Syed Ameer Ali.

The spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm online

. (page 31 of 55)
Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 31 of 55)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

husband from wife, nor one relative from another. 1

In the moral rules laid down for the treatment of those then
in bondage, the Arabian Teacher did not prescribe the reciprocal
duties of master and slave in the one-sided manner so often
visible in other creeds. 2 With a deeper and truer knowledge
of human nature, he saw that it was not so needful to lay down
the duties the weak owe to the strong, as those the strong owe
to the weak. In Islam no discredit is attached to the status
of slavery. It is an accident, and not, as in the civil law and
patristic Christianity, " a constitution of nature." Zaid, the
freedman of the Prophet, was often entrusted with the command
of troops, and the noblest captains served under him without
demur ; and his son 'Osama was honoured with the leadership
of the expedition sent by Abu Bakr against the Greeks. Kutb
ud-din, the first king of Delhi, and the true founder, therefore,
of the Musulman empire in India, was a slave. The slavery
which was allowed in Islam had, in fact, nothing in common
with that which was in vogue in Christendom until recent
times, or with American slavery until the holy war of 1865 put
an end to that curse.

In Islam the slave of to-day is the grand vizier of to-morrow.
He may marry, without discredit, his master's daughter, and
become the head of the family. Slaves have ruled kingdoms
and founded dynasties. The father of Mahmud of Ghazni
was a slave. Can Christianity point to such records as these ?
Can Christianity show, in the pages of history, as clear, 'as
humane an account of her treatment of slaves as this ?

From all that we have said it is abundantly clear that the
Legislator himself looked upon the custom as temporary in its

1 I see no need of quoting authorities on these points, as they are admitted
facts. But I may refer the curious reader to the traditions collected in the
Mishkdt, the Sahih of Bukhari, and the Bihar id- Anwar. The latter contains
the noblest monument of generosity and charity practised by the Prophet's
immediate descendants.

s See Col. iii. 22 ; 1 Tim. vi. 1.


nature, and held that its extinction was sure to be achieved by
the progress of ideas and change of circumstances. The Koran
always speaks of slaves as " those whom your right hands have
acquired," indicating thus the only means of acquisition of
bondsmen or bondswomen. It recognised, in fact, only one
kind of slavery — the servitude of men made captives in bond
fide lawful warfare, Jihdd-i-Shara'i. Among all barbarous
nations the captives are spared from a motive of selfishness
alone, 1 in order to add to the wealth of the individual captor,
or of the collective nation, by their sale-money or by their
labour. 2 Like other nations of antiquity, the Arab of the
pre-Islamic period spared the lives of his captives for the sake
of profiting by them. Mohammed found this custom existing
among his people. Instead of theorising, or dealing in vague
platitudes, he laid down strict rules for their guidance, enjoin-
ing that those only may be held in bond who were taken in
bond fide legal war until they were ransomed, or the captive
bought his or her own liberty by the wages of service. But
even when these means failed, an appeal to the pious feelings
of the Moslem, combined with the onerous responsibilities
attached to the possession of a slave, was often enough to
secure the eventual enfranchisement of the latter. Slave-
lifting and slave-dealing, patronised by dominant Christianity, 3
and sanctified by Judaism, were utterly reprobated and con-
demned. The man who dealt in slaves was declared the
outcast of humanity. Enfranchisement 4 of slaves was pro-
nounced to be a noble act of virtue. It was forbidden in
absolute terms to reduce Moslems to slavery. To the lasting
disgrace of a large number of professed Moslems it must

1 Comp. Milman, Latin Christ, vol. ii. p. 387. The ancient jurists based the
righ£ of enslaving the captive on the prior right of killing him. In this they
are followed by Albericus Gentilis {De Jur. Gent. cap. de Servitude), Grotius,
and Pufendorff. Montesquieu, indeed, was the first to deny this mythical
right of killing a captive, unless in case of absolute necessity, or for self-
preservation. And this the author of the Spirit of Laws denied, because of
his freedom from the thraldom of the Church.

2 Comp. Milman, Hist, of the Jews, vol. iii. p. 48.

3 After the massacre of Drogheda by Cromwell, and the suppression of the
insurrection in Ireland, the English Protestants sold the Irish, men and
women, wholesale to the colonists in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other places.
The same was done after Monmouth's rebellion.

