Slavery in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

There are some positive verses in the Quran about the treatment and even release of  slaves, but there are also some negative ones.

This article is Part 5 in the sharia series.

This series of articles is intended for educators, journalists, legislators, city council members, judges, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, TV and radio talk show hosts, and others who occupy “check points” in society. They initiate dialogues and shape (not to say control) the flow of the conversation. They are the policy and decision makers.

They seem to believe that sharia has no problems; it’s just misunderstood. Its critics exaggerate (and maybe they have been guilty of that in some cases). The critics are probably just “Islamophobic.” Islam, after all, is a world religion, so it deserves respect.

But these same intellectual elites may also have a gnawing feeling that sharia does have problems. Can the critics be all wrong, all the time?

Yet, the decision makers may be afraid of voicing their private fears in public. Nevertheless, overcoming or suppressing their feeling, they still seek ways to incorporate sharia in Western society, slowly, cautiously at first.

Websites that defend sharia have sprung up; their intent, among others, is to alleviate the secret doubts and undue caution of the intellectuals.

To offer one example, we begin with a representative Muslim scholar who proclaims only the positive aspects of Islam’s record on slavery.

The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) is made up of religious scholars, most of whom have their doctorates in Islamic law or other Islamic subjects. They have the qualifications and authority to write fatwas (religious opinions or rulings). They use the write-in Question and Answer format.

One questioner asks whether sharia allowed men to have sex with female slaves outside of marriage. The AMJA scholar gives a long answer, and concludes at various points:

…Because of the aforementioned examples of the divine and prophetic instructions regarding slavery, no other nation or religious group in the world treated slaves better than the Muslims did…

Slavery in Islam was colorblind, so there were Asians and Europeans who were slaves as well as the Africans….

…Now, slavery was so established in the joints of the economic, political and social life of the world before Islam that it needed courage combined with wisdom to address the issue of slavery, and that is where God miraculously laid down a system by which all the tributaries feeding into the river of slavery would be cut off except for the captives of war (which helped protect their lives, and it would have been unexpected of the Muslims to be taken as captives if they lost and be mandated to free all the captives if they won). You must also know that in the past due to the scarcity of resources, armies could not keep the captives in prisons and feed them…etc. It was also not always possible to f[r]ee them because then they would regroup and go back to fighting.[1]

So, the scholar proclaims in the first excerpt that “no other nation or religious group in the world treated slaves better than Muslims did.” Throughout his answer he does not directly answer the question, but speaks in generalities.

In the third paragraph he says, “God miraculously laid down a system” (Islam) that would lead to the cessation of slavery, except the prisoners of war, who might return to the battle, if they were freed.

All this communicates the message: there is nothing wrong with sharia. This implies there was no sex with captives or slaves.

The fuller story about jihad and slavery and sharia must be told.

Here is the Table of Contents:


Sex with Slave-Girls in Times of Peace

Sex with Slave-Girls in Times of War

Muhammad Owned Slaves

Execution, Release, Ransom, or Enslavement after War?


Muhammad Owned Slaves

Sex with Female Prisoners of War

Beating Slaves

Freeing Slaves


Money and Slavery

Marrying Married Female Prisoners of War?

Sex with Female Slaves

Beating Slaves


Traditional Interpretations

Reformist Declaration

Confusion Today



It is true that the Quran sometimes encouraged freeing slaves under certain conditions, like their being trustworthy or the owner’s needing to do penance for breaking an oath (Quran 5:89; 24:33). And the Quran commands the master to be kind to his slave (Quran 4:36).

However, other passages reveal troublesome rulings. We must understand all of Islam, not just the positive parts. The harmful verses and laws might negatively impact society today, since many Muslims believe Islam is the ultimate guide for humanity and wish to apply it today in all its parts, so we cover them here.

Sex with Slave-Girls in Times of Peace

The Quran permits male owners to have sex with female slaves.

Chapter 23 of the Quran was revealed during Muhammad’s life in Mecca before his hijrah or emigration from his home city to Medina in A.D. 622. During the early years of his ministry, he never waged war against anyone, so these were times of peace, although he suffered from a measure of persecution.

But then Quran 23:1-7 says regarding sex with slaves:

1 The faithful have succeeded: 2 Those who pray humbly, 3 who shun frivolity, 4 who pay the prescribed alms, 5 who guard their chastity 6 except with their spouses or their slaves – with these they are not to blame, 7 but anyone who seeks more than this is exceeding the limits.[2]… (Quran 23:1-7)

Thus, believers should remain chaste or sexually pure, except with their wives and their slaves (vv. 5-6).

Sex with Slave-Girls in Times of War

Now Muhammad has emigrated from Mecca to Medina. By the time Sura 4 is revealed, where our next Quranic verse is found, he has fought many wars and skirmishes. For example, he fights the Meccans in the Battle of Badr in A.D. 624 and again the Meccans at the Battle of Uhud in AD 625. He also exiles the Jewish tribes of Qaynuqa in AD 624 and Nadir in A.D. 625. He carries forward this policy of sex between male owners and their female slaves to his new city of Medina.

