Islam's black slaves

The author of a book on the 1,400-year history of the other slave trade talks about the power of eunuchs, the Nation of Islam's falsehoods and the persistence of slavery today.

Published April 6, 2001 3:22AM (EDT)

Although slavery seems like an institution from a barbaric and uncivilized past, it survives today in both Sudan and Mauritania. The horrific details of the Atlantic slave trade -- the ruthless slave traders who pillaged Africa, the millions of Africans who died on treacherous sea journeys to America, the resulting "peculiar institution" of cheap, brutalized labor that spawned the Civil War -- weigh heavily on the American conscience. Another slave trade, however, the Islamic one, remains a mysterious aspect in the history of the black diaspora. Fourteen centuries old, this version of slavery spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, Europe, India and China. It is the legacy of this trade that continues to ravage Sudan and Mauritania today.

South African-born Ronald Segal is the author of 13 books including "The Anguish of India," "The Americans" and "The Black Diaspora." In his latest book, "Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora," he offers one of the first historical accounts of the Islamic slave trade. Salon spoke with Segal by telephone from his home in London.

How did the Atlantic and Islamic slave trades differ?

The Atlantic slave trade exclusively used black slaves or agricultural labor on plantations. It started in a very small way in 1450 and ended in the middle of the 19th century. It was the basic labor supply for the plantations in the Americas since the indigenous people had been all but wiped out by a combination of imported diseases and forced labor. The number of slaves who landed alive in the Americas -- it was an important aspect in the development of capitalism, so the numbers are fairly accurate and organized by merchant banks and investors with stock market quotations -- was something like 10,600,000. Slaves became so cheap that it was more profitable to work them to death and buy new ones than to try to keep your labor supply alive. For example, some of the mortality rates in San Domingue -- which became, after the only successful slave revolution in history, Haiti -- were quite staggering.

Slaves in the Atlantic trade came to be kept and regarded as units of labor, not as people. This was almost formalized by categorizing slaves as "pieces of the Indies." A male slave, able-bodied and in the prime of his life, was defined as a "piece of the Indies," and the other slaves, the women and children, were defined as "pieces of pieces of the Indies." That gives you an idea of how the exploitation of African slaves was rationalized in the West.

But not in Islam?

The slave trade in Islam was seriously different. 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.

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. Very large numbers of slaves were used for domestic purposes. Concubinage was for those who could afford it and there was no disrepute attached to having women as sexual objects. In fact, they married them. Some harems could be enormous. One ruler had 14,000 concubines. In one respect, women slaves were a status symbol. I hate to say it this way, but it's comparable to the way people in the West collect motorcars.

The male slaves were used for the more exacting physical jobs in homes and palaces: porters, messengers, doorkeepers. In various places, from Islamic Spain to Egypt to Libya, there were black slaves used as soldiers. In Morocco, there was a whole generation of black slaves who became the army of Morocco, in which the young boys were bought at the age of 10 or 11 and trained in horse handling and military skills of various kinds. Young female slaves were instructed in household crafts and were then provided with resources to buy a home and get married.

What about eunuchs?

Strictly speaking, in Islam, castration was against the law. I don't think it was in the Koran, I think it was a hadith -- a saying attributed to the prophets -- which says he who castrates a slave will himself be castrated. But they got around this as people do. One contrivance was to buy already castrated slaves. Another was to employ those who were not Muslims to perform the operation. But then even these contrivances came to be abandoned and dealers would perform the operation themselves along the route. The mortality rates were absolutely huge.

To be technical, there was a crucial difference between white eunuchs and black eunuchs. White eunuchs were made by the removal of testicles. Black eunuchs were made by what was called "level with the abdomen." Eunuchs were guardians of the harem [because] if they were castrated "level with the abdomen," there was no risk of their damaging any of the property in the harem.

For reasons that are not altogether clear or explicit, they came to be used increasingly by rulers as counselors, advisors and tutors and, eventually, to actually run the holy places of Mecca and Medina, where they were treated with enormous respect. One can speculate on the motivation -- if they were not sexually active or preoccupied they were more likely to be devoted and loyal or given to spiritual preoccupations instead of bodily ones.

Were there other types of white slaves in Islam?

Yes. The Atlantic trade didn't deal with white slaves, but the Islamic trade dealt with large numbers of white slaves.

And in Islam black slaves were never used for the same purposes that they were used in America?

In the early stages of Islam, they were used in the American way. In southern Iraq and neighboring Iran they were put to work in large quantities to clear the salt crust for agriculture and plantation labor. But in the ninth century, a prophet arrived who instigated a rebellion among the black slaves, the Zanj, in the area. This rebellion was enormous. It destroyed much of the commercial shipping in the region and came close to capturing the city of Baghdad, then the greatest city of Islam. It was eventually crushed after quite a protracted period. The impact across Islam was enormous. There developed a reluctance to allow very large concentrations of slaves for plantation agriculture. That is a parenthetical reason for the overwhelmingly domestic nature of the Islamic trade.

