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Dr G.W. Leitner

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Muhammadanism and Slavery

by Dr G. W. Leitner

King’s College, London, March 13th 1884

In a letter from Dr. Rohifs to the Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, the great traveller asserts that “at present Islam has triumphed, and slavery, the inevitable consequence of Muhammadan government, is re-established.” Other eminent authorities, writing on the subject of General Gordon’s ‘slavery’ proclamation, have similarly assumed that Muhammadanism is in favour of that hateful institution.

This is as great a libel on that religion as the assertion would be on Christianity, that it was in favour of slavery because Christ, although confronted by one of its cruellest forms in the Roman Empire, did not attempt to legislate, as Muhammad did, for its eventual abolition in this world, but merely promised spiritual freedom to the repentant servants of sin, whether bond or free; whilst St. Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his Christian master Philemon, even after converting him (a process which would ipso facto have set him free among very pious Muhammadans), and, in numerous places, evidently refuses to enter into the question of the emancipation of slaves, except in a spiritual sense. Even the reference to “man stealers” in I Tim. i. 10 is simply part of a statement of various classes of evildoers which “the Law” had to deal:

“The law is good if a man use it lawfully; knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient … for men stealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be anything that is contrary to sound doctrine.”

The allusion is referred to the Jewish Law, according to which “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (Exod. xxi. 16). In the New Dispensation, however, which modified the severity of that law, there is “neither bond nor free, but Christ is all.” Every one was to abide in his own calling, the converted slave being the Lord’s freeman and the converted freeman the slave of Christ (I Cor. vii, 20–22).

As one who has taken a part, however humble and small, in the exposure of certain forms of slavery and the slave trade, I would beg leave to point out the injustice and impolicy of identifying Muhammadanism with the conduct of its unworthy professors, the slave dealers, instead of merely advocating principles which are deeply implanted in both Christian and Muhammadan human nature, are sanctified by both religions, and give England a hold not only on the Liberal sentiment of Europe and the United States, but also on that of the whole Muhammadan world. Indeed, it would be well if as regards Muhammadanism generally our statesmen, scholars, and missionaries sought for points of agreement rather than for those of difference, and appealed less to the preconceptions of their public than to their desire for correct information.

According to the Koran no person can be made a slave except after the conclusion of a sanguinary battle fought in the conduct of a religious war (Jihad) in the country of infidels who try to suppress the true religion. Indeed, wherever the word “slave” occurs in the Koran it is “he whom your right hands have conquered,” or a special equivalent for neck = he whose neck has been spared, thus clearly indicating “a prisoner of war” made by the action not of one man only, but of many. The idea is similar to that conveyed by the Greek Andrapodon, which implied that the victor placed his foot on the neck of the conquered, who became his future slave. Limited, however, as the legal supply of slaves is according to the Koran (which would alone suffice to justify the abolition of slavery among all pious Muhammadans), the Arabian prophet further recommends, “When the war has ended restore them [the slaves or prisoners] to liberty or give them up for a ransom” (Sura xlvii. 5). Again, in the 16th Sura of the Koran, Muhammad, in his very novitiate, boldly confronts a state of society in which even the female belongings of a deceased were sold or distributed as part of his property (a position from which he raised women by constituting them “legal sharers,” or the first care of Muhammadan law, and conferred on them rights similar to those lately conceded in this country by the Married Women’s Property Act). Surrounded by powerful and hostile relatives and tribesmen, the owners of slaves, who sought an excuse for his destruction, he invites them to divide their income or provision (rizq) with their slaves in equal shares:

“God has made some superior to others in income, and yet those who have been so benefited do not divide their income with those whom their right hands have conquered, so that each [master and slave] may have an equal share. How dare they thus to gainsay the goodness of God?”

And elsewhere: “Alms (which procure righteousness) are destined … to the redemption of slaves” (as the ruling Begum of Bhopal professed to have done not long ago, when she had bought and imported slaves for the ostensible object of setting them free). Further (Sura xxiv. 33):

“If any of your slaves asks for his manumission in writing give it to him, if you think him worthy of it, and give him also some of the wealth which God has given you.”

This passage enables slaves, who thus acquire the disposal of their time, to redeem themselves by a certain amount of labour or on payment of a sum not exceeding their market value, and often paid for, in part or whole, especially among Shiahs, out of the public tax zekat. The reconciliation of a separated married couple should be preceded by the ransom of a slave, and, if none can be found, the husband should feed sixty poor, or else fast for two months (Sura lviii, 4,5). Whenever the sense of happiness, including that of conjugal felicity, predisposes the heart to gratitude towards the Creator, or whenever the fear of God or of a punishment, or the desire of a blessing, affects, as such motives can affect, the daily life of a Muhammadan, the emancipation of a slave, as a most proper act of charity, is recommended. In short, the “cliff” or narrow path to salvation, is charity:

“What is the cliff? It is to free the captive [or slave]” (Sura xc. 10 15).

Descending to the second source of Muhammadan law, the authenticated tradition or Hadis, we find Muhammad stating that “the worst of men is he who sells men;” slaves who displeased their master were to be forgiven “seventy times a day;” no believer could be made a slave, and “in proportion to the number of redeemed slaves will members of the body of the releasing person be rescued from the [eternal] fire” (Hadis, accepted by Sunnis and Shiahs alike, and communicated by Jabir Ibn Abdullah).

