History of Slavery and Abolition in the Middle East

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figurine of a Semitic slave from ancient Egypt

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: The institution of slavery had indeed been practiced from time immemorial. It existed in all the ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe, and pre-Columbian America. It had been accepted and even endorsed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as other religions of the world. In the ancient Middle East, as elsewhere, slavery is attested from the very earliest written records, among the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and other ancient peoples. The earliest slaves, it would seem, were captives taken in warfare. Their numbers were augmented from other sources of supply. In pre-classical antiquity, most slaves appear to have been the property of kings, priests, and temples, and only a relatively small proportion were in private possession. They were employed to till the fields and tend the flocks of their royal and priestly masters but otherwise seem to have played little role in economic production, which was mostly left to small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers and to artisans and journeymen. The slave population was also recruited by the sale, abandonment, or kidnapping of small children. Free persons could sell themselves or, more frequently, their offspring into slavery. They could be enslaved for insolvency, as could be the persons offered by them as pledges. In some systems, notably that of Rome, free persons could also be enslaved for a variety of offenses against the law. [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, |]

“Both the Old and New Testaments recognize and accept the institution of slavery. Both from time to time insist on the basic humanity of the slave, and the consequent need to treat him humanely. The Jews are frequently reminded, in both Bible and Talmud, that they too were slaves in Egypt and should therefore treat their slaves decently. Psalm 123, which compares the worshipper's appeal to God for mercy with the slave's appeal to his master, is cited to enjoin slaveowners to treat their slaves with compassion. A verse in the book of Job has even been interpreted as an argument against slavery as such: "Did not He that made me in the womb make him [the slave]? And did not One fashion us both?" (Job 31:15). This probably means no more, however, than that the slave is a fellow human being and not a mere chattel. The same is true of the much-quoted passage in the New Testament, that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." These and similar verses were not understood to mean that ethnic, social, and gender differences were unimportant or should be abolished, only that they conferred no religious privilege. From many allusions, it is clear that slavery is accepted in the New Testament as a fact of life. Some passages in the Pauline Epistles even endorse it. Thus in the Epistle to Philemon, a runaway slave is returned to his master; in Ephesians 6, the duty owed by a slave to his master is compared with the duty owed by a child to his parent, and the slave is enjoined "to be obedient to them that are your masters, according to the flesh, in fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ." Parents and masters are likewise enjoined to show consideration for their children and slaves. All humans, of the true faith, were equal in the eyes of God and in the afterlife but not necessarily in the laws of man and in this world. Those not of the true faith -- whichever it was -- were in another, and in most respects an inferior, category. In this respect, the Greek perception of the barbarian and the Judeo-Christian-lslamic perception of the unbeliever coincide. |

“There appear indeed to have been some who opposed slavery, usually as it was practiced but sometimes even as such. In the Greco-Roman world, both the Cynics and the Stoics are said to have rejected slavery as contrary to justice, some basing their opposition on the unity of the human race, and the Roman jurists even held that slavery was contrary to nature and maintained only by "human" law. There is no evidence that either jurists or philosophers sought its abolition, and even their theoretical opposition has been questioned. Much of it was concerned with moral and spiritual themes -- the true freedom of the good man, even when enslaved, and the enslavement of the evil freeman to his passions. These ideas, which recur in Jewish and Christian writings, were of little help to those who suffered the reality of slavery. Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, claims that a Jewish sect actually renounced slavery in practice. In a somewhat idealized account of the Essenes, he observes that they practiced a form of primitive communism, sharing homes and property and pooling their earnings. Furthermore, "not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other, and they denounce the owners of slaves, not merely for their injustice in outraging the law of equality, but also for their impiety in annulling the statute of Nature, who mother-like bore and reared all men alike, and created them genuine brothers, not in mere name, but in very reality, though this kinship has been put to confusion by the triumph of malignant covetousness, which has wrought estrangement instead of affinity and enmity instead of friendship. “|

Roman slave shackles found in Britain

“This view, if it was indeed held and put into practice, was unique in the ancient Middle East. Jews, Christians, and pagans alike owned slaves and exercised the rights and powers accorded to them by their various religious laws. In all communities, there were men of compassion who urged slaveowners to treat their slaves humanely, and there was even some attempt to secure this by law. But the institution of slavery as such was not seriously questioned, and was indeed often defended in terms of either Natural Law or Divine Dispensation. Thus Aristotle defends the condition of slavery and even the forcible enslavement of those who are "by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is beneficial"; other Greek philosophers express similar ideas, particularly about enslaved captives from conquered peoples. For such, slavery is not only right; it is also to their advantage. |

