Middle East Resources


Shirley W. Madany

A flair for history seems to be a prerequisite for understanding the Muslim world and its people. A good grasp of geography is similarly helpful. Using the resources available in the various writings of Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies emeritus, Princeton University, let’s take a preliminary look at the subject of slavery. The Arabs in History was written in 1947, first printed in 1950, and saw many printings after that. Forty-five years later Professor Lewis prepared a revised and updated version which was printed in 1993. That is one of the books we will be referring to and quoting from.

It is intriguing to learn from Bernard Lewis' book, The Arabs in History that paper was first used in China in the year 105 BC! Thus in AD751, when the Arabs defeated a Chinese contingent east of the “Jaxartes” they ended up with some Chinese paper-makers among their prisoners. Many such skills were brought into the Islamic world in this way. This tid-bit of information excites the imagination. Soon the use of paper spread rapidly across the Islamic world reaching Egypt by 800 and Spain by 900. By the tenth century onwards there is clear evidence of papermaking in countries of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.

And that’s where geography comes in. I hope that you enjoy pouring over the globe or searching an atlas of the world. It is a good way to follow the daily news. I was completely frustrated in my search for Jaxartes. I wanted to use it as an example. Was it a place or a river? After some research, I located the Jaxartes river in the Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia. It appears to be located roughly on the border between China and present-day Afghanistan. The river has a different name today. What made it important enough to appear in the index was that the Persian King Cyrus was killed fighting near this river, some 500 years before the birth of Christ.

Thanks to archaeologists and records kept in ancient times, one learns of the longevity of the slave trade in the Arab world. But one must go all the way back to the days of the caliphs to note the disappearance of any stigma when a Muslim man had a slave mother. Due to polygamy, this was quite common. At first it was imperative that the mother was from one of the Arab tribes. However, as more and more slaves adopted the religion of Islam, gradually they also achieved equality. “Noble birth and tribal prestige lost their value.” By the year 817, the Abbasid Caliphs and succeeding Muslim rulers were often the sons of slave women, many of whom were foreign. Such parentage ceased to be either an obstacle or a stigma. A definite plus for Islam.

Quite possibly this fact is one of the important drawing cards of Islam as a religion that attracts Americans of African origin. And yet, without knowledge of history, they may be unaware of the fact that Islamic traders carried on, for centuries, a steady slave trade from East African ports and it hadn’t stopped even in the 20th century. Those early records are available for any who wish to search them out and they will show the lists of goods and chattels involved in trade with the far-flung world.

Muslim merchants traveled to India, Ceylon, the East Indies and China, over sea and over land, bringing back silks, spices, aromatics, woods, and tin. From the Byzantine Empire one begins to see “slave girls” mentioned in the bills of lading, along with gold and silver, marble workers and eunuchs. It may come as a surprise to some that the records mention places as far away as Scandinavia, and especially Sweden, where scores of Muslim coins have been found with inscriptions from the seventh to eleventh centuries. Among the long list of goods imported from Scandinavia, you will find “Slavonic slaves, sheep and cattle.”

An early ninth century geographer, Ibn Kurradadhbeh, tells of Jewish merchants from the south of France “who speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish and Slavonic. They travel from west to east and east to west, by land and by sea. From the west they bring eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, sable and other furs, and swords.”

Though some slaves attained an honored class doing either domestic work or military service, there were exceptions. “Slaves were employed for manual labor on a number of large-scale enterprises, in mines, in the fleets, and in the drainage of marshes. They were herded together in settlements, often thousands belonging to a single landowner. Slaves of this kind were mainly black, obtained especially from East Africa, by capture, purchase, or in the form of tribute from vassal states.”

“Such were the slaves of the salt flats east of Basra (Iraq), where unprecedented numbers were employed by the wealthy men of that city in draining the salt marshes in order to prepare the ground for agriculture and to extract the salt for sale. They worked in gangs of from five hundred to five thousand. Their conditions were extremely bad. Their labor was hard and exacting, and they received only a bare and inadequate keep consisting, according to the Arabic sources, of flour, semolina, and dates.” Many knew little or no Arabic. Eventually a leader arose among them and there was a great uprising. However, this was not in order to put an end to slavery, merely to secure better living conditions.

Browsing in a bookstore in Berkeley, California, we came across another book by Bernard Lewis entitled Race and Slavery in the Middle East, published in 1990 by Oxford University Press, dealing exclusively with this subject. Considering the attraction that Islam has for some African Americans, this seemed very timely. There are numerous color plate illustrations dating back to 1237 and many in the 1500s, besides 80 pages of documentation to back up its contents. The intriguing illustrations were from famous libraries in London, Paris, and Istanbul and depicted the variety of slaves and their livelihood.

What was the reaction of the Muslim world when cries for the abolition of slavery resounded around the world? Let me quote at some length from the above-mentioned book:

“In the course of the nineteenth century, the revulsion against slavery, which gave rise to a strong abolitionist movement in England, and later in other Western countries, began to affect the Islamic lands. What was involved was not, initially, the abolition of the institution of slavery but its alleviation and in particular, the restriction and ultimately the elimination of the slave trade. Islamic law, in contrast to the ancient and colonial systems, accords the slave a certain legal status and assigns obligations as well as rights to the slave owner. The manumission of slaves, though recommended as a meritorious act, is not required, and the institution of slavery not only is recognized but also is elaborately regulated by Shari'a law. Perhaps for this very reason the position of the domestic slave in Muslim society was in most respects better than in either classical antiquity or the nineteenth-century Americas.”

Though the life of the slave in Muslim society could almost have appeared to be better than the life of the poor who were free, once again it was the process of obtaining slaves, which drew the heavy criticism. The methods used and the roughness of transportation often demanded terrible hardships with much loss of life. Particularly objectionable was the large number of children involved. With these considerations, the main concern of Europeans was to put an end to slavery, and to eliminate this traffic in human beings, especially out of Africa.

