Slavery in Islamic Law
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Slavery was a widespread institution in antiquity and a major topic of Islamic legal jurisprudence, which addressed matters of buying and selling slaves, rights of owners including sexual relations, marriage, and many other facets. The two legitimate sources of slaves agreed upon by the Ulama were captives taken in war, and children born to slaves (unless the slave-owner was the father), though in practice various other means of slave acquisition occurred. The Quran assumes the existence of slavery and grants sexual access to slave owners, including for the prophet himself to enjoy from among the war-captives in his possession, as well as control over their marital status. It commands taking captives from the defeated disbelievers, though also that they be ransomed or released until the war is over, and encourages owners to grant contracts by which virtuous slaves may purchase their freedom, a practice also found in other late antique cultures. Slavery was a major feature of the Islamic world for over a thousand years. Largely as a result of pressure from colonial powers as well as economic and demographic changes, slavery was eventually made illegal throughout the Muslim world in the 19th and 20th centuries (though as of the 2020s persists illegally in a few places such as Mauritania), and is now considered forbidden in the modern context by most scholars, though a minority argue that slavery remains Islamically legitimate.
Sources of slaves
In the Quran and hadiths
While a number of times the Quran addresses its listeners who are already in possession of slaves, it has little to say regarding the acquisition of slaves. Quran 16:71 states that it is by Allah's favour that slave owners have greater provision than their slaves. Quran 8:67 and Quran 33:50 grants the prophet the right to take captives and makes lawful his sexual intercourse with them, respectively. Quran 47:4 tells the believers to take captives from the defeated disbelievers, but then adds that they be released or ransomed until the war lays down its burdens.
In terms of biographical material, a source considered relatively reliable by many academic scholars are the letters of 'Urwa b. al-Zubayr (d. 713 CE) to the late Umayyad Court. One of his letters concerns the conquest of Mecca. After the conquest 'Urwa briefly describes the battle of Hunayn in which he says Muhammad took the women and children as booty before heading to a seige elsewhere, freeing them two weeks later after finding upon his return that they had converted to Islam.
The Sira literature and hadith collections mention female concubines acquired by Muhammad (see Rape in Islamic Law), and he reportedly accepted an Egyptian Coptic woman called Mariyah as a gift (see Maria the Copt (Mariyah Al-Qibtiyyah)).
War captives and children born into slavery as the legitimate sources
It is commonly claimed that in Islam only war captives may be enslaved. However, this is not entirely correct. In his detailed academic book Islam and the Abolition of Slavery Wiliam Gervase Clarence-Smith writes of the Sunni compromise on slavery determined by 800 CE, "One mode of enslavement was the capture of obdurate infidels in holy war. The other was birth to a slave mother, unless she was a concubine whose master acknowledged paternity."
Quran 47:4 commands the taking of captives from disbelievers defeated in battle, though also their eventual ransom or release. Nevertheless, Clarence-Smith notes, "Although ransom is specifically commended in 47:4, the founder of the Hanafi legal school forbade the practice, and some later jurists even prohibited exchanges of captives." This was for fear that doing so would help the enemy. Regarding women and children, the advisor to the Abbasid Caliph Harun b. Rashid (r. 786-809) "prudently declared that it was up to the commander of the faithful to determine the fate of non-combatants. In practice, booty regularly came to include dependent women and children". In his book The Art of Jihad, Malik Mufti observes regarding the classical treatment of prisoners of war "some of the earlier jurists allowing Muslim commanders a choice only between killing and enslaving them" while others gave more discretion to ransom or release prisoners.
To arrive at the 2nd agreed upon source of slaves in Islam - the children of slaves, Clarence-Smith explains that "The next crucial step was to expand the category of the enslavable to the whole population of a conquered territory. This furnished female captives, rare or non-existent on the field of battle, thus opening the way to hereditary slavery and concubinage. The example of the prophet and his companions was vital." Muhammad was reported to have enslaved captured Jewish women and children. As also noted above, the Quran refers to sexual access to female slaves, including those captives who were the prophet's share of war booty. Ulama agreed that believing men could take an unlimited number of concubines.
Joseph Schacht, who was Professor of Arabic and Islam at Columbia University, wrote in his classic textbook, An Introduction to Islamic Law, "Slavery can originate only through birth or through captivity, i.e. if a non-Muslim who is protected neither by treaty nor by a safe-conduct falls into the hands of the Muslims." He adds, "The children of a female slave follow the status of their mother, except that the child of the concubine, whom the owner has recognized as his own, is free with all the rights of children from marriage with a free woman; this rule has had the most profound effect on the development of Islamic Society." His last comment alludes to occasions when the children Muslim rulers had with their concubines subsequently obtained power.
