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Concept of Female Slaves in the Qur'an


I have recently started reading Quran with its translation and there are a few issues that disturb me. Firstly, the concept of slaves in Quran is a very disturbing one, especially considering how our religion promotes freedom and submission to Allah only. Secondly. Where Quran mentions the prohibition of illegal sexual intercourse, the only exceptions are with a person's wife or SLAVES/ CAPTIVES that their right hand possesses. Don't you think this again is a violation of basic human rights?

I understand that what I am asking may be considered blasphemic, but I am honestly looking for an answer to such questions and I also understand that my knowledge of Islam is limited. Please guide me.


Question from Pakistan

I can tell that you are only trying to understand and that your question is not meant to be a criticism against the Almighty nor against His Divine Revelation. The Almighty knows this better than anyone. Therefore, I feel that you have nothing to worry about in this regard, Inshallah.

You write:

"Firstly, the concept of slaves in Quran is a very disturbing one, especially considering how our religion promotes freedom and submission to Allah only."

We must remain conscious of the fact that the Qur'an was revealed in an environment in which slavery was accepted as a normal social custom. This custom was around for so long that everybody accepted it. Had you and I been living there at the time, we too would have seen nothing wrong with it. Therefore, it should be cleared up at the outset that the Qur'an neither created this practice nor encouraged it in any way, shape or form. It only accepted that this has been deeply rooted in that society and would not be eradicated easily. So, a simple demand to free all slaves was unrealistic. Besides, the slaves; many of which were elderly poor people, had nowhere to go and would therefore probably end up becoming beggars and only further the burden upon society. As such, a gradual approach had to be taken for the eradication of this vice. Please remember that the steps toward this taken by the Qur'an would have been seen as abnormal to the people of the time, as keeping slaves feels to you and I. It should be recognized that slavery was a social phenomenon of an international nature, Islam could not have completely abolished slavery, while the world culture remained the same.

So let us take a look at the approach by the Qur'an toward eradicating this custom. It is well known that the Qur'an declared from the very beginning that freeing slaves is amongst a believer's acts of virtues which illustrate most beautifully, his compassion and kindness toward fellow humans. It commended and encouraged this while condemning those who were against it:

"But he has made no effort on the uphill path. And what will make you know the uphill path? It is freeing a slave, or giving food on a day of hunger, to the orphan near of kin, or to the poor person down in the dust - then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patient perseverance, and enjoin kindness and compassion." - Al Balad 90:12-13

It goes yet further by declaring that those who see any goodness in their slaves should free them and even if the slaves do not have the ability to pay for their own freedom, they should be helped towards it. Furthermore, people were forbidden from treating their slaves inhumanely and forcing them into prostitution:

"And such of your slaves as seek a writing (of emancipation), write it for them if you are aware of any good in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you. Force not your slave-girls to prostitution merely that you may seek enjoyment of the life of the world, while they would actually like to remain chaste. And if one forces them, then, after being compelled, Allah will be Forgiving, Merciful (to these slaves)." - Al Nur 24:33

Alms were only to be for certain good purposes, among which freeing slaves is again one of them:

"The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the slaves and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer; a duty imposed by Allah. Allah is Knower, Wise." - Al Tawbah 9:60

If a person committed a sin, freeing a slave was a noble form of expiation or atonement or penance:

"Allah will not take you to task for that which is unintentional in your oaths, but He will take you to task for the oaths which you deliberately make. For expiation is the feeding of ten of the needy with the average of that wherewith you feed your own families, or the clothing of them, or the liberation of a slave, and for him who does not find the means should fast for three days. This is the expiation for the oaths you have sworn. But keep your oaths. Thus Allah clarifies unto you His verses in order that you may be grateful." - Al Ma'idah 5:89

Prisoners of war were not to be taken as slaves but rather released as a favour or for a ransom. Historically speaking, enslaving prisoners of war was a primary mode through which a free man was made a slave, by abolishing this mode, Islam closed the doors for Muslims to add to the existing slave population in the world:

"So when you meet the rejecters in battle, smite their necks until you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favour or let them be ransomed until the war lays down its armour. That (is how it shall be); and if Allah had pleased He could have punished them (without you), but (He did not do so in order) that He may try some of you by means of others; and (as for) those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will never allow their deeds to be worthless." - Muhammad 47:4

From the Seerah of the Prophet (pbuh), we know that he worked in accordance to the Qur'anic verses, freeing slaves and also providing the best example of how compassionately they should be dealt with. He (pbuh) would advise people to use terms like "my son" and "my child" rather than "my slave" when referring to them. He wanted them to be considered as part of the family and thus be treated well. For this reason, the Prophet (pbuh) took the ill-treatment of slaves very seriously as can be seen from many narrations such as the following:

Abu Mas'ud al-Ansari reported: "When I was beating my servant, I heard a voice behind me (saying): Abu Mas'ud, bear in mind Allah has more dominance over you than you have upon him (i.e. that slave). I turned and (found him) to be Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him). I said: Allah's Messenger, I set him free for the sake of Allah. Thereupon he said: Had you not done that, (the gates of) Hell would have opened for you, or the fire would have burnt you." (Sahih Muslim, Book 15, Hadith number 4088)

Narrated Al-Ma'rur: At Ar-Rabadha I met Abu Dhar who was wearing a cloak, and his slave, too, was wearing a similar one. I asked about the reason for it. He replied, "I abused a person by calling his mother with bad names." The Prophet (pbuh) said to me, 'O Abu Dhar! Did you abuse him by calling his mother with bad names? You still have some characteristics of ignorance. Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity and if you do so, then help them.' (Sahih Bukhari Book 2, Hadith number 29)"

Abdullah Ibn Umar narrated that a man came to the Prophet (pbuh) and asked: "Messenger of Allah! How often shall I forgive a servant?" He gave no reply, so the man repeated what he had said, but he still kept silent. When he asked a third time, he replied: "Forgive him seventy times daily." (Abu Dawud, Book 36, Hadith number 5145)

The Prophet (pbuh) was narrated to have said; "He who slaps his slave or beats him, the expiation for it is that he should set him free" (Sahih Muslim, Book 15, Hadith number 407)

Considering all of this, I really cannot see how the Qur'an displays a "disturbing concept" in regards to slaves. Actually, I reckon that the Qur'an provided the best groundwork toward the actual abolition of slavery itself. Had the Qur'an decided to declare slavery forbidden immediately rather than gradually removing it while giving a set of rules for their better treatment in the mean time, then it would have caused various problems on different levels. In the world at the time, there were such a huge number of slaves that releasing them would have left them without food, money, jobs and care. Many of them were already very vulnerable and would therefore never have been able to cope with such a thing. The societies would never have been able to provide for them all and they may as a result have turned to illegal means to earn a living (e.g. brothels may have been opened etc). Thus, there was wisdom behind the decision to abolish slavery gradually rather than immediately.

You write:

"Secondly, where Quran mentions the prohibition of illegal sexual intercourse, the only exceptions are with a person's wife or SLAVES/ CAPTIVES that their right hand possesses."

Having explained what the social customs were at the time, it should be understood that sexual intercourse with one's slave was considered part of the norm. The slaves too saw nothing wrong in this. In fact, before the advent of Islam the slaves were considered no more than their master's possessions and therefore absolutely anything could be done with them. In other words, they could even take their slaves' lives when and as they pleased. Islam removed such vices and raised them to the position of fellow humans with similar rights. However, as long as slavery was not completely removed, having sexual relations remained part of the master-slave relationship.

I hope this enables you to get a better grasp and appreciation of the issue.


Hischam Khan

Answer published by Hischam Khan