Syed Ameer Ali.

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battle, and inspired them to heroism ; the cavaliers rushed into
the fights singing the praises of sister, wife, or lady-love. The
guerdon of their loves was the highest prize of their prowess.
Valour and generosity were the greatest virtues of the men,
and chastity that of the women. An insult offered to a woman
of a tribe would set in flame the desert tribes from end to end of
the peninsula. The " Sacrilegious Wars," which lasted for forty
years, and were put an end to by the Prophet, had their origin
in an insult offered to a young girl at one of the fairs of Okaz.

Mohammed rendered a fitful custom into a permanent creed,
and embodied respect for women in his revelations. With
many directions, which reflect the rude and patriarchal
simplicity of the age, his regulations breathe a more chivalrous
spirit towards the sex than is to be found in the teachings of
the older masters. Islam, like Christianity, is different with
different individuals and in different ages, but on the whole,
true chivalry is more intimately associated with true Islam
than with any other form of positive faith or social institution.

The hero of Islam, the true disciple of the founder of the
Hilf-td-Fuzul, was as ready with lance and sword to do battle
with God's enemies as to redress the wrongs of the weak and
oppressed. Whether on the plains of Irak or nearer home,
the cry of distress never failed to bring the mailed knight to
the succour of the helpless and suffering. His deeds translated
into legends, and carried from the tent to the palace, have
served to influence the prowess of succeeding ages. The caliph
in his banqueting-hall puts down the half-tasted bowl on being
told that an Arab maiden, carried into captivity by the Romans,


had cried out, " Why does not Abd ul-Malik come to my help ? "
— he vows that no wine or water shall wet his lips until he has
released the maiden from bondage. Forthwith he marches his
troops upon the Roman caitiffs, and only when the maiden has
attained her liberty is he freed from his vow. A Mogul em-
peror, 1 sore pressed by relentless foes, is marching towards the
frontiers when he receives the bracelet of an alien queen — the
token of brotherhood and call for succour. He abandons his
own necessities, retraces his steps, defeats her foes, and then
resumes his march.

Oelsner calls 'Antar " the father of chivalry." Ali was its
beau-ideal — an impersonation of gallantry, of bravery, of
generosity ; pure, gentle, and learned, " without fear and with-
out reproach," he set the world the noblest example of chival-
rous grandeur of character. His spirit, a pure reflection of
that of the Master, overshadowed the Islamic world, and formed
the animating genius of succeeding ages. The wars of the
Crusades brought barbarian Europe into contact with the
civilisation of the Islamic East, and opened its eyes to the
magnificence and refinement of the Moslems ; but it was
especially the influences of Mohammedan Andalusia on the
neighbouring Christian provinces which led to the introduction
of chivalry into Europe. The troubadours, the trouveurs of
Southern France, and the minnesingers of Germany, who sang
of love and honour in war, were the immediate disciples of the
romanceurs of Cordova, Granada, and Malaga. Petrarch and
Boccaccio, even Tasso and Chaucer, derived their inspiration
from the Islamic fountain-head. But the coarse habits and
thoughts of the barbarian hordes of Europe communicated a
character of grossness to pure chivalry.

In the early centuries of Islam, almost until the extinction
of the Saracenic empire in the East, women continued to occupy
as exalted a position as in modern society. Zubaida, the wife
of Harun, plays a conspicuous part in the history of the age, and
by her virtues, as well as by her accomplishments, leaves an
honoured name to posterity. Humaida, the wife of Faruk, a

i The Emperor Humayun, pursued by the Afghans, received, on his march
to Cabul, the bracelet from the Jodhpur queen, and at once came to her help.
I have mentioned two instances of Moslem chivalry, which might be multiplied
by hundreds.


