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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

public opinion in Europe has been misled concerning Muslim slavery by a confusion between American and Oriental conditions…. As things are now, for most of the slaves their abduction was a blessing…. They themselves are convinced, that it was slavery that first made human beings of them.

Self-critical Westerners have been unique in human history not only in their attempts to monopolize historical guilt, but also in their laudable efforts to imagine how they must appear to Persians, Lilliputians, Chinese, and Eskimos. As Bernard Lewis reminds us in his recent and brilliant Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, “Western Civilization: A View from the East”:

In having practiced sexism, racism, and imperialism, the West was merely following the common practice of mankind through the millennia of recorded history. Where it is unique and distinct from all others is in having recognized, named, and tried, not entirely without success, to remedy these historic diseases.4

He might have added that the very discovery and naming of ethnocentrism, like racism, sexism, and imperialism, is a Western achievement that was originally intended to promote tolerance and social justice, not to destroy the cultural heritage that began to nourish the self-transcendent heresies among the great European writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that led to the world’s first organized movements to abolish slavery, emancipate women, and extend equal rights to subject races and dissident or alien religions.

Whatever differences may have distinguished Islamic slavery from Christian slavery in the American South, the arguments of European orientalists who defended slavery in Islam in the 1880s could easily have been lifted word for word from standard American proslavery writing of the 1840s and 1850s. Bernard Lewis does not explicitly make this point, but he quotes British and Austrian “experts” who had traveled in Arabia and who assured their readers that

the liberated Negroes will not work even for money. For them freedom means their native idleness…. I would rather compare the Negroes with children, who must be made to do their stint.

Or as one British traveler wrote, in words that would have brought at least a wry smile to the grim face of John C. Calhoun:

the Negro is to be found here [in Arabia] in his proper place, an easily-managed, useful worker. The Negroes are the porters, water-carriers, and performers of most of the real labour in Meccah. Happy, healthy, well-fed, well-clothed (as such things go in Meccah), they are slaves, proud of their masters…. Slavery in the East has an elevating influence over thousands of human beings, and but for it hundreds of thousands of souls must pass their existence in this world as wild savages, little better than animals: it, at least, makes men of them, useful men too, sometimes even superior men…. That there are evils in Arab slavery I do not pretend to deny, though not affecting the Negro, once a slave. The exacting slave-driver is a character wholly unknown in the East, and the slave is protected from the caprice of any cruel master in that he is transferable and of money value. The man who would abuse or injure his slave would maim and willfully deteriorate the value of his horse. Whatever the Arab may not know, he most assuredly knows what is to his own immediate interest better than that. And the Negro himself…may through this medium be raised from a savage, existing only for the moment… to a profitable member of society, a strong tractable worker, the position Nature seems to have made him to occupy.

Because writers of such orientalist literature were eager to draw the sharpest possible contrast between the allegedly benign Islamic world and the brutally exploitive American world portrayed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the one book about the American South that most Europeans knew, they seemed unaware that they were simply repeating the specious arguments and clichés that had been propagated in the eighteenth century by West Indian proslavery apologists and finally anthologized in 1860 in E.N. Elliott’s Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments. Unfortunately, the myth that Muslims, as Arnold Toynbee asserted, “had always been free from colour prejudice vis à vis the non-White races,” further shielded Islamic slavery from serious examination. The whole subject became increasingly explosive as the black nationalist and pan-Africanist movements found in Islam an antidote to the Christian hypocrisy that had been so closely linked with both New World slavery and Europe’s subsequent colonization and exploitation of Africa.

Bernard Lewis, the eminent Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies emeritus at Princeton, by writing a brief and highly readable “historical enquiry” into race and slavery in the Middle East, treads carefully on mine fields as perilous in their own way as those at the Battle of El Alamein. He is so extremely cautious, indeed, that his readers must usually take the risk of making comparisons and drawing conclusions on their own.

