The History Of Slavery

Slavery – a word which is not only connected to a specific nation at a specific time in history, it is a word which has an endless chain of involvements since it came into existence and even now, when the world has advanced so far, parts of the world are still indulged in this practice.

Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" writes in his book, Islam and Slavery,

“Slavery has been defined as the system in which a human being is held to be the legal property of another and is bound to absolute obedience and submission”

A slave is a human-chattel who can be made to work, sold or dealt with in any manner the master pleases. Such a brutal ideology has its origins as a result of war.

Whenever two tribes, two nations or two countries went into conflict the aftermath would result in the victorious side either killing or otherwise capturing the defeated men along with their women and children and making them slaves.

Thereafter they would be forced to carry out various types of work. As the world began to progress and civilisations became more powerful, the demand for labour also increased.

The thinking then was, that the best way to meet this requirement is to enslave the conquered people. As a result, the trend of enslaving rather than slaying started spreading and growing. In fact, history reveals that this practice became so widespread that the population of slaves of certain countries actually outnumbered the actual population of the residents themselves, hence becoming an integral part of society.

This is not only hundreds or thousands of years ago, in fact only until quite recently has slavery been abolished. For example, slavery was not made a statutory offence in the UK until 6th April 2010, and Mississippi didn’t sign the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, until 2013! These are the two of the most developed countries in the world, and they didn’t recognise this practice as inhumane until only within the last decade. Even then, modern versions of enslavements are estimated to trap about 45 million people worldwide, resulting in there being more people in slavery today than at any time in human history.

However, be not mistaken, this fault did not only exist in the west but even at the time of the advent of Islam, this practice was more or less present in all countries. In the kingdoms of Byzantium, Greece and Iran, etc., hundreds of thousands of slaves were living a life of grief and misery. There was no one to tend to them and in their collective capacity, their state was no better than that of animals. In this era, even in the country of Arabia, there were thousands of slaves. Moreover, the possession of a certain number of slaves was considered to be a necessary part of the property of the rich. The people of Arabia particularly considered slaves to be immensely contemptible and disgraceful and would treat them as cruelly as they desired.

It was only after the coming of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" did things start to change in the Arab world, as one of the commandments that God revealed to the Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" was that slaves should be treated with compassion and kindness. It is for this reason that, despite the ruthless persecution upon Muslim converts, Islam began to spread rapidly among slaves. Similar is the story of Moses asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" and how he led slaves out of the brutal rule of the Pharaoh.

All this leads us to one conclusion, that it is the prophets of Allah who thousands of years ago preached and got their people away from such inequality, whilst the rest of the world is only coming to this realisation in the last few decades.

Slavery has played a significant part in the history of America. African slaves in the 17th and 18th century helped build the then new nation, into the economic powerhouse it is today.

This all began one day in August of 1619 when on a stormy day a Dutch ship with about 20 Africans on board entered port in the British Colony of Jamestown, in Virginia. Little is known about these newly arrived people, who are considered the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. At this time the slave trade between Africa and the English colonies in America had not yet been established, and it is unlikely that these, unfortunate 20, became slaves upon their arrival.

They were perhaps considered indentured servants, who worked under contract for a certain period of time (usually seven years) before they were granted freedom and the rights accorded to other settlers.

Their historic arrival, however, marked the beginning of an atrocious trend in colonial America, in which the people of Africa were taken unwillingly from their motherland and consigned to lifelong slavery. Between, 1525 and 1866 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World (North and South America), out of which 10.7 million survived the dreadful journey in which they were packed into ships like herds of animals.

Those that survived, 388,000 were taken to North America whilst the rest were disembarked in the Caribbean and South America. Africans had to spend a journey of 4,000 miles through, lasting up to 6 months! Over the course of 300 years, it is estimated that 54,000 of these barbaric voyages took place.

On arriving, the crew of slave ships prepared the Africans for sale. They washed, shaved and rubbed them with palm oil to disguise sores and wounds caused by conditions on board.

The captains usually sold their captives directly to planters or specialised wholesalers by auction. Families who had managed to stay together were now often broken up. Bonds formed during the voyage were also broken. Once they were auctioned, that was it, their lives were no longer theirs. Immediately they forced their ‘possessions’ to adapt to new working and living conditions, to learn a new language and adopt new customs.

