Slavery is a tradition which is non-existent in our society today. It is necessary to understand clearly the roots of slavery and the influence that it exerted on the societies in which it was prevalent when we set about to study this phenomenon in the present context. Indeed, it is not possible to come to but one conclusion in a current study of past phenomena. It is only when we realize what slavery actually is, and the influence which it exerted on the past societies, that we can truly appreciate the greatness of the Qur'an's own approach towards it.
By slavery is meant the state in which one person comes under the complete domination of another. Indeed, he is a slave who surrenders all that is of his own which includes his body, life, family and all else to the control of another person. He is the property of the owner. The owner may be an individual, a society or even a nation. No matter who that owner might be, the slave is the one who is destined to live under his master enjoying whatever the rights and privileges that is allowed to him by his owner.
There are no relevent documents that serve to show the exact way in which the institution of slavery developed or how, or when, it originated. It is, however, certain that this institution was prevalent about twenty centuries before Christ. Slaves are mentioned in the legal code Ur Namu which existed around 2050 B.C. It is believed that slavery must have originated from the practice of curtailing the freedom of those caught as prisoners-of-war and of forcing them into unpaid labour, This belief is founded on the names with which slaves were referred to in the ancient Sumerian language. The male slave was named Nida-koor and the female slave Munas-koor. The meaning or these terms were 'Foreign man' and 'Foreign woman' respectively. It is believed that as the prisoners-of-war were brought in from foreign lands and made slaves, they were referred to by these very names.
Slavery, in one form or the other was prevalent in almost all parts of the world. The Old Testament of the Bible, which describes the ancient tales of Israeli society, is replete with many accounts concerning slavery. It can be seen that the tradition of selling people existed during the time of the patriarch Prophet, Abraham, itself. (Genesis 17:13,14). It is the commandment of the Bible that prisoners-of-war are to be enslaved (Deuteronomy 20:10,11). The Bible, which permits the torture of the slave by the master, nevertheless, stresses the point that the slave is not to be killed during the course of torture. The law which prevailed, in this matter, amongst the Israeli society was that, 'If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.'' (Exodus 21:20,21)
The instituion of slavery was prevalent both during, and after, the time of Jesus Christ. There is no sayings of Jesus, which serve to show the treatment that was to be meted out to the slaves. But Paul says: 'Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eyes is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good deed he does whether he be a slave or freeman (Ephesians 6:5-8). The same advice to slaves is repeated in the 22nd and 23rd verses in the 3rd chapter of colossians in the Bible. Other than these references to slavery made by Paul in these verses, we cannot find any significant references on the topic anywhere in the New Testament. But it can be deduced that the cruel and barbaric system of slavery that prevailed during the time of Greco - Roman civilizations continued even during the time of Jesus. It is to be particularly noted that even after christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the numerous stories of atrocities committed against slaves are extremely shocking.
Slavery existed in ancient India as a part of the rigid caste system that prevailed here. The caste system which originated as a result of the hegemony of priesthood continued to be an essential part and way of life of Hinduism. It is in the Rig Veda which is accepted as the most important of the Shrutis that we find the first seeds of the concept of caste system. (Purusha verse of the Rig Veda 10:90:12). It was but natural that under the caste system that was based on the reference in the Rig Veda that 'the Brahman is created from the head, the Vaishya from the hands and the Sudra from the feet of the Parampurusha', the Brahman was considered highly and the Sudra of a lowly stature. All the books of Hinduism have only sought to justify the caste system.
The Bhagavath Gita, which is known to be the book of shruthi of modern Hinduism, has itself said: 'Chaturvarnyam Mayasrishtam guna karma Vibagusha' (4:13). This means that, 'I have created the four castes according to the division of their deeds.' It was natural then that the one who was created from the feet of God was destined to a life of foot-service alone. Indeed, it was believed that the sudra was specially created for the very purpose of service alone. The religious scriptures had taught that one is born of a lower caste owing to the sins of an earlier life and that if one is to attain salvation at least in the next life, he is to render service to those of the higher castes and employ himself in keeping them satisfied in this life. The Chandoupanishad has compared those of the lower caste to pigs and dogs. A reading of the Manusmrithi and the Parasharasmrithi will serve to show that the attitude and conduet adopted towards them was more cruel and wicked than that shown to the animals.
