The same number of slaves were taken from sub-Saharan Africa to the Islamic world as crossed the Atlantic. But they were a luxury, not a means of productionby Robin Blackburn / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Islam’s black slaves
(Atlantic Books ?20)
Ronald Segal, author of a history of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences, here surveys the older traffic in slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to north Africa and the middle east, and the role of African slaves in Islamic society from the 7th century to the present. Segal has read widely in English and French but does not use sources in Arabic, Pharsee or Turkish. It may be that scholarly research in these languages on slavery is not yet substantial but then there is not much on Islamic slavery in western languages either. There are no equivalents to the “slave narratives” or to the plantation records of the Americas, or if there are no one has brought them to light. So the story has to be pieced together from general studies of Islamic society and civilisation.
For centuries several thousand slaves a year were brought across the Sahara, or up the east African coast, for sale in the lands of Islam. Over a period of 12 or 13 centuries the total number of captives involved in the Islamic slave traffic could have approached the number-about 12m-taken from Africa in four centuries by Christian Europeans. Slavery was a ubiquitous institution in Islam without ever comprising the sort of developed slave system seen in the Americas or in Ancient Rome. And while there are clearly identifiable Afro-American populations, with distinctive cultures, the same could not be said about the middle east.
In one of his early chapters Segal recounts the sustained slave uprising of the Zanj in lower Mesopotamia, in the ninth century. This revolt destroyed what seems to have been the beginnings of a plantation regime in that area. Islam incorporated large numbers of slaves but did not subject them to large-scale agricultural toil and gang labour. The reason for this may have been that there simply was not a vigorous enough market for plantation produce in contrast to early modern Europe, with its capitalist farmers, wage labourers, landlords and merchants, all with some money in their pocket. Accounts of al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain, stress opulence but the luxury consumption of the court could be met through artisanal production, employing a few dozen slaves, rather than plantations incarcerating hundreds of thousands.
Slavery is today almost universally condemned, being regarded as the epitome of the denial of “human rights,” respect for which is the touchstone of civilised values. While this triumph for the anti-slavery struggles of the past is undeniably positive, it tends to breed a uniform notion of enslavement drawn from western experience that does not grasp the historical variety of slavery. In effect slavery was the main institution, other than marriage, which allowed for the incorporation of aliens or captives into a host society. So long as the alien remained a slave their only identity was as an appendage of their owner. But in Islam, as in many traditional forms of slavery, the slave could still occupy a wide variety of social roles, among the most common being soldier, administrator, harem eunuch, servant, and concubine. Today’s illegal immigrants fill some of the roles which slaves traditionally discharged. Of course immigrants are not as constrained as were the slaves. But eventually, in the Islamic case, many slaves adapted to their condition, or at least sought to leave it by pursuing freedom within Islam rather than attempting to escape back to their land of origin.
Segal does not search for evidence of slave escapes. Though there must have been a few, the Sahara posed almost as big an obstacle as the Atlantic and anyway many slaves initially entered the traffic because they were captured in war, or were fleeing starvation, or had been branded as criminals, so return could be pointless as well as dangerous.
Engels regarded the emergence of slavery as a sign of progress, since it was an alternative to simply slaughtering captives or criminals. Segal explains how the European colonial powers soon found themselves condoning forms of slavery in Africa despite the abolitionist principles which accompanied colonisation. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa there was a shortage of labour rather than land, and Africans had no need to work for wages, so the European colonisers winked at enslavement or sponsored their own version, with King Leopold’s Congo being only the most notorious case. In most of the middle east, on the other hand, labour was abundant relative to fertile and well-watered land so there was no need for mass enslavement. The only Islamic regions to develop slave plantations were in 19th-century Africa, the Sokoto Caliphate, in Northern Nigeria, or Zanzibar, where slaves produced cloves for the world market.
Segal rightly observes that slaves were a sort of “luxury good” in medieval Islam rather than a means of production. In nearly every society slaves have been vulnerable to abuse and the condition of menial slaves in Islamic society was certainly not enviable. But slave soldiers, white and black, could rise to become officers and commanders. Even the Grand Vizier could be a slave.
Segal dwells on the fact that early Islam and its prophet did not countenance harsh treatment of slaves and was notable for its inclusiveness towards the different nations of mankind. But he fails to note an observation, found in authorities ranging from Jean Bodin to Bernard Lewis, to the effect that early Islam distinguished itself from the Christianity of the ancient world and dark ages by its formal ban on the enslavement of co-religionists. Charles Verlinden has argued that this doctrine was only gradually to take hold in the Christian west in the centuries following Charlemagne, and was to do so partly as a result of the conflict with Islam. Bodin, who in 1576 became the first European philosopher to condemn slavery, observed that Islamic civilisation derived an advantage from promising those already free that if they converted they could never be enslaved. Segal does note this Islamic doctrine, and the fact that it was often violated, but he does not consider whether it might have had any impact on Latin Christendom.
The condition of Islam’s “black slaves” was often worse than that of its “white slaves.” Inescapably Segal is concerned to explore the extent to which Islamic societies actually operated racial distinctions, notwithstanding the apparent hostility of their founder to such thinking. But he neglects to consider the extent to which Islamic theology shared the idea of a link between slavery and descent group-which some Jews and Christians claimed to find in Genesis in the story of Noah cursing the son of Ham to be a perpetual bond-servant to his brothers. As in other “just so” stories, the incident does not seem to bear on only the individuals concerned but to link them to an account of the nations of man. Some time around the 4th to 6th centuries AD, some Christian commentators began to link Ham’s progeny with black skin. Some Jewish and Islamic commentators were also to adopt this interpretation. So long as many believed that the whole of mankind was descended from one or another of Noah’s sons this doctrine was to be invoked to justify racial servitude.
Segal makes it clear at the outset that he is not a believer in any religion and it may be that he is impatient with theological obfuscation of this sort, especially when it is contrary to the more universalist message to be found in the three main “religions of the book.” But, given the title of his book, these are issues which he should have explored, even if only to discount.
Segal concludes with a discussion of the remnants of slavery in the Islamic world today. He rightly insists that there is a distinction between traditional chattel slavery and the tens of millions of forced labourers still found in the world. Today it is not race but age and geography which exposes many third world children to extremities of exploitation. On the other hand, as Segal notes, the US prison regime, which incorporates poorly paid labour, confines hundreds of thousands of blacks guilty only of drugs offences. It seems that some elements of slavery are being rearranged in a new pattern.
Segal argues rightly that traditional slavery can still be found in Mauritania and the Sudan notwithstanding declarations against the institution. Some Islamic theologians, notably those influenced by Wahabi fundamentalism, refuse to condemn all forms of slavery. The institution was legal in Saudi Arabia down to the 1960s and its practice survived long after. Segal notes that Christian Solidarity International (CSI) has sought to redeem thousands of Sudanese slaves by purchasing their freedom. He fails to mention that this discredited practice, by furnishing monetary incentives, may reward rather than discourage the practice of enslavement.
Segal’s book surveys a neglected field. Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the author’s good intentions, it sometimes lays itself open to the Orientalism symbolised by the harem picture used as a jacket illustration. By all means let us denounce the many oppressions practiced by Islamists yesterday and today. But in doing so we should not neglect the Islamic contribution to the anti-slavery idea. Nor should we underplay the extensive borrowing that accompanied the rivalry between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.