Thursday, May 6, 2010

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Book Review: 'Slavery in the Arab World', by Murray Gordon, 1987.

23 years old and still one of the best on the subject.

by Ferdinand III

This is another important book in the field of Arab slavery, which enslaved at least 11 million Africans and 3 to 4 million whites. These numbers do not include White and Black slaves taken by the Turks, or Ottomans. We are dealing here with some 15 million humans – stolen, transported, degraded, reduced to misery, disenfranchised and often-times killed. This is 50% more than the 10 million Blacks carried across the Atlantic during the 3 centuries of the Black African slave trade, yet few discuss Arab-slavery or the pernicious effects it must have had not only on the humans involved; but on their societies and the development of the modern world.

Gordon focuses mostly on the Black slave trade and does not discuss at length, the taking of White chattel. [For a comprehensive study of the White slave trade one should read Davis' seminal work 'Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters'.] Arab slaving has had an enormous and unprecedented impact on Black Africa. The Arab slave trading of Blacks distorted societal development; introduced the mysticism and fascism of Islam into the Dark Continent; installed racist regimes in which lighter skinned Arabs exploited and warred against Blacks; and destroyed millions of lives for no higher purpose. The Arab destruction of Blacks, and even more perniciously through the introduction of Islam, the perversion of Black Africa, was, and still is today, one of the great barbarities of history.

Yet no-one discusses it. As Gordon so aptly states:

“Something better might have been expected of Arab historians. Yet, here too, a conspiracy of silence has prevailed and has blocked out all light on this sensitive subject. Arab writers and jurists, to the limited extent that they have touched upon slavery, have done so with approval. No moral opprobrium has clung to slavery since it was sanctioned by the Koran and enjoyed an undisputed place in Arab society.” [bold emphasis mine]

This statement is incontrovertible. Christianity, technology, and self-interest, along with geo-political necessity demanded an end to the African slave trade. No such impetuses existed within the backwards, pre-modern, Koranic-constrained Arab world. In fact slavery still goes on today in places like Arab run states such as Mauritania and the Sudan. Gordon's comments about the 1980s is still valid 25 years later; “Mauritania officially abolished slavery on July 5, 1980, but, as the government itself acknowledges, the practice is still alive and well. It is estimated that 200,000 men, women, and children are subject to being bought and sold....” Arab slaving of Blacks, Christians, Animists and other pagans still continues today.

The slave trade in all its form is a monstrosity. Under Islamic law, slaves did enjoy some variety of rights. These were however inferior to that enjoyed by Roman and Greek slaves. In both ancient Rome and Greece, slaves could own property, engage in commerce, become teachers, soldiers and generals, as well as scientists and theologians. The same cannot be said for slaves in the Islamic world. However, it is to the credit of Islam, that some 'rights', flimsy as they most assuredly were, did flow from Koranic law:

“Under Islamic law....a slave was both chattel and person. As chattel, his owner had full title to him, enjoyed the fruits of his economic surplus, and, finally, could sell or dispose of him (or her) as he saw fit...The slave had certain prescriptive rights which the owner was bound to maintain.” [p. 14]

Under Islamic doctrine, masters were encouraged to free their slaves. This was not however a widespread phenomenon. Charity donations usually sufficed as a replacement for manumission, both of which expiated the sins of the Muslim slave-owner. [p. 39]

Most of the Black slaves taken were for household chores; harems; government posts; or to populate various Arab armies. [ p. 14] The use of slaves for these tasks had a long history in Arabia. Pre-Muhammad Black and Arab slaves were a main pillar of the Arabian pastoral economy and “formed an integral part of social life.” [p. 19] Muhammad simply took this reality and gave slavery legitimacy through his own personal actions in owning and trading dozens of slaves, marrying slave girls, and keeping a large group of sex-slaves. [p. 19] He did free some of his slaves as well. The main point is clear however. Slavery was seen as a natural fact in pre-Muhammad Arabia and the Islamic cult gave this feature of Arabian society divine sanction and grace.

According to Muhammad and the Koran there were two 'legal' ways to capture slaves. The first is through jihad, and the second is by birth [p. 24]. Islam is both a military and a rigidified social structure. If your mother was a slave, than so are you, irregardless if you convert to Islam. Jihad or military struggle, is the 6th pillar of Islam and armed conflict to spread the Meccan cult, is a clear requirement for any Muslim. One of the reasons why Islam expanded was to acquire more slaves; along with more dhimmis or second-class Christian and Jewish pseudo-slaves who could pay all the taxes to support the Muslim state.

