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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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The Arab-Muslim Slave Trade: Lifting the Taboo

Filed under: Africa
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 29, Numbers 3–4

A significant number of studies have been devoted to the transatlantic slave trade. But paradoxically, the issue of the Eastern and trans-Saharan slave trade organized by the Arabs remains unknown; it even seems deliberately ignored and considered a taboo subject.

Yet the Arab slave trade, a major component of African history, lasted more than 13 centuries. It began in the early seventh century and continued in one form or another until the 1960s. In Mauritania slavery was officially outlawed only in August 2007.

The deportation of Africans to the lands of Islam was structured around two main roads: the maritime traffic between the coast of East Africa and those of the Middle East on the one hand, and the trans-Saharan caravan traffic on the other.

In the eastern part of the continent, Arab raids affected an area comprising the Horn of Africa, East Africa, and the Great Lakes region. Slaves captured during bloody expeditions were then transported by sea from enclaves situated on the eastern coast of the continent, between present-day Somalia and Mozambique, to the shores of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Zanzibar would serve for centuries as a hub for this traffic.

In West Africa, the Arab slave trade encompassed a vast region from the Niger Valley to the Gulf of Guinea. This traffic followed the trans-Saharan roads. The crossing could last up to three months with a high mortality rate due to the dire conditions of the trip. Here is the testimony of the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal:

The poor children of the black countries seem to meet death here, at the last stage of a long, hopeless and painful journey. The long journey accomplished with insufficient food and scarce water, the contrast between the rich natural resources and the humid atmosphere of their homeland and the dry and anemic air of the desert, the fatigue and the privations imposed by their masters and by the circumstances in which they find themselves, all this has gradually ruined their young strengths. The memory of their homeland that has disappeared along the way, their fear of an unknown future, the endless journey under the blows, hunger, thirst and deadly exhaustion have paralyzed their last faculties of resistance. If the poor creatures lack strength to get up and walk again, they are simply abandoned, and their minds slowly fade under the destructive effect of the rays of the sun, hunger and thirst.1

The Arab slave trade was characterized by appalling violence, castration, and rape. The men were systematically castrated to prevent them from reproducing and becoming a stock. This inhumane practice resulted in a high death rate: six out of 10 people who were mutilated died from their wounds in castration centers. The Arab slave trade also targeted African women and girls, who were captured and deported for use as sex slaves.

According to the work of some historians, the Arab slave trade has affected more than 17 million people. In the Saharan region alone, more than nine million African captives were deported and two million died on the roads.

This despicable phenomenon was legitimized by Islam, as Christianity would later condone the transatlantic slave trade. For example, the Tunisian Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) wrote that “the only peoples to accept slavery are the Negroes, because of their lower degree of humanity, their place being closer to the animal stage.”2

The Algerian Arab theologian Ahmed al-Wancharisi (1430/1431-1508) offered legal and religious recommendations:

I have been asked about slaves from the land of Abyssinia who profess monotheism and accept the rules of the Holy Law: is it legal or not to buy and sell them?… If their conversion to Islam comes after the establishment of a property right [on these slaves], then Islam does not demand liberation, because slavery was caused by unbelief. The state of servitude persists after the disappearance of unbelief because of its existence in the past.3

When they arrived at destinations, the captives were sold in the slave markets of Cairo, Baghdad, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centers. These slaves played various roles in the economy of the Muslim world. They were used as servants, harem keepers, laborers in fields, mines, and hydraulic yards, and as cannon fodder in armies.

Ill-treatment sometimes led slaves to rebellion. For example, the revolt of the Zanj, which occurred near the city of Basra in Iraq in 869, lasted 15 years. Under the command of Ali Ibn Muhammad, slaves from East Africa and the Great Lakes region rose up, took control of many cities, and founded an embryonic state. They were defeated only in 883.

The Arab slave trade had a tragic impact on the evolution of African societies. Some areas were completely devastated and depopulated. Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) was a horrified witness of this traffic. He wrote that after the depredations of the Arab traffickers, “the black blood flows toward the north, the equator smells corpses.”4

The Arab slave trade also promoted the development of racialist and essentialist theories that view blacks as inferior by nature. In many Arab countries this racism still exists; for example, the same words are used to describe Africans, blacks, and slaves.

The United Nations has made March 23 the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and UNESCO has made August 23 the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition. When will there be an international day to commemorate the victims of the Arab-Muslim slave trade? When will an international research program address this subject? When will a project be implemented to identify, restore, and publicize the sites and monuments linked to this Arab trade, like the existing projects concerning the transatlantic trade? When will educational material be produced and cultural and artistic programs conducted to raise awareness of this criminal activity? When will a museum on the Arab-Muslim slave trade be established?

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1 Gustav Nachtigal, Sahara et Soudan, vol. 1 (Hachette Livre, 1974).

2 Ibn Haldoun, Al-Muqaddim, Prolegomènes (1857).

3 Ahmad al-Wancharisi, “Kitab al-Mi‘yar al-Mughrib [XVe siècle],” in Bernard Lewis, Islam (Paris: Gallimard, Quarto, 2005).

4 Henry Morton Stanley, À travers le continent mystérieux (1878).