A Brief History of Slavery in Islamic Societies.

The Synod of Gangra held in 340AD was formed to criticise and condemn the practices of the followers of the Iranian Prophet Mani. Manichaeism – as it became known – was a gnostic faith of late antiquity that among other things, preached the freedom of slaves. A revolutionary concept that Christian slave owners were not about to accept. The Christian Synod of Gangra wrote to condemn Manichaeism and insisted that slaves disobeying their masters was unlawful before the eyes of God. The Synod thus set a precedent – absorbing Roman, Greek, and Egyptian social structures that thrived on slavery – for the next 17 centuries of western Christian supremacy, that included the brutality of slavery throughout.

Sixteen centuries later, and Westminster was preparing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The new Queen would become the head of state over a vast empire built on conquest, that had only abolished the horrendous practice of slavery – upon which the British empire owed so much of its power and privilege – 120 years earlier. The guest list for the coronation was vast and included dignitaries from across the World. Among them were a number of Sheikhs from Qatar, whose retinues included slaves. As late as 1952 Sheikhs in Muslim countries were slave holders.

Imperialism and slave holding isn’t unique to the west, nor has the west been the sole benefactor of imperialism and slave holding. Indeed, slave holding in all major societies – Islamic societies included – is as old, and as widespread as civilisation itself. Pliny claimed the Spartans invented slavery, though there’s no reason to suspect he’d carried out a thorough investigation to come to that conclusion. Much later, the Ottoman empire appropriated structures already in place when they found it, so as to not upset the order of things; this included slavery. They established slave markets in Constantinople, in Cairo, in Tana-Azov. They levied taxes on the sale of slaves. Slavery had helped build and maintain economic and social structures of Islamic empires, it had decimated eastern Africa, and it enshrined Islamic privilege through Ottoman law that forbade slave ownership by non-muslims.

A lot of Muslims I speak too, feel a great deal of unease at confronting or accepting that slavery did not just afford the Christian West a great deal of power and privilege that it continues to benefit from to this day, but also the Islamic East. I would perhaps suggest that this unease exists because it doesn’t fit a modern narrative designed to paint the muslim East as a harmless victim of centuries of western imperialism. The fact is, the Arab muslim east was as imperial, colonial, and reliant on slavery as the Christian west. For Islam, the lives of those captured belonged to the victors. When one group assumes supremacy of its own ‘kind’ – be it racial, religious, sexuality, or gender supremacy – over all others, oppression necessarily follows. A supremacist system that deviates beyond secular democracy, is sustainable only by institutional violence. This is how Christian and Islamic societies operated.

It’s important to note at this point that I am not going to mention verses of the Qur’an or Hadith. Islamic empires and societies since the dawn of Islam had undoubtedly absorbed cultures in which slavery already existed – including pre-Islamic Arabia – and continued the practice. It was a part of the fabric of most powerful empires and cultures. The Qur’an and Hadith reflect that, and so are used to justify slavery through fourteen centuries. This is religious supremacy, not a trait of Islam specifically. That is more than enough than my own reading of certain passages – of which interpretations are abundant – of the Qur’an and Hadith, which seem to me to be a reflection of late Antiquity more than anything. I also find it irrelevant. An ideology that specifically sets out to control the liberty of others – whether less harsh than what came before or not – is oppressive and supremacist by its very nature. This is wholly illegitimate and so even if a holy text called for a slave to be given the comfiest bed in the house, and an elaborate breakfast every morning, it’s irrelevant, because it’s still slavery. For example, a 1332 decree of appointment notes:

“The people of Damascus are often in need of a judge from the Hanbalite school in most contracts of sale and lease, in certain sharecropping contracts, in assessing settlements when contracts are frustrated by natural disasters, in marrying off a male slave to a free woman with the permission of his master….”

– The life of a human being here, is considered property, in at least Hanbali jurisprudence of the 14th century. The master – a muslim – is considered supreme by the simple fact that he is muslim. Again, this is supremacy and it is by definition, oppression. Whether the slave is treated well or not is irrelevant. Owning the life and liberty of another human being is the issue. In any case, slavery in Islamic societies wasn’t always more humane that its western counterpart. Often ‘Eunuch stations’ were set up across trade routes, that included the genital mutilation of young boys in such unsanitary conditions, most died. Punishment for trying to escape often resulted in execution. A popular punishment for not satisfying the desire of the ‘master’ was the immensely painful practice of foot whipping, used also on young criminals in Massachusetts as late as 1969, as a way to obtain confessions from prisoners in Czechoslovakia during its communist period, and reportedly by the Assad regime against rebels.

