Black slaves of the white Prophet?

In order to portray the Prophet (ﷺ) as a racist, special emphasis has been laid on the contrast between colours where he is shown as a very whitish white man as compared to the dark slaves he owned. Firstly, his (ﷺ)’s colour was not what we consider today as white i.e. of European origin. That white was referred to as yellow by the Arabs[1] (either due to the blonde hair or the skin colour) and what the Arabs meant by white was a light skinned person from the Arabic skin tone.

Secondly, the Prophet (ﷺ) did not own only black slaves. Slavery was common in those days and slaves came in all colours and races. He (ﷺ) came as a prophet in a society where racism was rampant and slaves existed from before who were black as well as Arab. To say that he only owned black slaves would be a deceit. One may ask as to why he continued to own slaves even if slavery was rampant instead of letting them free? Here is a quote from a historical book on slavery:

Noting the differences with chattel slavery in the Americas, Europeans often characterized slaver in the IOW as mild. The British in 19th century India even descried slavery as a form of poor relief, saving destitute people from starvation.

This helps explain the remarkable absence of class-consciousness and of revolt amongst IOW slaves who generally sought to integrate themselves into the slave-holding society that provided them with basic sustenance and sometimes the chance of an enhance lifestyle. It also explains why some slaves who were presented with the opportunity to gain freedom through manumission or redemption rejected it in favour of retaining their slave status.[2]

Slavery is not necessarily the one practiced in America i.e. by tying up in chains, beating with whips and making the slaves work in sub-human conditions. The Prophet (ﷺ) gradually reduced slavery; however, such a thing could not be done overnight. Freed slaves would not have been able to survive if set free and work, food, clothing, and necessities would not have been possible to obtain. The Prophet (ﷺ) made the path to the freedom of slaves very easy and encouraged freeing them a lot.

Some videos I recommend viewing [1][2][3]

Who were taken as slaves if taking in new slaves was prohibited? The enemy combatants! You may use the word ‘slave’ for them or alternatively, you may call them ‘enemy combatant prisoners’. If you have a choice of being sent to prison for the rest of your life or live as a ‘slave’ with someone, in their home, what would you choose? Mind you, the term slave does injustice to this concept because the ‘captive’ eats the same as the holder, he is not to be beaten, not to be given excess work and the holder must assist him with his work, the one who holds him cannot eat while he remains hungry and so on. The ‘captive’ also moves freely, gets sunlight, roams around and everything else a free person does. Compare this with the prison system in the US. I am more than certain, if given the choice, everyone in US prison would choose the Islamic slavery.

Don’t be put off by the European/American slave trade – beating, whipping, torturing a ‘captive’ is forbidden in Islam. Moreover, Robert Nichols states in ‘A History of Pashtun Migration, 1775-2006’:

“The nineteenth century British imperial system developed indentured and ‘contract labour recruitment’ to operate commercial plantations from Caribbean to Fiji. This has been studied as a substitute for abolished slave labour and as an ideological system creating permanent, docile worker pools”.

The British ‘reformed’ slavery into modern employment system and this is what Islam had done centuries ago. I know semantics hurt and the word ‘slave’ gives a negative connotation but Islam is far from it.

The Prophet (ﷺ) was furthest from racism. He categorically rejected and condemned racism, tribalism, nationalism and pride over skin colour, race, language, ethnicity in very explicit statements. Furthermore, the Prophet (ﷺ):

  • Appointed a black man to be a Mu’adhin (Saheeh Muslim, Book 004, Hadith Number 0741), said that his footsteps were ahead of his in paradise (Saheeh Bukhari, Volume 002, Book 021, Hadith Number 250) and gave him the honor to enter the Ka’bah with him (Saheeh Bukhari, Volume 004, Book 052, Hadith Number 231)

  • Prayed at the grave of a dead black person. (Saheeh Bukhari, Volume 001, Book 008, Hadith Number 448)

  • Supported and respected the testimony of a black woman when he could have easily encouraged the man to ignore it. (Saheeh Bukhari, Volume 007, Book 062, Hadith Number 041)

  • Forbade a man from disowning his dark complexioned son. (Saheeh Muslim, Book 009, Hadith Number 3575)

  • Reprimanded a companion for derisively calling Bilal, ‘son of a black woman’, then he went on to say, “Look! Surely you are not better than a brown man nor a black man except by fearing Allaah more than them.” (Reported by ‘Abdullaah ibn ‘Amr and collected by Ahmed)[3]

Enemies of Islam allege that the Prophet (ﷺ) was racist who owned and mistreated black slaves. Let’s look at their criticisms and see whether they stand true or not.

