by Imran H.Khan

The Almighty in Quran set up trajectories of social transformation and not absolute law. This was the balance to make the social change realizable in a society suffering from so many social evils and to make it a source of guidance for all times to come. One of the great misunderstandings over the Muslim history has been the inability to understand this basic fact. I will try to explain this in the context of slavery and woman’s rights.

In Pre-Islamic Arabia women were the target of  infanticide, the burying alive of baby girls, was rife; marriage was not sanctioned ; women did not have the right of inheritance and bequest; they were not treated fairly during divorce; and women were not afforded full control of their wealth. It is in placing the Quran and its principles against the backdrop of such a setting that the reformist spirit of Islam, which restores the true human character, can be seen.

Marriage is the area where Islam has introduced the greatest reform, with no institution of marriage present at the advent of Islam.  The reformist nature of Islam, however, lay not just in introducing new regulations, but also in overlaying new ideas to existing practice.  While the institution of marriage, for instance, did not exist in the traditional form in pre-Islamic Arabia, there were different forms of it that were present. The Quran defines marriage as a contract between man and woman, with both assuming equal, though not identical, places. It sees the institution and the relations between husband and wife not as shameful, but as commendable:

“By another sign He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you might live in peace with them, and planted love and kindness in your hearts. ” (3:21)

The economic principles detailed in the Quran provided such rights to women that women in the rest of the “civilized” world would have to wait until the nineteenth century for these rights to be recognized and granted. With the advent of Islam, women were granted the right to inherit and bequeath property, have possession and complete control of their wealth and receive a dowry, while married and after divorce.  The economic autonomy detailed in the Quran was perhaps one of the most striking reforms at the time, and still continues to be discussed today.

Slavery, in one form or the other was prevalent in almost all parts of the world. The Old Testament of the Bible, which describes the ancient tales of Israeli society, is replete with many accounts concerning slavery. It can be seen that the tradition of selling people existed during the time of the patriarch prophet, Abraham, itself. (Genesis 17:13,14). It is the commandment of the Bible that prisoners-of-war are to be enslaved (Deuteronomy 20:10,11).  In India, slavery existed as part and parcel of religion itself. The caste system was an inextricable portion of religion.We see the roots of the caste system in the purusha verse of the Rig Veda (10:90:12), the foremost among the vedic compilations which, in themselves, form the most important part of the Shruthi. It was but natural that under the caste system that was based on the reference in the Rig Veda that “the Brahman is created from the head, the Vaishya from the hands and the Shudra from the feet of the Parampurusha”, the Brahman was considered highly and the Shudra of a lowly stature.

The system of slavery was one of the pillars of the economic set-up of Arabia. It’s roots had penetrated much deeper than to enable its eradication by a mere order of prohibition. As a system that had prevailed in the regions where Islam flourished as well as in areas where it did not, not only would it be practically difficult to abolish it, but such a course of action would, far from being effective, be quite harmful, indeed.  Different ways in the Quran led to the slow abolition of slavery.

Create a sense of brotherhood.

The Quran had, firstly, created a notion that both master and slave were brothers, one to the other, by inculcating an awareness that all men were the creations of the same God and were the children of the same parents. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (Quran 49:13)

Create an awareness concerning the rights of the slave.

The duty of the slave, in primitive societies, was never confined to mere labour. He was also doomed to be at the receiving end of his master’s sadistic pleasure-seekings. The most cruel flogging while at work. The Quran commanded that such a state of affairs must change. It instructed in the humane and proper treatment of the slaves. “Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are of kin, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the way-farer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess: for Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”(Quran 4:36)

Declared the emancipation of slaves to be an act of righteousness.

By declaring the slave’s to be an existence which had rights of its own, Islam had technically made slavery non-existent. Without stopping at that point, however, it went further by turning to a course of action which would, in time, serve to eliminate the system in a very practical sense indeed. This practical step which Islam had adopted to make slavery virtually non-existent was its act of declaring the emancipation of slaves to be an act of righteousness.

Emancipation of slaves was made the act of expiation for many types of sin.

In addition to encouraging the believers towards its commission by declaring the emancipation of slaves to be a virtuous deed, Islam recommended it as an act of expiation for many types of sin. The atonement for sins like unintentional murder and breaking one’s vow of not approaching his wife was the freeing of one slave. As for those who were not ready to free slaves in expectation of Divine reward alone, the command which made the emancipation of slaves an atoning act for sins committed, nevertheless, made it necessary for them to do so.

The facility of providing the slave with his freedom in exchange of the ransom value was made possible.

Discerning the trajectories in social behavior is in my mind key to understanding the “Spirit of Quran”.  By giving women so many rights instantaneously, where no rights existed, did not mean that they were to be the only rights meant. The emphasis was on equality of men and women.  Even today when Sharia lawyers in general interpret Quran in absolute and talk about female witness amounting to less than male or inheritance not being equal between the two, it seems to me that they are completely missing the point in the Quran. Similarly slavery was being completely discouraged in all its forms. While I have dealt with only two social evils that the Quran attempted to eradicate, there are many other social dimensions that were addressed that need a similar approach to be true to the spirit of the message inherent in the Quran.

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One Response to “Ramadan: Day 5 Trajectories”

  1. Fatima Khan on August 17th, 2010 12:03 pm

    Truly Islam unleashed multiple social trajectories of change in the world. Muhammad pbuh and his message is a mercy to mankind. Slaves in subsequent generation of Muslims rose to become kings and empires.

    Women were granted dignity and respect when men were made to be servants of God alone. Prophet Muhammad pbuh said that the best of you is the best to your women. He was a prophet sent to all mankind. Thus, any human or nation who is to succeed in this world and the next will be the one who is best to women.