Human Rights In Islam

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  • Human Rights In Islam

  • 4 - Civil Rights

            Civil rights are granted to every sane person who is of age, by which he is charged with certain obligations and entitled to participate in marriage contracts and contracts of sale or purchase of property. He is also entitled to donate bequests, make a will, mortgage property and other legal rights.


            Slaves were denied all civil rights and were therefore unable to execute a contract of any kind. They were deprived of the right of ownership and were themselves owned by their masters. They were in fact a mere commodity of their masters who could sell them whenever they wanted.


            Some orientalists criticized Islam for permitting slavery which destroys the principle of the freedom of man. It behoves us to draw attention to the fact that the economic and social circumstances that existed during the era that preceded the advent of Islam, considered slavery a normal institution and that any attempt to abolish it with a stroke of the pen would have failed. Islam did not introduce slavery, nor did it approve of it, except in certain circumstances which it abolished gradually step by step. 


            The institution of slavery was firmly established in the world before the advent of Islam and was the basis upon which all fields of economy and production were founded. Accordingly any attempt to reform or abolish such an institution would have met with certain failure, since those in authority would have crushed such an attempt. Even if the authorities had enforced a law to abolish slavery, an upheaval in the stability of the economy of the states of the world would have occurred and a number of serious consequences would have resulted. The damage that would have resulted can be compared to what we would be subjected today, if with a stroke of the pen the institutions of Banks or joint stock companies were to be abolished, or if the employment of workmen were prohibited and every person who owned land or property was forced to work on it himself. Imagine what would happen if railways were abolished and if the use of the power of steam were prohibited. Slaves in the past can be compared to the power of steam upon which the economy of the modern world depended.

            Islam aimed at abolishing slavery gradually without incurring any negative consequences on the stabilily of the community. In order to achieve this noble aim, tile Faith of Islam followed a policy that led to the gradual decline of the sources of slavery, in addition to ordaining religious rulings that encouraged the liberation of slaves. Thus Islam introduced a gradual yet effective system by which slavery was finally abolished.

            Slavery existed as a result of many circumstances before and after the advent of Islam. The captives of civil wars or wars against a foreign enemy were invariably either executed or taken as slaves and people who were kidnapped were also enslaved. People who had committed serious crimes such as murder, adultery and theft were sentenced to be slaves of the state or of the families against whom their crimes had been committed. People who failed to pay their debts were sentenced to be slaves of their creditors, and fathers had the right to sell their offspring as slaves. Indigent and impoverished people could sell their liberty for a certain sum of money, thereby enslaving themselves. The offspring of slaves were also slaves and the children of a female slave were slaves even if their father was a free man. All these circumstances increased the number of slaves to the degree that the number of slaves in some nations exceeded the number of free men and women.[1]

            With its advent, Islam abolished all forms of slavery save inherited slavery and slavery of captives of war. However, the Faith of Islam ordained certain laws which guaranteed the gradual decline and abolishment of slavery.

            One of the rulings ordained by Islam was that the offspring of a female slave, fathered by her master was to be born free after his father had confirmed that he was the father. Accordingly this situation which had previously increased the number of slaves no longer existed, and the number of slaves gradually decreased.

            Captives captured during wars were enslaved except those captured in wars between Muslims regardless of their being the aggressors or otherwise. In wars waged between Muslims and non-Muslims certain rulings concerning the enslavement of the captives were enforced. The captives enslaved were those who had been captured in a war that was religiously justifiable, namely a war that had been proclaimed by the Caliph according to the rulings of Islam, which permits warfare for three reasons. The first of these reasons is self defence and this is stated in the following Quranic verse "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits ; for God loveth not transgressors" [2]  


            Warfare is also justified by Islam when the enemy break their oath of peace or a truce and intend to harm the Faith of Islam as is stated in the following Quranic verse : "But if they violate their oaths after their covenant, and taunt you for your Faith, fight ye the chiefs of Unfaith for their oaths are nothing to them that thus they may be restrained". [3]


            The third reason which justifies warfare concerns matters related to the welfare and the security of the Muslim state and the suppression of sedition, as is mentioned in the following Quranic verses : "And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God ; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression".[4]"And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God altogether and everywhere ; but if they cease, verily God doth see all that they do". [5]


            The wars led by the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, against the Pagan Arabs, the Jews or the Romans were only waged according to these three rulings of Islam. If any wars were waged for any other than the aforementioned reasons, the captives were not enslaved. Even when captives were enslaved according to the aforementioned rulings of Islam, slavery was not always enforced, since the ruler of the state was invested with the power of granting captives freedom, unconditionally or for a ransom or for labour agreed upon. Captives could also, at the command of the ruler of the state, be exchanged for Muslim captives captured by the enemy, or for a tax to be paid for their freedom. The captives captured at the Battle of Badr earned their freedom by each teaching ten Muslims to read and write.