Quran 4:24 says:

And forbidden to you are wedded wives of other people . . . except those who have fallen in your hands (as prisoners of war)[3]…. (See also Quran 4:3 and 33:50)

Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) is one of the most authoritative and highly regarded classical commentators of the Sunni world. He quotes the Quranic clause, in parentheses, and writes of these female captives of war:

(Except those whom your right hands possess) except those whom you acquire through war, for you are allowed such women after making sure they are not pregnant. Imam Ahmad recorded that Abu Said Al-Khudri said, “We captured some women from the area of Awtas who were already married, and we disliked having sexual relations with them because they already had husbands. So, we asked the Prophet about this matter, and this Ayah [verse] was revealed … (Also (forbidden are) women already married, except those whom your right hands possess). Consequently, we had sexual relations with these women.”[4]

Thus, women captives are sometimes forced to have sex with their Muslim masters, regardless of the marital status of the women. That is, the masters are allowed to break their marriage and have sex with them. There is no requirement that the masters had to marry the slaves before sex. Some interpretations in classical law (see below) confirm this.

Muhammad Owned Slaves

Quran 33:52 says:

52 You [Prophet] are not permitted to take any further wives, nor to exchange the wives you have for others, even if these attract you with their beauty. But this does not apply to your slave-girls: God is watchful over all.[5] (33:52)

Muhammad got a slave woman right immediately after his massacre of the Qurayza Jews, taking an extra-beautiful one from them[6] (see below, Hadith and Other Sources).

His slave-girls did not enjoy the same status as his free wives like Aisha, his very favorite and daughter of Abu Bakr, his companion and the future first caliph; and Hafsa, daughter of Umar, another companion and the future second caliph.

Execution, Release, Ransom, or Enslavement after War?

Now Muhammad has emigrated from Mecca to Medina. He just got word in Chapter 47 that he is permitted to wage war. How shall he fight and kill? And what should he do with the prisoners of war?

4 When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly – later you can release them by grace or by ransom – until the toils of war have ended. (Quran 47:4)

Captives in the aftermath of war can be released freely or ransomed for money or in exchange for Muslim prisoners of war. The monetary aspect earned a lot of money for Islam.

Chapter 8 of the Quran deals with the Battle of Badr in A.D. 624. Quran 8:67 reads: “It is not right for a prophet to take captives before he has conquered the battlefield.” Combining 47:4 with 8:67 means that the captors can release the captives, with or without receiving ransom money. The payment option made money for Islam.

Muhammad goes on to preach to the seventy captives[7] after the battle that Islam and Allah’s forgiveness is better for them, presumably better than their polytheism and old way of life (v. 70).

However, Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), known in the West as Averroës (Averroes) was a legal scholar and wrote a two-volume summary of various legal opinions on a wide range of issues. He believes that the offer in 8:70 implies that execution is better than enslavement.[8]

Recall that in 627 Muhammad fought the Battle of the Trench, which he won. He slaughtered the Jewish men of the Qurayzah tribe and sold the women and children into slavery.

26 He [Allah] brought those of the People of the Book [Qurayzah] who supported them down from their fortresses and cast panic into their hearts. Some of them you [believers] killed and some you took captive. 27 He passed on to you their land, their houses their possessions, and a land where you have never set foot: God has power over everything”[9] (Quran 33:25-27).

This sale brought in a lot of money for the growing Muslim community, not to mention taking possession of the land and houses of the Jews.


Islamic law is rooted deeply in the Quran and hadith (reports about Muhammad’s and his companions’ words and deeds outside of the Quran), but in this section we also include two other sources: the histories of Tabari (d. 923), who was also a juriconsultant and commentator of the Quran, and the biography of Ibn Ishaq (d. 767), who wrote an early and highly regarded biography of Muhammad, though modern scholars dispute Tabari’s and Ibn Isahq’s chronology and their surprisingly few miracles. Please see the article titled, “What Is Sharia?” in this series, for more information about the hadith.

These sources, together, form a coherent picture about slavery in early Islam.

Muhammad Owned Slaves

Muhammad owned a slave who was black:

I sat with them for a while but could not endure the situation, so I went to the upper room where the Prophet was and said to a black slave of his.[10]

This hadith says that Muhammad was intimate with his slave girls, on some level.

Narrated Aisha: The Prophet used to take the Pledge of allegiance from the women by words only after reciting this Holy Verse: (60.12) “…that they will not associate anything in worship with Allah.” (60.12), And the hand of Allah’s Apostle did not touch any woman’s hand except the hand of that woman his right hand possessed. (i.e. his captives or his lady slaves).[11]

Next, Muhammad conquered the Jewish settlement of Khaybar in A.D. 628. A Jewish chieftain named Kinanah, who defended his fortress, was ordered slain by Muhammad, who subsequently took Kinanah’s wife Safiyya bint Huyai as his captive. Becoming his slave, he decided to marry her, and her mahr or dower that he had to pay was her freedom. “Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah’s Apostle manumitted Safiyya and regarded her manumission as her mahr.”[12]

Ibn Ishaq records the account of Muhammad’s massacre and enslavement of the Jewish Qurayzah tribe. He kept one of the women for himself.

Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches… There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900… Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children of B[anu or tribe] Qurayza among the Muslims, and he made known on that day the shares of horse and men, and took out the fifth. A horseman got three shares, two for the horse and one for his rider. A man without a horse got one share. On the day of B. Qurayza there were thirty-six horses. It was the first booty on which lots were cast and the fifth was taken. According to its precedent and what the apostle did the divisions were made, and it remained the custom for raids. Then the apostle sent Sa’d b. Zayd al-Ansari brother of b. Abdul-Ashhal with some of the captive women of B. Qurayza to Najd and he sold them for horses and weapons. The apostle chosen one of their women for himself, Rayhana d. Amr b. Khunafa… and she remained with him until she died, in his power. The apostle had proposed to marry her and put the veil on her, but she said: “Nay, leave me in your power, for that will be easier for me and for you.” So he left her. She had shown repugnance towards Islam when she was captured and clung to Judaism. So the apostle put her aside and felt some displeasure. While he was with his companions he heard the sound of sandals behind him and said, “This is Thalaba b. Saya coming to give me the good news of Rayhana’s acceptance of Islam” and he came up to announce the fact. This gave him pleasure.[13]

Sex with Female Prisoners of War

In warfare an economic benefit was the human spoils of war: captives. We observed that Quran 47:4, 8:67, and 33:26 permit taking them, and 4:24 says they may be kept, and so do 4:3; 23:5-6; and 33:50. But 47:4 says they may be released without ransom or only after it. To begin with, we focus on the monetary aspect. Khumus means one-fifth of the spoils. This hadith says:

The Prophet sent Ali [later to be the fourth caliph] to Khalid [a general] to bring the khumus (of the booty) and… Ali had taken a bath (after a sexual act with a slave-girl from the khumus). “Do you hate Ali for this? …Don’t hate him, for he deserves more than that from khumus.”[14]

So that hadith shows that Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. He just finished having sex with a female captive, so he needed a relaxing bath.

The next passage talks about disrobing a recently captured female prisoner of a Muslim raid. Salamah, the Muslim raider, was “fascinated” by her. But Muhammad wants to exchange her for Muslims who were kept in prison in Mecca.

So we [Salamah and his captured girl] arrived in Medina. I had not yet disrobed her when the Messenger of Allah… met me in the street and said: Give me that girl, O Salamah. I said: Messenger of Allah, she has fascinated me. I had not yet disrobed her. When on the next day, the Messenger of Allah… again met me in the street, he said: O Salama, give me that girl, may God bless your father. I said: she is for you, Messenger of Allah… By Allah, I have not yet disrobed her. The Messenger of Allah… sent her to the people of Mecca, and surrendered her as ransom for a number of Muslims who had been kept as prisoners in Mecca.[15]

Next, while on a military campaign and away from their wives, Muslim soldiers ask Muhammad about coitus interruptus with their captive female slaves.

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: We got female captives in the war booty and we used to do coitus interruptus with them. So we asked Allah’s Apostle about it and he said, “Do you really do that?” repeating the question thrice, “There is no soul that is destined to exist but will come into existence, till the Day of Resurrection.”[16]

That is, using this birth control method is unnecessary because Allah ordains who will be born. The issue is not whether soldiers should have sex with the captives in the first place. They may do this.

This hadith says Muslim jihadists had sex with their female captives, even though the women were married to polytheists.

Abu Sa’id al-Khudri… reported that at the Battle of Hanain Allah’s Messenger… sent an army to Autas and encountered the enemy and fought with them. Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger…seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that: “And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)” (i. e. they were lawful for them when their ‘Idda period came to an end).[17]

Recall that in the section on the Quran, above, Ibn Kathir refers to this hadith (and parallels) in the context of Quran 4:24. There is no word about the Muslim owners first marrying the female captives before sex.

Beating Slaves

The following hadith says that a husband should not hit his wife as one flogs a slave and then expect to have sex with her later that night.

Narrated Abdullah bin Zama: The Prophets said, “None of you should flog his wife as he flogs a slave and then have sexual intercourse with her in the last part of the day.”[18]

That hadith is not a command to flog a slave, but neither is it a command not to do it. The hadith assumes it was done, but Muhammad did not stop it.

Muslims were allowed to beat their slaves, especially if a slave-girl commits a sexual sin, If she does not stop, then she should be sold for the cheapest price possible, not manumitted:

Narrated Abu Huraira and Zaid bin Khalid: The Prophet said, “If a slave-girl (Ama) commits illegal sexual intercourse, scourge her; if she does it again, scourge her again; if she repeats it, scourge her again.” The narrator added that on the third or the fourth offence, the Prophet said, “Sell her even for a hair rope.”[19]

In a compendium of the six authentic hadith collectors and editors, Ali, the future fourth caliph (ruled 657-661), is recorded as saying that Muhammad ordered a slave woman beaten because she committed fornication. But Ali found out she recently gave birth, so he did not carry out the command. Yet another account says she was beaten after she recovered from delivering the child.

