Is slavery permitted in the Quran?

By: A. Muhammad

The phrase "ma malakat aymanakum" (what your right hand possesses) which is used in numerous Quranic verses, such as 4:3 and 4:36, refer to the slaves. In addition, the word "amah" (singular) refers to the female slave, and the word "abd" (singular) refers to the male slave, both words found in 2:221.

Slavery is a despicable practice invented by mankind and abhorred by God. Even though there are no direct words in the Quran that prohibit slavery, yet slavery was indeed prohibited by God in the Quran by virtue of the fact that slavery constitutes a direct violation of some important Quranic rules. T
he prohibition of slavery was deemed by God to be a gradual process rather than an immediate one for good reasons.

The Quran advocates the freeing of slaves in numerous verses (e.g. 4:92, 5:89, 58:3).
However, God did not wish to prohibit slavery with immediate effect as this would have caused grave social problems.
It is estimated that at least one third of the population in Arabia at the time of the revelation of the Quran were slaves. This enormous number of slaves were fed, clothed and housed by their owners.
If God was to abolish slavery with immediate effect, the following would result:

1- All these multitudes of slaves would be out in the street with no means to support themselves, and this would cause great harm to the slaves themselves. Any owner who could not keep his slaves any more, nor able to sell them, would let them go free and they would be out in the street.

2- It would be possible for some of the freed slaves to find employment, but the vast majority would be unemployed and homeless. This would have led to catastrophic results with a great number of men resorting to crime and the women to prostitution!

3- Many slaves were used as workers. This bulk of workers constituted an asset and a productive power in the community. The sudden freeing of all slaves at once, with only some able to secure employment, would cause severe damage to the productive power of the whole community.

For these reasons, abolishing slavery had to be done in a gradual manner. We must never doubt the wisdom of God in how best things can be done. For that, God advocated the freeing of slaves in many verses and under various situations. However, there is no doubt that God’s call for freeing slaves indicates God’s disapproval of this despicable practice.

Following from that, it would not be righteous for any believer to go and buy a slave after the Quran was revealed, for this would be to act in the opposite direction of what God is calling for. For those who already owned slaves before the Quran was revealed they were advised to free their slaves at the earliest opportunity.

In addition, the Quran advocates equality of all people and that the only attribute that sets one human from another is their reverence of God (49:13). However, a slave is not equal to his master in the social standing, and so to go out and buy a slave (after the revelation of the Quran) would be to act in violation of God's law of equality that is set in the Quran.

In time, through the gradual freeing of slaves and no further buying of slaves, the practice of slavery would be abolished without causing catastrophic effects upon the community.
It goes without saying that all slavery found today is in direct violation to the Quran. If God’s instructions were followed from the time of the revelation of the Quran, slavery should have been abolished a long time ago.


Slavery was not the only practice that was treated as such by God. We find that other practices which were abhorred by God also deemed by God to be abolished gradually and not immediately. The reason is the same as with slavery; the damage caused by an immediate abolishing would outweigh the benefits.
As a result, and as with the issue of slavery, God allowed an unrighteous practice to continue for a while. The following is one example:

Do not marry the women whom your fathers had previously married, unless it happened in the past. This is an immorality, an abhorrence and a bad path to follow. 4:22

According to the words in
4:22, marrying a previous wife of the father is described by God as "immorality and an abhorrence", yet God allows such existing marriages that happened in the past to continue and not break up. Does that mean that God is approving of immorality and what is abhorrent? This is the same question which people ask about slavery!
The answer is no. God in His infinite wisdom knew that asking those who were married to previous wives of their fathers to divorce their wives would cause the break up of a family which would be much more damaging than the continuation of these marriages.
Such marriages were allowed to continue, then after one or two generations this practice would be non-existent. God’s law was designed to be implemented gradually.

We have another identical example in

Forbidden for you are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters .................................also, you shall not be married to two sisters at the same time unless it happened in the past. God is Forgiver, Merciful. 4:23

To marry two sisters was also designed to be abolished with a gradual effect for the same reasons.
The case of slavery was dealt with in the same way by God.

The important questions are:
- Is slavery unrighteous and abhorrent to God? Yes.
- Is slavery approved by God? No.
- Do the verses permitting slavery or marriage to two sisters or marriage to previous wives of the father apply today? No.

Only the existing practices at the time of the Quran were exempted for the reasons stated, but if the law of God was obeyed, none of these three practices would be in existence today. If they do exist, they would be in violation of God’s law and a great sin.