“The ancient Israelites did not claim that slavery was beneficial to the slaves, but, like the ancient Greeks, they felt the need to explain and justify the enslavement of their neighbors. In this, as in other matters, they sought a religious rather than a philosophical sanction and found it in the biblical story of the curse of Ham. Significantly, this curse was restricted to one line only of the descendants of Ham, namely, the children of Canaan, whom the Israelites had subjugated when they conquered the Promised Land, and did not affect the others. |

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ;Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ;

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com ; Brief history of Islam barkati.net ; Chronological history of Islam barkati.net

Muhammad and Slavery

“The Prophet Muhammad did not try to abolish slavery, and bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves himself. But he insisted that slave owners treat their slaves well and stressed the virtue of freeing slaves. According to the BBC: “There are two different ways of interpreting this: 1) some modern writers believe that Muhammad intended his teachings to lead to the gradual end of slavery by limiting opportunities to acquire new slaves and allowing existing slaves to become free. This idea doesn't appear in early writings. 2) Others argue that by regulating slavery the Prophet gave his authority to its continued existence, and that by having slaves himself he showed his approval.” [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“Muhammad treated slaves as human beings and clearly held some in the highest esteem. For example, he personally ensured the freedom of Bilal, an African slave who had converted to Islam. Bilal was chosen as the first muezzin of Islam because of his beautiful voice. A muezzin is the person who calls the community to the daily prayers, and is a position of great prominence and responsibility. |::|

Muhammad and his wife free a captive daughter of a tribal chief

“The Prophet married a Coptic Christian slave girl. was a young boy who had grown up in the household of the Prophet as a slave, and remained with the household, almost as an adopted son, even after he was freed. He was amongst the first four people to adopt Islam. Indeed when Zayd's father (a wealthy nobleman) tracked his son down and offered to buy his freedom from Muhammad, Muhammad told Zayd that he was free to go with his father with no money changing hands, and to his father's astonishment Zayd chose to stay with Muhammad. |::|

“In his lifetime the Prophet introduced the following rules about slavery: 1) Stated that freeing slaves was the act that God found most acceptable; 2) Zakat (charity - the third Pillar of Islam) was often used by the state to free slaves; 3) Stated that freeing a slave was the appropriate way to gain forgiveness for certain wrongs; 4) Ordered that those who committed certain wrongs should be penalised by having to free their slaves; 5) Stated that slaves should be allowed to buy their freedom, and if necessary should be given the opportunity to earn money, or be lent money by the state, in order to do so; 6) Allowed slaves to be freed in certain circumstances; 7) Stated that slaves' contracts should be interpreted in favour of the slaves; 8) Stated that the duty of kindness towards slaves was the same of that towards family, neighbours and others; 9) Stated that when a slave owner had a child with a female slave, the child should be freed and could inherit from their father like any other child (as in the case of Ibrahim) |::|

“There are a number of hadith that show that the Prophet treated slaves well and expected others to do the same: 1) He will not enter Paradise who behaveth ill to his slaves. The Companions said, 'O Apostle of God! have you not told us, that there will be a great many slaves and orphans amongst your disciples?' He said, 'Yes; then be kind to them as to your own children, and give them to eat what you eat yourselves. The slaves that say their prayers are your brothers. 2) Be kind to slaves as to your own children...and those that say their prayers are your brethren. 3) They (slaves or servants) are your brothers, and Allah has put them under your command. So the one under whose hand Allah has put his brother, should feed him of what he eats, and give him dresses of what he wears, and should not ask him to do a thing beyond his capacity. And if at all he asks him to do a hard task, he should help him therein.' ; 4) 'There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgement. Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats this money'. — al-Bukhari and Ibn Majjahl 5) “The Prophet said, 'Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sick and release (set free) the one in captivity (by paying his ransom).'" — Bukhari [Source: Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari]

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, |]

Bilal ibn Ribah, pictured here atop the Kaaba, was an Ethiopian former slave appointed by Muhammad as the first official muezzin (He was freed by Abu Bakr who paid his ransom on Muhammad's instructions)

“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.

