What does Islam teach about concubines?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Islam encourages the freeing of slaves and their joining in marriage as a means to improve their status in society. Concubinage was not introduced by Islam, as it had existed before in the past. But the Prophet (ṣ) instituted many practices that were intended to gradually phase out slavery and concubinage from society, including legal protections for concubines from rape, sex crimes, and abusive men.
Concubinage (al-sirr) was a legal relationship that was analogous to a marriage (al-nikah) between a free man and his female slave. The word for ‘concubinage’ was itself linguistically related to ‘marriage’ in classical Arabic:
كَمَا قَالُوا سُرِّيَّةٌ والأَصل مِنَ السِّر وَهُوَ النِّكَاحُ
As they say ‘a concubine,’ the origin is from the word ‘concubinage,’ which is marriage.
Source: Lisān al-‘Arab 4/304
وَالسِّرُّ النِّكَاحُ لِأَنَّهُ يُكْتَمُ … وَالسُّرِّيَّةُ الْجَارِيَةُ الْمُتَّخَذَةُ لِلْمَلِكِ وَالْجِمَاعِ
Concubinage, from the root sirr meaning secret, is marriage because it is kept hidden… The concubine is the servant girl under the custodian of the master with whom she is intimate.
Source: Lisān al-‘Arab 7/167
This is unlike the concubinage of some societies that treated such women as property without rights. Rather, Islam made the concubines similar, but not equivalent, to wives, with the right to maintenance, good treatment, and protection from abuse. It also provided multiple avenues for a concubine to earn her freedom and raise her social status.
It must be emphasized that slavery and concubinage existed long before Islam. According to the Bible, Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3).
At the dawn of Islam, the institution could not have been abruptly ended due to it being deeply embedded in the pre-modern Arabian social and economic systems, much like how modern societies cannot immediately outlaw the use of fossil fuels despite our knowledge that they are harming the ecosystem.
Slavery could only be phased out of society over time, just as fossil fuels must be gradually phased out of the modern economy. To this end, the Prophet (ṣ) instituted important paradigm shifts that would eventually lead to the institution of slavery’s natural abolition.
Islam humanized slaves and gave them rights, instead of viewing them as merely sub-human races, property, or ‘commodities.’ Slaves were ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in the family of faith, partners entitled to equality with their masters in terms of food and clothing; they were not to be harmed in any way.
Abu Dharr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِخْوَانُكُمْ خَوَلُكُمْ جَعَلَهُمْ اللَّهُ تَحْتَ أَيْدِيكُمْ فَمَنْ كَانَ أَخُوهُ تَحْتَ يَدِهِ فَلْيُطْعِمْهُ مِمَّا يَأْكُلُ وَلْيُلْبِسْهُ مِمَّا يَلْبَسُ وَلَا تُكَلِّفُوهُمْ مَا يَغْلِبُهُمْ فَإِنْ كَلَّفْتُمُوهُمْ فَأَعِينُوهُمْ
Your slaves are your brothers and your attendants. Allah has placed them in your hands. Whoever has his brother under him should feed him with the same food he eats, clothe him with the same clothes he wears, and not burden him beyond his ability. If you burden him, then help him.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 30, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Jabir ibn Abdullah reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, enjoined good treatment of slaves and he would say:
أَطْعِمُوهُمْ مِمَّا تَأْكُلُونَ وَأَلْبِسُوهُمْ مِنْ لَبُوسِكُمْ وَلاَ تُعَذِّبُوا خَلْقَ اللهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ
Feed them from the same food you eat, clothe them from the same clothes you wear, and do not torture the creation of Allah Almighty.
Source: al-Adab al-Mufrad 188, Grade: Sahih
Abu Bakr reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَا يَدْخُلُ الْجَنَّةَ سَيِّئُ الْمَلَكَةِ
He will not enter Paradise who is an evil custodian.
Source: Musnad Aḥmad 32, Grade: Sahih
The 9th century scholar Al-Ḥusayn ibn Ḥarb included traditions such as these, among others, in a chapter of his book entitled:
مَا جَاءَ فِي حَقِّ الْمَمْلُوكِ وَحُسْنِ مِلْكَتِهِ
What has been reported regarding the rights of slaves and good custodianship.
