There is no faith on the face of the earth that has preached so much about the equality of humanity as Islam. Islam did not stop at just preaching about equality, it made it a requirement of every true believer, so that it had to be practiced in deed as well. So just as Muslims are required to believe in the One True God, they are required to believe in the oneness of mankind as the children of Adam and Eve. Since they all share a common parentage they have to be equal.
God Almighty made this very clear in the Qur’an when he declared:
O mankind, reverence your Guardian Lord, who created you from a single person, created of like nature, his mate, and from the twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women
O mankind, We have created you from male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed the most honourable of you in the sight of God is the most righteous
Mankind was one single nation, and God sent messengers with glad tidings and warnings, and with them
He sent the Book in truth
His Prophet expounded on this ideal when he preached in his Final Sermon on the Mount:
O People, Your Lord is One and your father is one. You all descended from Adam, and Adam was created from earth. He is most honored among you in the sight of God who is most upright. There is no superiority of the Arab over the non-Arab, or of the non-Arab over the Arab, or of the red (fair person) over the black, or of the black over the red – except with regard to piety
(Musnad of Ahmad)
What all this shows is that that in Islam, no race is superior to another. They are all equal before God. Since God is their Sole Creator and all humans are the creatures of this One True God, they are all equal in His Sight. It is after all, the self-same God who created all of creation, including man. In this sense, all creatures are God’s family and He is their Head as the Prophet put it: “All God’s Creatures are His Family, and He is the Most Beloved of God who does the greatest good to God’s Creatures”. Thus ideas like the Jews being ‘The Chosen People’ as preached by the Zionists or Germans being the ‘Master Race’ as held by the Nazis can have no place in Islam. Man’s worth is determined by the good he does, not how he looks. It is at the very root of the faith.
Thus in Islam all humans are to be treated alike whatever their differences. They are all creatures of a God who regards all as equally beautiful in their own way and accords each and every one of them with honour as the Children of Adam:
We have honoured the Children of Adam
(The Night Journey:70)
We created Man in the Best of Moulds
(The Fig: 4)
Indeed to be racist is the way of the devil who refused to prostrate before Adam only because he was made of fire and Adam of clay. Satan was therefore the first racist or supremacist when he dissented with God for ordering him to bow before Adam, arguing:
I am better than he. You created me from fire and him from clay
This alone should suffice to drive home the moral – to be racist is to be Satanic. So if you’re racist I’d advise you to cast it off lest you be in the league of the devil!
Islam also teaches us that racial differences are not to be scorned, but rather considered as Signs of God, thus bestowing sanctity to these differences rather than treating them as blights of nature:
And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the difference of your languages and colours. Verily, in that are indeed signs for those who know
(The Romans: 22)
See how beautifully God expresses this variety in man. Differences in our physical forms is not something to be looked at with ridicule. Rather, they are to be considered the Wondrous Works of the One True God. Diversity in peoples and languages and cultures is the result of God’s Will and Wisdom and is therefore Sacred and sacrosanct. Such diversity is not a reason to hate one’s fellow men, but rather to love, knowing that these have been bestowed on each one of us by our Creator Himself. Besides it adds beauty to the world. As the old saying goes Variety is the spice of life. Just imagine how monotonous the world would be if we had just one race and one culture, with all speaking the same language.
Thus, Islam made it a cornerstone of the faith to recognize and acknowledge the diversity in man and his culture. It alone of all faiths gave it divine sanction, it alone possessed that vitality to blend all peoples and cultures into a composite whole while allowing them to retain their languages and other cultural features, like a patchwork of different fabrics, all held together by the common thread of Islam.
It is this understanding of man taught by Islam that helped weld nations as distinct as Arab, Turk, Persian and Caucasian in the early days of Islam into one composite whole bound by the bond of faith, in spite of their possessing different languages and cultural traditions. It is this understanding that prevented Muslim nations from fighting one another on the basis of nationalism as the West did until very recently, killing several millions as we saw in the two great wars fought between the European powers in the last century. True, Ottomon Turkey took part in the Great War of 1914-1918 on the side of the Allied Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, But this was prompted not by nationalistic considerations, but rather by strategic interests to safeguard itself against its old foe Russia and stall the colonialist ambitions of the British and French who were making inroads into its dominions.
By recognizing that all men were equal, having similar roles, rights and responsibilities, Islam abolished for once and for all time all prejudice, patriotism and persecutions based on a false sense of national pride. This had other implications as well because it meant that there could be no conflict or war based on one’s race or nation. This idea abolished for all time the basis for national struggles and wars as we know them today. Pax Islamica brought peace to all. Why, because there could be no national pride, no grounds for discrimination and no need to fight for one’s rights as the history of Islam has proved. Thus struggles like that of Blacks against White Supremacists in the American South or that of the low caste Dalits against the high castes in India need not arise in Islamdom.
