Module 1, Lesson 1
In Progress

Lesson 4: The slavery conundrum & Multi-Islams

June 20, 2021

There is the challenge that we all face as Muslims and in some ways so do Americans who want to put forward their founding fathers as an example (who owned slaves – George Washington and John Adams).

It’s what Jonathan Browns calls the Slavery Conundrum. It is a puzzle that forces us into a state of embarrassment, confusion and cognitive dissonance.

But does it need to?

Basically, he suggests that there are three axioms which cannot all work together:

  1. Slavery is a gross moral evil
  2. Slavery is slavery
  3. There are leaders of the past who we take as moral authorities

Axiom 1: Slavery is a gross moral evil

‘Slavery’ is not evil because it is just a word. It depends what you mean by it.

Which aspect of slavery is evil?

“If slavery is an evil because (in this case) slavery is making someone unfree, then at what point does unfreedom merit this qualification of moral evil? As David Graeber points out, if freedom is natural (read, right), but at the same time ‘freedom and slavery are just matters of degree, then, logically, would not all restrictions on freedom be to some degree unnatural’ (read, wrong)?77 Clearly this cannot be the case, or all societies would be inherently evil in their totality, since all societies restrict their members’ freedoms to some extent or another. But then when does restriction move from the normal to the realm of morally wrong?”

“And what would we say about situations we categorized as ‘slavery’ in which the restrictions on freedom did not reach that point? Would that ‘slavery’ be acceptable or still be wrong? As we have already seen, at various points in history people categorized as slaves could own property, earn a living, have a family, bequeath and inherit property and enjoy legal protection against mistreatment from their owners.”

Brown, Jonathan A.C.. Slavery and Islam (Kindle Locations 3781-3787).
Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

If slavery is not evil, then is it good?

  1. Everything in the world is not simply good or evil. There is lot of grey in the space between good and evil. And often it depends on context.
  • Clearly, slavery is undesirable. It is not simply ‘okay’.

For millennia human societies did not consider slavery to be a gross, intrinsic moral wrong but, rather, an undesirable condition that was part of human social and economic reality. It was no more morally wrong than disease, poverty or war.

Brown, Jonathan A.C.. Slavery and Islam (Kindle Locations 5965).
Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

  • In some contexts though, owning slaves was not in itself evil.

What if you own them, knowing you need the labour, but treat them like family, and then free them, help them in getting married and finding a job?

  • From the perspective of Islamic teachings, slavery or shall we say unequal power relationships, can be acceptable but can become an evil, depending on the context. In this respect perhaps we could use the analogy of television and gender interaction, which could be allowed, recognising the moral risks.

Axiom 2: All ‘Slavery’ is slavery and therefore evil

Here is a potential continuum of unfreedom.

At what point is a society with the following unfreedoms ‘evil’?

Levels of restriction to freedom

PoliticiansWield immense power over other people’s liveshighly restricted in what they can say or do
ProfessionalsWealthy and free to choose what work they dorestricted in what they can say or do in order to maintain their professional status
Underpaid jobsWhen a person is employed or skills up and provides labour at a value greater than they are recompensed forElement of exploitation
DictatorshipsPeople may have freedom of movement between places and jobsrestricted in freedom of expression and even sometimes, conscience
Subsistence labourFree peopleeffectively trapped in an exploitative work situation – with little opportunity of alternative employment, working for only enough money to subsist. Zero hour contracts? Internships?
Abusive conditionsPeople living in oppressive situations where they are trappede.g. abusive relationships, with dependants that prevent them from escaping. Sexual exploitation etc.
Master/servant relationshipHistorical – relationship between the labourer and the landowner/employer in Britain till 1875Criminal offense to betray this contract
Caste systemLow castes with specified roles, fixed through all generations, past and future. Freedom to move around and keep their own family and community life.Low castes living on subsistence income with a fixed role, and social exclusion
SerfdomFree peasant farmers – tenants, own their own tools, animals and crops. Had their own families and communities. Often descended from freed slaves. Disappeared after Black Death in Western Europe in 1300s but grew in central and Eastern Europe and in India and the Far East.They and their offspring were tied to the land, and to the Lord of the land. Had to pay the Lord in labour or taxes. In some societies serfs could be sold on.
Bonded labor/indentured servitude:Willing agreement for up front money or some other kind of helpOffer free labour and loss of liberty for a specified time
Debt servitude:One of most common forms of exploited labour in the past. Caused by inability to pay back a debt.Became bonded to the creditor, supposedly temporarily But had some protections
Slavery/chattel slaveryProperty of owner in perpetuity Diversity in rights, across cultures Often allowed to have their own families and sometimes, communitiesCompletely unfree, subject to violent coercion
Slavery with natal alienationAny family rights restricted by owner and children expected to be sold offpermanent, violent domination of natally alienated persons