Similarly, Professor Kecia Ali writes in her book Marriage and slavery in Early Islam, on the case of a married female slave, "Her master had fewer rights over her than he would have had over an unmarried female slave; in particular, he lost the right of sexual access, though he would own any children born as a result of her marriage. If she were his own concubine, her children would be free and legitimate; they would not be his property." A concubine who bore her owner a child would herself attain the status known as Umm Walad (mother of the child), becoming automatically free upon her owner's death and forbidden to be sold, though he could grant her freedom or marry her off to another man without her consent. An owner would also have to free his slave if he wished to marry her himself.
Other sources of slaves in practice
Tributes and slave trading
In practice, though without reference to the Quran, hadiths, nor founders of the legal schools, many slaves were acquired as tribute from non-Muslim states (a precedent was an annual tribute from Nubia, which probably began in the 8th century CE though was claimed to date to the mid 7th), and by purchase. Clarence-Smith writes, "Purchase, alledgedly first permitted by the Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiya (r. 661-680), probably yielded the largest number of slaves. He also notes that "Ibn Taymiyya permitted Muslims to purchase debt slaves from infidels who had no covenant with Muslims." and notes various places where this type of slave-purchase was practiced, as well as purchasing as slaves those who had been condemned for various types of misconduct.
A number of hadiths mention Muhammad himself purchasing and selling his own slaves or occasionally on behalf of others, though not as a professional slave trader (see Qur'an, Hadith and Scholars:Slavery). The Ulama failed to condemn slave-trading, though the occupation was often held to be reprehensible according to Clarence-Smith.
The buying and selling of slaves within the Muslim polity (as opposed to buying from infidels) was on the other hand extensively covered in all its facets under Islamic property laws, though this did not itself increase the stock of slaves available to Muslims.
Slave raiding and kidnapping
Clarence-Smith writes, "From the ninth century, jurists developed the fateful theory that the inhabitants of Dar al Harb, the abode of war, 'were all potential slaves'. Also known as Dar al-Kufr, the land of unbelief, this area lay beyond Dar al-Islam, the abode of submission to God. However, Shafi'i jurists conceived of an intermediary sphere, known as Dar al-'Ahd or Dar al-Sulh, the abode of covenant. Unbelievers who dwelled there, even animists, were protected from arbitrary enslavement as long as they concluded formal pacts with the Muslims." Jurists further developed arguments that slavery was a humiliating punishment for disbelief. This led South Asian scholars to the view that a state of jihad, which would require first inviting disbelievers to accept Islam, was unnecessary for seizing infidels who were to be treated as property to be acquired. For raiders this put inhabitants who had fallen into their hands at their absolute disposal and lawfully reduced to slavery.
Slave raiding expeditions under the pretext of holy war were common by African rulers at one time, and Barbary naval raiders considered themselves to be conducting jihad with the blessing of the Magrebi ulama (though there were many scholars who protested that they lacked proper authority). Piracy and raiding in the Maghreb, Southeast Asia, South India and the Caucasus became common, sometimes a greater source of slaves than holy war. Generally this was without any religious sanction or leadership, with at most a thin veneer of religious oversight.
Exemption for People of the Book subject to Muslim rule
Clarence-Smith writes regarding the taking of slaves from peaceful populations (as opposed to war booty), "There existed an early and clear prohibition on enslaving 'people of the book', or scripturaries. These were initially Jewish and Christian monotheists living peacefully under Muslim rule, who paid special taxes. Zoroastrians were later included without too much protest, although Manichaeans were excluded. Some Muslims wanted Hindus and Buddhists to be classified as idolaters, enslavable at will, but this was eventually rejected."
In practice, though without convincing Islamic justification, regular taxes from peaceful subjects were sometimes paid in the form of slaves to the Muslims, most notably by Christians supplying their sons to join the Ottoman Janissaries, an elite military corp whose origins lay in such child-slave levies.
Manumission of slaves
The Quran presents the freeing of slaves as a virtuous act (Quran 2:177, Quran 90:12-17) as well as an expiation for certain sins (Quran 4:92, Quran 5:89). Hadiths add that slaves should be freed if they are slapped in the face or beaten without good cause. On the other hand, hadiths narrate numerous occasions when Muhammad made use of slaves or refer to him having concubines. There are also hadiths narrating incidents when Muhammad disapproved of companions who freed their slaves (see for example Sahih Muslim 15:4112 or Sahih Bukhari 3:47:765).
