By John Blake, CNN
Editor’s note: The CNN documentary 'Slavery's Last Stronghold' airs on CNN International TV March 29, 30, 31 and April 22. Check local listings for times.
(CNN) - Which revered religious figure - Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Mohammad - spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?
Answer: None of them.
One of these men owned slaves, another created laws to regulate - but not ban - slavery. The third’s chief spokesman even ordered slaves to obey their masters, religious scholars say.
Most modern people of faith see slavery as a great evil. Though the three great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – disagree on many matters, most of their contemporary followers condemn slavery.
Yet there was a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims routinely cited the words and deeds of their founders to justify human bondage, scholars say.
At times, religion was deployed more to promote the spread of slavery than to prevent it.
Read about present-day slavery in Mauritania
“The lesson in all this is we need historical humility,” says Daniel C. Peterson, author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God.” “It’s stunning for us to look back now and say, how can people face themselves in the mirror after doing what they did, but they did.”
But what did the founders of the three great Western religions do? Did they have slaves and did they condemn the practice? Or were they, at least on this issue, squarely men of their times?
The answers to these questions are as murky and contradictory as history itself.
What’s a slave?
Part of the problem is historical context. Most contemporary people think of slaves as people condemned to a lifetime of bondage, working on plantations and being whipped like oxen.
That kind of slavery did exist during the lives of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad. Many slaves were prisoners of war; concubines, gladiators, laborers in salt mines. They could be killed, raped and discarded at any moment.
Yet there were layers of slavery in the ancient world. Many slaves would be seen today as indentured servants, or people trying to pay off debts; royal bodyguards and entrepreneurs, historians say.
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Sometimes the slaves became masters. In medieval Egypt, Muslim rulers trained and educated slaves to be their bodyguards. One group of slaves grew so powerful that they overthrew the rulers of Egypt and established their own dynasty, says Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Languages and Culture at Harvard University.
“Slavery meant different things in different cultures,” Asani says. “There wasn’t always this sense of powerlessness and oppression. In certain forms, it became an access to power.”
In other forms, it became access to freedom, says John Dominic Crossan, one of world’s leading scholars on the life and times of Jesus.
That was the case in the world of Jesus. The Roman Empire was the dominant power of Jesus’ day, and it survived on the backs of millions of slaves. Yet there was only one mass slave revolt against Rome, which was led by Spartacus, a gladiatorial slave, Crossan says.
The reason there were so few massive slave rebellions against Rome was because some of its slaves had avenues for advancement, dim though they may seem to modern sensibilities.
Slaves could buy their freedom. They ran businesses for their masters or tutored their children. Greek slaves, in particular, were often valued because of their education and culture, he says.
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Roman slavery was cruel and capricious, but not all Romans saw slaves as subhuman.
“One of the most extraordinary aspects of Roman slavery,” says Crossan, author of “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus,” was that the Romans ended up with a huge number of slaves who were smarter than their masters.”
The uncomfortable historical record
It’s been said that great religious figures transcend history. They rise above the peculiar customs of their day to show a new path forward.
It’s a matter of debate if Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad did that with slavery. All three seemed to either ignore or tolerate some forms of slavery, some scholars say.
The parables of Jesus, for example, were full of references to slaves. Terms like “servants” or “stewards” are what we would call slaves today. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to make any moral judgments about slavery in his parables, Crossan says.
The subject may have been irrelevant to him or his audience, says Crossan, the Jesus scholar. Jesus didn’t own any slaves. Neither did his disciples or the crowds Jesus addressed. They were all too poor and lived under desperate economic circumstances.
“It may well be that the people he talked to were small farmers who would not have the luxury of slaves,” Crossan says. “He [Jesus] doesn’t say anything for or against it.”
Still, Crossan says that he believes that Jesus would have opposed slavery, given the nature of his teachings. Scholars aren’t so certain about Jesus’ most influential disciple, the Apostle Paul.
The man whose writings make up most of the New Testament had to deal with slavery. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, many slaves joined the church.
