Abrahamic Religions and Slavery

Slavery has, and always will be, one of the greatest moral scars of theology and by extent, the human race. It is a profoundly evil thing, condemned by the majority of the world until this very day. However, it was not always this way. The ancient world was one of at best, questionable morality. But how do the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam confront this issue, did they accept it, condemn it entirely, or something entirely different?

The religions of Abraham start with Judaism, so it is only logical to make that as a base of any argument concerning the three religions. Slavery, in these days, was not as we see it today in the west. As opposed to being based off of race, or skin color, slaves or servants were usually a result of war. They were prisoners of war. (See Why It's Wrong To Say The Bible Is Pro-Slavery) When the alternative to certain death is a few years of intensive, yet survivable service, the choice to many was quite clear. Jews did not see a cruel owner of slaves as something decent, either. It was law for slaves to be released on the seventh year, and it was seen as a pious, and even righteous act for slaves to be treated as one of the family unit, if not released entirely. (See Torah, Slavery and the Jews)

Christianity, which began as a sect of Judaism has it's own feelings on the bondage of people. The quote most pulled from when debating this issue, is as follows:  Ephesians 6:5 “Bond-servants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.” (See Does The Bible Condone Slavery?) Like any excerpt, context is important. Here, Paul was instrumental in returning the wealthy Philemon’s servant, Onesimus, to his house-church, through one of his many letters. This is not the word of Jesus Christ, yet is included in the compilation of religious texts we know as the modern Bible. In fact, this flys in direct opposition to a core tenant of Christianity, the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Upon closer inspection, we see the phrase "...forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors..." (Gospel of Matthew) 

Any good practicing Christian who recited this verse daily, would have no basis to have ownership over a debtor, or another human being. The parable of the good Samaritan, and the parable to the Rich man, and Lazarus, also contradict this notion of justified wealth or superiority above another person. What is paramount to remember with Christianity, is that the main goal of the followers is to be like Christ, not one of the disciples, not an apostle, nor any other character mentioned. In fact, it is often through those same characters misconceptions that Jesus often shows them the errors of their ways. The New Testament is as much a correction of the errors of man, as it is any addition to their practices. It is also important to note, that in the time of the abolitionist movement in the United States, it was often the Christian groups who stepped into the anti-slavery fold, believing that all men were created equal by GOD to the fullest extent.

Finally, Islam, the third branch of Abraham-ism. Muhammad, the figurehead of Islam, was directly involved in the attaining, ownership, and market of slaves. It should be noted, that no Muslim slaves could be acquired, only non-Muslims were to be among the enslaved. (See Religions - Islam: Slavery in Islam) Due to this rule, it then required slaves to be imported from foreign areas, as opposed to domestically. As imaginable, this created an extremely profitable slave trade which comparable to the Atlantic Slave Trade, became inseparable from wealth and economic standing. (See Manning, Patrick) However, it should also be noted, that like the Torah, the Quran saw the freeing of slaves, as an act of righteousness, and it was ordered by Muhammad to raise the living standards of the slaves to that of their masters. In addition to Jewish customs, the law of Mukatibat stated that any slave that could financially support themselves be freed of their own will. (See The Condemnation of Slavery By Islam)

When looking at the three religions chronologically, it is easier to understand their views on the issue of slavery in relation to one another. In summary, Judaism was quite ambivalent to the practice, saying that should people be held in bondage, the owner should take it upon themselves to act righteously. Christianity, unlike the other two religions, has numerous authors that have contributed to the whole of the Bible. Paul, seemingly contradicted the word of Jesus Christ, who preached forgiveness and good actions to those who are less fortunate.

Finally, Islam, who made the practice institutionalized through their prophet, so that some actions today in the middle east, still condone slavery with all of its evils. But merely bettering an evil practice does not make that practice good. It is likely, that due to the strict monotheistic society all three of these religions created, that many religious leaders, especially those of the Jewish faith, saw servitude as a necessary evil to assimilate foreigners. The rules of mandatory release after six years, also supports this theory. After more than half a decade being forced to live by Abraham-ic rules, it's not unlikely that many servants became regular practitioners of the faith themselves. Combine this, with the rules forbidding any of the respective faith to be enslaved regarding Judaism and Islam, and we can see why this practice was allowed to continue for so long. But allowing evil is still an evil act upon itself, so we must rule that it was condoned for much of their history.

Today, slavery is nearly universally condemned by the world as a whole. The few who still practice such evil, are found in the radicalized parts of the middle east, by groups who seek to practice Islamic law to the farthest interpretation. As a final note, I'll leave you with a something Dr. Robert Moses once said during class here on campus, "Even the devil can quote scripture." Referring to when in the New Testament, Jesus ventured into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, who tried to use ancient scripture to get Christ to turn. We see this in many ways even today, that the word of good intention can be twisted in many ways to do great evil.


The Holy Bible

“Does the Bible Condone Slavery?” Emergence Church - New Jersey, emergencenj.org/blog/2019/01/04/does-the-bible-condone-slavery. 
Freeman, Tzvi. “Torah, Slavery and the Jews.” Judaism, 30 Aug. 2005, www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/305549/jewish/Torah-Slavery-and-the-Jews.htm. 
Manning, Patrick (1990). Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge University Press. 
“Religions - Islam: Slavery in Islam.” BBC, BBC, 7 Sept. 2009, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/slavery_1.shtml. 
Islamicity.org. “The Condemnation of Slavery by Islam.” IslamiCity, www.islamicity.org/2360/the-condemnation-of-slavery-by-islam/. 

Ortlund, Gavin, et al. “Why It's Wrong to Say the Bible Is Pro-Slavery.” The Gospel Coalition, 7 June 2018, www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-wrong-say-bible-pro-slavery/.