‘Ali said: You people must carry out the punishment on slaves, those of them who are married and .those who are not a slave woman belonging to God’s messenger committed fornication and he ordered me to beat her. But she had recently given birth to a child and I was afraid that if I beat her I might kill her, so I mentioned that to the Prophet and he said. “You have done well.” Muslim transmitted it. In a version by Abu Dawud, he said, “Leave her till her blood stops flowing and then tarry out the punishment on her, and carry out the punishment on your female slaves.”[20]

Early biographer Ibn Ishaq records an incident in which Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin and future fourth caliph (r. 656-661), gave a “violent beating” to a female slave:

As for Ali, he said: “Women are plentiful, and you can easily change one for another. Ask the slave girl, for she will tell you the truth.” So the apostle called Burayra to ask her, and Ali gave her a violent beating, saying, “Tell the apostle the truth,” to which she replied, “I know only good of her. The only fault I have to find with Aisha is that when I am kneading dough and tell her to watch it she neglects it and falls asleep and the sheep… comes and eats it!”[21]

This next passage in early historian and commentator Tabari’s works goes beyond beating. He describes a conquest during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (r. 632-634). This conquest represents many others throughout Islamic history.[22] In Ayn al-Tamr, Iraq, Khalid, a general, “beheaded all the men of the fortress and took possession of all that their fortress contained, seizing as spoils what was in it.”

The account continues:

Khalid found in their church forty boys who were studying the Gospels behind a locked door, which he broke down in getting to them. He asked, “Who are you?” They replied, “Hostages.” He divided them among the Muslims who had performed outstandingly in battle.[23]

Beheading the men and dividing up the boys as human spoils of war carry on Muhammad’s policy seen in Quran 33:26-27, in which he enslaved the women and children of the Qurayzah tribe of Jews.

Freeing Slaves

At least one hadith says that freeing a slave is a pious act that will save the owner from hell.[24]

Freeing slaves may have been encouraged, but it was optional, depending on the owner’s finances. The next hadith says fighting for Allah is the best deed, but the next best one is freeing the most expensive slave, but only if the owner can afford it.

Narrated Abu Dhar: I asked the Prophet, “What is the best deed?” He replied, “To believe in Allah and to fight for His Cause.” I then asked, “What is the best kind of manumission (of slaves)?” He replied, “The manumission of the most expensive slave and the most beloved by his master.” I said, “If I cannot afford to do that?” He said, “Help the weak or do good for a person who cannot work for himself”[25] . . . .

The option to keep the slave makes economic sense, from the owner’s point of view. Also, the slave usually bought his freedom, not just get it gratis. So it made sense economically to free him, since money flowed back to the owner.


Classical law is built on the Quran and hadith. Classical legal scholars – and jurists today – searched through them to resolve various issues. For more information, see the article titled, What Is Sharia? in the series.

Manumitting (freeing) slaves is sometimes encouraged in the classical Islamic law books, which specify how to do this legally. That’s good. But what about the negative aspects of Islamic slavery?

Money and Slavery

The human spoils of war could be taken, and they generated a lot of wealth for Islam. Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), known in the West as Averroes, compiled a compendium of the opinions of jurists up to his time. He summarizes various legal opinions about jihad and slavery:

Harm allowed to be inflicted upon the enemy can be to property, life, or personal liberty, that is, enslavement and ownership. Harm that amounts to enslavement is permitted by way of consensus… for all categories of the polytheists, I mean, their men and women, old and young, and the common people and the elite with the exception of monks. One group of jurists maintained that they (the monks) are to be left alone and not to be captured; in fact, they are to be left unharmed and not to be enslaved because of the saying of the Messenger of Allah… “Leave them and that to which they have devoted themselves,” and also because of the practice of Abu Bakr [the first caliph]. The majority of the jurists maintained that the imam has different types of choices regarding the prisoners of war including their pardon, enslavement, execution, demand for ransom, and the imposition of jizyah (poll tax) on them. A group of jurists maintained that it is not permitted to execute the prisoners.[26]

Noted in that excerpt is a saying of the messenger of Allah, Muhammad. This is a hadith that Ibn Rushd cites in order to figure out how Islamic law should be applied. The example of Muhammad was extremely important for establishing sharia.

Ibn Rushd then goes on to quote Quran 47:4 and 8:67, showing how Quran-based the legal interpretations were. Indeed, they are squarely based on both the Quran and hadith.

Finally, the latter group of jurists mentioned in that excerpt who did not permit the execution of prisoners was not exactly following Muhammad, who did just that sometimes. In fact, Ibn Rushd goes on to discuss the differences of opinion on the matter but does not reach a firm conclusion.

Marrying Married Female Prisoners of War?

Recall that Quran 4:24 says that Muslim men are allowed to marry female prisoners of war. But can the men marry these female slaves when the slaves are married? The schools of law are divided.