* According to an authentic and well-known tradition from Imam Ja'far
as-Sadik {Bihar id- Anwar).


be said, however, that, whilst observing, or trying to observe
the letter, they have utterly ignored the spirit of the Teacher's
precepts, and allowed slavery to flourish (in direct contraven-
tion of the injunctions of the Prophet) by purchase and other
means. The possession of a slave, by the Koranic laws, was
conditional on a bond fide struggle, in self-defence, against
unbelieving and idolatrous aggressors, and its permission was
a guarantee for the safety and preservation of the captives.
The cessation of the state of war in which the Moslem com-
munity was at first involved, from the animosity of the
surrounding tribes and nations, would have brought about the
extinction of slavery by a natural process — the stoppage of
future acquisition and the enfranchisement of those in bondage.
However, whether from contact with the demoralised nations
of the East and the West, and the wild races of the North, or
from the fact that the baneful institution was deeply rooted
among all classes of society, many Moslems, like the Christians
and the Jews, recognised slavery, and to some extent do so
even now. But the wild Turkoman, or the African Arab, who
glories in slave-lifting, is no more a representative of Islam than
is the barbarous Guacho, who revels on the savage prairies of
South America, of Christianity. 1 Like polygamy, the institu-
tion of slavery, prevalent universally among mankind at some
stage or other of their growth, has, at least among the nations
which claim to be civilised, outlived the necessities which
induced its practice, and must sooner or later become extinct.
It will be seen, therefore, that Islam, did not " consecrate "
slavery, as has been maliciously affirmed, but provided in every

1 In order not to break the letter of his Prophet's Commandments, the
Turkoman (himself a violent Sunni) forced his captive (whether a Sunni or a
Shiah) to acknowledge himself a heretic. And the African Arab calls his
murderous razzias, on the pagan negroes, Jihads. Mr. Joseph Thompson, the
well-known African traveller, in a letter to the London Times of the 14th
of November, 1887, thus writes on the subject of slavery in East Africa :
" I unhesitatingly affirm, and I speak from a wider experience of Eastern
Central Africa than any of your correspondents possess, that if the slave
trade thrives it is because Islam has not been introduced in these regions,
and for the strongest of all reasons, that the spread of Mahommedanism
would have meant the concomitant suppression of the slave trade." His
account of " the peaceful and unassuming agencies " by which Islam has been
spread in Western Africa and Central Soudan deserves the attention of every
reader. " Here," he says, " we have Islam as a living, active force, full of
the fire and energy of its early days, proselytizing too with much of the mar-
vellous success which characterized its early days."


way for its abolition and extinction by circumscribing the means
of possession within the narrowest limits. Islam did not deal
capriciously with this important question. Whilst proclaiming
in the most emphatic terms the natural equality of human
beings, it did not, regardless of consequences, enfranchise the
men and women already in bondage, which would have only
been productive of evil in a world not then ripe for that con-
summation of human liberty, moral and intellectual.

The mutilation of the human body was also explicitly
forbidden by Mohammed, and the institution which flourished
both in the Persian and the Byzantine empires was denounced
in severe terms. Slavery by purchase was unknown during
the reigns of the first four Caliphs. There is at least no
authentic record of any slave having been acquired by purchase
during their tenure of the office. But with the accession of the
usurping house of Ommeyya a change came over the spirit
of Islam. Muawiyah was the first Musulman sovereign who
introduced into the Moslem world the practice of acquiring
slaves by purchase. He was also the first to adopt the
Byzantine custom of guarding his women by eunuchs. During
the reigns of the early Abbassides, the Shiah Imam Ja'far
as-Sadik preached against slavery.

The time is now arrived when humanity at large should
raise its voice against the practice of servitude, in whatever
shape or under whatever denomination it may be disguised.
The Moslems especially, for the honour of their great Prophet,
should try to efface that dark page from their history — a page
which would never have been written but for their contra-
vention of the spirit of his laws, however bright it may appear
by the side of the ghastly scrolls on which the deeds of the
professors of the rival creeds are recorded. The day is come
when the voice which proclaimed liberty, equality, and universal
brotherhood among all mankind should be heard with the fresh
vigour acquired from the spiritual existence and spiritual
pervasion of fourteen centuries. It remains for the Moslems
to show the falseness of the aspersions cast on the memory of
the great and noble Prophet, by proclaiming in explicit terms
that slavery is reprobated by their faith and discountenanced
by their code.