Source: al-Birr wal Ṣilah 1/177
Over one thousand years ago, long before the bloody end of demeaning racial-chattel slavery in America, Muslim scholars recognized that slaves had human rights.
The Quran usually refers to slaves as ‘those whom your right hands possess,’ instead of other Arabic words in use at the time such as ‘abd or ‘abid or raqiq. This type of phrasing indicated that the master ‘owned’ his slaves (or perhaps more accurately, he was their ‘custodian’), but also that Allah was holding the master responsible for their care and good treatment.
أَنَّ مِلْكَ الْيَمِينِ فِي الْعَدْلِ قَائِمٌ بِوُجُوبِ حُسْنِ الْمَلَكَةِ وَالرِّفْقِ بِالرَّقِيق وَأَسْنَدَ تَعَالَى الْمِلْكَ إِلَى الْيَمِينِ إِذْ هِيَ صِفَةُ مَدْحٍ وَالْيَمِينُ مَخْصُوصَةٌ بِالْمَحَاسِنِ لِتَمَكُّنِهَا
The ownership of the right hand, in justice, provides maintenance by obligation of good custodianship and gentleness with slaves. The Almighty attributed ownership to the right hand as it is a praiseworthy attribute, and the right hand specifically has the best qualities to carry it out.
Source: Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī 4:3
Even the use of the term ‘slave’ was discouraged, instead opting for terms that conveyed a sense of solidarity and familial relationship.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَا يَقُولَنَّ أَحَدُكُمْ عَبْدِي فَكُلُّكُمْ عَبِيدُ اللَّهِ وَلَكِنْ لِيَقُلْ فَتَايَ وَلَا يَقُلْ الْعَبْدُ رَبِّي وَلَكِنْ لِيَقُلْ سَيِّدِي
Do not refer to anyone as ‘my slave,’ for all of you are the slaves of Allah. Rather, you should refer to him as ‘my young man.’ The slave should not refer to anyone as ‘my lord,’ but rather he should refer to him as ‘my master.’
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2414, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Slaves were also described as ‘servants’ (khuddam), ‘maid-servants’ (wasifah), and other terms that changed the social conception of the institution.
The legal relationship between a master and concubine, which made sexual intercourse lawful, was exclusive to them alone, as if it were a marriage. It was a binding social contract that legalized and regulated sexual activity in the same manner as a marriage contract.
A master could not sell his right to lawful intercourse with his concubine to anyone else, nor could he force her to engage in prostitution, just as it was unlawful for him to do so with his free wife.
وَلَا تُكْرِهُوا فَتَيَاتِكُمْ عَلَى الْبِغَاءِ إِنْ أَرَدْنَ تَحَصُّنًا لِّتَبْتَغُوا عَرَضَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا ۚ وَمَن يُكْرِههُّنَّ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ مِن بَعْدِ إِكْرَاهِهِنَّ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
Do not compel your servant girls to prostitution, if they desire chastity, seeking the interests of worldly life. If someone should compel them, then Allah is (to them), after their compulsion, forgiving and merciful.
Surat al-Nur 24:33
It was not even lawful for a man to engage in sexual intercourse with a slave girl owned by his wife or any other relative, as such a relationship was tantamount to adultery, just as it would be unlawful for him to have intercourse with another relative’s wife.
Habib ibn Salim reported: A man had sexual intercourse with the servant girl of his wife, so the matter was referred to Al-Nu’man ibn Bashir. Al-Nu’man said:
لَأَقْضِيَنَّ فِيهَا بِقَضَاءِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَئِنْ كَانَتْ أَحَلَّتْهَا لَهُ لَأَجْلِدَنَّهُ مِائَةً وَإِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ أَحَلَّتْهَا لَهُ رَجَمْتُهُ
I will judge him with the judgment of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. If his wife had given him permission, I will lash him one hundred times. If she did not give him permission, I will stone him to death.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1451, Grade: Hasan
This narration demonstrates that it is not simply ownership in itself that legalized sexual relationships with concubines, as if it were merely a matter of property law. Sexual relations were only authorized by custodianship and its accompanying responsibilities of maintenance and good treatment, which served as a legally-binding social contract analogous to a marriage contract.
If a concubine gave birth to her master’s child, juristic consensus mandated that she be granted legal protection from being sold off to anyone else or being separated from her child. Her status would be upgraded as ‘mother of the child’ (umm al-walad).
