Slavery and religion

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The issue of slavery and religion is an area of historical research into the relationship between the world's major religions and the practice of slavery.

Slavery in the Bible

Genesis narrative about the Curse of Ham has often been held to be an aetiological story, giving a reason for the enslavement of the Canaanites. The word ham is very similar to the Hebrew word for hot, which is cognate with an Egyptian word (kem, meaning black) used to refer to Egypt itself, in reference to the fertile black soil along the Nile valley. Although many scholars therefore view Ham as an eponym used to represent Egypt in the Table of Nations,[1] a number of Christians throughout history, including Origen[2] and the Cave of Treasures,[3] have argued for the alternate proposition that Ham represents all black people, his name symbolising their dark skin colour;[4] pro-slavery advocates, from Eutychius of Alexandria[5] and John Philoponus,[6] to American pro-slavery apologists,[7] have therefore occasionally interpreted the narrative as a condemnation of all black people to slavery.[8] A few Christians, like Jerome, even took up the racist notion that black people inherently had a soul as black as [their] body.[9]

Slavery was customary in antiquity, and it is condoned by the Torah, which occasionally compels it.[10][11] The Bible uses the Hebrew term ebed to refer to slavery; however, ebed has a much wider meaning than the English term slavery, and in several circumstances it is more accurately translated into English as servant.[12] It was seen as legitimate to enslave captives obtained through warfare,[13] but not through kidnapping.[14][15] Children could also be sold into debt bondage,[16] which was sometimes ordered by a court of law.[17][18][19]

As with the Hittite Laws and the Code of Hammurabi,[20] the bible does set minimum rules for the conditions under which slaves were to be kept. Slaves were to be treated as part of an extended family;[21] they were allowed to celebrate the Sukkot festival,[21] and expected to honour Shabbat.[22] Israelite slaves could not be compelled to work with rigour,[23][24] and debtors who sold themselves as slaves to their creditors had to be treated the same as a hired servant.[25] If a master harmed a slave in one of the ways covered by the lex talionis, the slave was to be compensated by manumission;[26] if the slave died within 24 to 48 hours, he or she was to be avenged[27] (whether this refers to the death penalty[19][28] or not[29] is uncertain).

Israelite slaves were automatically manumitted after six years of work, and/or at the next Jubilee (occurring either every 49 or every 50 years, depending on interpretation), although the latter would not apply if the slave was owned by an Israelite and wasn't in debt bondage.[30] Slaves released automatically in their 7th year of service, which did not include female slaves,[31] or[32][33] did,[34] were to be given livestock, grain, and wine, as a parting gift[35] (possibly hung round their necks[19]). This 7th-year manumission could be voluntarily renounced, which would be signified, as in other Ancient Near Eastern nations,[36] by the slave gaining a ritual ear piercing;[37] after such renunciation, the individual was enslaved forever (and not released at the Jubilee[38]). Non-Israelite slaves were always to be enslaved forever, and treated as inheritable property.[39]

In several Pauline epistles, and the First Epistle of Peter, slaves are admonished to obey their masters, as to the Lord, and not to men;[40][41][42][43][44] however these particular Pauline epistles are also those whose Pauline authorship is doubted by many modern scholars.[45][46][47][48][49][50][51][52][53][54][55][56] By contrast, the First Epistle to the Corinthians, one of the undisputed epistles,[57] describes lawfully obtained manumission as the ideal for slaves.[58] Another undisputed epistle is that to Philemon, which has become an important text in regard to slavery, being used by pro-slavery advocates as well as by abolitionists;[59][60] in the epistle, Paul returns Onesimus, a fugitive slave, back to his master nature, which was opposed to the equality in which mankind was created.[61]