Ibn Rushd summarizes the discussion:

They [the jurists] disagreed about a married woman whether imprisonment (in war) demolishes her marriage, and if it is demolished then at what time? A group said that the marriage of couple imprisoned together is not annulled, but the imprisonment of one prior to the other annuls their marriage. This was Abu Hanifa’s opinion. Another group of jurists said that imprisonment annuls the marriage whether they are imprisoned together or one before the other, which was al-Shafi’i’s opinion. There are two opinions from Malik. First, that imprisonment does not annul marriage at all. Second, that it annuls it absolutely, as in al-Shafi’i’s opinion. The reason for their disagreement about annulment is the vacillation of the captives who have escaped slaying in being considered as the women of the dhimmis [second-class Jews or Christians living in Islamic territory] having a pact (in which case they could not be treated as concubines) and in considering them as disbelieving women who have no husbands or who have been hired by the disbelievers. In the distinction drawn by Abu Hanifa between couples taken captive together and those taken separately, one before the other, the effective factor according to him in their permissibility is the difference of dar (legal jurisdiction) not slavery. The factor effective in permissibility according to others besides him is slavery. What is to be investigated here is whether slavery governs cases of single female captives, or it applies generally to single as well as married captives. It appears that being married in this case should not receive protection, as the effective factor in enslavement is disbelief, which is the cause of permissibility. Her comparison with a dhimmiyya is far-fetched, as the dhimmi has agreed to pay jizya so that he may retain even his religion, let alone his marriage.[27]

Sex with Female Slaves

This is assumed in classical Islamic law.

Permission Granted

A school of law says that masters are permitted to have sex with slave women. Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) writes:

A man practices coitus interruptus with a free woman only with permission. However, he may practice it with a female slave whom he owns without her permission.[28]

In another passage Ibn Hanbal says, “If a man’s female slave has committed fornication, he should not have intercourse with her until she has waited [during the change in her ownership or menstruation] and he knows she has repented.”[29]

Next, Ibn Hanbal’s son, Abd Allah, records what his father said about a man having sex with his slave. That is permitted, but can he have sex with the slave’s sister?

I asked my father about a man who has a female slave with whom he has intercourse. Then he wants to marry or take as a concubine her sister. He said, “A man cannot have intercourse with two slave sisters at the same time.”[30]

Malik assumes that sex with a slave girl is permitted. But what happens if the owner sees a defect in her, after they have had sexual intercourse?

Malik said, “The generally agreed-upon way of doing things among us is that, if a man returns a slave-girl in whom he has found a defect and he has already had intercourse with her, he must pay what he has reduced of her price if she was a virgin. If she was not a virgin, there is nothing against his having had intercourse with her because he had charge of her.”[31]

The context of that passage is when a man buys a slave in the slave market, not as a prisoner of war.

Coitus Interruptus

Malik (d. 795) agrees that a man may practice coitus interruptus with his slave woman without her permission, but he must get the permission of his free wife. And a man does not practice it with his wife who is a slave belonging to someone else, unless her people give him permission.

Yahya related to me from Malik from Humayd ibn Qays al-Makki that a man called Dhafif said that Ibn ‘Abbas was asked about coitus interruptus, He called a slave-girl and said, “Tell them,” She was embarrassed. He said, “It is all right, and I do it myself.” Malik said, “A man does not practice coitus interruptus with a freewoman unless she gives her permission. There is no harm in practicing coitus interruptus with a slave-girl without her permission. Someone who has someone else’s slave-girl as a wife does not practice coitus interruptus with her unless her people give him permission.”[32]

Imam Muhammad (d. 795) was a student and colleague of Abu Hanifah (d. 767), and he allows coitus interruptus with slave women.

Muhammad said, “We adhere to this. We see no harm in practicing coitus interruptus with a slave woman. As for a free woman one ought not to practice coitus interruptus without her permission. If the slave woman is the man’s wife, he ought not to practice coitus interruptus without the permission of her owner. That is the position of Abu Hanifah.”[33]

Sex with Prepubescent Slave-Girls

Ibn Hanbal and a jurist contemporary with him, Ishaq b. Rahwayh (d. 853), discuss men having sexual relations with a prepubescent slave girl and a mature slave woman. They say:

Sufyan said, and he was one of those among the scholars… whose opinion was sought, that when a man bought a young female slave, one considered too young for sexual intercourse, that it was not necessary for her to wait [a period of months or menstruations]. He said, “What I prefer when a man buys a female slave too young for intercourse is that her new owner should neither kiss her nor have sexual contact with her, until he has waited a period of [waiting during new ownership or monthly cycle] on her behalf, in accordance with the sunna [example or path of Muhammad] [concerning female slaves].”

Ahmad [Hanbal] said, “What Sufyan said is excellent.”

Ishaq said, “There is no harm in his kissing her and having sexual contact with her, because she is among those whom one need not fear having to return to her previous owner because of pregnancy. Further we see no harm in kissing and having sexual contact with a mature female slave before the period of [waiting during new ownership or monthly cycle] is over, in accordance with the hadith of Ibn Umar.”[34]

Abd Allah records what his father Ibn Hanbal says about sex with a prepubescent slave girl. As noted above, it is permitted.

I asked my father about a female slave. “If a man has her complete a [waiting period during her new ownership or menstruation] when she is young, before she has started menstruating, then has intercourse with her, then wants to sell her before she completes another [waiting period during her new ownership or menstruation] how long should the [waiting period during her new ownership or menstruation] be, since she does not menstruate?” He said, “It should be three months, because pregnancy does not become evident in fewer than three months.”[35]

Beating Slaves

Malik says that flogging a slave for fornication or slander is a valid punishment, just as it is for a free person.

