”My stepmother had shrugged her shoulders in charming helplessness. “It is as Allah wills,” she said. “The puddles will dry when it stops raining. Allah brings the rains and Allah makes the sun shine.” My father’s third wife accepted her life as it came to her. Like my mother, she was passive, but her passiveness was different from my mother’s. Both women were steeped in self-pity; both resigned themselves to their circumstances. But my mother cursed, scolded, screamed, demanded, and insulted those she blamed. Sahra’s mom smiled and chided; she cast her eyes down and seemed to be content. Whatever the next day brought was Allah’s choice, and she saw no point in defying events, her husband, or her God. Every sentence ended with Inshallah, “God willing.” That was her method of survival….

'Slave Market In cairo'', drawing from Ebers Voll (?), 1878.

'Slave Market In cairo'', drawing from Ebers Voll (?), 1878.

…The Muslim veil, the different sorts of masks and beaks and burkas, are all gradations of mental slavery. You must ask permission to leave the house, and when you do go out you must always hide yourself behind thick drapery. Ashamed of your body, suppressing your desires — what small space in your life can you call your own? The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, nonpersons. The veil sets women apart from men and apart from the world; it restrains them, confines them, grooms them for docility. A mind can be cramped just as a body may be, and a Muslim veil blinkers both your vision and your destiny. It is the mark of a kind of apartheid, not the domination of a race but of a sex. ( Ayaan Hirsi Ali , Excerpt from ”Nomad” )

Islam institutionalized slavery. Muhammad began to take slaves after he moved to Medina, and had power. Slaves were usually taken in raids on nearby Arab tribes, or war, either through offensive or defensive actions. Islam allows the taking of slaves as “booty”, or reward for fighting. This has led to numerous “jihads” by Muslim states and tribes to attack other non-Muslim groups and obtain slaves. Islamic jurisprudence laid down regulations for the proper treatment of slaves. However, abuses have occurred throughout history. The Quran does seem to indicate that  slavery was ordained by Allah, and that it was permissible for Muslim males to have sex with their female slaves. It also shows that slaves were a valuable commodity to the Muslims, otherwise, Allah would not have imposed the penalty of freeing a slave to make up for a crime.

For the slave traders of the Sahara, the ”razzia” was a very simple form of man hunt, whether conducted by the Arabs or their African converts. It consisted of a surprise raid on a village or an oasis, of cutting down any resistance, taking off the young men and women for slavery, looting the settlement, and, if the loot was inadequate, of burning the houses and palm trees by which the inhabitants survived.

Captain Lyon, one of the first Europeans to travel in the Fezzan, describes a razzia against the Tiboos in 1819, and states that, ”In the course of one morning, a thousand or fifteen hundred slaves have sometimes been procured in this manner by two or three hundred men only. When the inhabitants are all secured, the camels, flocks, and provisions come into requisition; and these dreaded Arabs march on and conquer other defenseless hoards, in the same manner.”

”That’s right. Although, it is widely documented that many eunuchs were married. They were not asexual people. They just couldn’t reproduce.”

”They are more careful of their horses than of their families, sparing no expense to fatten them; this is done by cramming them with large balls of meal or dough, which are considered highly nourishing. A fine horse will, in the Negro country, sell for 10 or 15 Negresses; each of which, at the Barbary ports, is worth from 80 to 150 dollars.

All the traders speak of slaves as farmers do of cattle. Those recently brought from the interior were fattening, in order that they might be able to go on to Tripoli, Benghazi, or Egypt: thus a distance of 1600 or 1800 miles, is to be traversed, from the time these poor creatures are taken from their homes, before they can be settled; whilst in the Interior they may, perhaps, be doomed to pass through the hands of eight or ten masters, who treat them well or ill, according to their pleasure. These devoted victims fondly hoping that each new purchaser may be the last, find perhaps that they have again to commence a journey equally long and dreary with the one they have just finished, under a burning sun, with new companions, but with the same miseries.” ( G.F. Lyon )

A slave auction is depicted in this sketch from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, reprinted in Harper’s Weekly in 1861.