            Islam thus ordained certain rulings concerning the slavery of captives of war in a manner that guaranteed the gradual decline of slavery. After the establishment of the Islamic State and the organization of its relations with other nations, the circumstances that had led to slavery seldom arose or existed. This signifies that Islam only permitted this form of slavery for a limited period. Islam's concern for the principle of freedom is demonstrated in the laws it ordained to encourage the emancipation of slaves. Before the advent of Islam, the only means by which a slave could be emancipated depended upon his or her master's decision to do so. Apart from this possibility, slaves and their offspring were doomed to remain slaves for the rest of their lives. Most of the laws of that era in history prohibited masters from emancipating their slaves except in special circumstances with severe terms and after complicated legal and religious proceedings. In some cases the state imposed a heavy fine upon the master who liberated a slave. The fine was paid to the state the emancipation of slaves was considered an encroachment upon the rights of the state. 


            Islam opened wide the gateway for the emancipation of slaves and paved the way for the abolition of slavery. The Faith of Islam ordained that any mention of emancipating a slave, uttered by the slave's master be binding, even if it had been a slip of the tongue or had been uttered in jest. In the opinion of Abu Hanifa, the master who had been forced to emancipate his slave must grant him his freedom and that even if the slave's master had not been sober, when he granted his slave his freedom, the emancipation of the slave was still binding and legitimate. It is obvious from the aforementioned rulings that Islam encouraged the emancipation of slaves on the slightest pretext.

            If the master of a slave mentioned in any manner that his slave or slaves were to be emancipated after his death, this entitled the slaves to be free men or women upon his death. Islam guaranteed the rights of such slaves who had been promised freedom after the death of their masters, by prohibiting their masters to sell them, ransom them, offer them as gifts or transfer their ownership to any person during their lifetime. If a female slave was promised freedom after her master's death, her offspring would also be liberated, regardless of the consent or refusal of the heirs of their deceased master.


            According to the Faith of Islam, a slave could buy his freedom from his master after agreeing upon the sum of money to be paid. In order to make such an agreement possible, Islam permitted slaves to sell and buy goods and participate in contracts in order to save the amount of money agreed upon to buy their freedom. Islam also urged all Muslims to assist such slaves by donating money as charity to help them achieve their freedom. This matter is mentioned in the following Quranic verse "And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which God has given to you". [6]


            Islam even specified a certain sum of wealth from the treasury of the state to help these slaves pay for their liberty. The aforementioned Quranic verse verifies the ruling to agree to allowing slaves to purchase their liberty, if they express their wish to do so. Ibn Jurayh asked `Ataa' ben Abu Rabah if he was obliged to consent to his slave's desire to purchase his liberty, and Abu Rabah replied that he considered it an obligation and he supported his opinion by reciting the aforementioned Quranic verse.

            The same law applies to female slaves and to the children they bear after signing the deed with their masters, who are obliged to emancipate the female slaves' children with their mothers without any compensation from them. 


            The Faith of Islam ordained that a number of sins and crimes that frequently occurred be expiated by emancipating slaves. One of these crimes is manslaughter as is mentioned in the following Quranic verse "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,.. " [7]When a Muslim breaks his oath, granting a slave his freedom is ordained as means of expiation, as is mentioned in the following Quranic verse "God will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but he will call you to account for your deliberate oaths for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families ; or clothe them ; or give a slave his freedom "[8]

            A man who says to his wife that she be to him as if she were his mother or words to that effect, meaning that there would be no marital relations between them, and then desires to retract his oath in order to have marital relations with his wife, must first grant a slave his freedom as expiation, before being able to resume marital relations with his wife. This ruling is expressed in the following Quranic verse : "But those who divorce their wives by Zihar, then wish to go back on the words they uttered, - (it is ordained that such a one) should free a slave before they touch each other .... "[9]

            If a person had committed a sin that necessitated emancipating a slave as expiation, and he did not own a slave, the Faith of Islam ordained that if he had the means, he was to buy a slave and then grant him his freedom. 


            In addition to all these rulings, the Faith of Islam urged people to grant slaves their freedom without expiation, since emancipating a slave was one of the most righteous commendable and sublime deeds that merited the blessings and Grace of God. The Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, often compared the performance of a virtuous deed that deserved the greatest reward of God, to granting a slave his freedom.

