by Ranbir Singh
African slaves being sold in thirteenth century Yemen
In 1964 Malcolm X famously remarked how on pilgrimage to Mecca he was taken aback at how there was no racial or colour prejudice in Islam. Yet only two years previously Saudi Arabia had abolished slavery of his fellow blacks. We hear much about how America owes reparations to the descendants of those forcibly brought over from Africa as slaves, and even after liberation were forced to endure dehumanising treatment through legally enforced racial segregation, disenfranchisement and even mob violence. It is in this context that black separatist groups such as Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam flourished. Malcolm X was of course the most famous spokesmen of the latter before he exited from the organisation. Yet his split from NOI had more to do with personality clashes and rivalries than with any sudden realisation that orthodox Islam stood out against slavery and racism. Indeed he was perhaps closer to the truth when in 1959, having been criticised that Elijah Muhammad’s sect did not follow true Islam, he retorted “Arabs sold slaves”. Indeed the numbers of slaves taken from Africa to be sold in the slave markets of Islam probably exceeded that taken to the Americas. It not only preceded the trans-Atlantic slave trade but continued long after even Brazil and Cuba abolished slavery, and that means right into the twenty-first century in the case of Mauritania and Sudan. From its very inception Islam was associated with slavery. The Quran is replete with references to slavery as perfectly normal. Slavery in Islamic countries survived as a legal institution well into the twentieth century. Arun Shourie, member of India’s upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, writing in his 1998 book ‘World of Fatwas’:
“The right of the master over his slaves form an important part of Shariah. The use one may make of concubines and slave-women forms the subject of Hadis. Slavery, retaining concubines – all these things have Allah’s approval in the Quran.”
NIneteenth century Arab slave traders
Born and educated in South Africa, Ronald Segal was forced to leave his country of birth in 1960 for engaging in activities against apartheid. Segal has been in important scholar in raising awareness of African slavery in the Americas, but in 2001 produced his milestone work in exposing the little known subject of slavery of blacks within Islam. Slavery and the slave trade was well established in Arabia long before Islam, and Islam itself conquered other slave owning societies but its numbers in the Islamic empire grew rapidly due to the Arab conquests. They were employed in a variety of roles. Females were recruited for the harems while males could become slave soldiers, business agents, or eunuchs. Slaves were captured in war or born as the children of slaves. Razzias from Muslim Spain captured Christians for the slave market. Thousands were sold to other parts of the Islamic world. Conversion to Islam did not mean manumission. Indeed there was no mass freeing of slaves under Islam. As well as lacking legal rights, slaves were regarded as being morally and physically inferior. Their evidence was seldom valid in court. They could not own property. But as property themselves they could be passed via bequests. If a freeman killed a slave compensation was paid to the owner at the market price. A slave could be killed and punished without any legal penalties. A business agent was referred to as ghulam and not abd, indicating the difference of status and the better quality of life. At the opposite end of the scale were the mines, which were mostly worked by slaves in harsh conditions.
In the 1960s the Salazar regime used the ideas of Brazilian academic Gilberto Freyre to ‘prove’ that there had never been racism against blacks in Portuguese Africa. Yet Freyre’s Lusotropicalism was not even an accurate reflection of slavery and race relations in Brazil. With hindsight we can see the poignant and yet pathetic desperation of comparing the supposed racial democracy in Brazil with the segregation and racism that has historically been part of demographic experience in the USA and South Africa. Yet not only does Brazil have rampant racism with blacks excluded from positions of power and influence, as well as White Power skinheads, it has been South Africa and America which can now boast having heads of state who are black. Lusotropicalist-style apologetics are now the mainstream when describing slavery and racial prejudice in the Islamic world. Gang slaves were used in the mines and on plantations. Slaves were always used for the most dangerous work such as the salt mines of the Maghreb. Under the Abbasid caliphate there were the first attempts to have mass plantation slavery in the cultivation of sugar cane in Mesopotamia. Poverty led to slave revolts by black slaves in mines and plantations in 770, and again in Lower Mesopotamia in 883, joined by disaffected peasants. Disturbances were so serious, that even Baghdad was threatened. Known as Zanj, these slaves were led by Ali ibn Muhammad who became known as Sahib-az-Zanj, or Master of the Zanj. He aimed at restoring the purity of Islam not at abolition. Indeed he promised slaves and other property to his followers.
