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After enslaved girls were purchased by their owners and brought to the owners' Islamic hometowns, was it acceptable for these girls to be topless in public?

Abdullah Sameer quotes Sheikh Hamza Yusuf's speech in which he said this was indeed the case:

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf says,

In an Islamic system in Medina there were women walking around bare breasted, and that is a fact, that is a historical fact and you can read it and look it up in the books.** Umar did not allow the ima (slave girl) to wear the hijab.
Source: Video on Youtube at 1min 16seconds

I found a couple of sources which briefly mention the presence of topless slave women in public spaces in cities. The following is stated by this resource:

And the practice of the slave-women going around bare-breasted, although it was common, was however strongly disapproved of by the 'ulama. Read this quote from "Kitab al-Jami'" of al-Imam Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani al-Maliki (died 386 AH):

"He (i.e. al-Imam Malik ibn Anas) strongly disapproved of the behaviour of the slave women of al-Madinah in going out uncovered above the lower garment. He said: "I have spoken to the sultan about it, but I have not received a reply." He said: "Beat slave women if they do that."

The following has been stated on this web page:

Anas bin Malik said: "The slave-girls of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) were serving us with uncovered hair, their breasts (were) shaking [their hair hits (reaches) their breasts (in length)]."

This leads one to believe it was not taboo for slave girls to be topless even in the presence of men who were strangers to them (i.e. not their owners).

This web page also states that slave women used to be topless in public in some Islamic societies:

Jurists in the following centuries allowed Muslim slave women to pray without a head covering, and walk topless in public.

The information above, though useful, lacks thoroughness and confirmation by additional historical sources.

Are there more detailed accounts of how slave women were dressed in early Islamic societies?

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    May I know why my question is being downvoted?
    – a_sid
    Mar 24, 2020 at 18:21
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    Perhaps because you have failed to perform even the most rudimentary research , such as in Wikipedia: "Sources for these civilizations are not extensive, and are limited to archaeological evidence, accounts written outside of Arabia, and Arab oral traditions later recorded by Islamic scholars." This is well known, very basic information about the pre-Islamic Arabs. Mar 27, 2020 at 16:36
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    @PieterGeerkens I do not understand the point you are trying to make here. Is this not a stack exchange platform for history questions? Are you implying I should not ask questions about Arabs because the historical sources about them are not extensive enough? I am essentially asking what the existing historical sources (archaeological evidence, oral traditions, foreigners' accounts, etc.) state about a very specific aspect (slave clothing) of ISLAMIC arab culture.
    – a_sid
    Mar 27, 2020 at 17:49
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    @PieterGeerkens This is well known, very basic information about the pre-Islamic Arabs. Why do you mention pre-Islamic Arabs? I stated explicitly in my question that I am interested in the times of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the empires/Muslims who followed him.
    – a_sid
    Mar 27, 2020 at 17:52
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    my understanding is that slaves were dressed (or not) depending on their duties, and as many female slaves were domestic servants with secondary duties as sex slaves, being nude or dressed minimally was no more than logical. There was no need for clothing them to perform their duties, so why spend the money?
    – jwenting
    Jun 7, 2022 at 6:45

2 Answers 2

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Well not really. As you yourself say direct original sources from the era are a bit lacking. There are however a few things we can consider.

It's a common misconception that Islam is averted to nudity. This isn't strictly true. The covering is more a legal prescript like we have in our own societies applicable to Muslim women. It is not applicable to non-Muslims especially if they are slaves.

An uncommon fact is that the trans Saharan slave trade involved a lot of slaves being sold to Muslim Arabs. While the majority were Africans there were also a substantial number of captured European women. Depictions from the era show white and black women paraded naked at the market to be sold. It isn't a stretch that slaves who traditionally were bare chested would continue to be. Some of the depictions also suggest that it was preferred by some for white women slaves to always be fully naked.

I'm sorry I know you're looking for some authoritative sources on the subject but there doesn't appear to be any as detailed history on such things from the era are lacking. Think about it like this, if it's something that was common to era it's unlikely to be widely reported on during the era. I do think however that there's enough literature on the subject to conclude it's true even if some people today would object to such assertions.

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    Your first assertion is dead wrong. Just see the laws in many muslim countries against bikinis and other revealing clothing even for foreigners... What's more relevant is that slaves weren't considered people and thus not subject to the same laws as people, they were considered animals
    – jwenting
    Jun 7, 2022 at 6:41
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    The only depictions of nude female slaves I've seen that appear historical to the era and region were of slave markets. That they would be sold naked makes sense, as the prospective buyer would want to thoroughly inspect his purchase before making the deal (plus any clothes would belong to the seller and not be part of the purchase).
    – jwenting
    Jun 7, 2022 at 6:43
  • @jwenting It's not wrong. You are comparing contemporary customs to the values at the time. In Afghanistan for instance women are complaining that what the Taliban are forcing is nowhere near their traditional Afghan dress and that most of these "laws" stem from fundamental extremism. You prove the point with slaves being regarded as lesser humans or even animals by some. If it was a law it would have to be applied universally and not allow subjective feelings to take precedence. The reason it wasn't isn't because they weren't considered people but because slaves weren't considered Muslim.
    – PromZA
    Jun 7, 2022 at 12:59
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    Slaves weren't just inspected naked by the buyer as this could have been done in private or out of general sight. They were paraded naked in public to attract the best buyers. Men for their physique and masculinity and women and girls for their beauty and sexual attraction. This goes against the prescripts of the Quran for Muslims.
    – PromZA
    Jun 7, 2022 at 13:07
  • There seems to be a problem with people downvoting this question and answers to it for some reason.
    – PromZA
    Jun 7, 2022 at 13:17
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Sura noor verse 31 mentioned that the minimum requirement is to cover the genitalia and breasts. Where there are no chances of sin, then coverings are not required. The Quran gives everything in detail and if the detail is not there then the details should not be invented, for example that it is possible that women who are not wives or girls of prominent figure may wear minimalist clothes or even be topless.

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  • This "minimum requirement" applies to whom?
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 26, 2023 at 8:01
  • According to Quran this faith is same since Prophet Noah, Moses, Isa (Jesus) and Prophet Mohammed, So it applies to all of US. So I am not surprised the working Girls in Medina were used to being Topless. It was very common in ancient times man and women would cover only genitalia which even could be exposed if not careful. Our subconscious bias made it sin to be naked at home around family where generally we would not expect incest. Where bikini , shorts and mini skirt are not acceptable either. Mar 30, 2023 at 4:37

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