History of Slavery in the Muslim World

Old Slave Market in Algiers

Slavery was common in pre-Islamic times and accepted by many ancient legal systems and it continued under Islam.Forough Jahanbaksh wrote in “Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953-2000": “Although Islam is much credited for moderating the age-old institution of slavery, which was also accepted and endorsed by the other monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism, and was a well-established custom of the pre-Islamic world, it has never preached the abolition of slavery as a doctrine.” [Source: Forough Jahanbaksh, “Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953-2000,” 2001]

Malise Ruthven wrote in “Islam in the World”: “The condition of slaves, like that of women, may well have improved with the coming of Islam, but the institution was not abolished, any more than it was under Christianity at this period.” [Source: Malise Ruthven, “Islam in the World,” 2000]

According to the BBC: “The legality of slavery in Islam, together with the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who himself bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves, may explain why slavery persisted until the 19th century in many places (and later still in some countries). The impetus for the abolition of slavery came largely from colonial powers, although some Muslim thinkers argued strongly for abolition. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“Muhammad's teaching that slaves were to be regarded as human beings with dignity and rights and not just as property, and that freeing slaves was a virtuous thing to do, may have helped to create a culture in which slaves became much more assimilated into the community than they were in the West. |::|

“Slaves in the Islamic world were not always at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Slaves in Muslim societies had a greater range of work, and took on a wider range of responsibilities, than those enslaved in the Atlantic trade. Some slaves earned respectable incomes and achieved considerable power, although even such elite slaves still remained in the power of their owners. |::|

“It's ironic 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. Unlike the Western slave trade, slavery in Islam was not wholly motivated by economics. Although some Muslim slaves were used as productive labour it was not generally on the same mass scale as in the West but in smaller agricultural enterprises, workshops, building, mining and transport. Slaves were also taken for military service, some serving in elite corps essential to the ruler's control of the state, while others joined the equivalent of the civil service. Another category of slavery was sexual slavery in which young women were made concubines, either on a small scale or in large harems of the powerful. Some of these women were able to achieve wealth and power. These harems might be guarded by eunuchs, men who had been enslaved and castrated. |::|

“Unlike the Atlantic slave traders, Muslims enslaved people from many cultures as well as Africa. Other sources included the Balkans, Central Asia and Mediterranean Europe. Muslim traders took their slaves from three main areas: 1) Non-Muslim Africa, in particular the Horn; 2) Central and Eastern Europe; 3) Central Asia.

Muslim Reforms of Slavery

European view of Muslim slave market

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “Though slavery was maintained, the Islamic dispensation enormously improved the position of the Arabian slave, who was now no longer merely a chattel but was also a human being with a certain religious and hence a social status and with certain quasi-legal rights. The early caliphs who ruled the Islamic community after the death of the Prophet also introduced some further reforms of a humanitarian tendency. The enslavement of free Muslims was soon discouraged and eventually prohibited. It was made unlawful for a freeman to sell himself or his children into slavery, and it was no longer permitted for freemen to be enslaved for either debt or crime, as was usual in the Roman world and, despite attempts at reform, in parts of Christian Europe until at least the sixteenth century. It became a fundamental principle of Islamic jurisprudence that the natural condition, and therefore the presumed status, of mankind was freedom, just as the basic rule concerning actions is permittedness: what is not expressly forbidden is permitted; whoever is not known to be a slave is free. This rule was not always strictly observed. Rebels and heretics were sometimes denounced as infidels or, worse, apostates, and reduced to slavery, as were the victims of some Muslim rulers in Africa, who proclaimed jihad against their neighbors, without looking closely at their religious beliefs, so as to provide legal cover for their enslavement. But by and large, and certainly in the central lands of Islam, under regimes of high civilization, the rule was honored, and free subjects of the state, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, were protected from unlawful enslavement. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994 |]

“Since all human beings were naturally free, slavery could only arise from two circumstances: (1) being born to slave parents or (2) being captured in war. The latter was soon restricted to infidels captured in a jihad. These reforms seriously limited the supply of new slaves. Abandoned and unclaimed children could no longer be adopted as slaves, as was a common practice in antiquity, and free persons could no longer be enslaved. Under Islamic law, the slave population could only be recruited, in addition to birth and capture, by importation, the last either by purchase or in the form of tribute from beyond the Islamic frontiers. In the early days of rapid conquest and expansion, the holy war brought a plentiful supply of new slaves, but as the frontiers were gradually stabilized, this supply dwindled to a mere trickle. Most wars were now conducted against organized armies, like those of the Byzantines or other Christian states, and with them prisoners of war were commonly ransomed or exchanged. Within the Islamic frontiers, Islam spread rapidly among the populations of the newly acquired territories, and even those who remained faithful to their old religions and lived as protected persons (dhimmis) under Muslim rule could not, if free, be legally enslaved unless they had violated the terms of the dhimma, the contract governing their status, as for example by rebelling against Muslim rule or helping the enemies of the Muslim state or, according to some authorities, by withholding pa'yment of the Kharaj or the Jizya, the taxes due from dhimmls to the Muslim state. |

