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Islamic Society ( 11 Jun 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islam, Slavery and Saudi Arabia


By Ghulam Rasool, New Age Islam

11 June 2012

When the tragic story of an Indian Tamil Periyasamy’s 20-year enslavement in Saudi Arabia came to light recently, every true Muslim felt ashamed to witness another instance of Saudis defaming Islam by their anti-Islam practices and beliefs. Despite knowing that slavery goes completely against Islam, as we will see later in this article, the Arabs, especially Saudis have been brutally enslaving people from Asia and Africa on the false pretext of providing jobs and livelihood.

Slavery in Saudi Arabia

 Although slavery was legally abolished in the kingdom in 1962, the horrendous practice still flourishes there. Ranking Saudi religious authorities endorse slavery, for example Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawazan insisted in 2003 that “slavery is a part of Islam” and whoever wants it abolished is “an infidel”

Being the birthplace of Islam Saudi Arabia should have come to the fore to condemn and uproot slavery from world to fulfil the clearly expressed desire of the Prophet of Islam. But on the contrary, Saudi Arabia has been a hub for both female and male slaves trafficked for the purposes of involuntary servitude and commercial sexual exploitation. Men and women from a large number of countries including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Ethiopia are hired in Saudi Arabia as domestic servants or other low-skilled labourers, but many of them subsequently face inhumane restrictions and torments, withholding of passports, threats, physical and sexual abuse and non-payment of wages.

Every year a considerable number of women, primarily from Asian and African countries, is trafficked into Saudi Arabia for commercial sexual exploitation. Many of them are reportedly kidnapped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers. In addition, Saudi Arabia is considered a destination for Nigerian, Yemeni, Pakistani, Afghan, Chadian, and Sudanese children trafficked for involuntary servitudes as forced beggars and street vendors. Some Saudi nationals travel to countries like Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to engage in commercial sexual exploitation. Even some Saudi men have used legally contracted “temporary marriages” as a means by which they attempt to sexually exploit migrant workers. Females as young as seven years old are lured and led to believe that they are being wed in earnest, but upon arrival in Saudi Arabia they receive a serious setback when they realize that they are nothing short of their husband’s sexual slaves, subsequently they become either domestic labour or prostitutes.

Slavery and govt. of Saudi Arabia 

 According to the US state department, “The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making discernible efforts to do so. There is no evidence that the government criminally prosecutes or punishes trafficking offenders, particularly abusive employers and fraudulent recruiters involved in labour trafficking. Furthermore, it has not been observed that the government took law enforcement action against trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation in Saudi Arabia, or took any steps to provide victims of sex trafficking with protection. In general, victim protection efforts in Saudi Arabia remain weak, with authorities failing to institute a formal victim identification procedure and often treating victims of trafficking as criminals. The government shows no sign of significant political commitment to address the serious issue of involuntary servitude in the Kingdom; indeed, an official responsible for such matters has denied that trafficking in persons takes place in Saudi Arabia. Despite tightening immigration laws and visa entry requirements, there has been no prevention of the trafficking of men, women, and children who migrate legally and voluntarily, but who are subsequently trafficked into involuntary servitude or commercial sexual exploitation.”

 Wahhabi support for slavery

On the one hand, this is the tragic picture of Saudi Government’s indifference towards slave trade, one the other the conservative Wahhabi and Salafi Ulema of Saudi Arabia have been promoting the vicious trend of slavery by issuing fatwas to support its “Islamic legality,” whereas the majority of the world Islamic scholars have emphatically declared the practice inconsistent with the Qur’anic morality.

