We all accept that slavery is bad but ignore the reality, which is that without Islam, slavery would never have become as pervasive as it was, or is, today. We accept the Atlantic (Western) slave trade as if it was possible to exclude the crucial contribution to that trade made by the Arab slave traders. But without the Arab slave trade, without their physical labour and the financial benefit they derived from it, little of the western trade would have been possible. It was possible because that trade was at least eight centuries older than the Atlantic slave trade. The Muslim Prophet Mohamed did not refute the legitimacy of the slave trade. In fact the taking of slaves was encouraged as war ‘booty’. He saw it as a normal economic activity that benefited the Arab people. Because the Arab people were ‘gifted’ the Koran by Mohammed, they were the only and true ‘Chosen people’ and their racial superiority became part of the legacy of their history and of their successful conquest across three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe). Contempt for the ‘Other’ as personified in the institution of slavery followed the Muslim immigrant everywhere.
This ethnic bigotry was part fashion (fair skinned slaves being favored as concubines), part history (successful conquest equates with self-justification for the means employed and the profits enjoyed) and finally, part Koranic incitement (the Islamic faithful were exercising their right to benefit from the willful attitude of non-Muslims in not converting to the true faith). The ease with which black slaves were seized made for the reinforcement of this prejudice which often saw the captive placed on a level little higher than beasts. Europeans often fared little better.
The racial aspect of the Arab trade was an inevitable reaction to Western engagement with the Arab world in the 18th and 19th Centuries – which was on Christian terms, not Muslim. But European nationalism and the intellectual expression of racial theories in the 19th Century soon found resonance in an Islamic world fed a narrative of millennia old, blood drenched glory against the infidel. After all, if the Arabs were gifted Gods favor, then infidel encroachment must have a purpose. Islamic faith was (and is) inseparable from imperial endeavor so this violation of Muslim-Arab suzerainty could (and still is) only possible to explain in theological terms, as testing the resolution of the faithful.
Ronald Segal wrote in ‘Islam’s Black Slaves’ that slavery in Islam was mainly a service industry. “Slavery itself was primarily a form of consumption rather than a factor of production.” There existed in Arab lands a substantial peasant class so early attempts at using slave-labor for production ended very badly. Uprisings and massacres (the Zanj Revolt for example) were of unbelievable scope (according to the 10th Century historian al-Masudi 300,000 people died in Basra alone). So instead, usually, slaves were utilized as concubines, servants and soldiers. In fact, while the ratio of male to female slaves in the Atlantic slave trade was 2:1 in favor of men (as an indicator of slave use as a unit of production), in the Muslim world the ratio was reversed (2:1 in favor of women as an indicator of slave use as a unit of service).
While the manumission (freeing) of slaves was certainly encouraged, in opposition to this, Slavery was heavily regulated by Sharia law. In distinct contradiction to the Atlantic slave trade, slaves and former slaves could attain great status in the Muslim world, but they experienced a terrible mortality rate. And the soldier slave could be killed at will. This kept the slave trade active well into the twentieth century and it continues to this day because the Islamic faithful do not view any part of the Koran as time specific.
In the Muslim world there is no precedent for the legal annulment of a theological mandate. In this Muslim world, the institution of Slavery is an economic resource that is mandated by God; therefore, it cannot be theologically abrogated. To the purist, the trade is strictly and humanely administered, the safeguards laid down as holy writ. But if the sanction against abuse exists, it has been violated so often, and so egregiously, we can only conclude that prejudice and ideas of superior racial purpose make the institution of slavery an ideal means for demonstrating power. And to the fundamentalist, what took place in the Seventh Century is as relevant today as it was fourteen centuries ago. To paraphrase Thomas Mann: Compassion, veils her face.
Today, Slavery remains as it has always been, a blemish smeared across the human stage. Two short examples will suffice:
Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in 1962 but it needed further legislation in 1990 to reinforce the original law. In 2007 Slavery was abolished for the fifth time in the Islamic republic of Mauritania.
At a conference organized by UN Watch in February 2013 it was explained that “some 20 percent of Mauritanians, about 600,000 people, are still slaves. Mauritania uses Sharia to justify a racist system where Arabs exploit the country’s black African population.” In fact the number of people enslaved is believed to be somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000. In another case: “Saudi Princess Meshael Alayban was accused of human trafficking in the U.S., this has caused a stir throughout the world” but how was this story uncovered? “A few weeks ago, the victim, identified as ‘Jane Doe,’ escaped Alayban’s home where she alleges she was forced to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week; her passport held by Alayban to prevent escape. Jane Doe then flagged down a bus, explained her situation to another passenger who helped her phone police. When the police went to investigate, they found four other women at the home claiming to be in the same situation.” Walkfree.org 31st July 2013
I watched Steve McQueen’s movie, ‘12 years a Slave’. For me it was gruelling, for the black woman next to me it was worse and from time to time she quietly sobbed. I understood why. I cannot sit though a movie about the Shoah. I would not have voluntarily chosen this one either, nevertheless, ‘12 years a slave’ stands as a reminder that the fruits of inaction are an assumption of indifference and through indifference, approval.
Today there are estimated to be thirty million human beings held as slaves around the world. They generate some thirty billion dollars worth of income to their slave owners.