Muhammad Bey Abu al-Dhahab, the Mamluk slave emir

“In the Islamic empire, the humanitarian tendency of the Qur'an and the early caliphs was to some extent counteracted by other influences. Notable among these was the practice of the various conquered peoples and countries which the Muslims encountered after their expansion, especially in provinces previously under Roman law. This law, even in its Christianized form, was still very harsh in its treatment of slaves. Perhaps equally important was the huge increase in the slave population resulting first from the conquests themselves, and then from the organization of a great network of importation. These led to a fall in the cash value and hence the human value of slaves, and to a general adoption of a harsher tone and severer rules. But even after this stiffening of attitudes and laws, Islamic practice still represented a vast improvement on that inherited from antiquity, from Rome, and from Byzantium. |

“There were occasional slave rebellions and, from the rules and regulations about runaway slaves, it would appear that such escapes were not infrequent. Slaves from neighboring countries might have some chance of returning to their homes, and examples are known of European slaves in the Ottoman lands escaping to Europe, where some indeed wrote memoirs or accounts of their captivity. The chances of a slave from the steppe-lands or from Africa finding his way back were remote.” |

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “By Ottoman times, the first for which we have extensive documentation, the pattern of importation had changed. At first, the expanding Ottoman Empire, like the expanding Arab Empire of earlier times, recruited its slaves by conquest and capture, and great numbers of Balkan Christians were forcibly brought into Ottoman service. The distinctively Ottoman institution of the devsirme, the levy of boys from the Christian village population, made it possible, contrary to previous Islamic law and practice, to recruit slaves from the subject peoples of the conquered provinces. The devsirme slaves were not servants or menials, however, but were groomed for the service of the state in military and civil capacities. For a long time, most of the grand viziers and military commanders of the Ottoman forces were recruited in this way. In the early seventeenth century, the devsirme was abandoned; by the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman advance into Europe had been decisively halted and reversed. Sea raiders operating out of North African ports continued to bring European captives, but these did not significantly add to the slave populations. Pretty girls disappeared into the harem; men often had the choice of being ransomed or joining their captors -- a choice of which many availed themselves. The less fortunate, like the Muslim captives who fell to the European maritime powers, served in the galleys. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994 |]

Some Ottoman court slaves: Kızlarağası (Chief Black Eunuch), Cüce (Dwarf, Palace Jester), Ak Ağa (Chief White Eunuch)

“The slave needs of the Ottoman Empire were now met from new sources. One of these was the Caucasians -- the Georgians, Circassians, and related peoples, famous for providing beautiful women and brave and handsome men. The former figured prominently in the harems, the latter in the armies and administrations of the Ottoman and also the Persian states. The supply of these was reduced but not terminated by the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the early years of the nineteenth century. Another source of supply was the Tatar khanate of the Crimea, whose raiders every year rode far and wide in Central and Eastern Europe, carrying off great numbers of male and female slaves. These were brought to the Crimea and shipped thence to the slave markets in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. This trade came to an end with the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 1783 and the extinction of Tatar independence. |

“Deprived of most of their sources of white slaves, the Ottomans turned more and more to Africa, which in the course of the nineteenth century came to provide the overwhelming majority of slaves used in Muslim countries from Morocco to Asia. According to a German report published in 1860, "the black slaves, at that time, were recruited mainly by raiding and kidnapping from Sennaar, Kordofan, Darfur, Nubia, and other places in inner Africa; the white mostly through voluntary sale on the part of their relatives in the independent lands of the Caucasus (Lesghi, Daghestani, and Georgian women, rarely men). Those offered for sale were already previously of servile status or were slave children by birth." |