They called this process ‘seasoning’ and it could last two or three years. However, among those that managed to survive the journey, there were those weakened by the trauma of the voyage, resulting in many dying or eventually committing suicide. This was the sad reality for many Africans, whose lives were taken into the hands of those who were under the delusion that their appearance made them Superior.

The constant oppression often instigated the slaves to do something, stand up for their rights and bring equality into the world, many times resulting in violence. However, most of these efforts were unsuccessful and only worsened their situation.

The Writings Of Okechukwu

Okechukwu was one of the captured Africans and he would write down his experience as he progressed through the system. Describing the journey on the ship he writes:

“And now I am in the blackness of that huge boat. I didn’t imagine that men could make such a place, not even the pale men. My head still hurts, every muscle aches from crouching in this tiny space and the metal rings on my ankles and wrists bite into my skin. I am so scared that my body rebels against everything I eat or drink.”

“A man near to me – I did not understand his words – he wouldn’t eat so the pale men took him out through the hole in the roof. We think they put hot rocks to his mouth. Now his lips are so burnt he cannot speak or eat. I must try to eat”

“Last night I prayed for death and thought that it had come. Water came in the hole in the roof and the pale men were shouting to each other. The lightning and thunder and wind could not hide the sound of our weeping and wailing. The boat moved so much even the strong were sick. Even death has abandoned me.”

Okechukwu did not see land again. He died from dysentery (disease of the intestine) during the voyage across the Atlantic and his body was thrown overboard.

Nathaniel Turner (1800-1831)

In history, we find the mention of an individual by the name of Nat Turner (1800-1831). This American slave led the only effective, sustained slave rebellion (August 1831) in U.S. history.

In history, we find the mention of an individual by the name of Nat Turner (1800-1831). This American slave led the only effective, sustained slave rebellion (August 1831) in U.S. history.

Spreading terror throughout the white South, his action set off a new wave of oppressive legislation prohibiting the education, movement, and assembly of slaves and stiffened proslavery.

He was born on the Virginia plantation of Benjamin Turner, who allowed him to be taught reading, writing, and religion. Sold three times in his childhood and hired out to a man named John Travis, he became a fiery preacher and leader of African-American slaves on Benjamin Turner’s plantation and in his Southampton County neighbourhood, claiming that he was chosen by God to lead them from bondage.

Believing in signs and hearing divine voices, Turner was convinced by an eclipse of the Sun (1831) that the time to rise up had come, and he enlisted the help of four other slaves in the area.

A riot was planned, aborted, and rescheduled for August 21, 1831, when he and six other slaves killed the Travis family, managed to secure arms and horses, and enlisted about 75 other slaves in a disorganized revolt that resulted in the murder of 51 white people.

Afterwards, Turner hid nearby successfully for six weeks until his discovery, conviction, and hanging at Jerusalem, Virginia, along with 16 of his followers.

The incident put fear in the heart of Southerners who then responded by ending the organized emancipation movement in that region resulting in even harsher laws against slaves.

The campaign to end slavery itself in the United States was long and bitter. The struggle was advanced by the efforts of more than 100 antislavery societies, however, from the 1830s to the 1860s, the movement to abolish slavery in America gained strength, led by free blacks such as Frederick Douglass and white supporters such as William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, speaker, writer, and statesman. He became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York after escaping from slavery in Maryland, gaining popularity for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings.

In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Whilst slavery was gradually reduced in the northern states, the determination of the southern states to oppose emancipation led to the Civil War of 1861–1865 when Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected as president. Within three months, seven southern states had split to form the Confederate States of America, four more would follow after the Civil War began. Even though Lincoln’s anti-slavery views were well established, the war aim at first was not to abolish slavery but to preserve the United States as a nation.

Abolition became a goal only later, due to military necessity, growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North and the self-emancipation of many African Americans who fled enslavement as Union troops swept through the South.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation, and on January 1, 1863, he made it official that “slaves within any State, or designated part of a State…in rebellion…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This declaration freed around 3 million slaves, however, along with it parts of the country were deprived of a large bulk of its labour force, resulting in many slave owners, illegally and forcefully keeping hold of their slaves.