Lewis’s wariness would seem to arise from two considerations: his conviction that Islam, as one of the world’s great religions,

has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught men of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievements, enriched the whole world.5

But as Lewis’s Jefferson Lecture also warns, certain centers of Islamic fundamentalism now see Western civilization, especially as exemplified in the United States, as the fount of pure evil. When such catchall terms as imperialism, racism, and consumerism are appropriated from Western critics and made synonymous with secular Western culture, the most objective comparisons of Islamic and Western slavery or racial beliefs will almost certainly be dismissed by some writers as ideological warfare.

Fruitful comparisons in history require certain fundamental patterns of similarity even if, as in Peter Kolchin’s comparative analysis of American slavery and Russian serfdom and in George M. Fredrickson’s and John W. Cell’s studies of race relations in the United States and South Africa, it is the delineation of differences that eventually does the most to enhance our understanding.6 Lewis, drawing on his vast knowledge of Arabic sources as well as on the pioneering work of Gernot Rotter and other scholars, points to the overwhelming evidence that racial slavery, as the modern world has come to know it, originated in medieval Islamic societies. Light-skinned Arabs, Berbers, and Persians invented the long-distance slave trade that transported millions of sub-Saharan captives either by camel caravans across the deserts or by slave ships from East Africa to the Persian Gulf.7

Arabs led the way in classifying the diverse peoples who lived from the Horn of Africa on the east to the states of Ghana and Songhay in the west as “blacks”—a single lowly group especially submissive to slavery because, as the famous fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it, they “have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.” Some Muslim writers ranked the Nubians and especially the Ethiopians somewhat higher than the despised Zanj, a vague term applied to the Bantu-speaking laborers imported from East Africa and more generally to what Maqdisi described as “people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.” But regardless of such minor distinctions and regardless of their continuing enslavement of white pagans and infidels from Eurasia, medieval Muslims came to associate the most degrading forms of labor with black slaves. In fact, the Arabic word for slave, abd, came to mean only a black slave and, in some regions, referred to any black, whether slave or free.

If there is a sound basis for comparing Muslim with Christian slavery and even for seeing the early Arab and Berber exploitation of black laborers as a precursor to the racial slavery of the New World—a claim that Lewis’s new book never makes—it is crucially important to keep one fundamental distinction in mind. In some ways the speed and geographic extent of the Arab conquests, beginning in the 630s and 640s, were even more breathtaking than the expansion of the European maritime powers nine centuries later. As Lewis writes:

  1. 1

    The Confederate government did in fact sanction the summary execution or sale into slavery of captured black Union soldiers, and there were occasions when these threats were carried out. See James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (Pantheon, 1965), p. 174; and his Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 565–567.

  2. 2

    For documentation regarding Lord Shackleton and the situation in 1960, see my Slavery and Human Progress (Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 317, 362. The most thorough study of Britain’s efforts to encourage the manumission of slaves in the Hijaz is Suzanne Miers, “Diplomacy Versus Humanitarianism: Britain and Consular Manumission in the Hijaz, 1921–1936,” Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Comparative Studies, 10 (December 1989), pp. 102–128.

  3. 3

    As William R. Taylor showed long ago with respect to pre-Civil War America, many northern writers and travelers did much the same thing by creating or contributing to the “plantation legend” of a nonpecuniary, paternalistic South. See Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character (Braziller, 1961).

  4. 4

    Delivered in Washington on May 2, p. 15 of the text released by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

  5. 5

    National Endowment for the Humanities text, pp. 2–3.

  6. 6

    Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Harvard University Press, 1987); George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1981); John W. Cell, The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  7. 7

    In Slavery and Human Progress, I discuss some of the attempts, based on extremely fragmentary evidence, to estimate the magnitude of the Islamic slave trade from the seventh to the twentieth century. Drawing particularly on the work of Ralph Austen, I conclude that “the key point is that the importation of black slaves into Islamic lands from Spain to India constituted a continuous, large-scale migration that in total numbers may well have surpassed, over a period of twelve centuries, the African diaspora to the New World” (pp. 45–56). The absence of a large population of black survivors can be explained by the high mortality rate (except in North America, black slave populations suffered a rapid decline and virtually disappeared, as in colonial Mexico, unless replenished by the slave trade); by assimilation with other peoples; and by the fact that many male slaves had been castrated. Even in central India, however, there are communities of blacks who are the descendants of African slaves.

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