By its crimes against humanity through the genocide, discrimination, slavery and apartheid visited on its African citizenry, Mauritania violates three sets of human rights laws it is bound to uphold — its own national law, international legal instruments and Islamic law: mainstream Muslim scholars hold that slavery is inconsistent with Islam. Furthermore, it can be concluded by the provisions he made that the discernible intention of the Prophet was to abolish slavery altogether. Please read on…
Mauritania is party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter), and to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (see post on ‘Slavery, discrimination and inhumanity in Mauritania — Gross abuse of law‘).
Even on the totally abhorrent subject of slavery that should be forever buried deep in the dustbin of history, but to which Mauritania contributes a continuing tragic thread to the tapestry of our time, Mauritania violates Islamic law in a country where Islam is the official religion, and the population reportedly 99 percent Muslim. In a previous blogpost, I raised — among others — the question: ‘What is Islam’s position on enslaving fellow Muslims?‘ This question elicited a comment, and apparent miscommunication, which I thereafter attempted to remedy in my response to the comment.
But beyond responding to the comment, I feel compelled to also attempt to answer my own question, albeit with a qualifier and caveat: I am neither a Muslim, nor an expert on Islamic jurisprudence and scholarship, so I stand to be corrected and apologise in advance for any misinterpretation, but from my understanding and with the help of a good friend, below are the key points on Islam and slavery, which I would like to highlight as a corollary to my blogpost on ‘The burden of being Black — Mauritania‘, and the said comment on this post. I also requested a colleague who is a practising Muslim to first review these points, which they kindly did.
The salient points on Islam and slavery are:
- Islam does not associate slavery with race or colour – anybody can be a slave
- A freeborn Muslim cannot be enslaved, but a non-Muslim slave converting to Islam does not necessarily gain their freedom by that conversion
- A person of unknown status shall be assumed to be Muslim and free and cannot be enslaved
- Lawful enslavement was restricted to two instances: capture in war (on the condition that the prisoner is not a Muslim), or birth into slavery.
- The Quran and the Hadith both emphasise that the slave is entitled to receive sustenance from the master, including shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention. It is a requirement that the sustenance be of the same standard found in the locality and it is also recommended for the slave to have the same standard of food and clothing as the master. If the master refuses to provide the required sustenance, the slave may complain to a judge, who may then penalise the master through sale of her or his goods as necessary for the slave’s keep or order the master to sell, hire out, or manumit the slave. Slaves also have the right to a period of rest during the hottest parts of the day during the summer.
- In spiritual matters, the free man and the slave were considered equal – and by their deeds in life could enter the same hell or heaven upon their death. In fact in his last speech and in other hadiths, the Prophet declared and emphasised that all believers, whether free or enslaved, are siblings! And a slave is expressly permitted to act as a congregational prayer leader (Imam).
- Manumission (freeing slaves) is one of the good deeds by which a Muslim atones for and wins forgiveness of earthly sins – thus implying that the holding of slaves may in fact amount to a sin.
- The Prophet avidly encouraged his family and his friends to free their slaves, and he himself freed a large number – and even married a number of his former slave girls (though he had the option to retain them as slave concubines or still marry them without freeing them).
By the last three facts (Nos 6, 7 and 8 above), many mainstream Muslim scholars have concluded that indeed slavery is inconsistent with Islam – especially given that the ‘Umma’ (roughly translated as the people of the community of believers) and the ‘Ulema’ (roughly translatable as the body of eminent Islamic scholars and spiritual leaders) largely find it reprehensible – and the Prophet in his Hadiths did empower the Umma and the Ulema as the ultimate guardians of the faith through communal decisions made in faith and observance of Allah’s will.
Further in support of this are arguments that slave masters generally do not abide by the provisions of Quran in the treatment of their slaves – and should therefore not own slaves; and that the discernible intention of the Prophet was to abolish slavery, but through an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process.
Moreover, if slaves were considered equal and worthy in matters spiritual and could even be spiritual leaders, let alone in matters material and terrestrial where enslavers were to provide equal material sustenance to slaves as to themselves, what possible interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet support the allegedly ‘Islam-based’ degrading and race-based slavery practised in Mauritania today?
We’re now nearly a millennium-and-a-half after the Prophet’s time, and still short on evolving out of this abominable reality. Slavery in any form — benevolent, benign or malevolent as it is in Mauritania — is totally unacceptable and completely out of step in a post-UDHR world, nearly seventy years on after this international UN treaty on human rights was drafted.