Saturday, June 6, 2009

Slavery in the Arab World

Murray Gordon’s Slavery in the Arab World is a sensible and informative text on the subject.

Gordon is very upfront about the limitations in sources and data (particularly about numbers). He takes us through the dim origins of the trade, the attitude of Islam to slavery, the difference between household and production slavery, the commerce of the slave trade and its human costs.

Slavery is inherently a grim subject, but some of the book is particularly chilling reading. The human skeletons that littered the caravan routes, for example. Or descriptions of people finding the skeletons of entire caravans (that could easily total a few thousand people) who died of thirst.
The book was originally published in 1987, and there is a sense of slavery easing into history that a more recent book might not be quite so sanguine about. Also, the chapter on sex and slavery makes no mention of the use of male slaves for sex, an absence a more recent book would probably not have. Gordon is sensibly matter-of-fact about Arab slavery. That Islam somewhat humanised the existing institution of slavery is brought out, as is the encouragement to free slaves. But, there was a downside. As he says:
By legitimising slavery and, by extension, the sordid traffic in slaves (for which there was no legal sanction), Islam elevated these practices to an unassailable moral plane. As a result, in no part of the Muslim world was an ideological challenge ever mounted against slavery. (p.44).
As the Christian West rejected slavery, its suddenly greater sense of virtue was then used to judge the rest of the world (shades of modern environmentalism). Revulsion over, and campaigning against, slavery was both a pressure for, and a justification of, Western colonialism. It was rarely a dominant theme in foreign policy, but it was a persistent one. Particularly in British policy.

Ironically, the nineteenth century was probably also the height of Muslim slavery and slaving. Under pressure, and wanting to seem “modern”, Muslim rulers slowly began to move against slavery. Particularly after the major European Powers adopted the Brussels Act in 1890. Egypt was an early adopter of anti-slavery ordinances (some of which it even came to enforce). The 1926 World Muslim Conference passed a resolution condemning slavery (p.47). Even Saudi Arabia eventually got around to officially abolishing slavery. The abandonment of slavery in the Muslim world is a salutary reminder that impeccably Islamic sensibilities can prove malleable, in the right circumstances.

Gordon covers the commercial pressures well, and the grim patterns of supply and demand (white slave women were much more valuable than black ones, for example). Including the different incentives of merchants (keep up the quality of the merchandise) and caravan masters (get to the next waterhole as quickly as possible). The passages on the trade in eunuchs are also grim reading, not least because the death rate from castration was high.

Gordon is also alive to the way concubinage (legal in Islam in a way it was not in Christianity or rabbinical Judaism) undermined the position of free Muslim women. And informative on the complex, but generally negative, attitude of Arabs to black Africans. Racism is very much part of the burden (and legacy) of slavery in cultures with universalist religions. (Since one has to “justify” the exception from the universal moral principles: Islamic racism never reached the thoroughness or intensity of Western racism—partly because Islam is not as straightforwardly universalist in moral principles as Christianity or Enlightenment liberalism—but clearly predates it.)

In the final chapter, Gordon takes us through the stages in the official abolition of slavery in the Muslim world.

Slavery in the Arab World is clearly and matter-of-factly written and provides an informative historical survey of the other great slave trade of modern times.

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