With that in mind, we begin in the first century of Islam. Muhammad bin Qassim was a young general embarking on a mission to conquer India for Islam in 711. On his expedition, he stopped in the Markan region to kill rebellions against Umayyad rule in Arman Belah among others. Pushing east across the Indus river, towns succumbed quickly to Qassim’s invasion. His armies collected and sent back spoils of war, including hundreds of slaves, to Qassim’s paternal uncle, Umayyad governor Al-Hajjaj. Expansion of the imperial Arab Muslim empire, right from the beginning, benefited hugely from slavery.

This continued into the 8th century, with military leader Hasham bin Amru invading Kashmir and collecting slaves to send home to the Caliph al-Mansur.

Later, in the 9th century, manual labour – such as draining the marshes – was considered demeaning for muslims in certain parts of the empire. In southern parts of modern day Iraq, just to the east of Basra, slaves from Africa were imported to fill the gap left by a lack of muslim labour. Over the years, and as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, the slaves in southern Iraq mounted a massive rebellion. After taking al-Ubullah in 870, and defeating the forces of the caliphate, the slave rebellion was eventually crushed by al-Muwaffaq – the brother of the new caliph, and leader of the armies of the caliphate – in 883. The incident shows us that regardless of new ‘protections’ afforded slaves as offered by interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith, despite manumission encouraged by Islamic tradition, slaves were still recognised as slaves. The Qur’an acknowledges and so legitimises slavery, and this was all the justification that was required. People still owned and controlled the lives of others as a master and slave relationship, and those considered slaves fought back.

A few centuries later, the slave trade had gone beyond the spoils of war, and now became a key ingredient in muslim economies. The National Library of France shows a 13th century slave market in Zabid, Yemen:

Slave market in 13th century Yemen. Credit: BnF (National Library of France).

Slave market in 13th century Yemen.
Credit: BnF (National Library of France).

– This practice continued for centuries. We can imagine scenes like that depicted in the picture above, playing out across markets full of slaves imported from Africa. Zanzibar was perhaps one of the most important and largest slave ports dominated by Arab muslims. The slave traders – including Europeans – managed to get as far west as the Congo, forcing African people young and old to carry ivory and other goods across Africa – many died on the way – to be chained and thrown onto boats to be escorted to Stone Town in Zanzibar. At this point, there were kept in cramped, dark, underground prisons, chained to the floor, before being sold on. The London Maritime Museum has this utterly horrendous photo on display, of a chained child slave, on Zanzibar, controlled by the Arab Muslim slave trade:

– The slave trade in Zanzibar did not come to an end until 1873.

It is true that racial supremacy was not the presumed authority upon which Islamic slavery existed – religious supremacy was the motive – but racial supremacy was a factor. The 14th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldūn wrote:

“The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and proximity to the animal stage.”

– From this, we get the sense that Arab racial supremacy existed, and was used to justify slavery by at least the 14th century.

Also in the 14th century, the Ottoman Sultan Murad I instituted the practice of Devşirme. Every four years, the Ottoman Empire kidnapped and enslaved young boys from families in the Balkans, converted them to Islam, and prepared them for military service. This is elaborated on by Çandarlı Kara Halil Hayreddin Pasha, the Grand Vizier under Murad:

“The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession”

By the 17th century, Barbary raiders had the potential to become immortalised. On the sunny island of Rhodes stands the Murat Reis Mosque. A charming temple built a few decades after the Ottoman’s took over Rhodes in the 16th Century. It is named after former slave, and convert to Islam, Murat Reis. Reis was a pirate that led a group of Turks and Algerians in a 1631 raid on Baltimore in West Cork in Ireland. At 2am that morning, the raiders – having slowly made their way to the village – stood outside of the doors of the inhabitants sleeping inside. On a given signal, they burst into the houses with iron bars, beat the confused and frightened people of the town, murdered a couple, and took the rest captive. The unprovoked raid ended with 107 men, women and 54 children herded onto the Corsair boats – on which the men were beaten to ensure conformity – and sold into slavery in northern Africa. Upon arriving in Algiers, the captives were taken to an official of the state, entitled to 10% of all booty. They were then chained and stripped and shown to potential buyers throughout North Africa. Reis continued capturing slaves to be sold throughout the Ottoman Empire and neighbouring Islamic states for years, before being made Governor of Oualidia. It is also suggested that he was so admired, that he married the daughter of Mawlay Zidan el Nasir; the Sultan of Morocco.