The history of Muhammadanism has since shown not only the admission of the converted slave on equal terms into Muhammadan society (a circumstance which does not exist to the same extent among Christian negroes), but also his rise in several Muhammadan countries, including Egypt, to the highest positions in the state, whether as an individual or as a member of a whole class of slaves, and irrespective of colour. The brotherhood of Muhammadanism is no mere word. All believers are equal and their own high priests. Zeid, the ex slave, led Muhammad’s troops, whilst the often blind “Hafiz,” or reciters of the Koran of the present day, have, as it were, their prototype in the negro Bilal, the first “muezzin,” or caller to prayers, perhaps the most famous name in Muhammadan Asia and Africa. The Ghaznavide dynasty was founded by the slave Sabuktagin; the first king of Delhi, Kutbuddin, was a slave, etc.

In India, the authoritative declaration of the Muhammadan law officers of the Sadr Diwani and Nizamat Adalat laid down that only capture in a holy war, or descent from such a captive, constitutes the slave legal to a Muhammadan master. The Sadr Diwani Adalat, in 1830, in an appeal, adopted the opinion of its Muftis just noticed, and imposed on the claiming master the burden of proving that the slavery of his claimed slaves was derived from the narrow legal origin defined by the Muftis. The effect of this decision is that no Muslim can ever make good his title to the services of a recusant slave. The Muftis further laid down that “the master can only inflict moderate, correction on his slave, and that any cruelty or ill usage inflicted on his slave legally exposes him to a discretionary punishment (a‘qubat or tazir) by the ruling power, and such discretionary power extends to death” (I quote from Hamilton’s preface to the “Hidaya”). Since the abolition of these officers we have not the same touch with the conservative elements of Muhammadan society, whilst the decisions of our courts are often away from the real point, owing to ignorance of Arabic, without a knowledge of which language it is difficult to have any influence with Muhammadans, and impossible to decide with accuracy any question connected with their law. In 1839, however, the true nature of Muhammadanism was better known by the Indian Government than it is now even by European writers on Muhammadan law. Lord Auckland’s Minute on the Indian Law Commission, which reported that “all slavery is excluded from amongst the Muhammadans by the strict letter of their own law,” shows that “the abhorrence to slavery entertained by the English functionary” was then, as now, welcome to the respectable native community. Even among those who benefited by the trade, “a degree of moral turpitude attached” to the purchase of prisoners of war, “which, if insisted on, would tend considerably to diminish the evil,” although “slaves are not only extremely well treated by their Arab masters, but enjoy a very considerable degree of power and influence … They were everywhere the best fed men, and seemed happy and comfortable. … The cruel treatment of slaves has been the reproach of European rather than of Eastern nations” (I quote from Reports to the Resident of the Persian Gulf in 1838).

Persons who confess the unity of the Godhead cannot be made slaves, and therefore there has practically been a constant struggle between the Muhammadan slave dealer, who, being devoid of any religion himself, sought to save appearances by forcing his captives to declare themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be idolaters (as in Africa), or at least (as in Chitral and Bukhara) to be Shiah heretics — and the Muhammadan missionaries, who, as in Africa, have been steadily and successfully endeavouring to reduce the area from which slaves could be drawn by converting the negroes to Islam. Dr. Rohifs, in his condemnation of that faith, must have had the Muhammadan slave dealers rather than the Muhammadan missionaries or religion in his mind. Mr. Rassam has already stated that “the slave dealers are looked upon everywhere by the respectable class with disgust, especially when they are known to encourage kidnapping even Moslem and Christian children.” And again: “Nor did I find in all my intercourse with African or Arabian tribes in the suppression of the slave traffic any difficulty or danger, but, on the contrary, the different chiefs with whom we negotiated consented most willingly and cheerfully to put down the slave trade; and the most wonderful thing was they all kept their pledges faithfully.”

In Turkey I have been acquainted with more than one family in which the newly purchased slave was taught a trade and set up in business after an apprenticeship of seven years — a common practice: and I knew a pious boatman who, as soon as he had saved enough money, devoted it to the purchase and manumission of a slave. Of similar instances I often heard during the time preceding the legal abolition of the slave trade in Turkey — that deserted true friend of England, and once her lever on the Muhammadan world — and I have met many pious Muslims in various Muhammadan countries whose ambition it was to ransom slaves. Indeed, words of piety, chivalry, truth, and compassion have not lost their power to stir the adherents of that creed, and I therefore regret that it should be deemed to be expedient to withdraw, for the purpose of what can only be a temporary deception, from the commanding position of advocating the abolition of slavery in every one of its forms. It may have the effect of conciliating Zebehr Pasha, but it will alienate from England most honest Mussulmans. To abuse Muhammadanism for the maintenance of an institution which it had to tolerate and for which it had to legislate is one thing, but to adopt indigenous methods of appeal to Muhammadan humanity, based on their own revered associations, is quite another. Indeed, even if slavery were an integral part of the Muhammadan religion, as it most certainly is not, “Moslem lawgivers may ameliorate the condition of slaves, close slave markets, and check the diabolical traffic in the south,” to quote Sir William Muir.

I go, perhaps, further, and assert that the Muhammadan religion can adapt, and has adapted, itself to circumstances and to the needs of the various races that profess it in accordance with “the spirit of the age.” I have ever found Muhammadans, to whatever country, eager to welcome any appeal in favour of humanity or progress, if urged in a sympathetic and intelligible manner. Perhaps the times are past when to ensure the eventual triumph of principles that have made a country great a patriot may prefer to perish rather than snatch an evanescent success, but the time has, fortunately, not yet arrived in which to support slavery is not alike a blunder and a crime.

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