Since Islam is meant for all humanity, there can really be only one nation- the Nation of Islam. This is not to say that Islam abolishes tribal or national identity, but rather subsumes such identity under the common fealty of Islam. Thus whatever differences one Muslim has with another, whether it be physical or cultural, is submerged in the sea of faith. One’s loyalty ultimately lies with one’s brethren in faith and not with one’s race, tribe or clan. When the early Muslims swore allegiance to the Prophet by placing their hands over his, God revealed:
Verily those who plight their fealty to thee, do no less than plight their fealty to God, The Hand of God is over their hands
Thus all those who pledged loyalty to God became one in faith, in other words One nation under God. Islam unlike other faiths has from its very inception sought to weld together people of different races and cultures into one brotherhood. It transformed the individual’s sense of belonging to his family, clan or race into that of membership in a larger community with a higher mission on earth.
Indeed, the very first Islamic state in the city of Medina was founded upon an alliance between the Muhajiroon or ‘emigrants’ formed of Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe from Mecca and the Ansar or ‘helpers’ formed of the tribes of Aws and Khazraj who occupied Medina. Each Ansar took as his brother a Muhajir whom he treated as his brother and with whom he shared his property.
And remember with gratitude God’s favour on you. You were enemies and He united your hearts so that by His Grace, you became brethren, and you were on the brink of the pit of fire, and He saved you from it
Among the Prophet’s closest companions who embraced Islam were non-Arabs like Bilal the Abyssinian Negro, Shuayb the Roman and Salman the Persian. The Prophet also encouraged marriage with other peoples by himself marrying the Coptic girl Mariya through whom he had a son named Ibrahim. He even married a Jewish girl named Safiyah and loved her as such despite her being the daughter of his old enemy Huyay. When his Arab wife Ayisha brushed her aside saying one Jewess was much like another, he replied: “Don’t say that, for she has entered Islam and has made good her surrender!”.
Prophet Muhammad and his Arabian companions were fair-skinned men having probably the same light, sun-tanned complexion Jesus and his disciples had, but look at his followers now- fair-skinned Turks, brown-skinned Indians and black-skinned Africans, all recognizing one another as brothers and sisters, as the offspring of our first parents Adam and Eve. All this Islam achieved of men who had previously been hopelessly divided on tribal and racial considerations. Islam made them one.
As God says:
Verily this community of yours is a single community and I am your Lord; Therefore serve Me
(The Prophets: 92)
Islam sounded the death knell of every kind of nationalism. This was no better expressed than by the Prophet himself when he railed against Asabiyah (tribal partisanship), in other words nationalism, which he equated to non-belief:
He is not one of us who calls for Asabiyah or who fights for Asabiyah or who dies for Asabiyah
When the Prophet took Mecca from the Quraysh in the close of his ministry he told this tribe who so boasted of their blue blood, and that too in the very house built by their ancestor Ishmael which they considered the holy of holies:
“O Quraysh, God has taken from you the haughtiness of Paganism and its veneration of ancestors. Man springs from Adam and Adam sprang from dust” (Seerah Ibn Ishaq).
It once happened that a companion of the Prophet, Abu Dharr got angry with Bilal, a freed Negro slave and insulted him by calling him “Son of a black woman” this saddened Bilal so much that he reported the incident to the Prophet in tears. The Prophet told Abu Dharr: “Do you still have a sign of Jahilliyyah in you ?”. The word the Prophet used to express Aby Dharr’s transgression was a very serious one, because Jahilliyyah meant the Pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance with its idolatry and tribal arrogance. Abu Dharr became so repentant that he lay on the ground and said: “I won’t raise my head unless Bilal puts his foot on it to pass over it”. Bilal rushed to forgive him and they were soon friends (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
Bilal, a black Ethiopian slave freed by the Muslims was given a very high place in Islam. He was Islamdom’s first Muezzin, the one who calls his fellow Muslims to prayer from the Mosque or its turret known as the Minaret. Upon the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet commanded Bilal to climb on to the top of the Ka’aba, the holiest mosque in Islam and summon the faithful to prayer. Before Islam the Ka’aba, was a place of honour meant only for pure-blooded Arabs of a white complexion and now a black man was atop it to summon these once proud Arabs to their prayers. In like manner, the slave girl Sumayya became the first martyr in Islam when her evil master Abu Jahl killed her with a spear simply because she refused to abandon her Islamic faith.
It was also on the advice of a Persian Companion named Salman Al Farsi that the Prophet ordered a deep trench to be dug around medina to prevent the confederate forces of the Meccans and allied clans from invading the city. When they camped in sight of it, there came a gale from the West which blew for three days and nights so that not a tent could be kept standing, nor a fire lit or pot boiled, prompting the enemy to withdraw.
I can give you countless examples of how the early Muslims treated Non-Arabs and especially negroes who were looked down upon as slaves in the Arab society of a previous age. For instance when the Muslim army left to conquer Egypt, the Egyptian ruler, Al Muqawqis requested a delegation from them to be sent to him. Amr ibn Al Aas, the leader of the Muslim army quickly dispatched a delegation of ten men and appointed Ubadah as its leader. Now, Ubadah was a tall black man. Al Muqawqis who set his eyes on him became afraid due to his blackness and cried out: “Keep this black man away from me and let someone else speak to me!”
