This article, by Dr. Khaula Rehman, in an earlier form was published in spring 2010, volume of Muslim Sunrise.
The extent and prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire can be judged from a comment of Prof. Elaine Pagels, of Princeton University, in the PBS documentary, titled From Jesus to Christ: the First Christians. She says that at the time of Jesus, in the Roman Empire, three quarters of the population consisted of slaves.”
The Islamic way of gradual emancipation of slaves and stressing the marriage of female slaves was important. Sudden and universal liberation of hundreds of thousands of them would have exercised a corrupting influence on their morals and economics. They were physically and mentally dependent on their masters, sometimes for generations, and had no means of supporting themselves. One can imagine what havoc sudden emancipation would have created in the society.
The Holy Prophet proved to be a true Reformer and brought moral, social and economic uplift of the slaves and took effective steps so that this neglected part of the society could gradually become fit to lead independent and useful lives.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Concubinage is the state of cohabitation of a man and a woman without the full sanctions of legal marriage. … In Roman law concubinage was the permanent cohabitation of a man and a woman outside of their existing formal marriages. The partners in such relationships and the offspring of their union did not have the same legal rights accorded married persons and their legitimate children.”
In the Roman Empire the title of concubine was not considered derogatory and was often inscribed on tombstones. This was different from the current Western laws that do not acknowledge any legal status of concubines. Today law only admits monogamous marriages. Any other relationship does not enjoy any legal protection. Early Roman law sought to differentiate between the status of concubinage and legal marriage. Emperor Augustus’ Leges Juliae gave the first legal recognition of concubinage, defining it as cohabitation without marital status. Concubines widely failed to hail much protection under law, aside the legal recognition of their social stature.
This historical perspective led Westerners to misunderstand Islam. The term concubinage is a Judeo-Christian term. The Quranic term is ‘what your right hands possess.’ This term has been used in Quran in preference to slaves or bond women to point out that these women are under the care of Muslims and should not be mistreated. As we know, the right hand has its special merit and privileged functions that humans instinctively reserve for it.
There is no truth to the claim that conjugal relationships are allowed in Islam, if outside the bond of marriage. The Holy Quran has explained that the object of marriage is to protect one from moral and physical diseases, thus Muslims are not allowed to gratify their passions outside the domain of marriage.
Chapter Nisa of the Holy Quran details the blood relationships that believers are forbade to marry. It says, “Forbidden to you are your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters, and your fathers’ sisters, and your mothers’ sisters, and brother’s daughters, and sister’s daughters, and your foster-mothers that have given you suck, and your foster-sisters, and the mothers of your wives, and your stepdaughters, who are your wards by your wives unto whom you have gone in — but if you have not gone in unto them, there shall be no sin upon you — and the wives of your sons that are from your loins; and it is forbidden to you to have two sisters together in marriage, except what has already passed; surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.”
The very next verse describes the issue under discussion, “And forbidden to you are married women, except such as your right hands possess. This has Allah enjoined on you. And allowed to you are those beyond that, that you seek them by means of your property, marrying them properly and not committing fornication. And for the benefit you receive from them, give them their dowries, as fixed, and there shall be no sin for you in anything you mutually agree upon, after the fixing of the dowry. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, Wise.”
By relating these two verses one can immediately understand the Islamic teachings on the issue of concubines (your right hands possess). Although concubines did loose certain rights as prisoners of war, the Quran in this verse is only referring to them within the context of marriage. The verse that follows these two, further confirms the above inference that unlike the Roman law or Judeo-Christian tradition there is no permission for conjugal relationships in Islam outside marriage, “And whoso of you cannot afford to marry free, believing women, let him marry what your right hands possess, namely, your believing handmaids. And Allah knows your faith best; you are all one from another; so marry them with the leave of their masters and give them their dowries according to what is fair, they being chaste, not committing fornication, nor taking secret paramours.”
The prior marriages of the concubines or the prisoners of war, who could not negotiate freedom, were annulled, but no conjugal relationship was allowed in the Muslim society without marrying them under all of the terms and conditions that any other woman would be wed. So profound was the effect of the teaching of chastity in Islam that some of the companions wanted the Holy Prophet to give them permission to practice celibacy. But the Holy Prophet refused that because he wanted Muslims to follow the golden mean. The accusation that the Holy Prophet and his companions indulged in self gratification with the concubines, by the West, is totally alien to the teachings and spirit of Islam. Only those who are ignorant of the teachings of Islam or who have evil motives against Islam make such claims.
