Arabs and Slave Trade

By Shirley Madany

A flair for history is a prerequisite to understanding the Muslim world and its people. Their yesterdays are closely bound up with the here and now. A good grasp of geography will be helpful as well.

Slavery in Early Islamic History

It was intriguing to note in Bernard Lewis' book, The Arabs in History, that paper was made first in China in the year 105 B.C. In A.D. 751, the Arabs defeated a Chinese contingent east of the 'Jaxartes'. (Jaxartes is a river that lies on the border between China and present-day Afghanistan. Persian King Cyrus was killed fighting near this river, about 500 B.C.) The Arabs found some Chinese paper makers among their prisoners. Many such skills were brought into the Islamic world in this way. The use of paper spread rapidly across the Islamic world, reaching Egypt by A.D. 800 and Spain by the year 900. From the tenth century onwards, evidence is clear of paper-making occurring in countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in the European country of Spain.

The Arabs profited from the craft of the paper makers they had captured as slaves. From archaeologists and records kept in ancient times, we learn that slave trade existed for a long time in the Arab world. Back in the days of the caliphs [early Muslim leaders], having a slave for a mother was not a stigma for a Muslim man. Due to polygamy, this was quite common.

At first the caliphs maintained a kind of aristocracy among themselves, making it imperative that the mother of a caliph was from one of the Arab tribes. However, as more and more slaves adopted the religion of Islam, noble birth and tribal prestige lost their value. By the year 817, the Abbasid Caliphs and succeeding Muslim rulers often were the sons of slave women, many of whom were foreign. Such parentage ceased to be either an obstacle or a stigma.

Growth of the Slave Trade

Quite possibly, the maintenance of slavery and the social acceptance of slaves were important drawing cards for Islam as it penetrated Africa. Without a knowledge of history, many Africans may be unaware of the fact that Islamic traders carried on a steady slave trade from East African ports for many centuries. Records are available which contain the lists of goods involved in trade with the rest of the world.

Muslim merchants traveled to India, Ceylon, the East Indies, and China, over sea and land, bringing back silks, spices, aromatics, woods, tin, and many other items. Records mention 'slave girls' from the Byzantine Empire along with gold and silver, marble workers, and eunuchs. Surprisingly, Muslim traders went as far away as Scandinavia, and especially Sweden, where scores of Muslim coins have been found with inscriptions from the seventh and eleventh centuries. On the long lists of goods which Muslim traders imported from Scandinavia, are found 'Slavonic slaves, sheep, and cattle' (cited by Lewis in The Arabs in History). An early ninth century geographer, Ibn Kurradadhbeh, describes Jewish merchants from the south of France 'who speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish, and Slavonic. They travel from west to east and east to west, by land and sea. From the west they bring eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, sable and other furs, and swords'.

Though some slaves attained an honored class, doing either domestic work or military service, they were exceptions. 'Generally, slaves were employed for manual labor on a number of large scale enterprises, in mines, in the fleets, in the drainage of marshes, etc.. They were herded together in settlements, often thousands belonging to a single landowner. Slaves of this kind were mainly black, obtained more especially from East Africa by capture, purchase, or in the form of tribute from vassal states. Such were the slaves in the salt flats east of Basra, where unprecedented numbers were employed by the wealthy men of that city in draining the salt marshes in order to prepare the ground for agriculture and to extract the salt for sale. They worked in gangs from five hundred to five thousand. Their conditions were extremely bad. Their labor was hard and exacting, and they received only a bare and inadequate keep consisting, according to the Arabic sources, of flour, semolina and dates. Many knew little or no Arabic. Eventually a leader arose among them and led a great uprising which aimed, not at ending slavery, but at securing better living conditions.

A Recent Study

Another book by Bernard Lewis entitled Race and Slavery in the Middle East An Historical Enquiry, published in 1990 by Oxford University Press, features color plate illustrations dating back to 1237 and the 1500's with 80 pages of notes to back up its contents. These intriguing paintings were discovered in famous libraries in London, Paris, and Istanbul. They depict the variety of slaves and their livelihoods.