Medinite citizen, left for many years the sole guardian of her
minor son, educates him to become one of the most distinguished
jurisconsults of the day. 1 Sukaina, or Sakina, the daughter of
Husain, 2 and the grand-daughter of Ali, was the most brilliant,
most accomplished, and most virtuous woman of her time, —
"la dame des dames de son temps, la plus belle, la plus gracieuse,
la plus brillante de qualites," as Perron calls her. Herself no
mean scholar, she prized the converse of learned and pious
people. The ladies of the Prophet's family were noted for
their learning, their virtues, and their strength of character.
Buran, the wife of the Caliph Mamun, Umm-ul-Fazl, Mamun's
sister, married to the eighth Imam of the house of Ali, Umm
ul-Habib, Mamun's daughter, were all famous for their scholar-
ship. In the fifth century of the Hegira, the Sheikha Shuhda,
designated Fakhr un-nisa ("the glory of women"), lectured
publicly, at the Cathedral Mosque of Bagdad, to large
audiences on literature, rhetoric, and poetry. She occupies in
the annals of Islam a position of equality with the most dis-
tinguished 'ulama. What would have befallen this lady had
she flourished among the fellow-religionists of St. Cyril can be
judged by the fate of Hypatia. Possibly she would not have
been torn to pieces by enthusiastic Christians, but she would,
to a certainty, have been burnt as a witch. Zat ul-Hemma,
corrupted into Zemma, " the lion-heart," the heroine of many
battles, fought side by side with the bravest knights. 3

The improvement effected in the position of women by the
Prophet of Arabia has been acknowledged by all unprejudiced
writers, though it is still the fashion with bigoted contro-
versialists to say the Islamic system lowered the status of
women. No falser calumny has been levelled at the great
Prophet. Nineteen centuries of progressive development
working with the legacy of a prior civilization, under the most
favourable racial and climatic conditions, have tended to place

1 Faruk was away for twenty-seven years engaged in wars in Khorasan.
His son's name is Rabya-ar-Ray.

2 Husain was married to one of the daughters of Yezdjard, the last
Sasanian king of Persia.

3 For a full account of the distinguished women who have flourished in
Islam, see the article in the May number of the Nineteenth Century for 1899
and The Short History of the Saracens (Macmillan).


women, in most countries of Christendom, on a higher social
level than the men, — have given birth to a code of etiquette
which, at least ostensibly, recognises the right of women to
higher social respect. But what is their legal position even in
the most advanced communities of Christendom ? Until very
recently, even in England, a married woman possessed no
rights independently of her husband. If the Moslem woman
does not attain in another hundred years, the social position
of her European sister, there will be time enough to declaim
against Islam as a system and a dispensation. But the Teacher
who in an age when no country, no system, no community gave
any right to woman, maiden or married, mother or wife, who,
in a country where the birth of a daughter was considered a
calamity, secured to the sex rights which are only unwillingly and
under pressure being conceded to them by the civilised nations
in the twentieth century, deserves the gratitude of humanity.
If Mohammed had done nothing more, his claim to be a bene-
factor of mankind would have been indisputable. Even under
the laws as they stand at present in the pages of the legists, the
legal position of Moslem females may be said to compare
favourably with that of European women. We have dealt in
another place at length with this subject. We shall do no
more here than glance at the provisions of the Moslem codes
relating to women. As long as she is unmarried she remains
under the parental roof, and until she attains her majority she
is, to some extent, under the control of the father or his repre-
sentative. As soon, however, as she is of age, the law vests
in her all the rights which belong to her as an independent
human being. She is entitled to share in the inheritance of
her parents along with her brothers, and though the proportion
is different, the distinction is founded on the relative position
of brother and sister. A woman who is sui juris can under no
circumstances be married without her own express consent,
" not even by the sultan." * On her marriage she does not
lose her individuality. She does not cease to be a separate
member of society.

1 Centuries after the principle was laid down by the Moslem jurists, the
sovereigns and chiefs of Christendom were in the habit of forcibly marrying
women to their subjects.