The men in the delegation said: “This black man is the best among us in wisdom” “How can you be pleased that this black man is the best among you; rather he should be the least among you” replied Al Muqawqis. “Not at all!” said the Muslims. “Even though he is black as you can see, he is one of the highest in position among us; he is one of the earliest Muslims, and one of the best in wisdom and knowledge. Blackness is not something that is despised among us.” Al Muqawqis looked at Ubadah and said: “Come forward, O black man, and speak to me kindly, for I am afraid of your blackness and if you speak harshly you will make me even more afraid” Ubadah, seeing that he had scared al Muqawqis said to him, using his fear as a bargaining chip: “Among our army are a thousand black men who are even more black than I am”.
The Muslims were, after all a nation to whom their Prophet had addressed:
Hear and obey, although your leader be a black slave with a head like a raisin, so long as he enforces God’s Law among you
Thus in Islamdom every race that came under its pale contributed to its growth. This will be evident when you study the history of Islam where Arabs, Persians, Turks, Berbers, Mongols and Negroes all contributed to its growth and spread throughout the ages since its very inception 1400 years ago. No other faith can boast of such a multinational contribution. When the Turks embraced Islam and went on to conquer Constantinople, they took upon themselves the Caliphate or leadership of the Islamic world which they fulfilled for four hundred years from their capital of Istanbul on the European side of modern-day Turkey. Yes, Islamdom was ruled for all those centuries from Europe by a non-Arab people who had been blessed with Islam and had become the most ardent champions of the faith.
Islam also abolished for all time the notion of nobility by lineage which entitled one to special treatment. The Prophet made this very clear when he said: “Humans are equal like the teeth of a comb with the exception of piety, where they differ” (Musnad Al Shihab). He further said: “There are indeed people who boast of their dead ancestors; but in the sight of God, they are more contemptible than the black beetle that rolls a piece of dung with its nose. Behold God has removed from you the arrogance of the Time of Jahiliyyah with its boast of ancestral glories. Man is but a God-fearing believer or an unfortunate sinner. All people are the children of Adam, and Adam was created out of dust” (Tirmidhi).
Take the case of Julaybib, a dwarf of ugly appearance and unknown lineage in a society where bloodlines were treasured. Because he was scoffed at in the company of men, the poor fellow took pleasure in the company of women. The Prophet took upon himself the task of finding a partner for Julaybib and went to one of the Ansar seeking the hand of his daughter. “How wonderful and blessed, O Messenger of God and what a delight to the eye” replied the man. “I do not want her for myself,” said the Prophet. “Then for whom, O Messenger of God?” asked the man. “For Julaybib” answered the Prophet. The Ansari who was too shocked to give his views said: “I will consult with her mother.” and went to his wife. “The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, wants to have your daughter married” he said to her. She was thrilled. When he told it was to Julaybib, she cried out: “To Julaybib! No, never to Julaybib! No, by the living God, we shall not marry (her) to him.” The daughter who had heard her mother asked: “Who has asked you to marry me?”. When told of it she said: “Do you refuse the request of the Messenger of God? Send me to him for he shall certainly not bring ruin to me. I am satisfied and submit myself to whatever the Messenger of God deems good for me”. The Prophet heard of her reaction and prayed for her: “O Lord, bestow good on her in abundance and make not her life one of toil and trouble.”and the Prophet himself married her to the dwarf and they lived happily until he was martyred. When the Prophet noticed that Julaybib was missing in battle, he cried out: “I have lost Julaybib. Search for him in the battlefield” They searched and found him beside seven enemies whom he had struck before meeting his end. The Prophet stood up and went to the spot where Julaybib lay. He stood over him and said: “He killed seven and then was killed? This (man) is of me and I am of him.” He then took him in his arms, dug for him a grave and himself placed him in it.
Then take the case of Jabala, a ruler of the Ghassanid Arabs who became a Muslim during the caliphate of Umar, but afterwards turned Christian and went to live in the Byzantine Empire. The occasion of his apostatizing from Islam was this: Once in passing through the bazaar of Damascus, he let his horse tread upon one of the bystanders who sprang up and struck Jabala a blow on the face. The Ghassanids seized the fellow and brought him before Abu Ubaydah, a well known companion of the Prophet, who answered: “If he has struck you, you will strike him a blow in return”. Jabala asked “And shall not he be slain ?”. “No” replied Abu Ubaydah. “Shall not his hand be cut off ?” “No” said Abu Ubaydah “God has ordained retaliation only – blow for blow”. Jabala then betook himself to Roman territory and became a Christian.
