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We began by quoting Thomas Patrick Hughes to say that ‘slavery of Islam is interwoven with the Law of marriage, the Law of sale, and the Law of inheritance  and its abolition would strike at the very foundation of the code of Muhammadanism’.1 The statement holds as good today as in the early years of Islam. The rules of Islam remain the same for all time, for Islam is changeless and unchangeable. As I.H. Qureshi puts it: ‘The Muslim jurists and theologians believe in the supremacy of the shar and hold that it is eternal and immutable in its essence. It is based on the Quran which is believed by every Muslim to be the Word of God revealed to His prophet Muhammad. Not even the Prophet could change the revelation ’2 Muhammad could not change the revelation; he could only explain and interpret it. So do the Muslims do today. There are liberal Muslims and conservative Muslims, there are Muslims learned in theology and Muslims devoid of learning. They discuss, they interpret, they rationalize, but all by going round and round within the closed circle of Islam. There is no possibility of getting out of the fundamentals of Islam; there is no provision of introducing any innovation. So, Muslim slave system could not remain confined to the Middle Ages. Muhammad legitimized slavery in the Quran and therefore it is recognized to be in complete conformity with Islam. Slavery is considered an integral part of Islam.

That being so, Muslim holy men and men of jurisprudence, endowed the institution with supreme religious sanction. According to Bernard Lewis, ‘they were upholding an institution sanctioned by scripture, law, and tradition and one which in their eyes was necessary to the maintenance of the social structure of Muslim life.’ For example, in 1855 the Ottoman Empire ordered the governors of its far-flung districts to ban the commerce in slaves. For rebellious Arabs in the Hijaz this was exactly the kind of anti-Islamic, Western-influenced measure they had been waiting for as case for throwing the Turkish rule. The Arab leader Shaykh Jamal issued a legal ruling ‘denouncing the ban on the slave trade as contrary to the holy law of Islam. Because of this anti-Islamic act, he said  the Turks had become apostates and heathens. It was lawful to kill them without incurring criminal penalties or bloodwit, and to enslave their children.’ The Ottoman Turks succeeded in suppressing their southern rebels in mid-1856. But as a conciliatory measure to prevent further secessionist movements, the Turkish government granted a major concession to the slave traders who had long made the Red Sea and the Hijaz a central route for transporting African slaves to the Middle East. The Sultan’s government exempted the Hijaz from its 1857 decree outlawing the trade in black slaves throughout the rest of the Ottoman Empire. As late as 1960, Lord Shackleton reported to the House of Lords that African Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca still sold slaves on arrival, ‘using them as living travellers cheques.’3

Till today, black slaves are being bought and sold in countries like Sudan and Mauretania. ‘The Islamic doctrine of slavery was closely linked with the doctrine of the inescapable struggle between believers and unbelievers  and Pagans were routinely sold into slavery if they had the misfortune of being captured by Muslims.’4 Right from the fifteenth century Muslims would go on furnishing black slaves to European slave traders. At least 80% of all the black slaves that were ever exported from Black Africa, went through Muslim hands. A large part of the slaves transported to America had also been bought from Muslim slave-catchers.5 ‘Slavery, as far as established by law, was abolished in India by Act V, 1843, but the final blow was dealt on January 1, 1862, when the sections of the Indian Penal Code dealing with the question came into operation.’6 The point to note, however, is that life of slavery is lived by millions of burqa-clad Muslim women kept behind bolted doors and by men who still believe in slavery as a part of their religious and social life. Burqa remains the symbol of slavery; its enforcement is now ensured by the dictates of militants. As-Said al-Ashwamy, renowned Egyptian writer and chief justice, on a recent visit to India, said, ‘insulating women if they don’t wear the veil ensures that they wear it out of fear not faith  women now accept the position of being slaves.’7 ‘There is no doubt that many thousands of slaves are still serving in the wealthy palaces of Arabia,’ and now and then one hears about the condition of girls from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India etc., married by Shaikhs and living in the Gulf countries as nothing better than slave girls.


  1. Dictionary of Islam, 600. 

  2. Qureshi, Administration, 42. 

  3. For documentation regarding Lord Shackleton and the situation in 1960, see, Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, 317, 362. For Quotes form Bernard Lewis see Review of his book, Race and Slavery in the Middle East by Davis in the New York Review, October 11, 1990. 

  4. Elst, Negationism, 101. 

  5. Elst, Indigenous Indians, 375, 381. 

  6. Herklots, Islam in India, 112 n. 2. 

  7. Detailed report in The Times of India, 10 December, 1993.