Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001
Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A Historical Enquiry
To treat this subject it is really necessary, as Segal has done, to run through the history of Islam from Western India to Western Africa, for during the whole of the period of more than 1300 years black slaves have been acquired and traded increasingly with the spread of Islam – indeed, it might be said that one reason for the spread of Islam was trade, of which slaves were a considerable part.
In Islam’s Black Slaves Segal makes very clear the difference between the Islamic trade, and the use to which it was put, and the transatlantic trade that brought blacks to the Americas. He has already written a book about the latter subject, The Black Diaspora, and it is probable that he regards it as the greater crime. Slaves in the Islamic world were much more for domestic use and while in the Americas the imports were predominantly male, within Islam females outnumbered males by two to one, probably (though this is not mentioned explicitly) because slave-raiding involved killing the men to secure the women and children (as opposed to slave-trading with the black kingdoms on the African West Coast). Segal claims, however, that though the journeys of the slave-caravans were terrible, once the slaves had, so to speak, arrived at their final destination, their treatment was relatively humane. The whole system reflected the fact that slavery had been part of the Old World from time immemorial, with white slaves antedating black. Islam had rules about slavery; indeed, only non-Muslims were supposed to be enslaved at all, though this law was often broken, especially with regard to North African “white” Moors slave-raiding the Islamicised African kingdoms to the south. Freeing slaves was also common and while girls were sold for concubinage, their children by their masters were born free and marriage, though into a polygamous household, was frequent. Large scale use of slaves agriculturally or industrially hardly took place and seems to have been abandoned after rebellions of black (Zanj) slaves employed on the land around Basra in the ninth century. One feature not found in the Americas was castration to provide eunuchs; particularly for blacks this was a radical operation, removing penis, scrotum and testicles. One estimate is that in Ottoman times every eunuch “represented at the very least 200 Soudanese done to death”. (p. 156)
There is absolutely no evidence that any opposition to slavery as an institution ever arose within Islam. The reduction and final abolition first of the slave trade and then of slavery itself came about as the world-wide dominance of the European powers, with Britain in the forefront, impinged on the Ottoman Empire, which in theory held sway politically and theocratically over the whole area involved. Segal gives the impression that during the nineteenth century, despite pressure from Britain and others, the traffic in slaves actually increased because of the general expansion of exploration and trade and the greater availability of firearms. He does not withold credit where credit is due: Lord Lugard’s settling of the problem of slavery in Nigeria illustrates what could be done when the British were in untrammelled occupation of the territory. However, he cannot help adding that “freedom from slavery was not freedom as the British applied it to themselves (p. 180).” The French seemed to have had greater difficulty but the impression left is that their commitment was less wholehearted.
The penultimate chapter deals with the remnants of slavery today, or more precisely, since the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It is probably not an oversimplification to say that these occur where Arabs confront blacks. Although Segal often emphasises the non- and even anti-racist tenets of Islam, he cannot avoid stating the fact that now, at any rate, racism is rife in the Arab world, particularly in the Sudan and Mauretania, where slavery is also more or less openly in being.
The last chapter, “America’s Black Muslim Backlash”, should belong, it might seem, more properly to Segal’s book on transatlantic slavery, where presumably it is missing. It is a sorry tale, where fantasy leads to nightmare, but at least so far the violence is more rhetorical than actual.
The forerunner of Bernard Lewis’s Race and Slavery in the Middle East goes back to 1969 and its conception and gestation even earlier. First delivered as a lecture that year, an expanded version was then published in Encounter of August 1970, then, further expanded, published as a book in New York in 1971 under the title Race and Color in Islam; a French translation was issued in 1982 with more additions. What we now have is a much revised, expanded and recast work issued in 1990. This paperback was published in 1992. Notes and appendices, of impressive erudition (which I have rather skipped), are equal to about three-quarters of the text. It should certainly be give equal attention with Segal’s book and there are some very fine coloured illustrations, well reproduced from manuscripts extending from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. If this review must be regarded as an appendage to Segal’s Islam’s Black Slaves, it is because it was written several years ago, when my notes on books I had read were briefer.
The author, a venerable authority on the Near and Middle East, using many Arab and Persian sources in the original languages, traces the connexion between slavery and status, both in theory and practice, in the Islamic world from the 7th century to the present. Until quite late in the 19th Century, when the Russians closed the Caucasus route, white slaves were imported; after this, black slaves became preponderant. On the whole Lewis demolishes the somewhat idealised (and guilt-generated) Western perception of Islamic slavery as being more benign that its Western counterpart and its culture non-racist. He demonstrates that freed blacks rarely rose to high positions and quotes anti-black opinions about it when they did. In exemplary anecdotes, even the good black is usually only a simple, pious person and sometimes his spiritual reward is to be turned white. Mention by Muslim apologists of the benefit to the black of the acquisition of eternal salvation makes me wonder how much this is, or has been, a defence of Western slavery and, indeed, what the attitude of devout blacks is, and was, to the harsh means that introduced them to Christianity, or Islam, for that matter.