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:

Islam for the first time created a truly universal civilization, extending from Southern Europe to Central Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to India and China. By conquest and by conversion, the Muslims brought within the bounds of a single imperial system and a common religious culture peoples as diverse as the Chinese, the Indians, the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, black Africans and white Europeans.

But in contrast to Europe’s later imperial system, this explosive expansion of Islam did not lead to capitalist markets and investment, to dramatic economic growth, or to a widespread system of colonial plantation production. Therefore, slavery in the Muslim imperial system had purposes very different from the profit-making “mode of production” that developed in European plantation economies.

As Lewis points out, this distinction should not be too sharply drawn since we still know so little about life outside the Muslim towns, except for a few rare glimpses of black slaves working in mines, on construction and irrigation projects, or in huge gangs draining the tidal marshes of southern Iraq. The written records, in other words, which bustle with town slaves, military slaves, household servants, and eunuchs guarding slave harems, may convey a distorted picture. Moreover, Lewis’s brief and abstract discussion of slavery, though not strictly limited to the Middle East, barely touches on the nonurban economies of Muslim Spain, Africa, India, or the later Ottoman empire. All this said, one may safely assume that slave production in Islamic lands never approached the regimented efficiency of plantation agriculture in the West Indies and southern United States.8

This fundamental difference in economies did not mean that Arabs, Persians, Berbers, or Turks were immune to the lure of profits that could be obtained only by violating Muslim religious and ethical norms. There is evidence, for example, that in nineteenth-century Dar Fur, in modern Sudan there were farms that specialized in breeding black slaves for sale like cattle or sheep. Other enterprising merchants in upper Egypt reaped large capital gains by purchasing prepubescent boys at a price of about three hundred piastres apiece, having them castrated by Coptic monks, and then selling them as eunuchs for one thousand piastres each.

Lewis is scrupulous in distinguishing Islam as a religion from the various practices, institutions, and prejudices that eventually arose within Islamic societies. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islamic religion emerged at a time when chattel slavery was as universally accepted as human warfare. If all three religions sought to regulate and ameliorate slavery, Islam was most explicit in its conviction that freedom is the natural and presumed status of mankind; in its encouragement of private manumissions; and in its legal requirements that masters provide adequate maintenance and medical care for all slaves, and assistance for the elderly, or risk being compelled to sell or free a mistreated slave. The Shari’a, the great corpus of Islamic holy law, also flatly prohibited the enslavement of free fellow Muslims—as distinct from continuing to keep a slave who had converted to Islam. Hebrew and Christian laws were more ambiguous and for a considerable time allowed the enslavement of coreligionists.

Ironically, the very network of laws that were intended to protect both free Muslims and their slaves endowed the institution with supreme religious sanction:

The emergence of the holy men and the holy places as the last-ditch defenders of slavery against reform is only an apparent paradox. They were upholding an institution sanctified by scripture, law, and tradition and one which in their eyes was necessary to the maintenance of the social structure of Muslim life.

If Protestant Christianity freed slaveholders from the legal duties and constraints of ancient religion, it also opened the way to abolitionism and other forms of modernization. It is not surprising that abolitionism first emerged and flourished within the Anglo-American dissenting sects or that it encountered continuing theological resistance from Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims. The mid-nineteenth-century debates among American Jews and among Swedish and American Lutherans over the biblical support of slavery were largely academic; by the time Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, Cardinal Lavigerie, the archbishop of Algiers, with the support of Pope Leo III, was leading a Christian antislavery crusade in Africa. Muslim leaders were well aware that this new imperialist venture was directed, like earlier crusades, at “the Islamic infidel.” During the so-called scramble for Africa, the tendencies of European orientalism were thus opposed by visions of “Christian knights” freeing Muslim slaves and civilizing the Dark Continent.

Racial distinctions played no appreciable part in the slave economies of antiquity, despite the Greeks’ preference for enslaving “barbarians” and despite the discriminatory biblical laws that applied to relations between Hebrew and “Canaanite” bondsmen and their masters. During the centuries of Roman domination, slave populations contained a fortuitous mixture of captives. Bondage was a condition from which no one was exempt: including Greek scholars and poets, Turks, Scandinavians, Arabs, Gauls, Jews, Persians, Ethiopians. As late as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, continuing shipments of white slaves, some of them Christians, flowed from the booming slave markets on the northern Black Sea coast into Italy, Spain, Egypt, and the Mediterranean islands. The vulnerability of the “wild Irish” enabled predatory Englishmen to acquire the mental attitudes and basic training they would soon need to exterminate or enslave North American Indians from New England to South Carolina.

