The Problem of Slavery and viewing Islam through a Western lens

It is currently 183 years since the British Empire abolished slavery (1834). The slavery prevalent during the British Empire, ‘chattel slavery’, was ended due to a combination of the rising difficulty to keep growing slave populations from revolting against their plantations owners (The Great Jamaican Slave Revolt 1831), increasing industrialisation and mechanisation brought about by the industrial revolution, and the constant campaigning by Protestant Christian lobbyists belonging to particular sects of Christianity (despite the Bible not outlawing Roman slavery).

After 1834, Muslims begun to face the question from Western Europeans about the issue of slavery. This polemic wasn’t taken too seriously until colonialism and slowly became more acute during the 20th century. If slavery is morally wrong, why didn’t Islam or the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) outlaw it during their time?

The typical answer from many Muslims is that the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) tried to phase out slavery. However, if this line of argument is used, the response would be ‘was the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) powerless?’ and ‘Is Islam not yet complete or wasn’t able to be perfected in his time?’.

At the other end of the spectrum, are Muslims who despise appearing to be apologetic, and simply retort that slavery isn’t morally wrong.

However, what people don’t realise, is that Muslims have inadvertently bought into Western descriptions of terms, and allowed Western historians and philosophers to fit Islam and Muslim history into their narratives. This narrative depicts Islam as being morally inferior to Western political philosophies, and ultimately, challenges the claim of perfection upheld by revelation itself. This narrative can only end in the Secularisation of Islam, and therefore the renouncement of Islam altogether. However, this narrative is based upon false premises that were assumed by Westerners – and unwittingly adopted by Muslims.

Westerners who had visited other civilisations up until 20th century, had regularly described any form of legally obligated work between people not for money, and who were not family members, as ‘slavery’ in its descriptions, despite the fact that these descriptions don’t accurately fit what’s being described.

For example, Ancient Greeks writing about the Archaemid Persian empire, described them as having slaves, despite the fact that the ‘Barda-dari-i’ were more akin to indentured servants (semi-free citizens).

Likewise the Chinese Booi-aha, of the Manchu-Qing dynasty were more devoted bond-soldiers, rather than slave-soldiers (the difference being that they fought for their lords as a matter of duty, despite not being paid for it). Fortunately, the Japanese soldier caste, Samurai, were saved from this description, despite their name coming from the original Japanese word ‘Saburau’, to mean ‘he who serves beside’. The Egyptian Mamluks weren’t so fortunate to escape the (Western) European designation of ‘slave soldiers’. As I pointed out in a recent lecture, the Arabic words ‘Raqabah’, ‘Jariya’, ‘Ghulam’ and ‘mamluk’ are literally translated as ‘servants’, rather than ‘slaves’. For those who don’t know the difference between the English word ‘servant’ and ‘slave’, please ask your local civil servant who works for the civil service. Or a politician, who is supposed to be a ‘public servant’.

To put this into further perspective, here is a counter-example. Say a Chinese or Muslim explorer came to Western Europe during the Feudal era, and described Serfs (peasants who had to work the land of lords, or be thrown out and most likely starve to death) or even Feudal lords and their soldiers (who were obliged to fight for the king upon demand – without payment), simply as ‘Slaves’. No Western European history would take that seriously, since it doesn’t fit the description of those European groups of people.

Perhaps a modern example: would Westerners accept the description of a Muslim politician publicly describing the population of the West as ‘debt-slaves’ (i.e. a slave who was sold into slavery because they had a debt they couldn’t pay), because most people are in debt, and have to work to service the accruing interest (riba) on that debt (which is pretty much working for nothing) to their ‘masters’ the banks or face losing their house, access to good food and cleaning amenities? No, of course not, because no matter how much it resembled ancient debt-slavery, they would insist that the resemblance isn’t perfect, and so it would be inaccurate to use the word ‘slavery’. A response I would agree with (to an extent).

Western concepts of Slavery, whether ancient (Greek or Roman) or post-enlightenment (North American and South American colonies), were institutions where the slaves were never regarded as ‘persons’ by the law, and were viewed exclusively as property. These slaves could be maltreated by their ‘owners’, because laws are generally designed to protect property and property-owners from others, not from themselves. However, whenever the word ‘slave’ is used, it conjures up in the Western mind this very idea – not the Chinese idea of Booi-aha, or the Persian idea of Barda-dari-i, or the Japanese idea of the Samurai.

