Slavery in Muslim Countries

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Slaves in Zadib, Yemen in the 13th century

Muhammad condemned slavery and called the freeing of a slave a virtuous act. Even so he had slaves and slavery persisted in the Muslim world until fairly recently and still exists in places like the Sudan and Mauritania. However, it generally was not the cruel institution that slavery was in the New World. Slaves did not have the same rights as non-slaves but they did have rights. According to laws laid out in the Qur’an and the hadiths, slaves were expected to be treated fairly and with kindness and in many cases received some kind of payment for their work.

According to Islamic law, Muslims could not be slaves. Slaves were usually captured soldiers, ex-convicts or children. Most slaves were household slaves, though the use of slave labor in industry and agriculture was not uncommon. Many became soldiers or concubines. From the 16th century on no Ottoman sultan was married to a free woman. Children of slaves were slaves. Children of slaves and non-slaves were born free. Many slaves rose to high government positions. One of the more remarkable Muslim institutions was the Mamluk slave army. Some slaves, name the Mamluks, became leaders and forged their own dynasty.

Some slaves were Slavs from Central Asia and Europe and Africans captured by rival tribes, bandits and raiders and sold to slave traders. Many slave traders in eastern Africa were Arabs. They arrived in East Africa about A.D. 800 in search of gold and ivory and were involved in schemes in which salt—greatly prized in Africa—was traded for gold and slaves

The “Deadly Road” was the name given to a caravan route used to transport slaves across present-day Libya, Niger and Nigeria from Lake Chad to Arab towns on the Mediterranean. The route is so named because most of the slaves died along the way. Those that survived were often barely alive and little more than skin and bones when they finished the trip. Since the late 19th century the route as been used mostly by camel traders.

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Slavery in Islam

The Qur’an, like other scriptures, mention slavery but only in a few passing references. The Caliph Umar established the principal that no Muslim could be enslaved and took measures to abolish the practice of selling children to pay off debts and enslaving captives from wars. The only person that could be kept as slaves were non-Muslims and their children. Masters had sole control over their slaves and could sell them, bequeath them and give them away as they pleased. A slave needed the permission of his master to get married.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: While the Qur’an and Islam did not do away with slavery, which was common in pre-Islamic Arabia and thus presumed to be part of society, Islamic law set out guidelines to limit its negative impact and assure the just treatment of slaves. It forbade the enslavement of free members of Islamic society and, in particular, orphans and foundlings. Slaves could not be abused, mutilated, or killed. The freeing of slaves was regarded as an especially meritorious action. Similarly, in war clear regulations were given to protect the rights of noncombatants and the clergy. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

story of Umar and the poor widow

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, ranging from Arabia in the centre to North Africa in the west and to what is now Pakistan and Indonesia in the east. Some Islamic states, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, and the Sokoto caliphate [Nigeria], must be termed slave societies because slaves there were very important numerically as well as a focus of the polities' energies. [Source:Encyclopaedia Britannica]

According to the BBC: “It's misleading to use phrases such as 'Islamic slavery' and 'Muslim slave trade', even though slavery existed in many Muslim cultures at various times, since the Atlantic slave trade is not called the Christian slave trade, even though most of those responsible for it were Christians...Many societies throughout history have practised slavery, and Muslim societies were no exception. It's thought that as many people were enslaved in the Eastern slave trade as in the Atlantic slave trade. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|] According to the BBC: “Under Islamic law people can only be legally enslaved in two circumstances: 1) as the result of being defeated in a war that was legal according to sharia; 2) if they are born as the child of two slave parents. “Other legal systems of the time allowed people to be enslaved in a far wider range of circumstances. The sharia limits were often either ignored or evaded, and many instances of slave trading by Muslims were in fact illegal, but tolerated. |::|

“Free Muslims cannot be made slaves but slaves who convert to Islam are not automatically freed. Children born to legally enslaved Muslims are also slaves. Dhimmis were non-Muslim living in an Islamic state who were not slaves, but did not have the same rights as Muslims living in the same state. The notion of the "dhimma", or "protected person", dates back to Muhammad’s time. Although dhimmis were required to pay an extra tax, they were generally otherwise unmolested. They were as rule treated better than non-Christians in Christian Europe.” |

Qur’an and Slavery

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “The Qur'an, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it. The Prophet Muhammad and those of his Companions who could afford it themselves owned slaves; some of them acquired more by conquest. But Qur'anic legislation, subsequently confirmed and elaborated in the Holy Law, brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects. One of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994. Bernard Lewis (born 1916), an eminent Princeton historian, coined the term “clash of civilizations’ and wrote over 20 books about Arabs and the Middle East, |]