In his book, Lewis describes how the Muslim world reacted when cries for abolition of slavery resounded around the world in the 19th century

'The revulsion against slavery, which gave rise to a strong abolitionist movement in England, and later in other Western countries, began to affect the Islamic lands. What was involved was not, initially, the abolition of the institution of slavery but its alleviation, and in particular, the restriction and ultimately the elimination of the slave trade. Islamic law, in contrast to the ancient and colonial systems, accords the slave a certain legal status and assigns obligations as well as rights to the slave owner. The manumission of slaves, though recommended as a meritorious act, is not required, and the institution of slavery not only is recognized but is elaborately regulated by Sharia law. Perhaps for this very reason the position of the domestic slave in Muslim society was in most respects better than in either classical antiquity or the nineteenth-century Americas. While, however, the life of the slave in Muslim society was no worse, and in some ways was better, than that of the free poor, the processes of acquisition and transportation often imposed appalling hardships. It was these which drew the main attention of European opponents of slavery, and it was to the elimination of this traffic, particularly in Africa, that their main efforts were directed. The abolition of slavery itself would hardly have been possible. From a Muslim point of view, to forbid what God permits is almost as great an offense as to permit what God forbids - and slavery was authorized and regulated by the holy law. More specifically, it formed part of the law of personal status, the central core of social usage, which remained intact and effective even when other sections of the holy law, dealing with civil, criminal, and similar matters, were tactically or even openly modified and replaced by modern codes. It was from conservative religious quarters and notably from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina that the strongest resistance to the proposed reform came. The emergence of the holy men and the holy places as the last ditch defenders of slavery against reform is only an apparent paradox. They were upholding an institution sanctified by scripture, law, and tradition and one which in their eyes was necessary to the maintenance of the social structure of Muslim life'.

Further on, Lewis mentions how the overwhelming majority of white slaves came from the Caucasian lands. This was in the days of the Ottoman empire and it was not until 1854 that orders against the traffic in white slaves from Georgia and Circassia were issued and put into effect.

Arabia was another major center for the slave trade. The flow of slaves from Africa into Arabia and through the Gulf into Iran continued for a long time. The extension of British, French, and Italian control around the Horn of Africa (the area of Somalia and Kenya today) deprived the slave traders of their main ports of embarkation.

As far as Islam was concerned, the horrors of the abduction and transportation of slaves were the worst part. But once the slaves were settled in Islamic culture they had genuine opportunities to realize their potential. Many of them became merchants in Mecca, Jedda, and elsewhere.

A Puzzling Question

A puzzling question comes to mind, however. If this is so, why does the Arab world have no corresponding Black population as is found in the New World? Lewis provides an answer, 'One reason is obviously the high population of eunuchs among Black males entering the Islamic lands. Another is the high death rate and low birth rate among Black slaves in North Africa and the Middle East. In about 1810, Louis Frank observed in Tunisia that most Black children died in infancy and that infinitesimally few reached the age of manhood. A British observer in Egypt, some thirty years later, found conditions even worse. He said, 'I have heard it estimated that five or six years are sufficient to carry off a generation of slaves, at the end of which time the whole has to be replenished'.

The Abolition of Slavery

The institution of slavery regretably existed both in the old, classical Christian and Islamic civilizations. Yet it is to the credit of Christianity that the abolition movement took root in Great Britain, Western Europe, and the United States and brought an end to this buying and selling of human beings.

The way in which slavery was practiced in Islamic countries had both bright and dark sides. What is regretable now is that this practice among Muslims is seldom openly discussed - as if slavery was exclusively a Western phenomenon. This deliberate silence enables Islamic propagandists in America to represent Muslims as liberators of the people of African origin, contrary to historical fact.


Shirley Madany has assisted her husband for many years with the Arabic Broadcast of The Back to the Bible Hour.

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