The Complex History Of Slavery In Islam, From The Middle Ages To ISIS

Published July 7, 2017
Updated December 21, 2017
Published July 7, 2017
Updated December 21, 2017

What the world gets right and wrong about the connections between Islam and slavery.

ISIS Slaves

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty ImagesHaifa, a 36-year-old woman from Iraq’s Yazidi community who was taken as a sex slave by ISIS, stands on a street during an interview with AFP journalists in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk on November 17, 2016.

“These are evil personalities,” Philippine military spokesman Jo-Ar Herrera said at a news conference in June, referring to the Islamic militants who had then been besieging the city of Marawi for five weeks.

What Herrera was addressing wasn’t the fact that these ISIS-affiliated militants had taken over chunks of Marawi, killing about 100 and displacing nearly 250,000 in the process. Instead, Herrera was referencing the reports that the militants had been taking civilians captive, forcing them to loot homes, convert to Islam, and, worst of all, act as sex slaves.

This was indeed the aspect of the battle for Marawi that made headlines around the world.

And just a week later, separate reports from 5,600 miles away in Raqqa, Syria detailed the horrific extent of ISIS’ practice of taking slaves, largely for sexual servitude. Women who had lived as wives to ISIS fighters spoke with an Arabic television reporter and revealed that their husbands had ripped girls as young as nine from their parents so that they could rape them and keep them as sex slaves.

With details like this making headlines again and again throughout ISIS’ three-year reign, it’s left many in the West asking just what, if any, is the connection between not only ISIS, but perhaps even Islam itself, and the taking of slaves?

Slavery In Historical Islam

Yemen Slave Market

Wikimedia CommonsA 13th-century slave market in Yemen.

Slavery had existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, of course. Before the rise of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, the region’s various tribes engaged in frequent small-scale wars, and it was common for them to take captives as spoils.

Islam then codified and greatly expanded this practice, if for no other reason than the fact that a unified Islamic state was capable of much larger-scale warfare than ever before, and that its slave economy benefited from economies of scale.

As the first caliphate swept across Mesopotamia, Persia, and North Africa in the seventh century, hundreds of thousands of captives, largely children and young women, flooded into the Islamic empire’s core territory. There, these captives were put to work in almost any job there was to do.

Male African slaves were favored for heavy-duty work in salt mines and on sugar plantations. Older men and women cleaned streets and scrubbed floors in wealthy households. Boys and girls alike were kept as sexual property.

Male slaves who were taken as toddlers or very young children could be inducted into the military, where they formed the core of the feared Janissary Corps, a kind of Muslim shock troop division that was kept tightly disciplined and used to break enemy resistance. Tens of thousands of male slaves were also castrated, in a procedure that usually involved the removal of both the testicles and the penis, and forced to work in mosques and as harem guards.

Slaves were one of the principal spoils of empire, and the newly enriched Muslim master class did with them what they liked. Beatings and rapes came frequently for many, if not most, domestic servants. Harsh lashings, for example, were used as motivation for Africans in the mines and on trading ships.

Arguably the worst treatment was meted out to East African slaves (known as Zanj) in Iraq’s marshy south.

This area was prone to flooding and by the Islamic era, it had largely been abandoned by its native farmers. Wealthy Muslim landlords were given titles to this land by the Abbasid Caliphate (which came to power in 750), on the condition that they bring in a profitable sugar crop.

The new landowners approached this task by throwing tens of thousands of black slaves into the swamps and beating them until the land was drained and a paltry harvest could be raised. Because swamp farming is not terribly productive, the slaves often worked without food for days at a time, and any disruption – which threatened the already-slim profits – was punished with mutilation or death.

This treatment helped spark the Zanj Rebellion in 869, which lasted 14 years and saw the revolting slave army get within two days’ march of Baghdad. Somewhere between a few hundred thousand and 2.5 million people died in this fight, and when it was over, the thought leaders of the Islamic world gave some thought to how to prevent such unpleasantness in the future.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.