Was Slavery In The Christian World The Same In Islam?
Not too long ago I was confronted by someone on one of my previous articles Fighting Child Slavery in the Islamic World in that Christians equally approved the practice of slavery as many Muslims still do in the Islamic world.
As I detailed in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up, this issue is not uncontested in Sacred Scripture, the New Testament in particular, which not only acknowledged the institution of slavery but instructed slaves to be obedient to their masters “just as [they] would obey Christ.” —Ephesians 6: 5
There cannot be any denying that the early Christian church accepted the reality of the Roman institution of slavery as a tolerable wrong, as can be concluded by Saint Paul’s counseling slaves to obey their masters rather than rebel. Two things, however, must be stated.
The first is that slaves in both Old and New Testaments were not considered property, as with Islam, for they were neither forced into inhumane living conditions nor were they meant to be used for sexual gratification. Just as it was for Aristotle, slavery according to the sharia is not only legitimate but natural to some people, specifically non-Muslims who are kidnapped or captured in raids.
Second, there was a moral objective in that despite its juridical legitimacy, those who were enslaved were to be seen as equals in the eyes of God: “There is no Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” —Galatians 3: 28
From this principle, aside from the fact that slaves could be part of Christ’s evangelization, St. Paul does not draw any political conclusions. It was not his desire, as it was not in his power, to ensure Christian equality either by force or by revolt. Christianity accepts society as it is, though it does not concur with injustice, which is why it called for its transformation through individual souls.
Slavery Justified in Islam
The Prophet Muhammad, during the course of installing a tripartite paradigm of Islamic slavery via his military campaigns and raids against the inhabitants of Arabia, enslaved many of the Semitic peoples of the region. The prerequisite for being enslaved in Islam, whether it was for domestic labor or sexual exploitation, was not based on race, as it was with the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the New World and West Africa, but on being a non-Muslim war captive. It is estimated that between 650 and 1900, a minimum of eighteen million Africans had been enslaved by Arab slave traders; over one million Europeans were equally subjugated by the Muslim world during the same period.
There are numerous Quranic and hadith verses that justify and encourage slavery as a blessing and a profitable enterprise:
- And marry the unmarried among you and the righteous among your male slaves and female slaves. If they should be poor, Allah will enrich them from His bounty, and Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing. —Sura 24, Verse 64
- O Prophet, We have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and those your right hand possesses [slave girls] what Allah has return to you as booty. —Sura 33, Verse 50
- Narrated Jabir: A man manumitted a slave and he had no other property than that, so the Prophet cancelled the manumission (and sold the slave for him). No’aim bin Al-Nahham bought the slave from him. — Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 42, Hadith 598
Ongoing Slavery in the Islamic World
Muslim countries, under the impetus of the West, have collectively banned slavery from their constitutions or civil codes. Yet the horrendous commerce of human beings still continues in numerous Islamic states:
- Pakistan, for example, ranks third in the world in the practice of slavery. According to the executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission, Hyacinth Peter, part of the Pakistani observance includes debt bondage, forced marriages, trafficking, and the exploitation of children.
- In Libya, since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Muslim smugglers have taken numerous Africans as slaves. According to the International Organisation for Migration, West African migrants who are seeking to escape repression are captured, bought, and sold in garages and car parks. There have been reports from Libya about organized slave markets and a few years ago, a case of slavery was uncovered in Tanzania, according to Lodhi. “A mine was found in a remote area where 50 to 60 boys were forced to work. They were not paid and lived in a camp guarded by armed men.”
- In Nigeria not just females but men and boys are also captured for physical labor and sexual exploitation. Just a few days ago, police raided an Islamic school in Katsina State — the northwestern home state of President Muhammadu Buhari — and freed nearly seventy men and boys. Lawal Ahmad, a 33-year-old man who was held captive, said he witnessed sexual assault, beatings and the death of other captives during his two years there.
CLICK BELOW TO WATCH VIDEO DETAILING SLAVERY IN NIGERIA
- In Saudi Arabia, in order to make Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s dream of Vision 2030 happen — an economic project to harness natural resources, outside of oil — abusive labor sponsorship system persists, effectively keeping foreign workers at the mercy of their Saudi sponsors and preventing expansion of the foreign workforce. Expatriate workers do not have the right to enter and exit the country freely, and sponsors have the ability to call for their deportation just on a whim. They are not only subject to forced deportation, harassment, and sexual assault, but they are denied their wages, labor rights, and even the right to return home. Some workers have been arrested false accusations and held in Saudi prisons for months, or sometimes years, without fair trials.
Distinction in Christianity
The mere fact that there was a tolerance of slavery on the part of early Church did not mean that it advocated its practice. In fact, the preaching of many Church Fathers against slavery was part of the Christian teaching that influenced civil legislation down through the centuries of Christendom to abrogate it. St. Augustine described slavery as being against God’s intention and resulting from sin.
By the early 4th century, the manumission in the church, a form of emancipation, was added in the roman law. Slaves could be freed by a ritual in a church, performed by a christian bishop or priest. It is not known if baptism was required before this ritual. Subsequent laws, as the Novella 142 of Justinian, gave to the bishops the power to free slaves.
Although representatives of the Catholic church have at times publicly stated that servitude (and not slavery) — the Latin documents use servus = servant and not schiavus = slave; the servus (serf) in the Middle Ages enjoyed all his personal rights except the right to leave the land he cultivated and the right to freely dispose of his property — as a just punishment, it was in reaction to those who were caught aiding the Saracens’ slaughter of Christians. We also know how fifteenth-century Iberian legal traditions, for example, regulated and delineated who was enslaveable and who was not. That being said, just like the early abolition movement in America began to take form, Roman Catholic statements also became increasingly vehement against slavery during this era.
The very existence of these many papal teachings during this particular period of history is a strong indication that from the viewpoint of the Magisterium, there must have developed a moral problem of a different sort than any previously encountered.
On January 13, 1435, Eugene IV issued from Florence the Papal Bull — a type of public decree, letters patent, or charter issued by a pope — Sicut Dudum. Addressed to Bishop Ferdinand, located at Rubicon on the island of Lanzarote, this document condemned the enslavement of the black natives of the newly colonized Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The Pope stated that after being converted to the faith or promised baptism, many of the inhabitants were taken from their homes and enslaved:
“They have deprived the natives of their property or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery…. These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.”
In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) condemned of slavery generally; in 1815 Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) demanded of the Congress of Vienna the suppression of the slave trade; in the proclamation of the canonization of Peter Claver, one of the most illustrious adversaries of slavery, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) branded the summum nefas (supreme villainy) of the slave traders.
Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, ranging from Arabia to North Africa in the west and to what is now Pakistan and Indonesia in the east. Some Islamic states, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, and the Sokoto caliphate [Nigeria], must be termed slave societies because slaves there were very important numerically as well as a focus of the polities’ energies.
How Christian slavers used the Bible, as in the Confederate South, to advocate slavery is one thing. The advocacy of slavery in Islam is a completely different issue, for it has always been an essential part of Islamic law and tradition, despite the fact that Islamic states showed signs of adaptability to Western civilization in outlawing it.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.