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Islam and Human Rights ( 6 Jan 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Abolition of Slavery, Including Sex Slavery in Islam (The Qur’an)




By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

January 06, 2014

(Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)

The Advent/ Setting of the Qur’anic Revelation

The Qur’an was revealed at a time, the early seventh century of the Christian era, when the world at large was in a state of Jahiliya - an Arabic word that denotes a state of darkness and gloom (Zulumat) when the notion of universal justice had not evolved, punishments were arbitrary, the common man was bullied, oppressed and exploited, slavery was normative and, women were treated like chattel and brutalized, to cite the major vices of the era. The Qur’an came to bring humanity out of darkness into light (2:257, 14:1, 57:9), and to lift the burden that was on them from before (7:157). Since slavery was at the root of many of societal evils, it had to be eradicated to pave the way for its quantum reforms.

As social customs remain entrenched in the various tiers of a society and any attempt to ban them abruptly can hardly succeed, the Qur’an had to introduce its reforms in a phased manner. It therefore introduced its injunctions against slavery concomitantly with its social and moral reforms. Thus, it gives clear directives to freeing the slaves (Riqab, Pl. Raqabah) in the following passages:

        90:13-16. The Qur’an combines its exhortation on “the freeing of a slave” (90:13), with “feeding during famine (14) an orphaned relative (15), or the needy (lying) in the dust” (90:16).

        4:92 commands the freeing of a believing slave and paying compensation for any accidental killing of a believer.

        5:89 lists the freeing of a slave as an option to expiate a false oath taken in the earnest.

        2:177 includes the freeing of slaves among the virtues of the truly pious.

        9:60 includes slaves regardless of faith in the category of people entitled to receive charity.

        58:3 requires the freeing of a slave as expiation for breaking an oath called Zihar, which absolved a man of all conjugal responsibilities to his wife, but did not give her the freedom of divorce:

 Since slavery and prostitution went hand in hand, the Qur’an aimed at eradicating slavery by rehabilitating the male and female slaves through the institution of marriage. Thus, the Qur’an exhorts men to marry from among the bondmaids under their lawful trust (4:25), marry off the unmarried ones among their male and female slaves (24:32) and free their slaves against reasonable contract, allowing them to pay later for their freedom (24:33).

And any of you who cannot afford to marry (Yankiha) chaste believing woman (should marry) from believing bondmaids under your lawful trust (Ma Malakat Aiman) and God knows best your faith. Some of you have (ties) with others of them. So marry them with the permission of their people and give them their dowers reasonably as (meriting) chaste women, and do not prostitute them nor take them as mistresses….” (4:25). 

Marry off the unmarried ones among you and those among your slaves (‘Abd) and bondmaids that are ready for marriage. If they are needy, God will enrich them of His bounty. (Remember,) God is Boundless (in mercy) and All-Knowing (24:32). Yet those who have no (financial) means to marry should wait until God enriches them of His bounty. And as for those under your lawful trust who seek a contract (for freedom), draw it up for them if you know any good in them, and give them out of the riches God has given you. And do not coerce your bondmaids into prostitution seeking the gains of this world, when they want to be chaste - seeking the pleasure of worldly life. But should anyone coerce them (sexually), God will be Merciful (to them) after they have been so coerced” (24:33).

Qur’anic Positive Phrase for Slaves and Bondmaids   

While the Qur’an uses the words Fatat, Riqab, ‘Abd, to denote a slave, bondmaid in the historical sense, it also employs a dignified expression, Ma Malakat Ayman to denote slaves, bondmaids, and for that matter, anyone who is under one’s lawful trust. Most scholars render this phrase literally as: ‘what the right hand possesses’, and connote it restrictively with slaves, bondmaids, captives, and prisoners of war in the feminine gender. Such an interpretation is misleading. The closest literal translation of this expression would be: ‘those possessed by (or under trust to) the right hand.’ However, the Qur'an uses the word ‘right hand’ figuratively to denote a positive lawful status, such as the companions of the ‘right hand’, and God's ‘right hand’. Therefore, the phrase could be best rendered as “those under one’s lawful trust.” Thus, through its ingenious vocabulary, the Qur’an gives a new ennobling status to the slaves and bondmaids who were historically relegated to the lowest rung of the social hierarchy – hated, despised, brutalized and segmented from the freeborn by impervious boundaries lasting down the generations.   

The Qur’anic phrase Malakat Ayman (sing. milk al-Yamin) is no camouflage or mere euphemism. In the Prophet's days, captives from armed conflicts were distributed among the Medinite Muslims for their safe custody. Those captives, whether male or female, were virtually ‘slaves’ but were regarded as Malakat Ayman; and accordingly their custodians treated them with sympathy and consideration. William Muir, one of the most hostile of the Prophet's biographers offers this quotation from a prisoner: “the men of Medina made us ride, while they themselves walked, they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was a little of it, contenting themselves with dates” [1].

In a different plane, unlike the legal codes that preceded it, and succeeded it for over a millennium, the Qur’an does not enact any separate civil law or code for the slaves or the ma Malakat Ayman class. The Qur’an does, however, refer to slavery in the context of the past or even prevalent traditions, but its civil, commercial, inheritance and family laws are for all believers, without any reference to their being freeborn or slaves.

