Salman Ahmed Shaikh
Islam grants equal human rights to all people. In verse 13 of Chapter Al-Hujurat, Allah says:
“O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is the most pious. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.”
It is to be understood that 15 centuries ago, the institution of slavery was common in Arabs and when Islam spread, Islam took measures to get rid of the institution of slavery in a gradual process. Quran is very clear on freeing slaves in the later revealed verses. In verse 12 and 13 of Chapter Balad, Allah says:
“And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass? It is the freeing of a slave.”
In Zakat rules, there was a fiscal head allocation for freeing slaves. Also, as an alternate to pecuniary punishments, freeing slaves was encouraged. In verse 33 of Chapter Nur, the final verdict comes like this:
“And such of your slaves as seek a writing (of emancipation), give them such writing, if you know that they are good and trustworthy. And give them something yourselves out of the wealth of Allah which He has bestowed upon you.”
Not only this verse points towards freeing slaves if they so desire, but also to help them with resources so that they can afford their livelihood independently.
Meanwhile, in the transition period, several verses and Ahadith ensured that slaves were dealt humanely. A Hadith says that while fasting, Muslims should work with their subordinates and reduce their working hours.
William Muir in his biography about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) writes:
“Zaid, the freedman, was so strongly attached by the kindness of the Prophet, that he preferred to remain at Makkah rather than return home with his own father. ‘I will not leave thee,’ he said, clinging to his patron, ‘for thou hast been a father and mother to me.”
In Muslim world later on, the institution of slavery was abolished quite late. However, the sources of Islam, i.e. Quran and Hadith are very clear in their principle stand on slavery and Islam took steps to get rid of slavery in a gradual process. The gradual process was adopted as an economic need of transition so that an abrupt change must not bring about massive levels of economic hardships for the slaves.
But, even in the transition period, imbued with the spirit of kindness, compassion and submissiveness, people treated slaves humanely which resulted in their acceptance of Islam. In fact, one of the arguments of non-believers was that how can Islam give such generous rights to slaves. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) describing how to treat slaves once said: “feed them with food you eat yourself, clothe them with clothes that you wear yourself.” [Bukhari]
It must be understood in the light of history that it was during the colonization and post colonization period when Western powers treated slaves like animals with brutal torture and adopting un-human ways. It was during the colonization and post colonization period when Western powers treated slaves like animals with brutal torture and adopted un-human ways at a massive level which had no precedence in the entire history of the world. David Stannard suggests that as many as 60 million Africans were killed while being enslaved.[i]
[i] Stannard, David. American Holocaust. Oxford University Press, 1993.