The number of people enslaved by Muslims has been a hotly debated topic, especially when the millions of Africans forced from their homelands are considered.
Some historians estimate that between A.D. 650 and 1900, 10 to 20 million people were enslaved by Arab slave traders. Others believe over 20 million enslaved Africans alone had been delivered through the trans-Sahara route alone to the Islamic world.
Dr. John Alembellah Azumah in his 2001 book, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa estimates that over 80 million Black people more died en route.
Arab enslavers practiced genetic warfare
The Arab slave trade typically dealt in the sale of castrated male slaves. Black boys between the age of 8 and 12 had their scrotums and penises completely amputated to prevent them from reproducing. About six of every 10 boys bled to death during the procedure, according to some sources, but the high price brought by eunuchs on the market made the practice profitable.
Some men were castrated to be eunuchs in domestic service and the practice of neutering male slaves was not limited to only Black males. “The calipha in Baghdad at the beginning of the 10th Century had 7,000 black eunuchs and 4,000 white eunuchs in his palace,” writes author Ronald Segal in his 2002 book, Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora.
Arab slave trade inspired Arab racism toward blacks
Its important to note that Arab is not a racial classification; an Arab is almost like an American in that people classified as Arab today could be Caucasian (white people), Asiatic or even Arabized Africans. In the beginning there was some level of mutual respect between the Blacks and the more lighter skinned Arabs. However, as Islam and the demand for enslaved Blacks grew, so did racism toward Africans.
As casual association with Black skin and slave began to be established, racist attitudes towards Blacks began to manifest in Arabic language and literature. The word for slave – Abid – became a colloquialism for African. Other words such as Haratin express social inferiority of Africans.
Arab enslavers targeted women for rape
The eastern Arab slave trade dealt primarily with African women, maintaining a ratio of two women for each man. These women and young girls were used by Arabs and other Asians as concubines and menials.
A Muslim slaveholder was entitled by law to the sexual enjoyment of his slave women. Filling the harems of wealthy Arabs, African women bore them a host of children.
This abuse of African women would continue for nearly 1, 200 years.
Arab slave trade ushered in the European slave trade
The Arab slave trade in the 19th century was economically tied to the European trade of Africans. New opportunities of exploitation were provided by the transatlantic slave trade and this sent Arab slavers into overdrive.
The Portuguese (on the Swahili coast) profited directly and were responsible for a boom in the Arab trade. Meanwhile on the West African coast, the Portuguese found Muslim merchants entrenched along the African coast as far as the Bight of Benin. These European enslavers found they could make considerable amounts of gold transporting enslaved Africans from one trading post to another, along the Atlantic coast.
The Arab slave trade sparked one of the largest slave rebellions in history
The Zanj Rebellion took place near the city of Basra, located in present-day southern Iraq, over a period of fifteen years (A.D. 869–883). The insurrection is believed to have involved enslaved Africans (Zanj) who had originally been captured from the African Great Lakes region and areas further south in East Africa.
Basran landowners had brought several thousand East African Zanj people into southern Iraq to drain the salt marshes in the east. The landowners forced the Zanj, who generally spoke no Arabic, into heavy slave labor and provided them with only minimal subsistence. The harsh treatment sparked an uprising that grew to involve over 500,000 enslaved and free men who were imported from across the Muslim empire.
Arab enslavers avoided teaching Islam to blacks to justify enslaving them
According to some historians, Islam prohibited freeborn Muslims from being enslaved, so it was not in the interest for Arab slavers to convert enslaved Africans to the religion. Since converting enslaved Africans to Muslim would grant them more rights and reduce the potential reservoir of people to enslave, propagators of Islam often revealed a cautious attitude toward proselytizing Africans.
Still, if an African converted to Islam he was not guaranteed freedom nor did it confer freedom to their children. Only children of slaves or non-Muslim prisoners of war could become slaves, never a freeborn Muslim.
The time period
The Arab slave trade was the longest yet least discussed of the two major slave trades. It began in seventh century as Arabs and other Asians poured into northern and eastern Africa under the banner of Islam. The Arab trade of Blacks in Southeast Africa predates the European transatlantic slave trade by 700 years. Some scholars say the Arab slave trade continued in one form or another up until the 1960s, however, slavery in Mauritania was criminalized as recently as August 2007.
The Arab slave trade allowed more upward mobility than the European slave trade.
Upward mobility within the ranks of Arab slaves was not rare. Tariq ibn Ziyad – who conquered Spain and whom Gibraltar was named after – was a slave of the emir of Ifriqiya, Musa bin Nusayr, who gave him his freedom and appointed him a general in his army.
Son of an enslaved Ethiopian mother, Antarah ibn Shaddād, also known as Antar, was an Afro-Arabic man who was originally born into slavery. He eventually became a well-known poet and warrior. Extremely courageous in battle, historians have dubbed him the “father of knighthood … [and] chivalry” and “the king of heroes.”This kind of upward mobility did not occur in the European slavery system.
Arab slave trade not limited to Africa or skin color.
One of the biggest differences between the Arab slave trade and European slaving was that the Arabs drew slaves from all racial groups. During the eighth and ninth centuries of the Fatimid Caliphate, most of the slaves were Europeans (called Saqaliba), captured along European coasts and during wars.
Aside from those of African origins, people from a wide variety of regions were forced into Arab slavery, including Mediterranean people; Persians; people from the Caucasus mountain regions (such as Georgia, Armenia and Circassia) and parts of Central Asia and Scandinavia; English, Dutch and Irish; and Berbers from North Africa.