Islam and Slavery:
The Truth Revealed
Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans
The ongoing campaign for so-called Reparations rests upon the allegation that that the European civilization in general—and its trans-Atlantic heirs, the founding fathers of the United States in particular—should be taken to task for the fact that they practiced slavery. That is somewhat ironic since the Western civilization is in fact the only civilization in history to have created from within itself a successful movement to condemn and abolish slavery.
It is a matter of historical record that other civilizations, and most notably Islamic civilization, have not achieved this. The world of Islam has never striven to do so without external prompting. To this day the only places in the world where one can buy a slave for ready cash are Moslem countries. The slaves in question are almost invariably black, and the countries in question are primarily Mauritania and Sudan.
While both the Old and New Testaments recognized slavery, the Gospels do not treat the institution as divinely ordained. The slaves are human, and all men are equal in the eyes of God regardless of their status in this life: “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” says St. Paul, “there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Slavery was to early Christians a fact of life, and a thing of men.
The Kuran, by contrast, not only assumes the existence of slavery as a permanent fact of life, but regulates its practice in considerable detail and therefore endows it with divine sanction. Muhammad and his companions owned slaves, or acquired them in war. Muhammad’s scripture recognizes the basic inequality between master and slave, and the rights of the former over the latter (Kuran, 16:71; 30:28). The Kuran assures the Muslim the right to own slaves (to “possess their necks”) either by purchasing them or as bounty of war (58:3). Its author, Muhammad, had dozens of them, both male and female, and he regularly sold, purchased, hired, rented, and exchanged slaves once he became independently wealthy in Medina after the confiscation of Jewish property. The bounties are lawful to the Muslim, theologian ibn Taimiyya wrote, and slavery is justified: “It is lawful to kill the infidel or to enslave him, and it also makes it lawful to take his offspring into captivity” (Ibn Taimiyya Says,Vol. 32, p. 89). In line with the racist views of Muhammad about his own people, the Arabs, as “the nobles of all races,” they were exempt from enslavement (Ibn Taimiyya States,Vol. 31, p. 380).
The four caliphs who came after Muhammad discouraged the enslavement of free Muslims, and it was eventually prohibited. The assumption of freedom as the normal condition of men did not extend to non-Muslims, however. Disobedient or rebellious dhimmis were reduced to slavery—that is, if their lives were spared—and prisoners captured in jihad were also enslaved if they could not be exchanged or ransomed. In A.D. 781 7000 Greek prisoners of war were enslaved after a battle at Ephesus. At the capture of Thessalonica in A.D. 903, 22,000 Christians were sold into Muslim slavery. The same happened in A.D. 1064 in Georgia and Armenia. In Africa Arab rulers regularly raided sub-Saharan black tribes and captured slaves, claiming their raids to be jihad; many Hindus were enslaved on the same pretext.
Divine sanction of slavery means that disobedience to one’s master carries everlasting punishment, while obeying the master is the slave’s only path to paradise: “There are three (persons) whose prayer will not be accepted, nor their virtues be taken above: The runaway slave until he returns back to his master, the woman with whom her husband is dissatisfied, and the drunk until he becomes sober” (Mishkat al-Masabih, Book I, Hadith No. ii, 74). While maltreatment was deplored, there was no fixed sharia penalty. The slave had no legal powers or rights whatsoever. A Muslim slave-owner was entitled by law to the sexual enjoyment of his slave women. The Koran mandated that a freeman should be killed only for another freeman, a slave for a slave, and a female for a female (2:178). The Tradition says that “a Muslim should not be killed for a non-Muslim, nor a freeman for a slave” (The Commentary of al-Baydawi, p. 36).
The slave trade inside the Islamic empire and along its edges was vast. It began to flourish at the time of the Muslim expansion into Africa, in the middle of the seventh century, and it still survives today in Mauritania and Sudan. The Spanish and Portuguese originally purchased Black African slaves for their American colonies from Arab dealers. Every year, for about 600 years, the Nubian kingdom was forced to send a tribute of slaves to the Muslim rulers in Cairo. Nubians and Ethiopians, with their slender features and thin noses, were preferred to the equatorial Bantus, for whom hard toil and lowly menial tasks were generally reserved.
