Answered by Shaykh Irshaad Sedick
Why did slave women during the time of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace) not cover their hair even during prayer? The verse on hijab commands believing women to use their head-covering (khimar) also to cover their chest. I read that the slaves were exempted from covering their heads even during prayer. I heard that free Muslim women should cover their heads before their male slaves, but female slaves didn’t cover their heads in front of their male masters?
In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate.
Based on the fact that slavery no longer exists, which is completely aligned with the objectives of Sacred Law, this question is predominantly a theoretical one. When slavery existed, Sacred Law provided detailed rules for the fair treatment and eventual emancipation of slaves.
Sacred Law facilitated ease for slaves in many religious duties through dispensations that applied only to slaves in light of their difficult situation. The legal maxim upon which these dispensations are based is: “Difficult situations facilitate ease in Sacred Rulings (al-mashaqqa tajlib al-taysir).” [Suyuti, Al-Ashbah wa al-Naza’ir]
Lighter Laws for Difficult Situations
The spiritual status of a Muslim slave was identical to a Muslim free person, with some exemptions made for the slave. For example, Muslim slaves don’t need to attend Friday prayers or go for Hajj, even though both are mandatory for free Muslims. Even capital punishments for punishable crimes are reduced for slaves by half. The following verse demonstrates the fair treatment and the lightened laws applied to slavery (should it exist).
Allah says: “But if any of you cannot afford to marry a free believing woman, then ˹let him marry˺ a believing bondwoman possessed by one of you. Allah knows best ˹the state of˺ your faith ˹and theirs˺. You are from one another. So marry them with the permission of their owners, giving them their dowry in fairness if they are chaste, neither promiscuous nor having secret affairs. If they commit indecency after marriage, they receive half the punishment of free women. This is for those of you who fear falling into sin. But if you are patient, it is better for you. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Quran, 4:25]
Covering Nakedness (ʿAwra)
In light of making rulings easier for slaves, the ‘nakedness (‘awra)’ of female slaves is the same as that of free males, which consists of the area between the navel and the knees. [Misri, ‘Umdat al-Salik]
Since there was a constant need for the slave women to carry out chores and be around marriageable members of the opposite sex, obliging them to observe the same rules of hijab as free women would have caused them significant hardship. Therefore, out of His Mercy, Allah did not burden them with the same rules as that of free women, and Allah knows best.
Please note that the above dispensation would be confined to situations with no fear of “temptation and trouble (fitna).” If there is such fear that could lead to sin and evil, then those means must be eliminated and slave women must be ordered to wear the same hijab to ward off such evil, and Allah knows best.
The English terms “slave” and “slavery” carry the nuances of meaning that history, especially western history, added. A standard English dictionary definition of a slave 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 other people 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 roots 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 slaves, who exist as the property of others. [Brown, Slavery and Islam: What is Slavery?]
Sacred Law on Slavery
The most crucial point to note is that “slavery” in a Sacred Law context 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 slaves.
Islam Does Not Encourage Slavery
Islam does not encourage slavery at all, but it does offer detailed laws on the fair treatment of slaves, should it exist. At the core, Islam does not encourage slavery but encourages the emancipation of slaves. Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate, encourages taking the difficult path as opposed to the easy-way-out: “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 near relationship. Or a needy person in misery. [Quran, 90:12-16]
Wisdom in Laws Regarding the Treatment of Slaves
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]
How Does Islam Encourage Slave Emancipation?
If and when slavery exists, Islamic Sacred Law proceeds to emancipate the slaves 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
There are several verses in the Qur’an from which the scholars of Sacred Law derived various laws about the treatment of slaves. Still, overwhelmingly the general instruction of the Qur’an is to free slaves 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]
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 set of principles for fair treatment, rights, emancipation, and reintegration of slaves 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 pursuing his Master’s degree in the study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg. He has a keen interest in healthy living and fitness.