Hadith Database – Hadith on Prophet Muhammad Cancelling the Manumission of Slaves
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم
“’Imran b. Hussain said: A man who had no other property emancipated six slaves of his at the time of the death. When the Prophet (ﷺ) was informed about it, he spoke severely of him. He then called them, divided them into three sections, cast lots among them, and emancipated two and kept four in slavery.”
Explanation: This hadith has apparently been used by some Islamophobes to attack the Prophet Muhammad’s attitude towards slavery and is also a matter of confusion for some Muslims. As the hadith states, a man with no other property (i.e., no other assets or anything of value) freed all six of his slaves on his death-bed, a decision that was partially reversed by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who allowed two of the slaves to be freed and four to remain as slaves. Having paid no attention to the historical context of slavery in general, and to the general rules of the Sharia, ignorant Islamophobes with an axe to grind try to use emotional arguments to condemn the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
First, slavery was a fact of life in all societies for thousands of years. A simple attempt to abolish it would not have been possible without irreparable damage and greater harm done. Thus, the Quran and Sunnah regulated the practice, protecting the rights of both slaves and their owners. This was acknowledged even by orientalists, such as Bernard Lewis, who observed:
“The Qur’an, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it. The Prophet Muhammad and those of his Companions who could afford it themselves owned slaves; some of them acquired more by conquest.
But Qur’anic legislation, subsequently confirmed and elaborated in the Holy Law, brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects. One of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances.”
So, what was the reason that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) only allowed two of the slaves to be freed? The reason is a concept in Sharia law called “marad al-mawt” (death-illness). As explained by Hiroyuki Yanagihashi (Tokyo University):
“[t]he doctrine of death-illness (marad al-mawt) seeks to safeguard the interests of the creditors and heirs in the estate of a deceased person by regulating the legal effect of acts that he undertook after entering the sickness from which he eventually died.”
As stipulated in other ahadith, a person who is close to death could give 1/3 of his property in charity. This is mentioned in Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani’s Bulugh Al-Maram, where he related a hadith from Al-Daraqutni:
“…the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, ‘Allah gave you as a charity a third of your property when you are about to die, as an addition to your good deeds.”
In the English translation of Bulugh Al-Maram, a footnote provides Imam Muhammad bin Ismail As-San’ani’s explanation of the meaning, which is that:
“[Allah] gave you permission to make a will within the third of your property as charity, when you are about to die.”
This is also confirmed by the chapter heading in Sunan Abu Dawud under which the hadith of the “six slaves” is found:
“Regarding One Who Manumits Slaves Of His That Exceed One Third Of His Property.”
So according to the Sharia, the maximum that a person can give in charity from his property is 1/3, while the rest goes to his creditors, partners, and heirs.
So, this is where the concept of “marad al-mawt” comes into play. In the case of the above hadith, the man had freed all six of his slaves, despite having no other property or assets to disperse to his partners (if he had any) and especially to his heirs. If he had other property, and the value of the six slaves was within the 1/3 limit or could be paid by the value of the other property, then there would be nothing wrong with their emancipation, as there would still be something left over to pass on to his heirs (i.e., his wife and children and other relatives). This is demonstrated by another hadith in Sunan Abu Dawud:
“Qatadah narrated with his chain of narrators. The Prophet (ﷺ) said: If anyone emancipates his share in a slave, he emancipates him (completely) by his property if he has property.”
But since the man had no other property, the most he should have done was to free only two of the six slaves and leave the other four for his heirs.
Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani also related the hadith of the six slaves in Bulugh Al-Maram. In the explanation of the hadith (contained in a footnote), Imam As-San’ani explained (emphasis ours):
“[t]his hadith is evidence that only one third of a dead man’s property could be given in his will, to those who are not of his legal heirs.”
As already mentioned, if the owner had other property and had a share in the ownership of the slave with his partners, the value of the slave’s price had to be paid to the partners from the other property. In his Muwatta, Imam Malik explained that if there were no shares between partners, and the owner had complete ownership, then (emphasis ours):
“…it is more proper to free him completely and not mingle any slavery with it.”
There are also other ahadith that shed more light on this issue. For example, Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani related a hadith from Ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that:
“[a]nyone who emancipates his share in a slave and has enough money to pay the full price for him, a fair price for the slave should be fixed. His partners should be given their shares, and the slave should thus be emancipated. Otherwise he is emancipated only to the extent of the first man’s share.”
In the event where the price was not enough to compensate the partners, Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani related a hadith from Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that:
“[o]therwise he [the slave] will be required to work the pay for his freedom, but he must not be overburdened.”
In the case where a man agreed to free a slave (and had no other property) after the former’s death (al-mudabbar), but then circumstances changed and the owner was faced with financial difficulties or had unpaid debts, the slave could be purchased by someone else and the price paid to the owner. A version of this hadith is found in Sunan An-Nasa’i under the chapter heading:
“The Ruler Preventing His Flock From Wasting Their Wealth When They Have Need Of It.”
Here is the hadith:
“It was narrated that Jabir bin ‘Abdullah said: ‘A man among the Ansar stated that his slave was to be set free after he died; he was in need, and he owed a debt. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) sold him (the slave) for eight hundred dirhams, and he gave (the money) to him and said: ‘Pay off your debt and spend on your dependents.’”
In this case, the emancipation of the slave would have left the owner’s debt unpaid and would likely have burdened his dependents as well. Therefore, the oath to emancipate the slave had to be cancelled.
In conclusion, there was nothing sinister in the Prophet’s ruling to only free two of the six slaves. As a side note, some ignorant fools claim that the Prophet kept the slaves for himself, but this is just in their imagination, as the hadith says nothing of the sort. Similarly, in the case of the “al-mudabbar” slave, the price for the selling of the slave was not kept by the Prophet (peace be upon him), but was given to the owner so that he could pay off his debt and spend the remaining money on his dependents.
And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!
 Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 5.
 Hiroyuki Yanagihashi, The Doctrinal Development of “Maraḍ al-Mawt” in the Formative Period of Islamic Law, Islamic Law and Society 5, no. 3 (1998): 326.
Though Yanagihashi claims that the “six slaves” hadith was first put into “circulation” around the year 80 AH/699 CE (p. 343), it has been accepted as authentic by Islamic scholars, especially since one version is found in Sahih Muslim.
 Al-Hafiz Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, Bulugh Al-Maram: Attainment of the Objective, According to Evidence of the Ordinances, trans. Dr. Nancy Eweiss (Egypt: Dar Al-Manarah, 2003), p. 357.
 Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, op. cit., p. 531.
 Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, op. cit., p. 530.
 Ibid., p. 533.