Statement of the Problem

Dr. Bernard K. Freamon

December 10, 2020

The Walk Free Foundation reports that, in 2016, 40.3 million people were living under conditions that are best described as modern slavery. Modern slavery is not a legal term that one might find in a legal regulation or statute. Nonetheless, it accurately “covers a set of specific legal concepts” that includes conditions where individuals and groups are ruthlessly exploited for purposes of sexual gratification, forced and servile labor, slavery and slavery-like practices, forced and servile marriage, domestic servitude, debt bondage, child labor, forced begging, descent-based servitude, organ trafficking, or forced criminality. [1] Each of these conditions is one in which the enslaved person cannot voluntarily leave the circumstances in which they find themselves or safely refuse to endure the imposition of the condition, because of “threats or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control” over the enslaved person. [2]  All of the circumstances and conditions herein described are illegal under international law and under many secular domestic legal regimes.

People living in forced marriage situations
People living in forced labor situations
Victims of commercial sexual exploitation​
People living in modern slavery worldwide

These numbers are most likely underestimates

A good number of the victims of these practices live in the Muslim world. For example, The Walk Free Foundation has taken the statistics cited above and created an interactive map showing the prevalence of modern slavery and where the victims of modern slavery live.
People enslaved in the Muslim world
Examination of the map shows that about 15 million victims of modern slavery live in Muslim majority countries and countries with large Muslim minorities. These countries include: Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

What then is the current juridical status of slavery in the Muslim world?

We start by pointing out that, unless and until there is an ijmāʿ declaring slavery to be unlawful under Islamic law, de jure chattel slavery, that is, slavery where one human being lawfully owns another human being or group of human beings, is still juridically and theoretically possible in any jurisdiction that recognizes and enforces Islamic law.

These cases are somewhat rare but they still occur. In such circumstances, competent Islamic jurists should critically speak out, seeking to bring an end to the circumstances, but they often do not.

Enslaved persons in Mauritania

Portion of enslaved persons in Mauritania's population


Portion of haratin, or "freedpersons," still enslaved in Mauritania


For example, in Mauritania, a country that is nearly 100% Muslim, between 10% and 20% of the population remains enslaved and this includes at least 40% of the population of the haratin, which is roughly translatable as “freedpersons,”[3] descendants of former slaves who make up about 40% of the population. The Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index reported in 2018 that “Mauritania continues to host a high proportion of people living in modern slavery. The national survey confirmed the existence of forced marriage and forced labour. Forced labour was found to occur in different sectors, to both males and females across different age groups and geographic regions. The practice is entrenched in Mauritanian society with slave status being inherited, and deeply rooted in social castes and the wider social system. Those owned by masters often have no freedom to own land, cannot claim dowries from their marriages nor inherit property or possessions from their families.”[4] In a recent email publication, Bukeni Waruzi, Executive Director of the Free the Slaves organization, reported that in Mauritania:

“[H]aratines are bonded to the family of those who enslaved them and have no right to education, no civil rights, earn no money and are often forced into rigorous work. 

Mauritanian society is deeply slavery-oriented and as such has produced pervasive inequalities. Certain  echniques involving humiliation, torture and even execution are employed in the aim of keeping slaves dependent on those who hold them captive through fear, shame and submission.  

Children and women toil from dawn to dusk–tending to livestock, pounding millet for food, milking cows, and cleaning, but are never paid for their work. Instead, they have to deal with cruel and unbearable practices which defy contemporary humanity and the denial of the most basic of rights.” [5]

The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 90,000 enslaved persons in Mauritania, out of a population of 4,182,000. [6] The Free the Slaves organization, apparently using more liberal parameters, estimates the population of enslaved persons in Mauritania to be between 340,000 and 680,000.  This estimate may overreport the number of slaves in Mauritania but there is no doubt that great numbers of enslaved persons, owned by Muslims, can be found in Mauritania.

