Slavery (Al Ubudiyyah)

One of the books that made a significant mark on the way I understand Islam, and which greatly changed the way I see the concepts of worship, slavery, submission, and love – was the brief and concise book of a 13th century Muslim scholar, Imam Ahmad Ibn ‘Abdul-Halim Ibn ‘Abdus-Salam Ibn Taymiyyah Al-Harrani (d. 728), titled Slavery. It was originally titled in Arabic as Al Ubudiyyah.

As a young child, I rummaged through my father’s books and the thin white book at that time, didn’t made such an impression on me because I thought that it was about the literal phenomenon of slavery – and even then, I might not even made a sense out of it due to my young age. The name of the author, whom at many times I heard from my father, as being a scholar of Islam – despite his immense encyclopedic knowledge and piety, he was subjected to persecution, imprisoned, and wrote books using charcoal while being alone at the bottom of a well – remained at the back of my mind. And thus, I conceived a deep respect for Ibn Taymiyyah, and I thought that one day I will be able to understand his writings, particularly the thin white book which intrigued me for a time I could hardly remember anymore.

When I was at one of the lowest points of finding meaning on to life while going through very tough trials, I tried to read the book, hoping to find enlightenment to the heavy burdens I was carrying in my mind and soul. I was told by my parents that the book is a must-read and it carries with it a very concise message about the concept of slavery. As it turned out, it was not exactly how I thought it would be. It was not about people working as slaves in the literal sense of the word. It was about slavery to God.

Al Ubudiyyah is written in a very straightforward manner as was characteristic of Ibn Taymiyyah’s writings. The verses of the Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) are elegantly integrated on the deductions of his insights. Reading the work, one can easily understand and connect with the message. It was from this book that my subsequent study and viewpoints are heavily influenced and drawn from.

It can be said that Ibn Taymiyyah is a polemicist and a very controversial figure during his time and until the present. He had many contributions in the field of Islamic scholarship, but due to his influence, and works on refutation, he earned many critics as well. But by becoming familiar with the background which he came from and the political and religious climate that had developed during his time, one can understand the reason why his work took on a polemical style.

He came from a family of religious scholars and was educated and mastered many of the Islamic sciences at a very early age. Eventually, he was qualified to issue religious verdicts (Fatawa) at the age of nineteen. He sought to establish certainty on the matters of religious creed (Aqeedah) at a time when various schools of thought, groups, and sects emerged wherein alien influences and innovations in religious teachings and practices appeared threatening the stability and unity of the Islamic world. He became famous for his knowledge of Hadith, and his knowledge of the Qur’an and its related sciences. He also attained expertise on Usul al-Fiqh and Fiqh, knowledge of the differences of opinions present among scholars, writing, mathematics, history, astronomy and medicine. One of his students, Ibn al Qayyim said,

Allah knows, I have never seen anyone who had a better life than his. Despite the difficulties and all that expunges comfort and luxury, nay, things completely opposite to them; despite imprisonment, intimidation and oppression, Ibn Taymiyyah had a purer life than anyone could. He was the most generous, the strongest of heart and the most joyful of souls, with the radiance of bliss in his face. When we were seized with fear and our thoughts turned negative, and the earth grew narrow for us, we would go to him. No sooner did we look at him and hear his words, all these feelings would leave us to be replaced by relief, strength, certainty and tranquility. 1

Al Ubudiyyah draws its main theme on the first and foremost pillar of Islam: that there is no god but Allah (La ilaha illallah) – Tawheed, and in perfecting ones purpose of creation, which is worship (Ibadah). That the whole of life is meant for worship of Allah with submission and love, sincerity (Ikhlas), and everything intended solely for His sake.

The following are some of the passages from the book that struck me the most, and which changed the way I understand Islam, worship, slavery, submission and love:

For knowing the right and being too arrogant to accept it is a great torture to man…

So anyone who recognizes this truth and professes it but does not fulfill the religious reality which is the worship of God and obedience to Him and His messenger, – would be of the same kind as Iblis (Satan) and Hell dwellers…

If anyone thought that he is among the elite and among the people of religious knowledge and realization who think that God’s orders are cancelled concerning themselves he would therefore be among the worst rejecters and atheists…

If this is comprehended, then the perfection of a creature is in achieving his slavery to God. The better he achieves this slavery, the most perfect he will be. Those who think that a creature can get rid of this slavery in any respect or think that getting out of it is more perfect, are the most ignorant creatures, nay the most misled ones…

The more a servant is hopeful of the bounty of God to fulfill his necessities, the stronger will his freedom from the others will be…

Whoever interests his heart in the creatures for giving him aid and guidance will get his heart submitted to them even if seemingly, he is the chief who manages matters for them; but a wise man sees the truths not the appearances… Nay! The imprisonment of the heart is much more serious than that of the body; for he whose body is enslaved and imprisoned, would not care if his heart is at rest. But if the heart, which is the king of the body, is enslaved by, and fond of other things than God, this would be absolute enslavement, humiliation, imprisonment, and submitting slavery to what enthralled the heart…

We also see that anyone who craves for chief positions has a heart which may bow to any people who help him reach the position, though he might seem to be their boss, where in fact he is looking for their benefits, and being aware of their evils, he spends on them, grants them authorities, and forgives their mistakes so that they might obey and help him. Apparently, therefore, he is their indisputable master, whereas he is really an obedient slave to them…

God must be loved most by a slave and He must be the greatest of all in his sight. Nothing deserves love and complete submission except God. One who loves for the sake of anything other than God, his love is false

If your love for someone is not for God, that love is wrong, and if your reverence for someone is without order from Him, that reverence is wrong…2

God is the Lord of the Worlds, their Creator and Provident, the Giver of their life and death, the Controller of their hearts and the Dispenser of their affairs; there is no lord, no master, no creator other than He, whether they accept it and acknowledge it or not. Only the Believers among them know this truth and acknowledge it, whereas those who do not know or do not acknowledge this truth deny these realities with arrogance and refuse to submit to Him, even though they may know that He is their Lord and Creator…3


1. Diseases of the Hearts and Their Cures. Shaykh ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah trans. Abu Rumaysah. Birmingham. Dar us-Sunnah Publishers.

2. Slavery. Ibn Taimieh. Beirut, Lebanon. Al Maktab Al-Islam.

3.Ibn Taymiyyah Expounds on Islam: Selected Writings of Shaykh al-Islam Taqi ad-Din Ibn Taymiyyah on Islamic Faith, Life, and Society. (2000). Compiled and translated by Muhammad ‘Abdul-Haqq Ansari. Al Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University Imadat Al-Bahth Al-‘Ilmi, Riyadh, KSA. Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America.



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