Though Lincoln’s attempt to free the country of slavery didn’t officially put an end to it, abolition efforts did not stop and eventually in 1865 after the civil war ended the 13th Amendment was put into place stating:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

"The Cotton Planter and His Pickers", West Point, Mississippi, 1908. Postcard showing Euro American man holding shotgun and dog, with African American men, women, and children, in cotton field.
“The Cotton Planter and His Pickers”, West Point, Mississippi, 1908.

Triangular trade is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. It usually evolves when a region has export goods that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Therefore triangular trade provides a method for removing any trade imbalances between the above regions. This method was also applied for slavery in order to make journeys more efficient. There were three stages of this trade.

Stage 1:

Slave ships from Britain left ports like London, Liverpool and Bristol for West Africa carrying goods such as cloth, guns, ironware and drink that had been made in Britain. Later, on the West African coast, these goods would be traded for men, women and children who had been captured by slave traders or bought from African chiefs.

Stage 2:

On the African coast, European traders bought enslaved peoples from travelling African dealers or nearby African chiefs. Families were separated. The traders held the enslaved Africans until a ship appeared, and then sold them to a European or African captain. It often took a long time for a captain to fill his ship.

He rarely filled his ship in one spot. Instead, he would spend three to four months sailing along the coast, looking for the fittest and cheapest slaves. Ships would sail up and down the coast filling their holds with enslaved Africans.

On the brutal ‘Middle Passage’, enslaved Africans were densely packed onto ships that would carry them to the West Indies.

There were many cases of violent resistance by Africans against slave ships and their crews. These included attacks from the shore by ‘free’ Africans against ships or longboats and many cases of shipboard revolt by slaves. However, like most cases, these revolts would be unsuccessful.

Stage 3:

In the West Indies enslaved Africans would be sold to the highest bidder at slave auctions. Once they had been bought, enslaved Africans worked for nothing on plantations.

They belonged to the plantation owner, like any other possession, and had no rights at all. The enslaved Africans were often punished very harshly. Enslaved Africans resisted their enslavement in many ways, from revolution to silent, personal resistance.

Some refused to be enslaved and took their own lives. Sometimes pregnant women preferred abortion to bringing a child into slavery.

On the plantations, many enslaved Africans tried to slow down the pace of work by pretending to be ill, causing fires or ‘accidentally’ breaking tools.

Whenever possible, enslaved Africans ran away. Some escaped to South America, England or North America. Also, there were hundreds of slave revolts.

Two-thirds of the enslaved Africans, taken to the Americas, ended up on sugar plantations. Sugar was used to sweeten another crop harvested by enslaved Africans in the West Indies – coffee.

With the money made from the sale of enslaved Africans, goods such as sugar, coffee and tobacco were bought and carried back to Britain for sale. The ships were loaded with produce from the plantations for the voyage home.

Slavery in Islam

The Arab world at the time of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" was indulged in every type of filth and sin that was existent in the world, and one of those practices was slavery. Islam however, did not only teach the freedom of slaves but also the equal treatment of them.

Upon receiving revelation from God, when the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" made his claim to Prophethood, one commandment from among his early teachings was that slaves should be treated with compassion and kindness.

Moreover, it was in this early era when the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" began to encourage the freeing of slaves as well.

As a matter of fact, in this regard, a Qur’ānic injunction was revealed, that the freeing of slaves was a very good deed.

“…and what should make thee know what the ascent is? It is the freeing of a slave.”


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As a result of the compassion that the God Almighty was showing towards the slave, they began to see the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" as saviour.

It is for this very reason that despite the severe cruelties inflicted upon the Muslims at the time, the number of slaves turning to Islam was growing ever stronger.

Abū Dharr raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" narrates that the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" would state, “Your slaves are your brethren. Hence, if an individual has a slave under his control, then he should feed him what he eats himself and he should clothe him with what he wears himself. Do not burden your slaves with a task that is beyond their capacity and if you do, then assist them in this task yourselves.”


This Hadith is evidence to the fact that Islam did not only teach the freedom of slaves but also the equal treatment of them. Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" states regarding this hadith:

“The words ‘assist them’ also indicate that the task assigned should not be of a nature that if the master was required to do it himself, he would consider it degrading. Rather, the task should be of such as could be performed by the master as well and one he was prepared to perform himself.”

