Home > Islam, Religion > Slavery in the Bible and the Koran

Slavery in the Bible and the Koran

Slavery existed in ancient times. No one can deny that. There were slaves during the time of Christ and also during the time of Muhammad. Slavery was an acceptable social convention among ancient Christians and among Muslims. The Bible and the Koran laid down rules for regulating it and moral principles which would eventually lead to its abolition.

In the New Testament, there were commandments given both to masters and their slaves.

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Eph. 6:5-9, NASB)

Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven. (Col. 4:1, NASB)

These commandments were given to promote peace and justice between the slaves and their masters. Slavery was part of the culture and changing the culture would take time. Some passages can be found in the New Testament which encouraged the emancipation of slaves.

Here are two passages in Galatians:

For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ. (Gal. 1:10, NASB)

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1, NASB)

The first states that one should be a bond-servant of Christ and not a pleaser of men. The other one pertains to the slavery to the Old Testament ceremonial law, specifically the practice of circumcision. However, the principle derived from this verse is that one should prefer freedom over slavery. Another passage is in First Corinthians.

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (I Cor. 7:21-23, NASB)

Here, St. Paul clearly tells Christian slaves they should prefer freedom to slavery. If they have the opportunity to become emancipated, they should seize that opportunity.

In Tobit, there is the Silver Rule.

Do that to no man which thou hatest. (Tobit 4:15)

In the Gospels, there is the Golden Rule.

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. (Matt. 7:12, KJV)

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (Luke 6:31, KJV)

So, if one should prefer freedom to slavery and no one should wish to impose on another person a condition which one should hate (that is, slavery), then no one should purchase slaves except for the purpose of emancipating them. One should always put himself in the other’s place and think about what he would want for himself if he were in that person’s situation. A man who owns slaves should set them free because he himself desires that the slave have what he already has — freedom. He would be obeying the Golden Rule if he did so.

Another passage is in Philemon.

I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 10-16, NASB)

St. Paul hints to St. Philemon that he should grant St. Onesimus his freedom. So, although slavery existed in the first century, there were moral teachings that would eventually lead to its abolition.

In Orthodox Church tradition, there are Saints who freed their slaves. Christians used to purchase slaves for the purpose of evangelizing them. After they had been converted to Christ, they were set free. St. Basil and St. Macrina owned slaves. They came from a wealthy Christian family. Before they took monastic vows, they set their slaves free and treated them as equals.

In the Koran, there are also teachings which eventually would lead to the abolition of slavery. Slavery existed in seventh century Arabia. The Koran regulated an existing institution and laid down rules which, when practiced by the faithful Muslims, would eventually lead to its abolition.

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing. (2:177, Pickthall)

And such of your slaves as seek a writing (of emancipation), write it for them if ye are aware of aught of good in them, and bestow upon them of the wealth of Allah which He hath bestowed upon you. (Koran 24:33, Pickthall)

Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is! – (It is:) freeing the bondman. (Koran 90:12,13, Pickthall)

The emancipation of slaves was a penance that Muslims had to fulfill whenever they committed certain sins.

It is not for a believer to kill a believer unless (it be) by mistake. He who hath killed a believer by mistake must set free a believing slave, and pay the blood-money to the family of the slain, unless they remit it as a charity. If he (the victim) be of a people hostile unto you, and he is a believer, then (the penance is) to set free a believing slave. And if he cometh of a folk between whom and you there is a covenant, then the blood-money must be paid unto his folk and (also) a believing slave must be set free. (Koran 4:92, Pickthall)

Allah will not take you to task for that which is unintentional in your oaths, but He will take you to task for the oaths which ye swear in earnest. The expiation thereof is the feeding of ten of the needy with the average of that wherewith ye feed your own folk, or the clothing of them, or the liberation of a slave, and for him who findeth not (the wherewithal to do so) then a three days’ fast. This is the expiation of your oaths when ye have sworn; and keep your oaths. Thus Allah expoundeth unto you His revelations in order that ye may give thanks. (Koran 5:89, Pickthall)

Those who put away their wives (by saying they are as their mothers) and afterward would go back on that which they have said, (the penalty) in that case (is) the freeing of a slave before they touch one another. Unto this ye are exhorted; and Allah is Informed of what ye do. (Koran 58:3, Pickthall)

Sex slavery is forbidden. If a Muslim wanted to have sex with one of his slave girls, he had to marry her first. She could choose to preserve her chastity and not marry her master.