More mainstream forms of first-century Judaism didn't exhibit such qualms about slavery, and ever since the 2nd-century expulsion of Jews from Judea, wealthy Jews have owned non-Jewish slaves, wherever it was legal to do so;[19] nevertheless, manumissions were approved by Jewish religious officials on the slightest of pretexts, and court cases concerning manumission were nearly always decided in favour of freedom, whenever there was uncertainty towards the facts.[28][62]

The Talmud, a document of great importance in Judaism, made many rulings which had the effect of making manumission easier and more likely:

  • The costly and compulsory giving of gifts was restricted the 7th-year manumission only.[19]
  • The price of freedom was reduced to a proportion of the original purchase price rather than the total fee of a hired servant, and could be reduced further if the slave had become weak or sickly (and therefore less saleable).[19][28]
  • Voluntary manumission became officially possible, with the introduction of the manumission deed (the shetar shihrur), which was counted as prima facie proof of manumission.
  • Verbal declarations of manumission could no longer be revoked.[63]
  • Putting phylacteries on the slave, or making him publicly read three or more verses from the Torah, was counted as a declaration of the slave's manumission.[28]
  • Extremely long term sickness, for up to 4 years in total, couldn't count against the slave's right to manumission after six years of enslavement.[19][28]

Jewish participation in the slave trade itself was also regulated by the Talmud. Fear of apostasy lead to the Talmudic discouragement of the sale of Jewish slaves to non-Jews,[64] although loans were allowed;[65] similarly slave trade with Tyre was only to be for the purpose of removing slaves from non-Jewish religion.[66] Religious racism meant that the Talmudic writers completely forbade the sale or transfer of Canaanite slaves out from Palestine to elsewhere.[67] Other types of trade were also discouraged: men selling themselves to women, and post-pubescent daughters being sold into slavery by their fathers.[19][28] Pre-pubescent slave girls sold by their fathers had to be freed-then-married by their new owner, or his son, when she started puberty;[19] slaves could not be allowed to marry free Jews,[68] although masters were often granted access to the services of the wives of any of their slaves.[69]

According to the Talmudic law, killing of a slave is punishable in the same way as killing of a freeman, even it was committed by the owner. While slaves are considered the owner's property, they may not work on Sabbath and holidays; they may acquire and hold property of the own.[70]

Several prominent Jewish writers of the Middle Ages took offense at the idea that Jews might be enslaved; Joseph Caro and Maimonides both argue that calling a Jew slave was so offensive that it should be punished by excommunication.[71][72] However, they did not condemn enslavement of non-Jews. Indeed, they argued that the biblical rule, that slaves should be freed for certain injuries, should actually only apply to slaves who had converted to Judaism;[19] additionally, Maimonides argued that this manumission was really punishment of the owner, and therefore it could only be imposed by a court, and required evidence from witnesses.[19] Unlike the biblical law protecting fugitive slaves, Maimonides argued that such slaves should compelled to buy their freedom.[19][28]

At the same time, Maimonides and other halachic authorities forbade or strongly discouraged any unethical treatment of slaves. According to the traditional Jewish law, a slave is more like an indentured servant, who has rights and should be treated almost like a member of the owner's family. Maimonides wrote that, regardless whether a slave is Jewish or not, "The way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a slave, and to provide them from every dish and every drink. The early sages would give their slaves from every dish on their table. They would feed their servants before sitting to their own meals... Slaves may not be maltreated of offended - the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. Do not shout at them or be angry with them, but hear them out." In another context, Maimonides wrote that all the laws of slavery are "mercy, compassion and forbearance".[73][74]


Slavery in different forms existed within Christianity for over 18 centuries. Although in the early years of Christianity, freeing slaves was regarded as an act of charity,[75] and the Christian view of equality of all people including slaves was a novelty in the Roman Empire,[76] the actual institution of slavery was rarely criticised. Indeed, in 340, the Synod of Gangra condemned the Manicheans for their urging that slaves should liberate themselves; the canons of the Synod instead declared that anyone preaching abolitionism should be anathematised, and that slaves had a Christian obligation to submit to their masters. Augustine of Hippo, who renounced his former Manicheanism, argued that slavery was part of the mechanism to preserve the natural order of things;[77][78] John Chrysostom, regarded as a saint by Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, argued that slaves should be resigned to their fate, as by obeying his master he is obeying God[79] but also stated that Slavery is the fruit of covetousness, of extravagance, of insatiable greediness in his Epist. ad Ephes.[80] As the Apostle Paul admonished the early Christians; "There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus". And in fact, even some of the first popes were once slaves themselves.[76]