A few decades later, another Sultan from Morocco, Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif was building a private protection force made up of African slaves captured as children – a practice echoed in the 21st century by the Christian fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army among others. These guards were made to swear allegiance to the Sultan on a copy of Sahih Bukhari’s Hadith book. Among more of his 25,000 slaves working on manual labour projects, included Christian Europeans captured and forced to build Moulay’s new capital city.

Two centuries later, Hamdan bin Othman Khoja wrote from Algiers in the 1830s condemning the French invasion of Algeria as a free country intent on enslaving the muslim population. Khoja failed to point out that Algiers was home already to hundreds of European slaves held by muslims, and was a key outpost for Barbary pirates dropping off their spoils including slaves. Apparently this wasn’t worthy of condemnation.

Interestingly, the great US abolitionist Charles Sumner noted in “White Slavery in the Barbary States” that Algiers fell on the Parallel 36°30′ north, the parallel of latitude that marked the Missouri compromise line between free states and slave states in pre-civil war US. He goes on to say that Virginia, Carolina, Mississippi and Texas, are the American version of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Sumner was writing a number of decades after President Jefferson (himself a slave holder) was forced to go to war with the Muslim Berber states over his refusal to pay such high ransoms for American ships being hijacked and their crews enslaved. It is estimated that between the 16th and 19th centuries, 1.25 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved by Barbary pirates, enriching the rulers of the semi-independent Berber states, and subjecting the crews – with families back home – to torturous slavery.

At the turn of the century that I was born in, slaves in Islamic South East Asia had a range of ‘duties’. According to W. G. Clarence-Smith:

“A Malay master around 1900 expected his slaves to: ‘plant his field, weed and tend his crops, to wash and guard his cattle, to punt his boat, to attend to him upon his journeys, to cook rice, and to serve in his house'”.

– As well in South East Asia, throughout the Ottoman empire most slaves were domestic slaves. The male slaves would perform domestic chores and – as noted in the Clarence-Smith quote – attend to the ‘master’, whilst the female (including children) slaves were quite simply, raped. They were there to be used as sex objects. Often young female slaves would be offered as gifts to people in positions of power for the sake of political favours, as noted by one 16th Century traveler:

“…the governors and other officials in the provinces take as their own slaves the most beautiful. They send a portion of these to the Sultan to gain his favor. These are usually sent at between the ages of ten and fifteen.”

– Mehmed II rebuilt the lands surrounding Constantinople using slave labour. At the end of the 1400s, around 1200 slaves lived surrounding Istanbul.

In the 1840s, Tunisia was importing and selling slaves in the Sūq al-Birka slave markets. This was happening, regardless of Mo Ansar’s revisionism in which he appears to be under the odd impression that imperialism began when the French invaded Tunisia, choosing to ignore the Islamic imperialism that led to Tunisia being a “Muslim country” held together by slaves in the first place.

In the 1860s, Egypt – run as an eyalet of the Ottoman empire – experienced a boom in cotton exports owing to the sudden outbreak of civil war in the US. The export of cotton in 1860 stood at 500,000 cantars, compared to 2,000,000 just five years later. According to Kenneth Cuno’s study:

“… during the cotton boom (1861–64), some 25,000 to 30,000 slaves were brought to Egypt each year to satisfy the demand for labor generated by the rapid expansion of cotton cultivation.”

– This wasn’t new in Egypt. It wasn’t an imitation of how the US south managed cotton cultivation. Slaves in Ottoman controlled Egypt was not new. It was simply increased in order to meet demand and enrich the privileged Islamic inhabitants.

In 1866 – two years after the Egyptian cotton boom – Dr David Livingston writing from Africa noted the horrifying treatment of slaves by their Arab ‘owners’:

“We passed a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead, the people of the country explained that she had been unable to keep up with the other slaves in a gang, and her master had determined that she should not become the property of anyone else if she recovered after resting a time. . . . we saw others tied up in a similar manner . . . the Arab who owned these victims was enraged at losing his money by the slaves becoming unable to march, and vented his spleen by murdering them.”

The decade following the Egyptian cotton boom, a report following an expedition to Afghanistan in the 1870s noted:

“…A slave, if a strong man likely to stand work well, is, in Upper Badakshan, considered to be of the same value as one of the large dogs of the country, or of a horse, being about the equivalent of Rs 80. A slave girl is valued at from four horses or more, according to her looks. The men are, however, almost always exchanged for dogs.”

– A decade after that, and staying in Afghanistan, the ‘Iron’ Emir, Abdur Rahman Khan smashed a rebellion in Urozgan Province, and according to S.A.Mousavi:

“…thousands of Hazara men, women, and children were sold as slaves in the markets of Kabul and Qandahar, while numerous towers of human heads made from the defeated rebels as a warning to others who might challenge the rule of the Amir.”

