Slavery: Process of abolishment in the Quran
The existence of slavery is an ancient condition. It existed long before the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), starting in 610 C.E. What is interesting is comparing the depiction of slavery in the Quran to the Old and New Testament. In these older Jewish and Christian holy texts, a specific plan to eliminate the human bondage of our temporal present is never discussed. The Quran, on the other hand, not only recognized the immorality of slavery in seventh century Arabia, but sought to end it. To recognize this is to respect the Islamic attempt, in the name of Allah, [on moral grounds] to destroy an unethical custom many centuries before America or Europe would legally and politically do the same, but in the name of profit.
When the Quran was revealed, slavery was in wide practice throughout the Arab World in fact the whole world, thus, it would have been socially and economically impractical and detrimental to place an immediate ban on the slave trade and to ‘damn every slave owner to hell’. Rather God’s Grace is to give everyone a chance of atonement. Just imagine what would happen if the banks were all shut down and paper money were all scraped and made worthless ‘overnight’ due to interest/usury being prohibited and a grave sin. The whole society will come to a standstill causing anarchy - more harm than good. Similar, was the case of slavery at the advent of Islam.
Prohibiting slavery in the context of seventh-century Arabia apparently would have been as useful as prohibiting poverty; it would have reflected a noble ideal but would have been unworkable on an immediate basis without establishing an entirely new socioeconomic system. Jacob Neusner, Tamara Sonn, Comparing Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam, 1999.
The eventual abolishment of this form of ancient institutional slavery by the colonial powers in turn led the colonies to abandon it and inevitably the rest of the world. Thus, a new era with a new socioeconomic order was established. Unfortunately, since the abolishment was for economic reasons more than humanitarian, the exploitation of people continued with colonialism for many years more to come with its legacy continuing till this day.
The Quran and thereby the Prophetic teachings uses a better psychological approach to win people’s hearts in the struggle against slavery and all forms of exploitation by placing a strong emphasis on human dignity and equality and encouraging the freeing of slaves without any civil wars and conflict, in contrast to the American and European attempt to abolish slavery. Nevertheless a new socioeconomic system was needed to replace slavery.
The Quran makes it clear that the freeing of slaves is an act of the highest virtue goes as follows: “And what will explain to thee the path that is steep? (It is) freeing the bondman; or the giving of food in a day of privation, to the orphan with claims of relationship, or to the indigent (down) in thedust.” (Quran 90:12-16)
Righteousness is not turning your faces towards the east or the west. Righteous are those who believe in God, the Last Day, the angels, the scripture, and the prophets; and they give the money, cheerfully, to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the traveller, the beggars, and to free the slaves... (Quran 2:177). Such righteousness is the purpose of worship in Islam as per Quran 2:21 and indeed the purpose of life (Quran 51:56).
As for those who were not yet ready to free slaves in expectation of Divine reward alone, the command which made the freeing of slaves an atoning act for sins committed, nevertheless, made it necessary for them to do so., see 4:92, 5:89, 58:3. Thus, considerably reducing slavery, since humans are far from perfect. Also distribution of community charities would contribute towards freeing of slaves, an act of worship:
The charities are to go to the poor, and the needy, and those who work to collect them, and those whose hearts have been united, and to free the slaves, and those in debt, and in the cause of God, and the traveller. A duty from God, and God is Knowledgeable, Wise. (Quran 9:60)
The Quran instructed the humane and proper treatment of the slaves leading to the gradual eradication of slavery. Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good - to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are of kin, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the way-farer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess: for Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”(Quran 4:36)
“Marry those among you who are single, and the virtuous ones among your slaves, male or female: if they are in poverty, Allah will give them means out of His grace: for Allah is Ample-giving, and He knows all things.”(Quran 24:32). Thus curtailing slavery by postulating marriage [i.e. the responsibility that comes with it] as the only bases of licit sexual relations.
Reportedly, the Prophet commanded: “They are your brothers and relatives! Let each one provide for the brother under him with the food that he himself eats and with the clothes that he himself wears. Place not upon them any task that is overbearing for them. If you do assign them a difficult task, you must help them in its execution.” (Ascribed to Bukhari and Muslim). Psychologically and practically eradicating all forms of slavery from the hearts and minds of the masters.
The only method mentioned in The Quran for gaining captives is during warfare [i.e. POW] and therefore, the acquisition of a slave by any other means, and the keeping of a slave thus acquired, is entirely prohibited: which, to all practical purposes, amounts to a prohibition of slavery. After the war is over they should be freed if the circumstances befits. Thus, abolishing institutional and all other forms of slavery and inhumanity.
Therefore, if you encounter those who deny the truth (in warfare), then bring about the captives until when you have subdued them, then strengthen the bind. Then after either grace or ransom, until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command], and had God willed, surely He would have gained victory Himself from them, but He tests some of you with others. And those who get killed in the cause of God, He will never let their deeds be put to waste. (Quran 47:4)
All secondary ‘sources’ must be judged by the light of the Quran. (68.36-38)
The line of action of the Quran which refrained from completely and suddenly prohibiting slavery has, in fact, made clear its applicability for all time. From the stand adopted by it in this issue, points to the fact that the Quran is, indeed, a revelation from the Lord God Himself who is best aware of the changing trends and evolutionary processes of human society. If the Quran's act of not imposing total prohibition on slavery is studied in some depth, it will be a conclusive testimony to the statement of fact that Islam is, indeed, adaptable to the urgent need of time and that its recommendations are practical in any age. Modern day slavery still exist due to holistic neglect of Divine guidance.
And Allah knows best.
For Younger Readers
God teaches in the Quran, the holy book of Muslims that:
Slavery already existed in Arabia and the whole wide World before Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) mission.
The Prophet took wise steps to get rid of slavery using the Quran’s approach
To get rid of slavery is very good and righteous in the sight of God
The purpose of life is to be righteous or a good person
To summarise, in the words of Prof. Brogan, the slave system was “tolerated, defended, praised as long as it was profitable.” Williams, Dr. Eric, Capitalism and Slavery.