Interesting Fact Of The Day: Slavery

Above is a picture of all the books I have to read by next month (precisely 5th July…wait isn’t that next week?!). The books in the picture all have to do with Africa, the two on top are about slavery in Africa (one particularly focuses on women in slavery). Other books are about African empires and peoples, Chinese foreign policy and development in Africa. I have another tower of books but those are not related to work at all (i.e. the comics and sci-fi). The picture was taken last week and the pile has subsequently been reduced, I have been reading three books per day. I was in a rush to finish reading these books and yesterday started reading Bernard Lewis’ Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. Below are excerpts from the book and my notes, the internet does not really have much excellent sources on slavery in the Middle East so I hope this makes a difference. I will write more on this issue in a post following this one as I think it is important for everyone whether African or not, Muslim or non-Muslim, Arab or not to know about this form of slavery.

Excerpts and Notes

The institution of slavery had indeed been practiced from time immemorial. It existed in all the ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe and pre-Columbian America. It had been accepted and even endorsed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as other religions of the world.
In the ancient Middle East, as elsewhere, slavery is attested from the very earliest written records, among the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and other ancient peoples. The earliest slaves, it would seem, were captives taken in warfare (p. 3)

I knew this for a long time but it is nice to finally see it in an academic reference. Apparently in ancient times slaves were mostly property of royalty or priests and were only owned by a small percentage of the population (I am guessing the rich wealthy folks). In other words not everyone owned slaves. Slaves were usually gotten through warfare and they worked on farms and tended the flock of their masters. I like the fact that religion and ethnicity was mentioned, slavery was accepted (and practiced by almost all peoples) in those days.

Jews, Christians, and pagans alike owned slaves and exercised the rights and powers accorded to them by their various religious laws. In all communities, there were men of compassion who urged slave-owners to treat their slaves humanely, and there was even some attempt to secure this by law. But the institution of slavery as such was not seriously questioned, and was indeed often defended in terms of either Natural Law or Divine Dispensation (p. 5)

The Qur’an, like the Old Testament and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it…
But Qur’anic legislation…brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects. One of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances (p. 5)

Nor were there slave races. Foreigners, especially barbarians, were enslavable. The ancients, like the rest of humanity, believed foreigners to be inferior. (p. 18)

Apparently even Prophet Muhammed owned slaves. The mention of the foreigner as inferior is very important because it sets the background to the question; ‘Why is it that Africans were/are associated with slavery?’ This was examined later in the book and it is also interesting that the Arabs owned white slaves from the Circassian lands and these were actually preferred over (and more expensive than) black slaves. However when the supply of white slaves diminished, they turned to Africa. White slaves were mamluk which mean ‘owned’ and black slaves were ‘abd. Eventually ‘abd not only referred to a black slave but any black man whether slave or free.

Between white and black slaves…there was for a long time one crucial distinction. Whereas white slaves could become generals, provincial governors, sovereigns, and founders of dynasties, this hardly ever happened with black slaves in central Islamic lands (p. 59)

However in Muslim India, soldiers of African slave origin did rise to high rankings. In terms of ‘central Islamic lands’, only Nubian eunuch Abu’l-Misk Kafur became a capable regent of Egypt in the tenth century.

And who knew that the classic Arabic literature The Thousand and One Nights may be racist? I have actually heard this concern voiced elsewhere online. Those familiar with the story may recall that the King Shahzaman killed his wife after discovering her in bed ‘attended’ by a black male slave. He had planned to visit his brother King Shahriyar but returned in the middle of the night because he forgot something, hence the discovery of his wife with a black slave. He killed them both while they slept.

King Shahzaman and King Shahriyar were clearly white supremacists, with sexual fantasies, or rather nightmares, of a sadly familiar quality. This resemblance in The Thousand and One Nights to certain aspects of the old American South is confirmed if we look more closely into that work. Blacks appear frequently in the stories that make up the Nights. Where they do, it is almost invariably in a menial role –as porters, household servants, slaves, cooks, bath attendants, and the like– rarely, if ever, rising above this level in society. Perhaps even more revealing in its way is the story of the good black slave who lived a life of virtue and piety, for which he was rewarded by turning white at the moment of his death (p. 20)

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 traditions and one which in their eyes was necessary to the maintenance of the social structure of Muslim life (p. 79)

So this is why they did not want to abandon slavery, because according to them it was sanctioned by God and it is a sin to forbid what God has made lawful (or permit what God has made unlawful). Interesting, all this shows to me is why we really should not take religious scriptures literally though I know some people will not mind going back to ‘the good old days’ when they were ‘attended’ by numerous slaves. Disgusting to say the least.