Abdullah ibn Umar reported: Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
أَيُّمَا وَلِيدَةٍ وَلَدَتْ مِنْ سَيِّدِهَا فَإِنَّهُ لَا يَبِيعُهَا وَلَا يَهَبُهَا وَلَا يُوَرِّثُهَا وَهُوَ يَسْتَمْتِعُ بِهَا فَإِذَا مَاتَ فَهِيَ حُرَّةٌ
When a servant woman gives birth from her master, then he may not sell her, or bestow her, or bequeath her. He may enjoy her and she becomes free when he dies.
Source: al-Muwaṭṭa’ 1509, Grade: Sahih
Al-Zurqani comments on this tradition, saying:
وَبِهَذَا قَالَ عُثْمَانُ وَأَكْثَرُ التَّابِعِينَ وَالْأَئِمَّةُ الْأَرْبَعَةُ وَجُمْهُورُ الْفُقَهَاءِ لِأَنَّ عُمَرَ لَمَّا نَهَى عَنْهُ فَانْتَهَوْا صَارَ إِجْمَاعًا
This was said by Uthman, most of the successors, the four Imams, and the majority of jurists. When Umar prohibited selling them, it became prohibited by consensus.
Source: Sharḥ al-Zurqānī 1509
Concubines could upgrade their status and earn their freedom in others ways, by either agreeing to a contract specifying freedom after a certain amount of her work (mukatabah) or the master pledging her freedom upon his death (mudabbarah).
وَالَّذِينَ يَبْتَغُونَ الْكِتَابَ مِمَّا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ فَكَاتِبُوهُمْ إِنْ عَلِمْتُمْ فِيهِمْ خَيْرًا وَآتُوهُم مِّن مَّالِ اللَّهِ الَّذِي آتَاكُمْ
Those who seek a contract of emancipation from among those whom your right hands possess, then make a contract with them if you know there is good in them and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you.
Surat al-Nur 24:33
If a master abused, harmed, or injured his concubine, he would have violated his right to custodianship, the terms of his social contract. He would be required to set her free as a result and be subject to criminal punishment for his abuse.
Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessing be upon him, said:
مَنْ ضَرَبَ غُلَامًا لَهُ حَدًّا لَمْ يَأْتِهِ أَوْ لَطَمَهُ فَإِنَّ كَفَّارَتَهُ أَنْ يُعْتِقَهُ
Whoever strikes his slave sharply or slaps him, then the expiation for the sin is to emancipate him.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1657, Grade: Sahih
أَنَّ عُمَرَ بْنَ الْخَطَّابِ رضي الله عنه أَتَتْهُ وَلِيدَةٌ قَدْ ضَرَبَهَا سَيِّدُهَا بِنَارٍ أَوْ أَصَابَهَا بِهَا فَأَعْتَقَهَا
Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, was presented with a servant woman who had been struck by her master with a piece of hot iron or had been injured by it, so he ordered him to emancipate her.
Source: al-Muwaṭṭa’ 2/403
Al-Shawkani comments on this tradition, saying:
ذَهَبَ مَالِكٌ وَالْأَوْزَاعِيُّ وَاللَّيْثُ إلَى عِتْقِ الْعَبْدِ بِذَلِكَ وَيَكُونُ وَلَاؤُهُ لَهُ وَيُعَاقِبُهُ السُّلْطَانُ عَلَى فِعْلِهِ
Malik, Al-Awza’i, and Al-Layth adhered to the opinion that a slave is freed on account of that abuse, he will have his loyalty inheritance, and the authorities will punish the master for what he did.
Source: Nayl al-Awṭār 6/101
Even small indignities, by comparison, were morally disapproved by the companions. The Caliph Umar once severely rebuked a man who forced his servants to stand while he sat to eat.
Ibn Abbas reported: Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, passed by some people one day who were eating while their servants were standing. Umar said, “Why do I not see your servants eating with you? Do you not desire them?”
A man said, “No, by Allah, O leader of the faithful. Rather, we have preference over them.” Umar became very angry, then he said:
ما لقومٍ يستأثرون على خُدَّامهم فَعَلَ الله تعالى بهم وفَعَلَ
What is the matter with people who prefer themselves over their servants? Allah Almighty will deal with them and it is done!