“The Qur'an was promulgated in Mecca and Medina in the seventh century, and the background against which Qur'anic legislation must be seen is ancient Arabia. The Arabs practiced a form of slavery, similar to that which existed in other parts of the ancient world. The Qur'an accepts the institution, though it may be noted that the word 'abd (slave) is rarely used, being more commonly replaced by some periphrasis such as ma malakat aymanukum, "that which your right hands own." |

“The Qur'an recognizes the basic inequality between master and slave and the rights of the former over the latter (XVI:71; XXX:28). It also recognizes concubinage (IV:3; XXIII:6; XXXIII:50-52; LXX:30). It urges, without actually commanding, kindness to the slave (IV:36; IX:60; XXIV:58) and recommends, without requiring, his liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiation of sins (IV:92; V:92; LVIII:3) and as an act of simple benevolence (II:177; XXIV:33; XC:13). It exhorts masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their own freedom. An important change from pagan, though not from Jewish or Christian, practices is that in the strictly religious sense, the believing slave is now the brother of the freeman in Islam and before God, and the superior of the free pagan or idolator (II:221). This point is emphasized and elaborated in innumerable hadlths (traditions), in which the Prophet is quoted as urging considerate and sometimes even equal treatment for slaves, denouncing cruelty, harshness, or even discourtesy, recommending the liberation of slaves, and reminding the Muslims that his apostolate was to free and slave alike.” |

The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.

The Sunnah reads: “God has ordained that your brothers should be your slaves: therefore him whom God hath ordained to be the slave of his brother, his brother must give him of the food which he eateth himself, and of the clothes wherewith he clothes himself and not order him to do anything beyond his power, and if he does order such a work, he must himself assist him in doing it. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32]

“He who beats his slave without fault, or slaps him in the face, his atonement for this is freeing him. A man who behaves ill to his slave will not enter into paradise. “Forgive thy servant seventy times a day.

How Islam Moderated Slavery

According to the BBC: “Islam's approach to slavery added the idea that freedom was the natural state of affairs for human beings and in line with this it limited the opportunities to enslave people, commended the freeing of slaves and regulated the way slaves were treated: 1) Islam greatly limited those who could be enslaved and under what circumstances (although these restrictions were often evaded); 2) Islam treated slaves as human beings as well as property; 3) Islam banned the mistreatment of slaves - indeed the tradition repeatedly stresses the importance of treating slaves with kindness and compassion; 4) Islam allowed slaves to achieve their freedom and made freeing slaves a virtuous act; 5) Islam barred Muslims from enslaving other Muslims. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“But the essential nature of slavery remained the same under Islam, as elsewhere. It involved serious breaches of human rights and however well they were treated, the slaves still had restricted freedom; and, when the law was not obeyed, their lives could be very unpleasant. A poignant paradox of Islamic slavery is that the humanity of the various rules and customs that led to the freeing of slaves created a demand for new slaves that could only be supplied by war, forcing people into slavery or trading slaves. |::|

“While Islamic law does allow slavery under certain conditions, it's almost inconceivable that those conditions could ever occur in today's world, and so slavery is effectively illegal in modern Islam. Muslim countries also use secular law to prohibit slavery. News stories do continue to report occasional instances of slavery in a few Muslim countries, but these are usually denied by the authorities concerned. |::|

Slavery and Islamic Law

“Islamic sharia law accepted (and accepts) slavery, as did other legal systems of ancient times such as Roman law, Hebrew law, Byzantine Christian law, African customary law and Hindu law. Bernard Lewis wrote in “The Shaping of the Modern Middle East”: “Islamic law and custom provided no basis for the abolition of slavery or even for the curtailment of the slave trade.” ' Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im wrote in “Shari'a and Basic Human Rights Concerns, in Liberal Islam: “Although the vast majority of contemporary Muslims abhor slavery, it remains part of their religious law.”

Christian slaves in Algiers in 1815

The world was very different in historical times and practices that seem unjust and unethical today were common and accepted. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im wrote: “During the formative stages of shari'a (and for the next millennium at least) there was no conception of universal human rights anywhere in the world. Slavery was an established and lawful institution in many parts of the world throughout this period.: [Source: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Shari'a and Basic Human Rights Concerns, in Liberal Islam, ed Charles Kurzman, 1998 /=]

Slavery was too integrated in 7th century Arabian society to be abolished easily. Doing so would have alienated many of the tribes that Muhammad sought to bring together, and severely disrupted the working of society. Jacob Neusner and Tamara Sonn wrote in “Comparing Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam”: Prohibiting slavery in the context of seventh-century Arabia apparently would have been as useful as prohibiting poverty; it would have reflected a noble ideal but would have been unworkable on an immediate basis without establishing an entirely new socioeconomic system. [Source: Jacob Neusner, Tamara Sonn, “Comparing Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam,” 1999 ++]