The First Narration

خرج ومعه أصحابه فثقل عليهم متاعهم، فقال: “ابسط كساءك”. فبسطته، فجعل فيه متاعهم ثم حمله عليَّ فقال: “احمل ما أنت إلا سفينة”. فقال: لو حملت يومئذ وقر بعير أو بعيرين أو خمسة أو ستة ما ثقل عليَّ

Narrated by Mahran: The apostle of God (ﷺ) and his companions went on a trip. (When) their belongings became too heavy for them to carry, Muhammad (ﷺ) told me, `Spread your garment.’ They filled it with their belongings, then they put it on me. The apostle of God (ﷺ) told me, `Carry (it), for you are a ship.’

Even if I was carrying the load of six or seven donkeys while we were on a journey, anyone who felt weak would put his clothes or his shield or his sword on me so I would carry that, a heavy load. The prophet (ﷺ) told me, `Carry, for you are a ship”‘.[4]

Here, it is alleged that the Prophet (ﷺ) made his black slave work overload and was unfair to him. The ending of the narration appears to have been cut deliberately. Mahran ends his statement saying [ما ثقل عليَّ] i.e. without any weight/without any heaviness/burden; so his complete statement would read as: I carried the load of six or seven donkeys without even feeling it. He does not narrate this incident to complain of injustice being done to him but to state the miracle that he experienced where he carried the load of six or seven donkeys alone without even feeling it.

Arabs had a custom of giving nicknames and they did so very frequently so much so that a single person would have numerous nicknames and at times, one or two would become more popular and stay with the person as if they were his real names. Some of the beloved people of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) had nicknames which would translate as ‘father of dirt’ or ‘father of cats’ and to a lay non-Arab, these may seem strange and perhaps even offensive; however, there is nothing strange or offensive about it. Furthermore, these names would come forth at the moment and likewise, the nickname of Mahran came out as ‘ship’ at the moment due to the event that took place.

Another point to note here is that the Prophet (ﷺ) and his companions were coming back from somewhere, most probably a battle as the companions who got tired and felt weak would put their shields, swords and belongings for Mahran to carry because of the miracle that took place at that time. Furthermore, dividing duties amongst the people is an efficient way of managing tasks. Slaves and freed slaves are exempt from fighting in wars and battles and hence, Mahran was most likely very fresh and active due to which he was allocated the duty to carry the load and at the same time, helped by Allah to carry it easily without feeling any burden.

The Second and Third Narrations

رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي مَشْرُبَةٍ لَهُ، وَغُلاَمٌ لِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَسْوَدُ عَلَى رَأْسِ الدَّرَجَةِ فَقُلْتُ قُلْ هَذَا عُمَرُ بْنُ الْخَطَّابِ فَأَذِنَ لِي

Narrated `Umar: I came and behold, Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) was staying on a Mashroba (attic room) and a black slave of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) was at the top of its stairs. I said to him, “(Tell the Prophet) that here is `Umar bin Al- Khattab (asking for permission to enter).” Then he admitted me.[5]

عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ، قَالَ كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي سَفَرٍ، وَكَانَ مَعَهُ غُلاَمٌ لَهُ أَسْوَدُ، يُقَالُ لَهُ أَنْجَشَةُ، يَحْدُو، فَقَالَ لَهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ وَيْحَكَ يَا أَنْجَشَةُ رُوَيْدَكَ بِالْقَوَارِيرِ ‏”

Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) was on a journey and he had a black slave called Anjasha, and he was driving the camels (very fast, and there were women riding on those camels). Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “Waihaka (May Allah be merciful to you), O Anjasha! Drive slowly (the camels) with the glass vessels (women)!”[6]

As explained above, owning slaves was not necessarily an evil act. When one studies the western slave trade, then surely one finds nothing but pure evil; however, under Islam, slaves were treated with honour and dignity.