Source: Musnad al-Fārūq 582
It was further recommended for men to either marry their concubines or to give them in marriage to other suitable men, thereby upgrading her social status and ending his legal relationship with her as a concubine. In this way, concubinage was implicitly discouraged by the inverse recommendation to free and marry them.
وَأَنكِحُوا الْأَيَامَىٰ مِنكُمْ وَالصَّالِحِينَ مِنْ عِبَادِكُمْ وَإِمَائِكُمْ إِن يَكُونُوا فُقَرَاءَ يُغْنِهِمُ اللَّهُ مِن فَضْلِهِ وَاللَّهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ
Marry the unmarried among you and the righteous among your male and female slaves. If they should be poor, Allah will enrich them from His bounty, for Allah is encompassing and knowing.
Surat al-Nur 24:32
Abu Musa reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِذَا أَدَّبَ الرَّجُلُ أَمَتَهُ فَأَحْسَنَ تَأْدِيبَهَا وَعَلَّمَهَا فَأَحْسَنَ تَعْلِيمَهَا ثُمَّ أَعْتَقَهَا فَتَزَوَّجَهَا كَانَ لَهُ أَجْرَانِ
If a man teaches his servant girl good manners, educates her in the best manner, then emancipates her and marries her, he will have a double reward.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3262, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
The paramount importance that the Prophet (ṣ) placed upon treating concubines well can be seen in the fact that the very last thing he said on his deathbed was to issue a warning about mistreating slaves.
Ali reported: The final statement of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was:
الصَّلَاةَ الصَّلَاةَ اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ فِيمَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ
The prayer, the prayer! Fear Allah regarding those whom your right hands possess!
Source: Sunan Abī Dāwūd 5156, Grade: Sahih
Ibn al-Athir comments on this tradition, saying:
يُرِيدُ الْإِحْسَانَ إِلَى الرَّقِيقِ وَالتَّخْفِيفَ عَنْهُمْ
He means to treat slaves in the best manner and to lighten their burden.
Source: al-Nihāyah fī Gharīb al-Ḥadīth 4/358
The ritual prayer is the most important right due to Allah, and neglecting it is one of the most dangerous forms of sin. Likewise, one of the most dangerous forms of sin against people is to exploit the weak or vulnerable among them, which at the time were slaves and concubines.
To recap, it was unlawful to harm or torture a concubine and to commit such abuse resulted in their freedom, it was discouraged to use archaic and derogatory terms to describe concubines, the mistreatment of concubines was threatened with no less than banishment from Paradise, concubines were entitled to equality with their masters in terms of food and clothing, it was recommended for masters to free and marry their concubines or allow them to marry others, concubinage was more closely analogous in law to marriage than property.
And the final warning of the Prophet (ṣ) in his last breath was to be good to concubines and slaves in general. Even the eminent Caliph Umar was incensed by the indignity of observing some servants standing while their masters sat to eat.
But if a concubine cannot consent to her master’s ownership, how can she consent to a sexual relationship?
Jurists forbade sexual violence under the “no-harm” legally principle. As a moral issue, they understood sexual intercourse to be an act of spousal love and mutual pleasure.
Al-Shafi’i, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
فَأَمَّا الْجِمَاعُ فَمَوْضِعُ تَلَذُّذٍ وَلَا يُجْبَرُ أَحَدٌ عَلَيْهِ
As for sexual intercourse, its purpose is pleasure and no one may be forced into it.
Source: al-Umm 5/203
Al-Shafi’i’s broad wording in this passage (“no one may be forced into it”) seems to be a general observation on the nature of conjugal relations as a mutually pleasurable activity. We can infer from another tradition that an incompatible sexual relationship between a master and concubine should have been ended gracefully, not pursued violently.
Abu Dharr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ لَاءَمَكُمْ مِنْ مَمْلُوكِيكُمْ فَأَطْعِمُوهُ مِمَّا تَأْكُلُونَ وَاَكْسُوهُ مِمَّا تَلْبَسُونَ وَمَنْ لَمْ يُلَائِمْكُمْ مِنْهُمْ فَبِيعُوهُ وَلَا تُعَذِّبُوا خَلْقَ اللَّهِ
Whoever is suitable for you among your slaves, then feed them from the same food you eat and clothe them from the same clothes you wear. Whoever is not suitable for you, then sell them off and do not torture the creation of Allah.
