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History of slavery in the Muslim world

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Slavery in the Muslim world first developed out of the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia,[1] and was at times radically different, depending on social-political factors such as the Arab slave trade. Throughout Islamic history, slaves served in various social and economic roles, from powerful emirs to harshly treated manual laborers. Early on in Muslim history they were used in plantation labor similar to that in the Americas, but this was abandoned after harsh treatment led to destructive slave revolts,[2] the most notable being the Zanj Rebellion of 869–883.[3] Slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, and animal husbandry, but the most common uses were as soldiers, guards, domestic workers, [2] and concubines. Many rulers relied on military slaves, often in huge standing armies, and slaves in administration to such a degree that the slaves were sometimes in a position to seize power. Among black slaves, there were roughly two females to every one male.[2] Two rough estimates by scholars of the number of slaves held over twelve centuries in the Muslim world are 11.5 million[4] and 14 million,[5][6] while other estimates indicate a number between 12 and 15 million slaves prior to the 20th century.[7]

Manumission of a Muslim slave was encouraged as a way of expiating sins.[8] Many early converts to Islam, such as Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi, were former slaves.[9][10][11][12] In theory, slavery in Islamic law does not have a racial or color component, although this has not always been the case in practice.[13] In 1990, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam declared that "no one has the right to enslave" another human being.[14] Many slaves were often imported from outside the Muslim world.[15] Bernard Lewis maintains that though slaves often suffered on the way before reaching their destination, they received good treatment and some degree of acceptance as members of their owners' households.[16]

The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Africa. In the early 20th century (post-World War I), slavery was gradually outlawed and suppressed in Muslim lands, largely due to pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France.[17] Slavery in the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1924 when the new Turkish Constitution disbanded the Imperial Harem and made the last concubines and eunuchs free citizens of the newly proclaimed republic.[18] Slavery in Iran was abolished in 1929. Among the last states to abolish slavery were Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which abolished slavery in 1962 under pressure from Britain; Oman in 1970; and Mauritania in 1905, 1981, and again in August 2007.[19] However, slavery claiming the sanction of Islam is documented at present in the predominantly Islamic countries of the Sahel,[20][21] and is also practiced in territories controlled by Islamist rebel groups. It is also practiced in countries like in Libya and Mauritania despite being outlawed.

Slavery in pre-Islamic Arabia

Slavery was widely practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia, as well as in the rest of the ancient and early medieval world. The minority were European and Caucasus slaves of foreign extraction, likely brought in by Arab caravaners (or the product of Bedouin captures) stretching back to biblical times. Native Arab slaves had also existed, a prime example being Zayd ibn Harithah, later to become Muhammad's adopted son. Arab slaves, however, usually obtained as captives, were generally ransomed off amongst nomad tribes.[17] The slave population increased by the custom of child abandonment (see also infanticide), and by the kidnapping, or, occasionally, the sale of small children.[22] Whether enslavement for debt or the sale of children by their families was common is disputed. (Abd Brunschvig argues it was rare,[17] but according to Jonathan E. Brockopp debt slavery was persistent.[23]) Free persons could sell their offspring, or even themselves, into slavery. Enslavement was also possible as a consequence of committing certain offenses against the law, as in the Roman Empire.[22]

Two classes of slave existed: a purchased slave, and a slave born in the master's home. Over the latter, the master had complete rights of ownership, though these slaves were unlikely to be sold or disposed of by the master. Female slaves were at times forced into prostitution for the benefit of their masters, in accordance with Near Eastern customs.[17][24][25]

Bilal ibn Ribah (pictured, atop the Masjid Nabawi) was an Ethiopian slave, emancipated on Muhammad's instruction, and appointed by him to be the first official muezzin.
Bilal ibn Ribah (pictured, atop the Masjid Nabawi) was an Ethiopian slave, emancipated on Muhammad's instruction, and appointed by him to be the first official muezzin.

The historical accounts[which?] of the early years of Islam report that "slaves of non-Muslim masters ... suffered brutal punishments. Sumayyah bint Khayyat is famous as the first martyr of Islam, having been killed with a spear by Abū Lahāb when she refused to give up her faith.[additional citation(s) needed] Abu Bakr freed Bilal when his master, Umayya ibn Khalaf, placed a heavy rock on his chest in an attempt to force his conversion."[23][page needed][additional citation(s) needed]

Slavery in Islamic Arabia

Early Islamic history

W. Montgomery Watt points out that Muhammad's expansion of Pax Islamica to the Arabian peninsula reduced warfare and raiding, and therefore cut off the sources of enslaving freemen.[26] According to Patrick Manning, the Islamic legislations against the abuse of the slaves limited the extent of enslavement in Arabian peninsula and to a lesser degree for the whole area of the whole Umayyad Caliphate where slavery existed since the most ancient times.[27]