The Fourth and Fifth Narrations

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، قَالَ كُنَّا مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَامَ خَيْبَرَ فَلَمْ نَغْنَمْ إِلاَّ الأَمْوَالَ وَالْمَتَاعَ وَالثِّيَابَ فَأَهْدَى رَجُلٌ مِنْ بَنِي الضُّبَيْبِ يُقَالُ لَهُ رِفَاعَةُ بْنُ زَيْدٍ لِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم غُلاَمًا أَسْوَدَ يُقَالُ لَهُ مِدْعَمٌ فَوُجِّهَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم إِلَى وَادِي الْقُرَى حَتَّى إِذَا كُنَّا بِوَادِي الْقُرَى بَيْنَا مِدْعَمٌ يَحُطُّ رَحْلَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَجَاءَهُ سَهْمٌ فَأَصَابَهُ فَقَتَلَهُ فَقَالَ النَّاسُ هَنِيئًا لَكَ الْجَنَّةُ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏”‏ كَلاَّ وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ إِنَّ الشَّمْلَةَ الَّتِي أَخَذَهَا يَوْمَ خَيْبَرَ مِنَ الْمَغَانِمِ لَتَشْتَعِلُ عَلَيْهِ نَارًا ‏”‏ ‏.‏ فَلَمَّا سَمِعَ النَّاسُ بِذَلِكَ جَاءَ رَجُلٌ بِشِرَاكٍ أَوْ بِشِرَاكَيْنِ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏”‏ شِرَاكٌ أَوْ شِرَاكَانِ مِنْ نَارٍ ‏”

It was narrated that Abu Hurairah said: “We were with the Messenger of Allah in the year of Khaibar, and we did not get any spoils of war except for wealth, goods and clothes. Then a man from Banu Ad-Dubaib, who was called Rifa’ah bin Zaid, gave the Messenger of Allah a black slave who was called Mid’am. The Messenger of Allah set out for Wadi Al-Qura. When we were in Wadi Al-Qura, while Mid’am was unloading the luggage of the Messenger of Allah, an arrow came and killed him. The people said: ‘Congratulations! You will go to Paradise,’ but the Messenger of Allah said: ‘No, by the One in Whose hand is my soul! The cloak that he took from the spoils of war on the Day of Khaibar is burning him with fire.’ When the people heard that, a man brought one or two shoelaces to the Messenger of Allah and the Messenger of Allah said: ‘One or two shoelaces of fire.'”[7]

“Whoever wants to see Satan let him take a look at Nabtal b. al-Harith!” He was a study black man with long flowing hair, inflamed eyes, and dark ruddy cheeks. He used to come and talk to the apostle and listen to him and then carry what he had said to the hypocrites. It was he who said: “Muhammad is all ears: if anyone tells him anything he believes it.” God sent down concerning him: “And of them are those who annoy the prophet and say he is all ears, Say: God ears for you. He believes in God and trusts the believers and is a mercy for those of you who believe; and those who annoy the apostle of God for them there is a painful punishment.” (Sura 9:61)”

The Islamic society created by the Prophet (ﷺ) was an open and accepting society. It had set the platform for high moral standards and gradually sought to abolish slavery. There were no race related tensions where one would have to think a number of times to even speak the truth; when one is in a society where race based tensions are high, a person has to choose politically correct words even when the spade is actually a spade. If a person happened to steal something and he happened to be black and calling out his theft would only be considered racist in a society where racism is rampant. A person’s surroundings and environment shapes his thought process and hence if anyone considers calling a spade a spade as racism, then this only goes to show the culture he lives in.

Secondly, if a person resembled Satan who (that person) happened to be black by coincidence, then calling that out should also not be a problem for anyone. Moreover, the person being compared to Satan was not exactly a good looking person from amongst the blacks but a monstrous looking one with inflamed eyes who was a notorious spy with the habit of gossiping. The narration itself mentions the scary looks of Nabtal and these are not those of an average black man. It is actually the alleger who is racist when he thinks that describing a scary man with long hair and inflamed eyes to resemble Satan is racism. Blacks are beautiful people and the Prophet (ﷺ) encouraged marriages as well; however, Nabtal was an exception who actually resembled Satan.

Furthermore, quoting these narrations on their own and calling out racism is nothing less than deceit. There are statements of the Prophet (ﷺ) where he compared the Dajjal (anti-Christ) to Abdul Uzza b. Qatan who was an Arab and not black. We have another similar narration where the person being compared to Satan was an Arab:

كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي الْمَسْجِدِ فَدَخَلَ رَجُلٌ ثَائِرَ الرَّأْسِ وَاللِّحْيَةِ فَأَشَارَ إِلَيْهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِيَدِهِ أَنِ اخْرُجْ كَأَنَّهُ يَعْنِي إِصْلاَحَ شَعَرِ رَأْسِهِ وَلِحْيَتِهِ فَفَعَلَ الرَّجُلُ ثُمَّ رَجَعَ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ أَلَيْسَ هَذَا خَيْرًا مِنْ أَنْ يَأْتِيَ أَحَدُكُمْ ثَائِرَ الرَّأْسِ كَأَنَّهُ شَيْطَانٌ ‏”

The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) was in the mosque when a man came in with disheveled hair and beard. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) motioned with his hand that he should be sent out to groom his hair and beard. The man did so and then returned. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “Isn’t this better than that one of you should come with his head disheveled, as if he were a shaytaan (Satan)?”[8]

Such statements show that the Prophet (ﷺ) clarified to the people how some of these personalities looked and the way he was casual about it shows that the society at the time had rejected racism and the thought process of the Prophet (ﷺ) did not even consider these descriptions a matter of ethnicity.