From Barbados to Virginia, colonists long preferred English or Irish indentured servants as their main source of field labor; during most of the seventeenth century they showed few scruples about reducing their less fortunate countrymen to a status little different from that of chattel slaves—a degradation that was being carried out in a more extreme and far more extensive way with respect to the peasantry in contemporary Russia. The prevalence and suffering of white slaves, serfs, and indentured servants in the early modern period suggests that there was nothing inevitable about limiting plantation slavery to people of African origin.

Like the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an and Shari’a show no trace or even awareness of racial or color prejudice. In the seventh century, as in the earlier centuries of antiquity, neither slavery nor bitter ethnic and national rivalries seemed to generate what the modern world would define as genuine racism. When in the Hebrew Bible Moses marries an Ethiopian woman (Numbers 12:10), his sister is stricken with leprosy and becomes “white as snow” for objecting to the union. In the Song of Songs the bride affirms, in the Hebrew and earliest Greek translations, “I am black and comely, / O ye daughters of Jerusalem,” implying that darkness of skin is itself a mark of beauty.9 Saint Matthew’s baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a popular subject in Western iconography, depicted the first non-Jew converted to Christianity. Arabs long showed similar respect for Ethiopians; they accepted concubinage and even marriage with black women from Nubia and the upper Nile. Moreover, even after racial prejudice began to fuse with a more traditional contempt for lowly status, Muslim theologians and jurists continued to reject the popular idea that black Africans were designed by nature or condemned by providence to be slaves.10 There were no Dred Scott decisions that undermined the theological egalitarianism of Muslim law.

By the late seventh century, however, blackness of skin was becoming a symbol that evoked distaste and contempt. In popular manuals of behavior affirmations of theoretical equality were soon reduced to formulas suggesting tolerance was desirable “even though” there were obvious reasons not to be tolerant. “Obey whoever is put in authority over you, even if he be a crop-nosed Ethiopian slave”; to prove your religious humility, marry someone who is pious and who will lower rather than exalt you, even though she is “a slitnosed black slave-woman.” As Lewis aptly notes, the message conveyed by countless maxims saying “that piety outweighs blackness and impiety outweighs whiteness…[is] not the same as saying that whiteness and blackness do not matter.”

This stage of color consciousness coincided with the even more revealing complaints, apologies, and outcries from poets of African or mixed African and Arabic parentage. “If my color were pink, women would love me / But the Lord has marred me with blackness,” Suhaym lamented in the seventh century. A colorblind society would hardly have produced the kind of verses and outbursts that Lewis quotes in profusion: “Though my hair is woolly and my skin coal-black, / My hand is open and my honor bright.” “My color is pitch-black, my hair is woolly, my appearance repulsive.” “I am a black man,” a famous singer and musician wrote after seeking lodging in Damascus: “Some of you may find me offensive. I shall therefore sit and eat apart.”

From the tenth century onward, a growing body of literature defended Ethiopians and other blacks from prejudice by explaining the environmental origins of their physical difference, by describing the good and pious deeds of particular blacks, and by condemning racial prejudice as contrary to the teachings of the prophet. This defensive writing bore a remarkable resemblance to such later Christian works as the Abbé Grégoire’s An Enquiry concerning the intellectual & moral faculties, & literature of Negroes; with an account of the life & works of 15 Negroes & Mulattoes, distinguished in science, literature & the arts (1810, original French edition 1808), and the same author’s De la noblesse de la peau ou du préjugé des blancs contre la couleur des Africains et celle de leurs descendants noirs et sangmêlés (1826). Like Grégoire, the medieval Muslim writers were clearly responding to what Lewis calls “a new and sometimes vicious pattern of racial hostility and discrimination.”

Drawing on Middle Eastern stereotypes of slaves from the eighth to the fifteenth century, Lewis quotes depictions of the Zanj by Muslim writers as ugly, stupid, dishonest, frivolous and lighthearted, foul-smelling, gifted with a sense of musical rhythm, often inclined toward simple piety, but dominated by unbridled sexual lust. According to Ibn Butlan, for example, the “bad qualities” of the Zanj women were many:

and the blacker they are the uglier their faces and the more pointed their teeth…. Dancing and rhythm are instinctive and ingrained in them. Since their utterance is uncouth, they are compensated with song and dance…. They can endure hard work…but there is no pleasure to be got from them, because of the smell of their armpits and the coarseness of their bodies.

Such quotations are barely distinguishable from Thomas Jefferson’s wellknown passages in Notes on the State of Virginia:

They [the blacks] secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor…. They seem to require less sleep. A black after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present…. They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient…. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor…. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior…. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time.11

How are we to account for the striking similarity in the racist stereotypes and proslavery arguments that appeared in the medieval Middle East and in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America? Lewis never explicitly raises this question, but his short book opens the way for more systematic comparisons that may eventually explain the complex connections between enslavement and racial prejudice.

