Islam and slavery  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Historically, the major juristic schools of Islam traditionally accepted the institution of slavery. Muhammad and many of his companions bought, sold, freed, and captured slaves. Slaves benefited from Islamic dispensations which improved their situation relative to that in pre-Islamic society. At the end of the 19th century, a shift in Muslim thought and interpretation of the Qur'an occurred, and slavery became seen as opposed to Islamic principles of justice and equality.

In Islamic law the topic of slavery is covered at great length. The Qur'an, the holy book, and the hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, see slavery as an exceptional condition that can be entered into under certain limited circumstances. They also consider manumission of a slave to be one of many meritorious deeds available for the expiation of sins. According to Sharia, slaves are considered human beings and possessed of some rights on the basis of their humanity. In addition, a Muslim slave is equal to a Muslim freeman in religious issues and superior to the free non-Muslim.

In practice, slaves played various social and economic roles from Emir to worker. Slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, pastoralism and the army. Even some rulers relied on military and administrative slaves to such a degree that they seized power. However, people do not always treat with slaves in accordance with Islamic law. In some cases the situation has been so harsh as to have led to uprisings such as Zanj Rebellion.

For a variety of reasons, internal growth of the slave population was not enough to fulfill the demand in Muslim society. This resulted in massive importation, which involved enormous suffering and loss of life from the capture and transportation of slaves from non-Muslim lands. In theory, slavery in Islamic law does not have a racial or color component, although this has not always been the case in practice.

The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa and East Africa. By the end of the 19th century, such activity had reached a low ebb. In the early 20th century (post World War I) slavery was gradually outlawed and suppressed in Muslim lands, largely due to pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France. However, slavery claiming the sanction of Islam is documented presently in the African republics of Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Sudan.

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