The Sixth Narration

عَنْ جَابِرٍ، قَالَ جَاءَ عَبْدٌ فَبَايَعَ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَلَى الْهِجْرَةِ وَلاَ يَشْعُرُ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنَّهُ عَبْدٌ فَجَاءَ سَيِّدُهُ يُرِيدُهُ فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ بِعْنِيهِ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ فَاشْتَرَاهُ بِعَبْدَيْنِ أَسْوَدَيْنِ ثُمَّ لَمْ يُبَايِعْ أَحَدًا حَتَّى يَسْأَلَهُ أَعَبْدٌ هُوَ

It was narrated that Jabir said: “A slave came and pledged to the Prophet to emigrate, and the Prophet did not realize that he was a slave. Then his master came looking for him. The Prophet said: ‘Sell him to me,’ and he bought him for two black slaves. Then he did not accept the pledge from anyone until he asked: ‘Is he a slave?”‘[9]

Before the Prophet (ﷺ) took over the governance of Makkah, he and his companions went to perform Umrah to Makkah from Madina; however, the believers were stopped and not allowed to do so that particular year and the Muslims entered into an agreement with the pagans. A part of the agreement was that the Muslims would return to the pagans anyone who would migrate from Makkah to Madina. A number of Muslims who had been held under captivity in Makkah tried to escape to Madina; however, as part of the agreement they were returned. This was a very difficult thing for the believers; however, with difficulty comes ease. At that moment, the treaty appeared unfair to the Muslims but looking in hindsight, it was a victory for the Muslims as they eventually took Makkah later on.[10]

We learn from the context that Muslims, from whatever race or colour, were returned to the pagans due to the agreement, the wisdom of which was not apparent. As for trading one against two, this was obviously not an ideal bargain which one would willingly enter into. The master would not have agreed to any price other than two stronger slaves and the Prophet (ﷺ) had to agree. Moreover, even today when we read about prisoner exchanges, we see that the stronger party financially and politically releases more in return for less; perhaps this is to convey to the opposing group that they value their own more than their opponent values their own.

The Seventh and Eighth Narrations

عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ اسْمَعُوا وَأَطِيعُوا وَإِنِ اسْتُعْمِلَ عَلَيْكُمْ عَبْدٌ حَبَشِيٌّ كَأَنَّ رَأْسَهُ زَبِيبَةٌ ‏”

Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “You should listen to and obey, your ruler even if he was an Ethiopian (black) slave whose head looks like a raisin.”[11]

إِنْ أُمِّرَ عَلَيْكُمْ عَبْدٌ مُجَدَّعٌ – حَسِبْتُهَا قَالَتْ – أَسْوَدُ يَقُودُكُمْ بِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى فَاسْمَعُوا لَهُ وَأَطِيعُوا

Umm al-Husain (Allah be pleased with her) reported: I heard Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) saying: If a slave having some limb of his missing and having dark complexion is appointed to govern you according to the Book of Allah the Exalted. listen to him and obey him.[12]

We have seen above how blacks were respected people and considered noble by the Prophet (ﷺ) and his companions. However, the fact of the matter is that in pre-Islamic society they were the lowest when it came to social, political and, economic class which Islam gradually changed. In our modern times, if one says to obey the ruler even if he is a homeless and hungry person, then a similar message would be conveyed as done by the Prophet (ﷺ). Speaking in that context where black slaves were the lowest in the hierarchy in society, speaking such words is actually encouraging for the oppressed class where the people are being told to ignore social standing, cultural and racial background and think and act the way Allah has ordered i.e. as equals and as brothers.

The Ninth Claim

Qadhi Iyad in his Al-Shifa: Ahmad ibn Sulayman, Sahnun’s companion, said that whoever says that the Prophet was black is killed. The Prophet was not black.

