What does Islam teach about slavery?

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Slavery was an economic and political institution that existed before Islam. Slaves were considered property and were bought, sold, and captured as merchandise. While complete abolition of slavery was not economically possible at the time, Islam intended to phase out slavery with several methods: by acknowledging the dignity and humanity of slaves, commanding their good treatment, elevating their status in society, bestowing upon them rights, and providing several means to achieve their freedom.

In the Quran, Pharaoh is the primary example of a sinful tyrant. One of his greatest sins was enslaving and subjugating the Israelites.

Allah said:

وَتِلْكَ نِعْمَةٌ تَمُنُّهَا عَلَيَّ أَنْ عَبَّدتَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ

Moses said: Is this a favor of which you remind me, that you have enslaved the Children of Israel?

Surat Ash-Shu’ara 26:22

And Allah said:

قَالَ سَنُقَتِّلُ أَبْنَاءَهُمْ وَنَسْتَحْيِي نِسَاءَهُمْ وَإِنَّا فَوْقَهُمْ قَاهِرُونَ

Pharaoh said: We will slaughter their sons and keep their women alive. Indeed, we are subjugating them.

Surah Al-A’raf 7:127

And Allah said:

فَقَالُوا أَنُؤْمِنُ لِبَشَرَيْنِ مِثْلِنَا وَقَوْمُهُمَا لَنَا عَابِدُونَ

They said: Should we believe two men like ourselves while their people are enslaved for us?

Surat Al-Muminun 23:47

In another verse, Allah criticized the later generations of Israelites who were guilty of enslaving people in the same way Pharaoh had done to them.

Allah said:

ثُمَّ أَنتُمْ هَٰؤُلَاءِ تَقْتُلُونَ أَنفُسَكُمْ وَتُخْرِجُونَ فَرِيقًا مِّنكُم مِّن دِيَارِهِمْ تَظَاهَرُونَ عَلَيْهِم بِالْإِثْمِ وَالْعُدْوَانِ وَإِن يَأْتُوكُمْ أُسَارَىٰ تُفَادُوهُمْ وَهُوَ مُحَرَّمٌ عَلَيْكُمْ إِخْرَاجُهُمْ ۚ أَفَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِبَعْضِ الْكِتَابِ وَتَكْفُرُونَ بِبَعْضٍ

Then you are those killing one another and evicting a party of your people from their homes, cooperating against them in sin and aggression. If they come to you as captives, you ransom them although their eviction was forbidden to you. So do you believe in part of the Scripture and disbelieve in part?

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:85

The Prophet warned us that Allah will punish those who enslaved free people on the Day of Resurrection, essentially prohibiting the racial slave trade that was fueled by kidnapping.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَرَجُلٌ بَاعَ حُرًّا فَأَكَلَ ثَمَنَهُ

Allah will oppose a man who sells a free person and consumes the price.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 2114, Grade: Sahih

And Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, famously said:

مذ كم تعبدتم الناس وقد ولدتهم أمهاتهم أحراراً

Since when did you enslave the people though they were born from their mothers in freedom?

Source: Futuh Masr 290

People who were already slaves or were prisoners of war were elevated to the status of servants who enjoyed rights and kind treatment, as if they were part of the master’s family.

Ma’rur ibn Suwaid reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِخْوَانُكُمْ وَخَوَلُكُمْ جَعَلَهُمْ اللَّهُ تَحْتَ أَيْدِيكُمْ فَمَنْ كَانَ أَخُوهُ تَحْتَ يَدَيْهِ فَلْيُطْعِمْهُ مِمَّا يَأْكُلُ وَلْيُلْبِسْهُ مِمَّا يَلْبَسُ وَلَا تُكَلِّفُوهُمْ مَا يَغْلِبُهُمْ فَإِنْ كَلَّفْتُمُوهُمْ فَأَعِينُوهُمْ عَلَيْهِ

Your slaves are your brothers. Allah has placed them in your hand, and he who has his brother under him should feed him with the same food he eats and clothe him with the same clothes he wears, and do not burden him beyond his capacity, and if you burden him then help him.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1661, Grade: Sahih

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَا يَقُولَنَّ أَحَدُكُمْ عَبْدِي فَكُلُّكُمْ عَبِيدُ اللَّهِ وَلَكِنْ لِيَقُلْ فَتَايَ وَلَا يَقُلْ الْعَبْدُ رَبِّي وَلَكِنْ لِيَقُلْ سَيِّدِي

None of you should say: My slave, for all of you are the slaves of Allah. Rather, you should say: My boy. The servant should not say: My lord, but rather he should say: My chief.

