Islam and Slavery
By Samuel Green
Danish translation: Islam og slaveri
Source: Answering Islam, last updated 27 June 2011
Published on : May 6, 2013

One of the ways I have seen Muslim leaders promote Islam is by talking about the glory of the Islamic civilization. The Islamic empire is said to be a system of justice and responsible for everything good in the world. Very often when these claims are made, the Western Christian civilization is criticised as corrupt and brutal. This approach to promoting Islam is successful for two reasons:

1. Most Westerners feel some shame over the history of their empires, and so when a speaker attacks Western culture they acknowledge these faults.
2. Most Westerners have little knowledge of Islamic history, and so assume that what the Islamic leader says about the Islamic empire must be true.

In this article I invite you to begin to learn about Islam's involvement in slavery. Islam has had a major role in the history of slavery beginning with Muhammad, and was taking slaves from Europe across to Indonesia and down into Africa. But unlike the Western empires, Islam has never apologised and feels no shame. In fact Muslim leaders boast of their empire and hide its corruption and brutality.

I wish to thank the Barnabas Fund for permission to publish this article. My added notes are enclosed in [brackets].

First published by the Barnabas Fund in Barnabas Aid, April-May 2007 ©2007.

The enslavement of human beings was practised by all the ancient civilisations of the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Africa. People became slaves the property of others through debt, by being sold into slavery by family members, by being captured in war, or through kidnapping by slave raiders and pirates. Nowadays, when slavery as such is banned in almost every country, there are still situations where people are effectively trapped in employment under harsh conditions. For example, they may be "bonded labourers" in Pakistan, unable to change jobs because of debts to their employer. Another scenario is that of expatriate domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, whose employers have seized their passports, and who are locked in the house to prevent them escaping. Such individuals are slaves in all but name. There are also still true slaves in some countries.

The European slave trade is well known, but that of Islam is not. Furthermore, Islam even played a part in the European slave trade, as Arab traders were involved with African chiefs in the business of providing Africans for the Europeans to enslave.

In the past, religions sought to justify the practice of slavery. Whilst, thankfully, most have rejected this now, Islam stands out as the exception.

Muhammad and Slavery

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, kept slaves. One of his biographers, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, states that he had four slave girls and adds a list of 27 male slaves (some of whom he freed).

Many slaves were gained as booty after victorious military campaigns. After defeating a Jewish tribe called the Banu Qurayza in 627, Muhammad executed all the men (numbering 600 to 900), and divided the women and children among his people as slaves. On this occasion, he took Rihana, the wife of the leader of the tribe, as a concubine. This story indicates the close linkage in classical Islam between prisoners of war, slaves and concubines. A prisoner of war was automatically a slave, and if female she was potentially a concubine as well.

Muhammad not only kept slaves and enslaved captives but also traded in African and other slaves [1], as did his companions and many other people in the Arabian Peninsula at that time. He also received slaves as gifts. One of his concubines, Mary the Copt (apparently a Christian), was given to him by the ruler of Egypt.

The example of Muhammad, who is traditionally considered by Muslims the perfect model for their own behaviour, has made any Islamic opposition to slavery difficult. The argument, that what he did was normal and acceptable in society of that time but not in the modern world carries little or no weight with conservative Muslims, who are interested only in copying Muhammad's example.

The Qur'an and Slavery

The existence of slavery is accepted uncritically in the Qur'an, and slaves are often mentioned. Captive women could be taken as concubines, special permission being granted to Muhammad to allow him to do this in a Qur'anic verse:

O prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee; and daughters of thy paternal uncles and aunts and daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts who migrated (from Mecca) with thee; and any believing woman who dedicates her soul to the Prophet if the Prophet wishes to wed her this only for thee and not for the Believers (at large); We know what We have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess in order that there should be no difficulty for Thee. And Allah is Oft Forgiving Most Merciful (Qur'an 33:50, Yusef Ali)

This verse clearly shows that, according to the Qur'an, taking slaves in war was a God-given right. These slaves were considered spoils of war, and the women were usually destined to be concubines of the victorious warriors. Muhammad received his share in enslaved women.

The right of Muslims to have sexual intercourse with female slaves is indicated in Qur'an 23:1-6 which gives Muslims sexual rights over their wives and over those "whom their right hands possess".

