Servitude to Allah: A Dive into the Master-Slave Relationship

Allah

Allah very clearly informed us of the purpose of our creation and existence when He said:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ

And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.

[Qur’an 51:56]

The essence of worship is complete submission and obedience to Allah. Ibn Jawzi said about the meaning of this verse in Zaad al-Maseer:

“[It means] So that they may submit to Me and become humble. Linguistically, the word ‘worship’ entails submission and compliance. Every creation [of Allah] submits and complies to the decree of Allah and cannot escape it.”

Allah constantly refers to Himself as Master (رب) and us as His slaves (sing. عبد) throughout the Qur’an. For example, Allah says:

وَأَنَّ اللهَ لَيْسَ بِظَلَّامٍ لِّلْعَبِيدِ

And Allah is never unjust to [His] slaves.

[Qur’an 3:182]

وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ ۖ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ ۖ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُوا لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُوا بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

When My slaves ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about Me: I am truly near. I respond to one’s prayer when they call upon Me. So let them respond ˹with obedience˺ to Me and believe in Me, perhaps they will be guided ˹to the Right Way˺.

[Qur’an 2:186]

Two different plurals in Arabic are used in the above two verses in reference to ‘slaves’ but they originate from the same three root letters: ع ب د. The plural عبيد is usually associated with purchased ownership, whereas, the plural عباد is usually associated with worship. It could be said that عبيد is more generic in reference to all slaves and عباد is more specific to the obedient slaves engaged in worship. Therefore, all عباد are عبيد but not all عبيد are عباد.

This should not be confused with the way we think about master/slave relationship in the West during the slave trade. The only true Master is Allah and the only true complete servitude belongs to Him, not your fellow man. The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said:

لَا طَاعَةَ لِمَخْلُوقٍ فِي مَعْصِيَةِ اللهِ

There is no obedience to [any] creation when it entails disobedience to Allah.

[Ahmad 1095]

In Arabic, the word for ‘slave’ (عبد) is associated with ownership because the owner has complete control and authority over the slave. This type of description applies even more so for Allah because:

  • Everything belongs to Allah and He has complete power and control over every particle in existence. In this sense, even the inanimate objects, such as, sun, moon, stars, trees, mountains, oceans, winds, etc. are also considered His slaves. Everything that we own, including our senses and children, are actually given as gifts by the Master and belong to Him, thus, He can take them back any time. Even those with high statuses with Him cannot escape this reality. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Do not exaggerate in praising me as the Christians did with the son of Mary, for I am only His slave. So say ‘slave of Allah and His messenger’” [Bukhari 3445].
  • We cannot set any limits on Allah, however, He can set as many limits as He wishes. Allah decides who lives/dies, provided sustenance, healed, afflicted with sickness, succeeded, failed, etc. He does not ask our permission or opinion before taking such decisions. Why? Because He is the Master and we are the slaves. Whenever the Master makes a decision, the only option for the slave is to comply because the slave has no authority to counter the Master’s decision. For example, if Allah decided to end your life tomorrow, there is nothing you can do to stop it.
  • We will all be judged by Him on the Day of Judgment but nobody will dare to judge Him as we are told in the Qur’an, He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned [Qur’an 21:23].” Why? Because the Master is not accountable to the slave due to the latter’s weakness and lack of authority. It is the Master that questions and interrogates the slave due to His complete authority over the slave. Imam Tabari said in his tafseer regarding this verse, “No questioner will ask the Lord of the Throne about what He does with His creation…because they are His creation and slaves. They are all in His dominion and [under] His authority…there is nobody above Him [in authority].”

A human master may be prone to error, bias, injustice, greed, and other types of vices, however, Allah is the perfect Master free of any such flaws and accountable to nobody while we are all accountable to Him. He is also the Just, the Loving, the Merciful, the Forbearing, the Forgiving, and the Gracious!

I remember watching an interview once of an ex-Muslim on a popular atheist’s TV show, where this ex-Muslim stated something to the effect, “I cannot follow a religion where a God refers to Himself as ‘Master’ and His worshipers as ‘slaves’.

SubhanAllah! Did this individual cease to become a slave when making such a statement? This individual is still ‘owned’ by that Master, continues to breathe because of that Master, is given sustenance because of that Master, and continues to exist in His dominion by that Master’s permission. The only difference is that this particular salve has transformed into a disobedient slave. Let’s take an example to illustrate this point:

Imagine a master who owns hundreds of slaves on his property. He commands them with certain tasks and observes their commitment to those duties from the balcony behind a window as they work the property. Then a particular slave disobeys and deliberately opposes the duties assigned to him/her by the master. The master sees this but does not take any immediate disciplinary action against the slave. Perhaps the master wants to see how far the slave will go or maybe he wants to let him/her get it out of his/her system and is hoping the slave will begin to comply pretty soon after returning to his/her senses. Or perhaps the master is waiting for other slaves on the property to bring the disobedient slave back into order without him having to call the guards to discipline the slave.

Here is the question: did this disobedient slave stop being a slave during this whole episode? Nope. Did the master continue to have complete authority and ownership over this slave? Yes. The behavior by that ex-Muslim works the same way. No matter how far a slave goes away from Him, he/she continues to remain a slave but just a disobedient one. The Prophet (ﷺ) spoke about a ‘believing slave‘ vs a ‘wicked slave‘ in a hadith:

الْعَبْدُ الْمُؤْمِنُ يَسْتَرِيحُ مِنْ نَصَبِ الدُّنْيَا وَأَذَاهَا إِلَى رَحْمَةِ اللهِ، وَ الْعَبْدُ الْفَاجِرُ يَسْتَرِيحُ مِنْهُ الْعِبَادُ وَالْبِلاَدُ وَالشَّجَرُ وَالدَّوَابُّ

The believing slave is relieved [by death] from the troubles and hardships of the world and leaves for the Mercy of Allah, while [the death of] the wicked slave relieves the worshipers, the land, the trees, and the animals from him.

[Bukhari 6512]

Our whole purpose in life is to submit ourselves to Allah. The greater the servitude of a person to Allah, the better he/she is in the sight of Allah. At the end of the day, we are all slaves of Allah but each one of us has to decide whether we want to be an obedient one or a disobedient one!

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