Source: Sahih Muslim 2249, Grade: Sahih

Jabir ibn Abdullah reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, enjoined good treatment of slaves and he would say:

أَطْعِمُوهُمْ مِمَّا تَأْكُلُونَ وَأَلْبِسُوهُمْ مِنْ لَبُوسِكُمْ وَلاَ تُعَذِّبُوا خَلْقَ اللهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

Feed them from the same food you eat and clothe them from the same clothes you wear, and do not torture the creation of Allah the Exalted.

Source: Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 188, Grade: Sahih

Anas ibn Malik reported:

خَدَمْتُ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ عَشْرَ سِنِينَ فَمَا قَالَ لِي أُفٍّ وَلَا لِمَ صَنَعْتَ وَلَا أَلَّا صَنَعْتَ

I served the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, for ten years. By Allah, he never even said a mild rebuke to me and he never said harshly for anything: Why did you do that? Why did you not do that?

Source: Sahih Bukhari 5691, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

Anas ibn Malik reported:

 إِنْ كَانَتْ الْأَمَةُ مِنْ إِمَاءِ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ لَتَأْخُذُ بِيَدِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَتَنْطَلِقُ بِهِ حَيْثُ شَاءَتْ

Any of the young servant girls among the people of Medina would take the hand of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and lead him wherever she wished.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 5724, Grade: Sahih

Islam encouraged many means through which slaves could achieve their freedom.

Allah said:

وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْعَقَبَةُ فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ

What will make you know what is the difficult path to Paradise? It is the freeing of a slave.

Surat Al-Balad 90:12-13

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ أَعْتَقَ رَقَبَةً مُسْلِمَةً أَعْتَقَ اللَّهُ بِكُلِّ عُضْوٍ مِنْهُ عُضْوًا مِنْ النَّارِ حَتَّى فَرْجَهُ بِفَرْجِهِ

Whoever frees a Muslim slave, then Allah will free every limb of his body from the Hellfire, even his private parts.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 6337, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet encouraged freeing, educating, and marrying female slaves as a means to raise their status in society.

Burda reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَرَجُلٌ كَانَتْ عِنْدَهُ أَمَةٌ فَأَدَّبَهَا فَأَحْسَنَ تَأْدِيبَهَا وَعَلَّمَهَا فَأَحْسَنَ تَعْلِيمَهَا ثُمَّ أَعْتَقَهَا فَتَزَوَّجَهَا فَلَهُ أَجْرَانِ

A man who owns a servant girl and he mentors her, teaches her beautiful manners, and educates her in the best way, then he emancipates her and marries her will have a double reward.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 97, Grade: Sahih

Anas ibn Malik reported:

أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَعْتَقَ صَفِيَّةَ وَجَعَلَ عِتْقَهَا صَدَاقَهَا

The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, set free Safiya and made her emancipation as her dowry.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 4798, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

If a slave requested terms of emancipation from his master, then his master was obligated to set terms for which he would earn his freedom.

Allah said:

وَالَّذِينَ يَبْتَغُونَ الْكِتَابَ مِمَّا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ فَكَاتِبُوهُمْ إِنْ عَلِمْتُمْ فِيهِمْ خَيْرًا ۖ وَآتُوهُم مِّن مَّالِ اللَّهِ الَّذِي آتَاكُمْ

Those who seek a contract for emancipation from among those whom your right hands possess, then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you.

Surat An-Nur 24:33

The Prophet never abused his servants and he never struck anything with his hand, not even an animal, unless he was defending himself in battle.

Aisha reported:

مَا ضَرَبَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ خَادِمًا لَهُ وَلَا امْرَأَةً وَلَا ضَرَبَ بِيَدِهِ شَيْئًا

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, did not strike a servant nor a woman, and he never struck anything with his hand.

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 1984, Grade: Sahih

If a servant was abused or mistreated, the expiation for the master’s sin was to emancipate them.

Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessing be upon him, said:

مَنْ ضَرَبَ غُلَامًا لَهُ حَدًّا لَمْ يَأْتِهِ أَوْ لَطَمَهُ فَإِنَّ كَفَّارَتَهُ أَنْ يُعْتِقَهُ

Whoever strikes his slave without limit or slaps him, then the expiation for the sin is to emancipate him.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1657, Grade: Sahih

Abu Mas’ud reported: I was beating a boy of mine when I heard a voice from behind me:

اعْلَمْ أَبَا مَسْعُودٍ لَلَّهُ أَقْدَرُ عَلَيْكَ مِنْكَ عَلَيْهِ

Know, O Abu Mas’ud, that Allah has more power over you than you have over him.