Black slaves were brought into the Islamic world by a number of routes—from West Africa across the Sahara to Morocco and Tunisia, from Chad across the desert to Libya, from East Africa down the Nile to Egypt, and across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Arabia and the Persian Gulf. There are notable differences between the slave trade in the Islamic world and the trans-Atlantic variety. The former has been going on for 13 centuries and it is an integral feature of the Islamic civilization, while the influx of slaves into the New World lasted less than three hundred years and effectively ended by the middle of the 19th century.
It is estimated that ten to twelve million Africans were taken to the Americas during that period. The number of captives taken to the heartlands of Islam—while impossible to establish with precision—is many times greater. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that there are tens of millions of descendants of slaves in the Americas, and practically none in the Muslim world outside Africa. For all its horrors, the Atlantic slave trade regarded its victims as valuable assets whose lives and progeny should be preserved, admittedly not for altruistic but primarily for economic reasons. In the Muslim world, by contrast, slaves were considerably cheaper, far more widely available, and regarded as a dispensable commodity. They were not allowed to have families, and most men were brutally castrated even before reaching the market.
In the early Caliphate, in Mesopotamia, considerable numbers of black slaves were used as labor on large estates, but the practice effectively ceased after a mass rebellion in the ninth century that at one moment even threatened Baghdad. Since that time the Muslim heartland has been apprehensive of using large contingents of male African slaves working in one location. They were used primarily as domestic servants, or, in the case of women, as sex objects: some harems had hundreds of concubines. In North Africa black slaves were also used as soldiers blindly obedient to their masters.
Many African slaves were eunuchs, and the method of their mutilation, before they could fetch the best price in the Islamic world, defies imagination:
Castration was admittedly against the Islamic law, but its letter—the “spirit” being non-existent—often offered a pragmatic way out for the imaginative believer. Regarding African captives, a handy contrivance was to buy already castrated slaves whose mutilation occurred prior to the wretch’s importation into the lands of the Faithful. The dealers thus had a clear incentive to perform the operation themselves along the route. For African captives nothing short of “castration level with the abdomen” would do; no mere removal of the cojones, like with the Slavic and Greek captives, by the mere removal of testicles. Only such radically castrated eunuchs were deemed fit to be guardians of the harem: that way there was no risk of their damaging any of the property in the harem. The mortality rates were enormous [Islam’s Black Slaves—an Interview with Ronald Segal by Suzy Hansen].In the period of its decline the Ottoman harems and landed estates were filled by Christian slaves captured in the Caucasus, until the Russian liberation of the area in the early 19th century. The Tatars raided surrounding Christian lands from their stronghold in the Crimea and sold tens of thousands of captured Eastern Europeans in the slave markets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities until the Russian annexation of the peninsula in 1783. Another important source of European slaves was piracy, with its autonomous power-base in the Barbary Coast of Algiers. The captives of the Barbary corsairs could be freed by ransom or conversion. The rest were sold at auctions, and many died from fever, starvation, or the lash. Women were taken into harems as concubines of their captors.
The abolitionist sentiment in Europe and America was inseparable from Christian faith and world outlook. William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, inspired by the Wesleyan Revival, lobbied for abolition and finally succeeded in having the legislation adopted at Westminster that abolished slavery in the British Empire and turned Britain into a determined foe of slave traders everywhere. The evangelical revival movement provided momentum to the abolitionist movement in the United States.
