Can you name the only prophet and founder of a global religion to free the slaves? If you’ve been reading this series, you already know the answer: Baha’u’llah.
Earlier in this series, you read the provisional translation of a previously unknown tablet by Baha’u’llah, rediscovered by Nader Saiedi. (See “The Baha’i Prayer that Freed the Slaves”) Not long after, the Universal House of Justice evidently commissioned an authorized translation, which was published online, for the first time, also in this series. (See “The Slave’s Prayer of Freedom”)
This important tablet is unnamed, but for now, let’s refer to this work as Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Emancipation. In it, Baha’u’llah frees a slave (presumably one of the domestic servants of Baha’u’llah’s father, Mirza Buzurg, who died in 1839) in a most humble, yet dignified way:
Glorified art Thou, O Lord my God! Behold how one slave hath stood at the door of another, seeking from him his freedom, and this despite the fact that his owner is himself but Thy thrall and Thy servant, and is evanescent before the revelations of Thy supreme Lordship. I testify at this moment, as I stand before Thee, to that which Thou didst testify to Thyself by Thyself, that verily Thou art God and there is none other God but Thee. From everlasting Thou hast inhabited the loftiest heights of power, might and majesty, and wilt, to everlasting, continue to abide in the sublimity of Thy glory, awe and beauty.
All kings are as vassals before the gate of Thy grace, the rich are but destitute at the shore of Thy sacred dominion, and all great ones are but feeble creatures within the court of Thy glorious bounty. How, then, can this thrall claim for himself ownership of any other human being? Nay, his very existence before the court of Thy might is a sin with which no other sin in Thy kingdom can compare. Glorified, immeasurably glorified, art Thou beyond every description and praise.
O my God! Since he hath asked this servant for his freedom, I call Thee to witness at this moment, that I verily have set him free in Thy path, liberated him in Thy name, and lifted from his neck the shackles of servitude, that he may serve Thee in the daytime and in the night-season, whilst I pray that Thou mayest never free mine own neck from the chain of Thy servitude. This verily is my highest hope and supreme aspiration, and to this Thou Thyself art a mighty witness. – Baha’u’llah, translated by the Universal House of Justice, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, September 2, 2014.
This resonates with the passage in Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book which forbids slavery:
It is forbidden you to trade in slaves, be they men or women. It is not for him who is himself a servant to buy another of God’s servants, and this hath been prohibited in His Holy Tablet. Thus, by His mercy, hath the commandment been recorded by the Pen of justice. Let no man exalt himself above another; all are but bondslaves before the Lord, and all exemplify the truth that there is none other God but Him. He, verily, is the All-Wise, Whose wisdom encompasseth all things. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 45.
Baha’u’llah revealed this passage in 1873, or even before. His tablet of Emancipation was revealed decades before, either in 1839 shortly after Baha’u’llah’s father died, in order to free the father’s household slaves—or alternatively, some time later during Baha’u’llah’s decade-long exile in Baghdad (1853–1863). Baha’u’llah, quite clearly, took a public stance against slavery very early, even before he declared his ministry.
Some scholars and critics assert that Baha’u’llah’s abolition of slavery prohibited the slave trade only—but not slave ownership. This is based on a narrow reading of the sacred text, the first sentence of which may be literally translated as follows: “It is forbidden you to buy female and male slaves.” (Provisional translation courtesy of Necati Alkan.)
However, it is clear that Baha’u’llah forbids both the slave trade itself and personal slave ownership, for the following ten reasons:
- Baha’u’llah declares that all are “thralls” (slaves) before God.
- The Baha’i teachings say all men and women are equal before God.
- No one should exalt himself over another.
- No man can own another (i.e. has no moral right to own another).
- Slave trading is morally wrong.
- Slave trading is impossible without a right to buy and sell.
- Slave trading involves owning slaves.
- Slave trading and owning are inseparable.
- The distinction between slave trading and owning is a Western concept.
- Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith and authorized interpreter of Baha’u’llah’s writings, declares: “In this Book He [Baha’u’llah] … prohibits slavery” (God Passes By, p. 214).
Despite the fact that slavery was both allowed and practiced throughout the course of Islamic history (up until it was abrogated as a result of secular developments within the context of modernity), there’s a long and venerable Islamic tradition of manumission (freeing slaves), pursuant to the Qur’an’s express advice to do so, by granting slaves contracts of emancipation:
And such of your slaves as seek a writing (of emancipation), write it for them if ye are aware of aught of good in them, and bestow upon them of the wealth of Allah which He hath bestowed upon you. – Quran 24:33.
So Baha’u’llah’s emancipation of slaves does have an Islamic context. But taking this into account, Baha’u’llah’s stated reasons for freeing his father’s slave go much farther than the reasons given within the Islamic tradition itself. As a religion, Islam never forbade slavery. Although freeing slaves was encouraged as morally worthy, an emancipation contract was typically an agreement whereby the slave would have to “buy” or pay for his or her freedom. Thus a purchase price was routinely involved in such transactions, in which the slave owner’s chattel and property rights were recognized and incorporated in the terms of a typical emancipation contract.
Indeed, Baha’u’llah’s rationale—not only for freeing slaves, but in prohibiting the institution of slavery itself—goes far beyond the Islamic practice of manumission as a charitable act. In his 1869 Tablet to Queen Victoria, revealed prior to the Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah proclaimed:
We have been informed that thou hast forbidden the trading in slaves, both men and women. This, verily, is what God hath enjoined in this wondrous Revelation. God hath, truly, destined a reward for thee, because of this. – Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 89.
Abolition of slavery in the secular world both predates and postdates Baha’u’llah’s freeing of slaves and his religious decree abolishing slavery, as a command from God, once and for all. So, while Baha’u’llah was not the first to abolish slavery, this much is a first:
The Baha’i Faith is the first religion to explicitly ban slavery in its Sacred Scripture. Baha’u’llah prohibited this practice in clear and un-ambiguous language. – Servants in the Households of Baha’u’llah and the Bab, Research Department memorandum on behalf of The Universal House of Justice, February 2, 2000.
Special thanks to Nader Saiedi, and Necati Alkan, for their helpful suggestions for this analysis.