Are We Beyond Slavery? Not even close.

In the first of a series of articles, Qanit Takmeel puts forth the proposition that slavery, contrary to popular opinion, is very much alive. Rasoolullah’s (upon whom be peace) time in this duniya was limited, however, his ummah is expected to inherit the mission, and see it through, to fruition. Allah Most High says, “And we have not sent you [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.” So, it only behooves us as Muslims today, who claim that we love a man, whom we never met in person, more that our mothers, that we manifest our love for him (upon whom be peace) by establishing what he (upon whom be peace) sought to do, even before that fateful hug from Gabriel (upon whom be peace) – fight for social justice.

“Since when did you enslave people though they were born free of their mothers in freedom” – Amir al Mu’mineen Abu Hafs Umar ibn al-Khattab

lisa_kristine_human_slavery_14As I sat in the mosque with two Muslim brothers, waiting for Isha, I noticed that one of them referred to the other as Bilal. Upon enquiry, I was told, “Because he is black and Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) was black”. This hurt me, because a little more than half a decade ago, when I was flirting with the idea of Islam, it was Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) who was shown to me in my dream… I don’t remember his skin colour, but I do remember beautiful eyes and an even more beautiful voice proclaiming Allahu Akbar (God is great).

And here I was sitting in a company that had reduced the great companion of Rasoolullah (saw) to a mere skin colour. His struggles in the burning sands of Arabia, with a rock on his chest, with every whip taking part of his skin and exposing his flesh to the dry desert sand, his cries of Ahadun Ahad that reverberated through the streets of Makkah, that were to eventually become the battle cry in Badr, had been forgotten. To me, that distinguishment based on skin colour are remnants of slavery.

Merely chattel slavery is a thing of the past

However, the idea that one person is inferior to another, based on his or her birth, over which he or she had no choice over, is far more pervasive than the mere personal conversation that I recorded above. Among the greatest misconceptions of today in every society is that slavery is a thing of the past. What people mean by that, however, is that chattel slavery is a thing of the past. Slavery, in its core, warrants the belief that a person is inferior to the other, and therefore, partial or complete ownership over the person can be exercised by the “superior” person. In the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery of the United Nations, forced or compulsory labour, debt bondage, serfdom, servile marriage, child servitude, and trafficking were included in the definition of slavery.

I have heard firsthand accounts of farmers in India, taking loans from moneylenders at abnormally high interest rates (at times, 400%) who have been forced to sell their daughters or wives to the moneylenders, so that the moneylenders could make money off them. The issue of farmers committing suicide to escape money lenders, and at times the trauma of having to sell their daughters and wives to settle debts is not uncommon (1).

HumansOfNewYork-Pakistan-SlaveryHumans of New York in August ran a series of posts about brick kilns in Pakistan, and how men and women, for generations are forced into debt slavery. Forced marriages is common across many societies, developing and developed. The developing world is replete with stories of children being forced into bonded labour. Perhaps, the most pitiable of these situations is human trafficking, which according to the US State Department’s 2010 Human Trafficking Report, contributes to the disruption of 12.3 million lives each year. More than half the victims are women, followed by children, who are eventually forced into bonded labour or prostitution.

The situation worsens if one looks at some of the regions of the world torn up by civil strife or war. For example, close to 50,000 women who fled Iraq and entered Syria, were forced to become prostitutes to sustain themselves. In my personal conversations with Ahmed Elkhaldy, Director of Community Development at Mercy Without Limits, many Syrian widows, in desperation to feed their children have taken up prostitution in Jordan and Lebanon.

Ubiquitous in the Muslim world

While these social issues, which fall under the definition of slavery, exist worldwide, their presence in the Muslim world seems to be ubiquitous. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the kidnapping and sexual exploitation of women from Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, and other countries is commonplace. The inability of Muslim societies in a post-colonial era to have conversations in an academic manner, the taboo associated with such conversations in our societies, and social stigma (ref: 2 to 5) which prevents victims from speaking up are among the main reasons that have made these social injustices ubiquitous in the Muslim world.

This situation is ironical since among the maqasid of Islam is the elimination of slavery, and Rasoolullah (saw), via divine guidance had sought to eliminate each of the categories of slavery mentioned in the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. The hadiths about the rewards of foregoing a debt, about helping another to pay off his debt, about freeing a slave, and the like are many.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “A man would give loans to the people and he would say to his servant: If the debtor is in hardship you should forgive the debt that perhaps Allah will relieve us. So when he met Allah, then Allah relieved him.” Sahih Bukhari.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Whoever alleviates [the situation of] one in dire straits who cannot repay his debt, Allah will alleviate his lot in both this world and the Hereafter.” Sahih Muslim

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “Whoever frees a Muslim slave, Allah will save all the parts of his body from the (Hell) Fire as he has freed the body-parts of the slave.” Sahih Bukhari

Salman al-Farsi (ra) and Zaid ibn Haritha (ra) were, in effect, victims of human trafficking. Saffiyyah bin Huyyay (ra) and Juwayriyyah bint al-Harith (ra) could have ended up in the situation of the thousands of refugee women, but instead, Rasoolullah (saw) gave them the ultimate honour.

Allah Most High says, “Righteousness is in… giving wealth… for freeing slaves” in Sūrat al-Baqarah. Perhaps discussions among the ulema on the freeing of slaves in modern times, and whether freeing each one of these slaves would be considered a kaffara needs to be held. But on a more personal level, since slavery and consumerism have been undeniably linked (ref: 6 to 8), next time someone has the urge to throw away a plate of food, it would do well to remember that a farmer somewhere spent four months in growing that. Or before disposing off a perfectly fine electronic gadget, one should remember the factory worker in China. Or before buying clothes that we don’t need, we should remember our brothers and sisters in Bangladesh, working in inhumane conditions, to make that bit of clothing.


1. R. Schurman, Journal of Peasant Studies 2013, 40, 597.
2. R. Weitzer, Politics & Society 2007, 35, 447.
3. J. Doezema, Gender Issues 1999, 18, 23.
4. S. Huda, International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics 2006, 94, 374.
5. J. Chuang, Harvard Human Rights Journal 1998,
6. B. Heath, African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 1997, 4, 1.
7. Z. Bauman, Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Open University Press, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, 2005.
8. C. Parfait, The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852-2002, Ashgate, Aldershot, Hampshire, England, 2007.

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