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Monday, December 14, 2020

Pre-'Colonial' Slavery in the Muslim World

"The Qur'an gives no countenance to the idea that there are superior and inferior races and that the latter are foredoomed to a subordinate status; the overwhelming majority of Muslim jurists and theologians share this rejection. There are some early traditions, and early juridical opinions and rulings citing them, which assign a privileged status to the Arabs, as against other peoples within the Islamic community. The Caliph `Umar is even quoted, improbably, as saying that no Arab could he owned. Some pagan Arabs were in fact enslaved by the early caliphs and even by the Prophet himself, and the idea of Arab exemption from the normal rules regarding enslavement was not approved by later jurists.

Such an opinion did indeed reflect the social realities in the early centuries of the Islamic Empire, created by Arab conquests. By the ninth century, however, this privileged status had for all practical purposes ended... At no time did Muslim theologians or jurists accept the idea that there may be races of mankind predisposed by nature or foredoomed by Providence to the condition of slavery.

Such ideas were, however, known from the heritage of antiquity and found echoes in Muslim writings, the more so when they began to correspond to the changing realities of Muslim society. Aristotle, in his discussion of slavery, had observed that while some are by nature free, others are by nature slaves. For such, the condition of slavery is both 'beneficial and just,' and a war undertaken to reduce them to that condition is a just war.

This idea, along with others from the same source, was taken up and echoed by a few Muslim Aristotelians. Thus the tenth-century philosopher al-Farabi lists, among the categories of just war, one the purpose of which is to subjugate and enslave those whose 'best and most advantageous status in the world is to serve and be slaves' and who nevertheless refuse to accept slavery.' The idea of natural slavery is mentioned, though not developed, by some other Aristotelian philosophers. Al-'Amiri, for example, follows Aristotle in comparing the natural superiority of master to slave with the equally natural superiority of man to woman.

Aristotle does not specify which races he has in mind, merely observing that barbarians are more slavish (doulikoteroi) than Greeks, and Asiatics more so than Europeans. That, according to Aristotle, is why they are willing to submit to despotic government-that is, one that rules them as a master (despotes) rules his slaves. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, some Muslim philosophers were more specific. The great physician and philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) notes as part of God's providential wisdom that he had placed, in regions of great heat or great cold, peoples who were by their very nature slaves, and incapable of higher things-"for there must be masters and slaves." Such were the Turks and their neighbors in the North and the blacks in Africa. Similar judgments were pronounced by his contemporary, the Ismaili theologian Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. 1021), who was chief of missions of the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo. In a philosophical work, he dismisses "the Turks, Zanj, Berbers, and their like" as "by their nature" without interest in the pursuit of intellectual knowledge and without desire to understand religious truth.

By this time, the great majority of Muslim slaves were either Turks or blacks, and Aristotle's doctrine of natural slavery, brought up to date, provided a convenient justification of their enslavement.

Another attempt to justify the enslavement of a whole race, this time in religious rather than philosophical terms and restricted to the dark-skinned people of Africa, is the Muslim adaptation of the biblical story of the curse of Ham. In the biblical version (Genesis 9:1-27) the curse is servitude, not blackness, and it falls on Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, and not on his other sons, including Kush, later seen as ancestor of the blacks. The rationale of the story is obvious-the slaves of the Israelites were their near kinsmen the Canaanites, and a religious (i.e., ideological) justification was required for their enslavement, hence the story of the curse of Canaan. The slaves of the Arabs were not Canaanites but blacks-so the curse was transferred to them, and blackness added to servitude as part of the hereditary burden. This story, though widespread, was by no means universally accepted. Ibn Khaldun and some other Arab writers reject it as absurd, and attribute blackness to climatic and geographical factors. The idea, however, that blackness and slavery are somehow associated, as expressed in this story, was derived less from tradition than from reality

Such ideas have no place in the writings of Muslim jurists, who unanimously reject the enslavement of free Muslims, of whatever race or origin. Nor did the total identification of blackness with slavery, which occurred in North and South America, ever take place in the Muslim world. There were always white slaves as well as black ones, and free blacks as well as slaves. Nevertheless, the identification of blackness with certain forms of slavery went very far-and in later centuries white slaves grew increasingly rare.

Already in medieval times it became customary to use different words for black and white slaves. White slaves were normally called mamluk, an Arabic word meaning "owned," while black slaves were called 'abd. "' In time, the word 'abd ceased to be used of any but black slaves and eventually, in many Arabic dialects, simply came to mean a black man, whether slave or free. This transition from a social to an ethnic meaning is thus the reverse of the semantic development of our own word "slave," which began as the designation of an ethnic group and became a social term. In Western Islam-in North Africa and Spain-the word khadim, "servant" (dialectal form, khadem) is often specialized to mean "black slave," "slave woman," or "concubine."

It is not only in terminology that black and white slaves were distinguished. For one thing, white slaves, especially females, were more expensive; for another, black slaves were far more severely restricted in their social and occupational mobility...