In 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, which granted Afonso V of Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers" to hereditary slavery. The approval of slavery under these conditions was reaffirmed and extended in his Romanus Pontifex bull of 1455. In 1488 Pope Innocent VIII accepted the gift of 100 slaves from Ferdinand II of Aragon and distributed those slaves to his cardinals and the Roman nobility. Also, in 1639 Pope Urban VIII purchased slaves for himself from the Knights of Malta.[81]

Other Popes in the 15th and 16th century denounced slavery as a great crime, including Pius II,[76] Paul III,[82] and Eugene IV.[83] In 1639, pope Urban VIII forbade slavery, as did Benedict XIV in 1741. In 1815, pope Pius VII demanded of the Congress of Vienna the suppression of the slave trade, and Gregory XVI condemned it again in 1839.[76]

In addition, the Dominican friars who arrived at the Spanish settlement at Santo Domingo in 1510 strongly denounced the enslavement of the local Indians. Along with other priests, they opposed their treatment as unjust and illegal in an audience with the Spanish king and in the subsequent royal commission.[84] As a response to this position, the Spanish monarchy's subsequent Requerimiento provided a religious justification for the enslavement of the local populations, on the pretext of refusing conversion to Roman Catholicism and therefore denying the authority of the Pope.[85]

Some other Christian organizations were slaveholders. The 18th century high-church Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned the Codrington Plantation, in Barbados, containing several hundred slaves, branded on their chests with the word Society.[86][87] George Whitefield, famed for his sparking of the so-called Great Awakening of American evangelicalism, overturned a province-wide ban against slavery,[88] and went on to own several hundred slaves himself.[89]

At other times, Christian groups worked against slavery. The seventh century Saint Eloi used his vast wealth to purchase British and Saxon slaves in groups of 50 and 100 in order to set them free.[90] The Quakers in particular were early leaders in abolitionism, attacking slavery since at least 1688. In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, with 9 of the 12 founder members being Quakers; William Wilberforce, an early supporter of the society, went on to push through the 1807 Slave Trade Act, striking a major blow against the transatlantic slave trade. Leaders of Methodism and Presbyterianism also vehemently denounced human bondage,[91][92] convincing their congregations to do likewise; Methodists subsequently made the repudiation of slavery a condition of membership.[93]

In the southern United States, however, support for slavery was strong; anti-slavery literature was prevented from passing through the postal system, and even sermons, from the famed English preacher Charles Spurgeon, were burned due to their censure of slavery.[94] When the American Civil War broke out, slavery became one of the issues which would be decided by the outcome; the southern defeat lead to a constitutional ban on slavery. Despite the general emancipation of slaves, members of fringe Christian groups like the Christian Identity movement, and the Ku Klux Klan (a white supremacist group) see the enslavement of Africans as a positive aspect of American history.

Slave Christianity

In the United States, Christianity not only held views about slavery but also on how slaves practiced their own form of Christianity. Prior to the work of Melville Herskovits in 1941, it was widely believed that all elements of African culture were destroyed by the horrific experiences of Africans forced to come to the United States of America. Since his groundbreaking work, scholarship has found that Slave Christianity existed as an extraordinarily creative patchwork of African and Christian religious tradition.[95] The slaves brought with them a wide variety of religious traditions including both tribal shamanism and Islam. Beyond that, tribal traditions could vary to a high degree across the African continent.

