The question of slavery in Islam

Question

In my previous correspondences, I inquired regarding Islam’s approval of the continuation of the practice of slavery. You had replied in summary and for a more thorough answer had referred me to volume six of your “Al-Tafsir al-Mizan”. But I did not find my answer there.
Let me repeat my question. In the early years of Islam, due to certain circumstances, slavery was condoned. But then, considering that the progress of human reason would one day compel him to renounce the enslavement of human beings by other human beings as inhuman and irrational, why was it allowed to endure?
If the reason for sanctioning the subjugation of infidels in captivity was to reform their souls in the Muslim community, then why were their children, although Muslim confined to bondage? To reply that Islam had at the same time established a variety of measures to facilitate their freedom would not justify its sanctioning of slavery in the first place and its subjecting many of the slave’s religious matters to his master’s discretion.

Answer

You write that you did not find your answer in volume six of “Al-Tafsir al-Mizan”; that the progressive human mind condemns slavery, which is to rob a human being of freedom; that slavery is not rational; that if Islam sanctioned the subjugation of the infidels to reform their souls in the Muslim society, for what sin were their children sentenced to the same plight in spite of their embracing Islam? To reply that Islam had established certain measures to facilitate their freedom is insufficient, for the main problem lies in sanctioning slavery in the first place. Evidently, the discussion I referred to in “Al-Tafsir al-Mizan” was not read with due attention. Thus, it seems necessary that I repeat the explanation.
To begin with, the human being, although endowed with the faculty of volition and thus a free creature, can never pursue his liberty uninhibited. As a social creature he is at all times bound by laws that are enacted to ensure the society’s wellbeing and as such he cannot enjoy unrestrained freedom. Therefore, human liberty is always confined within the framework of laws and regulations.
In other words, human freedom is partial not absolute. Common people in a society are not free in abiding by the laws of that society. In addition to this universal restriction on freedom, there are certain circumstances that to a large extent curtail personal freedom. The insane, the mentally incompetent [safih], and children may not exercise even the partial freedom that sane and competent adults enjoy. In the same vein, a society’s enemies and criminals are perforce deprived of their liberty.
The next issue to deal with is what bondage denotes, regardless of what word we may employ in designating it. Bondage denotes depriving an individual of freedom in making decisions and carrying them out. Obviously, the will and action of one so bound are considered the possession of another. This is the meaning of the slave trade that was so prevalent in previous times.
In pre-Islamic times, an individual could be enthralled in one of four ways: 1) the guardian of a family was entitled to sell his children into bondage, 2) a man could give his wife to another man either as a lease or as a gift, 3) the ruler of a people considered it his right to enslave at will whomever he desired (it was for this reason that kings were often referred to as “possessors of slaves”), 4) in times of war, soldiers of the vanquished army were at the mercy of the victorious party, who could enslave the enemy combatants, free them, or slay them.
Of the four ways, Islam abolished the first three by delimiting the rights of the parents and the husband and by advocating the spread of a just Islamic government. The fourth way, however, it sanctioned, for it would have been against human nature to do otherwise. No individual in his right mind would remain silent in facing an enemy intent upon effacing his identity and desecrating what he holds sacred. Similarly, he would not, after gaining victory, let his enemy free. He would, rather, subject his enemy to captivity (another name for bondage) unless exceptional circumstances or factors call for pardon.
This has been the dictate of human nature from time immemorial and will remain so as long as human nature remains unchanged. Thus, your claim that it is against reason for one human being to subjugate another is only correct in the case of the first three ways of enslavement, as was just explicated.
You have also said that the modern human mind deplores slavery. This statement, although you may have not consciously intended so, implies that the modern world—i.e., the West—condemns undermining individual liberty, which might be supported by the fact that 80 years ago11 and only after many a struggle a universal abolition of slavery was proclaimed, thus ostensibly removing this stigma from the face of humankind.
In doing so, the modern world held all other nations—including the Muslim nations, whose religion, it perceived, condoned slavery—beholden to it. One must, however, consider more carefully the extent to which the “humane” governments of the modern world have actually respected this universal abolition of slavery in practice.
It is true that the first two forms of slavery (i.e., selling one’s children or wife), which were prevalent in Africa and some other parts of the world, have been effectively abolished (of course, 12 centuries after Islam declared them illegitimate), but have the modern governments in question put an end to the third form, which Islam abolished along with the first two? Are not the millions of Asian and African people who have been suffering under Western imperialism for centuries, robbed of their independence and the fruits of their toil, in effect slaves of the modern governments? The only difference is the reluctance to employ the word ‘slavery’. But in point of fact, the harm pre modern slaveholders inflicted on individuals, the modern governments inflict on entire nations.
After the end of World War II, Western imperialist powers slowly granted liberty and independence to a number of their colonies whom they patronizingly deemed politically matured. But that only proved that they claimed liberty their prerogative (to say nothing of the reality of this ostensible liberty, which was merely a new name for the same bondage disguised in a different shape, as the brand of servitude with which these modern states had smeared the face of the oppressed would not easily be erased, not even if the water of the seven seas were consumed), depriving of independence the so-called barbarous and backward nations, treating them as slaves who must, as long as they exist, serve their masters, the standard-bearers of modern civilization.
Moreover, what path have these modern states pursued vis-à-vis the fourth form of slavery—to divest of freedom prisoners of war? This question may be answered by looking at the situation that followed the Second World War. The Allied Forces, after subduing their enemies and forcing them into an unconditional surrender, poured into the enemies’ countries, appropriating whatever they deemed useful of the enemies’ heavy industry.
They captured of the enemy all those whom they thought useful and killed at will those they thought dangerous, enforcing their domination on the defeated nations in every respect they perceived necessary.
Today, 20 years since the end of the war, there is no indication that the subdued nations would enjoy total freedom in the near future. The problem of East Germany still persists, and German scientists are still being held in the Soviet Union against their will.
The Allied Forces did not limit their retributive measures to the adult and the able-bodied; they subjected the enemies’ children, including those born after the war, to the same bondage their parents were made to suffer. The fact that the adults fought the war did not relieve the children’s plight.
Their purported logic in such treatment was defending their very existence and safeguarding their future. The enemy cannot be forgiven right when it lays down its arms and yields to unconditional surrender, and its children cannot be exonerated, for subsequent generations are inextricably tied to their predecessors unless extraordinary circumstances sever such ties. This logic has been with human societies since time immemorial. It is the logic that still persists and will definitely endure, for it is unreasonable to pardon, out of pity, an enemy intent on one’s destruction.
In this light, Islam has also endorsed this natural human treatment vis-à-vis prisoner of war, resolving with courtesy, honesty, and kindness what secular governments achieve ruthlessly and unscrupulously through political stratagems. Thus, Islam is correct in sanctioning the captivity of hostile infidels, in its refusal to absolve them on the basis of their alleged conversion to Islam, and in its subjecting the children to the status of their parents, while at the same time providing for their comfort and facilitating their freedom with all possible means.