“But this was a problem, since Islam placed a high value on human dignity and freedom. The fact that slavery is a major concern in Islamic law no doubt stems from the prevalence of slavery at the time when Islam was instituted combined with the fact that the Qur'an clearly presents universal freedom and human dignity as its ideal society. Its recommendation that slaves be freed is on the same plane as its recommendation that the poor be clothed and the hungry be fed.” ++

So the early Muslims restricted and regulated slavery to remove some of its cruelties, but accepted that it was legal. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im wrote “The most that shari'a could do, and did in fact do, in that historical context was to modify and lighten the harsh consequences of slavery and discrimination on grounds of religion or gender... Shari'a recognized slavery as an institution but sought to restrict the sources of acquisition of slaves, to improve their condition, and to encourage their emancipation through a variety of religious and civil methods...Nevertheless, slavery is lawful under shari'a to the present day.” /=\

Legality of Slavery in Islam

“Islamic law recognises slavery as an institution within society, and attempts to regulate and restrict it in various ways. According to the BBC: “Different Islamic legal schools differ in their interpretation of Islamic law on slavery. Local customs in Muslim lands also affected the way slaves were treated. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

slave market in Cairo

Gwyn Campbell and Frank Cass wrote in “The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia”: “ In the merchant cities of South-East Asia the sharia helped forge a legal distinction between slave and non-slave unknown in the rural hinterland. More frequently, however, the application of the sharia outside the Middle East was tempered by local customs. This allowed Muslims in regions as distant as Somalia, India and Indonesia to argue for the maintenance of pre-Islamic and other local structures of slavery even if these ran counter to the prescriptions of the sharia.” [Source: Gwyn Campbell; Frank Cass, “The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia,” 2004]

According to the BBC: “Islamic law clearly recognises that slaves are human beings, but it frequently treats slaves as if they are property, laying down regulations covering the buying and selling of slaves. It encourages the freeing of slaves, which has the good effect of diminishing the slave population of a culture and, paradoxically, the bad effect of encouraging those whose livelihood depends on slave labour to find new ways of acquiring slaves. |::|

“Is slavery still legal in Islam? The answer is that slavery is legal under Islamic law but only in theory. Slavery is illegal under the state law of all Muslim countries...In practice, it seems virtually impossible that there will ever again be a jihad that is lawfully declared according to the strict letter of the law, and there are no living descendants of lawful slaves, which means that legal enslavement is unthinkable. |::|

Tabandeh — the Muslim Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — reads: “Islamic law lays down that if a person was captured in a lawful jihad or was the descendent of an unbroken chain of people who had been lawfully enslaved, then it might be legal to enslave them. Nonetheless, should the legal condition for the enslavement of anyone be proven (because he had been taken prisoner fighting against Islam with a view to its extirpation and persisted in invincible ignorance in his sacrilegious and infidel convictions, or because there did exist legal proof that all his ancestors without exception had been slaves descended from a person taken prisoner conducting a warfare of such invincible ignorance) Islam would be bound to recognize such slavery as legal, even though recommending the freeing of the person and if possible his conversion, in this modern age.” [Source: Tabandeh, Muslim Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, quoted in 'Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Shari'a and Basic Human Rights Concerns, in Liberal Islam, ed Charles Kurzman, 1998]

Muslim Rules on Slavery

female Christian slave

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “Slaves were excluded from religious functions or from any office involving jurisdiction over others. Their testimony was not admitted at judicial proceedings. In penal law, the penalty for an offense against a person, a fine or bloodwit, was, for a slave, half of that for a freeman. While maltreatment was deplored, there was no fixed shari'a penalty. In what might be called civil matters, the slave was a chattel with no legal powers or rights whatsoever. He could not enter into a contract, hold property, or inherit. If he incurred a fine, his owner was responsible. He was, however, distinctly better off, in the matter of rights, than a Greek or Roman slave, since Islamic jurists, and not only philosophers and moralists, took account of humanitarian considerations. They laid down, for example, that a master must give his slave medical attention when required, must give him adequate upkeep, and must support him in his old age. If a master defaulted on these and other obligations to his slave, the qadi could compel him to fulfill them or else either to sell or to emancipate the slave. The master was forbidden to overwork his slave, and if he did so to the point of cruelty, he was liable to a penalty which was, however, discretionary and not prescribed by law. A slave could enter into a contract to earn his freedom, in which case his master had no obliation to pay for his upkeep. While in theory the slave could not own property, he could be granted certain rights of ownership for which he paid a fixed sum to his master. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994 |]