That such equal treatment extended to non-Muslims is seen from an incident that took place in the lifetime of the Caliph Umar. That was when Amr Ibn Al Aas ruled as Governor of Egypt after having conquered it for Islam. And whom do we have as his accuser – a Copt, a Christian native of Egypt. One day this Copt came to the Caliph and complained: “Commander of the Faithful, I come to you as a refugee”’ Umar asked him what he had to say and he answered “Amr had a custom of letting his horses run free in Egypt. One day, I came by riding my mare. When I passed by a group of people, they looked at me. Muhammad, the son of Amr got up and came to me, saying, ‘I swear by the Lord of the Kaaba, this is my mare!’ I responded, ‘I swear by the Lord of the Kaaba, the mare is mine!’ He came up to me and began beating me with a whip, saying, “You may take her, because I am the son of a nobleman (meaning I am more generous than you”‘ The incident got to Amr, who feared that I might come to you, so he put me in jail. I escaped, and here I am before you.” Umar wrote a letter to Amr summoning him and his son to Medina. When they arrived, Umar looked around for the son, and noticed him standing behind his father to appear less conspicuous. Umar asked “Where is the Egyptian?” and he responded, “Here I am!” Umar told him “Here is the whip. Take it and beat the son of the nobleman”. So he took it and beat him vigorously, while Umar said over and over “Beat the son of the nobleman” and did not let him stop until he had beaten him enough. Umar said: “‘Now you must take it and hit me on my bald head. This all happened to you because of my power over you”‘ The Copt said: “I am satisfied and my anger has cooled”. Umar told him: “If you had beaten me, I would not have stopped you until you had wished to. And you, Amr, since when have you made the people your slaves? They were born free” Umar then said turning to the Egyptian: “You may go, and be guided. If anything untoward happens to you, write to me.”
Indeed in Islam, the ruler has no special privilege above the rest of his subjects. He is bound by the law as they are and has no more right to the public exchequer than they. The example was set by our Prophet himself who did not dress in any way that differed from his companions. Although a ruler he wore no crown, had no throne and interacted with his followers as if he were one of them, so much so that the casual visitor could not make him out, like the day a Bedouin came to see him and could not make him out in the mosque, only to have a companion pointing to the Prophet as “This white man”.
The Prophet sought to abolish every possible means of showing undue respect or veneration to men, like when he declared: “Whoever likes to have the slaves of God stand up out of respect for him should take his place in the Fire“‘(Adab al Mufrad). Such was the contempt he had for reverence paid even to the head of state. Needless to say, this means Muslims cannot even stand up for their ruler as a mark of respect, let alone bow down to him as we still find in Western monarchies.Since God is the ultimate sovereign of the universe, no true Muslim can render the obeisance due to God to any worldly sovereign, however powerful he be. How indeed I ask can he bow his head to another when there is God above ruling supreme? The greatest respect one can do a ruler is salute him with a salutation of peace Salaam!
On another occasion the Prophet warned: “Let no one make another arise from where they are sitting and sit down in his place. Enlarge the circle and make room so that God will give you increase”(Saheeh Muslim). When the Prophet said to widen the circle, you may picture the companions of the circle like you do King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But not Knights of noble blood they were, even a pauper could come sit in the Prophet’s Circle.
Islam gives us numerous examples of this attitude of rulers, who in God’s Sight were equal as any of us. Take Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam who had this to say in his very first address to the community shortly after the Prophet’s demise: “Cooperate with me when I am right but correct me when I commit error; obey me so long as I follow the commandments of Allah and His Prophet; but turn away from me when I deviate.” Then take Umar, the second Caliph who had this to say: “I have no greater right on your money (the public treasury) than the guardian of an orphan has on his property. If I am wealthy I shall not take anything. If I am needy I shall take enough for my maintenance. Ye have rights over me, which you should demand of me. One such right is that I shall neither collect revenues unlawfully or spend those that come to my possession unlawfully; that I shall increase your stipends and protect the frontiers, and that I shall not cast you into unnecessary perils” .
He also made it clear that there could be no partiality in meting out justice. The Caliph once had a dispute with an ordinary citizen named Ubay Ibn Kab who lodged a complaint in the court against Umar. The Caliph of course appeared in person before the court as a defendant. When Zaid Ibn Thabit who was serving as the judge made a gesture that the Caliph felt was meant to honour him. He promptly told him “This is your first injustice!” and took his seat by the side of Ubay. When the judge requested the complainant to waive off the need for Umar to swear under oath on the grounds that the Caliph was the Head of the State, he promptly shot back: “If Umar and any other man are not equal in your eyes, you are not fit for the post of judge”.
This same Umar who had conquered for Islam Persia and Syria could later be seen riding to Jerusalem to accept its surrender on a camel or donkey which carried besides his person, a bag of provisions like dates and a leather bottle of water. He wore a coarse woolen shirt and was accompanied by a servant who took turns riding the animal. After guaranteeing the Christians of the holy city their rights, he set his attention to the ruins of the Temple of Solomon destroyed by the Romans centuries ago and started on the task of building a mosque on the site by himself taking the dirt in his vest to remove it, whereupon his army assisted him, some filling their vests, others their bucklers and yet others baskets, so that in a short time they had cleared the site of the debris.
Even in later times, Muslim rulers followed such teachings to the letter. Take Sultan Alp Arslan, the Turkish ruler who donned pure white habit as his shroud in case he were martyred and told his soldiers before the great Battle of Malazgirt in 1071: “Those of you who choose to follow me, let them do so. Those who choose to leave, let them go. There are no commanding Sultans giving orders here, nor are there any soldiers needing to obey. Today I am one of you. I am a soldier going to war alongside you. Those who follow me and become martyrs having devoted their souls to God Almighty. To heaven you go!”.
