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Slavery

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Slavery

    The practice of slavery was widespread in the ancient world. During Muhammad's lifetime, the institution thrived in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and some parts of Europe. Islam accepted the existence of slavery, as did Judaism and Christianity. Although most Muslim states abolished slavery by the mid-1900s, the practice still continues in pockets of the Islamic world.

    Bondage According to Islamic Law.

    The Qur'an recognizes the unequal relationship between master and slave, just as it does that between husband and wife. It also, however, enjoins Muslims to treat their slaves kindly, and encourages them to free their slaves as a noble deed. The Qur'an establishes guidelines to regulate and improve the living conditions of slaves.

    According to the traditional Islamic law, only non-Muslims captured or imported from foreign lands could serve as slaves. The children of these slaves could also remain in slavery, although many Muslims freed them. Muslims could not enslave other Muslims or dhimmi—protected minorities including Jews, Christians, and others who abided by scripture—living under Islamic rule. The shari'ah further banned the enslavement of orphans and foundlings living in Muslim lands.

    Slavery

    French engraving showing slave soldier of the Ottoman empire



    Stapleton Collection/ Bridgeman Art Library

    view larger image

    Islamic law recognized slaves as the legal property of their owners. A Muslim owned a slave's labor and could buy and sell slaves at will. A child born to a free man and a slave woman, however, was legally recognized as free, and a concubine who had her master's child would gain her freedom after his death. The shari'ah prohibited Muslims from separating a slave mother and her child.

    Islamic law included other provisions recognizing slaves as human beings. An owner could not kill or maim those that he or she held in bondage. Slaves could marry and lead prayers. If a slave committed a crime, he or she often received a reduced sentence in court because the law did not regard slaves as accountable for their actions. In some cases, masters even received punishment for a slave's wrongdoing.

    Slavery in Practice.

    Slaves in Islamic lands came from many countries. During the Abbasid dynasty ( 750 – 1258 ), European traders brought large numbers of Slavic captives to the Islamic world. Around the 1200s, Italian merchants supplied Muslim dynasties with slaves from Turkey, Central Asia, and Africa. Several thousand slaves reached the Ottoman Empire every year from Africa, the Caucasus, and eastern Europe. Around the 1800s, Muslim rulers began to lose control of certain trade routes and imported most of their slaves from Africa.

    Abbasid leaders introduced mamluks (slave soldiers) into their armies. Several Muslim rulers later copied this practice, including the Delhi sultanate in India and the Ghaznavids in Central Asia. Many slave soldiers rose through the ranks of the army to become generals, governors, and even sultans. During the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt, slave rulers governed for nearly three centuries.

    The Ottomans built a formidable military force, staffed partly with slaves. They took Christian youths from villages in the Balkans, converted them to Islam, and placed them in the sultan's service. Some entered the Janissaries (elite corps), and the most promising entered palace society. If slave soldiers disobeyed their masters, they could be executed without trial. The soldiers, however, also enjoyed many privileges. They received a palace education and did not have to pay taxes. By 1500 slaves had gained enough strength to influence palace affairs and become a part of the ruling institutions.

    While some slaves in the Islamic world rose to positions of power, others toiled in harsh conditions. Slaves working in agriculture or construction often faced lives of hardship, although some received payment for their work. Unbearable conditions sometimes sparked an uprising. In the 800s, a group of African slaves toiling in an Iraqi marshland rose up in a violent revolt, although authorities quickly suppressed them.

    Most slaves in the Islamic world, however, worked in cities. Compared to their rural counterparts, they led relatively comfortable lives. They performed such tasks as cleaning, cooking, caring for children, and even managing financial affairs or directing armed forces. Slaves in coastal areas sometimes served as oarsmen and pearl divers.

    Muslims preferred to take women and children into bondage, as they seemed more docile, and women could produce more slaves. They gave their slaves new names, provided them with an Islamic education, and taught them the ways of the household. Some even trained their slaves to be musicians and scholars. Many Muslims freed their slaves once they reached adulthood. Viewing slavery as a way of converting outsiders to Islam, they worked eagerly to bring new Muslims into the community.

    Abolition of Slavery.

    In the 1800s, some Muslim reformers sought to eliminate slavery. They viewed the institution as outdated and morally wrong. Laws and court decisions in the mid-1800s granted greater legal equality to slaves. The British further pressured the Muslim states to end slavery, having previously abolished the practice in Europe. Britain signed a series of treaties with the Ottoman Empire to reduce the slave trade, and in 1887 , the Ottomans outlawed slavery altogether.

    The institution, however, persisted in some parts of the Ottoman Empire well into the 1900s. Muslims in Arabia, India, and Africa also continued to own slaves. Not until after 1950 did most of the Muslim states finally outlaw the practice. Slavery has not completely vanished from the Islamic world, however. Muslims fighting civil wars in Sudan and Somalia revived the practice in the 1980s. Combatants in these conflicts continue to enslave prisoners taken from the other side. See also Christianity and Islam; Judaism and Islam; Mamluk State; Minorities; Ottoman Empire; Somalia; Sudan.

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