Malik related to me from Yahya ibn Sa’id that Sulayman ibn Yasar informed him that ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas ibn Abi Rabi’a al-Makhzumi said, “Umar ibn al-Khattab gave me orders about the slaves of Quraysh [tribe around Mecca] and we flogged some of the slave-girls in the Muslim lands fifty times for each act of fornication.”[36]

Malik related to me that Abuz-Zinad said, “Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz flogged a slave with eighty lashes for slander.” Abuz-Zinad said, “I asked Abdullah ibn Amir ibn Rabia about that and he said, ‘I saw Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, the Khalifs [Caliphs], and so on, and 1 did not see any of them flog a slave with more than forty lashes for slander.”[37]


None of those verses and laws laid out above would matter today, were it not for the fact that many Muslims believe Islam is the fullest guide for humanity and are eager to apply it to our world today.

A reformist calls for the reform of Islam, while a traditionalist believes Islam, revealed in the Quran and presented in the authentic hadith, is fine the way it and defends it. Usually, religious leaders are selected for this section, but sometimes a Muslim who is in the public eye is included too.

Sometimes the categories blur together and are difficult to distinguish in modern Islam, as it goes through change or seeks to maintain the old laws. Which direction will it go? Reform or peservation of the old ways?

Traditional Interpretations

Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi (d. 1979) was an Indo-Pakistani who tried to impose sharia in his home country through his political party called Jamaat-i-Islami.

Recall that Quran 23:5-6 discusses slave-girls. He interprets the plain meaning of the verses, saying that sex with slave-girls is lawful. Then he refutes those who say the slave girl had to be married to the owner before sex takes place.

Maududi writes:

Two categories of women have been excluded from the general command of guarding the private parts: (a) wives, (b) women who are legally in one’s possession, i.e. slave-girls. Thus the verse clearly lays down the law that one is allowed to have sexual relation with one’s slave-girl as with one’s wife, the basis being possession and not marriage. If marriage had been the condition, the slave-girl also would have been included among the wives, and there was no need to mention them separately. Some modern commentators, who dispute the permissibility of having sexual relations with the slave-girl, argue from An-Nisa’ (IV) : 25 to prove that one can have sexual relations with a slave-girl only after entering wedlock with her, because that verse enjoins that if a person cannot afford to marry a free Muslim woman, he may marry a Muslim slave-girl. But these commentators have a strange characteristic: they accept a part of a verse if it suits them, but conveniently ignore another part of the same verse if it goes against their wish and whim. The law about marrying the slave-girls as enunciated in IV:25 reads: “….you may marry them with the permission of their guardians and give them their fair dowries.” Obviously the person under reference here is not the master of the slave girl himself but the person who cannot afford to marry a free Muslim woman, and therefore, wants to marry a slave-girl, who is in the possession of another person. For if the question had been of marrying one’s own slave-girl, who would then be the “guardian” whose permission would have to be sought? Then, the interpretation they give of this verse contradicts other verses dealing with the same subject in the Qur’an. A sincere person who wants to understand the Qur’anic law in this regard should study [Quran 4]: 3, 25; [Quran 33]: 50, 52, and [Quran 42]: 30 together with this verse of [Quran 23].[38]

Give him credit. At least he is honest about the Quran.

An Egyptian religious scholar says slavery and sex after a jihad is supported by the Quran and can be done today.

…Do you understand what I’m saying? Spoils, slaves, and prisoners are only to be taken in war between Muslims and infidels. Muslims in the past conquered, invaded, and took over countries. This is agreed to by all scholars–there is no disagreement on this from any of them, from the smallest to the largest, on the issue of taking spoils and prisoners. The prisoners and spoils are distributed among the fighters, which includes men, women, children, wealth, and so on.

When a slave market is erected, which is a market in which are sold slaves and sex-slaves, which are called in the Qur’an by the name milk al-yamin, “that which your right hands possess” [Qur’an 4:24]. This is a verse from the Qur’an which is still in force, and has not been abrogated. The milk al-yamin are the sex-slaves. You go to the market, look at the sex-slave, and buy her. She becomes like your wife, (but) she doesn’t need a (marriage) contract or a divorce like a free woman, nor does she need a wali [guardian]. All scholars agree on this point–there is no disagreement from any of them.[39]

The Egyptian sheikh agrees with the evidence laid out in the sections on the Quran, hadith and other sources, and classical law.

A Reformist Declaration

Section (a) of Article 11 of the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, under the auspices of the United Nations, offers a very limited de jure hope for modern humanity about slavery.

(a) Human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them, and there can be no subjugation but to Allah the Almighty.[40]

The reason that this de jure hope is very limited is that this section of Article Eleven – positive on the surface – must be counterbalanced with paragraphs in the Preamble. Specifically, this paragraph of the Preamble says that freedom is guaranteed, but only in accordance with sharia:

In contribution to the efforts of mankind to assert human rights, to protect man from exploitation and persecution, and to affirm his freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic sharia.[41]

This is a positive development, demonstrating that modern Islam can move beyond its origins and the Quran’s teachings.

Or maybe not.

In the next paragraph the Preamble affirms that fundamental rights and freedoms should not be violated, but only insofar as they are binding divine commands; and these divine commands are contained in the Revealed Books of Allah – the chapters in the Quran and presumably the sacred hadith.

