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Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora by Ronald Segal

A comprehensive study of the Eastern slave trade by an eminent British scholar

A companion volume to The Black Diaspora, this groundbreaking work tells the fascinating and horrifying story of the Islamic slave trade. Islam's Black Slaves documents a centuries-old institution that still survives, and traces the business of slavery and its repercussions from Islam's inception in the seventh century, through its history in China, India, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Spain, and on to Sudan and Mauritania, where, even today, slaves continue to be sold.

Ronald Segal reveals for the first time the numbers involved in this trade—as many millions as were transported to the Americas—and explores the differences between the traffic in the East and the West.

Islam's Black Slaves also examines the continued denial of the very existence of this sector of the black diaspora, although it survives today in significant numbers; and in an illuminating conclusion, Segal addresses the appeal of Islam to African-American communities, and the perplexing refusal of Black Muslim leaders to acknowledge black slavery and oppression in present-day Mauritania and Sudan.

A fitting companion to Segal's previous work, Islam's Black Slaves is a fascinating account of an often unacknowledged tradition, and a riveting cross-cultural commentary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374527976
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/28/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

South African-born Ronald Segal is the founding editor of the Penguin African Library, and the author of fourteen books, including The Crisis of India, The Race War, The Americans and The Black Diaspora.

Read an Excerpt



Both Christianity and Islam asserted the unique value of the individual human being, as created by God for His special purposes. Yet, for their own special purposes, Christian and Muslim societies long sanctioned the capture, sale, ownership, and use of men, women, and children from black Africa. We can never know the extent of the human cost. It is certain that many millions lost their lives in the warfare and raiding that provided the captives for slavery. Millions more died in the process of collection, initial transport, and storage.


The statistics connected with the West's so-called Atlantic Trade, of the slaves who were loaded onto boats and of the survivors who landed in the Americas, have been comprehensively researched. Total numbers are now widely accepted as subject to no more than relatively minor adjustment in the light of new evidence. Much, too, is known of mortality rates — from overwork, undernourishment, and brutal discipline — in the slave-labor force. The Atlantic Trade and the plantation economies it fed became such a highly developed and organized business that ledgers recording the details were commonly kept. 

The Islamic Trade was conducted on a different scale and with a different impact. Unlike the Atlantic Trade, which began late and grew intensively, it had begun some eight centuries earlier and, except at certain periods, it involved lower average annual volumes. The social and cultural importance of slavery itself was greater than its economic one. Certainly, bankers and merchants, as individual investors or in partnership enterprises, were prominently engaged, but only sparse records of their related accountancy survive. There were also numerous small-scale dealers, with stocks of a few slaves each, who were likely to have kept any accounts in their heads.

Crucially informing the difference between the two trades was the economic system involved in each. Historians dispute the degree to which the Atlantic Trade promoted the development of Western capitalism and its industrial revolution, primarily in the eighteenth century. But there can be no doubt of the connection between them. The evidence is plentiful that some of the huge profits engendered by the trade were invested in the development of industry, and also that much industry developed in order to supply the trade goods required for the procurement of slaves in black Africa. Not least, from the predominant use to which slaves were put, there developed a view of slaves as essentially units of labor in a productive process that disregarded or denied their personality. 

Slavery in Islam was very different. A system of plantation labor, much like that which would emerge in the Americas, developed early on, but with such dire consequences that subsequent engagements were relatively rare and reduced. Moreover, the need for agricultural labor, in an Islam with large peasant populations, was nowhere near as acute as in the Americas, where in some West European colonies, conquest had led to the virtual extermination of the indigenous peoples from new diseases and forced labor. 

Slaves in Islam were directed mainly at the service sector — concubines and cooks, porters and soldiers — with slavery itself primarily a form of consumption rather than a factor of production. The most telling evidence of this is found in the gender ratio. The Atlantic Trade shipped overall roughly two males for every female. Among black slaves traded in Islam across the centuries, there were roughly two females to every male. 

The difference between the two trades was related to the very nature of the state in Islam, as distinct from that in Western Christendom. Indeed, the term "Christendom" — though still useful as a defining difference — effectively became an anachronism for states whose religious allegiances increasingly gave place to national preoccupations and the secular employment of power. In Islam the state itself was essentially an extension of the religion, without legitimacy or corresponding allegiance beyond this. Even in the one arguable exception of Iran, whose historical Persian identity confronted Arab linguistic and political dominance, the independence it successfully asserted was based on a rival view of the legitimate succession to leadership of the entire Islamic community. 

To a degree unmatched by the various states of Western Christendom, for all the conflict between Protestant and Catholic, the nature of society in Islam was informed by reference to the divine will, as communicated in the Koran. And the Koran dealt in some detail with slaves. That pretensions to piety might coexist with disregard for the spirit and even the letter of such details did not preclude their overall influence. Slaves were to be regarded and treated as people, not simply as possessions. 