I turned around and it was the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. I said, “O Messenger of Allah, I have freed him for the sake of Allah.” The Prophet said:

أَمَا لَوْ لَمْ تَفْعَلْ لَلَفَحَتْكَ النَّارُ

If you had not done so, you would have been burnt in the Hellfire.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1659, Grade: Sahih

Suwaid ibn Muqarrin reported: He had a servant girl and someone slapped her, so he said to him:

أَمَا عَلِمْتَ أَنَّ الصُّورَةَ مُحَرَّمَةٌ فَقَالَ لَقَدْ رَأَيْتُنِي وَإِنِّي لَسَابِعُ إِخْوَةٍ لِي مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَمَا لَنَا خَادِمٌ غَيْرُ وَاحِدٍ فَعَمَدَ أَحَدُنَا فَلَطَمَهُ فَأَمَرَنَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنْ نُعْتِقَهُ

Did you not know that it is forbidden to strike the face? I was the seventh of my brothers during the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessing be upon him, and we had only one servant. One of us became enraged and slapped him, so the Messenger of Allah commanded us to set him free.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1658, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet warned his companions that Allah would retaliate on behalf of the abused slaves on the Day of Resurrection and those who abused their slaves would not enter Paradise.

Abu Bakr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَا يَدْخُلُ الْجَنَّةَ سَيِّئُ الْمَلَكَةِ

He will not enter Paradise who is evil to his slaves.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 32, Grade: Hasan

And Ammar ibn Yasir, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

لاَ يَضْرِبُ أَحَدٌ عَبْدًا لَهُ وَهُوَ ظَالِمٌ لَهُ إِلاَّ أُقِيدَ مِنْهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ‏

None of you strikes his slave unjustly except that the slave will be granted retaliation on the Day of Resurrection.

Source: Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 181, Grade: Sahih

Even if the master merely curses his slave, the expiation for the master’s sin is to free them.

Aisha reported: Abu Bakr once cursed some of his slaves, so the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

يَا أَبَا بَكْرٍ اللَّعَّانِينَ وَالصِّدِّيقِينَ‏؟‏ كَلاَّ وَرَبِّ الْكَعْبَةِ

O Abu Bakr! Those who curse or those who are true? No, by the Lord of the Ka’bah!

The Prophet said it two or three times. One that very day, Abu Bakr freed some of his slaves. Then the Prophet came to him and he said:

لا أَعُودُ

Do not do it again.

Source: Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 319, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet would also free the slaves of the people who were at war with him if it was clear they did not pose a security risk.

Ibn Abbas reported:

لَمَّا حَاصَرَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَهْلَ الطَّائِفِ أَعْتَقَ مِنْ رَقِيقِهِمْ

When the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, besieged the people of At-Ta’if, he freed their slaves who came out to him.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 3257, Grade: Sahih

The only way Muslims could acquire slaves was if they captured enemies as prisoners of war, but this was not considered a virtue. Even then the Quran encourages the Muslims to give slaves and captives preference over their own selves.

Allah said:

وَيُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ مِسْكِينًا وَيَتِيمًا وَأَسِيرًا إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا

They give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive, saying to themselves: We feed you only for the sake of Allah. We wish not from you reward or gratitude.

Surat Al-Insan 76:8-9

Likewise, the Prophet encouraged the Muslims in general to free their prisoners of war.

Abu Musa Al-Ashari reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

أَطْعِمُوا الْجَائِعَ وَعُودُوا الْمَرِيضَ وَفُكُّوا الْعَانِيَ

Feed the hungry, visit the sick, and set the captives free.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 5058, Grade: Sahih

The good treatment of servants is so important in Islam that one of the Prophet’s final statements was a warning to the Muslims to be kind to their slaves and servants.

Umm Salamah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was saying during the illness which took his life:

الصَّلَاةَ وَمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ

The prayer, and those whom your right hands possess.

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 1625, Grade: Sahih

From all of this, it is clear that Islam intended to put in place mechanisms and values that would lead to the eventual abolition of slavery. In the present day, the vast majority of Muslim countries have signed the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery which states:

The High Contracting Parties undertake, each in respect of the territories placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty or tutelage, so far as they have not already taken the necessary steps: To prevent and suppress the slave trade, and to bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.

Source: ohchr.org

This development was welcomed by the Muslims because of what Islam teaches about slavery. Unlike acts of worship, slavery was merely a man-made social custom that can be abolished as society develops. This modern legal consensus is a sign that Allah has intended abolition, as expressed in the statement of Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him:

فَمَا رَأَى الْمُسْلِمُونَ حَسَنًا فَهُوَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ حَسَنٌ

Whatever the Muslims view as good is good in the sight of Allah.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 3589, Grade: Hasan

Thus, Islam encouraged freedom and good treatment of slaves with the clear objective of eventual abolition. Islam has always opposed the slave trade, abuse, dehumanization, and racism.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.