Sixteenth century Mughal painting of suppression of the Zanj rebellion
Gold and slaves were the main export items from the Sahara and beyond to the Mediterranean. Slaves came from the Sahel and even as far as Madagascar and India. This remained unabated while the trans-Atlantic slave trade grew in volume. Conditions across the Sahara were every bit as horrific as the Middle Passage. Slaves suffered from dehydration, sand storms, extremes of heat and cold, and having to carry other goods. Western slaving nations however were not immune from being the human harvesting centres for ambitious Islamic states. In the ninth and tenth centuries Tripoli became a major market for Christian slaves, especially female. Venetain slave traders sold human chattel from Dalmatia and Italy to the eager buyers in the Maghreb. In the tenth century Arab slave raids targeted France and Italy. East Africa became a major source of slaves with important markets at Sofala, Zanzibar, Pemba, Kilwa, Mombasa and Malindi. Jihads against Ethiopia involved the inevitable slave-taking.
From the seventeenth century the Maghreb was the source of slave raiding pirates, the notorious corsairs of Barbary. For over a century pirates in the region had attacked Christian shipping in the region. Vulnerable merchant vessels passing through the Straits of Gibraltar were attacked in a maritime slave-raiding jihad which causing consternation across Europe. The coastline of Spain was ravaged but the corsairs took their attacks further. In 1625 the coasts of Cornwall and Devon were raised for slaves. One of many renegade Europeans to make cause with the pirates, Dutchman Jan Janszoon joined the al-ghuzat to become Murad Rais. His raids went to Reykjavik where he captured four hundred Icelanders to be sold as slaves. He also attacked Wales and in 1631 his attacks reached Ireland where 237 Irish were taken from the village of Baltimore, to be sold in the slave market of Algiers. The fort of Salé became the centre for the corsairs under the spiritual leader, the marabout Sidi Mohammed el-Ayyachi where slave trading became their economic lifeblood, and slaves were kept in horrendous conditions. Held in virtual darkness, in squalor which included literally wallowing in their own excrement, European white slaves had their clothes and hair infested in lice and fleas, were given little more than water and coarse bread, and pressured to convert to Islam. But slave raiding extended as far as Norway, Newfoundland, France, Portugal, Greece and Russia. Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Tuscany and Calabria were areas of Italy which were especially affected. The slave dealers of Islam also found huge amounts of human chattel in Majorca, Gibraltar, Minorca, Corsica and the Spanish coast. Large areas of Spain’s coast became depleted of their population as a result. By the 1660s corsairs were enslaving English settlers from the American colonies. In 1627 a daring raid on Iceland killed many in the process, while others later died from disease or were converted to Islam. Pastor Ólafur Egilsson was sent by these slave raiding pirates, from Algeria to Denmark to negotiate ransom. Some Icelandic slaves were returned to their homeland a decade after capture. Tripoli also became rich on the slave trade and by the end of the seventeenth century was importing between 1500 and 2000 Christian slaves annually, mainly Italian. Two thousand black slaves were also being imported annually, although many died in transit. During the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries about a million European Christians were seized as slaves by the Barbary pirates. Slave raiding by the corsairs actually continued into the nineteenth century. In 1757 Sidi Muhammad became sultan and acted against the corsairs as he tried to replace dependence on slavery with more legitimate trade with European nations. However in 1790 he was succeeded by Moulay Sulaiman II who planned to relaunch the slave raids. In 1816 the British dispatched a huge fleet to end the corsair menace with an attack on Algiers which reduced large parts of the slave trading city to oblivion. The slave trade in white Christians from Europe and America by the Barbary corsairs was finally at an end. The economy of Tripolitania was ruined as a result. The main revenue now came from the trans-Saharan slave trade which was not ended in Benghazi until 1911 with the Italian conquest and continued in the Kufra region of Libya as late as 1930. Enslavement in warfare was meant to exclude Muslims. But in practice this was bypassed by raiding Muslim communities of another state, especially if they followed a different school of thought, or by enslaving anyone rebelling against the state. The latter is the fate which befell the Berbers in 1077 who were then sold off in the Cairo slave market.