The Difference between the Science of Psychology and Spiritual Self-Knowledge

Question

Please explain the difference between psychology [‘ilm al-nafs] and spiritual self-knowledge [ma‘rifat al-nafs].

Answer

Psychology is commonly used in reference to the specific science that deals with the mind, its properties, and its related issues, whereas self-knowledge refers to actually comprehending the reality of the soul through immediate spiritual vision. Psychology is rooted in mental perception, self-knowledge in spiritual witnessing.

The Definition of Self-Knowledge

Question

Is self-knowledge the spiritual witnessing of the soul divested of matter and form or does it denote something else? In any case, please clarify the meaning of “self-knowledge,” which Qur’anic verses and hadiths so often exhort the believers to achieve.

Answer

Self-knowledge refers to the spiritual witnessing of the soul divested of matter, not of matter and form, for the spirit is the form. But ultimately, the purpose of self-knowledge, as mentioned in many hadiths, is to attain knowledge of the Lord.

The Relation between Self-Knowledge and Knowledge of God

Question

Sayyid ‘Abd Allah Shubbar, in his “Masabih al-Anwar”, enumerates twelve different interpretations of the well-known hadith, “Whosoever acquires self-knowledge will indeed know his Lord.”14 Can you please shed light on this topic by explaining the relation between self-knowledge and knowledge of God?

Answer

Of the twelve interpretations you alluded to, none, if I remember correctly, approach the true meaning of the hadith. Only the one that employs the concept of existential indigence may be said to shed light on the exoteric meaning of the hadith. From the point of view of existential indigence, since the soul is an existent whose existential cause is the Exalted Truth, before Him it can have no claim to any degree of independence, for whatever it possesses belongs to Him. Therefore, one cannot look into one’s soul, which so strongly reflects the image of God and not see Him at the same time.
The True Meaning of Knowing and Meeting God

Question

There are numerous hadiths in “Usul al-Kafi” and “Basa’ir al-Darajat” regarding the creation of the Pure Imams and their luminous station. Some of these state that they were the first creatures God created. Moreover, from a number of other hadiths, including “Al-Ziyarah al-Jami‘ah”, one may infer that the Imams are the “Names of God” [asma’ Allah], the “Face of God” [wajh Allah], he “Hand of God” [yad Allah], and the “Beside God” [janb Allah].
Considering such hadiths (especially in light of the Master of the Faithful’s assertion, “To gain luminous knowledge of me is to gain knowledge of God”), can it be concluded that the true meaning of knowing God and meeting Him (topics that recur in the Qur’an and the hadiths) is actually acquiring knowledge of the Infallibles? Please expound how these hadiths may be reconciled with those that explicitly point to direct knowledge of God?

Answer

The Luminous Station of the Imams is their station of perfection, which is the highest possible state of human perfection. Their being the “Names of God”, the “Face of God”, the “Hand of God”, and the “Beside God” is one of the profound mysteries of Divine Unity whose thorough exposition is beyond the scope of this letter.
What can be said in summary (and only by recourse to philosophical terminology) is that the Imams are the perfect manifestations of the Divine Names and Attributes. They are invested with Universal Authority [wilayah al-kulliyyah] and are the conduits of Divine effusion [fayd]. As such, to know them would be to know God, inviolable is His Name.

