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Slavery under Islam

Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora
Ronald Segal
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001

Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A Historical Enquiry
Bernard Lewis
OUP; 1994

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.

11 comments to Slavery under Islam

  • Susan

    You missed “Slavery in the Arab World” by Murray Gordon. Not very well organized,but includes tons of footnotes referencing primary source material. Worth the price of purchase just for the source refernces.

    Not to be missed, and less ideologically biased than Segal’s work, which included attacks on capitalism.

  • Dale Amon

    Some months ago there was a documentary on about the pirate corsairs from the North African coast. I was floored at the size of the slave trade in Europeans, which I’d barely known the existance of, let alone that an estimated million or so were captured and sold into the Arab slave markets. Ruins of a small Irish town were shown… the raiders had pretty much destroyed it and hauled off those they wanted.

    The problem was not fully solved until America precipitated things by refusing to pay ransom and instead sent warships. Of course the threat was much reduced by that time. Back in Elizabeth’s day the raiders were all up and down the coasts of the Irish Sea and taking british ships right out of harbour.

    They showed the discovery of the remains of such a ship in waters on the English shore… and told of the truely awful life of the galley slave… almost of all which were European slaves.

  • Susan

    Dale, there was a whole order of Spanish priests that was dedicated to taking care of the medical needs of the European Christian slaves captured by the Barbary Pirates (as the slaves would have simply been left to die when they got ill otherwise). I’ve forgotten what the name of the order was.

    The Americans first paid ransome (or rather “jizyah” the extorionary tax that Islamic law demands from infidels) like everybody else. It was only after the pirates’ sponsors (the deys of the Barbary States) got greedy and demanded too much for the Americans to pay that they responded with warships. (The American nation, young and poor, had previously spent one fifth of its entire federal government budget to redeem a single naval officer who had been taken slave.)

    At one point Jefferson invited several European powers to join in the fight. They refused saying it was cheaper to pay the ransome than to fight the Barbary States. (Hmmm. . .plus ca change?)

    A member of his Cabinent made one of the most famous political speeches in American history, “Millions for defense, but not one penny for tribute!”

    “White Slaves, African Masters” is a book that contains numerous true first person accounts of white American and European Christians captured by the Barbary Pirates and enslaved by the deys of the Barbary States.

    These Barbary slave narratives were used by American abolitionists to drum up support for outlawing slavery in the US South, and were quite effective. Abraham Lincoln was said to have been greatly affected by one man’s testimony.

  • Richard Cook

    What happened to the comment I posted?

  • M. Simon


    Your comment is between Dale’s and Susan’s.

    Must be a browser problem.

  • Richard Cook

    Thank you for the response.

  • Susan

    I don’t see any original comments from Richard either.

  • Cobden Bright

    Slavery has to be the ultimate libertarian bete noire. One thing I find puzzling is that libertarians generally know almost nothing about it, and if they do, they tend to view it as some kind of unfortunate thing happening very rarely in far off lands, rather than a pressing problem causing lifelong misery for millions of people.

    I patiently await the Samizdata campaign for the UK & US to intevene militarily to stop slavery in Mauritania, Sudan, and other states which support this barbaric practise. After all, there are more slaves worldwide (estimated 27 million) than there were Iraqis oppressed by Saddam Hussein.

    Another thing which slavery demonstrates, is how few people really believe in Patrick Henry’s legendary statement “Give me liberty or give me death!”. The liberty Henry was prepared to die for (a marginal reduction in customs taxes) was almost irrelevant compared to the liberty deprived of slaves. Yet a large number of slaves, perhaps the majority, basically resigned themselves to their fate after an initial period of resistance. No slave galley could have run if all the slaves had refused to row, even in the face of certain death. All it took was collective willpower, and slavery would be gone within a few years. But instead, the individual slaves willingness to compromise and cooperate with slavers, rather than die painfully, guarantees the continuance of the practise. It is a bit like India being ruled by 30,000 British – utterly ludicrous, given the number of Indians, which would have easily overpowered them.

    I think this demonstrates the real strength of the Patrick Henry approach. People who are not prepared to die for freedom, are vulnerable to losing it, and make everyone else more likely to lose it.

    Finally, on a more optimistic note, reading accounts of slavery is a good way to realise exactly how good we have it, living in relative freedom and prosperity. We may moan about taxes and red tape, but let’s not forget what a huge advance in the cause of liberty was brought about by the UK’s efforts to stamp out the slave trade. In my opinion, that is the greatest contribution to freedom (albeit belated) of any country in history, and one of the very few examples of a superpower performing an almost entirely altruistic act.

  • Richard Cook


    My comment (if it survives) was a nitpick. Just to point out the quote you used was from what was called the XYZ affair in which three French Ministers tried to extort money from the US. The speaker of the quote, I believe, was Thomas Pickney.

    The detail of American efforts to deal with the Barbary States started in the early 1800’s when we attempted to stop payment of tribute. Unfortunately this lead to the capture of the US Frigate Philidelphia (which was later burned in a raid). After the War of 1812 the US sent a squadron under William Bainbridge into the Med to have another go. They burned a Tripolitan frigate then cam into Tripoli Harbor and “dictated terms” to Tripoli and then the Bey of Algeria. In order to keep them honest the Navy established a Med squadron to loiter in the general vicinity.

  • Susan

    Richard, you are right, that comment did come from the XYZ affair and not from the Tripolitan ransome demands. Mea culpa.

    Cobden: Most of the reference material gathered by Murray Gordon for the book I mentioned above comes from the archives and publications of the British Anti-Slavery Organization. An Organization that seems to have been completely forgotten.

  • An educated people has more desire for liberty than those who has few education. And most people will choose slavery,not death. So the only way is to educate, at least I have no other way.