Slavery, Polygamy and Muslims
by Dr. Aslam Abdullah
Slavery is mentioned in at least twenty-nine verses of the Qur'an, most of these are Medinan and refer to the staus of slaves. The verses are largely restricted to manumission and sexual relations. The Qur'anic references to slavery mainly contain broad and general propositions of an ethical nature rather than specific legal formulations.
The Quran used the slavery in the past-tense in the Quran, thus signalling only those individuals who were already enslaved at the time of revelation. This meant that slavery was never compatible with the commandments of the Quran and was in fact outlawed by Quranic Law.
The Qur'an recognized the practice of inequality between master and slave and the the then norms about the rights of the former over the latter. But the Quran stated that from a spiritual perspective, "the slave has the same value as the free man, and the same eternity is in store for his soul.
The Quran urged kindness to the slave and recommended their liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiation of sins and as an act of simple benevolence. It exhorted masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their own freedom.
The Qur'an, however, did not consider slaves to be mere chattel; their humanity was directly addressed in references to their beliefs, their desire for manumission and their feelings about being forced into prostitution and forced labor. In one case, the Qur'an referred to master and slave with the same word, rajul. Later interpreters presumed slaves to be spiritual equals of free Muslims. For example, verse 4:25 urged believers to marry 'believing maids that your right hands owned' and then stated: "The one of you is as the other," which the Jalaalayn interpreted as "You and they are equal in faith, so do not refrain from marrying them." The human aspect of slaves was further reinforced by reference to them as members of the private household, sometimes along with wives or children.
The purpose was not to promote or sustain slavery but to eliminate it completely. It took Muslims some 1400 years to realize this intent and now the slavery is completely banned in all countries including the Muslim majority countries.
On the issue of having multiple wives, there is only one verse in
the Quran in which polygamy is mentioned. "And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you - [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one - or [from among] those whom you rightfully posses. This will make it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course." (Surah an Nisaa - Women, 4:3).