How Are Enslaved Women Treated under Muslim Rule?

Shafi'i Fiqh

Answered by Shaykh Farid Dingle


Is it true that enslaved women didn’t have to wear the hijab in Muslim lands? Does that mean that they were not worthy of respect?


Enslaved people were given fundamental human rights like any other human and never treated like animals.

That said, a clear status difference is visible in many discussions of Islamic law. One such difference was those enslaved women did not have to cover their hair in prayer or on the street.

The detailed answer is discussed below.

Slavery and Concubinage in Historical Context

Both slavery and concubinage existed and were practiced throughout the world for millennia before Islam, and neither Old nor New Testaments forbade either form of slavery.

No clear example than the case of Our Mother Hajar, who was the concubine of Prophet Abraham. [Genesis 16; Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Mad] In the New Testament, we find, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” [Eph 6:5-8, among many other examples]

Both slavery and concubinage were considered legal and practiced throughout many countries until the 20th century. Islam merely put a moral framework around it, creating more avenues for the emancipation of enslaved people and limiting how freemen could become enslaved.

Respect and Mercy

The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Indeed, your brothers are your servants that Allah has to give you authority over. So whoever has his brother under him, let him feed him from what he eats and dress him as he dresses. Do not ask them to do what they cannot; if you ask them to do what they cannot, then help them.” [Bukhari]

He (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘Three people will have two rewards: those of the People of the Book …and a man who had an enslaved woman with whom he would sleep, whom he raised and educated well, and whom he then set free and married. [Bukhari; Muslim]

And on his deathbed, he (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “The prayer! The prayer! Fear Allah concerning what your hands possess [enslaved people].” [Abu Dawud]

It is clear from the hadiths mentioned above that Islam demanded good treatment of enslaved people and that free Muslims were to take care of them as humans.

Slaves as Family Members

Many Sharia rules and sayings of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) indicate that an enslaved person is part of the family.

When two women got into a fight that resulted in one of them losing her baby, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) judged that a prized slave, male or female, should be the blood money. [al-Shafi’i; Bukhari]

A prized family member (the baby) was lost, so another beloved family member (the enslaved person) had to be given in its place.

It is also plain that an enslaved person was not prized just because of his value but rather because of the emotional tie to the family. When the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was asked which enslaved people should be set free, he said, ‘The highest of them in price, and dearest of them to their families.’ (Bukhari and Muslim)

Furthermore, setting a slave free did not mean that the enslaved person was no longer part of the family: the family loyalty [al-wala] was still there. When some people tried to buy the family loyalty [al-wala] of Barira (Allah be well pleased with her), the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The family loyalty is only for the manumitter.” [Muslim]

He also said, “Family loyalty (al-wala) is flesh and blood, like flesh and blood of kinship: he cannot be sold or given to someone else.” [Shafi’i; Ibn Hibban]

This family loyalty meant that the freed slave was part of one’s clan such that the men of that clan would pay the blood money should he/she accidentally kill someone, inherit from him if he/she had no other heirs, and be the guardian [wali] in her marriage if she had no other guardian. [Nawawi, Minhaj al-Talibin]

From all the preceding, the idea that an enslaved person or concubine was merely property is blatantly false. Instead, they were part of the family, and that had emotional and legal repercussions that transcended their mere market value.

Dignity of Women

Sexual dignity and lineage are exalted in the Sacred Law. Their preservation is considered one of the five universal goals of Islamic Law. [Shatibi, al-Muwafaqat] This is irrespective of race, religion, or whether or not someone is free or not.

For this reason, when a man took a concubine in Islamic history, he was forbidden to sleep with her until he was sure she was not bearing anyone else’s child. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Let no pregnant woman be slept with until she gives birth, and no other woman until she menstruates once.” [Tirmidhi]

He (Allah bless him and give him peace) also commanded that any existing family relations not be torn. “Whoever separates a child from his mother, Allah will separate him from his loved ones on the Day of Rising.” [Ahmad; Abu Dawud]

So too, the second caliph Umar (Allah be well pleased with him) said, “Any enslaved woman who bears her master a child may not be sold, gifted or inherited. He may enjoy her, and when he dies, she is free.” [Malik] This gave the mother stability, security, and ultimately freedom.


As for wearing a hijab, this was only ever an obligation upon free Muslim women. So non-Muslim women and enslaved people were excused. This was not to degrade enslaved people but to honor free Muslim women. Nor does it mean that she can walk around naked, but rather that he covers what any man would have to cover.

The hadith mentioned in the question regarding the Our Mother Safiyya and whether or not she would be commanded to wear a hijab is very clear. [Bukhari; Muslim]

Ibn al-Mundhir states that there is a high consensus that an enslaved woman does not have to wear a hijab. [Ibn al-Mundhir, al-Ijma] This is what was clearly observed among the Early Muslims. [Ibn Qudama, al-Mughni] Ibn Habib, a very early Andalusian Maliki, observed that even strikingly beautiful slave girls would not wear a hijab in Medina and covered their breasts only now and then. [Ibn Habib, Adab al-Nisa]

However, the late Shafii’s held that this only applied to her prayer and that she had to cover in the street for fear of being a temptation for men. [Khatib al-Shirbini, Mughni al-Muhtaj]

Notwithstanding, the majority opinion remained that slave girls do not have to cover, which is even observable in countries where slavery continues illegally: practicing Muslim women not wearing the hijab and only loosely covering their breasts because they were not free women.

Buying a Slave

As we mentioned, slavery was not an Islamic invention nor encouraged by Islam. It was just a fact of the world, like money and power.

Slaves, male and female, had always been bought and sold, and concubines were bought and sold. But as mentioned above, The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) forbade any intimate relations with a concubine before it was clear that she was not pregnant. [Tirmidhi]

The citation in the original question mentioned a scenario where some traders were looking at a slave girl and touching her. The translation given was “kissing.” This is an obvious mistake. I referred to the very print referenced, and it is clear that yaqlibun [turning over] is not [yuqabbilun].

The correct understanding is that they were looking at her and touching her body as one would do when buying an animal or car: treating her as an item of sale, not a sex toy for all to enjoy.

When Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) arrived, he merely confirmed what they were doing and made it clear that one could touch her to see if she was healthy. If one reads the rest of the chapter, it is evident that the Early Muslims discouraged looking or feeling without the intent of purchasing, but that they did allow feeling for such a reason. [Musannaf Ibn Abi Shayba]

One would also find that the Early Muslims followed the Prophetic injunction not to expose or touch her private area (navel to knee). [Abu Dawud; Musannaf Ibn Abi Shayba]


Enslaved people, male and female, were given rights in Islam that protected their lineage and dignity, but they did not have the same status, rights, or obligations as freemen.

One such difference was that slave women only had to cover when men did and were not honored in the same way that free Muslim women were. This is very important when we consider what the hijab is: honor and adornment, not a restriction.

I pray this helps.

[Shaykh] Farid Dingle
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years he has developed a masterful ability to craft lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language.