“A slave could marry, but only by consent of the master. Theoretically, a male slave could marry a free woman, but this was discouraged and in practice prohibited. A master could not marry his own slave woman unless he first freed her. Islamic law provides a number of ways in which a slave could be set free. One was manumission, accomplished by a formal declaration on the part of the master and recorded in a certificate which was given to the liberated slave. The manumission of a slave included the offspring of that slave, and the jurists specify that if there is any uncertainty about an act of manumission, the slave has the benefit of the doubt. Another method is a written agreement by which the master grants liberty in return for a fixed sum. Once such an agreement has been concluded, the master no longer has the right to dispose of his slave, whether by sale or gift. The slave is still subject to certain legal disabilities, but in most respects is virtually free. Such an agreement, once entered into, may be terminated by the slave but not by the master. Children born to the slave after the entry into force of the contract are born free. The master may bind himself to liberate a slave at some specified future time. He may also bind his heirs to liberate a slave after his death. The law schools differ somewhat on the rules regarding this kind of liberation. |

“In addition to all these, which depend on the will of the master, there are various legal causes which may lead to liberation, independently of the will of the master. The commonest is a legal judgment by a qadi ordering a master to emancipate a slave whom he has maltreated. A special case is that of the umm walad, a slave woman who bears a son to her master, and thereby acquires certain irrevocable legal rights. |

Slave Rights and Restrictions in the Muslim World

purchase of Christain captives in the Barbary States

According to the BBC: “Islamic law gives slaves certain rights: 1) Slaves must not be mistreated or overworked, but should be treated well; 2) Slaves must be properly maintained; 3) Slaves may take legal action for a breach of these rules, and may be freed as a result; 4) Slaves may own property; 5) Slaves may own slaves; 6) Slaves can get married if their owner consents; 7) Slaves may undertake business on the owner's behalf; 8) Slaves guilty of crimes can only be given half the punishment that would be given to a non-slave (although some schools of Islamic law do allow the execution of a slave who commits murder); 9) A female slave cannot be separated from her child while it is under 7 years old; 10) Female slaves cannot be forced into prostitution. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“Islamic law allows slaves to get their freedom under certain circumstances. It divides slaves with the right to freedom into various classes: 1) The mukatab: a slave who has the contractual right to buy their freedom over time; 2) The mudabbar: a slave who will be freed when their owner dies (this might not happen if the owner's estate was too small); 3) The umm walid, a female slave who had borne her owner a child Owners are allowed to have sex with their female slaves |::|

“Islamic law imposes many restrictions on slaves: 1) Slaves cannot carry out some religious roles; 2) Slaves can have only limited authority; 3) Slaves cannot be witnesses in court; 4) Killing a slave does not carry the death penalty in most schools of Islamic law; 5) Slaves are punishable under Islamic law if they commit a crime - although for some major crimes they only receive half the punishment of free people |::|

Dhimmis and Slaves

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “Non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state, that is, dhimmis, were in practice allowed to own slaves; and Christian and Jewish families who could afford it owned and employed slaves in the same way as their Muslim counterparts. They were not permitted to own Muslim slaves; and if a slave owned by a dhimmi embraced Islam, his owner was legally obliged to free or sell him. Jews and Christians were of course not permitted to have Muslim concubines, and were indeed usually debarred by their own religious authorities -- not always effectively -- from sexual access to their slaves. Jewish slaves, acquired through privateering in the Mediterranean and slave raiding in Eastern Europe, were often redeemed and set free by their local co-religionists. The vastly more numerous Christian slaves -- apart from West Europeans, whose ransoms could be arranged from home -- were for the most part doomed to remain. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994 |]

male Christain slave

“Sometimes, Christian and Jewish slaveowners tried to convert their domestic slaves to their own religions. Jews were indeed required by rabbinic law to try to persuade their slaves to accept conversion with circumcision and ritual immersion. A form of semi-conversion, whereby the slave accepted some basic commandments and observances, but not the full rigor of the Mosaic law, was widely practiced. According to Jewish law, a converted or even semi-converted slave could not be sold to a Gentile. If the owner in fact so sold him or her, the slave was to be set free. Conversely, a slave who refused even semi-conversion was, after a stipulated interval of time, to be sold to a Gentile. Muslim authorities, both jurists and rulers, took different views of this. Conversion from Islam was of course a capital offense, and some jurists held that only conversion to Islam was lawful. Others, however, saw no objection to conversion between non-Muslim religions, provided that the converted slaves had reached the age of reason and changed their religion of their own free will. |

“Though a free Muslim could not be enslaved, conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave did not require his liberation. His slave status was not affected by his Islam, nor was that of a Muslim child born to slave parents. |

Supply and Purchase of Slaves in the Muslim World

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “As we have seen, the slave population was recruited in four main ways: by capture, tribute, offspring, and purchase. Capture: In the early centuries of Islam, during the period of the conquest and expansion, this was the most important source. With the stabilization of the frontier, the numbers recruited in this way diminished, and eventually provided only a very small proportion of slave requirements. Frontier warfare and naval raiding yielded some captives, but these were relatively few and were usually exchanged. In later centuries, warfare in Africa or India supplied some slaves by capture. With the spread of Islam, and the acceptance of dhimml status by increasing numbers of non-Muslims, the possibilities for recruitment by capture were severely restricted. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994 |]

