America just celebrated Juneteenth–a federal holiday that celebrates the day that African American slaves learned of their freedom in 1965. The holiday began among Texas slaves, but is now a federal holiday celebrated across the United States. Although slavery was officially abolished in the United States by 1965, different forms of slavery persisted throughout the 19th and 20th centuries through indentured servitude, corruption, and oppression of Black communities.
In light of the Juneteenth celebrations happening in the United States, let's take a quick look at Islam’s relationship with slavery. What does Islam say about slavery? And how were slaves to be treated?
While slavery existed in the United until only a century and a half ago, Islam had outlawed slavery fully over a millenia and a half ago. That's right, over 1,500 years ago Islam made clear that slavery is wrong, abhorrent, and should be abolished.
Firstly, let’s understand that Allah (SWT) created us differently on purpose, the that we are all precious and important.
“… and we have made you tribes and sub-tribes that you may know one another.”
(Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.14)
No one is greater than anyone else because of his skin, ethnicity, origin, wealth, or health. We are all equal in the eyes of God, and the only thing that makes one superior is his devotion, kindness, and piety.
As Mohammad (PBUH) him began the spiritual and political leader of Arab Muslims, he made a clear ban against slavery, and encouraged people to free their slaves. Any slave that came into Mohammad’s possession, he freed immediately.
Muslims would also marry freed slaves to give them social protection, and give them a life of freedom with full marital and household rights.
The freeing of slaves was regarded as the high-mountain
road that led to heights of divine nearness
(Surah Al-Balad, Ch.90: V.13-14).
The Prophet (PBUH) prepared both slaves and early Muslims for oppression that would inevitably come. He taught them how to deal with injustice, and how to live through oppression while creating incremental change.
“You will see injustice, you will witness your rights suppressed and see others
given preference over you.” When his followers were asked how they should
respond to such injustice, the Prophet replied, “Give your leaders their rights,
and then ask God for yours.”
(Sahih al-Bukhari, Book of Afflictions, Hadith 7052)
Mohammad the Prophet worked among societies he encountered to put an end to slavery. He did so through diplomacy, education, and bridge-building–avoiding war and violence. He helped enslavers understand that slavery was abbhorent. Likewise, he empowered his society to elevate former slaves in society–bridging the gap, and creating systems of equality.