Believing that fundamental rights and freedoms according to Islam are an integral part of the Islamic religion and that no one shall have the right as a matter of principle to abolish them either in whole or in part or to violate or ignore them in as much as they are binding divine commands, which are contained in the Revealed Books of Allah and which were sent through the last of His Prophets to complete the preceding divine messages and that safeguarding those fundamental rights and freedoms is an act of worship whereas the neglect or violation thereof is an abominable sin, and that the safeguarding of those fundamental rights and freedom is an individual responsibility of every person and a collective responsibility of the entire Ummah [Community][42] . . . .

So now we have a conflict between the Quran, the hadith, and classical sharia law on the one hand, and this 1990 Declaration on the other. The Declaration says fundamental human rights and freedoms are sacrosanct and divine and based on the Quran and sharia, yet according to this study, the Quran, the sacred traditions, and classical law severely restrict and delimit these same rights as modern societies understand them.

It is no wonder that many see Islam as so confusing today.

Confusion Today

A scholar at the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) answers a question about slavery. Cutting to the chase, he offers this reply in its entirety:

Slavery does not exist nowadays and, hopefully, will not exist again in sha Allah [Allah willing]. Enslaving people was a militant tradition the winners used to apply against the captives of the defeated army. When Islam approved this tradition, it was taken as (mutual treatment) and not for a tendency of enslaving people. In case slavery comes to existence again, any questions related to slavery will be answered accordingly in sha Allah.[43]

Though the words are commendable, do they reflect reality? Islam did not have the “tendency” to enslave people outside of war? It is no wonder the scholar was hesitant to give a fuller answer. This article shows that Islam’s track record on slavery from war and outside of war is ambiguous, to put it mildly.

The scholar’s claim that slavery in Islam today does not exist needs to be clarified.

The British Broadcasting Corporation has an historical summary of slavery in Islam. One paragraph reads:

The legality of slavery in Islam, together with the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who himself bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves, may explain why slavery persisted until the 19th century in many places (and later still in some countries). The impetus for the abolition of slavery came largely from colonial powers, although some Muslim thinkers argued strongly for abolition.[44]

Claiming that Islam simply abolished slavery needs to be qualified. The historical survey continues:

Sharia recognized slavery as an institution but sought to restrict the sources of acquisition of slaves, to improve their condition, and to encourage their emancipation through a variety of religious and civil methods. Nevertheless, slavery is lawful under sharia to the present day.[45]

To reinforce the last clause that slavery is still legal under sharia today, the survey at the BBC says:

…Slavery is legal under Islamic law but only in theory. Slavery is illegal under the state law of all Muslim countries. Theoretically Islamic law lays down that if a person was captured in a lawful jihad or was the descendent of an unbroken chain of people who had been lawfully enslaved, then it might be legal to enslave them.[46]

Islamic nations have a legacy of jihad and slavery that continues to the present.[47]


Muhammad owned slaves; true, he freed many of them,[48] but he never decreed in his conquered territories that slavery was abolished. The institution was too lucrative and deeply rooted at that time.

So it stands to reason that the Quran, the hadith, and classical Islamic law have a troubled practice and doctrine of slavery. Further, historical Islam also perpetuated the institution because as Islam spread out across the globe, waging jihad, it captured enemies and turned many (not all) into slaves. They benefited Islamic civilization economically, so it was a long time before segments Islam declared slavery was wrong, though as we learned in the section Modern Islam, sharia is the foundation of many Islamic countries and its record of slavery is less than stellar.

The AMJA scholar quoted in the Introduction to this long study said that Islamic slavery was not race-based. That is true in a grim sort of way. Islam enslaved any nation or ethnic group that it conquered. This adds up to an ironic and tragic “equal opportunity” enslavement.

The 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights is a step in the right direction. However, it is better from a modern standpoint not to endorse a specific sacred text, the Quran, in a legal document. The Quran could be proven untrue or too culture-bound to be valid today, having an expiration date on these matters.

Muslims leaders need to reconvene and write another Declaration of Human Rights without referencing sharia or the Quran. Both have an expiration date in regards to slavery: the seventh century. Muslim societies need a new Declaration, for the sake of lasting peace and true freedom around the globe.[49]

This article first appeared at Jihad Watch on July 31, 2012, and has been updated here.

Articles in the Series

More Punishments (offsite):

[1] Hatem al-Haj, “Is It Allowed to Have Sex with Your Female Slave?” Question ID or fatwa no. 81169,, March 17, 2010, with slight mechanical adjustments. I inserted the bracketed “r” in “fee,” because the context requires it.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all translations of the Quran in this chapter are those of M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Quran, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010). The word in brackets is his. If readers would like to see various translations of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[3] Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, 4th ed., vol. 1, trans. Ch. Muhammad Akbar and ed. A. A. Kamal, (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 2003), vol. 1, p. 319. Chapter 4 Commentary. The parenthetical insertion is his. His translation and commentary are available online at

[4] Ibn Kathir, “Forbidding Women Already Married, Except for Female Slaves,”

[5] Abdel Haleem’s bracketed insertion.

[6] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. Alfred Guillaume (New York: Oxford UP, 1955), 466.