Force not your slave-girls to whoredom that ye may seek enjoyment of the life of the world, if they would preserve their chastity. (Koran 24:33, Pickthall)

And whoso is not able to afford to marry free, believing women, let them marry from the believing maids whom your right hands possess. (Koran 4:25, Pickthall)

And marry such of you as are solitary and the pious of your slaves and maid-servants. If they be poor, Allah will enrich them of His bounty. Allah is of ample means, Aware. (Koran 24:32, Pickthall)

Wed not idolatresses till they believe; for lo! a believing bondwoman is better than an idolatress though she please you; and give not your daughters in marriage to idolaters till they believe, for lo! a believing slave is better than an idolater though he please you. These invite unto the Fire, and Allah inviteth unto the Garden, and unto forgiveness by His grace, and expoundeth His revelations to mankind that haply they may remember. (Koran 4:32, Pickthall)

Marriage, according to the Koran, is contracted “by uttering a recognised form of words” and paying a dowry to the bride.

There is no sin for you in that which ye proclaim or hide in your minds concerning your troth with women. Allah knoweth that ye will remember them. But plight not your troth with women except by uttering a recognised form of words. And do not consummate the marriage until (the term) prescribed is run. Know that Allah knoweth what is in your minds, so beware of Him; and know that Allah is Forgiving, Clement. (Koran 2:235, Pickthall)

And give unto the women (whom ye marry) free gift of their marriage portions; but if they of their own accord remit unto you a part thereof, then ye are welcome to absorb it (in your wealth). (Koran 4:4, Pickthall)

And those of whom ye seek content (by marrying them), give unto them their portions as a duty. And there is no sin for you in what ye do by mutual agreement after the duty (hath been done). Lo! Allah is ever Knower, Wise. (Koran 4:24, Pickthall)

And whoso is not able to afford to marry free, believing women, let them marry from the believing maids whom your right hands possess. Allah knoweth best (concerning) your faith. Ye (proceed) one from another; so wed them by permission of their folk, and give unto them their portions in kindness, they being honest, not debauched nor of loose conduct. (Koran 4:25, Pickthall)

Muslims are permitted to marry Christians and Jews. They are “those who have received the Scripture” in the following verse.

This day are (all) good things made lawful for you. The food of those who have received the Scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. And so are the virtuous women of the believers and the virtuous women of those who received the Scripture before you (lawful for you) when ye give them their marriage portions and live with them in honour, not in fornication, nor taking them as secret concubines. Whoso denieth the faith, his work is vain and he will be among the losers in the Hereafter. (Koran 5:5, Pickthall)

Muslim men are forbidden to treat their Christian and Jewish wives like “secret concubines.” They must live with them in honor and not in fornication. Muslim men must live with their wives in kindness.

And live with them in kindness. (Koran 4:19, Sahih International)

The Koran also says:

And of His signs is this: He created for you helpmeets from yourselves that ye might find rest in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo! herein indeed are portents for folk who reflect. (Koran 30:21, Pickthall)

Having sex with a woman who is not one’s wife is forbidden. The word for this in Arabic is zina.

And come not near unto adultery. Lo! it is an abomination and an evil way. (Koran 17:32, Pickthall)

Lo! the doom of their Lord is that before which none can feel secure — and those who preserve their chastity save with their wives and those whom their right hands possess, for thus they are not blameworthy; But whoso seeketh more than that, those are they who are transgressors; (Koran 70:28-31, Pickthall)

The women “whom their right hands possess” in the preceding passage are slave girls whom the men had married. Remember a slave girl could choose to preserve her chastity and not marry her master. Therefore, both consensual and non-consensual sex with a woman who is not one’s wife is a sin. The Muslims call it haraam. Rape is therefore a sin according to the Koran.