By making the ruler and the ruled equal, Islam achieved something even communism with all its talk of egalitarianism could not. You have only to read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ that great satire on communism to understand that ‘Although all animals are equal, some are more equal than others’. You only have to look at the luxurious lifestyles of so-called Socialist leaders in contrast to the poverty endured by the masses to realize the truth of this. Whether it was Chairman Mao of China a couple of decades ago or Deng of South Korea in our times, you can see how true this is. Here are hypocrites who claim to serve the people but live like kings in opulent palaces at the expense of their people who serve them and their families like slaves.
Equality is embedded in the very fabric of Islam, in all aspects of life from the prayers to the pilgrimage it demands of its followers. Any believer could pray directly to God, summon people to prayer and even lead the prayers, perform sacrifices or solemnize marriages. There need be no intermediary between God and man. Thus in Islam there could be no hereditary Levite priests as the Jews have or Brahmin priests as the Hindus have. Nay there could not be any priesthood, whether hereditary or not, that partakes of God’s Glory like the Popes and Priests of the Catholics who have arrogated to themselves the right to forgive sinners as if they were God’s shadow on earth.
Indeed mosques are the most egalitarian places of worship found anywhere in the world. Synagogues are restricted to ethnic Jews, Hindu temples to high-caste Hindus and some Christians in the US have special black churches because white people would not have them in theirs. But in Islam, the mosques, are open to all who profess the faith, be they black or white. Wherever you go you will find Muslims of all races standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer as equals, bowing their heads together to the One God who created them all.
The famous poetess of India, Sarojini Naidu was so impressed with this trait which was in striking contrast to the practices of her caste conscious Hindu countrymen that she wrote in Ideals of Islam in 1918:
“It was the first religion that preached and practiced democracy; for, in the mosque, when the call for prayer is sounded and worshippers are gathered together, the democracy of Islam is embodied five times a day when the peasant and king kneel side by side and proclaim: ‘God Alone is Great’. I have been struck over and over again by this indivisible unity of Islam that makes man instinctively a brother.”
Another great equalizer was the pilgrimage to Mecca where all Muslims, white or black, rich or poor don the same simple white habit to earn their Lord’s Favour:
T.W.Arnold was so impressed with this great ritual that he remarked in his Preaching of Islam:
“Above all- and herein is its supreme importance in the missionary history of Islam- it ordains a yearly gathering of believers, of all nations and languages, brought together from all parts of the world, to pray in that sacred place towards which their faces are set in every hour of private worship in their distant homes. No stretch of religious genius could have conceived a better expedient for impressing on the minds of the faithful a sense of their common life and of brotherhood in the bonds of faith. Here, in a supreme act of common worship, the Negro of the West Coast of Africa meets the Chinaman from the distant East; the country and polished Ottoman recognizes his brother Muslim in the wild islander from the farthest end of the Malayan Sea”.
Yes, Islam equalized man like no other society did before it, well before the French revolutionaries cried out Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite! or Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Declaration of American Independence in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Islam came at a time when humanity was sunk in the poison of racial and class superiority and leveled it to the ground. What communism failed to achieve in the modern age in Europe, Islam achieved fourteen centuries ago. Did you know that in mediaeval Europe you actually had racism of a sort, where the nobility formed a class of their own, making laws at their whims and fancies and ruling their subjects with an iron fist. Did you know that the peasantry over whom they ruled were serfs bound to the land of their lords and obliged to work on it till their dying day. They were poor as poor could be and oppressed and exploited to the hilt, not much different from the slaves who worked in the plantations in the Americas.
In countries like Russia they were legally bound to their masters’ lands and even fleeing away from such lands was deemed a criminal offence. The landowner could simply transfer a serf to another landowner while keeping his personal property and family for himself. And to think it was only in 1861 with the Emancipation Manifesto that over 20 million serfs gained the right to own property of their own, to do business and marry without the consent of their landowners. And to think they were once free men.
In India it was still worse. The native peoples enslaved by the Aryans were formed into a fourth caste, the Shudras whose only duty was to serve the higher castes from generation to generation in perpetuity as held in the Laws of Manu. The Hindu scriptures like the Aitareya Brahmana even declared that a Shudra was one who could be killed or beaten at will. Did you know that King Rama, who is regarded as a deity by Hindus, killed a low caste man just because he practiced meditation? Why because the low castes were not supposed to meditate like the high caste Brahmins did, but rather serve them. The Law of Manu even went to the extent of exempting high caste Brahmans from punishment however serious their crimes:
Let (the king) never slay a Brahmana, though he has committed all kinds of crimes; let him banish such an offender, leaving all his property and keeping him unhurt. No greater crime is known on earth than slaying a Brahmana; a king, therefore, must not even entertain the thought of killing a Brahmana
In like manner the Jews of old looked down upon other peoples as goyim or gentiles. They slaughtered them indiscriminately in their wars and in times of peace practiced usury on them, depriving them of what little they had. They kept to themselves and did not marry outside following Ezra their Chief Priest who had led them back from the Babylonian captivity. In the Bible, we read that Ezra, hearing that the Israelites had taken wives from the peoples of the land, thus desecrating the ‘holy race’, tore his cloak, plucked hair from his head and beard and cried out: “Your unfaithfulness in taking foreign women as wives has added to Israel’s guilt. Give praise to the Lord, the God of your fathers, and do His Will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from these foreign women”.