In 1924, the Somalian anti-colonial leader Shaykh Hagi Hassan wrote to the Italians:

“All our slaves escaped and went to you and you set them free. We are not happy with the [antislavery] order. We abandoned our law, for according to our law we can put slaves in prison or force them to work…
The government has its law and we have ours. We accept no law other than our own. Our law is that of God and of the Prophet.”

– As late as the 1920s, incredibly hypocritical anti-colonial leaders were using Islamic tradition to justify the owning of other human beings as slaves. Notice also the justification by religious freedom? Hasan’s tone is one of indignation that his religious freedom to control others has been abused, by breaking the shackles of those he thought he had a divine right to oppress. His presumed “right” to oppress others, he considers more important than a human being’s right to control his or her own life and body. The argument for ‘religious freedom’ is often a not-so-subtly-masked argument defending religious supremacy and privilege.

Abolitionism in Islamic societies did exist. Though it gained very little traction or philosophical reasoning and support, until the 19th century. Prior to that, the debate surrounded who could and who couldn’t be enslaved, and how they should be treated. This shouldn’t be considered abolitionism in any sense of the word. That being said, in the late 19th century the great Ahmad Khan used the Qur’an to argue that slavery was anti-Islamic and must be abolished. The poet and politician Muhammad Iqbal in the early 20th century condemned slavery.

In the later 20th century – particularly after Zia-ul-Haqq took power in Pakistan – slavery advocates began to make their voices heard again by insisting that abolition denies the “right” of future muslims to free slaves.

The historian Paul Lovejoy estimated that the Islamic slave trade was responsible for the enslavement of around 11,500,000 African people alone, from the 7th century, to the mid 20th century.

Today, 20% of the population of Mauritania are today considered slaves. A new proposed Iraqi law allows the marriage of girls as young as 9; modern day sexual slavery. In the apartheid state of Saudi Arabia, slavery was officially abolished in 1962, when the country still had over 300,000 slaves. That hasn’t changed much in Saudi. Human Rights Watch reported:

“Over 8 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs, constituting more than half the national workforce. Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation, sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions.”

– It is a curious misrepresentation of history to believe that ‘imperialism’ and slavery are anchored to the western colonial powers only. It is doubtless a narrative that complements anti-western sentiment, but it is wholly false. From the 2nd Century BC until around 1949, institutionalised slavery existed in China, it existed in Japan, it existed throughout the Joseon dynasty of Korea, Angkor Wat was built by slaves. It is the product of imperial conquest. Arab Muslim societies were not immune to this, nor did they take great efforts to end the slave trade. The spread of Islam relied on conquest and enslaving populations. They established the institution through Islamic jurisprudence and enforced it through violence. At the same time that the Atlantic slave trade was beginning to take shape, and slowly morphing from Christian supremacy, to racial supremacy, the Arab muslim slave trade was already in full swing. Those societies enshrined slavery into law using holy texts and traditions to justify it. Their economies relied heavily on slavery, and – as with the US, Europe, and China today – the Islamic world owes much of its success and privileges to the often violent oppression of the lives of those they deemed to be slaves.

The narrative must be re-framed. Human liberty protected by a secular and democratic framework, granting no special privileges according to race, beliefs, sexuality or gender is not a ‘western’ colonial value, it is not a political ideology, but a universal human value, and that universal value has to be the great cause of the 21st Century.

References used:

Click to access Islam,%20archaeology%20and%20slavery%20in%20Africa.pdf


Click to access second%20chapter%20dissertatie.pdf

5 Responses to A Brief History of Slavery in Islamic Societies.

  1. Pluvian says:

    You write like you’re responding to someone who has claimed that only the west ever practised slavery. Are there really people who believe that? Surely it’s common knowledge that slavery has been standard practise in every civilisation until the modern era?

  2. I shall always be Spartacus even if only in myth his objectives were to end slavery, the most repugnant of all oppressions held over a fellow being.

  3. ortega says:

    in marrying off a male slave to a free woman with the permission of his master….”

    I didn’t think a male slave marrying a free woman was allowed under Islamic Law?

  4. The quote is taken from Sadakat Kadri’s book on the history of Sharia, which in turn cites Rapoport’s ‘Legal Diversity’ as the source for the quote. It is relation to legal changes during the Mamluk Sultanate. The question of a male slave marrying a free woman must have been a topic under discussion at that point in time.

  5. ortega says:

    Oh yeah, that book’s on my reading list. In the Mamluk context that would make sense I guess, since you had a large group of men who were technically slaves but had a high social status.

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