Muhammad, the Prophet of God, didn’t have ‘slaves’

by admin
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In this post I’m not interested in what people do or have done, but with normative shar’ī prescriptions. Whilst I’m not surprised by the ignorance or wilful misrepresentation of some (like Douglas Murray), believers ought to know some facts. Controversy is only controversial due to ignorance. I don’t provide a justification for medieval slavery as there’s no need to. This post is simply a very basic clarification for believers. 

  • We believe that there is no ultimate submission except to the one true God, Lord of Abraham and his descendants: Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, all of whom were God’s noble slaves. In the sharī’ah, we only recognise slavery in the context of slavery to God. The Prophet put it, “None of you should use the term ‘My male or female slave’ since all of you are the slaves of God and all your women are the slaves of God. Use the terms ‘my servant (ghulām/jāriyah)’ and ‘my boy/girl (fatā/t)’.” (Muslim)
  • The sharī’ah does not legitimise ‘slavery’. The term slavery today refers to a distinct English concept shaped by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Hence the idea that the messengers of God either practiced or authorised slavery is both erroneous and anachronistic. As I’ve written before, when discussing the sharī’ah we ought to stick to the shar’ī terms God sets out as closely as possible, they are most accurate since it is how God and His messenger described and taught an issue/concept. Often, English words that are used to represent shar’ī concepts are assumed to be the closest resembling words but not the exact thing, rarely are they conceptually the same.
  • What the sharī’ah did permit, albeit seeking to diminish it through a gradualist approach since liberty is the greatest value, was riqq – a form of servitude that provided unfree labour and obliged housing, clothing, food, etc. It was neither racialised nor the product of racial supremacy, many were from the Arabs themselves, as well as from the Roman Empire, Africa and Asia. The Prophet characterised the raqīq, saying, “They are your brothers who God has placed under your charge. Feed them from what you eat and clothe them as you clothe. Do not burden them with what they cannot bear, and where they are overburdened, help them.” (al-Bukhārī and Muslim) The raqīq was considered an extension of the household (for example, a woman’s awrah in front of her raqīq would be like that of her male family members) and as the hadith intimates, expected to be treated this way.
  • Did the Prophet encourage owning a raqīq? Well notably, when his daughter Fatimah requested a khādim (domestic servant) for help with the home he taught her godly mindfulness (adhkār) instead. As for those who did have riqāq (plural of raqīq), he encouraged two things: good treatment whilst under their charge, and emancipation.
  • In the sharī’ah, the way to free a raqīq was to purchase his or her freedom. This means buying them and setting them free. So at this time, everyone who sought to free a raqīq would own them, even momentarily. And after emancipation the raqīq would be considered something like extended family, a term in ancient Arabic known as mawla.
  • Muhammad, the Prophet of God, was neither a slave owner (however benign the misguided make out his so-called ‘slave owning’ to be) nor a slave trader. And neither was he a raqīq trader. He obtained individual riqāq through two ways: either he was given a raqīq as a gift or he bought them, coming to free them all. al-Nawawī stated in a well known position that they were the Prophet’s riqāq individually, and at separate times. What this suggests is that he doesn’t seem to have simply been a raqīq ‘owner’ in the sense that he had scores of riqāq concurrently for the sole purpose of ownership. Successively obtaining an individual raqīq can suggest that the Prophet intended to obtain riqāq for their eventual emancipation. It cannot be said that he did this because he might have looked bad; being the leader of Madinah, he could have had a band of riqāq and nobody would have raised an eyebrow for something quite ordinary and expected at the time.
  • So while the Prophet freed some riqāq immediately, others he did so after a while. But why the delay? There are variant reasons and possibilities: there may have been mutual benefit in their association; that the raqīq didn’t want to be emancipated just yet; the raqīq wasn’t in a financially and socially stable position where freedom would have meant destitution and/or homelessness; the Prophet wasn’t immediately in a financial position to help the raqīq post-emancipation so waited until he was. We know that it wasn’t always in the interest of a raqiq to be legally emancipated as he or she would then be left without support. In a telling hadith related by Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, the Prophet said, “Any man who has a walīdah, educates her well and nurtures her well, then emancipates her and marries her, shall have two rewards.” (al-Bukhārī)

There are variant opinions on the names of the Prophet’s mawālī (plural of mawla) as there were some ṣahābī emancipated by the Prophet but contractually obtained by others. Some of the notable mawālī of the final messenger of God:

  1. Zaid b. Hārithah was obtained as gift to him by Khadijah, emancipated and then adopted as a son. An Arab, he was well known amongst the Quraish as one of the most loved by the Prophet and was referred to by name in the Qur’an (33:37).
  2. Abu Rāfi, a Copt, was a gift to the Prophet from his uncle Abbas and emancipated. Once, he was about to receive some ṣadaqah, but when he asked permission from the Prophet, the Prophet replied, “The mawla of a people is one of them, and ṣadaqah is not permitted for us.”
  3. Thawbān b. Bujdud, a Yemenite Arab, was taken a captive of war in jāhilīyah (pagan times). The Prophet bought him and freed him, but he served the Prophet until he passed away. The Prophet once told him not to ask anything of anyone, and he complied to the extent that if something fell from his hand he wouldn’t ask anyone to pick it up for him, or even pass him anything.
  4. Abu Dhumayrah was a Himyarite Arab whom the Prophet bought and emancipated. The Prophet had Ubay b. Ka’b write a letter in his name that exhorted believers to be good to Abu Dhumayrah and his family which his descendants kept and famously presented to the Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi who gave them 300 gold coins (dinars).
  5. Abu Muwayhibah: The Prophet brought him and freed him. He narrated the famous hadith on the Prophet seeking forgiveness for those buried at the Baqī’ cemetery.

May God’s peace and blessings by upon his noble slave and final Messenger.

3 comments

Shifa June 22, 2020 - 9:09 am

This completely ignores concubinage which is even more contentious issue. We can have multiple ways of showing the good treatment of raqiq but to a modern mind relations with them is automatically abuse especially when the concept of consent doesn’t really exist in sharia (in the modern world this has been really problematic for the understanding of marital rape as seen in multiple fatwas that state it doesn’t even exist). Can you write about this?

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Sabrina Zaman June 22, 2020 - 6:49 pm

A really interesting and unique article which told me of many things I did not know. I have seen ‘the Prophet kept slaves’ given an argument to dissuade people from converting to Islam – an argument as weak s as the ‘we should be Muslims because the Africans were Muslims before the White man came’ form of Dawah, as it again paints religion as a form of ethnic expression, when our reasons for becoming or remaining a Muslim should be based on whether we submit to Allah and believe in his revelation.
I would like to ask you something in light of the points explored by the article:

If the prophetic tradition was to free the raqiq why is it that slavery was widespread in the Islamic empires, and why is a form of slavery still practiced in some Muslim communities in Africa (e.g. Tuareg in Mali) (detailed in Islam’s Black Slaves). Is this an example of :
a) Ancient cultural traditions being more important that Islamic values?
b) Just deliberate misreading of Quran – that would account for ISIS taking sex slaves.

I would also urge you to add a reference to the comment about Douglas Murray piece in order to strengthen your own article.

Allah Hafez

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Faizan June 24, 2020 - 5:27 pm

This is a very interesting take, but it, as the sister has pointed out above, did not address the issue of concubinage which stands to be as one of most contentious issues in today’s world. It would be highly beneficial for us if you could write about and delineate the how’s and why’s of the practice of concubinage which was allowed by Shariah in a similar, lucid manner.

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