Such racist ideas led to the Jews fabricating some very unfair laws, like the one that laid down that a Jewish man was not to be executed if he committed adultery with a Gentile woman. But the Gentile woman was to be executed. As the Talmud says:
He who has carnal knowledge of the wife of a Gentile is not liable to the death penalty. If a Jew has coitus with a Gentile woman, whether she be a child of three or an adult, whether married or unmarried, and even if he is a minor aged only nine years and one day – because he had wilful coitus with her she must be killed, as is the case with a beast, because through her a Jew got into trouble.
Even Christianity which we of the modern age look at as a liberating faith could not divest itself completely from its Jewish racist heritage. Paul, the founding father of the church, in spite of reaching out to the gentiles, was not altogether free of his Jewish sense of pride like when he proclaimed:
It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the freeborn woman. The son of the slave woman was born naturally, the son of the freeborn through a promise. Now this is an allegory. These women represent two covenants. One was from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; this is Hagar. Hagar represents Sinai, a mountain in Arabia; it corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery along with her children (Jerusalem was at the time under the Romans) but the Jerusalem above is freeborn, and she is our mother. Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of the promise, but just as the child of the flesh persecuted the child of the spirit, it is the same now. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave woman and her son! For the son of the slave woman shall not share the inheritance with the son of the freeborn”. Therefore, brothers, we are children not of the slave woman, but of the freeborn woman” (Galatians 4:21-31)
Paul is here appealing to the Biblical story of Abraham and his spouses to equate the Mosaic law with slavery and of the promise of God with freedom, but the basis on which he relies, Sarah’s supposed words, which he takes to be scripture, has clearly racist overtones. The man talks of freedom but appeals to scripture to declare the half-brothers of the Jews, the Ishmaelites as born slaves, despite their too being the children of Abraham.
Indeed, one may suppose that much of the racial bigotry of the West stems from misreadings of the Bible, especially the Old Testament which portray the Jews as a superior race, the ‘Chosen People’. The non-Jewish Christians who inherited the scripture arrogated to themselves this idea of chosen people employing tools like imperialism and colonialism towards this end.
Take Christopher Columbus whom many of you in the West regard as some sort of hero- the man who discovered the Americas and opened up the New World for western colonization. Did you know that when he landed in the Bahamas in 1492, he observed that the natives were a very friendly people, so much so that when the Santa Maria was shipwrecked, these Arawaks worked for hours to save him and his crew and shared whatever they had with the newcomers. But rather than reciprocate their kindness he took it for weakness. Impressed with the hard work of these gentle folk, he immediately claimed their land for Spain and enslaved them, putting them to work in his gold mines. Within two years, half of the population had been killed off through his brutal policies, many of them by being overworked. In case a worker did not deliver his full quota of gold dust by his deadline, his soldiers would cut off the man’s hands and tie them around his neck to send a message. At one time as many as hundred of them committed mass suicide because the conditions were so very intolerable. If natives resisted their lot, he would cut off a nose or if they tried to escape he had them burned alive. He also had dogs which he let loose on the natives and they would tear off the limbs of the screaming wretches while they were still alive. If his soldiers ran short of meat to feed the dogs, Arawak babies were simply killed for dog food. Hard to swallow isn’t it, but this was the bitter truth of the West’s inhumanity to their fellow men.
If you can take more, I’ll tell you how dirty King Leopold of Belgium ruled the Congo like a personal estate teeming with slaves out of free men he had enslaved. To get more rubber and inflate the coffers of his little country, he had his army force the people tap rubber from the trees growing wild. Anybody who resisted had his wife killed. Whole Villages that resisted slavery were destroyed. Such was the legacy of colonialism the West left in contrast to Islam which even if it came with arms was welcomed as a liberating force.
Even Western historians have acknowledged this contribution of Islam, like H.G.Wells who noted in his Outline of History (1931):
If the reader entertains any delusions about a fine civilization, either Persian, Roman, Hellenic or Egyptian, being submerged by this flood, the sooner he dismisses these ideas the better. Islam prevailed because it was the best social and political order the times had to offer. It prevailed because everywhere it found politically apathetic peoples, robbed, oppressed, bullied, uneducated and unorganized, and it found selfish and unsound governments out of touch with any people at all. It was the broadest, freshest and cleanest political idea that had yet come into actual activity in the world, and it offered better terms than any other to the mass of mankind.
Likewise we have S.P Scott writing in glowing terms of the Muslim treatment of the non-Muslims of Spain in his work History of the Moorish Empire in Europe (1904):
By its example of equity, toleration and mercy, the new government rapidly gained the attachment of its subjects; the Jew prospered, the Christian forgot his bigotry, and the slave eagerly repeated the formula which released him from bondage and placed him on an equality with kings.