" The blood of the Zimmi is like the blood of the Moslem " — All

HITHERTO, we have considered the teachings of the
Arabian Prophet solely from one point of view — as
furnishing the rule of human conduct, and supplying
the guide of man's duty to his Creator and to his fellow-
creatures. We now propose to examine the influence of
Islam on collective humanity — on nations, and not merely
on the individual, in short, on the destiny of mankind in the

Seven centuries had passed since the Master of Nazareth
had come with his message of the Kingdom of Heaven to the
poor and the lowly. A beautiful life was ended before the
ministry had barely commenced. And now unutterable
desolation brooded over the empires and kingdoms of
the earth, and God's children, sunk in misery, were anxiously
waiting for the promised deliverance which was so long in

In the West, as in the East, the condition of the masses was
so miserable as to defy description. They possessed no civil
rights or political privileges. These were the monopoly of the
rich and the powerful, or of the sacerdotal classes. The law
was not the same for the weak and the strong, the rich and the
poor, the great and the lowly. In Sasanide Persia, the priests
and the landed proprietors, the Dehkdns, enjoyed all power and
influence, and the wealth of the country was centred in their
hands. The peasantry and the poorer classes generally were
ground to the earth under a lawless despotism. In the Byzan-
tine Empire, the clergy and the great magnates, courtezans,


and other nameless ministrants to the vices of Gesar and
proconsul, were the happy possessors of wealth, influence
and power. The people grovelled in the most abject misery.
In the barbaric kingdoms — in fact, wherever feudalism
had established itself — by far the largest proportion of the
population were either serfs or slaves.

Villeinage or serfdom was the ordinary status of the peasantry.
At first there was little distinction between prsedial and domestic
slavery. Both classes of slaves, with their families, and their
goods and chattels, belonged to the lord of the soil, who could
deal with them at his own free will and pleasure. 1 In later
times the serfs or villeins were either annexed to the manor,
and were bought and sold with the land to which they belonged,
or were annexed to the person of the lord, and were transferable
from one owner to another. They could not leave their lord
without his permission ; and if they ran away, or were pur-
loined from him, might be claimed and recovered by action,
like beasts or other chattels. They held, indeed, small portions
of land by way of sustaining themselves and their families, but
it was at the mere will of the lord, who might dispossess them
whenever he pleased. A villein could acquire no property,
either in land or goods ; but if he purchased either, the lord
might enter upon them, oust the villein, and seize them to his
own use.

An iron collar round the neck was the badge of both prsedial
servitude and domestic slavery. The slaves were driven from
place to place in gangs, fed like swine, and housed worse than
swine, with fettered feet and manacled hands, linked together
in a single chain which led from collar to collar. The trader
in human flesh rode with a heavy knotted lash in his hands,
with which he ' encouraged ' the weary and flagging. This
whip when it struck, and that was frequently, cut the flesh out
of the body. Men, women, and children were thus dragged
about the country with rags on their body, their ankles ulcerated,
their naked feet torn. If any of the wretches flagged and fell,
they were laid on the ground and lashed until the skin was flayed
and they were nearly dead. The horrors of the Middle Passage,

1 The Church retained its slaves longest. Sir Thomas Smith in his Common-
wealth speaks bitterly of the hypocrisy of the clergy.


the sufferings of the poor negroes in the Southern States of
North America before the War of Emancipation, the cruelties
practised by the Soudanese slave-lifters, give us some con-
ception of the terrible sufferings of the slaves under Christian
domination at the time when Islam was first promulgated, and
until the close of the fifteenth century. 1 And even after the
lapse of almost two thousand years of Christ's reign, we still
find Christians lashing to death helpless women, imprisoned for
real or imaginary political offences by one of the most powerful
empires of the civilised world. 2

