Today we think of slavery as condemning humans to lifetime bondage, working without wages and maltreated. However, slavery seems to have been a common phenomenon in many ancient civilizations such as Babylon, Egypt, and China. Most slaves were war prisoners, kidnapped or obliged to pay for debts. They were the property of the master, with little or no rights or status. Many of them were treated cruelly even though most ancient civilizations had some laws to regulate slavery, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. This kind of slavery also existed during the lives of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad. Most of the slaves, at that time, were prisoners of wars. They could be killed, raped and sold at any moment. The three Abrahamic religions dealt with the slavery institutions in different ways, they didn’t not abolish it, but each one them regulate it in a way that goes with the norms of the society.
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Slavery in Islam
Islam tried to solve the problem of the slaves that were in the Arabian Peninsula by encouraging people in different ways to set their slaves free. The Muslims were ordered that in reparation of some of their sins they should emancipate their slaves. As a start, and because it is harder to change a cultural habit, Islam regulated the institution of slavery and improved the treatments of the masters toward their slaves. In many verses of the Quran, it is clearly stated that all the human are the descended of one ancestor, that no one is superior to the other regardless of the race, ethnicity or the social status.
The prophet Muhammed also ordered his Umma (Community) to threat the slaves and the servants as they were their brothers and to give them from what they eat and what they wear. He also ordered that the slave shouldn’t be given any work beyond his capacity and if it is necessary the master must help him. This good treatment of the masters had a positive consequence on the attitudes of slaves to their masters. The slaves kept their humanity and moral dignity and become a member of their master’s family. Moreover, the slaves also enjoyed the right to keep their religion and to have a family, to earn money and to own a property.
According to Islam teaching, humans are free and were born free. It is the natural and proper condition which must be considered as the norm. Therefore, to liberate a slave is one of the highest virtues. To emancipate a slave is considered equal to save its own life from the wrath in the next world. In Islam people were encouraged to enter into agreements and contracts which enabled slaves to earn or be granted their freedom at the expiry of a certain term or, most typically, on the death of the owner. At that time, there were occasions when groups of wealthy people, acting together, would buy and set free many slaves in order to obtain thereby the favor of God.
Islam has commended humanity in the treatment of slaves, and encouraged their liberation. We can see from the history of many different peoples in the Islamic world that slaves quickly integrated into the main society and achieved positions of great status and power, some of them even gained their freedom.
Slavery in Christianity
In the early Christianity, slavery was considered as natural phenomena. In the Old Testament there is no specific condemnation of slavery. On the contrary, it does approve and regulate it and ensures that the traffic and ownership of human beings proceeds in an acceptable manner.
In the New Testament, it is stated that Jesus did not express disapproval of the enslaving of people.
However, in spite of some critics against Jesus claiming that he didn’t abolish slavery, it undeniable that he explicitly stood against every form of injustice. The mission of Jesus was
Furthermore, in the New Testament it is clearly indicated how a good Christian must treat slaves: the Christian masters must call Christian slaves “brothers”. It also stated that masters must how kindness, justice, and tolerance toward their slaves and that their position, as master, meant responsibility and duty.
Paul, in his letters, also reminded Christians to treat their slaves as brothers and sisters. He emphasized on the justice and fairness toward slaves. Paul also asked Christians to consider them as morally responsible human beings who are also a part of the body of the Christ and asked the slaves to obey to their masters. He also explained that spiritual status is more fundamental and important than social status. Paul was not opposed to the freedom of slaves if the opportunity arose but believed that God had called people to different positions in life and they were to live out the Christian life in the position in which they were called.
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Slavery in Judaism
At the time of the Old Testament, there were two types of slavery; the ownership of foreign captives or war prisoners and the type of contractual servitude, where an Israelite is for a certain time a “slave” to another Israelite, usually because he has become poor and has no other option. An Israelite, in biblical law, is guaranteed certain rights both while a slave and upon liberation.
The first possible reference to slavery in the Old Testament is in Genesis where Noah cursed Canaan for the sin of his son Ham and predicted that he would be the servant of his brothers. Both the prophets Abraham and Isaac had servants; however, the first clear example of slavery is in Exodus where the Israelites were made to work as slaves. According the Exodus, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and their situation was clearly unacceptable to God, judging by their rescue and the regulations regarding slavery in the Mosaic Law.
Slavery in the Mosaic Law
After the Israelites had left Egypt the acquisition of slaves were organized by the Mosaic Law which permitted them to make slaves of Jews and Non-Jews people. The law states clearly that the Jews must treat their Hebrews slaves as if they were their servants. They must also give them the possibility of their freedom in the 7th year of their service, and provide them the resources to start a new life even though they can remain a slave if they want. In the exodus it is declared that anyone who put a man to slavery against his will must be killed. Furthermore, there were many laws dealing with violence against and the slaves and the ones who ran away from their masters must be protected and not returned. The Israelites were also allowed to buy slaves from other nations and to keep them for an indefinite period as slaves, nevertheless they were included in the commonwealth of Jewish community, and they could participate in festivals and were given the Sabbath rest.
In the twenty one century, slavery is considered as a violation of human rights and it is abolished by all the nations and the majority of religions. However, the texts of the Abrahamic religions( Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) refers clearly to the slavery institutions as common one and it is viewed as acceptable at that time. Indeed, all the three religions regulated the slavery, developed laws for it and organized it in a way to preserve the slave’s dignity and life. This pushes us to wonder, why the Abrahamic religions that value the life of a human being didn’t abolish slavery in their texts.
It is clear that the three religions were born at a time where slavery was a common practice and most of the societies were against any reforms that could change their habits and cultural practices. For these reasons and according to some explanations, the three religions didn’t abolish slavery at the beginning, however they were against the inhuman treatments and try to regulate in order to improve the life of the slaves and to preserve their human dignity. In Islam, slavery was at first regulated and then abolished by the time of the caliph Omar Ibn Al Khatab, however, it didn’t ended the slavery in the Islamic world. In Christianity and Judaism, slavery was justified by the curse of Ham and for some Christians and Jews it is God’s will on earth.
In spite of the religious regulation and abolishment, the human rights and worldwide organization, slavery still exists in the twenty-one century but in a modernize form. Some scholars claim it is neither the outcome of cultural practices nor the consequences of a certain religions. According to them, slavery is a part of the human nature that seeks to have power on another human being and to control it in order to satisfy the human ego.