At various parts of the New Testament, Paul seems to accept slavery. He tells slaves to obey their masters. At other times, Paul seems to challenge the morality of slavery. In one New Testament letter, Paul intercedes on behalf of a runaway slave and chides the master for calling himself a Christian and holding a slave.
Crossan, along with some other biblical scholars, says there are actually two versions of Paul in the New Testament: the authentic, “radical” Paul who opposed slavery and a “Pseudo-Paul” inserted into the texts by early church leaders who were afraid of antagonizing Rome.
“It’s one thing to say that Jesus is Lord,” Crossan says. “Now if you’re saying a Christian can’t have slaves, then something must be wrong with slaves. So now you’re attacking the Roman system, which is a slave economy.”
Jesus’ apparent silence on slavery and Paul’s ambiguous statements on the issue had dreadful historical consequences. It helped ensure that slavery would survive well into the 19th century in the U.S., some scholars say.
American Christians who owned slaves had a simple but powerful defense in the run-up to the Civil War. The Old and New Testament sanctioned slavery and, since the Bible is infallible, slavery is part of God’s order, says Mark Noll, author “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”
“The defenders of slavery said Jesus condemned quite a few things that were standard in the Old Testament,” Noll says. “He condemned polygamy, violence, easy divorce, but he never condemned slavery.”
Let my people go, but keep the others
Neither did Moses, the founder of Judaism, say other scholars.
There’s no record of Moses owning slaves, but the Mosaic laws permitted and regulated slavery, says Peterson, the author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God” and a religious scholar at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Still, under Mosaic law, a master was encouraged to free slaves and forgive debts after a certain period of time that was called the year of jubilee, Peterson says.
“They were not trying to create a permanent underclass of slaves that went from parents to child and child and grandchildren,” Peterson says of the ancient Israelites.
But how could ancient Israelites sanction any form of slavery given their exodus from Egyptian captivity? Didn’t their God explicitly condemn slavery when he ordered Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go?”
The text is not clear on that question, says Brannon Wheeler, a religious scholar.
He says the Exodus stories suggest that the God of Israel was angry at Pharaoh not for enslaving a group of people, but for unjustly enslaving the “Chosen People” - the people God had promised to give their own homeland.
“In order to make that promise stick, He [God] has to get them out of Egypt,” says Wheeler, director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Maryland.
“It’s not like He [God] says slavery is bad and I want to abolish it.”
The Prophet Mohammad never explicitly condemned slavery, and actually owned slaves, some scholars say.
Yet he recognized the humanity of slaves, teaching followers that freeing slaves was an act of piety. He allowed slaves to buy their freedom and demanded that they should be treated with love and respect, says Asani, author of “Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Popular Muslim Poetry.”
“He himself did own slaves but he treated them as family,” Asani says. “One called Zayd he treated like an adopted son and one of his wives was a Coptic Christian slave.”
The followers of men like the Prophet Mohammad, though, would take a harsher attitude toward slaves.
By the time of the crusades, Christians and Muslims were enslaving one another by the thousands. They cited their faith as justification, says Robert C. Davis, author of “Holy War and Human Bondage.”
“Religion was the defining principle of slavery—this person is another faith and can be enslaved,” Davis says.
Some church leaders preached that enslaving others was an act of evangelism, Davis says.
“One pope said that the justification for slavery was that it was important for spreading the faith,” Davis says. “Once they were enslaved, they would more readily take to Christianity.”
Those kinds of actions may now seem barbaric, but the texts and stories that were used to justify slavery still exist in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Few, though, would quote those scriptures today, and many don’t even know they exist.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” says Jonathan Brockopp, a religion professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Religions redefine themselves and people draw on different stories and underplay other stories. This happens constantly.”
It happened with slavery, and, who knows, perhaps it’s happening again in our time. There may be a religious practice accepted today that future generations will look upon and ask the same question we ask about people who enslaved others in the name of God:
How could they?
America was founded during the Enlightenment, and the Founders includeded atheists and deists. Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have been out-of-step with today's "modern" medievalists, and even John Adams, a Christian, would have been the wrong sort of Christian. None of them cared what religion their neighbor followed, provided their neighbor was a good citizen.
