Is Islam an abolitionist religion?
June 3, 2022
How much did Islam really improve slavery? Not much. 

How much did Islam really improve slavery?

Not much. 

While it’s rare to find outright denial of scriptural permission for slavery, there’s still some support of the idea that Islam was exceptional in treating slaves with more respect. Even without freeing slaves outright, Islam ‘did what it could’ to ameliorate their conditions. Certainly, the Muslim world was not the only one in which slavery was practiced.

 Slavery has been a part of nearly every culture, including ancient China, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, ancient Greece, ancient India, and ancient Rome. So while Islam was not exceptional in permitting people to be enslaved, to what extent did it better their conditions? 

“The fact that slavery is a major concern in Islamic law no doubt stems from the prevalence of slavery at the time when Islam was instituted combined with the fact that the Qur'an clearly presents universal freedom and human dignity as its ideal society. Its recommendation that slaves be freed is on the same plane as its recommendation that the poor be clothed and the hungry be fed.” 

(Jacob Neusner, Tamara Sonn, Comparing Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam, 1999)

Slavery may well have been common in general, but even so, we must concede that Islam was not singularly benign. Additionally, these structures pervade the Islamic world to this day, and the abolition of slavery came comparatively late. The Arab slave trade, and the modern day kafala-sponsorship system–necessary to uphold the shiny, high tech cities in the Gulf–are all vestiges of the Islamic relationship to slavery. 

Assessing the relationship between Islam and slavery involves taking a look at both the text itself-- the Qur’an and the hadith-- as well as what slavery looked like in practice. 

Finally, even the apparently anti-slavery clauses of religious law are not all benign. Growing conversions to Islam and a prohibition on Muslim enslavement forced the system to look elsewhere for prospective slaves. The Arab slave trade, while distinct from American chattel slavery, is an often overlooked example of human rights abuse. 

So what does the Qur’an say about slavery? 

Well, it’s a mixed bag. 

The Quran does permit slavery – with some caveats.

Allah sets forth the Parable (of two men: one) a slave under the dominion of another; He has no power of any sort; and (the other) a man on whom We have bestowed goodly favors from Ourselves, and he spends thereof (freely), privately and publicly: are the two equal? (By no means;) praise be to Allah. But most of them understand not. 

(Quran 16:75) And Allah hath favored some of you above others in provision. Now those who are more favored will by no means hand over their provision to those (slaves) whom their right hands possess, so that they may be equal with them in respect thereof. Is it then the grace of Allah that they deny?

It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness . . . to spend of your substance . . . for the ransom of slaves. (2:177) 

At the same time, Islam also incentives the freeing of slaves:

Verily we have created Man into toil and struggle. . . . And what will explain to you the path that is steep? - (It is:) freeing the bondman . . . (90:4-13)

Never should a Believer kill a Believer; but (if it so happens) by mistake, (compensation is due): if one (so) kills a Believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave, and pay compensation to the deceased's family . . . For those who find this beyond their means, (is prescribed) a fast for two months running: by way of repentance to Allah. (4:92) 

Allah will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons . . . or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. (5:89) 

So the Qur’an certainly doesn’t condemn slavery, as it includes a number of prescriptions regarding how to treat slaves. Most arguments center around Islam’s moderation of slavery as a relic of pre-Islamic society, providing many avenues for slaves to be freed. The basic claim is: yes, slavery existed, but it pre dated Islam itself, and so Islam merely adapted, and often improved, upon the structures laid out before it. Claims of Islamic progressivism hinge on the fact that:

Islam greatly limited those who could be enslaved, and under what circumstances (although these restrictions were often evaded); Islamic tradition stressed the importance of treating slaves with kindness and compassion; Islam allowed for slaves to be freed, and made freeing slaves a virtuous act; Islam barred Muslims from enslaving other Muslims.

These arguments might refer to hadith where Muhammad talked about the importance of treating one’s slaves with kindness. Religious law was, at the same time, generous in providing avenues for enslavement. People could be legally enslaved if they were captured in a war that was legal as per said religious law. Slavery was also an inherited status, passed on to a child from two slave parents. This essentialized slavery, as much as class or ethnicity. So, while we might concede that Muhammad may have made statements sympathetic to his slaves, the Qur’an set out unambiguous structures for legalized enslavement. 