Few Muslim jurists had many qualms about the vast numbers of enslaved Blacks taken over 1000 years. The conditions of capture, transport, storage and sale would have been horrifying indeed. A mortality rate just in capture and transport would easily have been 30 % or more [p. 189]. Enslaving Blacks was justified by Muslims through the myth of Ham, “the youngest of Noah's three sons, transgressed against his father. Ham's descendants, commonly identified as Negroes, were condemned to slavery as a consequence of his sins.” [p. 32]

Racism was a prominent feature of both Arab and Muslim existence. Blacks were deemed to be stupid and savage – naturally bred for the duties of slavery. One should not underestimate this racist attitude which was common then and now within Islam. The Koran after all makes a very clear hierarchy of power within Islam, with Arabs and in particular the Quyraysh tribe of Mecca on top. Blacks are regarded as chattel, as inferior as Jews or women. Gordon quotes Ibn Khaldun [1332-1406] who is always referenced as the 'greatest of Muslim historians', but who is in reality, little more than a second rate hack and racist:

“The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and their proximity to the animal stage.” [p. 102]

Khaldun's attitude is quite reflective of Arab and Muslim society.

Given an annual attrition of 30 percent meant, the slave population had to be renewed every 3 or 4 years [p. 189]. This put enormous pressure on small and large scale traders, as well as Muslim administrators to find new chattel. One French historian Mauny, who was an authority on Africa, catalogs that no less than 14 million Blacks must have been taken in the slave trade at some point. As Gordon relates, the actual numbers [10, 15 or 20 million?], are impossible to determine because there is little paper work, and few Arab sources. As well, the death rate through the various stages involved in the slave process are likewise hard to reliably estimate. An overall attrition of 30 per cent given the terrible conditions of the trade and most of the eventual jobs that consumed the human chattel appears to be entirely reasonable. This would mean that Gordon's estimate of 11 million Black slaves would be too low.

Consider this example. Gordon states that in the 100 years from 1770 to 1890 over 1 million Blacks were shipped from Africa's East coast to the Middle East and India [p. 5]. En-route many slaves died from castration [males who had their lower stomachs removed with 90% dying from such an operation, p. 95]; lack of food and water; disease; and eventually over-work. If 1 million slaves were trans-shipped from 1790 to 1890 that means at least 1.3 million or more were taken in this one transit area, for this one century. The Black slave trade existed for 1000 years. Though surely it varied and was not consistent in its numbers, it would appear likely that just from East Africa alone, some 10 million Blacks were captured, transported, enslaved, or died from 800 AD to 1800 AD.

One can see this throughout Gordon's book as he discusses the huge movements of Black slaves into the Arab heartlands:

“...during the 1830s as Muhammad Ali needed as many soldiers as possible for his far-flung military operations in Syria and Arabia. By the end of the decade, approximately 10,000 to 12,000 slaves were entering Egypt each year.” [p. 175]

and from the island of Zanzibar:

“...80,000 to 100,000 slaves were exported between 1875 and 1879.” [p. 178]

and again from Zanzibar:

“Between 1840 and 1849, about 187,000 slaves were shipped from the coast to Zanzibar and to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and India...In the 1860s about 207,000 were shipped; and between 1870 and 1876, the year the slave trade was abolished in Zanzibar, 300,000 slaves were sent to the island.....These figures give a total East African Arab slave trade of 1,257,100.” [p. 188] [and this is only during 100 years]

The above examples are simply astounding. In less than 100 years just in Zanzibar 1.3 million Blacks were shipped to Arabia, Egypt, and India. This makes it obvious, given mortality rates, a lack of information, and Islamic demand, that the estimate of 11 million Black slaves is at best a conservative guess.  Far more were taken from the Sudan into the northern Arab states; and as General Gordon in 1880 noted, [a man who would eventually lose his head to the Muslim forces of the 'Mahdi'], some 100.000 per year would be taken from Black Sudan and forced as human chattel, upriver on Nile slave boats, or marched over desert routes on Bedouin camel trains to Egypt, Syria, and North Africa.

Gordon's book is a fascinating read because of its detail and professional sourcing of information. It puts to lie the modern myth that Islam was tolerant, caring and full of inter-faith love and discourse. Some 11-20 million Blacks disappeared into the Greater Arabian empires. It was a genocide – and one which is never discussed.