Thought process behind this article:
CNN producer: "Trayvon is a hot topic right now. We need to get ratings up. Quick, put someone on 'religion and slavery.' "
They may also have thought about Florida's 29 Electoral Votes. If Trayvon Martin had been killed in a state with just 3 Electoral Votes, the media would consider him less dead.
The fault lies with the Roman Empire (which the United States so eagerly emulates) who had the system of slavery already in place when Jesus was born. How then can Jesus be BLAMED for a system of slavery that existed before his existence? Another point: Slavery was not the same in every country. Sometimes slavery was voluntary, a voluntary agreement between the slave holder and servant for a certain period of time that provided a mutual benefit. Sometimes slavery was to cover indebtedness. Sure there is some merit to this story, but this goes a little too far and bends the facts.
jesus is not being blamed for it, where do you get that he is being blamed for it? the author states how jesus never condemned it, and how believers have used scripture to justify slavery.
My point is that slavery has cultural connotations depending on the location and time in history. Being a slave during the Roman Empire was not always what is was in the Americas. Maybe Jesus didn't condemn slavery because of the cultural system that existed at the time.
...what angers me are these "discussions" – more like blaspheme let loose – and only gives the devil the opportunity to insult God – through the blasphemous comments of humans....
What I find interesting is that these same people will gladly watch the endless ghost reality shows – and believe them. How do they think a person gets a soul – by taking Vitaman C? Our soul is given to us by God, for it is part of Himself, but as humans God also gives us free will, and if a person is raised by others to reject God, when they die (that includes anyone of any age), they cannot enter Heaven until the Final Judgement and God's decision as to whether they will be accepted into Heaven or sent to hell...
Again, I find it interesting that those who reject God still find ghosts to be interesting – though as the ressurected Jesus said on Easter Sunday, "If I were a ghost I would not be sitting here with you now, because a ghost does not have flesh and bone"...
Pretty sure those who reject God don't actually in fact believe in ghost stories. Not sure where you are meeting your group of sin-filled athiests but the ones I know actually think that all comes from the same bag of rubbish.
Maybe people are not rejecting "God", they are just rejecting your version of God. Ever think of that?
It's certainly condoned in the bible.
who wrote the bible who wrote the koran who wrote all things religious i think man did it has become the biggest killer of mankind since the best way too start a fight is disagree about religious differnces it says an eye for an eye and turn the other cheek it says have slavery and not to it is what who ever is in charge says it to be hitlers guns said he was god to the jewish race to black people in slavery it was the white people in america to the people in morden time it is their captors i say lets do a way with organized religion it will mean the end of mankind.
Reading your post I wonder how you will understand the fine points of any Theology. The simplest is Agnostic-I don't know there is God. The rest are very complex. Atheism will make your head crack and Christianity will split your head if your thinking is muddled like your post.
I agree about the Bible, the RSV 1971 preface attests to the fact that a revision is warranted because there were so many mistakes and they were so grievous so as to warrant revision. Quran on the other hand has an extremely sophisticated mathematical and literary structure that is easy to understand but impossible to imitate. However those who claim adherence to the Quran are in fact its worst enemies. The devil has played a number on all of us, except those who are totally devoted to our creator with a righteous manner and conscience.
I would suggest that religion itself is a form of slavery.
Foolish simple minded cnn followers.. Slavery was abolished because it is cheaper to pay someone minimum wage then to pay for someplace to live and food etc.. Democrats were the slave owners. Republicans didn't want to pay so much for labor. So the Republicans came up with the brilliant plan of getting people to rally around slavery and FORCED EVERYONE to go fight in the war of northern states aggression.. more people died in that was than any US war and according to Sharpie.. blacks are still not much better off..
The Dems of the days of yore are quite different than today. The Repubs of the days of yore are also quite different. You speak as though things don't change. You are in error.
The problem is no africans were paid anything in so-called america. What is the price you paid when 3/4 of our ancestors lay at the bottom of the oceans? Uh let me clear my throat. You forgot about the thousands of Africans who were here 4,000 years before the Europeans, Leif Ericcison, the Greeks, or Romans ever knew North Americans existed.