Slave Trade in the Muslim World

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “The need, from early medieval times onward, to import large and growing numbers of slaves led to a rapid increase, in all the lands beyond the frontiers of the Islamic world, of both slave raiding and slave trading -- the one to procure and maintain an adequate supply of the required commodity, the other to ensure its efficient distribution and delivery. In the ancient world, where most slaves other than war captives were of local provenance, slave trading was a simple and mostly local affair, often combined with other articles of commerce. In the Islamic world, where slaves were transported over great distances from their places of origin, the slave trade was more complex and more specialized with a network of trade routes and markets extending all over the Islamic world and far beyond its frontiers and involving commercial relations with suppliers in Christian Europe, in the Turkish steppe-lands, and in black Africa. In every important city there was a slave market, usually called Suq al-Raqiq. When new supplies were brought, government inspectors usually took the first choice, then officials, then private persons. It would seem that slaves were not normally sold in open markets but in decently covered places -- a practice which continued in some areas to the nineteenth, in others till the twentieth, century. [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994 |]

slave trader

“There is a fair amount of information on slave prices, most of it too heterogeneous in date and provenance to provide more than a general impression. The best-documented data come from medieval Egypt and show a remarkable consistency in price levels. Slave girls averaged twenty dinars (gold pieces), corresponding, at the rate of gold to silver current at that time, to 266 dirhams (silver pieces). Other medieval data show somewhat higher prices. Black slaves seem to have cost from two to three hundred dirhams; black eunuchs, at least two or three times as much. Female black slaves were sold at five hundred dirhams or so; trained singing girls or other performers, at ten or even twenty thousand. White slaves, mainly for military purposes, were more expensive. Prices of three hundred dirhams are quoted for Turks near the source in Central Asia, and much higher prices elsewhere. In Baghdad they fetched four to five hundred dirhams, while a white slave girl could be sold for a thousand dinars or more. The mid-nineteenth-century German report from Turkey quotes prices of four thousand to five thousand piasters, or two hundred to three hundred dollars, as the current price in Istanbul for a "trained, strong, black slave," while "for white slave girls of special beauty, fifty thousand piasters and more are paid." In general, eunuchs fetched higher prices than other males, younger slaves were worth more than older slaves, and slave women, whether for work or pleasure, were more expensive than males. Olufr Eigilsson, an Icelandic Lutheran pastor who was carried off to captivity with his family and many of his flock when his native village was raided by Barbary Corsairs in 1627 and who wrote an account of his adventures, notes that his young maidservant was sold for seven hundred dollars and later resold for a thousand. |

Abolition of Slavery in the Muslim World

Slavery existed in Islam for over 1200 years. In theory it was greatly limited by Islamic law, however, in practice it persisted on a large scale in Muslim lands. It wasn’t until the 20th century that attitudes towards slavery in this part of the world changed radically. Since slavery is still permitted by Islamic law, Muslim countries have used secular law to ban it. In some countries slavery was not outlawed until comparatively recently: 1) Qatar in 1952; 2) Yemen and Saudi Arabia in 1962; 3) Mauritania in 1980. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

Article 11 of Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, 1990 states: “Human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them, and there can be no subjugation but to God the Most-High.” The Declaration also includes a number of other articles that are incompatible with slavery, although "All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah". |::|

According to the BBC: “The idea that slavery should be abandoned began to be seriously discussed in the 16th century. The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) banned the slave trade in his Indian territory. The Muslim leader and reformer Nasr al-Din denounced slavery to the people of Senegal in the 1670s and banned the sale of slaves to Christians there, undermining the French trade in slaves. |::|

“In some countries, slaves who held high rank demonstrated that slaves were perfectly capable of playing any role in society if they were freed. Egypt had even been ruled by a slave dynasty for more than a century. These traditions slowly changed some Muslim thinking about slavery, and gradually created a climate in which the pressure for abolition could build. But serious abolition for the Muslim world had to wait until the 19th century. |::|

Muslim Abolitionists and the Slave Trade

Fathers of the Redemption

According to the BBC: “Because slavery was accepted by Islamic law it would have been difficult or impossible to forbid slavery itself, so the abolition pressure was concentrated on the transportation of slaves, including the slave markets, which was where the worst cruelties were to be found. Islam forbade raids to gain slaves, making a slave out of a free person and other cruelties. So Muslim abolitionists focused on showing slave trading was illegal under Islamic law, knowing that if they could stop the trade in slaves, slavery itself would slowly die out from lack of supply. For the same reason, colonial powers attacked the trade in slaves as much as the institution of slavery. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“The slave trade in Muslim societies ended not so much through a single act of abolition but by withering away as the result of external and internal pressure. |The outside pressure came from colonial powers that had only recently abandoned slavery themselves: 1) Colonial powers such as Britain and France applied great pressure for the abolition of slavery in their dominions. This pressure was successful in some places, like Egypt, but much less influential in others. 2) Colonial powers also took direct action against slave traders: the British Navy played a role in intercepting and taking action against slave traders, and between 1817 and 1890 signed treaties with over 80 territories allowing them to do this. 3) Christian missionaries, including David Livingstone, aroused public indignation in the West. |::|

Internal pressure came from a variety of Muslim sources. William G. Clarence-Smith, wrote in “Religions and the Abolition of Slavery - a Comparative Approach”: “From the 1870s, radical and gradual rationalists, together with moderate literalists and progressive ulama, could all be placed in the broad category of opponents of slavery, despite their manifold disagreements.”