Lewis does offer a number of specific clues and conclusions about the sources of racism that pertain to the Middle East. The initial Arab conquests soon led to prolonged debates and struggles over the equal status of non-Arab converts to Islam, to say nothing of the part-Arab offspring of concubines or non-Arab wives. The resulting sensitivity to ethnic privilege and lineage was heightened by the development of a long-distance slave trade that brought an influx of captives purchased from previously unknown regions in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Whereas Arabs had long been acquainted with Ethiopia, “a country,” Lewis notes, “with a level of moral and material civilization significantly higher than their own,” after the conquests they

encountered fairer-skinned peoples who were more developed and darker-skinned peoples who were less so. No doubt as a result of this they began to equate the two facts.

For whatever reasons, as the Islamic slave populations became more specialized, the Eurasian captives were generally assigned to positions of higher status and privilege while Africans were reduced to the most menial and arduous labor. The Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 gradually diverted the immense flow of slaves from the Crimea, the Balkans, and the steppes of western Asia to Islamic markets. As a result, Christian slave merchants turned increasingly to Moorish captives or to blacks transported across the Sahara to the Mediterranean or purchased by the Portuguese along the coast of West Africa. Later on, the southward expansion of Russia, culminating in the annexation of Crimea in 1783, gradually shut off the supply of white slaves to even the Islamic markets. Except for the small numbers of Europeans taken hostage by corsairs, the Islamic lands also became dependent on the slave merchants of sub-Saharan Africa. As Africa became almost synonymous with slavery, the world forgot the eagerness with which Tatars and other Black Sea peoples had sold millions of Ukrainians, Georgians, Circassians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Slavs, and Turks.

In 1441 Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator contemplated a group of black slaves seized on the Mauritanian coast and paraded before him in Lisbon. As the grand master of the Order of Christ, he “reflected with great pleasure upon the salvation of those souls that before were lost.”12 No doubt Henry was unaware that for many centuries slave-buying Muslims had taken comfort in precisely the same thought. Lewis comments on the unquestioned reiteration of “the notion that slavery is a divine boon to mankind, by means of which pagan and barbarous peoples are brought to Islam and civilization.” Yet despite this emphasis on the slave’s own benefit, Lewis concludes that even emancipated blacks were “rarely able to rise above the lowest levels” and that in the Islamic Middle East “the black is almost entirely missing from the positions of wealth, power, and privilege.”

If Lewis tends to omit the crucially important Africanization of Islam as the religion spread westward and south of the Sahara, he describes the pleas and protests of African Muslims, such as the black king of Bornu (now in northern Nigeria), who in the late fourteenth century futilely appealed to the sultan of Egypt to stop the Arab tribesmen who had raided his people, devastated his land, and

carried off free women, children, and infirm men. Some they kept as slaves for their own use; the rest they sold to slave dealers in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.

While correcting the errors of the orientalists, Lewis warns against the opposing error of concluding that the peoples of the Middle East ever practiced “the kind of racial oppression which exists in South Africa at the present time or which existed until recently in the United States.” This is surely a sound judgment and admonition, even if Lewis seems unaware of the critical importance of black slave soldiers in the Caribbean, of the open acceptance of concubinage with black women in various parts of the New World, and of the privileges and power enjoyed by a few favored slaves in the United States, all of which point to closer parallels with Islamic slavery than he detects, despite the fundamental differences in economic and social systems.

The most striking point, however, is that Christianity and Islam both arose in relatively colorblind environments. Both adhered theologically to a belief in the unity of mankind, and yet both gave birth to slaveholding societies permeated with racial prejudice. In the fifteenth century, when Europe was ready for spectacular geographic expansion and colonization, a slave system based on African labor, including sugar plantations and a fully developed slave trade from East, Northcentral, and West Africa, was already in place in the Muslim world. Like algebra and knowledge of the Greek classics, racial slavery appears to have been one of the Arabs’ contributions to Western civilization.

To recognize this tragic transmission and adaptation of slaveholding culture in no way lessens the guilt of Western maritime nations, which might eventually have found ways to exploit African labor without the aid and example of Arab and Berber intermediaries. Far more study is needed regarding the precise ways in which the practices of slavery were transmitted and adapted in Sicily, the Iberian Peninsula, and North Africa. But such knowledge can be gained only by abandoning the search for historical villains, by seeking a mutual understanding of Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, and by acknowledging the shared guilt and moral blindness that led to centuries of immeasurable suffering for African peoples, as well as to bloody race riots in fifteenth-century Cairo and large scale insurrections by black slaves from Iraq to Brazil, Jamaica, and South Carolina.

This Issue

October 11, 1990