In the time of the Holy Prophet the hostile nations used to wage religious wars against Islam to destroy it and to compel Muslims to abandon their religion at the point of sword. They used to enslave Muslim men and women and used to treat them in horrific and inhumane manner. Muslim women were captured and were treated as bondwomen and concubines. They used to particularly declare their determination to capture and enslave pious Muslim women and enter into conjugal relations with them.
Thus, the Islamic injunction to take prisoners of war was just a retaliatory measure. It was necessary to deter the enemies from their excesses. As women also participated in wars and in some cases in actual fighting, there was no reason that these women should have been exempted from imprisonment. After all, if it is lawful for every nation and every country to imprison women for criminal offences then why not warrior women should be taken captive in the battle field?
In the seventh century there were no state prisons so these prisoners were distributed among Muslims and used to live in their houses. Muslims were responsible for providing shelter, food and clothing for them. The Holy Prophet’s teaching was to take good care of them, to treat them humanely, give them same treatment as you would like for yourself and create every possibility for them to earn their freedom. Both male and female prisoners were provided equal opportunities, to obtain their freedom. The Holy Prophet safeguarded their rights. If anybody would commit a sin he had to free a slave to repent. If anybody would treat a slave unjustly or beat him or her, he had to free the slave.
Right from the beginning, Islam worked on gradual and complete abolition of slavery. The Quran laid down following principals for abolition of slavery:
4. To obtain freedom, prisoners of war could enter into a civil written contract with his or her master, irrespective of the fact whether master liked it or not, which is known as ‘mukatabat’ (deed of manumission). After this contract slave is free to earn the ransom in any legitimate means he or she likes, to get the freedom.
Encyclopedia Britannica acknowledges this attitude of the early Islamic societies towards emancipation of slaves, talking about manumission it states, “An obvious example is provided by the Old Testament law that Hebrew slaves were to be manumitted after six years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12). A similar general recommendation that slaves be freed after six years in bondage was adhered to by many Islāmic slave-owning societies; … In Christian slave societies, on the other hand, the principle that the tenure of slavery should be limited was almost completely ignored.”
Only those females who were somehow not able to get their freedom by above means or chose to stay with Muslims, were to be married and this was specially stressed by the Holy Quran. This permission to marry them secured freedom for female captives and their children. It prevented them from prostitution and becoming concubines, in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word. This provided them hope and dignity. This made men responsible for taking care of them. A free man was allowed to marry these female slaves even if by doing so the prescribed limit of maximum of four wives was exceeded.
The Holy Prophet was very explicit that female slaves and female prisoners of war should be given good education and upbringing. He is reported to have said, “He who has a slave girl and gives her proper education and brings her up in a becoming manner and then frees her and marry her, for him is double reward.” This implies that if a Muslim wants to marry a slave girl he should first free her and then marry her.
The Holy Prophet’s own practice was quite in harmony with this admonition. Two of the Holy Prophets wives, Jawariya and Saffiya came to him as prisoners of War. He married them according to the Islamic Law. Another wife, Maria, was sent to him by the King of Egypt as an offering. He granted her freedom and marriage and she enjoyed the status of a free wife like other wives and was known as “mother of the faithful.”
The teachings of slavery and marriage of prisoners are no longer applicable in this day and age.  If one would question, as to why the law of Islam, gives with regard to one and same matter, one commandment for one time, and another commandment for another, the answer is that it is a merit rather than a demerit. Hadhrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad explains this in his book Islam and Slavery:
“If we carefully consider this matter, we shall find that this very circumstance is an evidence of the Law of Islam being a perfect and a universal one, for it shows that in the Islamic law, the change of circumstances has been fully taken into consideration. This is why that while some laws which form the basis of the Islamic code have been laid down in a rigid form which admits of no alteration, there are other commandments which have either been given in alternative forms in the view of changing conditions or which, having been made flexible, admit of new but valid interpretations under different circumstances.”  
He concludes his argument by referring to this verse of the Holy Quran:
“Allah it is Who has sent down to thee the Book; in it there are verses that are decisive in meaning — they are the basis of the Book — and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it. And none knows its right interpretation except Allah….”
 “slavery.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 25 Mar. 2010 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/548305/slavery>.