Source: Sunan Abī Dāwūd 5161, Grade: Sahih
In case a master and concubine cannot form an amicable relationship, he is to sell her to another man who can establish an appropriate relationship with her, with an aim of eventually elevating her social status. In no circumstances may he beat her or ‘torture’ her, physically or emotionally, because he must respect her inherent human dignity as ‘the creation of Allah.’
For the crime of rape, the Prophet (ṣ) applied the legal punishment of adultery against men who commit this violent crime.
Abu Alqama reported: A woman went out to pray during the time of the Prophet and she was met by a man who attacked her and raped her. She said, “This man has molested me!” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
Stone him to death.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1454, Grade: Sahih
Rape is also strictly forbidden in any case, especially as a weapon of war. It is true that a female prisoner of war could be incorporated into Muslim society as a concubine to a master, but this was on the condition that the relationship was legally recognized by the authorities and the master fulfilled his rights to her, including her legal protection from abuse. If a Muslim soldier had sexual intercourse without adhering to this strictly defined legal arraignment, he would be punished as a rapist and an adulterer.
Harun ibn al-Asim reported: Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, dispatched Khalid ibn al-Walid with the army. Khalid sent Dirar ibn al-Azwar along with a company of horsemen and they raided a district belonging to the tribe of Asad. They captured a woman who was a beautiful bride-to-be and she amazed Dirar. He asked his companions for her and they gave her to him, then he had intercourse with her.
When he returned from the expedition, he regretted what he had done and he collapsed in dismay. It was referred to Khalid and told him what he had done. Khalid said, “Indeed, I have made her permissible and wholesome for you.” Dirar said, “No, not until you write to Umar.”
Umar replied that he should be stoned to death, but he had passed away from natural causes by the time Umar’s letter arrived. Khalid said:
مَا كَانَ اللَّهُ لِيُخْزِيَ ضِرَارَ بْنَ الأَزْوَرِ
Allah did not want to disgrace Dirar ibn al-Azwar.
Source: al-Sunan al-Kubrá 16761
وَإِذَا اغْتَصَبَ الرَّجُلُ الْجَارِيَةَ ثُمَّ وَطِئَهَا بَعْدَ الْغَصْبِ وَهُوَ مِنْ غَيْرِ أَهْلِ الْجَهَالَةِ أُخِذَتْ مِنْهُ الْجَارِيَةُ وَالْعُقْرُ وَأُقِيمَ عَلَيْهِ حَدُّ الزِّنَا
If a man forcefully acquired a slave girl and then has intercourse with her thereafter, and he is not ignorant, the slave girl is taken away from him, he is fined, and he is punished for adultery.
Source: al-Umm 3/253
It is not true, as some have claimed, that a woman who is raped should be punished. She is a victim in need of protection, not a perpetrator.
Ibn Umar reported:
أَنَّ عُمَرَ رضي الله عنه أُتِيَ بِإِمَاءٍ مِنْ إِمَاءِ الإِمَارَةِ اسْتَكْرَهَهُنَّ غِلْمَانٌ مِنْ غِلْمَانِ الإِمَارَةِ فَضَرَبَ الْغِلْمَانَ وَلَمْ يَضْرِبْ الإِمَاءَ
Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, was presented with a servant girl among those who served the leadership. She was forced upon by one of the young men, so Umar flogged the man and he did not flog the woman.
Source: Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah 29012
وَالْعُقُوبَةُ فِي ذَلِكَ عَلَى الْمُغْتَصِبِ وَلَا عُقُوبَةَ عَلَى الْمُغْتَصَبَةِ فِي ذَلِكَ كُلِّهِ
The legal punishment is applied to the rapist and there is no punishment for the woman who was raped in any case.
Source: al-Muwaṭṭa’ 1418
In sum, the only lawful sexual relations in Islam are those in a valid marriage between a man and a woman. Concubinage, as a relationship similar to marriage, has become invalid due to the abolition of slavery.
As a matter of history, it was encouraged for men to marry their concubines or allow them to be married to others, as a means of raising their social status. It was also unlawful for masters to abuse or rape their concubines, as the Prophet (ṣ) affirmed their human dignity and rights as the creations of Allah.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.