Long before he started to receive his revelations, Muhammad (peace be upon him) was known for his noble characteristics. One of the most important of these was that he always cared for the weaker elements in society. In Arabia, where a tribal society flourished, the most vulnerable sections of the society were slaves and women. Muhammad looked after both, extending to them exemplary treatment. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this is the way he treated Zayd ibn Harithah, a young lad who was taken captive in a raid mounted by a tribe hostile to his tribe. According to the universal custom at the time, captives became slaves. Zayd was sold as a slave by his captors. He was then re-sold and brought to Makkah by an uncle of Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife. On arrival in Makkah her uncle showed her the slaves he brought with him and told her to choose one as a gift. She took Zayd and gave him to her husband.

Zayd’s family continued to search for him until they learnt that he was in Makkah. His father and uncle traveled there and met Muhammad, requesting him to sell Zayd to them and to be kind when naming his price. Realizing that his interlocutors were Zayd’s own family, Muhammad felt for them. He, however, had a better offer for them. He told them that he would give Zayd a choice to go with them or to stay with him. If Zayd chose them, Muhammad would not ask them to pay any price. He would let them take him free of charge. But if Zayd chose to stay with him, he would not let anyone take him away, not even his own father. Both were very satisfied with this offer, feeling that when Zayd would be given the choice, he would not hesitate to choose to be free.

Zayd was duly called in, and he confirmed that the two men were his own father and uncle. Muhammad then told him of the offer he made to them, asking him to choose whether to go with them or to stay with him. Zayd unhesitatingly chose to remain with Muhammad. Stunned, his father asked him to explain why he would make such a choice. Zayd said: “I have seen from this man enough to make me prefer to stay with him to any other situation.”

At this point, Muhammad realized that the two men needed reassurance. He therefore took them, along with Zayd, to the Kaabah and declared to the nobles of Makkah gathering there that he had adopted Zayd as his own son. This was a relief to Zayd’s father and uncle who returned home realizing that Zayd would not come to any harm as long as he stayed with Muhammad. He was no longer a slave.

In order to appreciate the full significance of the affair, we need to remember that this took place several years before Muhammad was given his mission.  Slaves were always maltreated, in all societies. Only under Islam slaves came to be treated like ordinary human beings, enjoying clearly defined rights. Prior to Islam, a slave could be tortured and killed by his master, without anyone even raising a question. To adopt a slave as one’s own son was unheard of. The fact that Zayd chose to stay with Muhammad, in preference to joining his own family and tribe, tells us much about the treatment he received from him. It was not surprising, therefore, that when Muhammad received his message; Zayd was the first man to declare his belief in Islam.

– By Adil Salahi