Many texts indicate that slaves can be used as a sort of currency to pay penalties imposed for the misdemeanours of their owners. Qur'an 4:92, for example, explains that the manslaughter of a Muslim could be paid for by freeing a believing (i.e. Muslim) slave and paying compensation to the relatives. If a slave cannot be afforded then the penalty is a two months' fast.

While the Qur'an does not condemn slavery, it does encourage kindness to slaves. Qur'an 24:33 instructs Muslims to allow a slave of good character to buy their freedom if they so request, and even tells the slave-owner to contribute towards the sum to be raised. This verse also prohibits compelling unwilling slave girls into prostitution:

... 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 you know any good in them; yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which God has given to you. But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity....

The freeing of slaves is included in a list of virtuous acts (Q 90:12-13), and elsewhere the Qur'an commends spending money to ransom slaves (Q 2:177).

[However, the Qur'an fosters an attitude of Islamic supremacy:

You (Muslims) are the best community that has been raised up for mankind. You enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency; and you believe in Allah. And if the People of the Scripture had believed it had been better for them. Some of them are believers; but most of them are evil-livers. (Qur'an 3:110, Pickthall)

The result of this is that slavery seems acceptable and right:

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Verse:--"You (true Muslims) are the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind." (3:110) means, the best of peoples for the people, as you bring them with chains on their necks till they embrace Islam. (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 60, no. 80, Khan)

Slaves and slave boys are one of the many rewards promised to Muslims in paradise:

And there go round, waiting on them menservants of their own, as they were hidden pearls. (Qur'an 52:24, Pickthall)
There wait on them immortal youths. (Qur'an 56:17, Pickthall)
There wait on them immortal youths, whom, when thou seest, thou wouldst take for scattered pearls. (Qur'an 76:19, Pickthall)

Since slavery is seen as a good reward in paradise there is no need to remove it in the present life.]

Shari'a and Slavery

The shari'a (Islamic law) has much to say about slaves, including the acquisition of slaves, slave-trading, freeing slaves, the status of female slaves, and how to deal with runaway slaves and lost slaves. In wars against non-Muslims, prisoners of war were to be killed, exchanged for Muslim prisoners of war, freed for ransom, or enslaved. The women and children were to be similarly exchanged or enslaved. Many rules concerning the practice of owners marrying slaves and taking slaves as concubines were outlined in order to determine paternity and ownership of children born to a female slave. A slave concubine who bore children to her master would be elevated to the status of um walad (mother of his child) and her children would be equal to the legal offspring. She could not be sold and was freed on her master's death. If a concubine was freed she could not have legal status as a wife, but would live with her master as his mistress and her children would be illegitimate. There were also rules about slaves marrying each other.

The four caliphs who came after Muhammad discouraged the enslavement of Muslims and it was eventually prohibited, but the enslavement of non-Muslims continued apace. If a non-Muslim slave converted to Islam he or she remained a slave. As an act of charity by the owner, however, a slave could be emancipated but only a believing slave deserved freedom. In Muslim lands, a slave had few civil or legal rights: a slave had no right to be heard in court; no right to property; any goods he did manage to accumulate would be inherited by his master not his children. He could marry only with the permission of the owner; he could not give alms or make a pilgrimage; he was considered a mere piece of property.

As in all contexts where slavery was practised, the actual treatment of slaves varied: some masters were kind, and some were cruel.

Islamic Expansion and Slavery

As Islam expanded by conquest (jihad), extending within a few centuries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian subcontinent, and spreading to south-east Asia, central Asia and Africa, large numbers of people were enslaved. The supply of slaves had to be constantly replenished because there was a high death rate amongst them. Furthermore, marriage amongst slaves was not encouraged, and in any case many male slaves were castrated (an operation which was often fatal). But Muslims and non-Muslim minorities living under the protection of the Islamic state could not be enslaved. So the need for more slaves became a motive for continuing to expand and conquer non-Muslim territories.

A vast network of slave trading developed. Within Islamic territories there were slaves from central Asia, from the Byzantine Empire, from sub-Saharan Africa and from Europe. As far afield as Indonesia the business of seizing and selling slaves flourished, with the Muslim Acehnese active in "manhunting" even in the early 20th century.

As well as domestic duties, agriculture and concubinage, some were used as soldiers. These slave-soldiers included the Turkic Mamelukes who eventually became a powerful force within Islam and set up their own states.