According to Bernard Lewis, the growth of internal slave populations through natural increase was insufficient to maintain numbers right through to modern times, which contrasts markedly with rapidly rising slave populations in the New World. He writes that

  1. Liberation by freemen of their own offspring born by slave mothers was "the primary drain".
  2. Liberation of slaves as an act of piety, was a contributing factor. Other factors include:
  3. Castration: A fair proportion of male slaves were imported as eunuchs. Levy states that according to the Quran and Islamic traditions, such emasculation was objectionable. Some jurists such as al-Baydawi considered castration to be mutilation, stipulating law enforcement to prevent it. However, in practice, emasculation was frequent.[28] In eighteenth-century Mecca, the majority of eunuchs were in the service of the mosques.[29] Moreover, the process of castration (which included penectomy) carried a high risk of death.
  4. Liberation of military slaves: Military slaves that rose through the ranks were usually liberated at some stage in their careers.
  5. Restrictions on procreation: Among the menial, domestic, and manual worker slaves, casual sex was not permitted and marriage was not encouraged.
  6. High death toll: There was a high death toll among all classes of slaves. Slaves usually came from remote places and, lacking immunities, died in large numbers. Segal notes that recent slaves, weakened by their initial captivity and debilitating journey, would have been easy victim to climate changes and infection.[30] Children were especially at risk, and the Islamic market demand for children was much greater than the American one. Many black slaves lived in conditions conducive to malnutrition and disease, with effects on their own life expectancy, the fertility of women, and the infant mortality rate.[30] As late as the 19th century, Western travellers in North Africa and Egypt noted the high death rate among imported black slaves.[31]
  7. Another factor was the Zanj Rebellion against the plantation economy of ninth-century southern Iraq. Due to fears of a similar uprising among slave gangs occurring elsewhere, Muslims came to realize that large concentrations of slaves were not a suitable organization of labour and that slaves were best employed in smaller concentrations.[32] As such, large-scale employment of slaves for manual labour became the exception rather than the norm, and the medieval Islamic world did not need to import vast numbers of slaves.[33]

Arab slave trade

Bernard Lewis writes: "In one of the sad paradoxes of human history, it was the humanitarian reforms brought by Islam that resulted in a vast development of the slave trade inside, and still more outside, the Islamic empire." He notes that the Islamic injunctions against the enslavement of Muslims led to massive importation of slaves from the outside.[34] According to Patrick Manning, Islam by recognizing and codifying the slavery seems to have done more to protect and expand slavery than the reverse.[27]

The 'Arab' slave trade is sometimes called the 'Islamic' slave trade. Bernard Lewis writes that "polytheists and idolaters were seen primarily as sources of slaves, to be imported into the Islamic world and molded-in Islamic ways, and, since they possessed no religion of their own worth the mention, as natural recruits for Islam."[35] Patrick Manning states that religion was hardly the point of this slavery.[36] Also, this term suggests comparison between Islamic slave trade and Christian slave trade. Propagators of Islam in Africa often revealed a cautious attitude towards proselytizing because of its effect in reducing the potential reservoir of slaves.[37]

Arab or Islamic slave trade lasted much longer than the Atlantic or European slave trade: "It began in the middle of the seventh century and survives today in Mauritania and Sudan. With the Islamic slave trade, we're talking of 14 centuries rather than four." Further, "whereas the gender ratio of slaves in the Atlantic trade was two males to every female, in the Islamic trade, it was two females to every male," according to Ronald Segal.[38]

In the 8th century, Africa was dominated by Arab-Berbers in the north: Islam moved southwards along the Nile and along the desert trails. One supply of slaves was the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia which often exported Nilotic slaves from their western borderland provinces, or from newly conquered or reconquered Muslim provinces. Native Muslim Ethiopian sultanates (rulership) exported slaves as well, such as the sometimes independent sultanate (rulership) of Adal.[39]

For a long time, until the early 18th century, the Crimean Khanate maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. Between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly 1 million and quite possibly as many as 1.25 million white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast of North Africa.[40]

On the coast of the Indian Ocean too, slave-trading posts were set up by Muslim Arabs.[41] The archipelago of Zanzibar, along the coast of present-day Tanzania, is undoubtedly the most notorious example of these trading colonies. Southeast Africa and the Indian Ocean continued as an important region for the Oriental slave trade up until the 19th century.[17] Livingstone and Stanley were then the first Europeans to penetrate to the interior of the Congo basin and to discover the scale of slavery there.[41] The Arab Tippu Tib extended his influence and made many people slaves.[41] After Europeans had settled in the Gulf of Guinea, the trans-Saharan slave trade became less important. In Zanzibar, slavery was abolished late, in 1897, under Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed.[42] The rest of Africa had no direct contact with Muslim slave-traders.