            Islam also ordained that a certain portion of the alms collected and placed in the treasury was to be allotted to the emancipation of slaves by buying them from their masters and then granting them their liberty, or by completing the sum of money already saved by the slaves for their liberation. This is mentioned in the following Quranic verse : "Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds) ; for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth) ; for those in bondage...". 115 This means that alms were to be used to assist those in bondage by buying them and the granting them their freedom.


            Islam commanded Muslims to treat their slaves kindly : "Serve God, and join not any partners with Him ; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the Companion by your side, the way-farer (ye meet), And what your right hands possess : for God loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious[10]. "What your right hands possess", refers to one's slaves. God Almighty ordains the kind treatment of slaves in the same verse where He commands man to worship Him and to treat his parents, relations and neighbours generously, and this signifies the importance of this ruling.


            The Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, said : "Fear God in your treatment of slaves". He also said that the Angel Gabriel had recommended kind treatment of slaves so often that he believed that servants and slaves should not be treated as such. The Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, said: "He who owns a slave must allow him to partake of the same food that he eats and clothe him with the same kind of clothes that he wears".


            When the Caliph `Omar ben Al Khattab travelled with his slave to Jerusalem to negotiate with the Patriarch concerning the surrender of the town, after the army of Abu `Ubayda ben Al Jarah had besieged it, he went with only one camel. `Omar the Caliph and his slave took turns in riding the camel and as they approached Jerusalem, it was the slave's turn to ride the camel. The Caliph `Umar bn Al Khattab was not embarrassed by the fact that his slave rode ahead of him on the camel and that he followed him on foot as they entered Jerusalem.


            On another occasion, in Mecca, `Umar bn Al Khattab saw a group of slaves standing while their masters were eating their meal. Enraged, `Omar told their masters that they should treat their slaves as they treat themselves and he commanded the slaves to eat from the same bowl with their masters. 


            The Faith of Islam prohibited people from treating their slaves harshly, and some schools of jurisprudence ruled that the slave that had been treated cruelly by his master was entitled to be liberated. In such a situation, the person in authority would order that the slave be emancipated and that his master be dof his ownership. 


            The son of `Umar bn Al Khattab said that he had heard the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, say that whoever beats his slave must liberate him as expiation for his sin. 


            The Faith of Islam also protected slaves from people who were not their masters, and if a slave was attacked, the penalty would usually be the same penalty as that of attacking a free man. Even in the event of a free man murdering a slave, his penalty would be the same penalty for murdering a free man. Abu Hanifa supported this opinion by the following Quranic verse"We ordained therein for them : `Life for life..."[11]


            Islam did not deprive slaves of all civil rights as was the case with other faiths. It granted them certain humane rights such as the right of a slave to have a family. A slave, according to the Faith of Islam, had the right to marry a female slave or a free woman. Similarly a female slave had the right to marry a slave or a free man. They were entitled to the same terms and marriage contract by which free people were married, apart from the fact that the master of the slave or the female slave had the right to supervise their marriage contract. 


            No religion prior to Islam granted slaves the right to marry and raise a family in the legal sense of the term. The relationship between male and female slaves before the advent of Islam and even after its advent according to the laws of other religions, was not a marriage relationship. The masters of the slaves chose their mates for them for the express purpose of increasing their offspring and accordingly increasing the number of their slaves, in the same way animals are reared and bred. [12]


            In other religions, intermarriage between slaves and free men and women, was prohibited. If a free woman married a slave, she would be sentenced to a severe punishment which in many cases was the death penalty.


            The Faith of Islam granted the slave the right to divorce his wife whereas his master was not granted the right to divorce the slave's wife. It has been related [13] that a slave complained to the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, that his master had married him to his female slave, and then had wanted to divorce her from him. The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, ascended the pulpit and addressed the people saying that the right of divorce is the right of the husband alone and not the right of his master. 


            The Faith of Islam is therefore a faith that is based upon the principle of the equality and freedom of all human beings, and aims at promoting the welfare of the human race.


    [1] See the following publications of Dr. Ali Abdel wahed wafy "The circumstances that begot slavery", and "The difference between the enslavement of men and the enslavement of women". Published in Paris 1931. Also, "The story of Ownership in the world".

    [2] Surah II, verse 190

    [3] Surah IX, verse 12.

    [4] Surah II, verse 193.

    [5] Surah VIII, verse 39.

    [6] Surah XXIV, verse 33.

    [7] Surah IV, verse 92.

    [8] Surah V, verse 89.

    [9] Surah IX, verse 60.

    [10] Surah IV, verse 36.

    [11] Surah V , Verse 45.

    [12] Dr. Ali Abdel Wahid wafi, The story of Ownership in the world, p.78...

    [13] Related by Ibn Maja through Ibn Abbas.

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