Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Race and Slavery in the Middle East

Bernard Lewis’s Race and Slavery in the Middle East (originally published in 1990), is a slim volume examining attitudes within Islam on race and slavery.

Lewis carefully distinguishes between Islam as the religion taught by Muhammad, Islam as the religious tradition that grew up from that and Islam as the civilisation based on the religion (p.20). As he is at pains to make clear, the religion taught by Muhammad provided no basis for morally distinguishing people by race. It did provide for slavery (as did Judaism and Christianity), indeed explicitly sanctioned it, but under more lenient conditions than had previously applied. (Or would later apply in the Americas.)

Islamic tradition was somewhat more equivocal, as pre-Islamic notions crept back in—particularly regarding Kafa’a or equality of birth and social status in marriage—and some jurists provided more convenient formulations for slave owners. As Islam spread to non-Arabs, and as Arabs intermarried with subject peoples, issues about Arab, non-Arab and part-Arab became a factor. Generally, however, Islamic tradition remained antipathetic to racial distinctions.
Islam-as-a-civilisation was another matter. While, as Lewis points out, anti-black sentiment never reached the intensity it did in the US or South Africa, it was a persistent—at times pervasive—element in Muslim culture and attitudes. Despite romanticising claims, particularly made since the C19th, that Islam was free of such—almost invariably motivated by trying to create a stick to beat American attitudes with. (Something Lewis regards as understandable, if unfortunate in its lack of historical realism: his total lack of sympathy for American racism is very clear.)

The reason for the lack of equivalent intensity seems clear enough. At no time were slaves only black—though black slaves did come to be generally used in more menial roles. Nor did blacks become a significant proportion of the non-slave population. That a high proportion of enslaved black males were eunuchs—and many of the rest were used in ways that had high death rates and low birth rates—stopped the development of significant mulatto populations (p.84). That the status of fathers determined the status of children meant that the children of black concubines and wives were generally absorbed into the wider population.

But blacks were an easily distinguishable group (always handy for slaving) and, as Islam spread in Africa, increasingly problematic as sources of slaves. For Muslim law was quite clear—fellow Muslims could not be enslaved. An obvious way to get around the difficulties was to discount the humanity of backs or, if they claim to be Muslims, deny that they are proper Muslims. So a discourse developed denigrating blacks. There was also a counter-discourse, defending them. But, as Lewis points out (Pp32-3, 102), a literature of defence only makes sense if there were persistent denigrations to answer.

As the number of accepted black Muslims grew, the literature of denunciation became less extravagant, but the outlooks lingered. Blackness became associated with slavery and whiteness with freedom and nobility. Even princes who were the sons of grandsons of slave mothers could attract such prejudice (p.89). The Bedouin were particularly intense practitioners of such racial bigotry (p.91).

As, over time, the sources of white slaves dwindled there was increased slaving of Africans to meet demand. At the same time, black slaves took on roles previously reserved for white slaves (p.77).

The growth of abolitionist sentiment in the West filtered through to the Muslim world, particularly the Ottoman Empire. Ironically Arabia—where prejudice in cities against blacks had generally been notably less—was where abolitionist sentiment was most strongly resisted, on religious grounds.

As Lewis takes pains to explain, the pattern of Muslim attitudes on race and slavery were complex and changed over time. Nevertheless, it is not true to claim that Islam was free of racial prejudice. On the contrary, this soon developed—particularly against blacks. To considerable levels of intensity, and long persisted. Lewis handles the complexities clearly and well, managing to cover much ground in this useful slim volume.

No comments:

Post a Comment