It can also be seen that along with the tradition of condemning to slavery by virtue of one's birth, there also existed, in India, the slave trade that was accompanied by all the cruelty that goes with it. It is also given to understand from the scrolls unearthed in Tamilnadu that the slave trade which was associated with temples flourished both during and after the period of the Cholas. Slave trade was prevalent in Mysore, Bihar and Kerala as well. With the arrival of the English East India company, the practice of taking away people from India, of enslaving them and then taking them overseas also came into being. Some historical documents record the incident wherein an Italian priest from Trancubar sells off, for the sum of thirty pagodas, the wife and four children of a Christian from Madurai to the captain of a ship bound for Manila [Sarvavijnanakosham, Volume I, page 258] According to a survey taken in 1841, there were between eighty to ninety lakhs of slaves in India at that period. Moreover, it was in the Malabar region, where the largest concentration of slaves in India existed. Indeed, it has been remarked that 15 percent of the entire population in the region were slaves! (Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 27, p.289)
It is further given to understand that the most cruel form of slavery had prevailed during the period which lasted between the second century before Christ and the next long stretch of six hundred years in the Roman empire. The slave in the Roman empire was merely an object of trade with no rights in any form whatsoever. He was treated as lowly as to be destined to a fate wherein he was even doomed to death in a fight against another slave merely to provide sadistic pleasure to his master. Indeed, it was the usual practice of the masters to shout 'hurray' and to threaten the slaves at the point of the whip when the loss of blood from the body of the slave, so involved in a fight unto death, increased in quantity! The most cruel form of slavery it certainly was'
It was Columbus discovery of America which had, in fact, served to make slavery rampant in the modern world. The Negroes were made slaves and were traded in the markets. It was a Spanish bishop, Barthalocha De Lascasas, who had first initiated the American system of slavery. There were companies in Europe which had been registered for the purpose of slave trade alone. The trade of these companies involved the bringing away of slaves from the coastal regions of Africa and then selling them off in America. It is estimated that nearly fifteen million slaves were thus imported into America during the 17th to the 19th century. The slaves were taken away in pairs abroad the ships bound in hand and feet chains to one another. A sizeable portion of the slaves would perish during the voyage over the Atlantic Ocean. There are no records which show the number of persons who had died in this manner. How cheap, indeed, was the life of the slave !
It has been as an introduction to the study of the Qur'an's vision on slavery as well as its approach towards it that the origins and history of the said tradition has been dealt with in detail. Instead of an impractical and unscientific approach whereby a centuries-old institution was sought to be abolished by a single declaration, Islam developed and implemented a very practicable system of eliminating slavery.
In this context, if the sheer practicability of Islam's line of action is to be fully appreciated, we will have to understand the very psychology of the slave as well. There exists a vast difference between the mindset of the slave and that of the free man. In the formation of the mindset of the slave, a life of continual slavery exerts a very great influence indeed. As a result of carrying the yoke of slavery upon himself for generations, the habits of obedience and submission will have become deep-rooted within his mind. He is, as such, incapable of executing tasks on his own or taking up any responsibility. His mind, however, is ever ready to take upon his head any command of the master and knows, moreover, to carry forward all matters according to his master's wishes. Neverthless, he is able only to obey and execute orders. His mind will be incapacitated in taking up responsiblities. His mind can, inno wise, be so burdened. He is only able to flee from taking up responsibilities. However, he will always be ready to take upon his head whatever it is that the master commands.
The psychology of the slave and the master is located at two opposite poles or extremes. If one is that of arrogance, the other will be that of meekness. The example of America is, in itself, the best case in point to show that the emancipation of slaves that is not based on an approach whereby these mindsets, which are located at opposite poles, are first brought together on to the same plane, will never be emancipation at all. It was through the activism of Abraham Lincoln that, through a single proclamation, the slaves in America achieved freedom one fine morning! But what was it that actually happened there? The slaves who ultimately recieved their freedom were, however, unable to bear the 'burden' of this freedom. They looked around, not quite knowing what it was that they were to do. Since there was none to command them now, they were unable to do anything at all. Indeed, they returned back to their masters and actually asked them to take them back as slaves. Here, it is seen that it is futile to physically set free those who are psychologically unprepared for that freedom.
The Qur'an, which has been revealed by God who is fully aware of the physical and mental states of human beings, has provided a completely practical code of action. The system of slavery was one of the pillars of the economic set-up of Arabia. It's roots had penetrated much deeper than to enable its eradication by a mere order of prohibition. As a system that had prevailed in the regions where Islam flourished as well as in areas where it did not, not only would it be practically difficult to abolish it, but such a course of action would, far from being effective, be quite harmful, indeed. It was, therefore, that Allah, who is most aware of the nature of human society, contrary to bringing a law that would completely abolish slavery, accepted a practical code of action for its eradication.
Islam had, firstly, sought to bring the two groups of people, situated as they were at two extreme states of the mental condition, on to a common platform. The Qur'an had put forward a programme of civilizing both slave and master. Besides this, it kept open all the ways for achieving freedom as a gift and as a product of one's own labour. The Qur'an had, by bringing the slave and the master on to the same plane of psychological awareness, opened out the ways for achieving freedom and, furthermore, enabled him (i.e., the slave) to protect that freedom once he had attained it. Indeed, this alone is the practical way in the matter.