Prophet Muhammad (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) created a new paradigm, which revolutionized social relationships as never seen prior to his time. One of these was how he shifted power dynamics through redefining relationships including what terms to use in describing people. One such shifting related to the word ‘abd (slave).
During the Prophet’s era, slavery was a major part of the Arab culture and economy. Arabs enslaved the young and old through wars and through the purchasing of people. Arabs enslaved other Arabs as well as non-Arabs. These slaves, of course, had no freedom of movement and belief and were constantly humiliated by their slave-masters.
The Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) redefined what the true Master – servant relationship is. The Master is the Creator, and the servant is His worshipper.
He then gave an alternative term, which not only humanized the ex-slaves in front of the Arabs but also provided a term that elevated the esteem of those who were formerly enslaved.
The word for a person freed from slavery as redefined by him is mawla; mawla is a term which originally meant master and then also took on the meaning of freed slave and an ally according to ibn Ash-Shajari Al-Hasani (see pg.381) Hence, people such as Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) and Khabbab (may Allah be pleased with him) who were once addressed as from the ‘abeed later were written about in Islamic history books with a term that also means master in front of their names. The term sayyid, which also means master or leader besides meaning a descendent of the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) is also used to describe such personalities.
I’ve commented in previous articles and blogs about the un-Islamic usage of the terms ‘abd/’abeed and adoon (Somali for slave) that too many use to describe Black Americans. There’s also been recent news of a Black Saudi sister who has waged a campaign against such ignorant words after she was called ‘abda, which is a word that does not even have a foundation in classical Arabic and isn’t even the word for slave-woman, which is amah. The term ‘abda, which is a recent slur in the history of the Arabic language, can be seen specifically as a way to otherize sisters who are Black.
This just goes to show how far many Muslims have strayed from the Sunnah. I pray that during Black History Month with the awareness being raised both here and abroad that we can refocus on the Prophet model and purge ourselves from the classism and racism which resides in us.