An ante-nuptial settlement by the husband in favour of the
wife is a necessary condition, and on his failure to make a
settlement the law presumes one in accordance with the social
position of the wife. A Moslem marriage is a civil act, needing
no priest, requiring no ceremonial. The contract of marriage
gives the man no power over the woman's person, beyond
what the law defines, and none whatever upon her goods and
property. Her rights as a mother do not depend for their
recognition upon the idiosyncrasies of individual judges. Her
earnings acquired by her own exertions cannot be wasted by
a prodigal husband, nor can she be ill-treated with impunity
by one who is brutal. She acts, if sui juris, in all matters
which relate to herself and her property in her own individual
right, without the intervention of husband or father. She can
sue her debtors in the open courts, without the necessity of
joining a next friend, or under cover of her husband's name.
She continues to exercise, after she has passed from her father's
house into her husband's home, all the rights which the law
gives to men. All the privileges which belong to her as a
woman and a wife are secured to her, not by the courtesies
which " come and go," but by the actual text in the book of
law. Taken as a whole, her status is not more unfavourable
than that of many European women, whilst in many respects
she occupies a decidedly better position. Her comparatively
backward condition is the result of a want of culture among
the community generally, rather than of any special feature
in the laws of the fathers.


" And as to your slaves, see that ye feed them as ye feed yourselves
and clothe them as ye clothe yourselves." — The Prophet.

SLAVERY in some of its features has been aptly compared
with polygamy. Like polygamy, it has existed among
all nations, and has died away with the progress of
human thought and the growth of a sense of justice among
mankind. Like polygamy it was the natural product of
passion and pride so strongly marked in certain phases of
the communal and individual development. But unlike
polygamy, it bears from its outset the curse of inherent

In the early stages, when humanity has not risen to the full
appreciation of the reciprocal rights and duties of man ; when
laws are the mandates of one, or of the few, for the many ;
when the will of the strong is the rule of life and the guide of
conduct — then the necessary inequality, social, physical, or
mental, engendered by nature among the human race, invari-
ably takes the form of slavery, and a system springs into
existence which allows absolute power to the superior over the
inferior. 1 This complete subserviency of the weak to the
strong has helped the latter to escape from the legendary curse
laid on man — " In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread
till thou return to the ground," and allowed them to employ
the leisure thus acquired in congenial pursuits. " The simple
wish," says the author of Ancient Law, " to use the bodily
powers of another person as the means of ministering to one's

1 Comp. throughout L 'Influence des Croisades sur l'£tat des Peuples de
I' Europe, by Maxime de Choiseul D'Aillecourt, Paris, 1809.


own ease or pleasure, is doubtless the foundation of slavery,
and as old as human nature." x

The practice of slavery is co-eval with human existence.
Historically, its traces are visible in every age and in every
nation. Its germs were developed in a savage state of society,
and it continued to nourish even when the progress of material
civilisation had done away with its necessity.

The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and the ancient Germans, 2
— people whose legal and social institutions have most affected
modern manners and customs, — recognised and practised both
kinds of slavery, praedial servitude as well as household

Among the Hebrews, from the commencement of their
existence as a nation, two forms of slavery were practised. The
Israelite slave, given into bondage as a punishment for crime
or for the payment of a debt, occupied a higher position than
a slave of alien birth. The law allowed the former his liberty
after six years of servitude, unless he refused to avail himself
of his right. But the foreign slaves, whether belonging to the
people whom the Israelites had reduced into absolute helotage
by a merciless system of warfare, or whether acquired in
treacherous forays or by purchase, were entirely excluded from
the benefits of this arrangement, an arrangement made in a
spirit of national partiality and characteristic isolation. 3 The
lot of these bondsmen and bondswomen was one of unmitigated
hardship. Helots of the soil or slaves of the house, hated and
despised at the same time, they lived a life of perpetual drudgery
in the service of pitiless masters.

Christianity, as a system and a creed, raised no protest
against slavery, enforced no rule, inculcated no principle for
the mitigation of the evil. Excepting a few remarks on the
disobedience of slaves, 4 and a general advice to masters to give
servants their due, the teachings of Jesus, as portrayed in the
Christian traditions, contained nothing expressive of dis-
approval of bondage. On the contrary, Christianity enjoined

1 Maine, Ancient Law, p. 104.

2 Caesar (De Bell. Gall. lib. vi.), Tacitus (De Moribus German, cap. 24, 25),
and Pothier {De Stat. Servor. apud Germ. lib. i.) all testify to the extreme
severity of German servitude.