With the connivance, then, of the African chieftains, the Arabs were able to achieve a double purpose by their razzias. First, they did a useful service to some local monarch who wanted his neighbors weakened by having their men carried off into slavery; and secondly, they supplied the European traders with an African commodity these traders had not yet been able to acquire for themselves, for long after the end of the Middle Ages, explorers, traders, and conquerors had great difficulty in penetrating into the interior of the Black Continent, with the notable exception of the Portuguese, whose traders and missionaries had made some progress into West Africa. But practically nothing was known of the African kingdoms lying along the Tropic of Cancer,between the Niger and Lake Chad, until Dr. Barth’s explorations of about one hundred fifty years ago.

”The Portuguese in awe of the majesty of the Manikongo. The Portuguese were initially impressed by the Kingdom of Kongo. The ravaging decimations of native peoples from slave trading would eventually lead to disintegration and depopulation of the once mighty Kongo. Black kings of tribes who went into this mass inhumanity with the Portuguese tried to stop the slave-raiding of the Portuguese.”

The only real source of information was Arabic texts, notably the ”Travels” od al-Hassan ibn-Muhammed al-Wazzan, alias Leo Africanus. Just how reliable Moorish or Arab historians appears pretty much open to question although Leo seems engagingly frank about himself. ”When I hear the Africans spoken of badly”, he said, ”I will affirm myself to be from Granada; and when I perceive Granadansto be discommended, then I profess myself to be an African.”

”Coptic families, and I’m not sure why that is, who would do the operation and remove the testicles of these boys, and then try to heal them in certain ways. The mortality rate was high, which meant that those who survived were very valued and very expensive, and so eunuchs you really only find in Egypt in the upper, upper most echelons of Egyptian society, those closest say to Muhamed Ali or his sons and grandsons who inherited his throne, or in the Ottoman Empire. Some were brought to the Sultana in Istanbul. There were also eunuchs who came from Circassia or the Balkans, so you would also have white eunuchs.”

”According to Leo, the inhabitants of Timbuktu were amazingly rich and the king of Timbuktu possessed an ingot of gold that weighed over five hundred kilograms. Originally this piece of gold was one of the fabulous stories about the Sudanic Africa circulating in
medieval Arabic sources and it became heavier with each telling but not less credible. Supported and magnified by constant flow of new reports sent by European traders and consuls from Northern Africa, Leo’s description came to represent European readers thetreasures which were available, and waiting to be discovered, in the West African interior.Timbuktu itself transformed into a wonderful magnet which attracted Europeans adventures to suffer the hardships—and often the death—of crossing the vast tracts of desert. It was not until 1830 when European readers were finally told by the French adventurer René Caillié (1799–1838) that Timbuktu was a rather poor town consisting of nothing but “a mass of ill looking houses, made of earth”. Caillié was certainly not the first European to arrive in Timbuktu on 20 April 1828, but he was the first who came back alive to tell what he had seen there.

Fine Orientalist oil on canvas depicting a harem or slave market, c. 1880. Signed or titled in Arabic upper left. Oil on canvas, 54 x 44″, framed.

Besides Leo’s own experiences and observations, another important source of information was the earlier Arabic literature which was familiarEven if we accepted al-Hasan b. Muhammad’s second visit to Timbuktu as historical, his wider excursions within the
Sudanic Africa are mythical and based on the speculation by modern scholars who read hisbook like an itinerary.As a matter of fact, it is doubtful whether the man ever crossed the Sahara at all. His description of the “Land of the Blacks” is the shortest of the nine books of his work and there is nothing, or at least very little, that suggests that the data should be based on his own observations. Instead, he could have collected all his information from Moroccan traders and West African pilgrims whom he was able to meet and interview during his travels in Northern Africa.( Pekka Masonen )

slave west africa. undated.

Nonetheless, it was on Leo’s entertaining accounts of his travels in Africa that geographers, historians, and others had to rely for the next three hundred years, because no European had been as far as Ghadames, let alone Timbuktu, until the second decade of the nineteenth century. So, almost all that is known about the African kingdoms south of the Sahara comes from Leo, who visited them in 1520 or thereabouts, or claims he did.

