Slavery in Islam

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Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

Slavery and Islamic Law
Mohammed and slavery
Compared to the Atlantic slave trade
Economic slavery
Elite slavery
Sex slavery
Slavery in islam

Slavery was common in pre-Islamic times and continued under Islam.

Slaves belonged in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, from Arabia in the center to North Africa in the west and to present-day Pakistan and Indonesia in the east. Some Islamic states, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate and the Sokot Caliphate [Nigeria]should be called slave societies, because slaves there were very important in numerical terms, and also focused on the energies of politicians.

Encyclopedia Britannica Slavery

Many societies have practiced slavery throughout history, and Muslim societies were no exception.

It is believed that as many people were enslaved in the eastern slave trade than in the Atlantic slave trade.

Ironically, when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished, Eastern trade expanded, suggesting that for some Africans the abolition of Atlantic trade did not lead to freedom, but simply changed their slave destiny.

To mislead the use of phrases such as “Islamic slavery” and “Muslim slave trade”, although slavery existed in many Muslim cultures at different times, since the slave trade in the Atlantic is not called the Christian slave trade, although most of those responsible are Christians .

Slavery before Islam

Slavery was common in pre-Islamic times and was adopted by many ancient legal systems, and it continued under Islam.

Although Islam deserves praise for softening the centuries-old institution of slavery, which was also adopted and approved by other monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism, and was a well-established custom of the pre-Islamic world, it never preached the abolition of slavery as a doctrine.

In fact, Jahanbaksh, Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953-2000, 2001

The condition of slaves, like women, could well have improved with the advent of Islam, but this institution was not abolished, as well as during the period of Christianity during this period.

Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, 2000

How Islam softened slavery

Islam’s approach to slavery supplemented the idea that freedom is a natural state of affairs for people, and in accordance with this, it limits the possibility of enslaving people, endorses the liberation of slaves and regulates the attitude towards slaves:

Islam strongly restricted those who could be enslaved and under what circumstances (although these restrictions were often bypassed)
Islam applied to slaves both to people and to property

Islam has banned slave abuse, in fact, tradition has repeatedly emphasized the importance of treating slaves with kindness and compassion.

Islam allowed slaves to attain their freedom and made the liberation of slaves a virtuous act

Islam forbids Muslims to enslave other Muslims

But the essence of slavery under Islam remained the same as everywhere else. This was due to serious violations of human rights, and however well they were treated, slaves still had limited freedom; and when the law was not observed, their life could be very unpleasant.


A serious paradox of Islamic slavery is that the humanity of the various rules and customs that led to the emancipation of slaves created a demand for new slaves, which could only be put up by war, forcing people into slavery or slave trade.

Muslim slavery lasted for centuries

The legitimacy of slavery in Islam, along with the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who himself bought, sold, seized and owned slaves, can explain why slavery persisted until the 19th century in many places (and later in some countries). The impetus for the abolition of slavery were mainly the colonial powers, although some Muslim thinkers strongly advocated abolition.

Slaves come from many places
Unlike the Atlantic slave traders, Muslims enslaved people from different cultures, as well as from Africa. Other sources included the Balkans, Central Asia and Mediterranean Europe.

Slaves can be assimilated into Muslim society
Muhammad’s teaching that slaves should be regarded as people with dignity and rights, and not just as property, and that the liberation of slaves was a virtuous deed may have helped create a culture in which slaves became much more assimilated into society than they were in the West.

Muslim slaves could achieve status
Slaves in the Islamic world were not always at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Slaves in Muslim societies had a greater range of work and assumed a wider range of duties than those who were enslaved in trade in the Atlantic.

Some slaves received substantial income and achieved considerable power, although even such elite slaves still remained at the mercy of their owners.

Muslim slavery was not just economic

Unlike the Western slave trade, slavery in Islam was not fully motivated by the economy.

Although some Muslim slaves were used as productive labor, on the whole they were not of such a massive scale as in the West, but at small agricultural enterprises, in workshops, construction, mining and transport.

Slaves were also recruited, some of whom served in the elite corps necessary to control the ruler over the state, while others joined the civil service.