3 Lev. xxv. 44, 45. * 1 Tim. iv. I, 2.


on the slave absolute submission to the will of his or her pro-
prietor. It found slavery a recognised institution of the
empire ; it adopted the system without any endeavour to
mitigate its baneful character, or to promote its gradual
abolition, or to improve the status of slaves. Under the civil
law, slaves were mere chattels. They remained so under the
Christian domination. Slavery had nourished among the
Romans from the earliest times. The slaves, whether of native
or of foreign birth, whether acquired by war or purchase, were
regarded simply as chattels. Their masters possessed the
power of life and death over them. But that gradual improve-
ment which had raised the archaic laws of the Twelve Tables
to the comprehensive code of Hadrian, did not fail to introduce
some amelioration in the condition of the slaves. In spite,
however, of the changes which the humanity or the wisdom of
the emperors had effected in the old laws, the person of the
slave was absolutely subject to the will of the master. Each
magnate of the empire possessed thousands of slaves, who were
tortured and subjected to lashings for the most trivial of faults.

The introduction of the religion of Jesus into Europe affected
human chattelhood only in its relation to the priesthood. A
slave could become free by adopting monachism, if not claimed
within three years. 1 But in other respects, slavery nourished
as much and in as varied shapes as under the pagan domination.
The Digest, compiled under a Christian emperor, pronounced
slavery a constitution of the law of nature ; and the Code fixed
the maximum price of slaves according to the professions for
which they were intended. Marriages between slaves were
not legal, and between the slave and the free were prohibited
under severe penalties. 2 The natural result was unrestrained
concubinage, which even the clergy recognised and practised. 3

Such was slavery under the most advanced system of laws
known to the ancient world. These laws reflected the wisdom
of thirteen centuries, and towards the close of their develop-

1 Comp. Milman, Latin Christianity, vol. i. p. 358.

2 One of the punishments was, if a free woman married a slave, she was
to be put to death and the slave burnt alive. Comp. the splendid though
apologetic chapter of Milman on the subject, Latin Christianity, vol. ii.

3 Comp. Milman, Latin Christianity, vol. ii. p. 369 ; and also Du Cange,


ment had engrafted upon themselves some faint offshoots of
the teachings of one of the greatest moral preceptors of the

With the establishment of the Western and Northern bar-
barians on the ruins of the Roman empire, besides personal
slavery, territorial servitude scarcely known to the Romans,
became general in all the newly settled countries. The various
rights possessed by the lords over their vassals and serfs
exhibited a revolting picture of moral depravity and degrada-
tion. 1 The barbaric codes, like the Roman, regarded slavery
as an ordinary condition of mankind ; and if any protection
was afforded to the slave, it was chiefly as the property of his
master, who alone, besides the State, had the power of life and
death over him.

Christianity had failed utterly in abolishing slavery or
alleviating its evils. The Church itself held slaves, and recog-
nised in explicit terms the lawfulness of this baneful institution.
Under its influence the greatest civilians of Europe had upheld
slavery, and have insisted upon its usefulness as preventing the
increase of pauperism and theft. 2 And it was under the same
influences that the highly cultured Christians of the Southern
States of North America practised the cruellest inhumanities
upon the unfortunate beings whom they held as slaves, — many
of their own kith, — and shed torrents of blood for the main-
tenance of the curse of slavery in their midst. The least trace
of the blood of an inferior race, however imperceptible, sub-
jected the unfortunate being to all the penalties of slavery.
The white Christian could never legitimatise the issue of his
illicit connection with his negro slave- women. With her he
could never contract a legal union. The mother of his
illegitimate children and her descendants, however remote,

1 Comp. De Choiseul, and also consult on this subject the comprehensive
chapter of Stephen's Commentaries on the Laws of England, bk. ii. pt. i. chap,
ii. One of the miserable and disgusting privileges possessed by the lord was
designated in Britain the custom of culiage, which was afterwards commuted
into a fine. This custom, as has been correctly supposed, gave rise to the
law of inheritance, prevalent in some English counties, and known by the
name of Borough English.

2 Pufendorff, Law of Nature and Nations, bk. vi. c. 3, s. 10 ; Ulricus Huberus,
Praelect Jur. Civ. 1. i. tit. 4, s. 6 ; Pothier, De Statu Servorum ; and Grotius,
De Jure Bell., 1. ii. c. 5, s. 27.


could be sold by his legitimate white issue at any time. Chris-
tianity failed to grasp the spirit of its Master's teachings in
regard to the equality of man in the sight of God.