The voice of Islamic piety on miscegenation clear and unequivocal–there are no superior and inferior races and therefore no bar to racial intermarriage. In practice, however, this pious doctrine is frequently disregarded or even overruled. Marriage is regulated by the holy law of Islam and is indeed the only important issue on which questions of race and colour become the concern of the law. This concern arises under the legal doctrine of Kafa’a, which might be roughly translated as equality of birth and social status in marriage. The purpose of Kafa’a was to ensure that a man should be at least the social equal of the woman he marries (p. 85)

The notion of Kafa’a has its antecedents in pre-Islamic Arabia, where tribal custom required a measure of social compatibility between husband and wife. Though not sanctioned by the Qur’an and indeed in a sense contrary to the spirit of the Qur’an, it survived into Islamic times and became part of the holy law of Islam (p. 85)

More reason why religious scriptures must be thoroughly examined. So this concept of Kafa’a originated in pre-Islamic Arabic but became part of Islamic law. How many other things have a similar history? Weren’t those days ‘the days of ignorance’? Why should we then be bound by some of their ‘ignorant’ laws? Again this shows how deeply entrenched culture is in religion. Recently on Muslimah Media Watch, there was a post discussing the freedom of Muslim women to marry who they choose. Sadly I was not able to comment before the comments section was closed, but the supposed Islamic rule that says that Muslim women cannot get married to non-Muslim men (while permitting Muslim men to marry among ‘People of the Book’ i.e. Christians and Jews) stinks of this Kafa’a and ideas of a woman’s social status as linked to her family…

The black poet Nusayb had a son who sought to marry an Arab girl of the tribe of which he was a freedman. Nusayb’s personal standing secured the accepted of the girl’s uncle and guardian, but he himself objected. He had his son beaten for aspiring to a marriage which he regarded as improper and advised the girl’s guardian to find her a true Arab husband. Ironically, Nusayb’s own daughters, dark-skinned like himself, remained unmarried. ‘My colour has rubbed off on to them,’ he is quoted as saying, ‘and they are left on my hands. I don’t want blacks for them, and whites don’t want them.’ Their fate became proverbial for old maids with choosy fathers (p. 88)

For a white male to mate with a black woman was in general considered acceptable–with the Nubians and other Nilotics much more than with the Zanj. Ethiopian women were, indeed, highly esteemed. Such mating usually took the form of concubinage–a legally and socially acceptable practice–rather than marriage (p. 89)

….the quotes above should hopefully be more clarifying. FYI, Zanj refers to blacks from East Africa (excludes those from the Horn of Africa). Arab men were allowed to mate with black women, those who wanted to could marry them though most did not preferring concubinage. However an Arab woman was generally not permitted to marry a black man. I just cannot help but link this to the idea of Muslim women being forbidden to marry non-Muslim men. Indeed I do think that is very unfair and do not necessary believe in it but I am just a mere woman and not an Islamic scholar. Even if I was an Islamic scholar that does not mean people would listen to me. I really wonder what people’s objections are to a Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man. Is it that the children would be raised in the religion of their father? Well this is not always the case and is heavily based on patriarchal ideals…I should stop myself before this post gets any longer.

On the issue of concubinage, I had to post the following quotes that compare concubinage in the Middle East with that practiced in the Americas. In the Qur’an, concubines are referred to as ‘that which the right hand possesses’ (see An-Nisa:4; Al-Muminun:6 and Al-Ahzab:50-52)

Marriage is one thing, concubinage another. Like many North American slave owners and still more South American ones, Muslim men who owned women slaves were accustomed to mate with them. But the two situations were very different. In the West, concubinage was condemned by law, religion, and society. It was usually furtive, and its offspring, without recognition or legitimacy, merged into the general slave population. In Islam, concubinage was sanctioned by the law and indeed by the Qur’an itself. A man could, if he chose, recognise his offspring by his slave woman as legitimate, thereby conferring a formal legal status on both mother and child. In theory, this recognition was optional, and in the early period was often withheld (p. 91)

