Quick review & background:
Ancient slavery has its roots deep in our past, stemming from humanity’s fallen self-centered nature. God created humankind free, yet slavery is found earlier than the time of the Biblical Abraham. Many ancient nations despised manual labor and consigned it to slaves. Many of these were prisoners taken in conquests of various kingdoms. All ancient civilizations were built on slave labor—Mesopotamia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the ancient civilizations of Central America, and the great kingdoms of Africa. In Grace, ¾ the population of Athens were slaves. In Roman society, a rich man “needed” at least two slaves to carry him to the circus, but eight to ten usually went along just to impress people. The more powerful Romans had staffs of over a thousand slaves, and some emperors had 20,000 or more. In the Greek and Roman world, human beings had no intrinsic value. Their value was only as citizens of the state, and only a small minority qualified as such.Decline of slavery with the spread of Christianity
This began to change with the advent of Christianity. The teachings and example of Jesus “pulled the rug” from under the basic supporting premises of slavery. When people of means began to become Christians, many of them used their wealth for the relief of the poor and suffering, and the liberation of slaves by Christians became common in the Roman Empire, especially on Easter Sunday. Gradually the vise of slavery began to be loosened and slavery all but disappeared from the civilizations touched by Rome, leaving only “Slavic” names to remind some that they were once slave populations.Islam reintroduces slavery
With the advent of Islam, all that began to regress quickly. Part of this was because Muslims naturally followed the example of their founder, who both traded in slaves and owned slaves himself. Since his example is paramount in Muslim thinking, slavery has always been deeply ingrained in Muslim tradition. Perhaps this was best said by Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of the Senior Council of Clerics in Saudi Arabia. He said, “Slavery is a part of Islam and whoever wants it abolished is an infidel.”
Part of this was also because of the teaching of the Qur’an. According to its teachings, masters were permitted to enjoy their female slaves, and it is justified to enslave “infidels” and their children. In Islamic vocabulary, that included (and still includes) Christians, Jews, and anyone who does not submit to Islam.
A few years back, I watched a TV program that purported to be historical. The man was easily identifiable as a Muslim apologist. He poo-pooed the idea of Islamic slavery, an extensive trade in African slaves that pre-dated transatlantic slavery. He asked, “If all these slaves were sold into Europe and the Middle East, where are they today?” The answer was easy. I’m sure he must have known it, historian that he was. I think he was just counting on the idea that not many others would know it.
The reason there are not many descendants of the African slaves traded by Muslims is that they had a practice of stopping at certain cities in the Sahara as the slave caravans passed through, where most males were castrated. Such “eunuchs” brought the highest prices, but sadly only 1/10 to 1/30 of them survived the ordeal. In general, Islamic slavery had very high death rates. It is estimated that 80% died on the long, harsh march through the Sahara. Others were killed in battle, for Muslim rulers conscripted male slaves into their armies as young as ten years old. Although many modern historians choose to ignore that part of the history of slavery, in fact Islam dominated the African slave trade from the 7th to the 15th centuries—a period of 800 years, much longer than the later transatlantic slave trade existed.
Not all Islamic slavery (sometimes called by the fuzzy name Arab slavery) exported slaves to the Middle East and Europe. In the Muslim Songhay Kingdom in West Africa, for example, non-Muslims were enslaved and used in agriculture. Over time they became “vassal peasants” but they were still little different from slaves & formed the bulk of the population.
Of course, Muslims slavers, like the transatlantic slavers who followed them, did not enslave blacks totally on their own. As it was in Europe before the advent of Christianity, many African tribes had their own slaves, often prisoners of war from intertribal fighting. For example, the Nupe of northern Nigeria, the Ibo of southeastern Nigeria, the Ashanti of Ghana, and Dahomey of Benin all used slave labor in agriculture and other forms of manual labor. In some cases, defeated kings were required to pay tributes of slaves annually. Some were sacrificed in the “annual office” to renew the power of the king, while others worked for the royal family and the elite class. This played into the hands of slave traders, for the kings were happy to sell some of their slaves first to the Muslim traders, and later to the transatlantic traders.
Today, a huge emphasis has been placed on the transatlantic trade that began in 1519 in Europe, when Emperor Charles V brought slaves from Africa, and in America in 1619 with the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia. This is natural, for it is the history of the vast majority of African-Americans. It also affected more people, because the need for virtually free labor to produce southern cotton swelled the demand for slaves beyond all previous numbers. It is unfortunate, however, that we have largely forgotten what preceded the transatlantic trade. The Islamic trade of the 800 years before was not as large, but lasted longer and was in some ways even more cruel and deadly.