Whenever a Muslim uses the word ‘slave’ (in the English language), the Western European mind projects it’s own meaning onto that word. And why wouldn’t they? After all, the word ‘Slave’ is not an Arabic word, it is an English word. Yet strangely, many Muslims eager to respond to Secularist polemics against Islam, shoot themselves in the foot, and use the wrong word to describe the Islamic concept of ‘Raqabah’ despite the fact that ‘Abd’ is the Arabic word for Slave, and Muslims can only ever be Abd-Allah (Slaves of God).

Islam came to end mankind being slaves (abd) to man, and instead orient them to being slaves only to the Creator, Allah (swt) [God]. How can humans be slaves to anything other than Allah (swt)? Basic Islamic tawhid should’ve made Muslims realise the error of their victorian-era translations – but alas not.

It is narrated from the Prophet through Abu Hurayra that he said: “Let not any one of you say ‘My slave’ (`abdi) and ‘my female slave’ (amati). ALL OF YOU ARE SLAVES TO ALLAH, and all of your women are the female-slaves of Allah. Rather say, ‘my boy’ (ghulami), ‘my girl’ (jariyati), ‘my young boy’ (fataya) and my young girl’ (fatati).” [Sahih Muslim]

By adopting the Western English term ‘slave’, you take on the Western English definition, and history, of the term, which you apply to Islam. Muslims are not rejecting the Westernisation of Islam merely by simplistically arguing we should be unashamed about slavery. Rather, they are embracing the Western lens of Islam by accepting the term ‘slavery’ in the first place.

Secondly, there is the consideration of the difference between a slave society and a society with slaves. Usually, historians considered that a society with a 30% slave population to be a ‘slave society’, whereas less than that was merely a ‘society with slaves’. Even if we take the European definition of slavery to be a true description of the Islamic concept of a Ghulam, the vast majority of labour in Islamic societies were performed by paid labourers, therefore Muslim societies were not ‘slave societies’, unlike the American colonies (as much as 11% in the Northern states, but 30% in the Southerns states), Romans, Athenian Greeks and the not-so-fighting-for-freedom-as-depicted-in-the-film-300 Spartans of Sparta (the last three having around 40% of their society being comprised of slaves).

As Muslims, it is not for us to change Islam, or be ashamed about any aspect of Islam, or the actions of the Prophet Muhammed (saaw), however, being unapologetic is not permission to be unwitting pawns to foreign definitions of aspects of Islam – which ultimately will be used against Islam.

The Islamic Concept of a Ghulam is not the same as the Western understanding of Slavery, and when discussing it in english, the closest approximation would be servants and servitude, not slaves or slavery.

For those who want an in-depth explanation about how the Islamic concept of Ghulamiyyah differs from the Western concept of slavery, and how the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) actually ABOLISHED slavery by Western standards, please see my lecture ‘How Islam Abolished Slavery’ [1].


For those who want a quick summary of the lecture, see the last ten minutes of the video (click this link: 6 key points on Islam’s teachings on Reqaab and Jariyaat & the Muslim response to Western criticism of Islam & Slavery)

Categories: ARTICLES, Political System, Response to Secular Reformation & Modernism, WRITINGS

2 replies

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    Thank you for this very well-written piece, Abdullah.
    The gradual abolition of slavery and how it was set in motion also reveals another dimension of Divine Wisdom in the Prophet’s {SAW} method in how he tackled centuries-old entrenched behaviour amongst the Arabs. While not abolishing slavery outright, the seeds were sown by his commands that slaves be fed and clothed in like manner as their owners and by specifically determining compensation (kaffarah) for many rituals of missed worship as the manumission of slaves. This taken with the radical monotheism of Tauhid and the strict prohibition of usury (riba) affected a seminal turning point in human exploitation which the then Arabs were mired in and once having taken root, spread far and wide, and beyond the Arabian peninsula. The key feature being liberating mankind from subjugation to other creatures by universally recognising and submitting to the one Creator of All (SWT) as one Ummah rising to grasp its destiny.


  2. Salam alaykum. Quick note: Doesn’t ‘mamluk’ translate as ‘owned’?


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