As in earlier and contemporary near eastern cultures, a slave could agree a contract to purchase his or her freedom. In Islamic law this written contract is called by its Quranic term, mukatab, derived from the Arabic verb "to write", and owners are encouraged to contribute with their wealth:
As mentioned above, Muhammad is reported to have freed captives upon their adoption of the faith (although on the other hand Quran 2:221 assumes the existence of believing slaves, who Muslims may marry; Joseph schacht wrote that in Islamic law, "The male slave may marry up to two female slaves; the female slave may also marry a free man who is not her owner, and the male slave a free woman who is not his owner." Islamic law does not allow enslavement of free-born Muslims.
If a person converted to Islam after being enslaved, their emancipation would be considered a pious act but was not obligatory. Many scholars were uneasy about the practice of freeing captives who professed to have converted to Islam, for fear that such conversions were a pretense by the slaves to gain their freedom. For this reason, Clarence-Smith writes, "The Ulama only accepted automatic liberation through conversion when slaves ran away from infidel owners to join the Islamic host", citing a precedent in which an Ethiopian slave who escaped the seige of Ta'if was freed by Muhammad.
Other rights and protections
The Quran forbids owners from forcing their slave women into prostitution in Quran 24:33, as traditionally interpreted. Possibly this refers to forced fornication in general according to some Islamic modernists, though sexual relations with their owners would not count as fornication since this is expressly permitted in other verses (see the section on sexual consent below).
Quran 4:36 lists those "whom your right hands possess" among the groups to whom kindness should be shown.
As mentioned above, a concubine who gives birth to her owner's child attains the status of Umm Walad (mother of the child). She can no longer be sold (due to a ruling by Caliph Umar according to Sunan Abu Dawud 3943 (Ahmad Hasan Ref) and Sunan Ibn Majah 3:19:2517), is set free upon her owner's death, and their child is free from birth.
Quran 4:25 is a verse which recommends that a poor believer who cannot afford to marry a free woman should marry from among the believing slave women (who are owned by other believers, since "whom your right hands possess" switches to the plural). The verse tells them to first obtain permission from "her people" to marry her. If these women subsequently commit fornication, it says they should receive only half the punishment of free women.
A number of rights are given to slaves by Muhammad in one hadith. Sahih Bukhari 1:2:29 reports Muhammad stating that "Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity (power) and if you do so, then help them."
Manumission and other slave rights in wider late antiquity
While certainly an advancement for its time, the extent to which Islam brought exceptional treatment of slaves by ancient standards is often exaggerated. Before Islam, Zoroastrian law had protections for slaves against violence, and it was considered a virtue to free a slave. Martin Klein writes:
It was also common in ancient Rome to free slaves, so much so that Augustus had a law enacted to prevent manumission of slaves younger than 30 years old. Both in the time of Augustus and in the early Islamic era, slaves were abundant so there was plenty of scope to free slaves.
While rural slaves under the Romans were treated abysmally, educated slaves often served as business agents of their masters, mechanics and artisans in every kind of industry. Such slaves were able to consider part of the gains of this work as their own, called their peculium, property owned by the master but which from a practical point of view belonged to the slave and could even be used to buy their own freedom. The Constitution of Antoninus prohibited cruelty towards slaves and introduced punishment for owners who unjustly killed their slaves. Slaves were able to file complaints against their owners for cruelty who may then be forced to sell the slave. The Constitution of Claudius forbade the separation of slave husbands and wives, parents and children, or brothers and sisters when there was a sale or division of slave property.
Lack of sexual consent and slave marriages
In the Quran
The Quran gives permission for believers to have intercourse with both their wives and those whom "their right hands possess", explicitly distinguishing the two in the verses shown below, which is used by traditionalists to refute a common Islamic modernist claim that believers could not have intercourse with captive women except by marrying them. Moreover, one verse explicitly grants such rights to the prophet himself for his own share of the captives from the war booty:
The Quran commands that marriages be arranged for righteous slaves:
One verse allows believers to marry captives who already have husbands. Traditionally, this was revealed after a battle following which Muhammad's men were uncertain whether or not they could have sexual relations with the female captives who had mushrik husbands (see Sahih Muslim 8:3432). The mushrikun were those who associated partners with Allah (often translated as "pagans" or "polytheists").
The next verse grants poor believers permission to marry from among the believing slave women.
