slaves as "booty" in war or as a reward to warriors. The Koran justifies the taking of slaves and there are numerous references to slavery in the Koran. For example Koran 33:50: "Prophet, We have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave girls whom God has given you as booty." Nowhere in the Koran as in the Bible is slavery described as bad or whicked. The Koran does state that one duty of a good Muslim is to free one of his slaves. If you cannot for some reason free one of your slaves, you're required to fast for two consecutive months (Koran 4:92). The Koran permits a master to marry a slave (Koran 4:3). The Arabian practice of raids on neigboring tribes was over time adjusted to attacks on non-Muslim states and taking those peoples as slaves. Islamic jurisprudence gradually developed a code for the treatment of slaves. The regulations, however, have been variously enforced. Given the time period involved, there is very limited information on slavery in Muslim countries until the movern era. Slavery played important roles in several Muslim countries. The Mamelukes in Egypt for example were children of non-Muslim slaves, raised by Islamic priests. The famous Janassary soldiers of the Ottoman Empire were in fact children of Christian parents who were made the Sultan's slaves. One of the best studied instances of Muslim slavery was the Arab Indian Ocean slave trade that the British Royal Navy confronted in the 19th century.


Judaism is the oldest of the great momnotheist religions. Slavery was a widespread practice in the Middle Eastern world (both Mesopotamia and Egypt) from which the Hebrews emerged. The early Hebrews accepted the practice. Slavery is mentioned in various Old Testament passages. Slavery was still widespread in Palestine and other areas of the Roman world at the time of Jesus' ministry. Slavery as it had evolved ea Jewish Palestine, however, was different than the more severe Roman form of slavery. The Mosaic Law was much merciful to slaves (Exodus 21; Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15:21). Central to the milder Jewish concept of slavery is that the Jews did not scorn manual labor.


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Created: 1:40 AM 9/14/2010
Last updated: 1:40 AM 9/14/2010