Muhammad owned slaves, and the Qur’an takes the existence of slavery for granted, even as it enjoins the freeing of slaves under certain circumstances, such as the breaking of an oath: “Allah will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom” (5:89).
While the freeing of a few slaves here and there is encouraged, however, the institution itself is never questioned. Slavery was taken for granted throughout Islamic history, as it was, of course, in the West up until relatively recent times. Yet the impetus to end slavery moved from Christendom into Islam, not the other way around. Because the Qur’anic word cannot be questioned, and the book does not contain the Biblical principles that led to the abolition of slavery in the West, there has never been a Muslim abolitionist movement. Slavery ended in Islamic lands under pressure from the West.
In fact, when the British government began pressuring other regimes to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century, the Sultan of Morocco was incredulous. “The traffic in slaves,” he noted, “is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam…up to this day.” He said that he was “not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect” and that the very idea that anyone would question its morality was absurd: “No one need ask this question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.”
Sadiq al-Mahdi, former prime minister of Sudan, would agree. On March 24, 1999, he wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, that “the traditional concept of JIHAD does allow slavery as a by-product.” And so slavery persists in some areas of the Islamic world. The BBC reported in December 2008 that “strong evidence has emerged of children and adults being used as slaves in Sudan’s Darfur region.”
Mauritanian human rights crusader Boubakar Messaoud asserted that in that country, people are born and bred as slaves: “A Mauritanian slave, whose parents and grandparents before him were slaves, doesn’t need chains. He has been brought up as a domesticated animal.” Three years later, nothing had changed. Messaoud explained in March 2007: “It’s like having sheep or goats. If a woman is a slave, her descendants are slaves.” Likewise in Niger, which formally abolished slavery only in 2003, slavery is a long-standing practice. Journalist and anti-slavery activist Souleymane Cisse explained that even Western colonial governments did nothing to halt the practice: “The colonial rulers preferred to ignore it because they wanted to co-operate with the aristocracy who kept these slaves.”
Islamic slavery has not been unknown even in the United States. When the Saudi national Homaidan Al-Turki was imprisoned for holding a woman as a slave in Colorado, he complained that “the state has criminalized these basic Muslim behaviors. Attacking traditional Muslim behaviors was the focal point of the prosecution.” Where did he get the idea that slavery was a “traditional Muslim behavior”? From the Qur’an.
“Yemen’s hidden slaves,” by Ibrahim Jadelkarim for AFP, December 19 (thanks to Lookmann):
Slavery is still being practiced in parts of Yemen, with men, women and children all falling victim to the practice. And according to local human rights activists, the government would prefer to simply sweep the problem under the carpet.
An investigation by the Wethaq Foundation, based on six months of field studies, has revealed 190 cases of slavery in three provinces in the north west of the country. The organisation also found evidence of people being bought and sold, and its report is raising questions about just how widespread slavery is in Yemen.
Yemeni Human Rights Watch had already documented its first case of enslavement in 2008, when activists found evidence of a slave being traded for around 2.000 euros. The case was discovered via local documents used to register real estate which included the phrase: “the slave Qenaf, son of slave Sara, was legally purchased”.
According to activist Najeeb Al-Saadi, it is not uncommon for individuals from the Arab Gulf to buy slaves in Yemen and then set them free. This, he says, is seen as a charitable act, in accordance with the teachings of Islam.
Al-Saadi also claims his group was able to free a slave called Naseem during its research. The terms of release included keeping the identity of the seller confidential and keeping the slave away from the media. Naseem has now been brought to the capital Sana’a, and the Foundation is searching for someone to adopt him.
Mohammed Naji Allaw is an activist and former member of parliament. He says most slaves were set free back in the 1960s after the September 26 Revolution. They remained hugely disadvantaged though because of their low economic status.
The new findings by the Wethaq Foundation are backed up by research conducted by the Al-Masdar website in 2010. This confirmed that local communities in the North-West are comfortable with slavery. For those enslaved the situation is grim. In interviews conducted by the website, the slaves said they have not received any education and believed they had little chance of improving their situation.
According to Al-Saadi, the Yemeni authorities have been happy for the slavery question to remain hidden, and the publication of his organisation’s report is raising awkward questions. When Al-Masdar previously wrote about the issue, the authorities” response was to deny slavery existed and to send troops to the North-West to intimidate those who had spoken out. Al-Saadi hopes his group’s new research will make it impossible for the issue to be swept aside again and that the government will be forced to take action.
Slavery is banned and all people are equal under Yemeni law, but experts say extreme poverty fuels the practice as poor people in rural areas are often totally dependent.
Yes, of course. Throw money at it. That will fix it. It fixes everything. It will change Qur’anic teaching on slavery.