Introduction

Is there slavery in Islam? When people pose this question they usually assume it’s the Islam part that needs clarification. Everyone already knows what slavery is. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. The Islam part is relatively straightforward. The real problem is trying to pin down what we mean by slavery. The more we scratch the surface of that word and try to define it, the more we find that our assumptions and even our words fail us. What we think we mean by slavery means little outside our own American experience, and the moment we try to fix what slavery is as a human phenomenon we find a hall of mirrors reflecting our own assumptions back at us. We all think we know what slavery is, but would we really know slavery if we saw it?
Imagine we could explore the phenomenon of slavery throughout history. Imagine that, as huge Doctor Who fans, we hitch a ride in the Tardis, which allows us to travel across space and time. Our first stop is an exotic, desert land where slavery is common. We visit a well-off home, where we find certain people performing domestic work while an older man sits drinking tea. Everyone has the same dark skin color. Suddenly the lounging tea-drinker shouts at a young man serving him and smacks him hard with a fly swatter. We are eager to know who all these people are. Fortunately, the TARDIS translates all languages directly to your brain. We ask one of the men serving tea his name, and he says his name is Saffron and that he is “one of the delicate folk” working in the household. He has worked in this house for five years, but he tells us that, in one year’s time, he’ll have saved enough money to move on and start his own teashop. We ask about the young man getting smacked. “Oh, that poor boy… he’ll be here till the old man dies.”
Back in the TARDIS, we voyage on through time and space, this time to meet the powerful prime minister of an expansive empire. The prime minister enters the throne room surrounded by dozens of armed soldiers, and we sense the trepidation in the hushed muttering of the audience around us. One voice whispers,“The minister is worth 80 million gold ducats.” “He’s married to the king’s daughter,” responds another. The minister and his bodyguards are all light-skinned and fair-haired. Many of those there to offer petitions and seek favor have a darker, olive complexion.
After meeting the minister we voyage on, now to a colder land where we meet a man working in a clock factory. He hates his life, so we agree to take him with us. But the factory owner catches him leaving, and the man is thrown in prison.
We voyage still onward in the TARDIS to a new land where, passing down the road, we see a crew of dark-skinned youths clearing brush in the hot sun, their legs shackled and all joined by chains. A light-skinned man watches over them with a weapon in hand.
Where has the TARDIS taken us in our exploration of slavery? The first place we visited was the city of Mecca in the 1400s. The ‘soft and delicate (raqīq)’ man Saffron was a slave in the wealthy man’s household who had an agreement with his master to buy back his freedom on installments (mukataba). Raqīq was the standard term for slave, and epicurean names like Saffron were typical. The younger man being smacked for bad service, who was tied to the household seemingly forever, was the wealthy man’s own son.
The second place we visited was the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1579. The minister was Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, the grand vizier and de facto ruler of the empire during the time of three sultans. At the time of our visit, he had already been one of the empire’s richest and most powerful men for almost two decades.  He was also a slave of the sultan. He was born in Bosnia, as were all his guards, who were also slaves of the sultan.[1]
The land where we met the man working in a clock factory was England in 1860.  Although the worker was a free man, according to labor laws in England at the time a worker who failed to show up for work was guilty of stealing from his employer and was tried and sentenced as a criminal. Finally, the last place we visited was a land in which slavery had long been illegal: rural Arizona in 2004, where the local sheriff was overseeing a juvenile chain gang.

The Problem of Defining \ˈslā-v(ə-)rē\

How We See Slavery – American Chattel Slavery

The Spectrum of Coerced Labor

Definitions that Never Seem to Work

Slavery in Islam – A Political Question

Conclusion: Focus on the Conditions, not the Word

Notes