Right from the advent of Islam in South Asia the faith had been associated with mass slavery. The raids of Mahmud of Ghazni produced thousands of slaves which were fed into a slave trade networked trafficking human beings to Iran, Iraq and Central Asia. Major slave raiding also took place by Timur. Further east and slaves were the majority population of Dutch ruled Batavia and Makasar in the eighteenth century, in what is now Muslim majority Indonesia. Raiders across South-East Asia captured and traded in slaves. Malay legal codes viewed slaves as property, devoting much attention to the details of servitude such as debt bondage. The Melaka sultanate had traded in slaves captured in the Philippines. By 1611 Sultan Alauddin Tumenanga ri Gaukanna had converted the Bugis and Makassares to Islam, people who actively sold slaves along with spices.
By the end of the fourteenth century the expanding Ottoman Empire was involved in the large-scale recruitment of slaves. From Murad I this was done by human leby on Christian captives caught in war, which in turn became formalised into an institution essential for slavery. For example, Bayezid I (1389-1402) granted land and tax exemption to a body of raiders who agreed to conduct regular razzias to ensure a regular flow of new human chattel. For the Turks who had brought large parts of Europe, Middle East and North Africa under their control, the slave trade flourished. The Turkish slave market was kept satisfied by raids of Crimean Tatars into Poland and Lithuania. The Crimean Tatars made huge profits from the sale of human beings to the Turks. Indeed on their very first slave raid against Poland in 1468, they captured 18,000 captives. In 1672 a major Tatar raid saw the capture of 44,000 Russian slaves. In the seventeenth century Crimean Tatars brought thousands of Russian slaves annually into the Ottoman slave markets. These included the cities of Cairo, Mecca, Basra, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. Turkish slave raids into Europe continued until the Battle of Mohács in Hungary in 1526, after which in 1541 that state became an Ottoman tributary. By the 1640s historian Ibrahim Pechevi noted that the supply of European slaves had largely dried up. However Tatar raids into Russia and Poland, as well as slave catching in the Caucasus and sub-Saharan Africa continued to supply slaves to the Ottomans. Raids into Russia continued into the nineteenth century. The Ottoman state’s foundations lay in rule by an absolute sovereign and administered and protected by a slave caste who served the sultan with complete loyalty. From the time of Murad I, this elite infantry corps known as yeniçeri (janissaries) was raised by prisoners captured from the Christian Balkans, and instituted by Sultan Bayezid as devershirme, the human tax levy on Christian youth which recruited boys aged between seven and fourteen, converted them to Islam, and trained them as the sultan’s civilian and military elite.
Slavery retained its canonical status and legitimacy until the very end of the Ottoman Empire. British pressure led to the closure of the centuries-old slave market in Istanbul in 1846 by Sultan Abdülmecid, with further measures against the slave trade in the Persian Gulf and Maghreb. Slave traders in Jeddah feared that the slave trade in Africans would be banned appealed to the clerics in Mecca. The head of this religious establishment agreed that the measures against slavery were contrary to Islamic law and made the Turks into apostates and idolators. Hence jihad was declared against them. Hence the Hijaz region was made exempt from the trade in slaves. Meanwhile Iranians seized Christian slaves from Armenia and Georgia, until the Treaty of Turkmanchai in 1828 sapped this source, which led to greater reliance on black slaves. But Iranians were themselves enslaved by the Ottoman Turks, as well as by Uzbeks and Turkmens. Under British pressure, Iran halted the slave trade in 1882. Slavery itself was fully abolished in 1907. In 1861 it was the invading Russian imperialists who suppressed slavery in Muslim Central Asia. Indeed it was the pressure from now universally condemned and hated western imperialism which halted slavery in the Islamic world. In the early nineteenth century, Swiss traveller John Lewis Burckhardt met Hadji Aly el Bornawy in Nubia, who despite his evident religious piety nevertheless sold off his own cousin in the slave market of Mecca, while on hajj pilgrimage. The Hausa rulers had raided Muslim neighbours for slaves without any remorse for Islamic injunctions for not enslaving the faithful. They were challenged in 1810 by the revolt and jihad of Usman don Fodio, a Fulani of the Hausa state of Gobir. In 1812 he became caliph of a West African empire, helped by the fact that many of his supporters had been victims of slave raiding by the Hausa. Then in the 1820s, another