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Slavery in Islam vs. Slavery in the U.S. (in Light of the 13th Amendment)

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This is post is not what most might have expected from the title. This is not an article about the (somewhat) trite topic of the inhumane forms of slavery which have once existed in Western society. Rather, this post is about the current form of slavery which still exists today in America. Now, I’m sure everyone here is thinking, “What are you talking about? Slavery in the US was officially abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment! Right?” Well, hate to burst the bubbles of the patriotically minded, but such is not the case by any means. A closer look at the 13th amendment will show as falsehood the oft-propagated myth of the abolishment of American slavery.The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

AMENDMENT XIII

Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.

Section 1.
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.

Section 2.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Note the bold portion in Section 1: except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted!!! (Hats off to Br. Abu Marwah from Boston for pointing out this little loop-hole and sharing with me some very useful points of discussion.)

So, according to the US constitution, slavery, or rather, “involuntary servitude” CAN exist, but only as a punishment for convicts. Anyone here ever heard of prison labor?? Of course we have, and that is EXACTLY the form of slavery that exists in the US today. Essentially, the 1865 amendment changed the rules of the game from enslaving imported African slaves to social outcasts who cannot afford to pay bail or hire a decent lawyer. Not to mention that the concept of the Western prison system in and of itself seems very unjust. Essentially, once a person commits a crime of a certain level of severity, he/she is outcast from normal (and heterosexual!) society and has his very life taken away from him. Alhamdulillah for the beauty of Islam. In Islam, in general, the punishment for a crime is carried out all-at-once (e.g. lashing, cutting off of a hand), and given the crime didn’t deserve capital punishment, the criminal is then free to move on with his or her life (the main exception I can think of is that of exile for an unmarried adulterer… but even this most just punishment keeps one within the fold of general society). I realize there is ikhtilaf amongst the scholars about the necessity/permissibility of prison for certain other crimes, the punishments of which are not explicitly mentioned in the primary texts, but all the same, that is not comparable to the Western prison system

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Now, let us compare Western slavery to slavery in Islam; when and how is it allowed to exist. Really, there is nothing for us to be ashamed of as Muslims when it comes to the Islamic concept of slavery. Slavery is essentially Islam’s very humane way of dealing with prisoners of war. To quote Br. Nouman Ali Khan on how different societies deal with prisoners of war, “America has Abu Ghurayb and Islam has slavery.” And, of course, I am sure we are all familiar with the way in which a Muslim is commanded to treat his slave, that we are to “feed our slaves with what we feed ourselves” and “clothe our slaves with what we clothe ourselves”; not to mention all the virtues in Islam associated with freeing a slave. Compare this most excellent system with Western slavery, both past and present. There is no comparison. Compare our humane methodology for dealing with POW’s with the West’s Abu Ghurayb and Guantanamo Bay. There is no comparison whatsoever. Walhamdulillah.

Of course this goes without saying, but regardless of how we perceive any concept in Islam relative to other social norms and customs, we know that Islam is the religion of Allah, and thus any concept endorsed by the Qur’an and Sunnah is true and of the highest level of morality. As Muslims, we are totally comfortable with this concept, so regardless of how we feel about the concept of slavery in Islam and regardless of how others are or are not practicing slavery, we know that the truth lies in our deen. Walhamdulillaahi Rabbi al’aalameen.

Update 4/9/07: See also Islam and Slavery through the Ages: Slave Sultans and Slave Mujahids

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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