In Islamic law
In Islam, the consent of a slave girl for sex, for withdrawal before ejaculation (azl) or to marry her off to someone else was not considered necessary, historically, according to Professor Kecia Ali. Early legal hadiths and jurist opinions include punishments for the rape of slave women, but these are explicitly referring to situations where someone other than the slave woman's owner forces her into intercourse, which is treated as a property crime for which compensation is due to the owner for the depreciation in her value and the perpetrator would face the hadd punishment (see Rape in Islamic Law).
Professor Jonathan A. C. Brown has written extensively on this topic:
Like wives, a slave woman had a right to complain in court if intercourse with her owner caused her physical harm (see Rape in Islamic Law for details). However, on this point Brown notes that "Both wives and slaves had the same recourse to courts or members of the community. Unlike wives, however, slaves were almost by definition cut off from support networks other than their owners".
Regarding slave marriages, Joseph Schacht wrote in his textbook on Islamic law, "The marriage of the slave requires the permission of the owner; he can also give the slave in marriage against his or her will. [...] The unmarried female slave is at the disposal of her male owner as a concubine, but no similar provision applies between a male slave and his female owner."
In her book Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, Kecia Ali explains that there was consensus that slave women could be compelled by their owners into marrying whosoever their owner wished (except that he could not himself marry her while she was a slave, though she could become an umm walad, as discussed above). As for male slaves, the Maliki school held that owners could marry off their own male slaves without their consent, as did most Hanafis. The Shafi'i school in contrast held that this could not be done without the male slave's consent. A master could annul the marriage of his female slave and contract her divorce without her permission, whereas from the 9th century CE jurists decided that a male slave's marriage could not be dissolved by his owner without his permission (though all jurists agreed that his owner's permission was required for him to marry in the first place).
For free males, majority determined their scope for legal action in marriage, but majority might or might not make a difference for enslaved males. The nonconsenual marriage of minor male slaves, like minor sons, was universally accepted, though seldom discussed and presumably rare. A master would gain little by marrying his male slave off before maturity, whereas marrying off a female slave would give him the right to the dower thereby garnered, as well as ownership of any offspring she bore to her husband. Could an adult male slave be compelled to marry? On this point, jurists disagreed. An adult slave's male-ness, which would have given him full and sole control over his marital destiny if he were free, stood in tension with his status as a slave. Malik and his followers allowed an owner to marry off his male slave without the slave's consent; in this matter, slave men were like female slaves, vigin daughters, and minor sons. Enslavement either feminized or infantilized the male with regard to consent. Formative-period Hanafi texts do not discuss explicitly whether male slaves could be married off without their consent, and later texts are split, though the dominent view favors compulsion. Both Hanafi and Maliki authorities held that though the owner's permission was required for the valid marriage of a male slave just as for a female slave, if a male slave married before obtaining permission, his master could either dissolve the marriage or authorize it after the fact.
Shafi'i - concerned, as with the minor non-virgin, with making sure every legal claim was respected - diverged on both points. He disallowed the master's after-the-fact ratification of a slaves' marriage. But not only was the master's permission vital for a valid contract, so was the slave's explicit consent: the contract was null if either had not consented in advance. Gender interacted with enslavement to define a male slave's agency for Shafi'i. As a slave, he could not marry without his master's permission, but as a man, he could not be compelled to marry. A certain irreducible masculinity prevented an adult male slave from losing the right to sexual self-determination for Shafi'i; he explicitly contrasts the male slave with a female slave, who was perpetually subject to coercion.
Although Muhammad's men seem to have had intercourse with captive mushrik women whom they had captured during the expedition to Awtas/Autas (Sahih Muslim 8:3432), most jurists later ruled that this was later forbidden by Quran 2:221 (the verse only forbids marriage to mushrik women, but scholars inferred that this also applied to intercourse with slaves). Intercourse with Muslim, Christian, or Jewish slaves was not affected by this restriction.
Early scholars of fiqh devised a workaround for this restriction, including the allowance of raping younger captives who were Zoroastrian or mushrik:
- if Zoroastrian and idolatrous women are taken prisoner, they are coerced into Islam; if they embrace it, sexual relations with them are permissible and they can (also) be used as maidservants. If they do not embrace Islam, they are used as maidservants but not for sexual relations (wa idhā subhīna (sic) al-majūsiyyāt wa ‘abadat al awthān ujbirna 'alā al-Islām fa-in asl ama wutiʼna ma 'stukhdimna wa in lam yuslimna 'stukhdimna wa lam yūtaʼna).