While slaves were sometimes employed for manual labour during the Arab slave trade, this was usually the exception rather than the norm. The vast majority of labour in the medieval Islamic world consisted of free, paid labour. The only known exceptions to this general rule was in the plantation economy of 9th-century southern Iraq (which led to the Zanj Revolt), in 9th-century Ifriqiya (modern-day Tunisia), and in 11th-century Bahrain (during the Karmatian state).[33]

Roles of slaves

A system of plantation labor, much like that which would emerge in the Americas, developed early on, but with such dire consequences that subsequent engagements were relatively rare and reduced. Moreover, the need for agricultural labor, in an Islamic world with large peasant populations, was nowhere near as acute as in the Americas.[2] Slaves in Islam were mainly directed at the service sector – concubines and cooks, porters and soldiers – with slavery itself primarily a form of consumption rather than a factor of production.[2] The most telling evidence for this is found in the gender ratio; among black slaves traded in Islamic empire across the centuries, there were roughly two females to every male.[2] Almost all of these female slaves had domestic occupations. For some, this also included sexual relations with their masters. This was a lawful motive for their purchase, and the most common one.[43]

Military service was also a common role for slaves. Barbarians from the "martial races" beyond the frontiers were widely recruited into the imperial armies. These recruits often advanced in the imperial and eventually metropolitan forces, sometimes obtaining high ranks.[44]

Women and slavery

A slave market in Cairo. Drawing by David Roberts, circa 1848.
A slave market in Cairo. Drawing by David Roberts, circa 1848.

In Classical Arabic terminology, female slaves were generally called jawāri (Arabic: جَوار‎, s. jāriya Arabic: جارِية‎). Slave-girls specifically might be called imā’ (Arabic: اِماء‎, s. ama Arabic: اَمة‎), while female slaves who had been trained as entertainers or courtesans were usually called qiyān (Arabic: قِيان‎, IPA /qi'jaːn/; singular qayna, Arabic: قَينة‎, IPA /'qaina/).[45] They included sometimes highly trained entertainers known as qiyan who enjoyed special privileges and status.

Choosing elite slaves for the grooming process

Choosing slaves to undergo the grooming process was highly selective in the Moroccan empire. There are many attributes and skills slaves can possess to win the favour and trust of their masters. When examining master/slave relationships we are able to understand that slaves with white skin were especially valued in Islamic societies. Additionally, mode of acquisition, as well as age when acquired heavily influenced slave value as well as, could foster trusting master-slave relationships. Many times slaves acquired as adolescents or even young adults became trusted aides and confidants of their masters. Furthermore, acquiring a slave during adolescence typically leads to opportunities for education and training, as slaves acquired in their adolescent years were at an ideal age to begin military training. In Islamic societies it was normal to begin this process at the age of ten, lasting until the age of fifteen, at which point these young men would be considered ready for military service. Slaves with specialised skills were highly valued in Islamic slave societies. Christian slaves were often required to speak and write in Arabic. Having slaves fluent in English and Arabic was a highly valued tool for diplomatic affairs. Bi-lingual slaves like Thomas Pellow used their translating ability for important manners of diplomacy. Pellow himself worked as a translator for the ambassador in Morocco.


In some cases, slaves joined to rebels or even uprose against governors. The most renowned of these rebellions was the Zanj Rebellion.

The Zanj Revolt took place near the city of Basra, located in southern Iraq over a period of fifteen years (869–883 AD). It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves who were imported from across the Muslim empire and claimed over “tens of thousands of lives in lower Iraq”.[46] The revolt was said to have been led by Ali ibn Muhammad, who claimed to be a descendant of Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib.[46] Several historians, such as Al-Tabari and Al-Masudi, consider this revolt one of the “most vicious and brutal uprising” out of the many disturbances that plagued the Abbasid central government.[46]

Political power

A Mamluk cavalryman, drawn in 1810
A Mamluk cavalryman, drawn in 1810

Mamluks were slave soldiers who were converted to Islam and served the Muslim caliphs and the Ayyubid sultans during the Middle Ages. Over time, they became a powerful military caste, often defeating the Crusaders and, on more than one occasion, they seized power for themselves, for example, ruling Egypt in the Mamluk Sultanate from 1250–1517.

