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The Arab Slave Trade


Figure 1.--This is a 13th century (1236-1237) view of the Zabid slave market in Yemen. Located on the Arabian OPeninsula close to Africa, Yemen was heavily involved in the African slave trade. We cannot read the Arabic script. The author appears to be harîrî (al-), maqâmât. The artist was al-wâsitî. The image clerly shows Africans being sold. We are less sure about the woman and child to the left. Are they also being sold or are they attensing the sale? I am not entirely sure.

The Arabs have a long history of taking slaves. Islam was spread by Arab warriors who had little regard for mannual laborers. This basic fact strongly colored slavery in the Islamic world. Islam permits the taking of slaves as "booty" in war or as a reward to warriors. The Koran justifies the taking of slaves. The Arabian practice of raids on neigboring tribes was over time adjusted to attacks on non-Muslim states and taking those peoples as slaves. The Arab slave trade was not race based. The people targetted were not people of any specific race or ethnicity, although the Arabs do not seem go have been immune from race prejusuce. The race of those enslaved have varied over time. Many slaves in the early stage of the Arab expansion (8th and 9th centuries) there were Slavic peope from Eastern Europe, Persians and Caucasoid origins. This had changed by the late phase of slavery (18th and 19th centuries) to Africans. Arab piracy (the Barbary Pirates) and slave taking caused the first American overseas military expedition at the turn of the 19th century.

Islam and Slavery

Islam permits the taking of slaves as "booty" in war or as a reward to warriors. The Koran justifies the taking of slaves. The Arabian practice of raids on neigboring tribes was over time adjusted to attacks on non-Muslim states and taking those peoples as slaves. Islam from the very beginning accepted slavery and Mohammed in effect institutionalized it in the Koran. (Muslims would say God institutionalized it in the Koran.) This reflected accepted practices in pre-Islamic Arabia. Arabs commonly made captives taking in raids against neigboring tribes into slaves. Also prisionors taken in wars were commonly made slaves. Islam was spread by warriors who had little regard for mannual laborers. This basic fact strongly colored slavery in the Islamuc world. Muhammad after he escaped to Medina and begun to acquire power began taking slaves in conformance with existing practice. Islam permits the taking of slaves as "booty" in war or as a reward to warriors. The Koran justifies the taking of slaves and there are numerous references to slavery in the Koran. For example Koran 33:50: "Prophet, We have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave girls whom God has given you as booty." Nowhere in the Koran as in the Bible is slavery described as bad or whicked.

Race and Religion

The Arab slave trade was not race based, but religion was a factor. The people targetted were not people of any specific race or ethnicity, although the Arabs do not seem go have been immune from race prejusuce. The race of those enslaved have varied over time.

Chronology

There is a long history of slave taking in Arab society, a tradition that pre-dates Islam. Mohammed and the Koran did not discourafe slavery although they did promote the idea of a degree of humanittyb in the treatment of slaves. Slavery existed throughout the Islamic history, although detailed informarion is only available on the final era of Arab slavery, the African slave trade and the Indian Ocean traffic that the Royal Navy confronted in the 19th century.

Pre-Islamic slavery ( -7th century)

The Arabs have a long history of taking slaves. Islam was spread by Arab warriors who had little regard for mannual laborers. This basic fact strongly colored slavery in the Islamic world.

Early Arab Slavery (7th-10th centuries)

Slaves during the early era of the Arab conquests were huge numbers of prisoners-of-war captured by the victorious Arab armies. With the rise of the Caliphate and the relative stabilization of borders, this began to change. Captives might be were exchanged or ransomed. The development of Sharia law dounded on the Koran forbade the enslavement of free-born Muslims and Zimmis (protected religions) who do not violate the conditions of their Koranic status. [Toledano, pp. 3-5.] Many slaves in the early stage of the Arab expansion (8th and 9th centuries) there were Slavic people from Eastern Europe, Persians and Caucasoid origins. The Arabs were involved in the African slave trade centuries before the Europeans. There is considerable historical debate over the dimensions of the Arab African slave trade, especially during the early phase.

Middle Arab Slavery (11th-15th centuries)

The Koaan promoted, but did not require manumission. And slave-breeding practices did not develop in the Muslim world. A factorvhere is that because the Koranic basis of slavery was not rase based. Thus it was relatively easy for slaves to adopt Islam and seek manumission. The result was that slave population in the Arab world did not reproduce themselves. [Toledano, pp. 3-5.] Another factor appears to be a relatively high mortality rate, although this subjected needs further assessment. The Arabs thus had to obtain their slaves from outside the Arab world. The Arabs conducted raids on Christian Europe. One of the targets was captives to be sold as slaves. This is another topic about Mislim slavery for which there is very little documentary evidence. The image here is a fascinating view of a 13th century Arab slave market, although we do not yet fully understand it (figure 1). Arab power declined in the mid-Middle ages and was devestated by the destruction of the Calophate and he Mongol invasion. This collapse of Arab military power limited the ability of Arabs to take slaves in large numbers. The occupation of Arab countries first by the Mongols and then the Ottomans also affected Arab slave taking.

Later Arab Slavery (16th-19th centuries)

The one area that Arabs were able to exert military dominance during this later stage of slavery was Africa and the Indian Ocean. The racial mix of Arab slavery changed with the greater focus on Africa. This had changed by the late phase of slavery (18th and 19th centuries) to Africans. Arab piracy (the Barbary Pirates) and slave taking caused the first American overseas military expedition at the turn of the 19th century. One of the best studied instances of Muslim slavery was the Arab Indian Ocean slave trade that the British Royal Navy confronted in the 19th century.