“Muslim abolitionists were influenced by factors like these: 1) The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade provided an enlightening example; 2) Some Muslim thinkers readdressed Islamic ideas on human equality; 3) Some Muslim thinkers saw slavery as colonialist/imperialist behaviour that was incompatible with growing anti-colonialism; 4) Some Muslim thinkers regarded slavery as an activity incompatible with the modern world; 5) Changes in culture brought about by factors such as urbanisation, changes in the demand for labour, education, a desire to relate to Western nations as equals; 6) An increase in the freeing of slaves in some territories helped to accustom people to the ending of slavery |::|

According to Ronald Segal: “The result of these forces was to shrink the slave trade, and put pressure on slavery itself. 1) Initially, it was a source of great hostility that the West dared to intervene in Islamic affairs in contradiction to what was allowed by the Qur’an. 2) But as Western influence, or modernism, became more and more [widespread], it became less fashionable as well as profitable in Islam to own slaves. And it became illegal over much of the area. 3) The pressures against slavery were extremely great from Western powers. It was the moral issue. It became more scandalous because the conditions of procurement and transport became more and more horrendous. [Source: Ronald Segal, interview with Suzy Hansen, Salon Magazine, 2001]

Abolition of Slavery in the Ottoman Empire

Abolition of slavery in Tunisia in 1846

According to the BBC: “The Ottoman Empire was the major Muslim slave society of the abolition period, and it abolished the slave trade in stages. Although the Ottomans never abolished slavery itself, their policy of restricting the slave trade and increasing opportunities for slaves to get their freedom greatly reduced the number of slaves in its territories: 1) 1847: slave trade banned in Persian Gulf; 2) 1857: African slave trade banned; 3) 1864: Traffic in Georgian and Circassian child slaves restricted; 4) 1867: Programme introduced to help slaves from Russia get their freedom; 5) 1887-1880: Conventions against the slave trade signed with Britain; 6) 1890: Brussels Act against slave trade signed [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“Slavery was harder to outlaw in areas far from central government where tribal traditions had been less influenced by the factors above, and where the military power of the centre was much weaker. The slavers retreated into these areas, and moved their slaves to market more secretly. Quite a few of the anti-slavery military initiatives ended in victory for the slavers rather than the forces of abolition. |::|

“Some other Muslim countries passed laws allowing for the prosecution not only of the sellers of slaves but the buyers too. The Indian Slavery Act of 1844 made slavery illegal there, and Egypt in 1896 implemented laws with very severe penalties for slaving activities. |::|

British colonial power played a major role in reform and abolition of slavery, namely by enforcing treaties that prohibited slaving. The British felt compeled to do this as illustrated in the following Foreign Office document from 1861: ‘Captain Hamerton should take every opportunity of impressing upon these Arabs that the nations of Europe are destined to put an end to the African Slave Trade, and that Great Britain is the main instrument in the Hands of Providence for the accomplishment of this purpose. That it is in vain for these Arabs to endeavour to resist the consummation of that which is written in the Book of Fate, and that they ought to bow to superior power, to leave off a pursuit which is doomed to annihilation, and a perseverance in which will only involve them in losses and other evils.’ — British Foreign Office document, 1861.

Some objected to the British effort. Sultan of Zanzibar wrote to the British Consul: “If I put a stop to the traffic in slaves it will ruin these countries, and it will ruin my subjects; and I am sure that the British Government would never agree to this; my friend, it is in my wish to comply with all the desires of the British Government but these countries cannot do without slaves. For the British Government is far off, and does not know the circumstances of these countries.” |::|

Bernard Lewis wrote in “Race and Slavery in the Middle East”: “In 1842 the British Consul General in Morocco, as part of his government's worldwide endeavor to bring about the abolition of slavery or at least the curtailment of the slave trade, made representations to the sultan of that country asking him what measures, if any, he had taken to accomplish this desirable objective. The sultan replied, in a letter expressing evident astonishment, that "the traffic in slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam . . . up to this day." 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.'' [Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East,” Chapter 1 Slavery, Oxford University Press 1994.|]

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); 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 September 2018

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