Didn't Abraham Lincoln not have slaves himself?
Aweseome buddy. You deserve a cookie. Have you met Believe? Believe isn't dilusional at all. Believe thinks things are fact because they can be typed in words too. You just made words...therefore they must be true. This is fun.
The legend of Moses running around for 40-years refusing to ask directions is quite a good propaganda sales spin considering the pyramids were long built prior to the era they claim he was born.
Also: There are records of Jews owning slaves in ancient Egypt.
The author needs to revaluate his sources. The Prophet Mohamed forbid slavery and was the first prophet to free
(Sayidouna) Bilal from slavery and appointed him to the most noble duty at that time which was to be the first Muezzin of the Mosque .
Now did the followers follow ???
Salavery still exists and thrives in America... it is called a mortgage.
Yes, the money lenders, the same ones Jesus overturned the tables of, are now turning the tables on us.
This author neglects to mention that slavery had disappeared in the Christian west until the Renaissance when secular humanists brought it back.
thats a heck of a claim, you can cite the source for that?
Don't let facts get in the way of a good religion bashing...
Hey, I'm all for a bit of human bondage from time to time. Who isn't? ;)
I'm in bondage to the banks.
This is so ironic. When the Quran came down, slavery, wife beating, alcoholism, polygamy were rampant in the ignorant arab society and the Quran sought to limit, curtail and eventually remove these evil traditions. Yet those who claim adherence to Quran are using it to justify and encourage these evil practices. Other religions are no less corrupted.
I once read a line that went something like: Gold is the currency of kings, money is the currency of the public, and debt is the currency of slaves. Seems as true today as it was the first time it was written or uttered.
Payers change things.
I think this is wrong, here is what God says in Quran about slavery
"Righteousness is not turning your faces towards the east or the west. Righteous are those who believe in God, the Last Day, the angels, the scripture, and the prophets; and they give the money, cheerfully, to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the traveling alien, the beggars, and to free the slaves; and they observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat); and they keep their word whenever they make a promise; and they steadfastly persevere in the face of persecution, hardship, and war. These are the truthful; these are the righteous." [2:117]
"God does not hold you responsible for the mere utterance of oaths; He holds you responsible for your actual intentions. If you violate an oath, you shall atone by feeding ten poor people from the same food you offer to your own family, or clothing them, or by freeing a slave. If you cannot afford this, then you shall fast three days. This is the atonement for violating the oaths that you swore to keep. You shall fulfill your oaths. God thus explains His revelations to you, that you may be appreciative." [5:89]
"Charities shall go to the poor, the needy, the workers who collect them, the new converts, to free the slaves, to those burdened by sudden expenses, in the cause of God, and to the traveling alien. Such is God's commandment. God is Omniscient, Most Wise." [90:60]
What is Islam in few lines is something everyone deserves to know, it is to believe and obey only one God. Every time humanity deviated from this path, God sent down His of prophets (Noah, Ibrahim, Mosses Jesus and Mohammed were among thousands) who carried this single message to the whole humanity (And they all had the highest moral standards). That is the message of Islam.
Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.
Kiss my white, black, and yellow A S S
Well the 5:89 reference says you should free a slave if you break an oath. Its hardly condemning slavery there.
And did Muhammad own slaves or not?
smk, small correction, there were many messengers, but only about 20 prophets and they are mentioned by name in Quran. Contrary to popular muslim belief, prophets are those messengers that bring scripture e.g. (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad etc.). Messengers preach scripture. All prophets are messengers because God does not give a book to someone to keep it to themselves, but to preach it.
Grow up. The Quran has so many horrible things to say, a few quotes on the other side does not equal them out. If a book tells you you should love your neighbor once but tells you to kill them ten times before, I think it is foolish to ignore all the bad. This goes for the Bible as well. If you truly study these texts and don't try to use apologetics to explain away the terrible stuff, you come to realize how horrific a lot of the stuff in them is. Period.