[7] Abdulla Yusuf Ali (the Meaning of the Holy Quran, 11th ed., [Belleville, Maryland: Amana, 2004]), note 1234, says there were seventy captives after the Battle of Badr (cf. Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 005.059.322).

[8] Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, vol. 1, trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee (Reading: Garnet, 1994), 456.

[9] All the words in brackets are added by me, except “believers,” which is added by the translator, Abdel Haleem.

[10] Bukhari, Marriage, 007.062.119. The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[11] Idem, Judgments, 009.089.321, with slight mechanical adjustments. The parenthetical comments are the translator’s.

[12] Idem, Marriage, 007.062.023; cf. 007.062.022.

[13] Ibn Ishaq 465-66, with slight mechanical adjustments; my bracketed insertion, and Guillaume’s parenthetical insertion.

[14] Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 005.059.637; the parenthetical comments are the translator’s; bracketed comments are added by me.

[15] Muslim, Jihad and Expeditions, 019.4345.

[16] Bukhari, Marriage, 007.062.137; cf. Military Expeditions, 005.059.459, and Manumission  003.046.718.

[17] Muslim, Marriage, 008.3432.

[18] Bukhari, Marriage, 007.63.132.

[19] Idem, Manumission, 003.046.731.

[20] Mishkat al-Masabih, Prescribed Punishments, trans. James Robson, vol. 1, (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, reprinted 1999), pp. 760-61.

[21] Ibn Ishaq, 496.

[22] See Andrew G. Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, (Amherst: Prometheus, 2005), for countless examples of jihad leading to slavery.

[23] Tabari, the Challenge to the Empires, vol. 11, trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, (Albany: SUNYP, 1993), 55.

[24] Bukhari, Manumission, 003.046.693.

[25] Ibid. 003.046.694.

[26] Ibn Rushd, Distinguished, 1.456. His parenthetical insertions, mine in brackets.

[27] Ibid. 1.52-53.

[28] Quoted in Susan A. Spectorsky, trans. Chapters on Marriage and Divorce: Responses of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Rahwayh, (Austin: UTP, 1993), 69.

[29] Quoted in ibid. 106, my bracketed insertion.

[30] Quoted in ibid. 115.

[31] Malik ibn Anas, Muwatta: the First Formulation of Islamic Law, rev. ed., trans. Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley, (Inverness, Scotland: Madina P, 1991), 31.4.4; cf. 32.8.9; 39.1.3.

[32] Malik, Muwatta, 29.34.100; cf. 36.23.24. This law book is also available at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

[33] Imam Muhammad, The Muwatta of Imam Muhammad (London: Turath, 2004), 240.

[34] Quoted in Spectorsky, Chapters, 211-12, with slight mechanical changes. All the notes in brackets are mine, except “concerning female slaves.”

[35] Quoted in ibid. 116, with a slight mechanical alteration. My brackets insertions.

[36] Ibid. 41.3.16.

[37] Ibid. 41.5.17.

[38] Maududi, Meaning, vol. 3, 241, note 7, my bracketed insertions. As noted, his translation and commentary are available online at

[39] Translating Jihad, “Video: Shaykh al-Huwayni: ‘When I Want a Sex Slave, I Just Go to the Market and Choose the Woman I Like and Purchase Her,’”, June 11, 2011. The bracketed word “guardian” was added by me; the rest is original.

[40] World Conference on Human Rights, UN GAOR, 4th Session, Agenda Item 5, Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, Doc. A/CONF.157/PC/62/Add.18 (1993), Aug 5, 1990, University of Minnesota Human Rights Library.

[41] Ibid., with a slight mechanical adjustment.

[42] Ibid. The comment in brackets is mine.

[43] Main Khalid al-Quda, “Female Captives of War,” Question ID no. 82693,, September 27, 2010.

[44]Slavery in Islam,” British Broadcasting Corporation, September 7, 2009.

[45] Ibid. with slight mechanical alterations.

[46] Ibid.

[47] For more information on jihad and slavery throughout Islamic history to the present, see Andrew G. Bostom, Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, (Prometheus, 2008), 529-88; 679-81. Also see his Living Legacy of Jihad Slavery,, April 12, 2005; Andrew Bostom Interview,, January 30, 2006; Ottoman Dhimmitude,, October 7, 2005; Slavery Redux in the Sudan,, December 18, 2008; Anestos Canelides, Slavery and Jihad,, October 31, 2011; and Christian Solidarity International, Slave Liberation.

[48] Tabari, The Last Years of the Prophet, vol. 9, trans. Ismail K. Poonawala (Albany: SUNYP, 1990), 142-47.

[49] This series is not about comparing the Bible and the Quran, Christianity and Islam, but readers may be curious about it. If so, Slavery and Freedom in the Bible is a thorough study of the topic. This article, in Appendix One, explains whether or not the Old Testament allows the practice of sex with prisoners of war. This article cites two Old Testament scholars who explain an Old Testament passage on marriage after a war. This short article contrasts Islam and Christianity on slavery. Also, see my studies, How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law and How Christians Benefit from the Old Testament. We don’t need to bring those Old Testament verses about slavery forward to today.


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