Does the Koran specify how slaves should be treated?

The Koran is the key. The relationship between slave and master in Islam is a very different relationship from that between the American plantation laborer and owner. It was a much more personalized relationship and relatively benevolent. Everything here is relative -- being a slave is being a slave and it shouldn't be romanticized.

The institution of slavery is sanctioned in the Koran. To say that the Koran is in any way opposed to the institution of slavery would be wrong. It is never recommended, but it is influentially and explicitly benevolent in its attitude to the poor, the orphaned and slaves. And there is a specific injunction that to free a slave is an act of piety, which has its due reward in the other life.

Incidentally, what was absolutely outlawed in the Koran was to separate an infant or a young child from his mother.

Which was normal in America.

Right. There is a specific statement in the Koran that says that he who separates the child from his mother will himself be separated from his loved ones on the day of judgment.

Since it was an act of piety with immeasurable reward, the incidence of emancipation or enfranchisement was enormously more widespread in Islam than it was in the Western form of slavery. There wasn't a complete separation of master from former slave. Usually, a patron and client relationship developed between slave and master. For example, in Mauritania today there are freed slaves called Haratin whose descendants still pay tribute to the family of the owner. Specifically in the Koran, the owner of a slave is enjoined to provide that slave with an opportunity to purchase his freedom.

There would be a binding contract in which the slave would be provided with the opportunity to earn money for himself and pay in installments to his owner, which by practice, if not by law, became a gratuity. There were then two motivations for freeing your slave -- a reward in heaven and money in this world.

Was slave ownership only for the rich, as it was in America?

Slave ownership was so widespread. Even small shopkeepers owned slaves. Paradoxically, although slaves were at the bottom of the hierarchy because they weren't free, they still stretched right across the economic hierarchy. It was not rare for slaves to become highly prized artists. There were academies that existed to teach young slave girls to play musical instruments. Any self-respecting merchant house would have a chamber orchestra.

Slaves became generals and black slaves became rulers. In the 16th century, a slave, Ambar, became first a general and then the ruler of a large Indian state.

I also thought it was fascinating that the child of a master by a slave was free.

Definitely. A child born fathered by his master was freed, since a child could not be the slave of his parents.

The great numbers of black female slaves must have ensured a great deal of miscegenation.

There's no question about that. It is the major reason for the relatively small size of the black diaspora in Islam, though there were other reasons. A number of countries noted a low fertility rate among black women slaves. And not all women slaves used for domestic purposes had the opportunity to produce children.

The ultimate example of the distinction between the two trades is that in the greatest Islamic empire, the Ottoman Empire, after the sons of the first two sultans, no sultan mounted the throne who had not been born of a concubine. The Ottoman ruling family did not marry because they regarded the royal family as above any alliance. Occasionally, marriage would be used to ensure the loyalty of a Turkish tribe, but overwhelmingly the fertility of the Ottomans was through concubines.

Why could Islamic slaves assimilate into the surrounding society so more easily than American blacks could?

Here we get to a further dimension of the difference between the two trades. Slavery in the West, because it was so cruel and had become so disreputable, required some kind of excuse or extenuation -- the idea of biological discrimination. Essentially, the concept of race developed and was popularized. The sort of pseudo-scientific view, in distinction from the pseudo-religious view, came about during the Victorian age, the 19th century, when you had Darwin's theory of evolution. You could irresponsibly and intellectually dishonestly subscribe to the idea that certain races were inferior.

But the Koran, on the other hand, prohibits racism?

The Koran very explicitly attacks it. According to the Prophet, Islam comes to do away with these distinctions of tribe and nation and color. There is a strong argument made by Patricia Crone that, initially, Mohammed was most influential in a political rather than a religious sense. He supplanted this intertribal rivalry by uniting a large part of the Arabian people into a political unit, and, of course, it then became an imperial power.

Was there no stigma attached to being black in Islam?

Nothing is ever quite so simple. There did develop an attitude toward color. There were distinctions in market value and general consumer appreciation between one sort of black slave and another. Some of this was aesthetic. One tends to think that anyone who looks like one's own people is more beautiful. For instance, the Ethiopians and the Nubians were highly favored because they had sharpish noses rather than flat noses and they were lighter colored. Clichés developed so that you had so-called Negro slaves for hard work and you had Ethiopians and Nubians for concubinage.