Islam recognises no distinction of race or colour ; black or
white, citizens or soldiers, rulers or subjects, they are perfectly
equal, not in theory only, but in practice. In the field or in
the guest-chamber, in the tent or in the palace, in the mosque
or in the market, they mix without reserve and without con-
tempt. The first Muezzin of Islam, a devoted adherent and an
esteemed disciple, was a negro slave. To the white Christian,
his black fellow-religionist may be his equal in the kingdom of
heaven, but certainly not in the kingdom of this world ; in the
reign of Christ, perhaps, but not in the reign of Christianity.
The law may compel him, a larger humanity with torrents of
blood may force him to give his black brother civic rights, but
the pride of race and colour acknowledges no equality, and even
in the house of God a strict separation is observed.

The Islamic teachings dealt a blow at the institution of
slavery which, had it not been for the deep root it had taken
among the surrounding nations and the natural obliquity of
the human mind, would have been completely extinguished as
soon as the generation which then practised it had passed away.

It has been justly contended that, as the promulgation of
the laws, precepts, and teachings of Islam extended over
twenty years, it is naturally to be expected many of the pre-
Islamic institutions, which were eventually abolished, were, at
first, either tacitly permitted or expressly recognised. 1 In one
of these categories stood the usage of slavery. The evil was
intertwined with the inmost relations of the people among whom
Mohammed flourished. Its extinction was only to be achieved
by the continued agency of wise and humane laws, and not by
the sudden and entire emancipation of the existing slaves,
which was morally and economically impossible. Numberless
provisions, negative as well as positive, were accordingly
introduced in order to promote and accomplish a gradual
enfranchisement. A contrary policy would have produced an
utter collapse of the infant commonwealth.

The Prophet exhorted his followers repeatedly in the name

1 Tahzib ul-Akhldk (15th Rajab, 1288), p. 118.


of God to enfranchise slaves, " than which there was not an
act more acceptable to God." He ruled that for certain sins
of omission the penalty should be the manumission of slaves.
He ordered that slaves should be allowed to purchase their
liberty by the wages of their service ; and that in case the
unfortunate beings had no present means of gain, and wanted
to earn in some other employment enough for that purpose,
they should be allowed to leave their masters on an agreement
to that effect. 1 He also provided that sums should be advanced
to the slaves from the public treasury to purchase their liberty.
In certain contingencies, it was provided that the slave should
become enfranchised without the interference and even against
the will of his master. The contract or agreement in which
the least doubt was discovered, was construed most favourably
in the interests of the slave, and the slightest promise on the
part of the master was made obligatory for the purposes of
enfranchisement. He placed the duty of kindness towards the
slave on the same footing with the claims of " kindred and
neighbours, and fellow-travellers, and wayfarers " ; encouraged
manumission to the freest extent, and therewith the gift of " a
portion of that wealth which God hath given you " ; and
prohibited sensual uses of a master's power over the slave, with
the promise of divine mercy to the wronged. To free a slave
is the expiation for ignorantly slaying a believer, and for certain
forms of untruth. The whole tenor of Mohammed's teaching
made " permanent chattelhood " or caste impossible ; and it is
simply " an abuse of words " to apply the word slavery, in the
English sense, to any status known to the legislation of Islam.
The Lawgiver ordained, that a fugitive fleeing to the
territories of Islam should at once become enfranchised ; that
the child of a slave woman should follow the condition of the
father, while the mother should become free at his death ; that
the slave should be able to contract with his master for his
emancipation ; and that a part of the poor-tax should be
devoted to the ransom of those held in bondage. The masters
were forbidden to exact more work than was just and proper.
They were ordered never to address their male or female slaves
by that degrading appellation, but by the more affectionate
1 Koran xxiv. 33, etc.


name of " my young man," or " my young maid " ; it was
enjoined that all slaves should be dressed, clothed, and fed
exactly as their masters and mistresses. Above all, it was
ordered that in no case should the mother be separated from
her child, nor brother from brother, nor father from son, nor

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 30 of 55)