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Slavery: lessons from history

By MA Khan - posted Thursday, 30 July 2009

It’s popular wisdom that the only slavery existing in history is that of the European black slave trade, whereby European traders captured and transported black Africans to the New World (Americas, West Indies).

Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan terms the trans-Atlantic slave-trade “worst and most cruel slavery” in history, adding that some white Americans do not know that “they are in the privileged position … based on what happened to us (Blacks)” in the past.

An overwhelming majority of Muslims believe that Islamic history is devoid of the abhorrent practice of slavery. Rocky Davis (aka Shahid Malik), an Australian Aboriginal convert to Islam, told ABC Radio that “Christianity were the founders of slavery. Not Islam.”


Indeed, from my own experience of living as a Muslim for 35 years, this is one of the major reasons why anti-West hatred is so strong among Muslims.

When Muslims in India talk about the practice of slavery in the subcontinent, they talk about the harrowing tales of how the Portuguese transported slaves from coastal areas of Goa, Kerala and Bengal in terrible conditions, and nothing else.

However, when I investigated, I was shocked to discover that Muslims - armed with divine and prophetic sanctions - practised slavery more extensively and just as tragically, which I have discussed in my recent book, Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion Imperialism and Slavery.

It is fortunate that President Barack Obama, visiting a former slave-trading fort in Ghana on July 11, condemned the European slave trade as a dark chapter in human history, describing it rightly as a “great evil”, adding “As African-Americans, there is a special sense that … this place was a place of profound sadness …”

Obama also pointed to a church, standing next to slave-dungeons, to show how European Christians, with sanctions from the church, engaged in black slavery.

This popular paradigm excludes three major facts about slavery:

  1. black slavery was not the only slavery in history. The Arabs, Turks, Indians and even millions of Europeans were also reduced to slavery during the same period and before, with added dimensions of sex-slavery and castration. And the perpetrators were Muslims, not Europeans;
  2. black slaves were not shipped to the New World alone; a greater number were sent to the Islamic world; and
  3. even in the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, Muslims were complicit and played a cruel role.

Islamic history informs us that Prophet Mohammed himself, armed with affirmed and reaffirmed divine sanctions, initiated Islamic slavery by enslaving the women and children of a number of Arabian tribes (Quraiza, Khaybar, Mustaliq and Hawazin etc.). Later, as Islamic power grew, slavery witnessed a tremendous burst on the world stage. Everywhere Muslims won victory, the women and children of the vanquished were enslaved in massive numbers. General Musa enslaved 300,000 in his conquest of North Africa in 698 and returned from his conquest of Spain in 715 with the Caliph’s one-fifth share of the booty that included 30,000 white virgins from the Visigothic nobility alone; while Sultan Mahmud returned from his invasion of India in 1001-02 CE with 500,000 enslaved women and children. This is only a tip of the iceberg.

No small victims of Islamic slavery were Europeans themselves, who started falling victim to Islamic assaults in the Mediterranean islands within two decades after Mohammed’s death. And it continued well into the 19th century: the Ottomans, even in their decisive defeat and retreat from the Gates of Vienna in 1683, returned with 80,000 white captives, while Barbary pirates enslaved up to 1.5 million Europeans between the 1530s and 1820s, from European merchant-ships off the North African coast, plus from slave-raiding expeditions to coastal villages and islands of Europe.

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About the Author

MA Khan holds an MA in Journalism. He is an independent researcher and writer. He is author of Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery.

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