The West, the Muslim World, and Slavery

With the recent institutionalization of slavery in the so-called Islamic State, as well as the troubling and much publicized acknowledgement of the legitimacy of slavery by some modern Islamic scholars (see examples here, here, and here), the issue of slavery in the Muslim world has been on my radar recently.


Consequently, some comments by the former Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis on this issue recently caught my attention. In his book Race and Slavery in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 1990), Lewis wrote:

“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…the processes of acquisition and transportation [of slaves in the Muslim world] often imposed appalling hardships. It was these which drew the main attention of European opponents of slavery, and it was to the elimination of this traffic, particularly in Africa, that their main efforts were directed.

The abolition of slavery itself would have hardly 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… It was from conservative religious quarters and notably from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina that the strongest resistance to the proposed reforms 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.

The gradual reduction and eventual elimination of slavery were accomplished in most Muslim countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries… in 1962 it was abolished by the newly established republican regime in Yemen, and a few weeks later by royal decree in Saudi Arabia. In Iran, it had formally been outlawed the constitution of 1906, although some subsequent legislation was needed to give this effect. The last to enact legal abolition appears to have been Mauritania, which took this step in 1980

The initial impetus for abolition had come from Europe, and for some time progress in this matter was due almost entirely to European urging and action. In the British, French, Dutch, and Russian Empires- in that order- general abolition had been imposed by the imperial authorities. Britain also undertook, by diplomatic pressure supported by naval power, to suppress the slave trade from East Africa to the Middle East and exacted decrees to this end from the Sultan of Turkey, the shah of Persia, and the khedive of Egypt, as well as from a number of local rulers in Africa and Arabia.”

(Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery, pgs. 78-79)

So Lewis essentially gives credit to the imperialist west for the abolition of slavery in the Muslim world during the 19th and 20th centuries. The thought came to me that, with the effort to defeat the Islamic State by western powers, the West is again making an important effort to abolish this practice.

When I sometimes touch on the issue of slavery in the Islamic world in my courses, the more attentive students are occasionally confused about why slavery was abolished so late in Muslim lands (or elsewhere, for that matter). Although modern American college students are often confronted with the historic legacy of slavery in the United States, they find it odd to hear slavery was only abolished in 1962 in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, for example, or Mauritania in 1980. Moreover, with the reemergence of slavery at the quasi-state level due to the actions of the Islamic State and the apparent willingness of some modern Islamic scholars to embrace the legitimacy of slavery, many westerners find these lingering vestiges of support troubling.

Some things to consider…

Slavery was abolished by Britain in 1833 and the U.S. in 1865, so comparatively these western countries had more than a century head start on Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for example, to develop a cultural and moral framework to eliminate the acceptability of slavery in the minds and hearts of their populations.

This was more challenging in Christian lands than one may think, as for centuries Christian slave owners in the British colonies and the U.S. south, for example, cited the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, in support of their right to own slaves (e.g. See, for example, Richard Furman’s defense of slavery in antebellum South Carolina). Yet within Christian tradition, there had also existed efforts to ameliorate or effectively abolish slavery in Christian lands. During the Middle Ages, for example, slavery in Christian Europe was nearly abolished by around the year 1000, as the enslavement of Christians (in overwhelmingly majority Christian lands) was outlawed. Slavery did exist prominently in some non-Christian parts of Europe, but died out as Christianization set in. Slavery also existed on the borders of medieval Christendom, as wars between Islam and Christianity sometimes resulted in the practice, but prior to the 15th century it was mostly only a fringe practice on the outskirts of Europe.

So then, how did slavery on a large scale re-emerge among Europeans again in the 16th through 19th centuries? Much of it has to do with the “discovery” and settlement of the New World by European colonists that followed Columbus. As Native-American populations massively declined in the New World during the 16th century due to disease and warfare, European colonists turned to African slaves as a replacement work force. In embracing African slavery, they already had a model to follow in that the Arab and later Ottoman slave trade had been active in Africa (particularly in the north and east) for many centuries prior, which resulted in perhaps as many as 18 million slaves. In this case, Europeans engaged in something similar on the west coast of Africa that came to be known as the Atlantic Slave Trade, resulting in the transport of 9.5 million African slaves to the Americas from the late 15th to 19th centuries. As a consequence, Africa was getting hit on both sides by slave traders, both Christian and Islamic, resulting in over 25 million Africans being enslaved over the course of centuries.


Image: The main routes of the Arab slave trade in Africa in the Middle Ages prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade, which began in the late 15th century and focused more on the west coast of Africa.