Islam provides no analogous abolitionist imperative. Hoping to curtail the trade, in 1842 the British Consul General in Morocco made representations to the Sultan asking him what measures, if any, he had taken to abolish slave trade. The sultan replied, in a letter expressing bewilderment, that “the traffic in slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam”:
The sultan continued that he was “not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect, and no one need ask this question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.” The sultan was only slightly out of date concerning the enactment of laws to abolish or limit the slave trade, and he was right in his general historic perspective. The institution of slavery had indeed been practiced from time immemorial [Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford University Press 1994].Just as Britain and France were finally working to shut down the Atlantic slave trade in the early 19th century, it was picking up in East Africa and most of the slaves were being sold to kingdoms in Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The Arabian Peninsula in 1962 became the world’s penultimate region to officially abolish slavery (Mauritania formally followed suit in 1982), yet years later Saudi Arabia alone was estimated to contain a quarter of a million de facto slaves.
A network of trade routes and markets extending all over the Islamic world and far beyond its frontiers lasted until well into the 20th century. To find truly endemic, raw anti-Black racism and slavery today one needs to go to the two Islamic Republics in Africa, Mauritania and Sudan. In both countries those phenomena have their origin in the early period of Islamic expansion. As Negro kings and princes embraced Islam, they cooperated with the Arabians in the exportation of human cargo. Interestingly for a faith supposedly free from racial prejudice, Islamic judges declared that “[t]he master does not have the right to force the female slave to wed to an ugly black slave if she is beautiful and agile, unless in case of utmost necessity” (Ibn Hazm, Vol. 6, Part 9, p. 469).
Black people had been enslaved on such a scale that in Arabic the term black became synonymous with slave. The mixed-race, predominantly Negroid but self-avowedly “Arabic” denizens of the transitional sub-Saharan zone were indoctrinated into treating their completely black southern neighbors with racist disdain. (To this day it can be dangerous to one’s life to ask a dark-looking but Arabic-speaking Sudanese or Mauritanian Muslim if he was “black.”) The collaborators eventually surpassed their Arabic mentors in raiding tropical regions to capture slaves, mutilating the males by radical castration, raping females, and depopulating entire regions in the process.
For the black populations in Sudan and Mauritania independence marked the end of a slavery-free respite under colonial rule. In both countries the forceful imposition of the wearing of the traditional Muslim dress, the jalabia, was followed by the compulsory circumcision and the giving of Arabic names to children as a precondition for entry into state schools. Slavery was “abolished” several times in Mauritania since independence, last on July 5, 1980. Yet the Anti-Slavery Society’s findings (1982) and those of Africa Watch (1990) point to the existence of at least 100,000 “full-time” slaves and additional 300,000 half-slaves, all of them black, still being held by Arab-Mauritanians. Even the head of state from 1960 to 1978, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, kept slaves behind the presidential palace (John Mercer, Anti-Slavery Society Report of 1982). The Mauritanian government has not tried to eradicate slavery and failed; it has not tried at all Even the old Arab practice of forming slave armies was revived in Mauritania, where thousands of Haratines were forcibly recruited, armed, and sent to take over black African villages in the south and massacre the inhabitants:
”The Haratines who have been settled on the lands of expelled blacks have been armed by the authorities and asked to organise their own defence. AI has been informed that some authorities are profiting from the subordination ties between masters and Haratines to enroll the latter in this militia. In general this militia does not simply defend itself when attacked, but undertakes punitive expeditions against unarmed civilians living in the villages. In some cases, Haratines who object to this gratuitous violence are threatened with reprisals by the security forces who escort them on these expeditions [Amnesty International Report on Mauritania, October 1990].”In 1983, the Arab-controlled government of Sudan instituted strict Islamic law in the entire country and subjected black Christians and other non-Muslims of the south in its decree. Then in 1992 a religious decree (fatwa) was ordered that gave justification to the military onslaught against non-Muslims. Since that time the United Nations and human rights groups have documented countless cases of slavery. People are taken as war booty to perform unpaid household labor and other tasks, or to be used for sexual gratification. The State Department had sent an assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Dr. Susan Rice, to investigate the problem. Her report was a horrific account of rampant slavery, with interviews with former slaves. It was quietly shelved by the Clinton Administration, however, and denied media attention that it richly deserved by the standards of prevalent victimology.
