Slavery in Islam: classic and nowadays

Slavery in Islam: classic and nowadays
Photo: “A slave market in Cairo”, David Roberts. Credit:

Though slavery appeared in ancient times and most human history is based on it, this shameful relic of the past still exists in some way today. In his next article for our newspaper, columnist of Realnoe Vremya Karim Gaynullin reflects on the nature of this institution, its role in the formation of states and the revival of banned organisations in Islam.

Slavery in culture before Islam

Slavery appeared in human culture in ancient times, and most human history is about slavery. So the first slavery communities are linked with the appearance of the first political entities, that’s to say, relations between authorities of some entities and others. We are talking about states in Mesopotamia and Egypt (4,000-3,000 BC). In Marxism, the slave-owning system is considered the first public and economic formation that divided people into classes.

This is why the submission of a human by a human is directly related to the birth of politics, that’s to say, power relations. These relations were interpreted through the lens of “ownership” for long. So in Ancient Greek poleis (city-states), the population was divided into free people participating in making important political decisions and slaves doing household chores instead of them. Women and children were in the middle.

Aristotle’s Politics is a very important source of what ancient slavery was like. Aristotle’s imagines slavery in his Politics the following way: “He who is by nature not his own but another's man, is by nature a slave”. Also, Aristotle thinks that “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule”. A free man should deal with politics (administration) and philosophy, while a slave should do household chores.

Contemporaries often consider slavery as an awful institution of oppression. However, we should understand that during constant wars and an absence of the world spatial order when communication rules of different nations weren’t formed, either death or slavery was the most probable outcome of the defeat.

A complex penitentiary system (prisons) simply didn’t exist, it was impossible to maintain prisoners of war. This is why genocides that wars used to often end with stopped after slavery appeared.

Jews’ Departure from Egypt is the key event linked with slavery in Abrahamic history. God promised “children of Israel” departure from Egyptian slavery and Egyptians departure after years of oppression. The Abrahamic idea is that a man who is loyal to God shouldn’t obey the creation, especially from a pagan, which was later inherited by Islam.

The Book of Leviticus clearly illustrates that the Jewish religion divided slaves into Canaanists and Israelis, moreover, the first group were mostly slaves. A total ban on possessing Jewish slaves by Jews was imposed in the Middle Ages. Since Judaism considered that Hama was cast a curse, while the progenitor of Canaanite peoples Canaan was Hama’s son, their dependent position was considered as a natural order of things. Later, such an idea was borrowed by European Christians as justification of the Black population’s enslavement.

“The Israelites Leaving Egypt”, David Roberts. Photo:

Slavery was an indispensable part of the Roman Empire and remained such both during the period of adoption of Christianity and the period of the developed church. Paul the Apostle taught Christian slaves to obey their masters in his messages:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people. because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free (Ephesians 5-8).

As he taught, masters should also be merciful to their servants: “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him (Ephesians 9).

However, many Christian saints and fathers of the church indicated that slavery contradicted God’s design and is the fruit of the fall from grace. It is also interesting what the phenomenon of slavery itself is. American scholar of Islamic studies Jonathan Brown wrote the book Slavery in Islam where he wondered if slavery was a single phenomenon. Studying different forms of slavery, he concludes that various phenomena were meant. So in the early Islamic era, mawlas — freedmen from Arabic slaves — were considered nobler than free peasants. Egyptian slaves Mamluks who originated from Turkish and Caucasian slaves ruled the state. In the Russian language, the word “noblemen” stems from the word “servants”, servants of the tsar. Janissaries, slaves of the Ottoman caliph, ruled the state and were much more influential and richer than any free Turk.

A critical theory, especially that of the left wing, claims that the cancellation of slavery didn’t cancel the format of oppression itself. Even though we omit illegal types of slavery, today a person cannot be bought but can be leased. Technologies have reached such a scale when manual labour could be completely handed over to machines, which is called acceleration. While some people deal with politics and philosophy, others continue doing manual labour though they receive money for this.

Slavery in Islamic culture

So the Islamic religion came when the social structure was slave-owning. Slavery was widespread both in Orthodox Byzantine and Zoroastrian Iran. Mecca as a city at the crossroads of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires as well as Ethiopia, Himyar (Yemen) where there was trade from India too was an important commercial hub, which favoured slavery too. Islam didn’t establish a direct provision cancelling slavery as an institution. However, Sharia law directly states that precisely freedom is a natural state for a human.

Arabs in front of Byzantine Emperor Romanos III. Photo:

It also seems important the Quran and Sunnah don’t regulate the concept of slavery itself. The texts consider slavery as a fact given in the reality adopting the tradition that was created by local Jews, Christians and hanifs (monotheists).