Mauritania is not the only country where slavery, practiced by Muslims, exists, employing legal concepts taken from Islamic law. The recent case of Hadijatou Mani Koraou v. Republic of Niger, Judgment No. ECW/CCJ/JUD/06/08, Economic Community of West African States, Community Court of Justice, October 27, 2008, illustrates that conditions similar to those found in Mauritania exist elsewhere in the Muslim world, particularly in West Africa.

It was reported in that case that Ms. Koraou, a citizen of Niger, was sold by her family, at the age of 12, for approximately $400, to a Nigerien tribal chief, El Hadj Souleymane Naroua, to serve as his sadaka, or “fifth wife,” which is a euphemism used to describe a concubine held under the Nigerien practice called wahiya, “whereby a young girl is forced into servile status, acting as both domestic servant and concubine.” Ms. Koraou bore Mr. Naroua four children. Two of those children died. Ms. Koraou lived with Mr. Naroua as his concubine for nine years. Eventually he manumitted her, issuing a “liberation certificate” that was countersigned by the chief of the village. Mr. Naroua refused to let Ms. Karaou leave his house, claiming she was his wife, even though there had never been payment of dowry or ceremony or any other indicia of marriage. When she legally married another, he successfully prosecuted her and her husband for bigamy and both were incarcerated for two months. The local Nigerien court of first instance found that “the marriage of a free man with a slave woman is lawful, as long as he cannot afford to marry a free woman and if he fears to fall into fornication.” This language is an accurate paraphrase of language from Sharīʽa texts on slavery. Eventually the criminal judgment for bigamy was annulled and a regional West African court ordered the government of Niger to pay Ms. Karaou $21,500 in damages for failing to protect her from slavery. The Nigerien practice of wahiya borrows from the Islamic law of concubinage. There is no juridical basis for permitting the Islamic law of concubinage to exist in Niger today and conditions that justified such circumstances have long since disappeared, yet Muslims in Niger continue to observe the practice of concubinage. Local customs and juridical decision-making bodies enforce the practice in the same way that they enforce other forms of law. Similar circumstances can be found throughout West Africa. [7]

As is well known, in 2014 an organization known as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-’Iraq wa-l-Sham (“The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or the Levant)”)—-“ISIS” or “ISIL” in English or “Daesh” in Arabic— declared the reestablishment of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and claimed that its soldiers were authorized to enslave and buy and sell non-Sunni Muslim and non-Muslim war captives pursuant to Islamic law.

Luna, a 20-year old Yezidi escapee from ISIS, told Amnesty International: “we were 21 girls in one room, two of them were very young, 10-12 years. One day we were given clothes that looked like dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear those clothes. Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful. I think she knew that she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself.” Two other girls, aged 17 and 10, who had been held in the same place, confirmed the account of Jilan’s suicide in separate interviews. [8]

The policies of ISIS toward the enslavement and treatment of war captives, especially young females, were justified by reference in ISIS documents to the Qur’an, the Sunnah and to juristic opinions in medieval Islamic texts on slavery and slave trading. [9] The conditions that gave rise to the opinions in the texts cited by ISIS do not exist anymore. Further, ISIS’ practice of only enslaving young females did not resemble practices engaged in by Muslims in classical and medieval times but rather greatly resembled practices seen in contemporary organized criminal human trafficking operations. These practices have been described as cultish and un-Islamic.

The claim that ISIS is nothing more than a cult or “deviant” organization would perhaps have more credence if its claim of entitlement to enslave captives were an isolated one. It is not an isolated claim. Boko Haram, a West African insurgency also called Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah li-Da’wa wa-l-Jihād (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad), seeks to advance a similar ideology.

In a widely reported incident in April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped over 276 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria and claimed that the girls would be enslaved or forcibly married off to Boko Haram fighters. This is another example of slavery being used by Muslims as an instrument of conquest and war. As of this writing, over 100 of these girls have not been returned to their parents and relatives and are still held in captivity and in forced marriage circumstances by Boko Haram. The leaders of the organization also cite Islamic law as justification for their actions. [10]


School girls in white burkas
Workers on a scaffold in plain clothes
Turkish boys picing cotton bare-handed

In addition to circumstances where Muslim seek to practice de jure slavery, there are also numerous examples of the practice of de facto slavery in the Muslim world. In most instances, when we refer to “modern” slavery and human trafficking, we are referring to forms of de facto slavery.