And now I’m sure you’re going to ask me about slavery. Did Islam recognize it? Yes it did, though this was more a question about tolerating it rather than recognizing it as such. It did because the social conditions of the times were such. But at the same time, it laid down limitations on enslaving people, confining it only to prisoners of war; it gave them their due rights by placing them on a footing of equality with their masters, so that a master who as much as struck his slave was obliged to free him. If that were not enough it gave slaves the right to demand their freedom from their masters by settling them a reasonable payment. It was Islam, and not the West that set slavery on the trajectory towards abolition.
To begin with, let’s consider the nature of human society at that time. Slavery was an accepted institution of those times in almost every part of the world, whether in Rome, Persia or India. Arabia was no exception. You have only to look at the civil war in the US a couple of centuries ago to realize how deeply rooted slavery was even in the so-called civilized world. It led to the division of the US into two camps and immense bloodshed and even then it was not until the 1960s that the descendants of the liberated slaves were given their basic civil rights.
It was not possible to root out this evil because it had become so entrenched in human societies throughout the ages, mainly as a result of war, where the defeated people were taken as slaves to labour for their victors. Thus rather than abolishing it outright, Islam came up with a careful plan that set it on the course towards enfranchisement. For one thing it laid down that no Muslim or offspring of a Muslim could be enslaved, guaranteeing for all time that slavery can have no place in a purely Islamic society. Slaves could only be made of those captives of war who had refused to embrace Islam when the choice had been given to them either to embrace the faith, or to become protected citizens of the state by paying a poll tax or to go to war. In case they lost the war, the survivors would be taken captive and considered as slaves. Thus slaves could only be taken in a legitimate Jihad or Holy War after the choice had been given to them and they reject it.
Surely you will agree with me that taking such captives and enslaving them was a far better option than killing them as often happened in the course of war in those benighted times in Europe and elsewhere in the world, like when the Roman Emperor Marius did when he put to death all his prisoners of war purely for economic considerations as looking after them would have taxed the state.
Islam on the other hand clearly prohibited the killing of captives. At the same time it could not let these captives loose on society. Some would have still borne hostility to their victors and even run amok. Others would have been bereft of a livelihood in the wake of the new state of affairs and could have even resorted to an evil course of life. By deeming captives as slaves and allocating them to the charge of the state or to lot of its soldiers, Islam ensured they were provided with a guardian who could enjoy the fruits of their labour while at the same time taking care of them as their own brethren. Thus you will find that Islam tolerated the existence of slavery only because it had no other alternative at the time. Enslaving prisoners of war was the only merciful and practical recourse at that time.
At the same time Islam ensured the status of slaves, guaranteeing them all their basic rights and putting them on an almost equal footing with the rest of the community. Even to call a man a slave or a woman a slave girl was disapproved by the Prophet who advised his followers:
None of you shall say, this is my slave and this is my slave-girl. Rather he should say: “This is my man and this is my maiden”.
He would also warn them:
Your slaves are your brethren. So if any of you happens to have a slave, let him give the same food that he himself eats, and the same clothing that he himself wears. And do not give them such work as is beyond their power to perform, and if you ever happen to give them such work, you should help them in doing it
He assured them of Divine Retribution for those who abused their slaves:
Those who abuse their slaves cannot enter paradise
And worldly retribution for those who killed or grievously harmed them:
He who kills his slave, we shall kill him; who mutilates his nose, we shall cut his nose; and who gelds our slave, we shall get him gelded in return
(Saheeh Al Bukhari)
Islam also prohibited masters from forcing their slave girls into prostitution and letting them fall victim to unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases. Only their masters could have access to them sexually, gratifying one another’s sexual needs in a moral manner. Master and maid were thus bonded in a peculiar relationship and no sooner she gave birth she was free, and so was her child. In fact Islam encouraged its followers to marry slave girls with the sweeping statement:
You are sprung the one from the other
(The Women: 25)
“If” said the Prophet “a man has a slave girl in his possession and he instructs her in polite accomplishments and gives her a good education without inflicting any chastisement upon her, and then frees and marries her, he shall have a double reward” (Saheeh Muslim).
The Prophet also commanded his followers to:
Hear and obey, even if an Abyssinian slave with is placed in authority over you
This shows that slavery was not even a bar to leadership of the community. The Prophet even appointed his one-time slave Zayd and his son Usama as commanders of the Muslim forces leading an army that comprised some of the noblest men of the Quraysh. A powerful Islamic dynasty, the Mamelukes who ruled Egypt and other Arab lands were enfranchised military slaves. Such was the status slaves enjoyed in Islamdom in contrast to the West which treated them as sub-humans and exploited them to the hilt.
Hand in hand with this fair treatment of slaves went their right to enfranchisement. Islam looked at every possible opportunity to give slaves their liberty. The Prophet himself set an example by freeing the slaves he had. His freedman Zaid in spite of being freed always stood by his side. The Prophet’s close friend and first Caliph Abu Bakr spent much of his wealth buying slaves from the pagan chiefs of Mecca to set them free.