Modern era


Obtaining Captives


Routes


Markets

Slavery was a well accepted practice in the Arab world, recognized by the Holy Koran. There were slave marketds througout the cities and towns of the Arab world. Many were capable of handling large numbers of slaves. A Muslim writer from Takurt (near the Senegal River in West Africa) tells of pilgrims bringing 1,700 slaves with them for sale in Mecca (1416). [al-Makrisi} Important North African slave markets included Marrakesh (Morocco), Algiers (Algeria), Tripoli (Tunisi) and Cairo (Egypt). Sub-Saharan African slave markets included: Aoudaghost, Timbuktu (Mali), Gao, and Bilma. East African slave markets included: Massawa (Eritrea), Zeila (Somalia), Mogadishu (Somalia), Bagamoyo (Tanzania), Zanzibar (Tanzania), Kilwa, and Sofala (Beira, Mozambique). Slsave markets on the Arabin Peninsula included: Mecca (Saudi Arabia), Zabid (Yemen), Muscat Oman) Aden (Yemen), and Socotra. A slave market in Mecca itself demostrates how acceptable slavery was to Islam. The slaves were sold in public places or the local souks. Clients examined the slaves to ensure that they were healthy. The slaves were commonly displayed naked or nearly naked, bound in various ways. Practices varied from market to market. The Yemen painting here suggests that the slaves were not always displayed naked (figure 1). Or perhaps the artist has clothes the slaves out prudery. Here we are not sure about Arab artistic conventions. There are not many depictions like this because of Islamic discouragement of pictoral art. One report suggests that when selling eunuchs and harem girls or other concubines, the slaves were examined in private houses or other less public settings.

African Slave Trade

The Arabs did not begin the African slave trade. African slaves were known in the Roman Empire and a major sevtion of the Roman Empire was North Africa. It was the Arabs, however who founded the African slave trade during the modern era. Thi occurred early in the Islamic era. The Arabs during the Islamic expansion began setting up trading posts along the Indian Ocean coast of Africa. Other Arab traders penetrated through Caravan routes. Much more is known about the European segment of the African slave trade, in part because records are much more readily available. And there is much more human evidence of the Atlantic slave trade--namely the large Afro-American populations in Brazil, the United States, and other Western Hemisphere countries. Much less is known about the Arab segment of the African slave trade. The slave trade in East Africa was carried out by agents of the Sultanate of Zanzibar in cooperation with some African tribes. The Arab slavers had various ways of obtaining Africans. Armed gangs of Arabs and Muslim Africans would conduct raids and simply seize Africans. The Arabs had three major routes for transporting their captive Africans to slave markets in Norh Africa and the Middle East. The Eastern slave trade differed from the Atlantic slave trade in that there were many more women involved. The reason for this was that the sex trade was an important part of the Muslim market for slaves. The use of slaves, however, depended upon the chronological era and the country wherethey were enslaved. They were also used for labor, largely agricultural labor.

Countries

We have limited information on slavery in individual Arab countries. The subject is ciomplicated bcause the history of modern Arab countries include both pre- and post Islamic eras. And the pre-Islamic era inclused contril by different political regimes, inclusing the Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire among other political regimes. Slavery was a common cionditiin in the ancient world, but varied wuidely. Greece and Rome had large slave poulations, but Egypt amd Mesopotamia did not. And the pre-Islamic population and cultures of most Arab countries outside the Arabian Peninsula was not Arab. And the soures of slaves also varied. Information on slavery is limited, especially in the early periods. There are a variety of sources that can be used. There are some surviving historical texts. And there are some paintings, although Islamic discouragement of the visual arts limited such depictions. And by the 19th and early 20th century there are even some photographic evidence from various countries. And the history of slavery in Arab countries is not apurely historical topic. As late as Workd War II, slavery persisted in a number of Arab countries. And ecven after independence it continued to be legal orat any rate widely oparctyiced.Slavery and the slave trade continues in several most Norg African and and Sahel countries. The Sudan has an especially ugly history in the modern era as a country allowing slavery. Maurutania and Mali are two other problem countries.

Controversy

The history of the slave trade has focused on the European Atlantic slave trade. Much less attention has been given to slavery in the Muslim world. There are several reasons for this. One, the long history of Muslim slavery dating from the very early years of the Arab expansion. Few records are availabe from the early historical periods which bega in the early medieval era. This makes it especially difficult to assess the dimensions of slavery in early Muslim society. Two, the fact that slavery is firmly rooted in the Koran means that it cannot be question and thus Islamic scholars have tended to avoid the question. Three, slavery is not something Muslim historians want to honestly address. Western scholars now address a range of historical issues (colonialism, war, racism, nationalism, religion, ect.) with often brutal honesty, even if reflects poorly on their society/country. Thi is not a common practice among Muslim scholars. Nor isf it a safe practive. Muslim writers who publish books which reflect poorly on Islam or even Muslim society can be putting their lives in danger. As a result, Muslims who see books on Aran or Muslim slavery commonly view this as an attack on Islam, making such work contriversial in Muslim xountries. Another fator here is that some in West see work on Arab/Muslim slaveryas an attempt to lessen the onus placed upon the Atlantic slave trade. Here another facror is the extensive documentary evidence available on the Atlantic slave trade compared to the must more limited information available on the Arb slave trade. Historians in paticular have widely different estimates on the dimensions of the Arab African slave trade.

Sources

Al-Makrisi.

Toledano, Ehud R. The Ottoman Slave Trade and its Suppression, 1840-1890 (Princeton University Press, 1982), 307p.






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Created: 12:21 AM 4/19/2007
Last updated: 7:17 AM 6/25/2018