[This blog post was originally posted some time ago, but I have revisited it to edit, reformat and so on. I will be doing this to other blog posts as well - it's not a glitch in the system if they come up in the recent timeline]
"Arabs kept slaves too", is a comment often made by the apologists for European slavers, it's usually followed by the statement that Europeans abolished slavery, whereas the Arabs did not, so Europeans are morally superior.
This line of argument holds that the Europeans simply entered into a pre-existing tradition of slaving that existed in Africa and indeed all they did was provide an outlet for people who had already been taken into slavery by their fellow Africans.
I won't go into the obvious rebuttal that providing a demand for something is obviously going to increase its supply. The latter is the logic for making various goods illegal in consuming countries - so as to dry up the supply. My interest is with another issue.
Europeans dehumanised African slaves ... but Arabs integrated them into society
If slavery were so prevalent in Africa and the Middle East, you'd expect a larger number of slaves in those countries compared to North America, given their geographic proximity, why don't those countries have the same level of social and ethnic unrest as the United States does amongst its slave descendants? Or indeed if there was even institutional racism in Muslim countries, you'd expect to see the riots that flare up in the banlieues of Paris? Surely we should have an underclass based on race in countries such as Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and so on?
Demand for slaves in the Americas was due to their short life expectancy ... in Arab countries it was because they were freed
My assessment is that there was a distinct difference in the nature of slavery as practiced in Africa/Arabia and what was undertaken in the western Hemisphere. In the former countries slaves would be members of a household. They lived worked and worshipped with their masters. In the Western Hemisphere the owners were typically enjoying the proceeds of slavery in countries many thousands of miles away. African slaves owned by western masters were simply machines for agricultural production on an industrial scale in a pre-industrial era. They were disenfranchised and dehumanised. The basis for this was their masters' ideology which held that they were inferior.
Here's one attempt to add some flesh to that point, sorry no URL. I'll see if I can add more in due course. The quotations that follow, come from a paper by Shatzmiller, and I've tried to keep them short to protect copyright.
More evidence comes from estimates of the numbers of plague victims and the decline in cultivated areas, which explain the attempts made by the Islamic administrations to remedy the situation by purchasing slaves and forcing settlements...recurring plagues, which visited not only the Syrian coast but also Iraq.
Shatzmiller, M Economic Performance and Economic Growth in the Early Islamic World Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 54 (2011) 132-18
The impact of plagues was not helped by what I presume was an increased control over reproduction, by women in Muslim countries:
Evidence from legal and medical sources shows that the practice of birth control was common. Furthermore, small families, of 1.5 to 3 off-spring per family, were the norm well before the 14th century.
Now we come to the issue of the supply of slaves. Here's one explanation:
Spufford...observed that the decline in the money supply in Europe during the late 9th century and the early 10th century, the considerable decline in the use of money and the quantity of coin in circulation may all be explained by the cessation of slave exports from Europe to the Islamic lands. According to him, slaves were paid for in Islamic gold coins of the mancus fame, money which was then used by nobles and churchmen to buy oriental goods, particularly spices, but also garments.
if the purchase of slaves is accepted as a factor in the Islamic population growth, then it may be interpreted in another way by adding the legal admonition for setting slaves free upon the master’s death. Slaves in Islam were eventually manumitted and incorporated into society.
So definitions about what is a slave matter
As I have previously said, it's difficult to assess historical morality from a modern lens, given that we do not really have much idea about the, social, economic, demographic and other factors that were relevant at the time. It's a point developed in the following review by Ehud Toledano of Tel Aviv university and was published here: Journal of African History, 48 (2007), pp. 481–5.
Also, the very question of abolition is a dubious topic to pursue as part of the history of enslavement and has always been a problematic topic to investigate. Many of the well-known polemics pitted a self-righteous, enlightened-liberal Occident against a denial-ridden, defensive and apologetic Orient. One discourse was moralizing, patronizing, fault-finding, while the other was seeking to redefine the very notion of bondage and to recast the problem in terms of value-free sociocultural difference. Unfortunately, no real dialogue between the two has evolved, since much was believed to be at stake – the very reputation of civilizations as humane and virtuous versus inhumane and barbaric. It is not the ‘facts’ themselves that need to be unearthed, but rather their implications that need to be faced and owned up to.