The contradiction inherent in this passage is evident: despite the unspecified coercive measures, some of the women in question refused conversion and, consequently, the masters could not take full advantage of their services. If the only way to embrace Islam is pronouncing the declaration of faith, the conversion of a defiant woman may not be possible: it is not always feasible to force someone to utter the shahāda. According to a tradition transmitted on the authority of Hasan al-Basri, the Muslims used various devices to attain their objective: they turned the Zorastrian slave-girl toward the Ka‘ba, ordered her to pronounce the shahāda and to perform ablution. Her master then engaged in sexual relations after she had one menstruating period while in his house. Others hold that the master must teach the slave-girl to pray, to purify herself and to shave her private parts before any intercourse. The participation of the girl in this procedure is minimal, and this wording may be interpreted us a considerable lowering of the conversion requirements so that the girl becomes eligible for sexual intercourse as expeditiously as possible. Among the early traditionists, only a few were willing to go beyond this and allow sexual relations with a Zoroastrian slave-girl without insisting on at least a semblance of conversion.Shafi‘i's treatment of the issue is slightly different. Speaking of grown-up Zoroastrian or polytheist women taken into captivity, he maintains that no sexual relations with them are allowed before they embrace Islam without bringing up the question of converting them forcibly. If the female captives are minor but were taken captive with at least one of their parents, the ruling is the same. If, however, the girl was captured without her parents, or one of her parents embraced Islam, she is considered a Muslim and is coerced into embracing it (nahkumu lahā bihukm al-Islām wa nujbiruhā ‘alayhi). Once this happens, sexual relations with her are lawful.
Slave markets, harems, and eunuchs
A number of hadiths relate anecdotes about Umar (the second caliph) and his son Ibn Umar, who was likewise a companion of the prophet, in relation to slave women and slave markets. Umar reportedly struck a slave woman for wearing a jilbab over her head because this was only to be worn by free believing women. Ibn Umar is reported to have routinely touched the breasts and buttocks of slave girls in the market when he wished to buy them. Imam Malik (d. 795 CE) reportedly complained of the slave-women of Medina going about with uncovered breasts. See Qur'an, Hadith and Scholars:Slavery for the relevant hadith reports which have been graded sahih by various scholars.
In his book Slavery & Islam, Jonathan Brown writes, "Despite the objection of some Muslim scholars like Shayrazi (d. 1193-4), it seems to have been routine in Islamic civilization for buyers at slave markets to press on the buttocks and breasts of potential jariyas [slave girls]. Sometimes buyers even examined the genitals of male or female slaves, though papyri of sale contracts from the 800s to 900s frequently include boiler-plate language suggesting they were not. Ultimately, slave women were sexually vulnerable and at the mercy of their masters."
In Islamic law, the 'awrah of a woman are the areas of her body which must be covered in the presence of non-mahrams (men other than close relatives). Jurists did not require slave-women to be covered like free Muslim women based on their interpretation of Quran 33:59, allowing a slave's hair, arms and part of her legs to be uncovered. Many even considered a slave woman's 'awrah to be only from her navel to her knees. Khaled Abou El Fadl covers the detailed opinions in his book, Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women. Oliver Leaman and Kecia Ali summarise the situation: "Khaled Abou El Fadl points out that jurists disagreed as to whether enslaved women's breasts constituted awrah and had to be covered in public."
Harems and eunuchs
Beginning with the Umayyads, muslim caliphs were often famed for the very large numbers of concubines at their disposal, which also required the use of eunuch slaves who could be trusted not to engage sexually with them. In his book Queens, Eunuchs and Concubines in Islamic History, El-Azhari Taef El-Azhari notes that "Like his father [Caliph Abd al-Malik, d. 705 CE], Caliph al-Walid owned a large number of concubines". Furthermore he writes, "Other Umayyad governors followed the pattern of their caliphs in their use of eunuchs. One example is Ibn Qutn, the governor of Andalusia in 733; he owned some 700 female slaves and a number of eunuchs. Clearly, the larger the harem became, the more eunuchs were employed for their service and protection." In the Abbasid era, Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861) "owned 4,000 concubines, in addition to other jawari [female slaves]". Caliph al-Muqtadir (d. 932) had vast numbers of eunuchs and "thousands of other jawari and concubines, the cost of which depleted the state treasury." Indeed, his court "held the largest number of eunuchs in Islamic history. The 'Abbasid court contained about 11,000 eunuchs: approximately 7,000 black eunuchs and approximately 4,000 white Saqaliba (Slavs), in additon to 4,000 jawari". 
William-Gervase Clarence-Smith observes, "By having sexual relations with a handful of women drawn from a vast harem, a master denied a family life to numerous unwanted concubines. In effect, he condemned them to a 'system of involuntary imprisonment,' together with their many female slaves. Chafing at enforced chastity, women might commit adultery, or engage in homosexual relations." He further notes that Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia owned 3,000 slaves and "he distributed slave girls to his close collaborators."