“Tribute: Slaves sometimes formed part of the tribute required from vassal states beyond the Islamic frontiers. The first such treaty ever made, that of the year 31 of the Hijra (= 652 A.D.), with the black king of Nubia, included an annual levy of slaves to be provided from Nubia. This may indeed have been the reason why Nuhia was for a long time not conquered. The stipulated delivery of some hundreds of male and female slaves, later supplemented by elephants, giraffes, and other wild beasts, continued at least until the twelfth century, when it was disrupted by a series of bitter wars between the Muslim rulers of Egypt and the Christian kings of Nubia. Similar agreements, providing for the delivery of a tribute of slaves, were imposed by the early Arab conquerors on neighboring princes in Iran and Central Asia, but were of briefer duration. |

“Offspring: The recruitment of the slave population by natural increase seems to have been small and, right through to modern times, insufficient to maintain numbers. This is in striking contrast with conditions in the New World, where the slave population increased very rapidly. Several factors contributed to this difference, perhaps the most important being that the slave population in the Islamic Middle East was constantly drained by the liberation of slaves — sometimes as an act of piety, most commonly through the recognition and liberation, by a freeman, of his own offspring by a slave mother. |

“There were also other reasons for the low natural increase of the slave population in the Islamic world. They include: 1) Castration. A fair proportion of male slaves were imported as eunuchs and thus precluded from having offspring. Among these were many who otherwise, by the wealth and power which they acquired, might have founded families. 2) Another group of slaves who rose to positions of great power, the military slaves, were normally liberated at some stage in their career, and their offspring were therefore free and not slaves. 3) In general, only the lower orders of slaves — menial, domestic, and manual workers — remained in the condition of servitude and transmitted that condition to their descendants. There were not many such descendants — casual mating was not permitted and marriage was not encouraged. 4) There was a high death toll among all classes of slaves, including great military commanders as well as humble menials. Slaves came mainly from remote places, and, lacking immunities, died in large numbers from endemic as well as epidemic diseases. As late as the nineteenth century, Wes ern travelers in North Africa and Egypt noted the high death rate among imported black slaves. |

slave market

“Purchase: This came to be by far the most important means for the legal acquisition of new slaves. Slaves were purchased on the frontiers of the Islamic world and then imported to the major centers, where there were slave markets from which they were widely distributed. In one of the sad paradoxes of human history, it was the humanitarian reforms brought by Islam that resulted in a vast development of the slave trade inside, and still more outside, the Islamic empire. In the Roman world, the slave population was occasionally recruited from outside, when a new territory was conquered or a barbarian invasion repelled, but mostly, slaves came from internal sources. This was not possible in the Islamic empire, where, although slavery was maintained, enslavement was banned. The result was an increasingly massive importation of slaves from the outside. Like enslavement, mutilation was forbidden by Islamic law. The great numbers of eunuchs needed to preserve the sanctity of palaces, homes, and some holy places had to be imported from outside or, as often happened, "manufactured" at the frontier. In medieval and Ottoman times the two main sources of eunuchs were Slavs and Ethiopians (Habash, a term which commonly included all the peoples of the Horn of Africa). Eunuchs were also recruited among Greeks (Rum), West Africans (Takrurl, pl. Takarina), Indians, and occasionally West Europeans. |

Sources of Slaves in the Muslim World

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “The slave population of the Islamic world was recruited from many lands. In the earliest days, slaves came principally from the newly conquered countries -- from the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, from Iran and North Africa, from Central Asia, India, and Spain. Most of these slaves had a cultural level at least as high as that of their Arab masters, and by conversion and manumission they were rapidly absorbed into the general population. As the supply of slaves by conquest and capture diminished, the needs of the slave market were met, more and more, by importation from beyond the frontier. Small numbers of slaves were brought from India, China, Southeast Asia, and the Byzantine Empire, most of them specialists and technicians of one kind or another. The vast majority of unskilled slaves, however, came from the lands immediately north and south of the Islamic world -- whites from Europe and the Eurasian steppes, blacks from Africa south of the Sahara. Among white Europeans and black Africans alike, there was no lack of enterprising merchants and middlemen, eager to share in this profitable trade, who were willing to capture or kidnap their neighbors and deliver them, as slaves, to a ready and expanding market. In Europe there was also an important trade in slaves, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, and even Orthodox Christian, recruited by capture and bought for mainly domestic use. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994 |]