Yet it was the influence of the European Enlightenment as well as new Christian thinking on the issue of slavery that led to its decline in the modern west. While Enlightenment thought sometimes gets primary credit for the abolition of slavery in the west, it would be a mistake to exclude the significant contributions of Christians. The British politician and evangelical Christian William Wilberforce (1759-1833), for example, was the driving force behind the abolition of slavery in Britain, while numerous Christian abolitionists were active in the United States. Perhaps the most controversial of the all was John Brown (1800-1859), who based on his reading of the Old Testament felt God had called him to wage a holy war to end slavery, even attempting to bring this about in 1859 with his ill-planned raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Frederick Douglas (1818-1895), the leading African-American abolitionist voice of the 19th century, went as far as to claim that Brown’s efforts resulted in the war (U.S. Civil War) that ended slavery, thus essentially giving him credit for its ultimate abolition.


Images: From left to right- Wilberforce, Brown, and Douglas.

Regardless of the validity of Douglas’ claim’s about Brown, and whether we consider the peaceful and legal efforts of Wilberforce or the violent and controversial efforts of Brown, Christian abolitionists unquestionably played a major role in the abolition of slavery in the west.

One also should not forget to mention the role slaves in the west played in their liberation as well, as they were not passive. The Haitian Revolution, for example, resulted in the largest successful slave revolt in history and slave rebellions in the North-American British colonies contributed much to the disdain northerners had for slavery, seeing it as more trouble than it was worth. Yet slave rebelliousness was not enough to bring about the end of slavery in the west by itself. Other societies throughout human history (e.g. Ancient Rome, etc…) experienced large scale slave revolts and lived with the same fears, yet those concerns never resulted in the abolition of slavery in those societies. Consequently, the abolition of slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries was unique to the modern west… and much of the credit for it can go to the blending of Enlightenment ideals with “Second Great Awakening” inspired Christian activism.

As the west’s power and influence grew throughout the world during the early modern and modern periods, it colonized and exploited some non-western populations quite brutally. Yet European imperialists also imposed some Enlightenment ideals on non-western populations subject to their influence, as highlighted in Bernard Lewis’ comments presented earlier in this essay. Yet support for slavery was apparently not 100% eradicated, as seen in the current enthusiasm of the leaders of the Islamic State to re-institute the practice, as well as professors from prominent institutions of Muslim learning such as Al-Azhar University advocating its continued legality under Sharia law. Even so, the appeal of slavery is now mostly limited to the fringe of Islamic societies as all other Muslim states and most Muslim scholars today reject its legality.

That some small vestiges of pro-slavery sentiment still exist in parts of the Muslim world is not surprising in light of its comparatively recent abolition, but it seems there is also another important factor. While modern Christian theology has grown to the point where it can reject slavery as being opposed to the character and goals of Christ and the movement he founded, regardless of texts in the Old Testament or texts attributed to the apostle Paul that seem to explicitly uphold the legitimacy of slavery (as many Christians once interpreted them), the ultimate Christian role model is Christ. While he never called for the abolition of slavery, he also never called for the enslavement of anyone and never owned any slaves, which when combined with his compassion for marginalized peoples established a base from which 19th century Christian abolitionists (Wilberforce, Brown, Grimke, etc…) could develop an argument that slavery was contrary to the will and example of Christ.

Comparatively, this is a much harder argument to make with the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who not only dealt in captured slaves, owning some- including at least one that served a his concubine and bore his children (e.g. Maria al-Qibtiyya, a Coptic slave), but also ordered the enslavement of captured peoples at times (e.g. the women and children of a defeated Jewish tribe from Medina). Unlike Christ, Muhammad was a warrior who either fought in or sanctioned 86 battles according to the Qur’an and Hadith (See David Cook’s Understanding Jihad) and as a result of such conquests he and his followers sometimes took slaves. Consequently, there are many examples in the Qur’an and Hadith that consider the legitimacy of slavery in an acceptable way based on the explicit example of Muhammad, which is the means by which the Islamic State and its supporters attempt to justify their actions.

This is not to say that modern Islamic theologians and Muslims have not largely rejected Salafist inspired interpretations of the Prophet’s life and the practice of slavery in the early Islamic world. Many have done just that based on a number of theological reasons and arguments, but as a non-Muslim comparing the very different personal examples of Christ and Muhammad on the issue of slavery, it is not difficult to see why some Muslims, particularly those who see the purest faith as the one that most precisely follows the historic example of the Prophet Muhammad, continue to maintain the legitimacy of the institution.

This is not to condemn Muhammad by modern moral standards, which historians typically try to avoid, as I do not challenge accounts by Muslims that Muhammad may have been more compassionate to those he conquered or treated his slaves more fairly than was typical of the standards of the time. Perhaps he did and if so, he deserves credit for it.

But this does not erase the fact that as a warrior and military leader Muhammad sometimes conquered and enslaved populations, or that he was a slave owner himself, keeping at least one slave as his personal concubine. Or that he sanctioned such actions by both his personal example and his commands. If the example of Christ is the model for his followers and Muhammad is the example for his followers, then they present two very different models on the issue of slavery that may partly help explain why the west abolished it first and why it continues to be accepted in some small parts of the Muslim world.