High prices were paid for eunuchs, and the practice of castration persisted from the 9th century until the early 20th century. Islam prohibits physical mutilation so many eunuchs were castrated before entering Islamic territory.

The slave trade became a great source of wealth and power to Muslim states, and remained an important part of the economy of parts of the Muslim world well into the 20th century.

[The jihad slave system included contingents of both sexes delivered annually in conformity with the treaties of submission by sovereigns who were tributaries of the caliph. When Amr conquered Tripoli (Libya) in 643, he forced the Jewish and Christian Berbers to give their wives and children as slaves to the Arab army as part of their jizya. From 652 until its conquest in 1276, Nubia was forced to send an annual contingent of slaves to Cairo. Treaties concluded with the towns of Transoxiana, Sijistan, Armenia, and Fezzan (Maghreb) under the Umayyads and Abbasids stipulated the annual dispatch of slaves from both sexes.
However, the main sources for the supply of slaves remained the regular raids on villages within the dar al-harb and the military expeditions which swept more deeply into the infidel lands, emptying towns and provinces of their inhabitants. This strategy, practiced from the beginning of the Arabo-Islamic expansion by the first four caliphs and then by the Umayyads and their successor, remained constant over all the areas covered by jihad. The depopulation and desertification of once-flourishing and densely peopled regions, described in full by Muslim and Christian chroniclers, was the result of the massive deportation of captives. Musa b. Nusayr brought back thirty thousand prisoners from his expeditions to Spain (714). (Bat Ye'or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam - From Jihad to Dhimmitude, pp. 108-109.)]

Slavery in Africa

Black slaves were imported into the Muslim world from Africa by a number of routes northward across the Sahara desert, and by sea into Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Estimates of the number involved vary greatly but it seems that there may easily have been 10 million, perhaps even twice that number.

Two-thirds of African slaves were female. The males were considered to be troublesome. An uprising of slaves from West Africa, the Zanj, who had been imported into the Tigris-Euphrates delta to reclaim salt marshland through their backbreaking labour, lasted from 869 until 883.

The mortality rate was very high because of the harsh conditions, but the trade was so lucrative that merchants were not deterred by the numbers who died. Harrowing eye witness accounts tell of the vast scale and miserable conditions of the slave trade in Africa. In the 1570s many thousands of black Africans were seen for sale in Cairo on market days. In 1796 a caravan was seen by a British traveller leaving Darfur with 5,000 slaves. Black eunuchs became favoured for the royal harems. Even after Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, a further 2 million Africans were enslaved by Muslim traders.

The Arabic word abd which means "slave" or "servant" is used as an insult to black people in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire

The enslavement of captives taken when the Ottoman armies raided Christian countries was part of the state system of the Ottoman Empire. After he conquered Constantinople in 1453 Sultan Mehmed wrote to various Muslim rulers boasting of the enslavement of its Christian population. The Ottomans engaged in slave trading from Gibraltar to Central Asia.

The Balkan Christians of the Ottoman Empire suffered cruelly, particularly under the brutal and bitterly resented child-levy, the devshirme. From the 15th century to the early 17th century the Ottomans would seize a certain proportion of Christian boys from their villages every few years, forcibly convert them to Islam and train them for the elite fighting force known as the Janissaries or for the state bureaucracy. The devshirme was sternly enforced. If any Christian parent tried to prevent the taking of his child he was immediately hanged from his own door frame. It is estimated that between 500,000 and one million boys, from the ages of 8 to 20, were taken in this way. Occasionally, armed uprisings against the system took place, but they were quickly crushed. Some children ran away, only to return and give themselves up when their parents were tortured. Many resorted to bribery to escape recruitment. In the early 17th century the devshirme was abandoned and the Ottomans obtained their slaves from new sources Georgians and Circassians of the Caucasus and Slav and Central Asian slaves captured and traded by the Crimean Tatars. By the early 19th century this supply was reduced and the Ottomans turned to Africa.

Eunuch slaves were in high demand in the Ottoman Empire, principally as guardians of the harems. Prague became an important centre for the castration of European slaves being imported to the Ottoman Empire.