But this was never institutionalized. This is another key to the difference between the two empires. Of course, there were Islamic pseudo scientists in the Middle Ages who said differences of character and temperament were the consequences of climate -- those who lived too far from the sun in the North had frigid temperaments, and those who were immediately beneath the sun were given to too much merriment and too little thought.

But in the context of the development of Islam it would have been a real break with tradition had it been institutionalized in law. This is important for the assimilation aspect too, because once you were freed, there was no discrimination in law against you.

They weren't confined to an underclass after they were freed?

Many of them might have been, although the client/patron relationship was a sort of protection if you were in need -- that is, if your previous owner was a true practicing Muslim. And there isn't this history of separation. The nature of the Atlantic trade and therefore the survival of racism in the West has been one of segregation. In America, separation was the social clarion call and as bad in the Northern states as in the Southern. Generally, the geographical separation -- the kind of separation in individual churches where blacks were seated in one part of the congregation and whites in another -- produced this enormously creative black diaspora in America, as well as infinite suffering.

There wasn't this separation in Islam. Whites didn't push blacks off the pavement. They didn't refuse to allow a black singer to sing in Constitution Hall. They didn't forbid restaurants to serve them. I don't think that there's any disputing that slavery was a more benevolent institution in Islam than it was in the West.

Also, it is irrational to make the exclusive connection between slavery and color that existed in the West because there were white slaves in Islam in significant numbers.

In comparable numbers to black slaves?

With the enormous expansion of Islam and the conquests of huge territories, there were certainly large numbers of white slaves in the early periods. But, to be cautious, white slaves became increasingly more difficult and expensive to obtain. Black slaves became far more numerous than white ones. Certainly, when you get to the 19th century, which was the cruelest century, there were many more black slaves than white ones in Islam.

Beyond the tenets of the Koran, why was this so?

Western capitalism and the development of the attitude of viewing people as units of labor and not as people.

Was America so economically powerful because it exploited its cheap slave labor more brutally than any other leading empire -- such as the Ottoman?

That's a valid point but there are many other reasons for the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Although opinions may differ over the extent of the relationship between the Atlantic trade and the development of industrial capitalism, it is unarguable that the Atlantic slave trade was immensely profitable. The Industrial Revolution was closely related to the Atlantic trade in two major respects. First, many of the products of early British industrialization were directly related to the slave trade. But also, the families who grew rich as a result of the slave trade invested their profits in industrialization. This was a dual fruitfulness that the slave trade produced for the development of industrial capitalism.

The Islamic slave trade was not profitable?

It was profitable for the dealers. But it was nowhere near the kind of sophisticated business that it became in the Atlantic trade.

The Atlantic trade is a horrendous and fascinating story. Which is not to say that in Islam there weren't tremendous cruelties involved, particularly in the 19th century when all inhibitions were discarded. Of course, it must also be said that the West, for all the horrors for which it was responsible, did also engender (not always for benign reasons) the movement against the international slave trade.

Was there an abolitionist movement in Islam?

Initially, it was a source of great hostility that the West dared to intervene in Islamic affairs in contradiction to what was allowed by the Koran. But as Western influence, or modernism, became more and more [widespread], it became less fashionable as well as profitable in Islam to own slaves. And it became illegal over much of the area. The pressures against slavery were extremely great from Western powers. It was the moral issue. It became more scandalous because the conditions of procurement and transport became more and more horrendous.

Was it similar to the Atlantic trade in this respect?

Both slave trades wittingly and unwittingly encouraged warfare on a huge scale to provide the captives for the traders. In Islam, this was much less the case until the 19th century, when it became quite ghastly. The worst of the slavers were not Arabs but Afro-Arabs -- they were as black as the people they were enslaving. The casualties involved in enslavement wars were absolutely unspeakable.

Where were the Afro-Arabs from?

The great dealers of the 19th century? Some of them carved empires for waging war and for providing large numbers of slaves. The point must be made that the worst, the most costly in their ravages, were the Afro-Arabs. They were themselves Africans. There is nothing peculiar to Africa about this, though -- people are corrupted by circumstances and greed.

Why has slavery survived in Sudan and Mauritania?

The resurgence of fundamentalist Islam has a lot to do with slavery in both countries. Both describe themselves as Islamic states and pursue policies of Arab-Islamic religious law, but they are essentially exercises in the maintenance of control. Sudan is an imperial agglomeration of two countries -- one part of black Africa, one part of North Africa. Involved in the war is a question of control and power. In Mauritania, the so-called white Moors represent a third of the population, another third are the Haratin -- who are the descendants of freed slaves and largely black -- and the last third are blacks still held in slavery.