During the early eighteenth century, Anglican missionaries attempting to bring Christianity to slaves in the Southern colonies often found themselves butting up against not only uncooperative masters, but also resistant slaves. An unquestionable obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity among slaves was their desire to continue to adhere as much as possible to the religious beliefs and rituals of their African ancestors. Missionaries working in the South were especially displeased with slave retention of African practices such as polygamy and what they called idolatrous dancing. In fact, even blacks who embraced Christianity in America did not completely abandon Old World religion. Instead, they engaged in syncretism, blending Christian influences with traditional African rites and beliefs. Symbols and objects, such as crosses, were conflated with charms carried by Africans to ward off evil spirits. Christ was interpreted as a healer similar to the priests of Africa. In the New World, fusions of African spirituality and Christianity led to distinct new practices among slave populations, including voodoo or vodun in Haiti and Spanish Louisiana. Although African religious influences were also important among Northern blacks, exposure to Old World religions was more intense in the South, where the density of the black population was greater.

There were, however, some commonalities across the majority of tribal traditions. Perhaps the primary understanding of tribal traditions was that there was not a separation of the sacred and the secular.[96] All life was sacred and the supernatural was present in every facet and focus of life. Most tribal traditions highlighted this experience of the supernatural in ecstatic experiences of the supernatural brought on by ritual song and dance. Repetitious music and dancing were often used to bring on these experiences through the use of drums and chanting. The realization of these experiences was in the "possession" of a worshipper in which one not only is taken over by the divine but actually becomes one with the divine.[96]

Echoes of African tribal traditions can be seen in the Christianity practiced by slaves in the Americas. The song, dance, and ecstatic experiences of traditional tribal religion were Christianized and practiced by slaves in what is called the "Ring Shout." [97] This practice was a major mark of African American Christianity during the slavery period.


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Bilal ibn Ribah (pictured, atop the Kaaba) an Ethiopian former slave, was appointed by Muhammad to perform as the first official muezzin. He had been emancipated through Abu Bakr paying his ransom upon Muhammad's instruction. As a Muslim, he accompanied Muhammad on the Hijra and was the bearer of Muhammad's mace and spear on the latter's military expeditions. In January 630, in a richly symbolic moment, he was the first ever Muslim to proclaim adhan in Mecca as depicted.

One of the five pillars of Islam zakat is meant to encourage Muslims to donate money to free slaves and bonded labourers in countries where slaves and bonded labourers may have existed. In the hope that over time there will be no slaves left in that country. The amount of zakat to be paid on capital assets (e.g. money) is 2.5% (1/40) per year [98] for people who are not poor.

Quran, Surat At-Tawbah 9:60 specifies that Zakat is to be used for freeing slaves and bonded labourers

"Zakat expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect (Zakat) and for bringing hearts together and for freeing captives (or slaves) and for those in debt (or bonded labour) and for the cause of Allah and for the (stranded) traveller - an obligation (imposed) by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise."

Muhammad would send his companions like Abu Bakr and Uthman ibn Affan to buy slaves to free. Many early converts to Islam were the poor and former slaves like Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi.[99][100][101][102]

The prophet Muhammad himself said one of the best deeds is to free a slave. In total his household and friends freed 39,237 slaves. One of his wives was a former slave and bore him a son, who died as an infant.[103]

Slaves are able to own their own property and purchase or acquire their freedom in various ways.

The slavery accepted by sharia laws limited the source of slaves to the children of two slave parents and war prisoners. Many sharia laws are devised through Ijtihad where there is no such ruling in the Quran or the Hadiths of Islamic prophet Muhammad regarding a similar case.[104] Therefore, the judge continued to use the same ruling as was given in that area during preislamic times, if the population felt comfortable with it. As explained in the Muwatta[105] by Malik ibn Anas.[106] This made it easier for the different communities to integrate into the Islamic State and assisted in the quick expansion of the Islamic State. Many of the laws regarding slavery existed in the Byzantine empire before the people there became Muslims. Conditions were then imposed to improve the treatment of slaves and Zakat was imposed on the Muslims so that they would buy the slaves and free them.