Sudan shows that genocide need not be perpetrated by huge massacres. There are more insidious but equally effective ways of killing large numbers of people. The government in Khartoum is doing so by attrition: it is slowly and methodically grinding down the society and economy of the Nuba and starving the entire population. Meanwhile, in the garrison towns and Orwellian-sounding ‘peace camps’ the government is remolding the political and social identity of the Nuba by force: the aim is to transform them into a deracinated underclass, the loyal servants of an extremist Islamic state. In each army attack, soldiers first arbitrarily gun down anyone they find. The government does not pay them salaries: their pay is the booty from the raids on Southern villages. The elderly and sick are usually killed on the spot and their food granaries set ablaze. The main objective of ‘combing’ is to capture live, fit civilians:
Thousands of men, women and children are captured when their villages are surrounded, or are snatched while tending their crops, herding their animals, or collecting water. Many people run to hide in caves to escape government attacks, but they are driven even from these refuges by hunger and thirst, or by attacks using tear gas. Captives are taken to garrisons, forced to carry their own looted possessions, or drive their own stolen animals in front of them. These captives—or ‘returnees,’ as the government calls them—usually never see their families or villages again. Many are tortured. Women are raped and forced to work, often in special labour camps. All but the youngest children are separated for ‘schooling’—i.e. conversion to Islam [ Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan, published by African Rights on 21 July 1995].The government also uses food as a means for luring Southern Sudanese Christians into its "peace camps" located in the desert. Food distribution in them is carried out exclusively by Islamic organizations, which use the promise of food as a means of converting Christians and animists to Islam. The technique is very simple: if one does not bear an Islamic name one is denied food. Without any means of alternative support the choice is, as ever, Islam or death (Sabit A. Alley’s paper delivered at the 19th Annual Holocaust and Genocide Program, Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, March 17, 2001).
That it cannot be otherwise is explained by contemporary Islamic scholars who are frank in admitting that Islam does not prohibit slavery but makes it lawful in two instances: for prisoners of war, and for “the sexual propagation of slaves which would generate more slaves for their owner” (Dr. ‘Abdul-Latif Mushtahari You Ask and Islam Answers, pp. 51, 52. The author is general supervisor at the Azhar University in Cairo). In Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, girls as young as five are auctioned off to highest bidders (“Sale of Children Thrives in Pakistan” by Andrew Bushel, the Washington Times, January 21, 2002).
Afghan girls between the ages of 5 and 17 sell for $80 to $100. The price depends on the colors of their eyes and skin; if they are virgins, the price is higher. Mr. Arbab, an older man with a white shovel beard and a green turban, absently fingers his prayer beads as he calls out prices for the children. The girls are generally sold into prostitution or, if they are lucky, they may join harems in the Middle East [ibid].It is richly ironic that the founders of the Nation of Islam have urged African Americans to renounce Christianity as a tool of the oppressors and that Elijah Muhammad’s son upon dissolving the American Muslim Mission, urged its members to become orthodox Muslims and thus “come home,” spiritually at least, to their African roots. The shackles of ignorance are more enduring than those of iron. The violent and inherently discriminatory message of the Koran is a huge problem for all Muslims. We cannot solve it for them, and we should not be asked to deem the problem solved by pretending that the Koran is a pacifist tract. Humans can reinterpret scriptures when necessary, but until Muslims themselves renounce the ideals of jihad, terror, slavery and subjugation we must have the guts to call a religion of war by its right name.
”As a man thinketh, so is he.” The real problem of the Muslim world is not that of natural resourses or political systems. Ernest Renan, who started his study of Islam by praising its ability to manifest “what was divine in human nature,” ended it—a quarter o a century and three long tours of the Muslim world later—by concluding that “Muslims are the first victims of Islam” and that, therefore, “to liberate the Muslim from his religion is the best service that one can render him.” The West is yet to learn, fully, the lesson that my Balkan ancestors were forced to learn six centuries ago: that Islam is a collective psychosis seeking to become global, and any attempt to compromise with madness is to become part of the madness oneself. The quarrel is not of our choosing, and those who submit to that faith must solve the problem they set themselves.
See also Answering Islam