“Central and East European slaves, generally known as Saqaliba (i.e., Slavs), were imported by three main routes: overland via France and Spain, from Eastern Europe via the Crimea, and by sea across the Mediterranean. They were mostly but not exclusively Slavs. Some were captured by Muslim naval raids on European coasts, particularly the Dalmatian. Most were supplied by European, especially Venetian, slave merchants, who delivered cargoes of them to the Muslim markets in Spain and North Africa. The Saqaliba were prominent in Muslim Spain and to a lesser extent in North Africa but played a minor role in the East. With the consolidation of powerful states in Christian Europe, the supply of West European slaves dried up and was maintained only by privateering and coastal raiding from North Africa. |

Arab slave trade

“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. Turkish slaves from the steppe-lands were marketed in Samarkand and other Muslim Central Asian cities and from there exported to Iran, the Fertile Crescent, and beyond. Caucasians, of increasing importance in the later centuries, were brought from the land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian and were marketed mainly in Aleppo and Mosul.” |

Ibn Batuta On Slavery

The great Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta wrote in “Travels in Asia and Africa” (1325-1354): “There was consequently less stigma attached to slavery, and in no other society has there been anything resembling the system by which, as has been shown in the preceding section, the white slaves came to furnish the privileged cadre whence the high officers of state, commanders, governors, and at length even Sultans, were exclusively drawn. [Source:Ibn Battuta: “Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354,” Page 30 - On Slavery, tTranslated and selected by H.A.R. Gibb. Edited by Sir E. Denison Ross and Eileen Power. (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company]

“The following story, told by a theologian of the third century, represents without serious distortion the relation, as numerous parallels in Arabic literature indicate, often existed between master, wife and slave. I saw a slave-boy being auctioned for thirty dinars, and as he was worth three hundred I bought him. I was building a house at the time, and I gave him twenty dinars to lay out on the workmen. He spent ten on them and bought a garment for himself with the other ten. I said to him "What's this?" to which he replied "Don't be too hasty; no gentleman scolds his slaves." I said to myself "Here have I bought the Caliph's tutor without knowing it." Later on I wanted to marry a woman unknown to my cousin (i.e. my first wife), so I swore him to secrecy and gave him a dinar to buy somethings, including some of the fish called haziba. But he bought something else, and when I was wroth with him he said "I find that Hippocrates disapproves of haziba."

“I said to him "You worthless fool, I was not aware that I had bought a Galen," and gave him ten blows with the whip. But he seized me and gave me seven back saying "Sir, three blows is enough as a punishment, and the seven I gave you are my rightful retaliation." So I made at him and gave him a cut on the head, whereupon he went off to my cousin, and said to her "Sincerity is a religious duty, and whoever deceives us is not one of us. My master has married and he swore me to silence, and when I said to him that my lady must be told of it he broke my head." So my cousin would neither let me into her house nor let me have anything out of it, until at last I had to divorce the other woman. After that she used to call the boy "The honest lad," and I could not say a word to him, so I said to myself "I shall set him free, and then I shall have peace."

Bills of Sale for Saracen Slave Girls, 1248

slave trade agreement

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “In the thirteenth century Saracen slaves were being sold in Marseilles. The character of the transactions and the price at which a slave girl might be sold are indicated in the documents. In the case of Aissa there was a profit of five solidi on the second sale.” [Source: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

1) Bill of Sale for Purchase of one "Aissa", 1248: “May the nineteenth, in year of the Lord 1248. We, William Alegnan and Bernard Mute, of Cannet, have sold jointly in good faith and without guile to you, John Aleman, son of Peter Aleman, a certain Saracen maid of ours, commonly called Aissa, for a price of nine pounds and fifteen solidi in the mixed money now current in Marseilles. — Witnesses, etc. [Source: L. Blancard, ed., Documents Inédits sur le Commerce de Marseille au Moyen Age, (Marseilles: Barlatier-Feissat, Pere et Fils, 1884), Vol. II, p. 172, reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), p. 302.]

2) Bill of Sale for Purchase of one "Aissa", 1248: “July the second. I, John Aleman, citizen of Marseilles, in good faith and without guile, sell and transfer to you, Peter Bertoumieu, son of the late Raymond Bertoumieu, a certain Saracen maid of ours, commonly called Aissa, for a price of ten pounds in the mixed money now current in Marseilles, which I confess to have had and to have received from you, renouncing the benefit of all laws, etc. And if the said Saracen maid is worth more at any time in the future I grant it all with the price, or I give all that extra worth to you and yours, etc.Witnesses, etc.” [Ibid]

Economic Slavery in Islam

Economics arguably was the primary force behind Western slavery. People were, for the most part, enslaved to provide cheap and disposable labor at plantations. Malise Ruthven wrote in “Islam in the World”: “Muslims historically did not use slaves as an engine of economic production on the same scale as the West, although some Muslims profited from the actual trading of slaves. Though Arab and Muslim traders became notorious in the supply of African slaves for the American and Caribbean plantations, there are few examples in the annals of Islam of the collective forced labour found in the Western hemisphere. [Source: Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, 2000

