Islam has forbidden slavery for it is the religion that gives rights of individuals, males or females. It made this as clear as daylight, many centuries ago, before the slogan of human rights came to be known to the Westerners.
Slavery was not initiated by Islam, it had been in practice long before the advent of Islam. As we know, it is the custom of war to have captives and those captives or prisoners used to be turned into slaves and concubines by their masters. This was not the case only in the pre-Islamic Arab regions, but it was there in every other place. It was even worse in some societies, especially with women. She was subject to all kinds of injustice, oppression and barbarian treatment. This went as far as that Greeks used to consider her a mere commodity, to be bought and sold. As for Romans, she was a slave already by nature, even without being captured at war!
In short, Islam is not the religion that jeopardizes the rights of woman, as Western scholars would have us believe, concocting any ideas to distort the image of Islam. Was it Islam that considered woman as being responsible for the banishing of man from Paradise? Was it Islam that took women as being the cause of all evils or regarded her as serpents? Was it in Islam that a meeting was held to debate whether woman could be regarded as a human being or not? No! This took place in France in 587 C.E. Actually all this was the norm of the day in the past Western civilizations. Yes, it was also the habit in the pre-Islamic Arab, when female babies used to be buried alive.
When Islam came, it tried to put an end to all such inhumane practices. It left no stone unturned in its quest to let women have their rights and dignity restored. This is clearly manifest in the way Islam handled the issue of slavery. Right from the start, Islam set a goal to eradicate this barbaric system. Yet, it needed to be done gradually, as the case with all bad habits that have gained ground. People never give up easily!
So, first of all it confined the issue of taking captives to the period of warfare. This is just as a situation necessitated by hostility between warring states. Then it allowed the female captives to be married by their captors. But why? Does this mean giving men a golden chance to unleash their sexual desires or to sexually brutalize those captives? No, not at all!
Here lies certain wisdom that completely escapes the mind of those Western scholars, who take this issue to launch attacks against Islam.
As we know, after the end of hostility, it is the norm that prisoners of war be freed and exchanged through mutual agreement between the parties. Islam has made this clear in its divine texts that the captives must be freed through ransom or without ransom. Also, it is socially understood that marrying freed female captives, would normally secure their rights, more than would be the case if they were set free without any guarantee for survival or for preserving their dignity.
Thus, Islam gave them hope of survival, trying to prevent their becoming prostitutes. In fact, they would have definitely found it hard to find suitors, even from among their free male counterparts, who’d suspect them of being ravished by their captors. Though glimmer it may be in the beginning, this hope soon turned glittering by securing them a marital home, whereby their rights and dignity would be secured.
Here comes the issue of ma malakat aimanukum (what your right hands possess). This is mentioned in many verses in the Qur?an, like the following:
If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess: And God hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another: Wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to what is reasonable: …
Surah 4 Verse 25
This verse confirms what I have just said; opening the door for female slaves or captives to be married by destitute Muslims who cannot afford the dowry of free women. Notice here that the Qur’an uses the expression what your right hands. What is the significance of this expression?
The word ‘right hands’ here refers to women taken as prisoners of war. It is by no means an implication of concubinage, for this is totally prohibited in Islam. Nor does it refer to purchasing female slaves from market to be used to satisfy sexual urge. It is during warfare that the right hand actually takes possession of captives, and this is what the Qur’an means. That is point number one.
Point number two is that, the word right hands possess also has another significance that clearly reflects the great concern Islam has for preserving the rights of those captives. As we know, the right hand has its special merit and privileged functions that man instinctively reserve for it. Imam Kurtubi, in his commentary on this verse, says: Allah Almighty uses the word right hand here for it denotes great honor and respect. It suffices that it is the one used when referring to spending, as mentioned in the hadith he who provides charity (seeking only Allah’s reward) in a way that his left hand does not know what his right hand spends. And it is the very hand used in making pledge of allegiance etc.
All these indicates that the word what your right hand possess has a special and glorified meaning in Islamic usage. In fact, it signifies the great care and good treatment that captives or prisoners of wars should be accorded. This is how Islam dealt with the issue from the earliest stages.
All these did not materialize all of a sudden, for slavery was a social ailment that needed to be addressed. So it was a gradual strategy laid down by Islam, not only to eradicate slavery, but also to give the freed slaves a complete social rehabilitation. First of all, Islam stipulated that all masters should take care of their captives; they should not be overburdened with tasks, nor should they be deprived of their human rights. The Prophet (pbuh) made this clear in his hadith that masters should treat their slaves as their brothers and female captives as their sisters, if not in faith, at least in humanity. He said:
Your servants are thy brethren. Allah has put them under your control. He could, if He willed, make you under their control. Thus, whoever has his brother under his control, let him feed him of his same food and dress him of his same dress. Never saddle them with work that goes beyond their capability. If the work happens to be somehow difficult, lend them a helping hand.
As for female captives, Imam Bukhari quotes the Prophet, as saying:
If any of you have a slave girl, whom he gives good education and excellent training, and then he emancipates her and marries her, he shall have a two-fold reward.
You see; that’s how Islam set the course of emancipating slaves. They should definitely be well treated. Also, educating female captives and marrying them, after emancipation is considered an act of charity, which would earn one great reward. Not only that. Islam further put an end to the habit of using derogative names of slaves or servants. For in Islam, man must not show servitude to anyone besides Allah the Almighty. So it was stipulated that the captives should be addressed by fatah (boy) or fatat (girl). Besides, the act of emancipating slaves used to be a competitive work among the Prophet’s Companions, for it was highly recommended by Islam and was considered an act of worship.
What’s more, Islam has also made use of what was an international custom during that era; i.e. the custom of having intercourse with female captives. Here Islam stipulated that if through sexual intercourse, the female slave got pregnant from her master, she would automatically gain her freedom. So would her child, for he’d be born free then. What a wise approach to eliminate a bad habit! So it was not a means of unleashing sexual desires. Otherwise, it would have been something permanent, being pregnant would have availed the slave woman nothing, for she’d remain the property of her master no matter how. No, Islam was not after such a sensual and voluptuous goal.
Islam effectively prohibited slavery by prohibiting making people slaves in any way except temporarily during wars. Once the war is over, such people must either be freed by negotiation and ransom (e.g. exchanges of prisoners of war) or set free without any ransom.
There were many ways that existing slaves could become freed including to gain God’s forgiveness for doing a sin, setting a slave free was commanded in the Qur’an. Freeing slaves was also one of the clear priorities for government spending of Zakat (obliged charity spending administered by the state).