The Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition: Treatment of Slaves in Islam and Steps to Stop Slavery in the 21st Century

Hands in chains

Written by Ismail Rotimi Lawal

During the adoption of resolution 29 C/40 by the Organization’s General Conference at its 29th session, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), announced every August 23rd as the “International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition”

Every year, people all over the world organize events and invites educators, students, and artists. The artists perform to condemn slavery through music, dance and drama. Likewise, academia give lectures, tell the history of slavery, consequences and talk on how to promote freedom, respect and fulfilment of humans rights. However, this piece presents the concept of slavery, modern slavery, Islam’s position on slavery and steps to stop slavery activities.


Slavery has existed since time immemorial, it was globally accepted as an economic, social and political institution. Slaves serve as means of settling debts and exchange for goods. Soldiers captured during warfare were usually used as slaves. Millions of men, women and children in the early 16th century were captured by slave masters/traders and were sold to Greece, America, France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Cuba, England etc.

Approximately 20 to 30 million West Africans were transported to America to develop America’s economy. The female slaves served as means of entertainment to their masters; were subjected to rape and domestic servitude, while male slaves were used for labours in plantations. Cuba enslaved millions of Africans in the 16th century as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. They were used as labourers to develop her sugar production and rose to become the largest sugar producer until the mid-19th century when the British pressured Cuba to abolish slave trade. Many Cubans known as Afro-Cuban today are descendants of African slaves, and they are as many as 35% of Cuba population.

In 1807, the British parliament passed the Slave Trade Act that outlawed the Slave Trade. Thereafter, the state of Vermont abolished slavery in 1877, followed by Spain, Denmark among others. However, slave trade continued among many nations until 1948, when the United Nations General Assembly adopts Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including an article stating that: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Modern Slavery

Since the official abolition of slavery by states more than 4 decades ago, it is still a global concern in the 21st century. The 21st century slavery, which has been rephrased to “Human Trafficking”, is synonymous in practice to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The United Nations describes human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimated that there were about 40.3 million slaves around the world in 2016. Three times higher than the 13 million people whom were captured and sold as slaves between 15th and 19th century. Today, women and girls comprise of 71% of all modern slavery victims. Globally, slavery generates as much as $250 billion in profits every year. Today, slavery is part of global supply chains in the agriculture, construction, fashion, sex and manufacturing industries.

Most recently, 60,000 Nigerians are estimated to be held in ransom in detention centres in Libya after trying to cross to the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe. Some of the people that embarked on this illegal journey died in the Sahara Desert due to its hotness, hydration, hunger and lack of medicines. Few survivals narrated their ordeals to have shared water with camel and donkey to stay alive, some were sexually abused, tortured and exploited by security agencies in Libya.

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) reported that more than 14,000 Nigerians have been returned to Nigeria from Libya.

As the world holds the “Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition”, we must be sincere with ourselves that the war against slavery is not over and the fire of slavery is raging like ever before.

There are so many factors leading to slavery in the 21st century, which must be addressed by lawmakers, government officials, community leaders, and developing partners. To ensure that all humans benefit from the universal declaration of human rights, all factors exposing people to human trafficking and slavery mush be looked into and addressed.

Islam’s Response to Slavery

In pre-Islamic time, slavery was a norm in Saudi Arabia just like everywhere else. When Islam was newly established in the Arabia, slavery was an integral part of the Arabians and its abolition was nearly impossible. Islam then brought in some measures to frustrate the institution of slavery. It limits the opportunity to acquiring slaves; establish human freedom and human rights in the Arabian Peninsula, which is now adopted all over the world. The rights given to slaves under the Islamic rule made slavery unprofitable for the slave masters.

Allah commands the Holy Prophet, (May peace and blessing of Allah be upon him), in the Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Anfal, 8: 68 that:

“It does not behove the Prophet that he should have captives until he engages in regular fighting in the land…”

The verse above lucidly explains the only condition Muslims are allowed to enslave people. The warfare soldiers were not just captured by the earlier Muslims for economic progress unlike the Western slave trade that was driven by economic motive. Permission for warfare is given by Allah the Almighty as a means of restoring peace and only as a defensive measure to restrain aggressors. Soldiers were captured by the Muslims not to punish them, but to restrict them from engaging in further atrocities on the land.

Position of slaves in Islam

  1. Feed and clothe slaves:

Ma’rur ibn Suwaid, (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah, (peace and blessings be upon him), said:

“Your slaves are your brothers. Allah has placed them in your hand, and he who has his brother under him should feed him with the same food he eats and clothe him with the same clothes he wears, and do not burden him beyond his capacity, and if you burden him then help him.”

What a beautiful teaching from the Prophet of Islam (Peace and blessings be upon him). For a slave master to regard a slave as his brother, feeds him, clothes him and he supports him when he is over burden is indeed a worthy treatment any slave can receive.

  • Islam encourages manumission:

Islam allows freeing of slaves and makes paying ransoms to free slaves a righteous deed.

We read in the Holy Qur’an:

“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness… to spend of your substance…for the ransom of slaves.” Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:178.

To fast track, the end of slavery in human society, Allah called paying the ransom of slaves as a righteous act. This will definitely motivate the Muslims to pay ransom of slaves, and voluntarily free more to achieve righteousness.

The second caliph, leader of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the eldest son of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Hadrat Khalifatul-Masih II, Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad (may Allah be pleased with him), beautifully explained in one of his books, while talking on the ‘Exhortations for Freeing the Prisoners of War’. He quoted Surah Muhammad, 47:5, of the Holy Qur’an, which says:

“… Then afterwards either release them as a favour or by taking ransom”

“No third option is given. The captor can either release prisoners of war out of compassion and rest assured that God is pleased with his action or if financial hardship does not allow the captors to set prisoners of war free without recompense, then it is permissible to charge the customary ransom for release. However, what happens if neither the prisoner nor his country or family have the resources to pay ransom? Islam then allows the prisoner to pay his ransom in regular instalments and thereby earn his freedom.”