“The 9th century slave rebellion in Iraq may have deterred Muslims from the industrial use of slaves by showing the danger of having a very large slave community in any one place. Apart from 9th century Iraq, the largest scale slave use outside the military was on the clove plantations of Zanzibar. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|] Nonetheless, as William Gervase Clarence-Smith points out slaves did play a large part in Muslim economies: “productive slavery was more extensive in Islam than traditional accounts allow for. Even if large estates were rare, they were not absent. More striking were the numerous slaves on middling and small properties, a phenomenon about which surprisingly little has been written. Servile labour was also common in workshops, construction, mining, water control, transport by land and sea, and the extraction of marine resources. Whether a 'Slave Mode of Production' ever existed in Islam is moot, but the economic role of slavery was substantial, at least in certain places and at specific times. Slaves were also used for domestic work, military service, sexual slavery and civil administration.” [Source: William Gervase Clarence-Smith, “Islam and Slavery”]

Economics of the African-American Slave Trade

African slave trade regions

Anika Francis of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: “In ‘Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust,’ John Henrik Clarke asserts that the voyages of Christopher Columbus marked the starting point of world capitalism and the beginning of Europe's colonial domination of the world. Columbus set in motion an act of criminality that influences our very life today. Clarke described the period between 1400-1600 as the point in history when Europe freed itself from the lethargy of the Middle Ages. During this period, Europe witnessed the renewal of nationalism as well as the political transformation from feudalism to nation states through the centralization of power by the monarchs. The African slave trade played an important role in the stabilization of Europe's economy, its transition to capitalism, the development of the nation state, and the establishment of their imperial empires. The opening of the Atlantic led to the development of Europe's commercial empire and industrial revolution. [Source: Anika Francis, University of Pennsylvania]

“While Ghana was the headquarters of the African slave trade, Tropical America was the real center of the trade. Thirty-six of the forty-two slave fortress were located in Ghana. Aside from Ghana, slaves were shipped from eight coastal regions in Africa including Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia region, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, Central Africa, and Southeast Africa (from the Cape of Good Hope to the Cape of Delgado, including Madagascar). The slave trade had the greatest impact upon central and western African. According to James Rawley, West Africa supplied 3Ú5ths of the slaves for exportation between 1701-1810. Half of the slaves were exported to South America, 42% to the Caribbean Islands, 7% to British North America, and 2% to Central America.

“The continuing demand for African slaves' labor arose from the development of plantation agriculture, the long-term rise in prices and consumption of sugar, and the demand for miners. Not only did Africans represent skilled laborers, but they were also experts in tropical agriculture. Consequently, they were well-suited for plantation agriculture. The high immunity of Africans to malaria and yellow fever compared with Europeans and the indigenous peoples made them more suitable for tropical labor. While white and red labor were used initially, Africans were the final solution to the acute labor problem in the New World.

“The economic systems which dominated the African slave trade reflected the transitions in Europe's economic systems. Initially, mercantilist views characterized the conduct of the slave trade. The primary purpose of mercantilism, an economic system which developed during the transition of Europe from feudalism to nation-states, was to unify and increase the power and monetary wealth of a nation through strict government regulation of the national economy. Therefore, 16th century organization of the trade was entrusted to a company which was given the sole right by a particular nation to trade slaves and to erect and maintain forts. However, these monopolistic companies had two major opponents: the planter in the colonies, who complained of insufficient quantity and poor quality of high priced slaves, and the merchants at home. The failure of monopolies to deliver enough slaves led to free trade in the 18th century. While it is easy to analyze the various economic systems utilized in the African slave trade, it is far more difficult to determine a precise estimate of how profitable the trade was.

“The slave trade was one of the most important business enterprises of the 17th century. The nation states of Europe stabilized themselves and developed their economy mainly at the expense of African people. During the latter half of the century; Colbert, a Frenchman, stated that, "no commerce in the world produces as many advantages as that of the slave trade"(Williams, From Columbus to Castro, 144). The wealth of the New World in the form of sugar, tobacco, metals, gold, cotton, etc. was extracted by African labor and then exported from the colonies through the capitalistic enterprise of western Europe. Western Europe drew profits from the trade in slaves, commodities produced, service of shipping, the develop of new industries based on processing raw materials, financing, and insurance. According to Eric Williams, no other commerce required so large a capital as the slave trade which kept the wheels of metropolitan industry turning. Cities such as Liverpool, Amsterdam, and Bristol were built upon slave labor. The capital and raw materials derived from the African slave trade contributed significantly to the Commercial and Industrial revolution. According to James Rawley, the "black slavery was essential to the carrying on of commerce, which in turn was fundamental to the making of the modern world"(TransAtlantic Slave Trade, 4). In other words, the modern world was built upon the blood, sweat, and tears of our African ancestors.

