Surah Al-Nisaa 4:19 states “O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will.” As you pointed out, during the Prophet’s time, slavery was permitted under certain guidelines and could not be abolished because of its firm entrenchment in the society at that time. As such, “those whom your right hands possess” or war captive women/slave girls became valid partners in a sexual relationship according to the Qur’an. Does the statement in 4:19 mean that the master had to ask the permission of the captive woman before having sex with her? If not, then does that not amount to sexual exploitation (i.e. rape)?
Surah Al-Nisaa 4:19 does not refer to the slaves girls. The verse actually refers to an extremely abhorrent practice in the pre-Islamic Arabian society. According to this practice, in some tribes, a man’s wives were considered among his distributable wealth, at the time of his death and, thus, the wives were also distributed among the inheritors of the deceased. In this verse, the Qur’an has discouraged this practice.
As far as whether the masters of the slave girls used to copulate with these girls with or without their consent is concerned, the question is actually based on an incorrect view regarding the position of slavery. Slavery, as it existed in Arabia, reduced the status of a human being from a free individual to one of a possessed commodity. Under these circumstances, even the question of ‘freedom’ or ‘choice’ or ‘consent’ did not arise. The masters of the slaves owned their slaves, as they owned their clothes, houses and cattle. They could use them or discard them as they pleased. The slaves did not have any social, moral or legal rights toward their masters, except that they be clothed and fed. The position of the slaves may become clearer if one keeps in mind the fact that even if a person were to kill his slave, his action was not considered a crime by the society. In fact, the significance of killing a slave or a slave girl was no more than discarding one’s used clothes.
If we were to consider the steps taken by Islam for the elevation of the social, moral and legal status of the slaves in the background of the then existing position of the slaves in the society, only then would we truly be able to appreciate the significance as well as the ‘revolutionary’ nature of these steps taken by Islam.
I hope this helps.
March 31, 2001