The condition of the so-called freemen was nowise better
than that of the ordinary serfs. If they wanted to part with
their lands, they must pay a fine to the lord of the manor. If
they wanted to buy any, they must likewise pay a fine. They
could not take by succession any property until they had paid
a heavy duty. They could not grind their corn or make their
bread without paying a share to the lord. They could not
harvest their crops before the Church had first appropriated its
tenth, the king his twentieth, the courtiers their smaller shares.
They could not leave their homes without the leave of the lord,
and they were bound, at all times, to render him gratuitous
services. If the lord's son or daughter married, they must
cheerfully pay their contributions. But when the freeman's
daughter married, she must first submit to an infamous outrage
— and not even the bishop, the servant of Christ, when he
happened to be the lord of the manor, would waive the atrocious
privilege of barbarism. Death even had no solace for these
poor victims of barbarism. Living, they were subject to the
inhumanities of man ; dead, they were doomed to eternal
perdition ; for a. felo-de-se was the unholiest of criminals, there
was no room for his poor body in consecrated ground ; he
could only be smuggled away in the dead of night and buried
in some unhallowed spot with a stake through his body as a
warning to others.

1 In the Parliamentary War both sides sold their opponents as slaves to
the colonists. After the suppression of the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion
all his followers were sold into slavery. The treatment of the slaves in the
colonies at the hands of " the Pilgrim Fathers " and their descendants will
not bear description.

1 This was written before the fall of the Romanoffs.


Such was the terrible misery which hung over the people !
But the baron in his hall, the bishop in his palace, the priest in
his cloister, little recked they of the sufferings of the masses.
The clouds of night had gathered over the fairest portion of
Europe and Africa. Everywhere the will of the strongest was
the measure of law and right. The Church afforded no help
to the downtrodden and oppressed. Its teachings were
opposed to the enfranchisement of the human race from the
rule of brute force. " The early Fathers " had condemned
resistance to the constituted authorities as a deadly sin. No
tyranny, no oppression, no outrages upon humanity were held
to justify subjects in forcibly protecting themselves against
the injustice of their rulers. The servants of Jesus had made
common cause with those whom he had denounced, — the rich
and powerful tyrant. They had associated themselves with
feudalism, and enjoyed all its privileges as lords of the soil,
barons and princes.

The non-Christians — Jews, heretics, or pagans — enjoyed,
under Christian domination, a fitful existence. It was a matter
of chance whether they would be massacred or reduced to
slavery. Rights they had none ; enough if they were suffered
to exist. If a Christian contracted an illicit union with a non-
Christian, — a lawful union was out of the question, — he was
burnt to death. The Jews might not eat or drink or sit at the
same table with the Christians, nor dress like them. Their
children were liable to be torn from their arms, their goods
plundered, at the will of the baron or bishop, or a frenzied
populace. And this state of things lasted until the close of
the seventeenth century.

Not until the Recluse of Hira sounded the note of freedom,
— not until he proclaimed the practical equality of mankind,
not until he abolished every privilege of caste, and emancipated
labour, — did the chains which had held in bond the nations
of the earth fall to pieces. He came with the same message
which had been brought by his precursors and he fulfilled it.

The essence of the political character of Islam is to be found
in the charter, which was granted to the Jews by the Prophet
after his arrival in Medina, and the notable message sent to^the
Christians of Najran and the neighbouring territories after


Islam had fully established itself in the Peninsula. This latter
document has, for the most part, furnished the guiding principle
to all Moslem rulers in their mode of dealing with their non-
Moslem subjects, and if they have departed from it in any
instance the cause is to be found in the character of the par-
ticular sovereign. If we separate the political necessity which
has often spoken and acted in the name of religion, no faith is
more tolerant than Islam to the followers of other creeds. 1
" Reasons of State " have led a sovereign here and there to
display a certain degree of intolerance, or to insist upon a
certain uniformity of faith ; but the system itself has ever
maintained the most complete tolerance. Christians and Jews,
as a rule, have never been molested in the exercise of their
religion, or constrained to change their faith. If they are
required to pa}'' a special tax, it is in lieu of military service,
and it is but right that those who enjoy the protection of the
State should contribute in some shape to the public burdens.
Towards the idolaters there was greater strictness in theory,
but in practice the law was equally liberal. If at any time
they were treated with harshness, the cause is to be found in
the passions of the ruler or the population. The religious
element was used only as a pretext.