Slavery in Muslim Cultures Versus the Atlantic Slave Trade

Triangle trade

According to the BBC: “Slavery in Muslim history lasted much longer than the Atlantic slave trade - although slavery had existed in many cultures long before Islam. The Muslim slave trade from Africa seems to have enslaved roughly similar numbers (estimates vary between 11 and 14 million Africans) to the Atlantic slave trade, and the transportation conditions endured by victims of the Eastern trade were probably just as horrible in their own way as those of the Atlantic slave trade. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“One poignant fact is that when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished the Eastern trade expanded, suggesting that for some Africans the abolition of the Atlantic trade didn't lead to freedom, but merely changed their slave destination. |::|

“Slavery played a significant part in the history of Muslim civilisation, but it was a form of slavery that was inherently different from the 'slave trade' in that the Muslim concept of slavery regarded those enslaved as people who had some, albeit fewer, human rights that must be respected. Gwyn Campbell and Frank Cass wrote in “The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia:” “What was notably different from the slavery of the western world, however, was the degree to which they [slaves] were protected by Muslim law. When the law was observed, their treatment was good. They might expect to marry and have families of their own, and they had a good chance of being freed. There were also built in avenues of escape.” [Source: Gwyn Campbell; Frank Cass, “The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia,” 2004]

“But even though slavery under Islam could be significantly less harsh that that of the Atlantic slave trade, both involved serious breaches of human rights and restricted liberty. However well they were treated the slaves still had restricted freedom, and when the law was not obeyed their lives could be very unpleasant. Ronald Segal (died 2008), an expert on slavery from South Africa, told Salon magazine: “The relationship between slave and master in Islam is a very different relationship from that between the American plantation labourer and owner. It was a much more personalized relationship and relatively benevolent. Everything here is relative — being a slave is being a slave and it shouldn't be romanticized. [Source: Ronald Segal, interview with Suzy Hansen, Salon magazine, 2001]

Differences Between Slavery in Muslim Cultures and the Atlantic Slave Trade

Here are some of the main differences between slavery in Muslim cultures and the Atlantic slave trade: 1) The Atlantic trade lasted from the 15th to 19th centuries, the Eastern trade from the 7th or 9th century to the 20th; 2) Under Islam slaves were considered people first, and then property. In the Atlantic trade slaves were considered property not people, and often just regarded as units of productive labour; 3) Islamic law laid down considerable protection for slaves; those taken for the Atlantic trade had very little protection; 4) Islamic law only permitted those conquered in legitimate warfare to be enslaved, all other methods being illegal - although this was often ignored - whereas the Atlantic trade enslaved anyone who had commercial value; 5) In Islam, slave-owners were forbidden to take young children from their mothers, something common in the Atlantic trade; 6) The owner-slave relationship could be kinder in Islam than in the Atlantic trade, and often more personal;

7) Islam recommends the freeing of slaves in itself as a 'good' religious act and says that slaves who convert to Islam should be freed. Zakat (the requirement for charity) was used by Muslim states to free slaves. There were many other avenues whereby a slave could be freed, for example as expiation for irregularities in other religious rituals; as a result many more slaves were freed than in the Atlantic trade; 8) Under Islamic law a slave could take his/her master to the Islamic courts to address a grievance, and the judge had the right to grant freedom against the master's wishes and/or other compensations; there was no such protection for slaves taken by the Atlantic trade; 9) Islam permitted slaves to attain high office; those taken for the Atlantic trade stayed at the bottom of society; 10) In the Atlantic trade there were two males to every female; in the Islamic trade, there were two females to every male;

11) Islam permitted women to be enslaved for sexual purposes, although not for prostitution; 12) Africans were enslaved in the Atlantic trade to work on an industrial scale in agricultural labour; in the Islamic trade they had a far wider variety of roles; 13) The Atlantic trade only involved black Africans; Muslim slavery involved many racial groups; 14) Slavery in the Atlantic trade was highly racist, something prohibited in Islam where there was much less institutionalised racism. Both masters and slaves had a wide range of colours and backgrounds; the result is that former slaves became absorbed into the Islamic world, while former slaves remained a discriminated-against underclass in the USA until comparatively recently,

Ronald Segal told the Chicago Sun-Times: “The nature of the Atlantic trade and therefore the survival of racism in the West has been one of segregation. There wasn't this separation in Islam. Whites didn't push blacks off the pavement. They didn't forbid restaurants to serve them. I don't think that there's any disputing that slavery was a more benevolent institution in Islam than it was in the West. [Source: Ronald Segal, interviewed in Chicago Sun-Times, different 17, 2002]

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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