And I could not resist adding this as well…

White-skinned women were usually preferred for the bed, and the occasional assertion, by an author, of the sexual attractions of the dark-skinned usually presents an appearance of bravado or paradox (p. 91)

At the turn of the 18th century, the Ottoman erotic poet Fazil Bey (ca. 1757-1810) wrote a ‘Book of Women,’ describing the attractions and other qualities of girls of about 40 different races and regions, and a similar book on beautiful boys…He speaks well of the Ethiopians of both sexes but has little good to say of those whom he calls ‘the blacks.’ Though they may have good qualities insides, their darkness makes them unattractive, and their faculties are correspondingly dull (p. 93)

According to Fazil, the black women are more suited to the kitchen than to the bed and it is foolish to make love to blacks when whites are available. Apparently Fazil is quoted to have said ‘The black boy is not to meet to kiss and embrace, unless the lover’s eye is blind’…this I do not understand. Does he mean that black boys are repulsive and unattractive or that they reject kisses?

Stereotypes of black people abound including that they are stupid, vicious, dishonest, dirty and ’emit an evil smell’ (apparently from the armpits). But apparently blacks have rhythm (and the cleanest teeth because of too much saliva…) and we have heard that before haven’t we? I mean the part with blacks having rhythm.

Another accusation, which also sometimes appears as praise, is that the black is frivolous and lighthearted–that is, in other terms, cheerful and of happy disposition. Other positive stereotypes show the black as brave, generous, musical, and with a strong feeling of rhythm (p. 93)

Despite negative stereotypes about black women some poets were apparently still sexually attracted to them,

There is a good deal of Arabic poetry which shows the same kind of prurient interest in the Negress as one finds in European anti-Semitic writings about the Jewess. The interrelated European themes of la belle juive and l’affreuse juive have close parallels in the simultaneous interest shown by Arab poets in the repulsive ugliness and incandescent sexuality which they ascribe to the black woman. That there are resemblances between these stereotypes of blacks and those common in our own society will be obvious (p. 94)

‘Our own society’ should mean Western society. I am too lazy to check a dictionary so those who know French better should please correct me, la belle juive means the beautiful Jewess and l’affreuse juive means the affluent Jewess.

Finally the issue of racial equality in the Middle East was addressed. Though the Qur’an says that there is no such thing as ethnic (or gender) superiority and that the only virtue that makes one person better than the other is piety, this is obviously not reflected by Muslims themselves. Now I am not saying that all Muslims are racist or whatever, they are not (look at me ^__^) but the painting of the Islamic world as less racist than the West is nothing but a myth. The thing about idealising people and places is that you are bound to be disappointed. In the end we are all humans and humans are capable of anything.

The myth of Islamic racial innocence was a Western creation and served a Western purpose. Not for the first time, a mythologized and idealized Islam provide a stick with which to chastise Western failings. In the 18th century, the philosophers of the Enlightenment had praised Islam for its lack of dogmas and mysteries, its freedom from priests and Inquisitors and other persecutors–recognising real qualities but exaggerating them as a polemical weapon against the Christian churches and clergy. In the early 19th century, West European Jews, newly and still imperfectly emancipated, appealed to a legendary golden age in Muslim Spain, of complete tolerance and acceptance in symbiotic harmony (p. 101)

Lewis argues that this myth is a Western creation which was initially a surprise to me. He uses examples of authors such as Alfred von Kremer and Snouck Hurgronje who denounced Western slavery comparing it to the Arab slavery usually showing the latter in a more positive or favourable light. Islamic empires were held high as paragons of racial equality as opposed to the Western empires. Another example is Edward W. Blyden, a West Indian educated by missionaries in Liberia. He was convinced that Islam was better suited than Christianity to black African needs. Lewis suggests that this myth has survived because of ‘the white man’s burden’, a burden of guilt, an insistence on responsibility by the white man for the world and its ills.

While this issue of slavery is still hot on my mind, I shall now go to complete my readings (this time for my thesis), have a short nap and come back in another post on African slavery.

Lewis Bernard, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990


  1. I have spent all day going through your archives…you are a good wordsmith. Even though your posts are very lengthy, you managed to hold my attention every time till the end.

  2. AJ, thanks a lot for taking the time out to read my posts. btw their length is totally unplanned! i tend to get carried away when i write. thanks again i hope you enjoy my future posts!

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