Slavery in India

In the Muslim conquests in the 8th century, the armies of the Umayyad commander Muhammad bin Qasim, enslaved tens of thousands of Indian prisoners, including both soldiers and civilians.[47][48] In the early 11th century Tarikh al-Yamini, the Arab historian Al-Utbi recorded that in 1001 the armies of Mahmud of Ghazna conquered Peshawar and Waihand (capital of Gandhara) after Battle of Peshawar (1001), "in the midst of the land of Hindustan", and captured some 100,000 youths.[49][50] Later, following his twelfth expedition into India in 1018–19, Mahmud is reported to have returned with such a large number of slaves that their value was reduced to only two to ten dirhams each. This unusually low price made, according to Al-Utbi, "merchants [come] from distant cities to purchase them, so that the countries of Central Asia, Iraq and Khurasan were swelled with them, and the fair and the dark, the rich and the poor, mingled in one common slavery". Elliot and Dowson refer to "five hundred thousand slaves, beautiful men, and women.".[51][52][53] Later, during the Delhi Sultanate period (1206–1555), references to the abundant availability of low-priced Indian slaves abound. Levi attributes this primarily to the vast human resources of India, compared to its neighbors to the north and west (India's Mughal population being approximately 12 to 20 times that of Turan and Iran at the end of the 16th century).[54]

The Delhi sultanate obtained thousands of slaves and eunuch servants from the villages of Eastern Bengal (a widespread practice which Mughal emperor Jahangir later tried to stop). Wars, famines, pestilences drove many villagers to sell their children as slaves. The Muslim conquest of Gujarat in Western India had two main objectives. The conquerors demanded and more often forcibly wrested both land owned by Hindus and Hindu women. Enslavement of women invariably led to their conversion to Islam.[55] In battles waged by Muslims against Hindus in Malwa and Deccan plateau, a large number of captives were taken. Muslim soldiers were permitted to retain and enslave POWs as plunder.[56]

The first Bahmani sultan, Alauddin Bahman Shah is noted to have captured 1,000 singing and dancing girls from Hindu temples after he battled the northern Carnatic chieftains. The later Bahmanis also enslaved civilian women and children in wars; many of them were converted to Islam in captivity.[57][58][59][60][61]

During the rule of Shah Jahan, many peasants were compelled to sell their women and children into slavery to meet the land revenue demand.[62]

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire

Slavery was a legal and important part of the economy of the Ottoman Empire and Ottoman society[63] until the slavery of Caucasians was banned in the early 19th century, although slaves from other groups were allowed.[64] In Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the administrative and political center of the Empire, about a fifth of the population consisted of slaves in 1609.[65] Even after several measures to ban slavery in the late 19th century, the practice continued largely unfazed into the early 20th century. As late as 1908, female slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire. Sexual slavery was a central part of the Ottoman slave system throughout the history of the institution.[66][67]

Ottoman painting of Balkan children taken as soldier-slaves.
Ottoman painting of Balkan children taken as soldier-slaves.

A member of the Ottoman slave class, called a kul in Turkish, could achieve high status. Black castrated slaves, were tasked to guard the imperial harems, while white castrated slaves filled administrative functions. Janissaries were the elite soldiers of the imperial armies collected in childhood as a "blood tax", while galley slaves captured in slave raids or as prisoners of war, manned the imperial vessels. Slaves were actually often at the forefront of Ottoman politics. The majority of officials in the Ottoman government were bought slaves, raised free, and integral to the success of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century into the 19th. Many officials themselves owned a large number of slaves, although the Sultan himself owned by far the largest amount.[68] By raising and specially training slaves as officials in palace schools such as Enderun, the Ottomans created administrators with intricate knowledge of government and fanatic loyalty.

Ottomans practiced devşirme, a sort of "blood tax" or "child collection", young Christian boys from Eastern Europe and Anatolia were taken from their homes and families, brought up as Muslims, and enlisted into the most famous branch of the Kapıkulu, the Janissaries, a special soldier class of the Ottoman army that became a decisive faction in the Ottoman invasions of Europe.[69] Most of the military commanders of the Ottoman forces, imperial administrators, and de facto rulers of the Empire, such as Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, were recruited in this way.[70][71]

Slavery in Sultanates of Southeast Asia

In the East Indies, slavery was common until the end of the 19th century. The slave trade was centered on the Muslim Sultanates in the Sulu Sea: the Sultanate of Sulu, the Sultanate of Maguindanao, and the Confederation of Sultanates in Lanao (the modern Moro people). The economies of these sultanates relied heavily on the slave trade.[72]

An Iranun lanong warship used for piracy and slave raids in the Sulu Sea.
An Iranun lanong warship used for piracy and slave raids in the Sulu Sea.