One such shocking example was noticed in 2003, when a high-level Saudi jurist, Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan, issued a fatwa claiming “Slavery is a part of Islam. It is a part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long as there is Islam.” He strongly objected to Muslim scholars who denied slavery as an Islamic practice, saying: “They are ignorant, not scholars ... They are merely writers. Whoever says such things is an infidel.” At the time of the fatwa, al-Fawzan was a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, a member of the Council of Religious Edicts and Research, the Imam of Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh, and a professor at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud Islamic University, the main Wahhabi centre of learning in the country. (WorldNetdaily, November 10, 2003)

It is regretfully appalling condition of Saudi Arabia where the govt. remains a silent spectator of  the prevailing slave trade in different and disguised forms strongly backed by  such abhorrent Wahhabi fatwas. According to the reformist Islamic jurist and author Khaled Abou El Fadl, it "is particularly disturbing and dangerous because it effectively legitimates the trafficking in and sexual exploitation of so-called domestic workers in the Gulf region and especially Saudi Arabia." (The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, by Khaled Abou El Fadl, Harper San Francisco, 2005, p.255)

Saudi Enslavement in Foreign lands

An even more shocking and shameful truth is that the practice of Saudi enslavement is not confined to only Gulf States, but it is prevailing even among those Saudis living in foreign countries. Here are a few examples of enslavement, all involving Saudi royals or diplomats living in U.S:

In 1982, a Miami judge issued a warrant to search Prince Turki Bin Abdul Aziz's 24th-floor penthouse to determine if he was holding an Egyptian woman, Nadia Lutefi Mustafa, against her will. Mr. Turki and his French bodyguards prevented a search from taking place, then won retroactive diplomatic immunity to forestall any legal unpleasantness.

In 1988, the Saudi defence attaché in Washington, Colonel Abdulrahman S. Al-Banyan, employed a Thai domestic worker, Mariam Roungprach, until she escaped his house by crawling out of a window. She later said that she had been imprisoned there, did not get enough food, and was not paid. Interestingly, her work contract specified that she could not leave the house or make telephone calls without her employer's permission.

In 1991, Prince Saad Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and his wife, Princess Noora, lived on two floors of the Ritz-Carlton in Houston. Two of their servants, Josephine Alicog of the Philippines and Sriyani Marian Fernando of Sri Lanka, filed a lawsuit against the prince, alleging they were held for five months against their will, "by means of unlawful threats, intimidation and physical force." They say they were only partially paid, were denied medical treatment, and suffered mental and physical abuse.

In March 2005, a wife of Saudi Prince Mohamed Bin Turki Alsaud, Hana Al Jader, 39, was arrested at her home near Boston on charges of forced labour, domestic servitude, falsifying records, visa fraud, and harbouring aliens. Ms. Al Jader stands accused of forcing two Indonesian women to work for her by making them believe "that if they did not perform such labour, they would suffer serious harm." (Daniel Pipes, New York Sun, June 16, 2005)

What a horrific picture it is of those Saudis who make tall claims of representing the true version of Islam! Clearly the fact is that their horrendous practices have put a bad light on the noble precepts of Islam. It is high time to unmask such real enemies of Islam.

Slavery can be traced back to the earliest records, such as the “Code of Hammurabi” (c. 1760 BC) which refers to it as an established institution. Today slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world. Even Mauritania had abolished it in 1981, becoming the last country to do so. However the number of slaves today is higher than at any point in history. It is estimated as anywhere between 12 million and 27 million.  (UN Chronicle/ “Slavery in the Twenty-First Century” United Nations) Retrieved 2010-08-29)

Slavery among Arabs

According to the historical sources, though the slavery trade has been doing business in the Arab countries from the time immemorial, it started booming in the 19th century when Saudis had already been Muslim for over a millennium. There is very little authentic evidence to substantiate the claim that slavery was ever a major enterprise prior to the 18th century, so it is clearly a post-Islamic phenomenon. During the 19th century, the Arab slave trade took a brutal turn. The Portuguese had destroyed the Swahili coast and Zanzibar emerged as the hub of wealth for the Arabian state of Muscat. By 1839, slaving became the prime Arab enterprise. The demand for slaves in Arabia, Egypt, Persia, and India created a wave of destruction on Eastern Africa. This resulted in massive importation and transportation of slaves from non-Muslim lands into Gulf States. Around 45,000 slaves passed through Zanzibar every year. The processes of acquisition and transportation of slaves to Muslim lands often imposed appalling loss of life and hardships.