For example, forced labor regimes, where human beings are subjected to inhumane workplace conditions, low or non-existent wages, deprivation of liberty, and an inability to complain about such conditions and to choose when and where they wish to work, are rampant in the Muslim world. We must remember that forced labor is also condemned by implication in several verses in the Qur’an and explicitly in the Sunnah. [11]

Portion of migrant workers in Qatar's workforce

Workers expected to die leading up to the 2020 FIFA World Cup in Qatar
In particular example, in Qatar, a fabulously wealthy country, 90% of the workforce consists of migrant workers, most of whom are in low-status jobs, and it is estimated that 4,000 construction workers working on preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup have died as a result of inhumane and dangerous workplace conditions on that project. Although Qatar has made some strides to ameliorate poor working conditions and to eliminate or liberalize the kafala (“sponsorship”) regulations that greatly restrict worker freedom of movement, it still appears that many immigrant workers in Qatar endure horrific and inhumane conditions and may be described as effectively enslaved. [12]
Vulnerable homeless children in Iran

Qatar is not the only place in the Muslim world where de facto slavery exists. In June, 2015, Al Arabiya News reported that a child in Iran can be sold for $150 and subjected to child labor even before the age of three. In Iran, victims of child trafficking are exploited in labor, begging, and drug and organ trafficking, the report added. [13] It is estimated there are about 200,000 children living on the streets in Iran. Half of them are thought to be Afghan child refugees. These children often have no identification papers and are ruthlessly exploited by criminals for forced labor, commercial sex, begging, and organ trafficking. Because they have no freedom of movement and are forced to endure degrading and humiliating work conditions, often without pay, they are effectively enslaved.

According to Habibollah Masoudi-Farid, Iran’s welfare organization’s deputy president for social affairs, poverty has forced many women and children in Iran into such conditions. [14] 

teenage girl tied up
young girl crying
two small, homeless boys

Iranian women are similarly forced to work in enterprises selling commercial sexual services all over the Middle East, especially in the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Turkey. Criminals deprive these women of their identification, after promising them good jobs in glitzy locales, then they use coercive and manipulative tactics, including threats against family in Iran, to force them to work long hours for little or no pay or under debt bondage terms and conditions. Women in such circumstances are also effectively enslaved. [15]

Portion of migrant workers in United Arab Emirates' total population


Portion of migrant workers in United Arab Emirates' workforce


Portion of migrant workers in Dubai's population


80% of the population of the United Arab Emirates and 95% of its workforce consists of migrant workers. The number of migrant workers, in relation to the larger population, rises to 88% in Dubai. 60% to 70% of these workers are in low-income occupations.

Immigrant construction workers labor under horrific conditions, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi—the two leading emirates. Additionally, many of the Emirati wealthy elite manipulate immigration processes in order to keep immigrant women as their personal domestic servants, subjecting them to a life of indentured servitude and de facto slavery. [16]

The sex trade is also prevalent in Dubai, as many women are trafficked from all over the world to the city to serve as prostitutes for businessmen clientele and for tourists. [17]

The average construction worker in Dubai is promised $28,000 a year (compared to a per capita Dubai average of $70,000 a year for others) but wages are often withheld for months at a time to coerce workers to remain on the job. Migrant workers often incur huge debts to labor recruiters that are impossible to pay off. Workers therefore find themselves unable to quit a job where they work in dangerous conditions, without proper safety equipment, and in excruciating heat.