It is estimated that from 1770 to 1870, around 200,000 to 300,000 people were enslaved by Iranun and Banguingui slavers. These were taken from piracy on passing ships as well as coastal raids on settlements as far as the Malacca Strait, Java, the southern coast of China and the islands beyond the Makassar Strait. Most of the slaves were Tagalogs, Visayans, and "Malays" (including Bugis, Mandarese, Iban, and Makassar). There were also occasional European and Chinese captives who were usually ransomed off through Tausug intermediaries of the Sulu Sultanate.[72]

An Iranun pirate armed with a spear, a kampilan sword, and a kris dagger.
An Iranun pirate armed with a spear, a kampilan sword, and a kris dagger.

The scale was so massive that the word for "pirate" in Malay became Lanun, an exonym of the Iranun people. Male captives of the Iranun and the Banguingui were treated brutally, even fellow Muslim captives were not spared. They were usually forced to serve as galley slaves on the lanong and garay warships of their captors. Female captives, however, were usually treated better. There were no recorded accounts of rapes, though some were starved for discipline. Within a year of capture, most of the captives of the Iranun and Banguingui would be bartered off in Jolo usually for rice, opium, bolts of cloth, iron bars, brassware, and weapons. The buyers were usually Tausug datu from the Sultanate of Sulu who had preferential treatment, but buyers also included European (Dutch and Portuguese) and Chinese traders as well as Visayan pirates (renegados).[72]

The economy of the Sulu sultanates was largely run by slaves and the slave trade. Slaves were the primary indicators of wealth and status, and they were the source of labor for the farms, fisheries, and workshops of the sultanates. While personal slaves were rarely sold, they trafficked extensively in slaves purchased from the Iranun and Banguingui slave markets. By the 1850s, slaves constituted 50% or more of the population of the Sulu archipelago.[72]

Chattel slaves (known as banyaga, bisaya, ipun, or ammas) were distinguished from the traditional debt bondsmen (the kiapangdilihan, known as alipin elsewhere in the Philippines). The bondsmen were natives enslaved to pay for debt or crime. They were slaves only in terms of their temporary service requirement to their master, but retained most of the rights of the freemen, including protection from physical harm and the fact that they can not be sold. The banyaga on the other hand had little to no rights.[72]

Most slaves were treated like serfs and servants. Educated and skilled slaves were largely treated well. Since most of the aristocratic classes in Sulu were illiterate, they were often dependent on the educated banyaga as scribes and interpreters. Slaves part of the labor force were often given their own houses and lived in small communities with slaves of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds. However harsh punishment and abuse was not uncommon despite Islamic laws, especially for slave laborers and slaves who attempt to escape.[72]

Spanish warships bombarding Moro pirates in Balanguingui Island in 1848
Spanish warships bombarding Moro pirates in Balanguingui Island in 1848

Spanish authorities and native Christian Filipinos responded to the Moro slave raids by building watchtowers and forts across the Philippine archipelago. Many of which are still standing today. Some provincial capitals were also moved further inland. Major command posts were built in Manila, Cavite, Cebu, Iloilo, Zamboanga, and Iligan. Defending ships were also built by local communities, especially in the Visayas Islands, including the construction of war "barangayanes" (balangay) that were faster than the Moro raiders and could give chase. As resistance against raiders increased, Lanong warships of the Iranun were eventually replaced by the smaller and faster garay warships of the Banguingui in the early 19th century. The Moro raids were eventually subdued by several major naval expeditions by the Spanish and local forces from 1848 to 1891, including retaliatory bombardment and capture of Moro settlements. By this time, the Spanish had also acquired steam gunboats (vapor), which could easily overtake and destroy the native Moro warships.[73][74][75]

The slave raids on merchant ships and coastal settlements disrupted traditional trade in goods in the Sulu Sea. While this was temporarily offset by the economic prosperity brought by the slave trade, the decline of slavery in the mid-19th century also led to the economic decline of the Sultanates of Brunei, Sulu, and Maguindanao. This eventually led to the collapse of the latter two states and contributed to the widespread poverty of the Moro region in the Philippines today. By the 1850s, most slaves were local-born from slave parents as the raiding became more difficult. By the end of the 19th century and the conquest of the Sultanates by the Spanish and the Americans, the slave population were largely integrated into the native population as citizens under the Philippine government.[73][72][74]