Traditional Islamic law (fiqh) elaborates significantly on the Qur’anic material concerning slavery, regulating the enslavement of war captives, and the purchase and sale of slaves. There was clearly some economic incentive to maintain the status quo of slavery. While it wasn’t permissible to enslave other Muslims, the jurists clarify that if a slave converts to Islam, they are not automatically freed. Fiqh does penalize slave owners who abuse their slaves, but this presumes slavery itself-- unpaid labor and ownership by another person-- is not, itself, abusive. 

Finally, Islamic law set out prescriptions for men having sexual relations with their female slaves. These rules are particularly concerned with paternity, and the ownership of children born out of these relations. Among them: a man cannot simultaneously own and be married to the same female slave, and if a female slave is married off, her male owner renounces sexual access to her, but any children born of that marriage belong to him. Concubines didn’t fare much better. Should a man take one of his slaves as a concubine, any children she bears are free, and again, legally his. If an enslaved woman has her master’s child, she is granted certain protections as an umm walad (literally, “mother of a child”). Most significantly, she can no longer be sold, and is automatically freed upon her master’s death.

So, we see how these prescriptions might concede some rights to slaves, but they don’t really challenge the system outright. There might be rules to abide by, but those rules exist nonetheless between the owner and the person who is owned. 

Slavery today

These rules and regulations, while not representative of the views or practices of 1.8 billion believing Muslims, are taken seriously, and are acted upon by organized groups, including Boko Haram and the Islamic State. In 2014, for example, ISIS released a pamphlet with guidelines on how to treat women, specifically as sex slaves. While many argue ISIS shouldn’t be taken as an accurate representation of Islamic belief, these practices, condemned and extreme as they may be, have textual support. But, this is the point. The text can be interpreted that way. And, it can be interpreted as the opposite. But as such, the Qur’an and hadith, without context, should not be taken alone. Perhaps, it’s better to untether from the text altogether, and look at how these traditions evolved in real-time.

Boko Haram justifies slavery based on the Qur’an. Boko Haram and ISIS do not alone define Islam, nor speak for every practicing Muslim. And it’s true that especially with regards to religion, it is easy to pick whatever passages (surahs) suit the agenda of the day. 

But, to be co-opted, those parts must have existed. 

Therefore, the question is not does the Qur’an justify slavery, because groups have decided: yes, it does. Rather, the question might be, if pieces of the Qur’an can be used to justify slavery, to what extent should this be a foundational, legal document of sovereign nations?

This is what’s in the text itself. 

But maybe the text isn’t the whole story: after all, many cultures, Islamic and otherwise, partook in slavery, and certainly to this day few Christian-majority nations actually follow the Bible to the letter. Instead, we might turn our attention to the historical reality of slavery in the Muslim world.

For the most part, abolition of slavery in the Muslim world came comparatively late.


In most Muslim-majority countries, it didn’t occur until the 20th century: 1981 in Mauritania, 1929 in Iran, 1962 in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, 1970 in Oman. In Egypt, it was as late as 1990 that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam declared that "no one has the right to enslave" another human being. Despite this, however, slavery continues to be practiced under sanction of Islam in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, and Sudan, as well as by extremist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS.

Can 20th century abolition be traced entirely to Qur’anic support for slavery? 

Not necessarily, but they also shouldn’t be completely divorced from one another. While it would be reductive to chalk this up solely to the Islamic character of these countries, it would be just as reductive to detach its roots in Qur’anic justification entirely. A country where Islam is ingrained in constitution and culture will be qualifiably influenced by said doctrine.

The Arab Slave Trade

"In one of the sad paradoxes of human history, it was the humanitarian reforms brought by Islam that resulted in a vast development of the slave trade inside, and still more outside, the Islamic empire."

While it is true that Muslims could not be made slaves, this prescription was not a net good, nor did it condemn slavery itself. In fact, this caveat led to a massive importation of slave labor from the outside. The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Africa, and is frequently left out of discussions of the slave trade in America. So, while Islam may have moderated slavery, it did so only for Muslims. According to Patrick Manning, by recognizing and codifying it, Islam may have done more to protect and expand slavery than the reverse.

We might ask ourselves “why?” 

What is the purpose is served by a narrative of an abolitionist Muhammad? In the same way that some argument paint a “feminist” Muhammad or Islam as a way to counter criticisms of Islamic misogyny, these are both attempts to temper history to our current sensibilities. 

Muslims are not Islam. 

For whatever progressivism for the time we may find, it won’t take long to find excused and encouraged acts of bigotry and violence. The text should not be our guide. Muhammad probably wasn’t an abolitionist, and that’s not the point. More worthy of our concern are the women and men ensnared by flimsy theological justifications, by governments or by extremist groups. 

Let’s do right by them.

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