 It should be very clearly underlined that Arabs did not enslave Africans because of a religious edict; rather they did so out of their own greed. Contrary to popular belief, it was not in the interests of Arab slavers to convert enslaved Africans to Islam, because had they converted to Islam, they would have been granted more rights to manumission (freeing of slaves for a variety of reasons including belief) as being Muslims. And if they were already Muslim, it would “delegitimize” their capture.

Slavery and Islam

There is ample evidence to prove that Islam has always discouraged the horrendous practice of slavery considering it one of the worst sins. It should first be remarked that though Islam tolerated slavery but never approved of it, rather it gave several directives and prescriptions leading to its alleviation as far as possible in the short term, and, in the longer term, conducing to its gradual and progressive suppression. Thus, the Saudi accusation that Islam has encouraged or accepted slavery by not abolishing it, has no weight. In fact, abolishing it would not have been possible in a world where it was generally practiced by all the states which bordered the new Muslim empire, and where the idea of challenging the principle itself had not occurred to anyone. However, there are many Qur’anic verses and prophetic sayings and traditions that clarify Islamic stand on slavery.

The basic Islamic concept in this regard is as follows:

“O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honoured of you in God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-knowing, All-aware”—49:13.

In the light of this Quranic verse, it is explicitly clear that there is no room for slavery in basic Islamic concept. But as it was a common custom-during the emergence of Islam- to enslave prisoners of wars, Islam first attempted to ameliorate their conditions before it tried to uproot the slavery. By guaranteeing them humane treatment and mild behaviour, Islam had actually created various possibilities of subsequently releasing them. The prophet himself cited great examples by freeing a large number of male and female slaves and encouraging those who did the same. Those who call themselves Ahl-e-Hadees and promote following prophet’s Sunna should take note. He strongly condemned those who behaved ill to the slaves:     

“He will not enter paradise who behaves ill to his slaves. The companions said, "O Apostle of God! Have you not told us, that there will be a great many slaves and orphans amongst your disciples?" He said, "Yes; then be kind to them as your own children, and give them to eat of what you eat yourselves. The slaves that say their prayers are your brothers."

[The first call to prayer at the Quba mosque built by Prophet Muhammad, was given in 622 by Hazrat Bilal -- a black slave freed by the Prophet)

Similarly, there are many other hadiths which define true Islamic attitude towards the slaves. The prophet said:

“Your slaves are your brethren, therefore whoever has a brother who depends upon him must feed and clothe him in the way he feeds and clothes himself; and should not impose upon him tasks which exceed his capacity; should you ask them to do such things, then you are obliged to help them”. (Musim, narrated by Ibn-e- Umar)

 The prophet encouraged freeing of slaves, even if one had to purchase them first. On many occasions, Prophet’s companions, at his direction, freed slaves in abundance. The prophet himself freed 63 slaves, and his wife Aisha freed 67. In total his household and companions freed 39,237 slaves (Human Rights in Islam'. Published by The Islamic Foundation (1976) - Leicester, U.K, Nadvi (2000), pg. 453)  The most notable slaves were Safiya bint Huyayya whom he freed and married, and Zayd ibn Harith whom the prophet freed and adopted as his son. ("Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir" (Book of the Major Classes) by Ibn Sa'd's)

Thus, the best thing in this regard, which the Prophet strongly suggested and did himself, was to free the slaves even by purchasing them. As for those who misbehave, ill-treat, badmouth or manhandle the slaves are bound to incur the wrath of Allah and burn in hellfire.

Keeping in mind the above-mentioned Islamic stand on slavery and its all-out effort to eradicate it, it is quite regretful to see the Arabs still involved in enslavement. Periyasamy’s 20-year enslavement in Saudi Arabia and eventual rescue may yet serve a purpose if Muslims around the world start pressurising Saudis to pursue true Islam as brought by Prophetr Mohammad (saw) rather than their self-serving version, justifying monarchy, wasting millions of dollars of public funds by Saudi princes in gambling and the horrible practice of slavery and what they call “Islamic prostitution” and all in the name of protecting what they insist is the purest version of Islam.