The Dubai government continues to permit the operation of the kafala (“sponsorship”) system, allowing private citizen-employers to prevent freedom of movement by employees and entrenching an inability to complain about non-performance of contracts and abusive and dangerous work environments. The kafala system is particularly horrific in the case of domestic workers, who work long hours with little or no remuneration. [18]

Women living under kafala sponsorship in the Middle East

Dima Dabbous, director of Equality Now’s Middle East/North Africa (MENA) office, indicates that the ILO estimates that there are 1.6 million migrant women in the Middle East living under kafala sponsorship. The kafala system binds women to their employers in the same way that slaves are bound to their owners.

Dabbous reported that employers are “able to exploit immigrant household workers with little risk of consequence….mistreatment, such as restricting movement, withholding payment, and physical and sexual abuse are widespread. In extreme cases women have been murdered….” [19]

This state of affairs was recently, and graphically, shown to be the case in Kuwait, where a Filipina domestic worker was murdered by her employers and her body stuffed into a freezer. In another reported case, a Kuwaiti employer took a video of her Ethiopian maid standing on the ledge of a seventh story window, seeking to escape punishment from her employer. The maid fell from the window but, fortunately, she survived. These cases highlight a legal and social culture that encourages impunity in the treatment of domestic servants. [20]

It has been reported that as many as 400 women have sought refuge in the Indian, Sri Lankan, and Philipino embassies in Kuwait, seeking to escape abusive and exploitative working conditions. [21]

The use of homicidal violence as an instrument of control is a clear marker of slavery. Scholars have long noted that there is a direct relationship between homicide and slavery. One sees clear evidence of this in the histories of the transportation of slaves in the transatlantic, trans-Saharan, Silk Road and Indian Ocean slave trades. Sadly, there are very high rates of homicide and unexplained death among the low status migrant laborer populations in the Muslim world, especially in the Persian Gulf. Unexplained death is particularly high among Nepalese workers. In a very recent investigation, The Kathmandu Post has shown that an extraordinarily high number of these deaths occur in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Malaysia. These are deaths of workers who are young and left their home country in an otherwise healthy condition. This is especially true for young women, who are often the victims of sexual abuse and extreme working conditions. The death rate for Nepali workers in the Persian Gulf is far out of proportion to what would be expected for a similar demographic group under comparable conditions. The fact that so many Nepali deaths are unexplained caused the Supreme Court of Nepal to recently issue an order requiring the government to perform post-mortem examinations on all the bodies of Nepalis who die while working abroad. [22]

Workers in Debt-Bondage, or "Peshgi," in Pakistan

Similar circumstances can be found in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country with a population of over 220 million people. Over 2 million people work in debt-bondage (“peshgi”) conditions in Pakistan. Forced marriage, child labor, commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, and organ trafficking are also widespread in Pakistan.

Bonded labor is usually used to mass produce commodities on farms, in factories, in the fishing industry, in brick kilns, and in the carpet industry. Labor obligations are passed down from generation to generation and workers frequently find themselves bound to a landowner or factory owner for their whole lives, with little or no opportunity to choose where they wish to work. This is effectively a form of slavery.

Child Brides in Pakistan

Forced marriage is also deeply entrenched in Pakistan and is frequently connected with bonded labor practices. Pakistan has the sixth highest number of absolute child brides in the world, last reported to be 1,909,000. [23]

As we have previously noted, by our calculation, of the 40.3 million people said to be living in modern slavery, 15 million of those persons live in the Muslim world, which we may say are those countries with a Muslim-majority population or a very significant Muslim-minority population. 

There is a direct connection between the ancient practices of slavery and slave trading historically engaged in by Muslims and the current practices described above. 

Why should the modern situations and conditions we have described be called “slavery”?

Because the victims experience:

  • Deprivation of liberty—no freedom of movement or choice, 
  • Inhumane working conditions, 
  • Intentional degradation and dehumanization of workers’ status, 
  • No compensation or very low compensation for work performed, 
  • Buying and selling of workers in a market controlled by others, 
  • Control of workers’ essential life circumstances is placed the hands of others, 
  • These life circumstances have little or no value, 
  • Workers’ family and intimate relations destroyed, interrupted, devalued, or ridiculed,
  • Enforced exploitation of children for someone else’s gain and coercion of forced marriage of children younger than the age of consent.