Fulani, Ahmad ibn Muhammad, launched his own jihad against his overlords which he denounced as idolaters, and founded a state centred on Hamdallahi. In 1862 another jihad by Umar ibn Said led to a new empire dominated by the Tukulor. Slave markets and slave ownership flourished in the Sahel region. In area such as Bornu, non-Muslims were not encouraged to convert to Islam because this would then allow them to be enslaved without religious inconvenience. Only with the French conquest of this region was slavery and slave trade effectively curtailed, even if not completely stamped out. As recently as 2008 the former French colony of Niger was found guilty by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States for Hadijatou Mani being held in slavery. Niger had actually banned slavery but the country’s customary courts upheld the institution. Slavery continues with the full support of sharia. In the Gulf oil revenues have actually increased both ownership and the trade in slaves. On 7 November 2003, Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body as well as being a member of the Council of Religious Edicts and Research, Imam of the Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh, and professor at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University stated that it was kufrto claim that slavery should be abolished:
“Slavery is part of Islam….Slavery is part of jihad and jihad will remain as long as there is Islam.”
In Mauritania Abdel Yessa Ould Yessa was born into the traditional Arab aristocracy and saw black slaves as inherently stupid people who knew no other work than to obey higher castes, in accordance with the Mauritanian saying “paradise is under the master’s foot”. Slave families are ripped apart as human beings are sold off or given away as presents. Psychological dependency by the slaves mean that in Mauritania, it is not even necessary to beat or chain them into submission, because they have been brought up to have no other purpose than service to the master. Yessa found that even in primary school in the capital Nouakchott, there was a female slave selling sweets, a slave employed as school guard, and the cleaning staff were all slaves.
Sudan remains the other Islamic country where slavery thrives, despite being abolished by the British in 1924. The Mahdi revolt of 1881 against the Turko-Egyptian rulers had in fact attracted many slavers to the ranks of its followers, the Ansars. Khalifa Abdullah had a thousand slaves working his personal estates and four hundred in his harem. Civil war between the Arab Muslim north and the largely black Christian and animist south has added a new dimension to the revival of slavery in this country. Slave raids began in earnest in the 1980s under the premiership of Sadiq al-Mahdi, grandson of the legendary Muhammad Ahmed, the Mahdi who resisted British colonial rule. In raiding southern villages, Khartoum’s armed militias slaughter the elderly and those attempting to escape. Captives are taken hundreds of miles from home, using the boys to end cattle and goats, or even join government militias to fight southern Sudanese rebels. Child slaves in Sudan are beaten, forced to sleep with the livestock, are branded for identification with hot irons, and suffer punishments such as amputation for losing cows or sheep. Women are forced into concubinage. High ranking officers in the Sudanese army own slaves.
Yet where are the calls for reparations for slavery in the Islamic world? The demographic catastrophe it brought is all too evident. One need only compare the situation of blacks in Israel with those in its neighbours. Why are there blacks in Israel? Because in 1984 the Israeli government made strenuous efforts to airlift the Beta Israel (Falashas) from famine stricken Ethiopia. But the people of African descent in Arab countries are the descendants of an archaic slavery which has yet to die. And of course it is not just Africans. The name Hindu Kush means “Hindu Slaughter”, testimony to the huge numbers of slaves taken from India through centuries of Islamic colonialism. The descendants of these slaves were dispersed throughout the Middle East as nomadic groups known as Nawar speaking the Indic language of Nawari. But they are perhaps more well known as the most marginalised and discriminated against people in Europe: the Roma or Gypsies. With all the oil revenues generated from the Gulf states spent on Wahhabi and Salafi terrorism, these rich countries that deny even basic rights to the millions of Asian workers who do the dirty jobs for the Arab herrenvolk could easily pay back reparations to the countries which for centuries were the victims of colonialism and slave raiding which political correctness deems off limits to even discuss and with the use of exploitative labour in places such as Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi, has yet to end.