Slavery in India

The Arabs were the first invaders of India to capture and enslave large numbers of its inhabitants. In the 7th and 8th centuries, and later under the Ghaznavids (962-1187), huge numbers of Hindus became slaves. Many more were enslaved under the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526), the Timurid jihad (1398), and the Mughals (1526-1857). K. S. Lal claims that the slave-taking added significantly to the growth of the Muslim population in India: "... every slave captured in war or purchased in the market or sent in lieu of revenue or tribute was invariably converted to Islam, so that slave-taking in medieval India was the most flourishing and successful missionary endeavour."

The nobility owned huge numbers of slaves and maintained large slave armies. For example, a 14th century sultan kept 180,000 slaves of whom 40,000 were palace guards. In this situation of abundance the price of female slaves was very low. The large numbers of slaves captured in campaigns were either sold in local markets or sent to markets in central Asia.

Enslaving Western Europeans

Muslim pirates from the Barbary (North African) coast, authorised by their governments, were active in seizing and enslaving white Christians from Western Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. They attacked not only ships but also coastal villages. While Spain and Italy bore the brunt of these attacks, the Barbary pirates often called corsairs would also go to Portugal, France, England, Ireland and even Iceland. The slaves were kept in wretched conditions and many were worked to death, especially those unfortunate enough to be chosen to row the corsair galleys.

Between 1530 and 1780 at least a million white Christian Europeans were enslaved on the Barbary coast. Around the year 1600 there were estimated to be some 35,000 in captivity there at any one time. Many records of the letters sent home, telling of the terrible sufferings the slaves were enduring, still exist. Some converted to Islam in order to get easier duties or, in the case of women in the harems, to stay with their children who were being brought up as Muslims.

The slaves' only hope lay in being redeemed by payment of a ransom. Churches collected offerings for this purpose. Many of those who went to North Africa with funds to negotiate the release of the slaves were church leaders. In Spain and Italy ransoming slaves was considered an act of great merit: "Their [only] fault, their crime, is recognising Jesus Christ as the most divine Saviour ... and of professing Him as the True Faith."

English slaves were largely neglected by their home country, especially in comparison with those from southern European countries. They knew this, and were demoralised. An "Algerian Duty" was set aside from the customs income in England to redeem slaves, but much of it was diverted to other uses. Many English slaves died in captivity.

Slavery in Modern Times

Although Tunisia, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire abolished slavery in the 19th century under pressure from the West, in east Africa and other places it persisted into the 20th century, prompting the League of Nations and later the United Nations to condemn the practice.

The nations of the Arabian Peninsula were among the last to outlaw slavery: Qatar in 1952, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962, the United Arab Emirates in 1963, South Yemen in 1967, and Oman in 1970.

Saudi Arabia

After abolition in 1962, about 10,000 slaves were freed out of an estimated 15,000 - 30,000. In 1965 the Saudi royal family still kept hundreds of slaves. Many in Saudi Arabia advocate slavery even now. Sheik Saleh Al-Fawzen, a leading scholar and author of a religious textbook for schools, has said, "Slavery is a part of Islam", and that those Muslims who oppose slavery "are ignorant, not scholars".

In Saudi Arabia, the plight of migrant workers often amounts to slavery. Domestic workers are often exploited, forcibly confined beaten, underfed, and sometimes raped. The lives of these workers are complicated further by deeply ingrained gender, religious and racial discrimination in Saudi society. Government policies, the practice of private employers, and unfair legal proceedings all combine to oppress large numbers of poor and desperate foreigners trying to earn a living in Saudi Arabia.


In ancient times slavery was common in Mauritania. In the 8th century Mauritania came under Islamic authority. From this point onward, only black Africans have been enslaved in Mauritania.

The old practice of forming slave armies was revived after the end of colonialism. Black Mauritanians were forced into military units and sent into African villages to subdue and kill the inhabitants. The soldiers were then settled on the lands of the villagers, and authorised to defend themselves and undertake punitive campaigns against the population.

There have been several legal/constitutional rulings to outlaw slavery (in 1905, twice in 1961, and in 1981), but they have not been effective. In 1994 there were still an estimated 90,000 black Mauritanians (Harratin) in the possession of their Arab/Berber masters. It was also reported that some 300,000 freed slaves were still serving their former masters because of psychological or economic dependence. The 1981 ordinance abolishing slavery granted compensation to slave holders for the loss of their slaves, but the money was not forthcoming, which may be one of the reasons why most slave owners continued to hold their slaves.

Although some try to defend the institution by noting that many families of slaves have worked for the same family for generations, and claiming that they are merely servants working for their keep, the testimonies of the small number who have managed to escape tell of brutalities and hardship which seem more like slavery.