El-Azhari Taef El-Azhari writes, "Eunuchs were used in the Umayyad dynasty from the first to the last caliph in different numbers and capacities. We know that the Prophet had one eunuch, although we do not know if he was a castrated eunuch or a majbub [entire genitalia removed] (the difference is significant as the first type is still capable of copulation, as will be analysed later." He goes on to explain the utility of eunuchs when there is a harem in servicing parts of the palaces where males were not allowed. This was practiced also by some other ancient civilizations. He adds, "Although castration was forbidden in Islam, as the Prophet rejected the concept of resisting desire, as already mentioned, it was not prohibited to own one or more eunuchs. The act of castration was carried out mainly in early Islamic history in Spain and Byzantium from where white eunuchs were imported, and also Abyssinia and Taykur, Africa, from where black eunuchs were bought. This savage, inhumane practice was not condemned by Muslim laws at any age or time, which is surprising, given that it was an act of alteration to God's creation; the Quran had emphasised that the human being was created to best stature (mould) (Q. 95:4). The prophet's approval of female genital cutting, as mentioned earlier, may be compared here to approval to mutilate the human body permanently, resulting in dire psychophysical consequences."
John Azumah writes that "Ethiopia was for a very long time the main source of eunuchs for the Muslim world even though from the mid-eighteenth century Bagirmi became the main exporter." He describes 19th century accounts of the procedure:
The trade in African slaves under Islam
A common and entirely modern claim is that Islam was intended to gradually eradicate slavery. In his book, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa, John Azumah argues that if such a view is entertained, Islam failed to the greatest extent imaginable to produce such ends. Slavery was so integral to the religious, cultural and economic life of certain Muslim societies in Africa that despite British colonial anti-slavery policies elsewhere, in such places colonial laws allowed the continued legal status of existing slaves, though stopped slave raiding and trading. In Sudan, abolition was seen as an interference against their way of life and opposed to Islam. He also observes that Islam brought an ideology of slavery to Africa for the first time with the main justification for slavery being kufr, or disbelief.
Enslavement of traditional black Africans occurred from the beginnings of Islam and throughout Islamic history. It became even more intense in the 18th and 19th-century jihad periods, while the East African slave trade expanded when the Sultan of Oman, Said bin Sultan (d. 1856), moved his capital to Zanzibar and established plantation farming there. Mohammed Bashir Salau observes that the Jihad of Usman dan Fodio against the Hausa kingdoms of Northern Nigeria resulted in the Sokoto Caliphate with millions of non-Muslim slaves, one of the largest slaveholding societies in the world. While detailing each of the various Muslim slave caravan routes in Africa, John Azumah quotes accounts from 19th century eyewitnesses:
[...]The route from the interior of Africa through Lake Tanganyika to the coast was littered with skeletons as a result of slaves dying from exhaustion, hunger or the brutality of their couriers, sometimes still yoked together. Deaths during the journeys were so numerous that it has been estimated that for every slave who reached the coast in Zanzibar four or five lives were lost in transit. An Arab slave dealer, by name Syeb-bin-Habib, is reported in 1882 to have admitted that out of 300 slaves he acquired from the interior, only 50 reached the coast alive. David Livingstone observed that if the slaughter committed during the raids is taken into account in addition to the deaths along the routes, then the price of every single slave who arrived at Zanzibar would be about ten lives.
After detailing the Trans-Saharan slave route, he writes:
[...] The methods of killing exhausted or sick slaves and those who attempted to escape in East Africa were also used on the trans-Saharan route. Nachtigal accompanied a caravan of hundreds of slaves from Bagirmi to the slave markets of Kuka and witnessed exhausted and sick slaves being slaughtered and their arteries cut open. After such horrid experiences, Nachtigal pointed out that ‘in estimating the weight of the burden placed by the slave trade on its Pagan victims, it had to be borne in mind that for every one who arrived at Kuka there were probably three to four who died or disappeared on the way’.A French observer estimated that the price for one slave sold in the slave markets of North Africa might represent the loss of ten others who were killed in the raids or died in transit. Apart from this significantly high loss of life during the raids and the journey into servitude, conservative estimates suggest that between eleven and fourteen million Africans were transported into Muslim lands outside tropical Africa over the past fourteen centuries.