Even religious groups with what some would call radical and progressive ideals seem to have accepted the slavery of the black man as natural. Thus, in the eleventh century we are told that the Carmathians established a kind of republic in eastern Arabia, abolished many of the prescriptions regarding persons and property which conventional Islam imposed-and had a force of thirty thousand black slaves to do the rough work.

Jurists occasionally discuss the status of black Muslim slaves. Muslim law unequivocally forbids the enslavement of free Muslims of whatever race, and was usually obeyed in this. There is, however, evidence that the law was not always strictly enforced to protect Muslim captives from black Africa. A fatwa (legal ruling) in a collection of such rulings by Spanish and North African authorities, compiled by a fifteenth-century Moroccan jurist, Ahmad alWansharisi, is instructive. The question to be decided is whether Ethiopian (i.e., black) slaves professing monotheism and observing religious practices could lawfully be bought and sold. The law is clear. An unbeliever may be enslaved, a Muslim may not; but the adoption of Islam by an unbeliever after his enslavement does not automatically set him free. Slavery, says the fatwa, is a condition arising from current or previous unbelief and persists after conversion, the owner of the slave retaining full property rights. If a group is known to have been converted to Islam, then the taking of slaves from this group is forbidden. However, the existence of a doubt as to whether conversion took place before or after enslavement does not invalidate the ownership or sale of the slave. It is significant that the writer of the fatwa discusses the question in relation to black slaves, that he is at some pains to insist that Islam does not necessarily involve freedom, and that he gives the benefit of the doubt not to the slave but to the slaveowner. The problem was clearly not academic. Other sources preserve complaints by black Muslim rulers about "holy wars" launched against them to take captives and by jurists-usually black jurists-at the enslavement of free, black Muslims contrary to law.

The question was discussed at some length by an African jurist, Ahmad Baba of Timbuktu (1556-1627)...

Ahmad Baba's answers, however, make it clear that many Muslim blacks were in fact being illegally enslaved, and he frankly faces the difficulty of distinguishing between lawful and unlawful slaves...

That this ruling was of little practical effect is shown by a later discussion of the illegal enslavement of black Muslims by the nineteenth-century Moroccan historian Ahmad ibn Khalid al-Nasiri (1834-97). Writing within the context of traditional society, he is nevertheless clearly affected by the new anti-slavery ideas current at the time. Al-Nasiri recognizes the legality of the institution of slavery in Muslim law but is appalled by its application. He complains in particular of "a manifest and shocking calamity widespread and established since of old in the lands of the Maghrib-the unlimited enslavement of the blacks, and the importation of many droves of them every year, for sale in the town and country markets of the Maghrib, where men traffic in them like beasts, or worse." This abuse is so old and so deep-rooted, says alNasiri, that "many of the common people believe that the cause of their enslavement in Holy Law is that they are black of color and imported from those parts."...

Despite such arguments and despite the decrees in favor of emancipation by Ahmad Bey of Tunis, the enslavement of blacks and their export to the Mediterranean lands and the Middle East continued and was defended by the increasingly flimsy argument that blacks were idolators and therefore that warfare against them was jihad, or holy war, and the captives were legally liable to enslavement. Since, for a conscientious Muslim, only a jihad could supply legally valid slaves, it was necessary to call every slave raid a jihad. One can understand the anger and anguish of a good Muslim like al-Nasiri.

White slaves were rarely used for rough labor and filled higher positions in domestic and administrative employment...

The importation of black slaves into the central Islamic lands, which began at the time of the conquest, continued without interruption until the nineteenth century and in some areas into the twentieth...

Between white and black slaves-even where the latter were numerous and powerful-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 the central Islamic lands. In Muslim India, a number of soldiers of African slave origin rose to high office, some even becoming rulers. Elsewhere, their opportunities for advancement were very limited. Only one of them ever became the ruler of a Muslim country outside the black zone-the famous Nubian eunuch Abu'l-Misk Kaffir, "Musky Camphor," who in the tenth century became regent of Egypt (and a very capable one). Historians clearly regarded this as remarkable, and the great Arab poet al-Mutanabbi found in Kaffir's blackness a worthy object of satirical abuse. In one of his most famous poems, he bitterly attacks the master of Egypt...

The same limitation of opportunity applies to the emancipated slave. The emancipated white slave was free from any kind of restriction; the emancipated black slave was at most times and places rarely able to rise above the lowest levels. In Umayyad times, we still hear of black poets and singers achieving some sort of social standing, even though they complain of discrimination. In later times, the black poet as a figure in Arabic literature disappears and none of any consequence are reported from the mid-eighth century onward. A few religious figures-saints and scholars-are said to have had black ancestry, but these again are exceptional. What is more important is that the black is almost entirely missing from the positions of wealth, power, and privilege. Medieval authors sometimes attribute this want of achievement by black slaves and freedmen to lack of capacity. The modern observer will recognize the effects of lack of opportunity"


Strange, we are told that race and racism were invented by White European colonialists to justify and facilitate colonialism.

Of course, we are also told that colonialism is a uniquely white phenomenon.

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