The Qur'an provides for emancipation of a slave as a means (or in one case, a requirement of) demonstrating remorse for the commission of certain sins. During Ramadan, if one intentionally does not fast and its not for health reasons or they are travelling, and they could afford it, then for each fast, they have to free a slave or a bonded labourer.


  • Freeing Slave is declared good deed rather than turning face to East or West as Qibla. (Al-Quran 2:177)
  • Qisas is made obligatory on believers; slave for slave. However sibling of deceased is given the right of forgiving and accepting Diyya. (Al-Quran 2:178)
  • Marriage with slave believing person is declared better than marrying with mushrik. (Al-Quran 2:221)
  • Believers who can't marry free believing women are given the permission to marry slave believing women. Slave women can marry with the permission of her owner. Slave women is given the right to own property such as mahar. The punishment of lewdness for married slave women is half as compared to that for free women. (Al-Quran 4:25)
  • Freeing a slave is declared expiation of breaking intentional-oaths. (Al-Quran 5:89)
  • masters are advised to marry unmarried and righteous from among their slaves. They, who can't afford marriage are ordered to remain chaste. Mukataba along with giving some money to slave is encouraged to owners of slaves as good deed. Forcing female slaves in prostitution is prohibited. Howewver, if they are forced then God is forgiving and merciful. (Al-Quran 24:32-33)
  • slaves are ordered to ask permission before entering their masters' rooms three times: Before Salahof Fajr, during noon when they undress due to heat, and After Salat of Ishaa. During other times, slave are allowed to move freely. (Al-Quran 24:58)
  • The expiation of Zihar; that is saying one's wife as mother; is declared manumission of slave. Expiation is to be paid before touching wife. (Al-Quran 58:3)
  • freeing slave is ordered. ( Al-Quran 91:13)

Bahá'í Faith

Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Bahá'í Faith, commended Queen Victoria for abolishing the slave trade in a letter written to Her Majesty between 1868-1872.[107] Bahá'u'lláh also forbids slavery in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas[108] written around 1873 considered by Bahá'ís to be the holiest book revealed by Bahá'u'lláh in which he states, "It is forbidden you to trade in slaves, be they men or women."[109]

Hindu society

Hindu Vedas regard liberation to be the ultimate goal which is contrary to slavery.[110]

The term '"dasa" (dāsa) in ancient Hindu text is loosely translated as "slave."[111] However, the meaning of the term varied over time. R. S. Sharma, in his 1958 book, for example, states that the only word which could possibly mean slave in Rigveda is dāsa, and this sense of use is traceable to four later verses in Rigveda.[112] The term dāsa in the Rigveda, has been also been translated as a servant or enemy, and the identity of this term remains unclear and disputed among scholars.[113][note 1]

The word dāsi is found in Rigveda and Atharvaveda, states R.S. Sharma, which he states represented "a small servile class of women slaves".[118] Vedic slavery, according to him, was mostly confined to women employed as domestic workers.[119] He translates dasi in a Vedic era Upanishad as "maid-servant".[120] Male slaves are rarely mentioned in the Vedic texts.[120] The word dāsa occurs in the Hindu Sruti texts Aitareya and Gopatha Brahmanas, but not in the sense of a slave.[120]

Towards the end of the Vedic period (600 BCE), a new system of varnas had appeared, with people called shudras replacing the erstwhile dasas. Some of the shudras were employed as labouring masses on farm land, much like "helots of Sparta", even though they were not treated with the same degree of coercion and contempt.[121] They could be given away as gifts along with the land, which came in for criticism from the religious texts Āśvalāyana and Kātyāyana Śrautasūtras.[122] The term dasa was now employed to designate such enslaved people.[123] Slavery arose out of debt, sale by parents or oneself (due to famines), judicial decree or fear. The slaves were differentiated by origin and different disabilities and rules for manumission applied. While this could happen to a person of any varna, shudras were much more likely to be reduced to slavery.[124][111]