Azumah writes of slave markets in Mecca:
In 1962 when Slavery was abolished in the Kingdom, "United Nations anti-slavery reports estimated between 100,000 and 250,000 slaves in Saudi Arabia at the time", while the overthrow of the ruler of Oman in 1970 revealed some 500 slaves kept by the sultan in his palace. An American documentary filmed in 1964 and widely available on Youtube shows the continued existence of illegal slave markets in Saudi Arabia a couple of years after the official abolition.
Treatment of slaves in practice
A number of myths about the historical facts of slavery under Islamic rule are commonly propogated in Islamic apologetics discourse as well as by some credulous Western academic authors. These tend to be misplaced theoretical assumptions based on rules for the treatment of slaves in Islamic texts, or because various travellers observed that slaves serving as domestic servants were generally loyal and treated well. Others point to the potential for slaves to advance to positions of military, political and even economic power. However, Azumah points out that unlike the Mamluks (a dynasty established by slave-generals which ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250-1517 CE), being a eunuch was "virtually the only route by which a black could attain high office’ of any kind within the Muslim world outside black Africa." Moreover, while most slaves in Muslim lands were destined to be domestic servants, many female slaves were used as concubines (in the harems of rulers as well as in private settings), and significant percentages of slaves were put to work on plantations, as infantry, or were castrated to serve as eunuchs. Slaves put to work on plantations were treated with harshness and cruelty:
A nineteenth-century eyewitness described the condition of slaves in the Persian Gulf regions as ‘a dreadful thing’; he went on to state that ‘perhaps the worst part of the whole thing is the pearl-diving’. The stronger male slaves were chosen for the task:
- And before they dive for the pearl oysters a clip is put on their nose to prevent their breathing. They then jump out of the boat, armed with a hammer and a light basket, and on coming to surface pass the oysters into the boat, and after a whiff of air are sent down again. If they don’t succeed in sending up a certain number of oysters they get severely beaten. Before long their lungs begin to give way, and then it is soon all over with them.
A twentieth-century eyewitness described the same situation as ‘a repulsive and dreadful thing. Men and women live on the level of animals. As little is spent on them as possible, they being regarded simply as pieces of equipment for pearl diving’. It has equally been pointed out that slaves in North Africa in general and Egypt in particular worked naked on starvation rations and in the unbearable climatic conditions, as a result of which they died by the hundreds, if not thousands.
Within tropical Africa itself, Muslim states and communities used slaves extensively in peasant and large-scale agricultural production. The condition of slaves throughout such Muslim communities was anything but mild. In 1820, Rene Callie reported numerous slave-based plantations in the Senegambian region where slaves lived in several small slave villages. Callié accompanied one of his Muslim hosts to his rice plantation and described the condition of the slave workers in the following words: ‘The poor slaves work entirely naked, exposed to the heat of the burning sun. The presence of the master intimidates them, and the fear of punishment expedites the work ... the women, who had little clothing, had their children tied to their backs.’ Reporting on massive Maraka slave desertions during the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, one French administrator noted: ‘If the Maraka had treated their slaves with less stinginess in their food [ration] and with more humanity in their customary relations, then escapes would have been less frequent.’In Zanzibar, it is well known that slaves who advanced in age or became ill, and were of no economic value, were left to fend for themselves, and most of them ended up destitute and starved to death. Some were brutally killed by their masters and their bodies thrown by the seaside.
- What does Islam say about slavery - Part I Theology and Part II History - Salsalah - Youtube.com
- HarrisSultanAthiest - Islam and Slavery - How Islam Enslaved Africa - YouTube Video
- Friendly Exmuslim - Hijab's Dishonesty about Slavery in Islam - YouTube Video
- As of the early 2020s, human rights groups estimate that 20% of the population are still enslaved including children https://www.newarab.com/features/modern-day-child-slaves-mauritania
Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, but only criminalised slave ownership in 2007 and introduced punishment in 2015
- "Although the vast majority of contemporary Muslims agree that there is no place for slavery in the modern world, and some nineteenth and twentieth-century reformers such as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan opposed the practice, the pressure to abolish slavery generally came from some combination of European colonial powers and economic and demographic shifts [...] Although abolition did eventually occur, there was not a strong internally developed critique of slaveholding based in religious principles."
Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, London: Oneworld Publications, 2006, pp. 42 ff.
