The First Part: Eliminating the Sources of Slavery
Throughout the ages, there have been numerous factors and causes of slavery. Debtors who were unable to pay off their debts, and prisoners of war, landed up as slaves. Power and strength provided a license for procuring slaves. Powerful nations would send their forces armed with various weapons to the backward nations of the African continent and other such regions, subjugate their inhabitants into captivity, transferring them in groups, by means of ships, to the markets of Asian and European countries.
Islam put its foot down upon these means and approved only one instance for slavery – prisoners of war. In addition, even this was not obligatory; it granted permission that, in accordance with the general welfare and expediencies they could be set free, either unconditionally or after payment of ransom. In those days there were no prisons in which the prisoners of war could be held until their affairs were sorted out and hence, there lay no alternative except to retain them, by distributing them amongst the families as slaves.
It is self-evident that when these circumstances change, there exists no reason for the leader of the Muslims to adhere to the ruling of slavery in connection with the prisoners of war; rather, he is at liberty to set them free by way of favor or ransom. In this regard, Islam has authorized the leader of the Muslims to take into consideration the general welfare and all-round interests and then chooses the course of action necessary. In this manner, the causes leading to further slavery were almost completely eliminated.
The Second Part: Opening the Door towards Freedom
Islam has chalked out an elaborate program for the freedom of slaves, and had the Muslims acted upon it, it would not have been very long before all the slaves had become free and absorbed within the Islamic society.
The main points of this program
- One of the eight instances in which zakat can be expended in Islam is purchasing slaves and setting them free. In this manner, a perpetual and continuous budget from the Public Treasury has been allocated for this purpose and which shall continue till the complete freedom of all slaves is achieved.
- In pursuance of the objective, provisions exist in Islam which permit the slaves to enter into an agreement with their masters and purchase their freedom by paying them from the wages which they earn (in Islamic jurisprudence, an entire chapter titled Mukatabah, has been devoted to this issue).
- Freeing slaves is regarded as one of the most important acts of worship in Islam and the Infallibles (AS) always led the way in this issue, to the extent that in connection with Imam Ali (AS) it has been recorded that:
أَعتَقَ أَلفاً مِنْ كَدِّ يَدِهِ.
“He freed a thousand slaves by means of his wages (which he used to earn).”
- The Infallibles G used to free slaves at the slightest of excuses so that it serves as an example for the others, to the extent that when one of the slaves of Imam Baqir (AS) performed a good deed, the Imam (AS) said:
فَاذْهَبْ فَأَنْتَ حُرٌّ فَإِنِّي أَكْرَهُ أَنْ أَسْتَخْدِمَ رَجُلاً مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ.
“Go, you are now free for I do not approve of a person from the inmates of Paradise to be my slave (and serve me).” It has been narrated in connection with Imam Sajjad (AS) that once, his servant was in the process of pouring water over his (AS) head when the vessel slipped from his hand and injured the Imam (AS). The Imam (AS) looked up at the servant whereupon, the servant recited:
وَ الْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ
“…and those who restrain (their) anger.”
Hearing this, the Imam (AS) said: I have restrained my anger. The servant recited further:
وَ الْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ
“…and pardon other people.”
The Imam (AS) said: May Allah forgive you. The servant continued:
وَ اللٌّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِـنِينَ
“…and Allah loves the doers of good (to others)”
whereupon the Imam (AS) said: ‘Go. For the sake of Allah, you are (now) free.’
- In some of the traditions it has been stated that the slaves, after a period of seven years, would become free automatically, as we read in a tradition that Imam as-sadiq (AS) said: One, who is a believer, becomes free after seven years – irrespective of whether his master approves of it or not. It is not permissible to extract services from a slave, who is a believer, after seven years.
In this very chapter there is a tradition from the Noble Prophet (s.a.w) wherein he (s.a.w) says:
مَا زَالَ جَبْرَئِيلُ يُوصِينِي بِالْمَمْلُوكِ حَتَّى ظَنَنْتُ أَنَّهُ سَيَضْرِبُ لَهُ أَجَلاً يُعْتَقُ فِيهِ.
“Jibra`il used to make recommendations to me, with respect to the slaves, so often that I was given to suppose that he would shortly stipulate a time-period after which they would (automatically) become free.”
- If a person, who owns a slave in partnership, liberates him in the ratio of his share in the partnership, he is obliged to purchase the remaining part of the slave and liberate him fully.
Moreover, if a person who owns a slave fully, frees a portion of the ownership, this freedom permeates into the other portions too and the slave becomes completely free, automatically!
- Whenever one becomes the owner of one’s father, mother, grand-fathers, sons, paternal and maternal uncles and aunts, brothers, sisters or nephews, they immediately (and automatically) become free.
- If a master fathers a child by way of his slave-girl, it is not permissible for him to sell her and she must be later set free by utilizing the son’s share of the inheritance.
This issue became a cause for the freedom of a great number of slave-girls, since many of the slave-girls were like wives for their masters and had children from them.
- In Islam, expiation of many of the sins has been stipulated by freeing slaves (expiation for unintentional murder, intentional abandonment of fasts, and for (breaking an) oath are some examples of this).
- Some exceptionally harsh punishments have been singled out (by Islam) whereby if a master were to subject his slave to any of these, the slave would automatically become free.