I'm reading "In the Footsteps of the Prophet - Lessons from the Life of Muhammad", by Tariq Ramadan. As usual, one needs to read books like this very carefully, with the book in one hand and access to original accounts of the sayings and life of Muhammad (the Hadith and the Sirah) in the other. There is no other way to verify the truth or untruth, as well as the intention and the purpose, of what appears in the book.
In the case of Tariq's book, examples appear on almost every page. Here is just one from the first page of chapter 5, which is entitled "The Message and Adversity". Tariq writes, "The number of converts slowly grew as a result of the Prophet's own discreet preaching and the very determined involvement of Abu Bakr, who was always ready to speak about the new faith and take action for its sake: he would buy slaves from their masters and set them free in the name of Islam's principles stressing the equality of all human beings."
To the university professor and her students, the newspaper journalist and his readers, the TV reporters and their viewers, government officials and all those who voted them into power, military commanders and their soldiers, and all regular Joe Six-Pack and Judy Soccer-Mom Americans, statements like these seem so impressive. No wonder Paul Donnelly described Tariq Ramadan as "a Muslim Martin Luther" in the Washington Post, according to the cover jacket of Tariq's book. No wonder millions of Americans believe these "facts" must be true - Muhammad really was against slavery, and his followers set slaves free in the name of Islamic principles that stress human equality.
The only way to verify the information given is to examine the original Islamic sources. As is often the case, they show another side of the story.
It is true that many of Muhammad's first followers in Mecca, the early converts to Islam, were Meccan slaves. But did they follow him because of his message of love and justice, or was their another reason? Sayyid al-Qimni, in his Arabic book "Islamiyat", writes that Muhammad's message was attractive to slaves because he promised them that following him would make them rich. There were at the time two great empires in the region, the Byzantine Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire. Their leaders were known as Caesar and as Khosrau. Muhammad promised his followers in numerous authentic hadiths that if they followed him, "Khosrau will be ruined, and there will be no Khosrau after him, and Caesar will surely be ruined and there will be no Caesar after him, and you will spend their treasures in Allah's Cause."
The message was simple - "If you follow me, you will become rich." It is very possible that this promise of wealth was what caused slaves of Mecca to follow Muhammad. It is also possible that this fermented rebellion from those slaves against their masters, and this - not Muhammad's teaching that Allah was the only true God - is what caused the merchants of Mecca to punish the slaves and turn against Muhammad.
Is there more behind Abu Bakr's "buying slaves from their masters and setting them free" than Tariq Ramadan chooses to tell us? In the original "Life of Muhammad", Ibn Ishaq recounts the incident of Abu Bakr freeing a Muslim slave named Bilal as follows: One day Abu Bakr passed by as Bilal's owner was mistreating him. Abu Bakr said to the owner, "Have you no fear of God that you treat this poor fellow like this?"
The owner replied, "You are the one who corrupted him, so you save him."
"I will do so," said Abu Bakr, "I have got a black slave who is tougher and stronger than he, who is a heathen. I will exchange him for Bilal." The transaction was carried out, and Abu Bakr took Bilal and freed him.
The story could not be clearer. Abu Bakr was himself a slaveholder. He did not purchase Bilal's freedom with his own money; he merely exchanged him for a non-Muslim slave. A "strong black slave" who was "a heathen", was of less value than a convert to Islam. And is it really plausible that the slave was "corrupted" by merely being taught the name of the true God was Allah?
Islamic history records Abu Bakr as freeing seven Muslim slaves, five women and two men. Apart from Bilal, the other male was named Amir. Amir was killed in one of the battles Muhammad instigated, as were many of Muhammad's other early followers, without ever having the opportunity to "spend the treasures of Khosrau and Caesar".
Tariq Ramadan does not mention what Muhammad did with his female slave captives after he beheaded 800 Jewish men from the Beni Qurayza tribe in Medinah for the crime of refusing to accept him as Prophet and Leader. Ibn Ishaq recounts that, "The apostle sent Sa'd al-Ansari with some of the captive women of Beni Qurayza to Najd, where he sold them for horses and weapons." Tariq forgets to add that the Quran itself in 4:3 allows Muslims to have sex with as many of their female slaves as they like, and the hadiths specify it makes no difference whether or not the women are married. It also slips Tariq's mind to inform us that Muhammad himself had slaves throughout his life. Again, an authentic hadith records Umar as saying, "Allah's Apostle was staying in an attic room, and a black slave of Allah's Apostle was at the top of the stairs. I told him to inform the Prophet that Umar bin al-Khattab wanted to see him, and he did so."
The point of this post is not to give a detailed study on Islam and slavery, or the attitude of Muhammad towards slaves. It's simply a reminder to be careful when reading defenses of Islam written by Muslims or Muslim apologists. Things are not always quite what they seem.