Also, it is partly a reaction to the power differentials in the world at large. Islam was a civilization that for hundreds of years was arguably the central civilization of the world and certainly dwarfed the cultures and powers of a West that is now unquestionably supreme. So there is a sense of humiliation. In such a situation you get a backlash -- a "return to the future through the past" sort of thing -- a re-Islamization. There's nothing in the Koran that says someone can come along and free your slave.

What interested you in the Nation of Islam?

I find it personally inexplicable that the adhesion to Islam within the Black Muslim movement is apparently indifferent to the survival of black slavery within Islam.

Louis Farrakhan doesn't acknowledge what goes on in Sudan and Mauritania?

Does he want them to bring him the slaves as proof? I think it's based on a crude self-defense mechanism not unrelated to those who feel it necessary to defend the conduct of the Israeli government regardless of what it does. The attitude is: "These are yours, you belong to them, they are part of your past and part of your history, and therefore how can you associate yourself with outsiders who attack them?"

But this isn't about the survival of Islam -- that's not in question. You're talking about two rogue states, which are condemned by Islamic countries, governments, preachers, writers. You become so much more credible if you show that you are altogether sensitive to suffering, that you are hostile to injustice across the board. If you become so selective that you can ignore outrages of this kind, well, how can you blame other people for ignoring outrages to you and your community?

Farrakhan is a very paradoxical thinker because he's very, very intelligent, yet he makes statements that are so obviously stupid. It is incomprehensible that he doesn't know that they are stupid. He knows how to manipulate the media. He does it on the basis of short-term gain, without realizing that it is long-term loss. You don't build anything lasting on that basis.

Do Black Muslims hold to the classic tenets of Islam?

They break from the Koran immediately -- if we're talking functionally about their crude and open anti-Semitism. That is in complete conflict with the special relationship that Islam established, while the Prophet was alive, with Judaism and Christianity. There has been no long historical conflict between Jew and Muslim, though there has been a conflict since the crusades between Christian and Muslim.

There are exceptions, but overall Islam proved most hospitable, and certainly a great deal more so than Christianity, to the Jews. When the Jewish population was expelled in 1492 from Spain, Islam took in those Jews who couldn't find havens in Christian countries. This isn't to say there haven't been tensions from time to time, but overall there is no comparison between the way Islam has behaved to Jews and the way Christianity has behaved to Jews.

On what basis does the Black Muslim movement usually attack Jews?

What I find most outrageous is that the leadership of the Black Muslim movement has judged it necessary and defensible to attack Jews on the basis -- for which there is no historical foundation whatsoever -- that they masterminded the slave trade, by which I think they mean specifically the Atlantic trade. And that is -- not to put to fine a point on it or to be excessively elegant -- unmistakable crap. Anyone who knows anything about the Atlantic trade knows that this is nonsense.

So why do you think they keep on about this?

I think that they are resentful -- and I understand the resentment but not the form it has taken -- that a great deal of fuss, an enormous amount of moral attention, is now paid to the Holocaust. And in my view, rightly so. The slave trade was the only comparable historical experience to the Holocaust -- comparable but not identical. No one seems to pay remotely the same attention to or have the same sense of guilt about the slave trade as about the combination of racism in the Holocaust.

Now, that is a point that ought to be made. But you do not aggrandize one by belittling the other. On the contrary, you end up denying the importance of one by denying the importance of the other. Certainly you add nothing to your case by basing it on assertions that are so easy to confront and contradict.

Do you think the Nation of Islam came out of pure despair with America or from a loss of faith in Christianity?

They were explicably attracted by a sense or knowledge that there was no such history of specifically anti-black racism in Islam, as so conspicuously had existed for blacks in the West and, in particular, in the United States. Those who wished to believe in God or practiced some form of religion and were, as Louis Farrakhan was, disenchanted with Christianity were easily captivated by a religious alternative not all that far apart but distinctly different from Christianity.

Do you think the Nation of Islam has helped American blacks?

I have traveled widely in the United States and have visited communities in Michigan and Illinois. Secular black academics testify that in Black Muslim schools the emphasis placed on the history and dignity of blacks in Africa has had a marked effect on the reading ability of black children, who no longer feel disparaged and demoralized.

There is a great deal of truth in a man like Farrakhan's indictment of some of the black middle class who flee the ghettos, for understandable reasons, but in the process think that they can turn their backs on those who are unable to buy new homes in these middle-class suburbs. There is a smugness there, and then there is the phenomenon of the black conservative, such as Clarence Thomas.

It is outrageous that American democracy doesn't function for the objectives that it is almost perpetually enunciating. If you start looking at statistics on the disproportionate numbers of blacks executed, of young blacks in prison -- all these undeniable abuses of the system make people very angry. The problem occurs when this anger becomes irrational. Because it is such an obvious series of abuses, the anger doesn't need to be irrational. In fact, the only way it can be effectual is to be rational.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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