The point of the article is historical context and the mixed messages sent by major western religions. The fact that Mohammed owned slaves – whatever he may have written – is the focal point of the article. You may not agree that in the 21st century, Islam sanctions slavery but as the article correctly observes, it did in the past (so did Christianity). However, that doesn't make the article "wrong."
- California prison systems is no longer able to handle its overcrowded prison. This year they released so many prisoners (for home assignment).
– Prison system in old time Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed (PBH) would have very negative impact on prisoners. It would have destroyed them (mentally). Also, given the conditions at that time there is no way to run a prison without severe damage on prisoners specially female and children.
– The goal is always to educate the prisoners (by showing them an example and teaching them). In ancient time this has to go through more humane form of interaction. This is Islam (the true and last monotheist religion) taught us to treat slave with respect and dignity and implant mechanisms to free slave-the end goal.
Slavery seem to go with human condition (wars, economic necessity (modern slavery)..etc). The point is to treat you enemy with mercy (don't destroy his psych. and make him loose all his qualification by confining him in stringent conditions (prison). Rather treat him with dignity, teach him the true path of allah and free him immediately (once he is no longer a danger, and once he is guided). If tomorrow a foreign country invade us, and we catch a huge number of prisoners (do have infrastructures to put them in prison?, should we kill them all? or should we treat them with dignity and guide them and make them believer and brother? This is in my opinion why Islam unlike other religion outlined a clear and pragmatic guideline ;
– Treat slave as brother, sister or even spouse (absolutely no harm in anyway)
– Free him and you will get reward
May allah guide all humanity to his path! and may He curse those who mistreat their fellow human being. Amen
Prayer changes things .
You are SERIOUSLY misinformed.
like rain dances change the weather.
Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things
"Prayer changes things ."
Check your typos. Should be: "Payers change things".
Ha ha! I don't know anyone who hurt others BECAUSE of there atheist beliefs (some terrible people happen to be atheists), but I know a ton who hurt others BECAUSE of their religion. Its religion that is not healthy for living things. Prayer didn't seem to change the appendicitis in the child of the Oregonian "faith healers" who died when it ruptured, or these people who let their baby die and they now get to go to jail: http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2011/11/not_gods_will_but_felony_mansl.html. I bet you won't cut your finger off and then pray over it to grow back. Hmm. . . I wonder why. Maybe its because you really do know, deep down that prayer doesn't work. But if you disagree, cut away. Just please film it and post it on youtube.
I wonder if it changed anything for those generations of slaves.
Slavery existed before there was Islam, Christianity or Judaism or Atheism. It has existed in all cultures and used by people of all skin colors. It is an economic issue. It exists today in a number of countries. I wouldn't allow it in my presence but there are a lot of people who will and do. Blaming slavery on religion is looking at only one facet of the situation.
no one is blaming slavery on religion, they are merely pointing out how none of the major religions explicitly condemn it and some have even used their teachings to justify it.
You cannot judge a historical society by the standards of today. We didn't live back then, and don't have their mindset. There is a process called exegesis which must be employed with the reading of any historical text. It is good for slavery, in any form, to be illegal. Jesus wasn't talking to you and me, he was talking to 1st century Jews. You have to run His words (or lack of words) through that filter to understand what was being said. Which is why using The Bible as an advocate for slavery is a fallacy.
Why do poor ignorant white people always talk about slavery? Because they like having smarter people make them rich. Yes the history of slavery was never addressed because slavery wasn't like it was developed in modern time. History says a family could work off a debt. But as life continued and rulers took a different view. The US just carried with then what was done around the World. Poor whites looked to become elite and rich like others were in England. English rich educated people come to the new land called America because of the taxation of the King. What many don't know is President Obama is the 7th biracial US President as the 6 others have passed for white. Much of the anger and hate we still see in the United States with racism is done by those whites who hate the idea they have blood of a blood person in their vains. Many look back and see the Queen of Egypt was black and her slaves were white but of course the US likes to change that in movies. The dark secrets of interracial reproduction would scare many people and as Senator McCain got to see his black relatives.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.