There do not seem to be any firm figures on the number of slaves in Mauritania currently, but it is clear that slavery still continues there.


With the imposition of Islamic law in 1983 by the Northern based Arab Islamic government, the age-old practice of slavery in the Sudan gathered momentum. During the civil war which raged from 1983 until 2005, captured Southerners were frequently enslaved. The men were often shot, the children were made slaves (herding cattle or performing other unpaid tasks) while the women became the sexual slaves of their owners. Such slavery was abolished in the 2005 peace treaty which ended the civil war.

Since 1986 more than 200,000 people of the Dinka tribe are estimated to have been enslaved in a complex network of buyers, sellers and middlemen, with many of the slaves brutally treated and some forcibly converted to Islam.


In Pakistan, many lives are blighted as enormous numbers of people eke out an existence as "bonded labourers" unable to leave their desperately hard and low-paid jobs. A high proportion of these are Christian workers with Muslim employers.

Evidence came to light in 2006 of the kidnapping and enslavement of young boys from Christian villages in the Punjab, an operation coordinated by a leading member of a militant Islamic group, the Jamaat-ud Daawa. The children, aged between 6 and 12, were held in unspeakable conditions, beaten, barely fed, and forbidden to talk, play or pray, before being sold for approximately $1,700 each into the sex trade or into domestic servitude.


Many Muslims agree that there is no place for slavery in the modern world but there has as yet been no sustained critique of the practice. The difficulties and dangers of confronting the example of Muhammad, and the teaching of the Qur'an and shari'a (which most Muslims believe cannot be changed) have dampened any internal debate within Islam. While slavery still exists in many Islamic countries, few Muslim leaders show remorse for the past, discuss reparations, or show that repugnance for the scourge of slavery which eventually led to its abolition in the West. It is time for Muslims to emphatically and publicly condemn the practice of slavery in any form and ensure that their legal codes supporting it are changed.

Christianity and Slavery

The Bible does not treat slavery as divinely ordained but rather as reflecting the condition of man.

[The Bible forbids some forms of slavery]:

Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. (Exodus 21:16, NIV)]

The apostle Paul specifically condemns slaver traders (1 Timothy 1:9-10); he tells slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Corinthians 7:21); and he encourages Philemon to welcome the runaway Onesimus who had now become a Christian, no longer as a slave, but "as a dear brother" (Philemon 15-16). Paul had exposed himself to punishment by sheltering Onesimus, and he makes it clear that Philemon ought to free Onesimus. There is no endorsement of slavery as an institution; rather the goal of freedom pervades the New Testament.

[The Bible does not promise slaves as a reward in heaven.]

In Western Europe slavery was virtually extinguished by the 11th century, until the rise of the evil and brutal transatlantic slave trade which lasted for nearly four centuries. It is strange that slavery and the slave trade during this period were approved by some senior church leaders in Europe and North America, some of whom owned slaves. They even sought to justify the practice by theological arguments. However, it was also Christians - a small group of them in 18th century Britain - who took a leading role in the long hard struggle against slavery. The best known name is William Wilberforce who was motivated by the Biblical teaching about humans being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and by Jesus' command to treat others as we would like them to treat us (Matthew 7:12). Their struggle eventually achieved the abolition of the slave trade (1807), and then the abolition of slavery itself throughout the British Empire (1833). Other countries then followed suit. [It was the Christian civilization that outlawed slavery and seeked to stop it throughout the world.]


[1] Sahih Muslim, Book 10, Number 3901

Further Information

John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa, Oxford: One World, 2001.

Andrew G Bostom (ed.), The Legacy of Jihad - Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, New York: Prometheus Press, 2005, pp. 529-588 & 660-663.

Allan Fisher, Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa, London: C. Hurst & Co. 1971.

Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 95ff.

M. A. Khan, Islamic Jihad - A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery, New York, Bloomington: iUniverse, 2009.

Giles Milton, White Gold, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2004.

Sean O'Callaghan, The Slave Trade Today, New York: Crown, 1961.

Don Richardson, Secrets of the Koran, California: Regal Books, ch. 15, 2003

Serge Trifkovic, Islam's Wretched Record on Slavery

Bat Ye'or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam - From Jihad to Dhimmitude, London: Associated University Presses, 1996.

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