The Sultanate of Gowa of the Bugis people also became involved in the Sulu slave trade. They purchased slaves (as well as opium and Bengali cloth) from the Sulu Sea sultanates then sold them in the slave markets in the rest of Southeast Asia. Several hundred slaves (mostly Christian Filipinos) were sold by the Bugis annually in Batavia, Malacca, Bantam, Chirebon, Banjarmasin, and Palembang by the Bugis. The slaves were usually sold to Dutch and Chinese families as servants, sailors, laborers, and concubines. The sale of Christian Filipinos (who were Spanish subjects) in Dutch-controlled cities led to formal protests by the Spanish Empire to the Netherlands and its prohibition in 1762 by the Dutch, but it had little effect due to lax or absent enforcement. The Bugis slave trade was only stopped in the 1860s when the Spanish navy from Manila started patrolling Sulu waters to intercept Bugis slave ships and rescue Filipino captives. Also contributing to the decline was the hostility of the Sama-Bajau raiders in Tawi-Tawi who broke off their allegiance to the Sultanate of Sulu in the mid-1800s and started attacking ships trading with the Tausug ports.[72]

In Singapore as late as 1891, there was a regular trade in Chinese slaves by Muslim slaveowners, with girls and women sold for concubinage.[76]

19th and 20th centuries

Hamoud bin Mohammed, Sultan of Zanzibar from 1896 to 1902 was decorated by Queen Victoria for complying with British demands that slavery be banned and slaves be freed.
Hamoud bin Mohammed, Sultan of Zanzibar from 1896 to 1902 was decorated by Queen Victoria for complying with British demands that slavery be banned and slaves be freed.

The strong abolitionist movement in the 19th century in England and later in other Western countries influenced slavery in Muslim lands. Though the "position of the domestic slave in Muslim society was in most respects better than in either classical antiquity or the nineteenth-century Americas", due to regulation by Sharia law,[77] the enlightened incentives and opportunities for slaves to be emancipated meant there was a strong market for new slaves and thus strong incentive to enslave and sell human beings.[78] Appalling loss of life and hardships often resulted from the processes of acquisition and transportation of slaves to Muslim lands and this drew the attention of European opponents of slavery. The continuing pressure from European countries eventually overcame the strong resistance of religious conservatives who were holding that forbidding what God permits is just as great an offence as to permit what God forbids. Slavery, in their eyes, was "authorized and regulated by the holy law".[79] Even masters persuaded of their own piety and benevolence sexually exploited their concubines, without a thought of whether this constituted a violation of their humanity.[80] There were also many pious Muslims who refused to have slaves and persuaded others to do so.[81] Eventually, the Ottoman Empire's orders against the traffic of slaves were issued and put into effect.[77]

According to Brockopp, in the 19th century, "Some authorities made blanket pronouncements against slavery, arguing that it violated the Qurʾānic ideals of equality and freedom. The great slave markets of Cairo were closed down at the end of the nineteenth century and even conservative Qurʾān interpreters continue to regard slavery as opposed to Islamic principles of justice and equality."[23]

Slavery in the forms of carpet weavers, sugarcane cutters, camel jockeys, sex slaves, and even chattel exists even today in some Muslim countries (though some have questioned the use of the term slavery as an accurate description).[82][83]

A Meccan merchant (right) and his Circassian slave, between 1886 and 1887.
A Meccan merchant (right) and his Circassian slave, between 1886 and 1887.

According to a March 1886 article in The New York Times, the Ottoman Empire allowed a slave trade in girls to thrive during the late 1800s, while publicly denying it. Girl sexual slaves sold in the Ottoman Empire were mainly of three ethnic groups: Circassian, Syrian, and Nubian. Circassian girls were described by the American journalist as fair and light-skinned. They were frequently sent by Circassian leaders as gifts to the Ottomans. They were the most expensive, reaching up to 500 Turkish lira and the most popular with the Turks. The next most popular slaves were Syrian girls, with "dark eyes and hair", and light brown skin. Their price could reach to thirty lira. They were described by the American journalist as having "good figures when young". Throughout coastal regions in Anatolia, Syrian girls were sold. The New York Times journalist stated Nubian girls were the cheapest and least popular, fetching up to 20 lira.[84]

Murray Gordon said that, unlike Western societies which developed anti-slavery movements, no such organizations developed in Muslim societies. In Muslim politics, the state interpreted Islamic law. This then extended legitimacy to the traffic in slaves.[85]

Writing about the Arabia he visited in 1862, the English traveler W. G. Palgrave met large numbers of black slaves. The effects of slave concubinage were apparent in the number of persons of mixed race and in the emancipation of slaves he found to be common.[86] Charles Doughty, writing about 25 years later, made similar reports.[87]

According to British explorer (and abolitionist) Samuel Baker, who visited Khartoum in 1862 six decades after the British had declared slave trade illegal, slave trade was the industry "that kept Khartoum going as a bustling town".[88] From Khartoum slave raiders attacked African villages to the south, looting and destroying so that "surviving inhabitants would be force to collaborate with slavers on their next excursion against neighboring villages," and taking back captured women and young adults to sell in slave markets.[88]

20th-century suppression and prohibition

A photograph of a slave boy in the Sultanate of Zanzibar. 'An Arab master's punishment for a slight offence.' c. 1890. From at least the 1860s onwards, photography was a powerful weapon in the abolitionist arsenal.
A photograph of a slave boy in the Sultanate of Zanzibar. 'An Arab master's punishment for a slight offence.' c. 1890. From at least the 1860s onwards, photography was a powerful weapon in the abolitionist arsenal.