The only way of enslavement is the enslavement of prisoners of war. According to Sharia, it is impossible to be sold into debt slavery, and a free person cannot sell himself. Other types of enslavement existed in pre-Islamic Arabia but were cancelled. Enslavement of prisoners of war is a voluntary decision of a ruler, and slavery isn’t a mandatory form of relationship with the defeated group.

Nevertheless, Muhammad’s prophecy, peace and blessings be upon him, limited slavery in many parameters. So Prophet taught not to call slaves slaves but use alternative words or don’t call them by name instead. It became prohibited to beat and humiliate slaves. Slaves’ liberation was envisaged for a big number of the master’s offences: for instance, if the slave owner misses fasting during Ramadan or breaks the vow. All this allows claiming that Islamic law tended to cancel slavery: there are a lot of reasons to liberate slaves and there was only one reason to enslave free people.

In the ancient society of “slavery by nature”, humiliation and insult of a slave was a demonstration of traditional hierarchical relations. It is noteworthy that Sharia law worked the other way round too. On the one hand, according to Sharia, a free man has more freedom in social relations and more freedom in court. On the other hand, by Sharia criminal law, a free man receives twice more than he should for his offences.

Prophet Muhammad had a lot of former slaves among his companions such as Zayd ibn Harithah, Prophet’s adopted son, Bilal ibn Rabah, the first mu'azzin, Sumayyah bint Khabbat, first martyr Safiyya bint Huyayy, Prophet’s wife who became imprisoned by Muslims in the war with Jewish tribes of Medina.

The institution of concubinage existed in Roman and Jewish law. According to a Biblical tradition, Prophet Abraham had a concubine, while King Solomon had around 300 concubines. However, a bit later, Jewish law started to look at this institution with disapproval — mainly due to the reprobation of consanguinity. The Christian tradition established monogamous relations and often disapproved marriages with concubines. Despite this, the institution existed in the Eastern Roman Empire and Ethiopia for long.

Classic Islamic law considered concubinage as an indispensable part of the institution of slavery. However, there was a qualitative difference between concubines in the Islamic civilisation and other civilisations: they left free descendants. This became especially crucial during the rule of the Ottoman Caliphate when caliphs refused to marry noble women not to reinforce Ottoman aristocratic families. Instead, they married concubines. The latter reached the summits of wealth and power, especially if they received the title of the sultan’s mother (valide sultan).

Slavery was widespread in the Kazan Khanate too.

Historian Mikhail Khudyakov wrote about it: “Slave trade constituted a special sector of Kazan commerce. Mainly prisoners, mainly women who were sold to harems of all countries located around the Caspian Sea were the subject of trade.” However, it is rarely mentioned that it was mutual. The book reads that when (Russians) Tatars approached them, they immediately take them into their caravan, no matter if they were men, women, girls or boys, take to their country and sell for humiliation for 10, 15 or 20 piastres (Paul of Aleppo, The Travels of Macarius, Patriarch of Antioch to Russia).

Tatar captivity, Psalms, 18th century. Photo:

Restoration of slavery in ISIS*

Restoration of the banned group of the institution of slavery became one of the saddest episodes of the Syrian-Iraqi war. Slavery became a natural institution during constant wars. It is no surprise that a group that established the necessity of constant war and denying any forms of non-violent political fight decided to revive it.

At the same time, ISIS* (banned in Russia) didn’t claim that slavery is a compulsory or necessary institution according to Sharia. So in one of the leaflets an American special force received during raids in Abu Sayyaf in 2015, it clearly reads that imam (think the ruler) can demonstrate “benevolence” and enslave nobody. In other words, slavery in itself isn’t considered a mandatory Sharia directive.

However, the self-proclaimed “caliphs” didn’t show benevolence — there is a huge amount of evidence of sexual enslavement of Yazidis. One of the pieces of evidence is a story of 32-year-old Yazidi Najlaa Matto who was sold several times in Mossul, Tal Afar and Raqqa. Her story was recorded by UN volunteers and it is available in Arabic.

Before 2013, many supporters of ISIS* (banned in Russia) denied they reinstituted slavery. Deliberately for this, the organisation wrote an entire series of articles in which it reproached its allies for covering their ideology. Concubinage in these articles was compared to prostitution in European countries, its “benefit” was proved, among which “greater progeny” and “assistance to men who cannot marry”.

Slavery was natural for the society of constant wars where extermination was the only alternative to enslavement. In the modern global world, slavery is an unnecessary institution, enslavement is permitted as leasing, not as ownership. Slavery will perhaps become topical if a great cataclysm or world war breaks out and the world stops being global.

This is why it is no surprise that precisely ISIS* (banned in Russia) that declared war on the whole world revived this institution.

*ISIS is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.

By Karim Gaynullin