Can a Free Non-Muslim Woman Offer Herself as a Slave with Whom Sexual Intercourse Is Permissible to a Muslim Man?

Answered by Shaykh Irshaad Sedick

Question 

The ruler of Egypt gifted Maria al-Qibtiyya. How did she become enslaved, and did the King accept the message of Islam? Is this proof that enslaved women with whom sexual intercourse is permissible don’t necessarily have to be concubines that result from doing Jihad? Can a free non-Muslim woman offer herself as an enslaved person with whom sexual intercourse is permissible to a Muslim man?

Answer

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate.

I don’t know of reliable sources documenting exactly how Mariyya Al-Qibtiyya (Allah be pleased with her) became a slave. Still, this information is irrelevant as Sacred Law unanimously prohibits slavery except in one instance of legitimate warfare. Free women cannot offer themselves as enslaved people, and Allah knows best.

Based on the fact that slavery no longer exists, which is completely aligned with the objectives of Sacred Law, this question is predominantly theoretical. When slavery existed, it was permissible for men to have sexual relations with their female slaves. The relationship was quite similar to husbands and wives, but this needs some context and explanation to discern possible wisdom in the law.

Context

The English terms “slave” and ‘slavery” carry the nuances of meaning that history, especially western history, added. A standard English dictionary definition of an enslaved person is ‘someone legally owned by another person and forced to work for that person without pay.’ This notion of slavery reducing human beings to things owned by others has been a significant theme in how the West understood the concept. It was crucial to how abolitionists understood slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the movement to end slavery began. But the roots of this definition go further back to the origins of Western heritage. They lie in Roman law, which divided people into two categories: the free (a free person has the ‘natural right’ to ‘do as he pleases unless prevented by the force of law’) and enslaved people, who exist as the property of others. [Jonathan Brown, Slavery and Islam]

Sacred Law on Slavery

Before discussing the laws about slavery in Islam, the most crucial point to note is that it does not carry the exact nuances of meaning as the English definition of ‘slave,’ and one should instead understand it in light of the Sacred Law regarding the treatment of enslaved people.

Islam Does Not Encourage Slavery

Islam does not encourage slavery at all, but it does offer detailed laws on the fair treatment of enslaved people, should it exist. At the core, Islam does not encourage slavery but encourages the emancipation of enslaved people. Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate, encourages taking the difficult path instead of the easy one: “And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass. It is the freeing of a slave. Or the feeding on a day of severe hunger. An orphan of a close relationship. Or a needy person in misery. [Quran, 90:12-16]

Protecting Women From Violence and Harm

Islam limited how people could enslave people to only the case of legitimate warfare. Often in combat, the healthy males of an opposing side may have been killed, and the women among them would be without providers (in a world wherein males are usually the breadwinners). In this case, the bereaved women and children may have been raped, tortured, and killed – as is prevalent throughout history – and left to fend for themselves. Or, they can be protected from this harm by being taken by the victorious army and cared for as they would their wives.

Sacred Law’s Approach

The third option is what Sacred Law advocates, along with reintegration into the newly-formed Muslim society through emancipation or familial integration wherein the ‘master’ has a child with his concubine, leading to their freedom.

Unlike Roman slavery, where the status of a child’s mother determined its status, the prominent position in the Shari’a was that a slave woman who gave birth to her master’s child became free when her master died, as did her child. Until then, he could not sell her. Far from being natally alienated from her child, its status as the child of a freeman ensured the mother’s freedom. [Jonathan Brown, Slavery and Islam]

Why is it Permissible?

The Quran permits marriage between free and slave Muslim men and women [Quran, 2:221], and it allows the male owner of a female slave to take her as a concubine slave (surriyya) that is a female slave whose master has a sexual relationship with her. Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate, says: “And they who guard their private parts. Except from their wives or those their right hands possess [concubine slaves], for indeed, they will not be blamed.” [Quran, 23:45-6]

Wisdom in Laws Regarding the Treatment of Enslaved People

The essence of slave treatment in Islam is in the widely transmitted hadith in which the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace) says: “Your slaves are your brethren, whom Allah has put under your control. Feed them what you eat, clothe them from what you wear, and don’t burden them with work that overwhelms them. If you give them more than they can do, then assist them.” [Agreed Upon]

One possible wisdom in the permission (for man to have intercourse with his concubine slave) is that she benefits from some of the rights of a wife. Along with fair and dignified treatment, the concubine slave’s basic and financial needs are generally her master’s responsibility, thus resembling the marital relationship, and Allah knows best.

How Does Islam Encourage Slave Emancipation?

If and when slavery exists, Islamic Sacred Law proceeds to emancipate the enslaved people over time. Gradual integration into society has historically proven to be more successful than the immediate abolishment of slavery, that historically led to war (as in the history of the United States).

Sacred Law Seeks to Abolish Slavery

Several verses in the Quran from which the scholars of Sacred Law derived various laws about the treatment of enslaved people. Still, overwhelmingly the general instruction of the Quran is to free enslaved people either as a voluntary good deed for the sake of Allah or in fulfillment of several different expiations for various sins or crimes.

One example of this is that Allah says: “And those who pronounce ‘an oath to never sleep with’ (zihar) their wives and then [wish to] go back on what they said – then [there must be] the freeing of a slave before they touch one another. That is what you are admonished thereby, and Allah is Acquainted with what you do.” [Quran, 58:3]

Conclusion

In conclusion, we reiterate that slavery no longer exists and that this is well-aligned with the objectives of Islamic Sacred Law. When slavery existed, Islam provided the best principles for fair treatment, rights, emancipation, and reintegration of enslaved people back into society. Unfortunately, the practices related to slavery have historically stained the word ‘slavery’ with many negative nuances of meaning that had no bearing in the Sacred Law context. These nuances often make their way into contemporary misconceptions, which seek to superimpose them onto the Sacred Laws concerning slavery. Islam is free from such evils, and Allah knows best.

I pray this is of benefit.

[Shaykh] Irshaad Sedick
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Shaykh Irshaad Sedick was raised in South Africa in a traditional Muslim family. He graduated from Dar al-Ulum al-Arabiyyah al-Islamiyyah in Strand, Western Cape, under the guidance of the late world-renowned scholar, Shaykh Taha Karaan. 

Shaykh Irshaad received Ijaza from many luminaries of the Islamic world, including Shaykh Taha Karaan, Mawlana Yusuf Karaan, and Mawlana Abdul Hafeez Makki, among others.

He is the author of the text “The Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal: A Hujjah or not?” He has served as the Director of the Discover Islam Centre and Al Jeem Foundation. For the last five years till present, he has served as the Khatib of Masjid Ar-Rashideen, Mowbray, Cape Town.

Shaykh Irshaad has thirteen years of teaching experience at some of the leading Islamic institutes in Cape Town). He is currently building an Islamic online learning and media platform called ‘Isnad Academy’ and has completed his master’s degree in the study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg. He has a keen interest in healthy living and fitness.