By the time of the Mauryan period, such slavery was probably employed on a large scale. The Arthasastra laid down norms for the State to resettle shudra cultivators into new villages and providing them with land, grain, cattle and money.[125] It also stated that aryas could not be subject to slavery and that the selling or mortgaging of a shudra was punishable unless he was a born slave.[126] Despite these measures, R. S. Sharma believes that slavery must have increased on a vast scale during the Maruyan period due to the growth of the empire through war, leading to war captives, and the subjugation of hilly areas, which provided agricultural labour.[127]

Emperor Ashoka had banned slavery.[128] After the fall of the Mauryan Empire (200 BCE), agricultural slavery gradually disappeared and the former slaves became sharecroppers. The position of shudras as a whole improved and essentially became indistinguishable from that of vaishyas (arya commoners). Thereafter, slavery was mostly domestic and slaves did not get treated as a distinctly marked class.[129]

From the seventh century onward, Islamic rulers brought Middle Eastern systems and practices to India. The numbers of chattel slaves increased sharply and included artisans, soldiers as well as domestic servants. This type of slavery reduced after the fourteenth century, but debt peonage and bonded labour increased during the Mughal period.[130]


In Pali language Buddhist texts, Amaya-dasa has been translated by Davids and Stede in 1925, as a "slave by birth",[131] Kila-dasa translated as a "bought slave",[132] and Amata-dasa as "one who sees Amata (Sanskrit: Amrita, nectar of immortality) or Nibbana".[133] However, dasa in ancient texts can also mean "servant".[134]

Words related to dasa are found in early Buddhist texts, such as dāso na pabbājetabbo, which Davids and Stede translate as "the slave cannot become a Bhikkhu".[135] This restriction on who could become a Buddhist monk is found in Vinaya Pitakam i.93, Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikāya, Tibetan Bhiksukarmavakya and Upasampadajnapti.[135][136] Schopen states that this translation of dasa as slave is disputed by scholars.[137]

Early Buddhist texts in Pali, according to R. S. Sharma, mention dāsa and kammakaras, and they show that those who failed to pay their debts were enslaved, and Buddhism did not allow debtors and slaves to join their monasteries.[119]


  1. [a] HH Wilson translates dāsa in Rigvedic instances identified by R.S. Sharma, such as in verse 10.62.10, as servant rather than slave.[114][115]
    [b] Michael Witzel suggests that the term dāsa in Sanskrit corresponds to North Iranian tribe; Iranian (Latin) Dahae, (Greek) Daai; and that dāsa word may be memory of Aryan migration;[116] with George Samuel stating that dāsa may be equivalent for "aborigines, servant or slave".[117]


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  2. Origen, Homilies, on Genesis 16:1
  3. (edited by Ciala Kourcikidzé), The cave of treasures: Georgian version, translated by Jean-Pierre Mahé in The written corpus of eastern Christianity 526-27, part of Scriptores Iberici 23-24 (Louvain, 1992-93), 21:38-39
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  5. (edited by J.P. Migne), Complete course in Patrology…Greek series, (Paris, 1857-66), on Annals 111:917B:41-43
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  9. Jerome, Homilies, 1:3:28
  10. Exodus 22:2-3
  11. Deuteronomy 21:10-11
  12. Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Slaves and Slavery
  13. Deuteronomy 20:10-16
  14. Deuteronomy 24:7
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  16. Leviticus 25:44
  17. Isaiah 22:2-3
  18. 2 Kings 4:1-7
  19. 19.00 19.01 19.02 19.03 19.04 19.05 19.06 19.07 19.08 19.09 19.10 19.11 Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Slaves and Slavery
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  68. Gittin 4:5
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