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

Published July 7, 2017
Updated December 21, 2017

The Philosophy Of Islamic Slavery

Cairo Slave Market

David Roberts/Louis Haghe/Library of CongressSlave market in Cairo. Published circa 1846-1849.

Some of the reforms that grew out of the Zanj Rebellion were practical. Laws were passed to limit the concentration of slaves in any one area, for example, and breeding of slaves was strictly controlled with castration and by banning casual sex among them.

Other changes, however, were theological, as the institution of slavery came under religious guidance and rules that had been present since the time of Muhammad, such as the ban on keeping Muslim slaves. These reforms completed the conversion of slavery from a non-Islamic practice into a bona fide facet of Islam.

Slavery is mentioned nearly 30 times in the Quran, mostly in an ethical context, but some explicit rules for the practice are set out in the holy book.

Free Muslims must not be enslaved, for example, though captives and the children of slaves may become “those whom your right hand has possessed.” Foreigners and strangers were presumed to be free until shown to be otherwise, and Islam forbids racial discrimination in the matter of slavery, though in practice, black Africans and captured Indians have always made up the bulk of the slave populations in the Muslim world.

Slaves and their masters are definitively unequal – socially, slaves occupy a status similar to children, widows, and the infirm – but they are spiritual equals, technically under the stewardship of their masters, and will face Allah’s judgment in the same way when they die.

Contrary to some interpretations, slaves do not have to be freed when they adopt Islam, though masters are encouraged to educate their slaves in the religion. Freeing slaves was permissible in Islam, and many wealthy men either freed some of their own slaves or bought freedom for others’ as an act of atonement for sin. Islam requires the regular paying of alms, and this could be done by manumitting a slave.

The Other African Slave Trade

Zanzibar Slaves Captors

WikimediaRescued African slaves and their Arab captors in Zanzibar. 1881.

From the beginning of the Islamic era, slavers had been staging raids against the coastal tribes of equatorial East Africa. When the Sultanate of Zanzibar was established in the ninth century, the raids shifted inland to present-day Kenya and Uganda. Slaves were taken from as far south as Mozambique and as far north as Sudan.

Many slaves went to the mines and plantations of the Middle East, but many more went to Muslim territories in India and Java. These slaves were used as a kind of international currency, with up to hundreds of them being given as gifts to Chinese diplomatic parties. As Muslim power expanded, Arab slavers spread to North Africa and found a very lucrative trade waiting for them in the Mediterranean.

Islamic rules mandating gentle treatment of slaves didn’t apply to any of the Africans being bought and sold in the Mediterranean trade. Visiting a slave market in 1609, Portuguese missionary João dos Santos wrote that Arab slavers had a “custome to sew up their females, especially their slaves being young to make them unable for conception, which makes these slaves sell dearer, both for their chastitie, and for better confidence which their masters put in them.”

Despite such accounts, when Westerners think of African slavery, what comes to mind more than anything is the transatlantic trade of some 12 million African slaves, which stretched from roughly 1500 to 1800, when the British and American navies began interdiction against slave ships. The Islamic slave trade, however, began with the Berber conquest in the early eighth century and remains active to this day.

During the years of the American slave trade, some historians suggest that at least 1 million Europeans and 2.5 million total were taken as slaves by majority-Muslim forces throughout the Arab region. In total, wildly varying estimates also suggest that between the start of the Islamic era in the ninth century and the supremacy of European colonialism in the 19th, the Arab trade could have taken well over 10 million slaves.

Long caravans of slaves – black, brown, and white – were driven across the Sahara for more than 1,200 years. These trips through the desert could take months, and the toll on the slaves was enormous, and not just in terms of lives lost.

As reported in 1814 by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt: “I frequently witnessed scenes of the most shameless indecency, which the traders, who were the principal actors, only laughed at. I may venture to state that very few female slaves who have passed their tenth year, reach Egypt or Arabia in a state of virginity.”

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
Close Pop-in
Like History Uncovered On Facebook

Get The Most Interesting Stories From History In Your Feed