Self-Knowledge: The Key to Knowledge of God

Question

In his “Risalah Liqa’iyyah” (A Treatise on Meeting God), Mirza Jawad Aqa Maliki Tabrizi elucidates that contemplation on self-knowledge is the key to gaining knowledge of the Lord. Taking into account the fact that the soul is an immaterial being, the question arises, can mental contemplation fathom immaterial beings? If possible, please explain in clearer terms what the honorable author of the alluded book intends.
Answer
Thought can penetrate the realm of immateriality just as it encompasses the realm of materiality. You may refer to books of philosophy, the chapter on immaterial existents, to obtain a fuller understanding of questions related to the immaterial realm. However, the meaning of thought in this context (i.e., spiritual perfection through introspection and self-knowledge) differs from the common acceptation. What is intended here is to retire to a quiet and secluded spot, close one’s eyes, and focus on one’s form as though looking into a mirror, dispelling any other thought that may spoil the mind, solely focusing on one’s form.

Clarifying Two Points

Question

There are two points in “Risalah Liqa’iyyah” that I find troubling. The first is on the subject of contemplation to achieve self-knowledge, where the honorable author writes, “The contemplator at times engages in examining his self and at other times the world until it finally dawns upon him that the world he knows is nothing but himself and that the world is not an external one; rather, the worlds he is acquainted with are all united with himself.”(Risalah Liqa’iyyah, p. 188) What is the meaning of this passage? The second question relates to the passage that follows the abovementioned: “He [i.e., the contemplator] must then dispel any other thought from his heart and meditate on nothingness.” What do dispelling all thoughts and reflecting on nothingness actually mean?

Answer

The first passage you quoted points to the fact, which is substantiated by rational proof and which one must constantly remind oneself of, that what one comprehends of oneself and the world around him, he comprehends within himself. He does not grasp the external world as such. And to dispel all imaginary thoughts is to dismiss them in the attempt to exclusively focus by the eye of one’s heart on one’s form, and to contemplate nothingness is to remember the unreality, and, in essence, the nothingness of oneself.

Attaining to the Station of Self-Knowledge

Question

Is it possible for non-Shi‘ahs and, more generally, non-Muslims to attain to the spiritual station of self-knowledge through acts of worship and spiritual practices ordained by their respective religions? If possible, then obviously it would follow that they are also capable of acquiring true knowledge of God, thereby reaching the final end of the sacred religion of Islam, namely tawhid. This in turn would mean that one may attain to the final goal of spiritual perfection without having to traverse the path of Islam. Is this a valid assumption?

Answer

Although some scholars hold it possible, it goes against the literal reading of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, unless one assumes the spiritual seeker in question as “intellectually destitute” in regard to the preliminary stages of the spiritual journey.(“Intellectually destitute” or mustad‘af designates those unbelievers who are free of blame for their unfaith as they never had the chance to become aware of the truth. Such persons are commonly believed to be pardoned by God. [trans.]).

The Meaning of “Remembering God”

Question

What is intended by “remembering God,” which the Qur’an so frequently exhorts the believers to maintain? Is it keeping the friends [awliya’] of God and His blessings in mind? Please clarify this question.

Answer

The meaning of remembrance [dhikr] is clear, and to remember God is, at its lowest stage, to have Him in mind in what we decide to do and decide not to do, thus conforming our behavior to His will. In its higher meaning, it is to view oneself at all times before God and, higher still, to see God before oneself, of course in a manner appropriate to His Sacred Essence.
“One Cannot Bestow on others what one Lacks.”

Question

If the philosophic principle that an object lacking a quality cannot bestow on others what it lacks be universally and invariably true, then how does God bestow materiality on objects while He lacks it?

Answer

The principle that one cannot bestow on others what one lacks is a philosophic one, which allows of no exception. According to this principle, every cause must encompass all the existential qualities of its effect. However, as is elaborated in books of philosophy in the chapter on ja‘l (causation), it is solely its existence that the effect receives from its cause, not its essence.
Thus the qualities that the cause bestows on the effect are existential ones. The effect’s essence, however, the cause does not possess nor is it anything related to the cause’s existentiation. In this light, what God—inviolable is His Name—bestows on material existents is their positive existential qualities. Materiality is an aspect of their essence, and God is neither limited by any particular essence nor does He forge essence.18

The World in Flux

Question

Is the world, from the Islamic perspective, in a state of flux?

Answer

Change and evolution in the elements of this world is obvious and indubitable. The Qur’an thus expresses this truth:
“We did not create the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them except with the truth and for a specified term…” (Surah al-Ahqaf 46:3).
There are numerous verses to the same effect, underscoring the truth that every phenomenon in this world possesses a distinct set of qualities and pursues a particular end, which is its perfection, and that it has a fixed point of termination, the actualization of which triggers its dissolution and disintegration into its component elements.

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