At Istanbul, the sale of black and Circassian women was conducted openly until the granting of the Constitution in 1908.[89]

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, slavery gradually became outlawed and suppressed in Muslim lands, due to a combination of pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France, internal pressure from Islamic abolitionist movements, and economic pressures.[17]

By the Treaty of Jeddah, May 1927 (art.7), concluded between the British Government and Ibn Sa'ud (King of Nejd and the Hijaz) it was agreed to suppress the slave trade in Saudi Arabia. Then by a decree issued in 1936, the importation of slaves into Saudi Arabia was prohibited unless it could be proved that they were slaves at that date.[90]

In 1953, sheikhs from Qatar attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom included slaves in their retinues, and they did so again on another visit five years later.[91]

In 1962, that all slavery practices or trafficking in Saudi Arabia was prohibited.

By 1969, it could be observed that most Muslim states had abolished slavery although it existed in the deserts of Iraq bordering Arabia and it still flourished in Saudi Arabia, the Yemen and Oman.[92] Slavery was not formally abolished in Yemen and Oman until the following year.[93] The last nation to formally enact the abolition of slavery practice and slave trafficking was the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in 1981.[94]

Slavery in the late 20th and 21st-century Muslim world

The issue of slavery in the Islamic world in modern times is controversial. Critics argue there is hard evidence of its existence and destructive effects. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, slavery in central Islamic lands has been "virtually extinct" since the mid-20th century, though there are reports indicating that it is still practiced in some areas of Sudan and Somalia as a result of warfare.[95]

Islamist opinions

Earlier in the 20th century, prior to the "reopening" of slavery by Salafi scholars like Shaykh al-Fawzan, Islamist authors declared slavery outdated without actually clearly supporting its abolition. This has caused at least one scholar (William Clarence-Smith[96]) to bemoan the "dogged refusal of Mawlana Mawdudi to give up on slavery"[97] and the notable "evasions and silences of Muhammad Qutb".[98][99]

Muhammad Qutb, brother and promoter of the famous Sayyid Qutb, vigorously defended Islamic slavery from Western criticism, telling his audience that "Islam gave spiritual enfranchisement to slaves" and "in the early period of Islam the slave was exalted to such a noble state of humanity as was never before witnessed in any other part of the world."[100] He contrasted the adultery, prostitution,[101] and (what he called) "that most odious form of animalism" casual sex, found in Europe,[102] with (what he called) "that clean and spiritual bond that ties a maid [i.e. slave girl] to her master in Islam."[101]

Salafi support for slavery

In recent years, according to some scholars,[103] there has been a "reopening"[104] of the issue of slavery by some conservative Salafi Islamic scholars after its "closing" earlier in the 20th century when Muslim countries banned slavery.

In 2003, Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, the Senior Council of Clerics, issued a fatwa claiming "Slavery is a part of Islam. Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam."[105] Muslim scholars who said otherwise were "infidels".

While Saleh Al-Fawzan's fatwa does not repeal Saudi laws against slavery,[citation needed] the fatwa carries weight among many Salafi Muslims. According to reformist jurist and author Khaled Abou El Fadl, it "is particularly disturbing and dangerous because it effectively legitimates the trafficking in and sexual exploitation of so-called domestic workers in the Gulf region and especially Saudi Arabia."[106] Organized criminal gangs smuggle children into Saudi Arabia where they are enslaved, sometimes mutilated, and forced to work as beggars. When caught, the children are deported as illegal aliens.[107]

Mauritania and Sudan

In Mauritania slavery was abolished in the country's first constitution of 1961 after independence, and abolished yet again, by presidential decree, in July 1980. The "catch" of these abolitions was that slave ownership was not abolished. The edict "recognized the rights of owners by stipulating that they should be compensated for their loss of property". No financial payment was provided by the state, so that the abolition amounted to "little more than propaganda for foreign consumption". Religious authorities within Mauritania assailed abolition. One leader, El Hassan Ould Benyamine, imam of a mosque in Tayarat attacked it as

"not only illegal because it is contrary to the teachings of the fundamental text of Islamic law, the Koran. The abolition also amounts to the expropriation from Muslims of their goods, goods that were acquired legally. The state, if it is Islamic, does not have the right to seize my house, my wife or my slave.`[20][108]