Such compassion and kindness cannot be found in the likes of any other religion or nation, and the greatest examples of how to follow the model of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" can be found through the companions.

Ubādah bin Walīd raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" narrates that: “on one occasion we met a companion of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" named Abul-Yusr raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them". At the time one of his slaves also accompanied him and we noticed that he was clothed in a streaked cloth and Yemeni cloth. Similarly, his slave was also wearing a streaked cloth and Yemeni cloth. I said, ‘O Uncle! Why did you not take his streaked cloth and give him your Yemeni cloth, or take his Yemeni cloth and give him your streaked one, so that both of you could wear a matching pair of clothes?’ Abul- Yusr raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" stroked my head, supplicated in my favour and said, ‘O nephew! My eyes have seen, my ears have heard and my heart has given place to the statement of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" that, ‘Feed your slaves what you eat and clothe them with what you wear yourselves.’ Hence, I prefer greatly to give my slave an equal share of the wealth of this world, as opposed to losing my spiritual reward on the day of resurrection.”

Sahih Muslim

Not only did Muslims at the time follow the teachings of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" and free slaves by their own hands, but they also would buy slaves with the specific intention of setting them free. Such was the standard to which the companions would obey the commands of their master.

Due to this incredible effort, even though the Muslims were low in numbers, countless slaves were delivered from the misfortune of slavery.

The list up ahead shows the number of slaves freed by the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" and a few companions, so by no means is it the complete figure, in fact, if every companion was mentioned, then this figure would definitely reach the millions.

1. The Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" freed 63 slaves

2. Hadrat ‘Ā’ishah raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" freed 67 slaves

3. Hadrat ‘Abbās raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" freed 70 slaves

4. Hakīm bin Hizām raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" freed 100 slaves

5. ‘Abdullāh bin ‘Umar raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" freed 1,000 slaves

6. ‘Abdur-Rahmān bin ‘Auf raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" freed 3,000 slaves

7. Hadrat ‘Uthmān bin ‘Affān raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" freed 20,000 slaves on one day alone, which was the day of his martyrdom. The total number is far greater than this.

8. Dhul-Kilā‘ Al-Dimyarī freed 8,000 slaves on one day alone


(Seal of The Prophets by Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", Volume 2, Page 201)

Slavery Today

Many of us may be in the misconception that slavery is only a thing of the past and the word is free from it, however, slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century. Instead, it changed its forms and continues to harm people in every country in the world.

The solution?

We follow the teachings of the Holy Prophet of Islamsa and rid the world of its problems, including slavery and attain Allah’s Grace.

Abū Hurairah raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" relates that the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" would say,

“Such a Muslim who frees a slave would be granted complete salvation by Allāh the Exalted from hell.”

Thousands of years have passed, many generations have come and gone, and awareness of slavery has resulted in the abolition of it in most parts of the world. However, still, in many countries claiming to be advanced, this issue exists under the radar, and despite the efforts of nations to rid the world of it doesn’t seem to be working.

In fact, there are still countries in the present day where slavery is still legal, as a result around 45.8 million people are currently living in a form of modern-day slavery. For example, North Korea, roughly 4.37% of the population is in slavery, India with 1.4% of the population in slavery which is still 18,354,700 people, and also China with 0.24% of the population in slavery.

Slavery is now no different to how it used to be, however, all that has changed is the types of jobs that slaves are being made to do:

  • Domestic Servitude – Employees working in private homes are forced or coerced into serving and/or fraudulently convinced that they have no option to leave.
  • Forced Labour – Human beings are forced to work under the threat of violence and for no pay. These slaves are treated as property and exploited to create a product for commercial sale.
  • Bonded Labour – Individuals that are compelled to work in order to repay a debt and unable to leave until the debt is repaid. It is the most common form of enslavement in the world
  • Child Labor – Any enslavement — whether forced labour, domestic servitude, bonded labour or sex trafficking — of a child.
  • Forced Marriage – Women and children who are forced to marry another without their consent or against their will.


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Picture of Daanish Khurram

Daanish Khurram

Student Jamia Ahmadiyya UK

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