The Qur’an also ordered that atonement for certain offences like unintentionally killing believers was the freeing of slaves:
And whoever kills a believer by mistake, he should free a believing slave, and blood-money should be paid to his people
(The Women: 92)
So in a sense, a freed slave was to take the place of a free man who had been mistakenly killed by his fellows, giving in his stead another free human being to serve the community.
Islam also made the freeing of slaves a charitable act that would earn God’s Pleasure:
It is not righteous that ye turn your faces towards east or west; but it is righteous- to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book and the Messengers; to spend your substance out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for wayfarer, for those who ask, and for ransom of slaves
But that’s not all. It laid down a rule that anybody who abused his slave was to set him or her free based on the Prophet’s command:
The expiation for someone who slaps his slave or beats him more than he deserves is to set him free
(Adab Al Mufrad)
A companion of the Prophet tells us:
I was beating my servant (boy) with a whip. Seeing this, the Prophet approached me and warned ‘O Abu Masud! God has more authority over you than you have got on this boy. You had better give up your right over him for this crime. Otherwise you will go to hell”
Another companion of his relates:
We, the sons of Muqarrin, were seven, and we had one servant. Then one of us slapped her and that was mentioned to the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace. He said, ‘Order them to set her free.’ The Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, was told “’She is the only servant they have” He said, “Then let them hire her and when they no longer need her, let her go on her way” (Adab al Mufrad)
Nay, Islam went further, giving slaves the right to purchase their freedom from their masters or mistresses by settling them a mutually agreed sum.
And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum) give them such a deed if ye know any good in them; yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which God has given to you
The master could not refuse the plea of such a slave who was prepared to ransom himself. If he did not, the slave could even resort to the law to have him enfranchised. Such a wonderful thing was nowhere heard of in those days, even in the West until a little over a century ago when the emancipation movement gained momentum. Even as late as 1857 we hear of a black slave named Dredd Scott, who having failed to purchase his freedom, sued for his freedom, only to have the Supreme Court of the United States declaring that he could not do so because he was not a person, but private property.
Contrast this attitude to the early days of Islam when we hear of a slave named Sirin asking Anas bin Malik for a contract of emancipation. When anas refused, he complained to the Caliph Umar who told Anas “Write it for him”. Still he refused. So Umar hit him with his whip and recited the Quranic verse concerning it, and then he wrote the deed of emancipation (Tafsir Ibn Kathir). This instrument allowed all those slaves who desired their freedom to be free. If they did not have the means, the state would intervene, ensuring that the man or woman would henceforth be called upon to work for his or her master or mistress in return for a fixed fee. Else, it would give him the opportunity to work for another until such time he was able to collect the funds necessary for winning his freedom.
As if that were not enough, the state could, and would, purchase their freedom out of the public exchequer. There were occasions when slaves were purchased from public funds and set free such as happened in the days of Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz. The Qur’an after all clearly laid down that slaves or captives were to be ransomed out of the obligatory alms tax taken from the believers and so this came to be an accepted practice. Thus you will see how Islam set slavery on the trajectory towards abolition, so that all could live as free men and women.
Contrast this generous Islamic attitude with the harsh forms of slavery that prevailed in the West until very recent times. Why, because Christianity did absolutely nothing to uplift the conditions of slaves. It probably only made their lot worse with the founding father of the Church Paul himself preaching:
“Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not only when being watched, as currying favour, but as slaves of Christ, doing the Will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:5-6)
“Slaves are to be under the control of their masters in all respects, giving them satisfaction, not talking back to them or stealing from them” (Titus 2:9-10)
In the Roman Empire, even after it had become Christian, the slave was deemed a mere chattel who did not have any rights. He could be put to any task by his master or slain at will. These wretches were overworked, underfed and compelled to fight one another to death in the arenas so that the free citizens of the empire could let their greedy eyes feast on the gore. The gladiators whom you may have heard of in your history books were really slaves forced to fight one another. They would be trained in close combat by overseers and then led to the arena with deadly weapons like swords and lances and fall on each other, slicing and hacking one another under the dictum ‘kill or be killed’ while the maddening crowd cheered. In other words they were treated even worse than cattle. If ever one could say there was exploitation of man by man, it was this!
But slavery did not end with the Romans. It continued in the West as late as the 1850s when Negro slaves were compelled to do back-breaking labour in plantations in the American south. Did you know that George Washington, the Founding Father of the United States was a slave owner? When Washington was just twelve years old, he inherited ten slaves and by the time of his death he owned over a hundred slaves. His slaves in his plantations worked from dawn to dusk toiling for their master and could be whipped for the slightest infraction. At least at the end of his life he took the bold step of freeing his slaves in his last will, but he was an exception, being the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.
Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, America’s. second Vice President and third President, was a worse master. He looked upon them as mere commodities such as when he calculated that the births of slave children produced capital at the rate of 4 percent per year: ‘I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.’ This very man who penned the memorable lines “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” had no qualms about hiring overseers who even whipped slave children to keep them at their tasks.