You can’t take the argument of unfreedom to its ultimate conclusion.

At best you can say, some restrictions on freedom are right and some are not. And we should be striving to remove the harmful restrictions from society.

So although the Qur’an and Sunnah did not approve of inequalities in rights and wealth, they did not claim they were evil, because the Prophet did not have the ability to eradicate them all at once, rather they instituted teachings and a way of thinking where people would try to reduce these.

Axiom 3: There are leaders of the past who we take as moral authorities

Even though they owned slaves.

  • American founding fathers
  • The Prophet (S)
  • Companions
  • Many leading Muslim scholars of the past

We will look at the Prophet’s case later.

Suspending moral judgement

This is a basic principle of anthropology, in that:

  • It is inevitable that the all cultures across time and space have different moral assumptions
  • Does that mean there weren’t good people or bad people in each age?
  • But we have to judge them according to the standards of their own context
  • And to truly understand any peoples, we have to suspend our own moral judgements

We have to accept that it is fundamentally unhelpful to apply all the cultural and value norms of one context on people from another.

There are attitudes that great men and women of the past did not think twice about but we find objectionable today.

And we need to have the humility to realise that we could live a positive and caring life today even though some things we do today but do not think twice about, may be considered utterly abhorrent in the future. E.g. eating meat, even eggs or keeping pets, or wearing cotton clothing, flying to foreign holidays etc.


We have to accept that in His mercy, Allah made the core message of Islam applicable to all nations and times, meaning that it will take slightly different expressions at different times.

Each expression of Islam is valid and acceptable for its context and we would expect that Allah will judge each person by their adherence to Islam’s spiritual code, according to the norms of their time.

But weren’t there always some people who were against slavery in the past?

  • Possibly, but they weren’t always the best moral example
  • E.g. just because someone is vegetarian today, doesn’t make them automatically a moral, just, charitable person

That is not to say that there aren’t certain expressions of Islam that are closer to the ethical ideals of Islam (as indicated in the Spiritual Code), even though the Prophet was unable to achieve them

If a state or a system came along afterwards where this was achieved, where

  • everyone had a sufficient stipend that they could live in basic dignity and
  • every child had access to good education and the right to succeed
  • every citizen had access to free health
  • people had equal rights before the law
  • Were the Prophet (S) here today, would he endorse the above or would he choose to reverse it? Surely the answer is obvious!

What we have seen is that

  • Slavery is hard to define and ‘Islamic slavery’ doesn’t fit our stereotypes
  • There are inequalities in society and different cultures insert ‘slavery’ at different points along that continuum
  • Although we don’t use the label ‘slavery’ these days as it is banned across the world, the essential exploitation of slavery is very alive today but since it is informal
  • Being illegal, it is completely unregulated

We have also seen that

  • Inequality in social status, freedom and earnings is natural
  • Individuals benefitting from such a situation are not morally evil
  • it is not fair to judge past cultures with our moral standards
  • However, inequality and exploitation are disliked by God
  • Slavery was a global norm before Islam and Islam did not forbid it
  • Like all religions, Islam did not ban slavery – it was very much alive at the time of the Prophet (PBUH)
  • And it continued into Islamic civilisation
  • However, Islam tried to reduce inequality in the context of slavery

Where in the past you might be just and merciful to slaves and offer them manumission, today

  • we could be careful of our power relationships and ensure that we do not abuse those we have authority over.
  • And of course, we could join efforts to root out illegal modern slavery