”The Quran also instructs Muslims NOT to force their female slaves into prostitution (24:34), and even allows Muslims to marry slaves if they so desire (4:24), and to free them at times as a penalty for crime or sin (4:92, 5:89, 58:3) and even allows slaves to buy their liberty, if they meet certain of their master’s conditions (24:33). [90:10 'freeing of a bondsman' refers to Muslims ransoming other Muslims who were slaves of non-Muslims.] While I think it’s nice to allow a slave to obtain his freedom, (at his master’s discretion) it is tragic that Islam allows them to be enslaved in the first place. That’s like robbing a bank and giving some of the money back to the bank, and thinking you did the right thing!”

Slavery was an integral part of life in all these African kingdoms, as the Moslem faith, which they had adopted, did not question the institution but only strengthened it. Salves, in fact, were the currency of the Black regions, as they were of Barbary. Leo confirms Lyons remark that one horse being worth fifteen to twenty slaves, the latter being in abundant supply because of the wars and razzias. In a list of African exports that Leo conveniently prices to illustrate the state of the barbary market, he listed male and female slaves quoted lower than eunuchs, camels, or civet cats used as a fixative in making perfumes.

Artist: Jean Léone Gérôme Title: Arab Purchasing a Bridle 1881 Signed: Medium: Oil Size: French Orientalist

A eunuch was worth twice as much as a slave in 1520, and it is surprising it was not more since the mortality rate among the boys and men who were forcibly gelded was extremely high. Only one out of ten, at the most, survived the ”operation” which was done without any kind of surgical skill, let alone an anesthetic. Yet it was usual for the most healthy boys and youths to be chosen for castration, all these eunuchs being sent up to Lake Chad-Bilma-Murzuq caravan route to tripoli for use in the harems of North Africa, Arabia and Turkey, except for those retained in the courts of the African kings.

Major Dixon Denham, writing in 1826, tells us that in these African wars, ” No males were spared on either side, except on terms worst perhaps than death. The sultan of Bornou had more than 200 youths under twenty from Begharmi in his harem, as eunuchs; while the sultan of Begharmi, who was said to have nearly 1000 wives had treble that number of unfortunate Bornouese and Kanemboo eunuchs, chose out of the most healthy young men who had fallen into his hands as prisoners…”

Male female and child captives driven into slavery by Arab slave traders, c1875 The men are fastened together wit hslave forks. From &quotThe Life and explorations of David Livingstone” c1785

Since the survival rate of eunuchs was one in ten for the operation and one in ten for the trans-Saharan journey, the odds against a young ”castrato” reaching the Tripoli market were , in theory, about one in a hundred. But the slave merchants could not afford to risk such odds even in the transportation of human beings who were easier to capture and transport than civet cats. So the ”castrati” probably received the same preferential treatment accorded to especially beautiful virgins, who were carried in cages on the back of camels. The other slaves, of course, walked and were driven from well to well, arriving at the coast in the form of living skeletons, there to be fattened up before being sold at the auctions.

Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769.

”Here, the Muslims attacked the Banu Mustaliq, and took slaves. The female slaves were distributed as booty to the Muslim soldiers. Being away from home, the soldiers became horny, and want to have sexual relations with the newly captured female slaves. They went to Muhammad and asked about coitus interruptus. He told them not to practice that, but to complete the sexual act with the slaves. Related Hadith show that they didn’t want to get the women pregnant because they wanted to be able to sell them later on. Under Islamic law they were not allowed to sell pregnant female slaves.

In effect, Muhammad okayed the rape of female prisoners.

Vol. 3-#765

Narrated Kuraib: the freed slave of Ibn ‘Abbas, that Maimuna bint Al-Harith told him that she manumitted a slave-girl without taking the permission of the Prophet. On the day when it was her turn to be with the Prophet, she said, “Do you know, O Allah’s Apostle, that I have manumitted my slave-girl?” He said, “Have you really?” She replied in the affirmative. He said, “You would have got more reward if you had given her (i.e. the slave-girl) to one of your maternal uncles.”

