Slaves in Islam

Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry

by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 184 pp., $24.95

In 1855, five years before South Carolina defied all United States authority and seceded from the federal union, fearing that Lincoln’s election would inevitably imperil the South’s “peculiar institution,” the Ottoman Empire ordered the governors of its far-flung districts to ban the commerce in slaves. For rebellious Arabs in the Hijaz, the province in western Arabia that contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, this was exactly the kind of anti-Islamic, Western-influenced measure they had been waiting for as a cause for throwing off Turkish rule. Assured by the ruler of Mecca that Ottoman power could never survive the Crimean War, which was then raging far to the north, Shaykh Jamal issued a legal ruling, Bernard Lewis informs us,

denouncing the ban on the slave trade as contrary to the holy law of Islam. Because of this anti-Islamic act, he said, together with such other anti-Islamic actions as allowing women to initiate divorce proceedings and to move around unveiled, the Turks had become apostates and heathens. It was lawful to kill them without incurring criminal penalties or bloodwit, and to enslave their children.

One wonders whether Abraham Lincoln would have found it easier to rally northerners around the flag if Jefferson Davis had proclaimed a holy war that justified not only the killing of any northerner and the seizure of northern property but the enslavement of northern children? 1 In any event, the Ottoman Turks succeeded in suppressing their southern rebels in mid-1856, after less than a year of armed struggle. But as a conciliatory measure to prevent further secessionist movements, the Turkish government granted a major concession to the slave traders who had long made the Red Sea and the Hijaz a central route for transporting African slaves to the Middle East. Despite longstanding pressure from their British ally to end the slave trade, and despite sweeping domestic reforms in 1856 that eased Turkey’s admission to the concert of Europe, the sultan’s government exempted the Hijaz from its 1857 decree outlawing the trade in black slaves throughout the rest of the Ottoman Empire. As late as 1960, Lord Shackleton reported to the House of Lords that African Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca still sold slaves upon arrival, “using them as living traveller’s cheques.”2

It has long been considered a mark of ethnocentric ignorance to equate servitude in Islamic societies with the brutal racial slavery that seemed to curse the New World with unending guilt. Ironically, the very “orientalism” that enabled nineteenth-century Europeans to project their own fears and longings upon an unchanging, exotic, and antipodal “East” also led many anti-Western Westerners to romanticize or defend black slavery in the Islamic world.3 In 1887, for example, the Dutch orientalist C. Snouck Hurgronje ridiculed the “fantasies” that propelled what he concluded to be Britain’s wholly inappropriate efforts to stop the slave trade from Africa to the Middle East. As a seasoned eyewitness who repeatedly stressed the “otherness” of Islam, Hurgronje affirmed that


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