He's reviewing the following book: Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. By William Gervase Clarence-Smith. London: Hurst & Company, 2006. Pp. xxvi+293. £26.40 (ISBN 1-85065-708-4).
My own strong impression, however, is that a huge and frustrating disconnection exists between serious scholarship and the stuff we see on the Internet ...
An illustrative example of the differences between slaves in different contexts
This is from one study dealing with a Muslim country:
Unlike genuine chattel slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, in the United States, and in Brazil and Haiti, who were always totally devoid of rights, farm-slaves in rural Hausaland normally enjoyed so many rights (including those of self-ransom) that it is reasonable to ask whether the term "slave" is, in fact, an appropriate translation of the Hausa bawa ... distinctions have to be drawn between different varieties of slavery according to:
- the type of owner,
- the existence or otherwise of certain rights (including statutory freedom), and
- the social structure within which slavery functioned.
Polly Hill. From Slavery to Freedom: The Case of Farm-Slavery in Nigerian Hausaland, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 395-426
Anyone at university should be able to get the above free, or you'll have to pay US$30, here:
It's worth noting however that Muslims would often not follow Islamic laws and often cultural and other non-Islamic beliefs would drive their behaviour. For example, in Africa, Muslim slaveowners would prefer that their slaves DID NOT become Muslims because of the rights that this would give them. I don't think people can blame the religion for the non-observance of believers.
Slavery was a means of survival
Some people may find this text to be useful, if you are too impatient to read it all, the summary is one page long and is on page xxiii. For the really time poor here's a snippet (emphases mine):
It is against this backdrop that institutions of servitude, including slavery and debt bondage, are best judged. In good times, the social group attempted to increase the number of its dependents, but in bad times it sold the most expendable and marketable to further the survival of the group. Some voluntarily entered slavery. Others 'sold' or 'pawned' their children. Possibly the majority entered slavery through indebtedness, a process largely ignored in the conventional historiography of slavery. Most slaves at least received the food and shelter essential to survive, unlike many ordinary non-slaves. Indeed, some slaves rejected opportunies to gain 'liberty' and some non-slaves entered slavery in order to improve their chances of survival and even of a significantly better lifestyle
The above extract is from a book called, 'The structure of slavery in India, Africa and Asia', it was published in 2004 and although Google restricts how many pages you can see for free, there's more than enough to inform anyone who is interested.
To have a rational discussion referring to facts can be helpful. From the book I referred to earlier in the thread:
"In sum, conventional western notions of 'slave' and 'free' are not particularly helpful tools of historical analysis in most of the IOW" p. xxvi
"During catastrophes people often entered slavery either voluntarily or propelled by their kin group as a survival strategy p. xxiv...the British in 19th century India even described types of slavery as a form of poor relief" pxxii.
My take away from what I have read so far and which also reinforce my pre-existing opinions, is that:
- definitions of slavery vary
- practice of slavery varies between different Islamic schools
- Muslims often practice slavery NOT in accordance with sharia
- slavery was at certain times considered preferable to other forms of control e.g. corvee
- one of the reasons for Islamic trade in slaves was the high levels of manumission, which enabled slaves to be freed, and also the relative lack of racial prejudice in Muslim societies which allowed slaves to integrate into society
But most importantly of all it explicitly reinforces the idea that if your image of slavery is based Kunta Kinte (from the book and television series Roots about African slaves in the United States), you're basically starting off on the wrong premise. To have a rational discussion you also need to be clear about the terms you use and what they mean, as I have repeatedly shown, this can be problematic, as this quotation underlies:
Perhaps the Muslims on this board who question how Imams ((عليه السلام).) could have held slaves, may reflect on that answer given by non-Muslims? This includes the view of British colonials in India that slavery was one form of social welfare.
My original hunch was that slavery (like any other contract) can be done fairly and it can be done badly. Having actually read the Islamic materials posted by others and the historical material I have found, I am still comfortable with my initial hunch. All the critics ever do is give examples of the most abusive kinds of slavery. Similarly it would be easy to find examples of exploitative employment - does that mean anyone who has ever held a job in Human Resources will automatically go to hell?