“The abolition of slavery itself would hardly have been possible. From a Muslim point of view, to forbid what God permits is almost as great an offense as to permit what God forbids--and slavery was authorized and regulated by the holy law. More specifically, it formed part of the law of personal status, the central core of social usage, which remained intact and effective even when other sections of the holy law dealing with civil, criminal, and similar matters, were tacitly or even openly modified and replaced by modern codes. It was from conservative religious quarters and notably from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina that the strongest resistance to the proposed reform came. The emergence of the holy men and the holy places as the last-ditch defenders of slavery against reform is only an apparent paradox. They were upholding an institution sanctified by scripture, law and tradition and one which in their eyes was necessary to the maintenance of the social structure of Muslim life.”

History records that the overwhelming majority of white slaves came from the Caucasian lands. This was in the days of the Ottoman Empire, and it was not until 1854 that orders against the traffic in white slaves from Georgia and Circassia were issued and put into effect. It is no coincidence that the word "slavery" derives from the large numbers of people of Slavic origin from central Europe who were reduced to this form of life.

Arabia was another major center for the slave trade, and the flow of slaves from Africa into Arabia and through the Gulf into Iran continued for a long time. The extension of British, French and Italian control around the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Kenya) deprived the slave traders of their main ports of embarkation.

It is generally admitted that as far as Islam was concerned, it was the horrors of the abduction and transportation of slaves which were the worst part but that once they were settled in their Islamic setting they had genuine opportunities to realize their potential and many of them became merchants in Mecca and Jeddah. A puzzling question comes to mind--if this is so, how is it that there is no corresponding black population? One reason could be the high proportion of eunuchs among the black males entering the Islamic lands. Another is the high death rate and low birth rate among black slaves in North Africa and the Middle East. In about 1810, Louis Frank observed in Tunisia that most black children died in infancy and that infinitesimally few reached the age of manhood. A British observer in Egypt, some thirty years later, found conditions even worse. He said: “I have heard it estimated that five or six years are sufficient to carry off a generation of slaves, at the end of which time the whole has to be replenished.”

As noted earlier, there were both bright and dark sides to the way in which slavery was practiced in Islamic countries. What is regrettable now is that this practice is seldom openly discussed--as if slavery was exclusively a Western phenomenon. This deliberate silence enables Muslim propagandists in America to represent themselves as liberators of the people of African origin.

Regarding evidence of 20th century slave markets I turned to the autobiography of a missionary friend, Cornelia Dalenberg, who went to Arabia as a nurse and devoted her whole life to service there. Cornelia knew the Arabia which had existed unchanged for a millennium, prior to the discovery of oil (what a difference that was going to make). She played tennis with the man who discovered oil in the Bahrain region!

In her book, Sharifa, she recounts the story of a Christian believer who could remember vividly when Arabs came to her village in Africa. They gathered the women and children in an open place in the village. She was about five years old at the time and all her life bore the three vertical stripes of the branding iron on her left cheek. She and a sister were separated from their mother and brothers and forced to walk all the way to Khartoum and thence to the Red Sea before they boarded a ship for Jeddah. When her sister became ill she saw the men beat her to death before her eyes. After a terrible trip across the Red sea, because the ship was becalmed and they had no food, they were finally presented in the market for sale. They were given some grease to rub on their bodies to make them shine. She was purchased for a dollar and a half! The man was from Mecca, the holy city of the Muslims. After three years of washing clothes and serving food, at the age of ten or eleven, she was given as a gift to a friend of her masters from Kuwait. Next she was given to another friend who lived in Bahrain. That master chose a slave to be her husband. Her first child lived but seven others died in childbirth. Finally, at the age of forty she met her first American missionary, Mrs. Minnie Dykstra, who showed her great kindness and love. Meanwhile Medina and her husband had become freed slaves. This gave her the opportunity to learn about Christianity. “It was almost too good to be true. I had not known that God cared for me, a poor black slave. I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a Christian, but I was afraid of what the others would say.” She could remember seeing the famous missionary Dr. Samuel Zwemer. At first when he was walking in the market people would spit on him and throw stones at him! Medina’s testimony was: “I am happy for I am a Christian, but some of my Muslim friends call me bad names and say that I shall go to hell because I am no longer a Muslim. I know they are wrong and I am right. I hope that many of them will see their mistake and join us.”

Cornelia’s memories were from the early 1990s. Surely times have changed. In some way Saudi Arabia appears to have jumped into the 21st century. Now it has brand new cities with almost fairy tale qualities. And its wealthier citizens have the ability to fly in any luxury they desire as if Aladdin’s lamp was functioning. The outward change in the past fifty years has been spectacular but as a Muslim writer observed in a recent Wall Street Journal article (Wednesday, October 24/01), the radicalization of Islam is preventing many Muslim countries from developing a modern political culture which would enable them to “reform their societies and rebuild their economies.”

Judith Miller, a correspondent for the New York Times, has something to say also, about today’s slave markets, in her book, God Has Ninety-Nine Names. She was in Sudan in 1994. “The forced Islamization of non-Muslim children was one of the many heart-breaking facts of life in Hassan Turabi’s putative Islamic regime, which, during my last visit in June 1994, was about to mark its fifth year in power. The children were being enslaved by the descendants of Sudanese Arabs who less than a hundred years ago had run some of the world’s richest slave markets.” We recommend Judith Miller’s book for anyone who would like to have a better grasp of the “mind” of the peoples of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iran. In the chapter on the Sudan we gather that the slave trade was considered almost a necessity: ‘Except for the revenues derived from its market on human beings, Sudan had—and still has— few economic resources.”