The statements of these men, 400 years after the Prophet (ﷺ), are said in a different surrounding all-together. Ahmad ibn Sulayman was a member of the family that ruled a part of what is now Spain. He was in Europe and surrounding countries were those of Europeans. Why would one say that the Prophet (ﷺ) was black? The enemies of Islam have always insulted the Messenger of God (ﷺ) and this was one of their many insults. Secondly, to call the Prophet (ﷺ) black would be to deny his lineage; it is to say that his mother wasn’t really his mother and it is to deny who the Prophet (ﷺ) really is. Even to deny he’s from the tribe of Quraish is punishable according to Imam an-Nawawi.[13] Here, Ahmad ibn Sulayman states that whoever seeks to insult him (ﷺ) was to be killed. Being black was/is not an insult but if a white supremacist considers it an insult and disrespects someone by that, then his attitude of disrespect should not be tolerated.

Moreover, Qadhi Iyad did not list this one statement alone; he writes a long list of such acts which are not to be tolerated and one of them is that if someone says that the Prophet (ﷺ) died before his beard began to grow, then he is to be killed. There is nothing wrong with beard not growing or dying before beard grows but when one makes these statements regarding the Prophet (ﷺ), then it is mocking him which is not something any Muslim would tolerate and likewise, the rulers of their times decided to punish accordingly.

Indeed, Allah knows the best.

References and footnotes:

[1] The Romans were/are referred to as bani Asfar (descendants of yellow) by Arabs

[2] Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, Gwyn Campbell, Page xxi and xxiii

[3] The Prophet (ﷺ)’s Opposition to Racism

[4] Ibn Qayyim, pp. 115-116; al-Hulya, Vol. 1, p. 369, quoted from Ahmad 5:222

[5] Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 95, Hadith 17

[6] Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 78, Hadith 187

[7] Sunan an-Nasa’I, Book 35, Hadith 67

[8] Muwatta Malik, Book 51, Hadith 1739

[9] Sunan an-Nasa’i, Book 39, Hadith 36

[10] Details of these events have only been summarised here in order to not divert from the core of this paper.

[11] Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 93, Hadith 6

[12] Sahih al-Muslim, Book 15, Hadith 342

[13] وأنه لو قال كان النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أسود أو توفي قبل أن يلتحي أو قال ليس هو بقرشي فهو كفر لأن وصفه بغير صفته نفي له وتكذيب به

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7 thoughts on “Black slaves of the white Prophet?

  1. A bit confused regarding the narration here:

    It was narrated that Jabir said: “A slave came and pledged to the Prophet to emigrate, and the Prophet did not realize that he was a slave. Then his master came looking for him. The Prophet said: ‘Sell him to me,’ and he bought him for two black slaves.

    What I don’t understand why did the Prophet sell his own slaves to buy one slave in exchange. By doing so, Isn’t he leading them, I mean those two slaves away from Islam. Why sell them, they may never come to Islam.

    • I had quoted this below the narration:

      Before the Prophet (ﷺ) took over the governance of Makkah, he and his companions went to perform Umrah to Makkah from Madina; however, the believers were stopped and not allowed to do so that particular year and the Muslims entered into an agreement with the pagans. A part of the agreement was that the Muslims would return to the pagans anyone who would migrate from Makkah to Madina. A number of Muslims who had been held under captivity in Makkah tried to escape to Madina; however, as part of the agreement they were returned. This was a very difficult thing for the believers; however, with difficulty comes ease. At that moment, the treaty appeared unfair to the Muslims but looking in hindsight, it was a victory for the Muslims as they eventually took Makkah later on.

      We learn from the context that Muslims, from whatever race or colour, were returned to the pagans due to the agreement, the wisdom of which was not apparent. As for trading one against two, this was obviously not an ideal bargain which one would willingly enter into. The master would not have agreed to any price other than two stronger slaves and the Prophet (ﷺ) had to agree. Moreover, even today when we read about prisoner exchanges, we see that the stronger party financially and politically releases more in return for less; perhaps this is to convey to the opposing group that they value their own more than their opponent values their own.

      The Prophet (ﷺ) had to return many people because of the deal. However, he had vision and foresight and plan for the long run which is why he allowed setbacks in the short run for the greater good in the long run. Makkan pagans would come to Madina to demand back people who had left Makkah; some would not listen and would demand the people back while in this particular narration, the slave owner was willing to bargain and deal was made with him. Again, this was good in the long run even though it appears a loss in the short run.

      • Ibn Qayyim, pp. 115-116; al-Hulya, Vol. 1, p. 369, quoted from Ahmad 5:222
        The book does not exist and the their is no hadith that says such a thing.

      • The book does not exist online and Musnad Ahmad narration is also not available online in English. If you copy/paste the Arabic part, you can find it easily on Muslim sites. A lot of the Arabic stuff is not freely available in English and especially not over the internet.

  2. Pingback: Is Islam racist? | Qur'anic misconceptions addressed

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