In sum, Qur’anic repeated rejoinders on freeing slaves, its clear dictates to looking after them, to setting them free and to marrying them off, its specific ennobling vocabulary for slaves, bondmaids and captives, and its avoidance of any distinction between slaves and freeborn in all its social and civil laws, amply demonstrate that the Qur’an aimed at rooting out the institution of slavery. Accordingly Caliph Umar abolished slavery among the native inhabitants of Arabia. He also gave a clear instruction to his generals, on the strength of the Qur’an, not to turn the civilian population of conquered nations into slaves [2]. However, he met with stiff resistance from many of his generals, and his policy was discontinued with the establishment of the first Islamic dynasty (AH 40), less than two decades after his death (AH 24). Thus slavery re-established itself in the Islamic world, barely thirty years after the Prophet’s death, and was vigorously followed by slave traders and those with vested interests, for many centuries to come.   

The Qur’anic ideal of a slave free society was realized more than twelve hundred years after the death of the Prophet – but not in the Islamic world. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States (1861-1865) legislated the abolition of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan.1 1863). Ironically, the classical Islamic Shari‘a that had its birth more than a hundred years after the Prophet’s demise, entertained slavery; and slaves, bondmaids, and concubines formed an integral part of the social hierarchy of Islamic civilization in many Muslim lands. Some radical Muslim intellectuals and Muftis who may be paralleled with the hypocrites and believing desert Arabs of the Prophet’s era who were intense in kufr [3] advocate lawfulness of this pre-Islamic practice but that is a reaction to the Qur’anic message.  This, however, needs a gender neutral interpretation of a Qur’anic pronouncement that appears in two of its paired verses (23:5/6, 70:29/30) as expounded below:

Gender Neutral Interpretation of the Paired Verses 23:5/6, 70:29/30

 These paired of verses, which appear in the Qur’an as identical statements inserted in the passages 23:1-11 and 70:19-35 are rendered by Yususf Ali as follows :

“(Believers) abstain from sex (23:5) except with those joined to them in the marriage, or (the captives) whom their ‘right hands possess’, - for in their case, they are free from blame (23:6).

“(Those regular in prayer and socially responsible among humans) guard their chastity except with their wives (70:29), and (the captives) whom their ‘right hands possess’, - for in their case, they are free from blame (70:30).

The opening bracketed remarks qualify the statement and are drawn from the preceding part of the passages.

Given that each of the Qur’anic expressions for ‘believers’ (Muminun), ‘human’ (insaan), Azwaj (rendered as ‘wives’ in 70:29 and ‘joined in marriage’ in 23:6, are of common gender, the Qur’anic pronouncement of the paired verses can be more accurately translated as follows:

“and who preserve their private parts /abstain from sex (23:5/ 70:29) - except from their spouses (Azwaj) (23:6/70:30), that is (awe*) those under their lawful trust (Ma Malakat Ayman), and then (they are) not blame worthy (30).” [*the rendition, ‘that is’ is consistent with the usage of the particle awe in the verse 25:62]

The truth is, the traditional gendered rendering is patently flawed on the following grounds:

        The passages date from the early Meccan period when Muslims were ‘just a few in number, weak and helpless in the land, and were afraid that their enemies might oppress and kidnap them’ (8:26). Accordingly, the Meccan Suras are full of exhortations for patience and self-restraint and it is least likely that the Qur’an would grant a sexual license at this stage except to mandate what was prevalent at that point in time – when marriage laws were a decade away. 

        The passages 70:21-35 and 23:1-11 which incorporate the noted verses spell out some of the attributes of true believers. If this included extramarital sex with captive or slave women, the Qur'an would have accommodated the latter or their offspring in its inheritance laws, which cover all forms of relationships (4:33). There is no mention of Ma Malakat Ae-Man, or of their offspring as inheritors of property.

        If the Prophet or the Qur'an were to give any extra institutional sexual license to men, the pagan Arabs would have unquestionably charged him for this. They called him an impostor (30:58), insane (44:1, 68:51), and an insane poet (37:36). They charged him with forging lies and witchcraft (34:43, 38:4), forging lies against God, forgery and making up tales (11:13, 32:3, 38:7, 46:8), witchcraft (21:3, 43:30, 74:24), obvious witchcraft that was bewildering (10:2, 37:15, 46:7) and of being bewitched or possessed by a Jinn (17:47, 23:70, 34:8).They also found the revelation strange and unbelievable (38:5, 50:2), and condemned it as the legends of the ancients (6:25, 23:83, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, 83:13). But not one single word did they utter that pointed, even remotely, to his sanctioning of any form of sexual license.

        The traditional interpretation of Ma Malakat Ae’man invoking an institution of slavery in the biblical or historical sense is totally misleading as expounded in the main body of this article.

        The Qur'an sanctions similar ‘rights and duties’ to men and women in many areas and just and balanced ‘rights and duties’ on conjugal matters with monogamy as a social norm [3]. 

It will be therefore be a gross mistake to interpret the verses 23:5/6, 70:29/30 in a gendered manner to sanction unlimited sexual freedom to men-folk with female captives, slaves and their like. Moreover, the Qur’an fully clarifies itself with the progress of the revelation. Thus, as Muhammad Asad observes, quoting al-Razi and al-Tabari, the Qur’an prohibits sexual relation with any woman other than one’ lawful wife [4]

Hence, any notion of slavery and sexual slavery are antithetic to the Qur’anic message.


1.       Rafiq Zakaria, Muhammad and the Qur’an, London 1992, p. 408.

2.       Shibli Noumani, al-Faruq, Delhi 1898, Karachi reprint 1991, p. 258.

3.       The Qur’an Prescribes Monogamy Is The Social Norm For Humanity

5.       Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar, 1980, Chap. 4, Note 26.

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.