V Views of The History of Islamic Slavery in Africa
By Susan Stephan
Slavery in the Arab World
In his fact-filled work on the history of the Muslim Arab slave trade in Africa, Murray Gordon notes that this trade pre-dated the European Christian African slave trade by a thousand years and continued for more than a century after the Europeans had abolished the practice. Gordon estimates the number of slaves “harvested” from Black Africa over the period of the Muslim Arab slave trade at 11 million – roughly equal to the number taken by European Christians for their colonies in the New World.
“Despite the long history of slavery in the Arab World and in other Muslim lands, little has been written about this tragedy,” writes Gordon in his introduction. “Except for the few abolitionists, mainly in England, who railed against Arab slavery and put pressure upon Western governments to end the traffic in slaves, the issue has all but been ignored in the West.”
‘Conspiracy of Silence’ on Arab Slave Trade
Gordon decries a “conspiracy of silence. . .[that] has blocked out all light on this sensitive subject.” Among scholars in the Arab world, the author points out, “No moral opprobrium has clung to slavery since it was sanctioned by the Koran and enjoyed an undisputed place in Arab society.”
The book starts out with a brief outline of the growth of the Islamic attitude toward slavery. There is no evidence that Muhammad sought to abolish slavery, notes Gordon, although he urged slave-owners to treat their slaves well and grant them freedom as a meritorious deed.
“Some Muslim scholars have taken this to mean that his true motive was to bring about a gradual elimination of slavery. Far more persuasive is the argument that by lending the moral authority of Islam to slavery, Muhammad assured its legitimacy. Thus, in lightening the fetter, he riveted it ever more firmly in place.”
High Rate of Black African Casualties
While Gordon acknowledges that at times the Islamic version of slavery could be more “humane” than the European colonial version, he provides many facts which point out that the Muslim variety of slavery could be extremely cruel as well.
One particularly brutal practice was the mutilation of young African boys, sometimes no more than 9 or ten years old, to create eunuchs, who brought a higher price in the slave markets of the Middle East. Slave traders often created “eunuch stations” along the major African slave routes where the necessary surgery was performed in unsanitary conditions. Gordon estimates that only one out of every 10 boys subjected to the mutilation actually survived the surgery.
The taking of slaves – in razzias, or raids, on peaceful African villages – also had a high casualty rate. Gordon notes that the typical practice was to conduct a pre-dawn raid on an unsuspecting village and kill off as many of the men and older women as possible. Young women and children were then abducted as the preferred “booty” for the raiders.
Young women were targeted because of their value as concubines or sex slaves in markets. “The most common and enduring purpose for acquiring slaves in the Arab world was to exploit them for sexual purposes,” writes Gordon. “These women were nothing less than sexual objects who, with some limitations, were expected to make themselves available to their owners. . .Islamic law, as already noted, catered to the sexual interests of a man by allowing him to take as many as four wives at one time and to have as many concubines as his purse allowed.” Young women and girls were often “inspected” before purchase in private areas of the slave market by the prospective buyer.
Racism Toward Black Africans
Some of Gordon’s research disputes the oft-repeated charge that racism did not play a part in Islamic slave society. While it is true that the Muslims of the Middle East took slaves of all colors and ethnicities, they considered white slaves more valuable than black ones and developed racist attitudes toward the darker skinned people.
Even the famous Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, expressed racist attitudes toward black Africans: “The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and their proximity to the animal stage,” Khaldun wrote. Another Arab writer, of the 14th Century, asked: “Is there anything more vile than black slaves, of less good and more evil than they?”
Gordon covers the Arab/African slave trades up until the mid-20th Century, noting that Saudi Arabia only abolished the practice in the early 1960s. Unlike the European nations and the USA, the Arab nations did not abolish African slavery voluntarily out of moral conscience, but due to considerable economic and military pressure applied by the great colonial powers of time, France and Britain. Slavery is still practiced in two Islamic nations: The Sudan and Mauritania.