Whenever a Muslim captured a married woman during war, he could marry her, but he must “seek her with his wealth in honest wedlock.” In other words, she must first become a Muslim of her own free will if she is an idolater (“There is no compulsion in religion.” Koran 2:256 “Wed not idolatresses until they believe.” Koran 4:32). Orthodox Christians and Jews are not idolaters according to the Koran. If they were, then Muslims would not be allowed to marry them. (Koran 5:5) Then, she must divorce her husband or her husband must be dead. Otherwise, the Muslim man would be committing adultery. (Koran 17:32) He, of course, must marry her by using “a recognised form of words” and paying her a dowry.

And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess. It is a decree of Allah for you. Lawful unto you are all beyond those mentioned, so that ye seek them with your wealth in honest wedlock, not debauchery. (Koran 4:24, Pickthall)

A divorced woman or a widowed woman cannot be forced to marry someone. She marries her next husband by agreement “between them in kindness.”

And when ye have divorced women and they reach their term, place not difficulties in the way of their marrying their husbands if it is agreed between them in kindness. This is an admonition for him among you who believeth in Allah and the Last Day. That is more virtuous for you, and cleaner. Allah knoweth; ye know not. (Koran 4:232, Pickthall)

Women, according to the Koran, have rights similar to those of men. A man can choose his wife and a woman can choose her husband.

And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them. Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Koran 2:228, Pickthall)

The Koran does not teach that a married woman who has been captured in war can be treated like a sex slave.

In modern times, all slavery in all its forms has been criminalized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. (Article 4, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

All predominantly Muslim nations who are members of the United Nations have accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although some have violated this international agreement from time to time. Despite the occasional violations, according to the Koran, Muslims are required to be faithful in their observance of treaties with other nations whether those other nations are Muslim or not.

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing. (2:177, Pickthall)

O ye who believe! fulfil (all) obligations. (Koran 5:1, Yusuf Ali)

Fulfil the covenant of Allah when ye have covenanted, and break not your oaths after the asseveration of them, and after ye have made Allah surety over you. Lo! Allah knoweth what ye do. (Koran 16:91, Pickthall)

Those who believed, and adopted exile, and fought for the Faith, with their property and their persons, in the cause of Allah, as well as those who gave (them) asylum and aid,- these are (all) friends and protectors, one of another. As to those who believed but came not into exile, ye owe no duty of protection to them until they come into exile; but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom ye have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) Allah seeth all that ye do. (Koran 8:72, Yusuf Ali)

In conclusion, both the Bible and the Koran have laid down principles which have resulted in the abolition of slavery. The Bible and the Koran have rules which regulated slavery when it existed as an acceptable institution in ancient times. There were principles, like the observance of the Silver Rule and the Golden Rule in the Bible and the encouragement to emancipate slaves in the Koran, which eventually led to the practice being criminalized internationally. People who practice slavery today are violating international law and the teachings and principles of two of the world’s largest religions: Islam and Christianity.

  1. March 12, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Slavery is not a cut and dried phenomenon as you make clear in your quotes.
    Some consider the monotony of nine to five as a form of slavery. We hear abour slave-labour in some nations.
    In a largely capitalist world we work to free ourselves of the necessity of work. Absolute freedom is freedom to do what we like when we like, only achieved by the few.
    As we grow older the body imposes its own slavery by its slow degeneration. The religious rejoice at the thought of the free soul breaking out of the prison of flesh, and then they put it back into eternal bondage engaging us in endless praise.
    Falling in love can be slavery to another human being and all it entails. So we live between the devil and the deep blue sea moving from one bondage to another. RIP

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