Here a woman frees a slave girl, but Muhammad says that she would have gotten more (heavenly) reward if she had given the slave one of her uncles, thus keeping the slave in slavery.

Vol. 7-#734 “….At the door of the [Muhammad's] room there was a slave to whom I went and said, “Ask the permission for me to enter”…..

This is a long Hadith, and the quote reveals that Muhammad has slaves working in his house.

Vol. 7-#344 Narrated Anas: “Allah’s messenger went to the house of his slave tailor, and he was offered a dish of gourd of which he started eating. I have loved to eat gourd since I saw Allah’s messenger eating it.”

This Hadith shows that another one of Muhammad’s slaves was a tailor. #346 gives additional details.”

”Mohammed had 24 male slaves and 11 female slaves.
In his Quran, Mohammed discriminated against men according to their colour. He states: “The law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman” 1. This means that if a white man killed another white man, the killer has to be killed as a punishment for killing a human being, but, if a white man killed a black man, the white man shall not be killed as he did not kill a human being; he has to pay a fine.

Ibn Kathir, a scholar in interpreting the Quran, explained this verse saying that the slave is a commodity, and if a slave was killed by mistake or unintentionally, no fine or compensation should be paid. Mohammed also said in his Quran:
”If one (so) kills by mistake a Believer, it is ordained that he should free a believing slave”3, meaning that if a man killed another man unintentionally, he can erase his sin by freeing a Muslim slave. Non-Muslim slaves shall not be freed from slavery. If Mohammed aimed to free slaves from their slavery, why did he set this condition? No Jewish or Christian slave shall be freed from slavery!
Mohammed aimed to increase the number of his followers and troops. He saw slaves as commodities and as part of free men’s property that can be inherited.” ( Zaki Ameen )

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  1. John says:

    Hi Dave,

    I think you should double check these sources, or your selection of sources. As an anthropological look, it is highly biased in its sources (citing non-Muslim sources to explain Islamic texts). Maybe a read in some academic theologians work would help, such as Karen Armstrong (who is not a Muslim, but is at least honest and fair in dealing with texts).

    Regarding Ayaan, although it is from last year, I think you may find this book review useful. The author comes from a Muslim perspective and reviews her works. The link is here … it is good to hear other opinions and ideas.

    Hope you find it interesting.

    • Dave says:

      Hi John,
      Yes, the sources are a bit selective. The subject is highly divisive to be sure. I have been working on some ideas on the aesthetics of feminism and it kind of pushed me to be a bit more provocative with regarding the slave trade. I realize these texts must be looked at at on different interpretive levels and within alternative contexts. Its hard to believe a ”religion” could espouse this degree of disregard. I am not a big Hirsi fan, although she raises some valid issues regarding pluralism and multiculturalism which though they have been raised before, she is quotable as a flavor of the month.

  2. Anon says:

    What about trans-atlantic slave trade … are you going to demonize Arab Slavery and neglect the 7-10 million who were enslaved by Europe, or that the US considered blacks to be only 3/5th human until only recently? Slavery in the Bible? Bizarre and selective use of history on Madame Pickwick today.

    • Dave says:

      Anon, I probably went a bit overboard on this one. Much like the drug trade from the region, You can’t blame one particular group or nation, as everyone seems to want a piece of the pie while acknowledging some form of moral persuasiveness. Obviously, I have limited knowledge of the Quran; but then don’t claim to have much, though from what I read, it appears not that dissimilar to Judaism is many respects. Have also been working on some articles on the aesthetics of feminism, so this seemed to fit into the context as a ”first mover” so to speak. Slavery, is after all, a logical extension of patriarch centered spiritual belief for some reason. Ali Hirsi is marginally credible, however her point on the need for a Muslim ”reformation” is well taken, though not original by any means. Until this happens, the contradictions and flaws of the faith will be the most apparent. Again, a parallel with Judaism here is also in order, which, seems to be no stranger to political assassination and all matter of dysfunctionality. Your point is well taken; I have talked about Francis Galton/ John Stuart Mill in some previous blogs which in the main pose some ambiguities and incoherences regarding women and a general stratification in general. I’ll try to be a bit more nuanced in the future. Best, Dave

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