This is not to romanticize their condition. A slave was a slave for all that. Owners were endowed with such power over their slaves that few can have failed to abuse it, more often in trivial but still humiliating, and sometimes in brutal, ways. Even masters persuaded of their own piety and benevolence sexually exploited their concubines, without a thought of whether this constituted a violation of their humanity. In the provision of eunuchs, indeed, Islamic slavery was scarcely more compassionate than its Western counterpart; and those who purchased them were the accomplices of those who provided them. Yet the treatment of slaves in Islam was overall more benign, in part because the values and attitudes promoted by religion inhibited the very development of a Western-style capitalism, with its effective subjugation of people to the priority of profit. So crucial was the religious dynamic to Islamic society that those who served the faith, by scholarship or soldiering, enjoyed greater prestige than those who grew rich by economic enterprise. While trade was accepted as necessary and useful, enrichment by speculation, or by any other pursuits construed to be in conflict with the welfare of the community, was not only regarded with suspicion but might be severely penalized. 

Since enrichment brought such obvious rewards, from the purchase of pleasures to the means of exercising or extending power, there were inevitably those more attracted to amassing riches than to devout self-denials whose rewards in another world required death as well as delay. In the business of this world, the advantages of enterprise were widely recognized. But the conditions for related capital accumulation on a socially transforming scale were largely absent. 

It was no accident that in the Ottoman Empire, for instance, charitable foundations were a prime source of investment capital but spent most of their income on building mosques, establishing or subsidizing schools, and contributing to social welfare; that wealth so often went into the purchase of property rather than into productive assets; and that foreign goods were permitted to compete so damagingly with domestic production because their relative cheapness served the needs of the poor in the community. 

Of some significance, too, was the absence of primogeniture as the principle of inheritance. The distribution of estates among the family members of the deceased, in conformity with Koranic precepts, might well have been both fair and compassionate. In contrast to the practice of primogeniture in the West, however, it did little to secure the concentration of wealth and its related investment. Moreover, Muslims tended to respect the prohibition of usury in the Old Testament, while in the West, Jews, often barred from other forms of economic enterprise, and increasingly Christians, tended to ignore it. In short, far from pursuing the development of an economic system that promoted the depersonalization of slave labor, Islamic influence was responsible for impeding it. 

Such influence also successfully confronted the emergence of racism as a form of institutionalized discrimination, because the Koran expressly condemned racism along with tribalism and nationalism. In the West, economic enterprise and the advance of the secular state promoted each other, to mock such spiritual messages as that the meek should inherit the earth. The slave system was so incompatible not only with the teachings of Christianity but with the decent sensibilities of the less devout that they required some rationalization to sustain them. The Bible was scrutinized to find support, however specious, for a divine curse on blacks; and science was perverted to support a biological case for their enslavement. 

Christianity did come to play a crucial part in the opposition led by Britain, first to the slave trade and then to slavery itself. Most of the leading abolitionists took the teachings of their religion seriously. Yet it is doubtful that they would have succeeded without support from industrial capitalists. The workshop of the world had outgrown the value of slave-labor colonies whose land, exploited to relative impoverishment, now produced high-cost sugar, while other slave labor colonies produced an abundance of low-cost sugar from still richly productive land. 

The cry for "free trade" was also one for a level competitiveness of "free labor" that would enable Britain to sustain her industrial leadership and extend its scope to new markets, including an Africa rescued from pillage for the achievement of such prosperity as would afford a much greater demand for British goods. By the time this combination of moral and economic campaigns captured the state, so that British financial, diplomatic, and naval power came to be deployed in their cause, the days of the Atlantic slave trade and then of slavery itself in the West were numbered. 

Yet racism vigorously survived the end of slavery. If old habits die hard, racism would already have been old enough to take an unconscionable time dying. But there were reasons why it thrived rather than declined. The colonial powers, engaged in extending their rule across most of the world, found a pretext in the concept of "the white man's burden' " with its corresponding presumption of the cultural and even biological inferiority of blacks and others of color. 

Within the metropolitan societies, there were many whites at the lower social levels who found comfort or consolation in asserting their racial superiority to blacks. In the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, white workers, particularly in the United States with its large black population, found in racism a cause with which to confront the competition for jobs from blacks now free to sell their labor. Racial segregation, written into law or so secured by custom as to have hardly less force, took elaborate form. 

Neither law nor custom had precluded miscegenation during slavery, even in the South of the United States. But with the notable exception of Brazil — where the lack of sufficient white immigrants had long allowed a selective merging by mulattos into a pragmatic whiteness — those descended from such unions were no less barred than were blacks from social assimilation with whites. And they remained so under the reinvigorated regime of racism after slavery. 

Copyright © 2001 Ronald Segal

Table of Contents

2Out of Arabia13
3Imperial Islam23
4The Practice of Slavery35
5The Farther Reaches67
6Into Black Africa89
7The Ottoman Empire103
8The "Heretic" State: Iran119
9The Libyan Connection129
10The Terrible Century145
East Africa145
The Sudanic States and Sahara162
11Colonial Translations177
Northern Nigeria178
French Soudan180
Zanzibar and the Kenyan Coast190
12Survivals of Slavery199
Epilogue: America's Black Muslim Backlash225

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