In support of the time-worn thesis that the non-Moslem
subjects 2 of Islamic States labour under severe disabilities,
reference is made not only to the narrow views of the later
canonists and lawyers of Islam, but also to certain verses of
the Koran, in order to show that the Prophet did not view
non-Moslems with favour, and did not encourage friendly
relations between them and his followers. 3 In dealing with
this subject, we must not forget the stress and strain of the
life-and-death struggle in which Islam was involved when
those verses were promulgated, and the treacherous means that
were often employed by the heathens, as well as the Jews and
the Christians, to corrupt and seduce the Moslems from the
new Faith. At such a time, it was incumbent upon the Teacher

1 Comp. Gobineau, Les Religions et les Philosophies dans I'Asie Centrale.

2 In the Islamic system the non-Moslem subjects of Moslem States are called
Ahl-itz-zimmah or Zimmis, i.e " people living under guarantees,"

3 See Sell's Essays on Islam.


to warn his followers against the wiles and insidious designs of
hostile creeds. And no student of comparative history can
blame him for trying to safeguard his little commonwealth
against the treachery of enemies and aliens. But when we
come to look at his general treatment of non-Moslem sub-
jects, we find it marked by a large-hearted tolerance and

Has any conquering race or Faith given to its subject
nationalities a better guarantee than is to be found in the
following words of the Prophet ? "To [the Christians of]
Najran and the neighbouring territories, the security of God
and the pledge of His Prophet are extended for their lives,
their religion, and their property — to the present as well as
the absent and others besides ; there shall be no interference
with [the practice of] their faith or their observances ; nor any
change in their rights or privileges ; no bishop shall be removed
from his bishopric ; nor any monk from his monastery, nor
any priest from his priesthood, and they shall continue to
enjoy every thing great and small as heretofore ; no image or
cross shall be destroyed ; they shall not oppress or be oppressed ;
they shall not practise the rights of blood-vengeance as
in the Days of Ignorance ; no tithes shall be levied from
them nor shall they be required to furnish provisions for the
troops." 1

After the subjugation of Hira, and as soon as the people had
taken the oath of allegiance, Khalid bin-Walid issued a pro-
clamation by which he guaranteed the lives, liberty and
property of the Christians, and declared that " they shall not
be prevented from beating their ndkus 2 and taking out their
crosses on occasions of festivals." " And this declaration,"
says Imam Abu-Yusuf, 3 " was approved of and sanctioned by
the Caliph 4 and his council." 5

1 I.e. nor shall troops be quartered on them ; Fuhlh nl-Bulddn (Balazuri),
p. 65 ; Kitab-ul-Kharaj of Imam Abu Yusuf. Muir gives this guarantee of
the Prophet in an abridged form, vol. ii. p. 299 ; see Appendix.

2 A piece of wood used in Eastern Christian churches in place of a bell.

3 The Chief Kazi of Harun ar-Rashid.
* Abu Bakr.

5 Consisting of Omar, Osman and Ali and the other leading Companions
of the Prophet ; see the Kitdb ul-Khardj, p. 84.
s.l. S



The non-Moslem subjects were not precluded from building
new churches or temples. Only in places exclusively inhabited
by Moslems a rule of this kind existed in theory. " No new
Church or temple," said Abdullah bin Abbas, 1 " can be erected
in a town solely inhabited by Moslems ; but in other places
where there are already Zimmis inhabiting from before, we
must abide by our contract with them." 2 In practice, how-
ever, the prohibition was totally disregarded. In the reign of
Mamun, we hear of eleven thousand Christian churches,
besides hundreds of synagogues and fire-temples within the
empire. This enlightened monarch, who has been represented
as " a bitter enemy " of the Christians, included in his Council
the representatives of all the communities under his sway, —
Moslems, Jews, Christians, Sabaeans and Zoroastrians ; whilst
the rights and privileges of the Christian hierarchy were
carefully regulated and guaranteed.

It is a notable fact, with few parallels even in modern history,
that after the conquest of Egypt the Caliph Omar scrupulously

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 31 of 55)