These situations are often worse than conditions endured by slaves when Muslim governments and societies lawfully permitted slavery.

The Islamic law makes a clear distinction, in most cases, between those who are “free” and those who are “enslaved.” Freedom is defined in Islamic law as “the absence of slavery.”

In some cases, under the classical Islamic law one might be said to be “partially free” but, because the conditions that would lead to “partial freedom” under the classical Islamic law do not exist anymore, under the contemporary application of Islamic law one is now either 100% free or 100% enslaved. There is no middle ground.

Further, the conditions that would historically have permitted a person to be enslaved in a jurisdiction that enforced Islamic law also do not exist anymore. There are only two conditions that permit enslavement under Islamic law: (1) birth to two lawfully enslaved parents; or (2) capture as a war captive in a lawfully declared jihād. These two conditions do not exist anymore anywhere in the Muslim world. 

Therefore, the effective and de jure or de facto enslavement of persons like those described on this website is patently illegal under Islamic law.

Further, conditions under which persons are enslaved in the modern Muslim world are far beyond those contemplated by the Qur’ān and sunnah and are inimical to the public interest of the Muslim umma. They are founded on racial, gender-based, and age-based discrimination and exploitation, without concern for the welfare of the enslaved. The Qur’ān and the sunnah mandate an attitude of taqwa to be held by slaveowners in relations with the enslaved and a mandatory priority is to be given to emancipation and social justice in the case of the enslaved. Further, slave trading (now described as “trafficking”) has never been permitted by the Sharīʽa.

For all of these reasons, we propose that the mujtahidūn in the Muslim world consider whether there is or should be an ijmāʿ, declaring that slavery and slave trading are now illegal under the aegis of Islamic law and those practices should be considered to be abolished. 


[1] Walk Free Foundation,

[2] Article 3(a), Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly Resolution 55/25 of 15 November, 2000;

[3] Seif Kousmate, “The unspeakable truth about slavery in Mauritania,” The Guardian, June 8, 2018,

[4] Walk Free Foundation, “Global Slavery Index 2018,” p. 29.

[5] Bukeni Waruzi, private email entitled “Help Stop Racial Discrimination against Haratines,” published to subscribers of Free the Slaves publications on November 13, 2020

[6] Walk Free Foundation, “Global Slavery Index 2018,” p. 69.

[7] The case is noted in a case note authored by Jean Allain at American Journal of International Law, 103 (2009): 311.

[8] “Escape from Hell:Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity in Iraq,” Amnesty International, 8 (Dec. 23, 2014),, cited and quoted in Bernard K. Freamon, Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 471-472.

[9] “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour,” Dabiq 4:14, 17, cited and quoted in Bernard K. Freamon, Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures (Leiden: Brill, 2019) 474 n. 26. 


[11] Qur’an 7:85, 24:33;, Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 16, Hadith 8, English Reference: Vol. 3, Book 16, Hadith 2443; Arabic Reference: Book 16, Hadith 2537. In this hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s) is reported to have said: “Give the worker his wages before his sweat dries.” Similarly, there are numerous reports indicating that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s) said that he would be an adversary of three kinds of people on the Day of Resurrection: (1) he who breaks a covenanted trust, (2) he who sells a free man for a price and then devours the price, and (3) he who exacts the full due from a worker and then does not pay him his wage., Riyad as-Salahin 1587, In-book reference: Book 17, Hadith 77; 40 Hadith Qudsi, Arabic-English Book Reference: Hadith 21.






[17] Nicholas Cooper, “City of Gold, City of Slaves: Slavery and Indentured Servitude in Dubai,” Journal of Strategic Security 6, No. 3 (Fall 2013): 65-71.




[21] Bernard K. Freamon, Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 461-2, nn. 73-76.

[22] ;


Read Next:  What is Ijmāʿ?

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