The Muslim prophet Muhammad owned slaves, and like the Bible, the Qur’an takes the existence of slavery for granted, even as it enjoins the freeing of slaves under certain circumstances, such as the breaking of an oath: “Allah will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom” (5:89). Jihad theorist Sayyid Qutb adduces this as evidence that in Islam “there is no difference between a prince and a pauper, a seigneur and a slave.” Nevertheless, while the freeing of a slave or two here and there is encouraged, the institution itself is never questioned. The Qur’an even gives a man permission to have sexual relations with his slave girls as well as with his wives: “The believers must (eventually) win through, those who humble themselves in their prayers; who avoid vain talk; who are active in deeds of charity; who abstain from sex, except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess, for (in their case) they are free from blame” (23:1-6). A Muslim is not to have sexual relations with a woman who is married to someone else — except a slave girl: “And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess. It is a decree of Allah for you” (4:24).
Why should such passages be any more troubling to anyone than passages in the Bible such as Exodus 21:7:11, which gives regulations for selling one’s daughter as a slave? Because in Islam there is no equivalent of the Golden Rule, as articulated by Jesus: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). The closest Islamic tradition comes to this is one hadith in which Muhammad says, “None of you will have faith till he likes for his (Muslim) brother what he likes for himself.” The parenthetical “Muslim” in that sentence was added by the Saudi translator, and does not appear in the original Arabic; however, “brother” is generally not used in Islamic tradition to refer to anyone but fellow Muslims. Also mitigating against a universal interpretation of this maxim is the sharp distinction between believers and unbelievers that runs through all of Islam. The Qur’an says that the followers of Muhammad are “ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another” (48:29), and that the unbelievers are the “worst of created beings” (98:6). One may exercise the Golden Rule in relation to a fellow Muslim, but according to the worldview presented by such verses and others like them, the same courtesy is not properly to be extended to unbelievers.
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