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Arabs kept slaves too ...


Haji 2003

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[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.

Quote

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:

Quote

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.

p.150

Now we come to the issue of the supply of slaves. Here's one explanation:

Quote

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.

p154

She adds:

Quote

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.

p.154

 

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.

Quote

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:

Quote

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:

  1. the type of owner,
  2. the existence or otherwise of certain rights (including statutory freedom), and
  3. 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:

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=4409608

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):

Quote

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

http://books.google....slavery&f=false

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:

Quote

 

"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.

 

 

In summary...

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?

 

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Some examples from the East African coast which illustrate some of the issues you have mentioned above:

1. I know of several families who ended up with some slaves because some (less developed) communities would want to get rid of numbers during times of famine etc, so they would come to the bigger towns/cities and give their children to decent families because they would survive, and have prospects of growth (educational, cultural, likelihood of marriage or becoming a concubine in a decent family). To date, some of these communities still offer their children for "sale" whenever a food shortage or famine hits. At the same time, it is these very communities who have also been fed and have taken up the church narrative of slavery and how the big bad arabs have been dehumanising them.

2. In my work, I have come across several property ownership documents of slaves. I remember some distinctly describing the property owner as so and so, "Mustawlada" so and so - which I then came to realise a free woman (reason of freedom being having borne a male child) for the master. I also saw some documents of inheritance portions being made to the slaves from the 1/3 share of the owner, and some of a slave being freed to be married to a free man (as opposed to being purchased by a free man who had shown interest in having her).

3. There was a very amicable relationship between what are described as "slaves" and "slave masters" - and even decades after the abolition, the families interact {even though there are the social restrictions relating to intermarriage between them etc}. For example, an example I heard from the 80's was a person expressed an interest to marry a woman (who happened to be a descendant of the slaves of another family). The young man's grandmother raised an objection to the marriage saying, you are better off marrying from one of our own slaves so that your children are not born into slavery. So the restriction is not about the class/caste/social status, but the legal implications the marriage would create [ofcourse it took some of the older generation a while to realise those implications no longer exist].

There is a need for us to take a fresh look at slavery as it was on the ground in various communities, and not perceive it through the lens of a very interested party - that is colonialists who after having failed all other tactics to overcome some areas, used the excuse of coming to "free" people from slavery. Only then to colonize them haha

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      "We can create programs, offer training for these new roles," suggested Thomas, his voice now imbued with hope. "We can redefine work in terms of contributing to the growth and development of our children."
      As the meeting drew to a close, there was a sense of resolution, a feeling that they had stumbled upon a solution that could truly make a difference. "We will face challenges," Marianne concluded, "but in focusing on our children, we invest in a future where humanity and compassion are at the forefront. This is what we do."
      The committee members left the room with a newfound purpose, ready to face the challenges ahead. They had found their answer in the most fundamental aspect of human existence - the nurturing and upbringing of the next generation. In a world dominated by artificial intelligence, they had rediscovered the irreplaceable value of human connection and care.
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      https://thecontentedself.wordpress.com/2023/12/10/apolitical-intellectuals/
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