In 1994–95, a Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights documented the physical and emotional abuse of captives by the Sudanese Army and allied militia and army. The captives were "sold as slaves or forced to work under conditions amounting to slavery". The Sudanese government responded with "fury", accusing the author, Gaspar Biro of "harboring anti-Islam and Anti-Arab sentiments". In 1999, the UN Commission sent another Special Rapporteur who "also produced a detailed examination of the question of slavery incriminating the government of Sudan."[109] At least in the 1980s, slavery in Sudan was developed enough for slaves to have a market price – the price of a slave boy fluctuating between $90 and $10 in 1987 and 1988.[110]

Saudi Arabia

In 1962,[111] Saudi Arabia abolished slavery officially; however, unofficial slavery is rumored to exist.[112][113][114]

According to the U.S. State Department as of 2005:

Saudi Arabia is a destination for men and women from South and East Asia and East Africa trafficked for the purpose of labor exploitation, and for children from Yemen, Afghanistan, and Africa trafficking for forced begging. Hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Kenya migrate voluntarily to Saudi Arabia; some fall into conditions of involuntary servitude, suffering from physical and sexual abuse, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, the withholding of travel documents, restrictions on their freedom of movement and non-consensual contract alterations. The Government of Saudi Arabia does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.[115]

Libya and Algeria

Libya is a major exit point for African migrants heading to Europe. International Organization for Migration (IOM) published a report in April 2017 showing that many of the migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa heading to Europe are sold as slaves after being detained by people smugglers or militia groups. African countries south of Libya were targeted for slave trading and transferred to Libyan slave markets instead. According to the victims, the price is higher for migrants with skills like painting and tiling.[116][117] Slaves are often ransomed to their families and in the meantime until ransom can be paid tortured, forced to work, sometimes to death and eventually executed or left to starve if they can't pay for too long. Women are often raped and used as sex slaves and sold to brothels and private Libyan clients.[116][117][118][119] Many child migrants also suffer from abuse and child rape in Libya.[120][121]

In November 2017, hundreds of African migrants were being forced into slavery by human smugglers who were themselves facilitating their arrival in the country. Most of the migrants are from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia. They however end up in cramped warehouses due to the crackdown by the Libyan Coast Guard, where they are held until they are ransomed or are sold for labor.[122] Libyan authorities of the Government of National Accord announced that they had opened up an investigation into the auctions.[123] A human trafficker told Al-Jazeera that hundreds of the migrants are bought and sold across the country every week.[124] Dozens of African migrants headed for a new life in Europe in 2018 said they were sold for labor and trapped in slavery in Algeria.[125]


In 2014, Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East (ISIS also known as Islamic State) and Northern Nigeria (Boko Haram) have not only justified the taking of slaves in war but actually enslaved women and girls. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram said in an interview, "I shall capture people and make them slaves".[126] In the digital magazine Dabiq, ISIS claimed religious justification for enslaving Yazidi women whom they consider to be from a heretical sect. ISIS claimed that the Yazidi are idol worshipers and their enslavement part of the old shariah practice of spoils of war.[127][128][129][130][131][132] The Economist reports that ISIS has taken "as many as 2,000 women and children" captive, selling and distributing them as sexual slaves.[133] ISIS appealed to apocalyptic beliefs and "claimed justification by a Hadith that they interpret as portraying the revival of slavery as a precursor to the end of the world."[134]

In response to Boko Haram's Quranic justification for kidnapping and enslaving people and ISIS's religious justification for enslaving Yazidi women, 126 Islamic scholars from around the Muslim world signed an open letter in late September 2014 to the Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rejecting his group's interpretations of the Qur'an and hadith to justify its actions.[135][136] The letter accuses the group of instigating fitna – sedition – by instituting slavery under its rule in contravention of the anti-slavery consensus of the Islamic scholarly community.[137]

See also


  1. ^ Lewis 1994, Ch.1
  2. ^ a b c d e f Segal, Islam's Black Slaves, 2001: p.4
  3. ^ Clarence-Smith (2006), pp. 2–5
  4. ^ [Total of black slave trade in the Muslim world from Sahara, Red Sea and Indian Ocean routes through the 19th century comes to an estimated 11,500,000, "a figure not far short of the 11,863,000 estimated to have been loaded onto ships during the four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade." (Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformation in Slavery (CUP, 1983)
  5. ^ Raymond Mauvy estimates a total of 14 million black slaves were traded in Islam through the 20th Century, including 300,000 for part of the 20th century. (p.57, source: "Les Siecles obsurs de l'Afrique Noire (Paris: Fayard, 1970)]
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  8. ^ Gordon 1987, p. 40.
  9. ^ The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English By Ali Ünal, p. 1323 [1]
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  18. ^
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Further reading

In print


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