- See the fifth of 'Urwa's letters translated in full in Chapter 4 by Sean Anthony, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The making of the Prophet of Islam, Oakland CA: University of California, 2020
- William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, Oxford University Press, p. 22, ISBN 978-0-19-522151-0, 2006
- Salma Saad, The legal and social status of women in the Hadith literature (PDF), p. 242, 1990, http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/508/1/uk_bl_ethos_443314.pdf
- Nesrine Badawi (1 October 2019), Islamic Jurisprudence on the Regulation of Armed Conflict: Text and Context, BRILL, p. 17, ISBN 978-90-04-41062-6, https://books.google.com/books?id=6MC0DwAAQBAJ&pg=PA17
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, p. 26
- Ibid. p. 27
- Malik Mufti (1 October 2019), The Art of Jihad: Realism in Islamic Political Thought, SUNY Press, p. 5, ISBN 978-1-4384-7638-4, https://books.google.com/books?id=l0SyDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA5
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery p. 27
- Ibid. pp. 45-46
- Joseph Schact, An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford University Press, 1982 (first published 1964), p. 127
- Kecia Ali, "Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam", Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 67
- Joseph Schacht, Introduction to Islamic Law, p. 129
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, p. 22
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, pp. 31-33
- Ibid. pp. 34-35
- Ibid. pp. 27-28
- Ibid. pp. 29-31
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, p. 36
- Ibid. p. 36-39
- Y. Erdem (20 November 1996), Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and its Demise 1800-1909, Palgrave Macmillan UK, p. 26, ISBN 978-0-230-37297-9, https://books.google.com/books?id=dyZ-DAAAQBAJ&pg=PA52
- Jarbel Rodriguez (2015), Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages: A Reader, University of Toronto Press, p. 2, ISBN 978-1-4426-0066-9, https://books.google.com/books?id=z3VoBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA2
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, p. 39
- Brockopp, J. (2000) "Early Maliki Law", Brill: Leiben, p.170
- Joseph Schacht, Introduction to Islamic Law, p. 127
- Robert Gleave (14 April 2015), Violence in Islamic Thought from the Qur'an to the Mongols, Edinburgh University Press, p. 142, ISBN 978-0-7486-9424-2
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, p. 22
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, pp. 39-41
- Irani, K.M. & Silver, M. (editors), Social Justice in the Ancient World, Connecticut:Greenword Press, 1995, p.87
- Martin. A. Klein, "Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition", Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014, p. 218
- William Smith, "A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities", London: Taylor and Walton, 1842, p. 869
- Ali, Kecia, "Concubinage and Consent", Cambridge University Press, January 20, 2017, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies/article/concubinage-and-consent/F8E807073C33F403A91C1ACA0CFA47FD.
- Jonathan A.C. Brown (2019) Slavery & Islam, London: Oneworld Publications, Chapter 7, pp. 281-282, ISBN 978-1-78607-635-9
- Ibid. p. 132
- Joseph Schact, An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford University Press, 1982 (first published 1964), p. 127
- Kecia Ali, "Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam", Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 39-40
- Ibid. p. 153-5
- Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 39-40
- Ruling on sexual intercourse with one's polytheistic slave-woman, Islamweb.net, November 14, 2014 (archived from the original), https://web.archive.org/web/20201227215257/https://www.islamweb.net/en/fatwa/272452/
- Jonathan Brown, Slavery & Islam, Oneworld publications, 2019, p. 132
- Khaled Abou el Fadl, Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, 2001, pp. 525-526 and endnotes 123-129
- Oliver Leaman and Kecia Ali, Islam: The Key Concepts", 2010, London: Routledge, p. 14
- El-Azhari Taef El-Azhari, Queens, Eunuchs and Concubines in Islamic History, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, pp. 70-71, 158-162
- W. G. Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, p. 89
- Ibid. p. 181
- El-Azhari Taef El-Azhari, Queens, Eunuchs and Concubines in Islamic History, pp. 68-69
- John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-religious Dialogue, Oxford: Oneworld, 2001, ebook edition published 2014, p. 178
- John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-religious Dialogue, Oxford: Oneworld, 2001, ebook edition published 2014, pp. 141-2, 174.
- Ibid. pp. 144-9. This has been recognised also by other scholars, though controversially, Azumah argues with quotes from medieval texts that there was in addition a racist dimension to this ideology (pp. 149-161), and that slavery was marginal in Africa prior to becoming an institution under Islamic rule (pp. 131-137). Both of those claims have been criticized by Clarence-Smith as misleading (while acknowledging that there were undoubtably racist views) or for ignoring some important scholarship on pre-Islamic slavery in Africa. Clarence-Smith, W. G. (2003). Review of The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-Religious Dialogue, by J. A. Azumah. Journal of Religion in Africa, 33(3), 334–336.
- Ibid. pp.162, 165, 167
- Mohammed Bashir Salau, Plantation Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate: A Historical and Comparative Study. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2018
- John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa, p. 174
- Slave market in Arabia (1964) - Youtube.com
- John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa, pp. 175-180