  • Islam ends slave abuse

We read in history how slaves were subjected to the most unbearable punishments. The punishment was in different forms; degradation, beaten, raped, branded, chained, tortured and denied food, water and medicines. The cruel slave masters used them as pleased as they had no control of their own. Life.

Islam stood against all forms of punishing a slave. Be it beating, raping, or branding.

Ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) reported:

The Messenger of Allah, (peace and blessings be upon him), said, “Whoever strikes his slave-boy sharply without right, or punches him, the expiation for the sin is to emancipate him.” Sahih Muslim 1657.

Then, in a related Hadith, Abu Mas’ud al-Ansari, (may Allah be pleased with him), reported:

“When I was beating my servant, I heard a voice behind me (saying): Abu Mas’ud, bear in mind Allah has more dominance over you than you have upon him. I turned and (found him) to be Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him). I said: Allah’s Messenger, I set him free for the sake of Allah. Thereupon he said: Had you not done that, (the gates of) Hell would have opened for you, or the fire would have burnt you.” Sahih Muslim, The Book of Oaths, Book 015, Number 4088.

Beating of slaves in Islam is a grievous sin which is highly condemned by the Messenger of Allah, (peace and blessings be upon him). Prophet Muhammad, ensured that slaves are not maltreated, nor are they overworked. He encouraged his followers to be kind with the slaves and treat them like brothers.

  • Islam honour the slaves:

The Prophet, (peace and blessings be upon him), Said

“You should not say, ‘Feed your lord (Rabbaka), help your lord in performing ablution, or give water to your lord, but should say, ‘my master (e.g. Feed your master instead of lord etc.) (Saiyidi), or my guardian (Maulai), and one should not say, my slave (Abdi), or my girl-slave (Amati), but should say, my lad (Fatai), my lass (Fatati), and ‘my boy (Ghulami).” Sahih Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 46, Number 728.

Islam honours slaves to the extent that they should not be addressed as slaves. A slave master should regard his slave as his boy – for sure, this will make them feel good and increase their dignity in the society.

In another Hadith, Abu-Dharr, (may Allah be pleased with him), reported that,

“Once the Prophet of Islam noticed a man was riding while his slave was walking behind him, The Prophet said: “Let your slave ride with you since he is your brother. His spirit is similar to your spirit.”

Comprehending the rights given to slaves in Islam, one can understand Islam’s stand on slavery. The conditions given to Muslims to acquire and treat slaves are gradually to end slavery. If the slave masters are commanded to treat slaves like their brothers, share food and clothes with them and to never overwork them, and if you do, help them. Perhaps, there is no need for slavery.

Steps to stop slavery in the 21st century

  1. Educate the people:

Most victims of slavery had no knowledge they were going to be enslaved. They were promised a better life and dream jobs in Europe until they were sold as sex slave, and trafficked into forced labour. People must be enlightened on human trafficking, the tricks of human traffickers and appropriate actions to take if they are being exposed to trafficking. They have to be sensitised and showed the risks of taking illegal routes to Europe.

  • Job and skills empowerment:

Unemployment is a one of the reasons educated people are falling into the traps of human traffickers. The youths and women should be provided employments, made to establish their businesses and be responsible members of the society. Likewise, skills empowerment; barbing, fashion making, media skills, hairdressing are few skills citizens can benefit from. International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates that 80% of Nigerian women that arrived in Sicily (Italian region) were trafficked and will be forced into prostitution in Italy where a working model for sex trafficking already exists.

These Nigerian women can be empowered with most demanding skills in the 21st century which keep them busy, make them earn money, ease their conditions and further reduce vulnerability to being trafficked and exploited.

  • Improve security

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), an increase in violent conflict worldwide over the past 30 years has also inflated the number of people at risk of slavery. Terrorists raze villages, kidnap youths and women, and brainwash them with their ideology. The women serve as their sex slaves and the men are forced to carry out terrorist’s attack.

Government should improve the security of the states, strengthen the security at the borders and monitoring the influx and out-flow of people around the borders will definitely make human trafficking very difficult.


Slavery can be annihilated if we are all committed to secure and fulfil the right of one another. It is a difficult task to combat as it’s a big and developing industry that many are making their livings from. It requires all humanly possible efforts to end human trafficking and slavery. Hence, we should have it at the back of our minds that as we celebrate “International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition”, we still need to double our effort to end the slave industry.

Works cited

  1. The Economic system of Islam by Hadrat Khalifatul-Masih II, Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad (may Allah be pleased with him)
  2. The Life & Character of the Seal of Prophets (May Peace and Blessings of Allāh be upon him) Volume II (Sīrat Khātamun-Nabiyyīn) By Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad, M.A. (may Allah be pleased with him)
  3. “The Social Structure of Virginia: Bondservants and Slaves”. Volume 1, chapter. Murray N. Rothbard.
  4. World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Fifth Khalifah (Caliph), His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), address at the Dutch National Parliament, on 6 October 2015. World Peace & Security – Critical Issues of Our Time.
  5. date accessed19th August, 2019
  6. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Anti-Slavery Society date accessed 19th August, 2019

About the writer: Ismail Rotimi Lawal is a graduate of pharmaceutics. He’s a keen writer and Assistant Secretary Media & Publications of Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Organization, Nigeria. He is also a member of Muslim Writers’ Guild of Nigeria and the Programs Manager of Health Volunteers Naija, a Non-Governmental Organization – committed to enhanced community health in Nigeria.