Another category of slavery was sexual slavery, in which young women were made concubines either on a small scale or in large powerful harems. Some of these women were able to achieve wealth and power.

These harems could protect eunuchs, people who were enslaved and castrated.

Where did the slaves come from?

Muslim traders took their slaves from three main areas:

Non-Muslim Africa, in particular the Horn
Central and Eastern Europe
central Asia

The legality of slavery today
Although Islamic law permits slavery under certain conditions, it is almost unthinkable that such conditions could ever arise in the modern world, and therefore slavery is in fact illegal in modern Islam. Muslim countries also use secular laws to ban slavery.

News reports of slavery in several Muslim countries are still reported, but, as a rule, the relevant authorities deny them.

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Slavery and Islamic Law
Law and slavery
Islamic laws and customs do not provide grounds for the abolition of slavery or even to reduce the slave trade.
Bernard Lewis, The Formation of the Modern Middle East, 1994

Although the vast majority of modern Muslims hate slavery, it remains part of their religious law.
‘Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Shari’ah and The Basic Problems of Human Rights, in Liberal Islam, Ed Charles Kurzman, 1998

Islamic Sharia law took (and takes) slavery, like other legal systems of ancient times, such as Roman law, Jewish law, Byzantine Christian law, African customary law and Hindu law.

In those days, the world was completely different, and the practices that seem to be completely unethical modern minds, were common and accepted.
At the stage of the formation of Sharia (and, at least for the next millennium), there was no concept of universal human rights anywhere in the world. Slavery has been an established and legitimate institution in many parts of the world throughout this period …

‘Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Shari’ah and The Basic Problems of Human Rights, in Liberal Islam, Ed Charles Kurzman, 1998

Slavery was too fundamental for the structure of Arab society in the 7th century to be easily abolished. This would lead to the alienation of many tribes, which Mohammed sought to unite, and would seriously damage the work of society.

The prohibition of slavery in the context of the seventh century Arabia would obviously be as useful as the prohibition of poverty; this would reflect a noble ideal, but would not be feasible immediately without creating a completely new socio-economic system.

Jacob Neusner, Tamara Sonne, Comparison of Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam, 1999

But it was a problem, since Islam highly valued human dignity and freedom.

The fact that slavery is a major problem in Islamic law is undoubtedly related to the spread of slavery at the time Islam was established, combined with the fact that the Quran clearly represents universal freedom and human dignity as its ideal society. His recommendation for the release of slaves is on the same plane as the recommendation for the poor to be clothed and the hungry to be fed.
Jacob Neusner, Tamara Sonne, Comparison of Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam, 1999

Therefore, early Muslims restricted and regulated slavery in order to eliminate some of its cruelties, but recognized that it was legal.

… The maximum that Sharia could and could do in this historical context is to change and mitigate the harsh consequences of slavery and discrimination based on religion or gender …

Sharia recognized slavery as an institution, but sought to limit the sources of acquiring slaves, improve their situation and facilitate their liberation through various religious and civil methods.

However, slavery is legal in accordance with the Shari’ah to this day.
‘Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Shari’ah and The Basic Problems of Human Rights, in Liberal Islam, Ed Charles Kurzman, 1998

Is slavery still legal in Islam?

The answer is that slavery is legal under Islamic law, but only theoretically. Slavery is illegal in accordance with the state legislation of all Muslim countries.
In theory, Islamic law states that if a person was captured during legitimate jihad or was a descendant of a continuous chain of people who were lawfully enslaved, then it may be legitimate to enslave them.

However, should one prove the legal condition for enslaving someone (because he was captured by the warring against Islam with the aim of annihilating it and persisted in invincible ignorance in their blasphemous and wrong beliefs, or because there was legal evidence that all his ancestors, without exception, were slaves descended from a man taken prisoner who waged war with such invincible ignorance). Islam should have recognized such slavery as legitimate, although it would recommend the liberation of man and, if possible, his conversion in this modern era. ,

Tabandeh, a Muslim commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, quoted in “Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim, Sharia and Fundamental Human Rights”, “Liberal Islam”, ed. Charles Kurtzman 1998

In practice, it seems almost impossible to ever again be Jihad, which was legally declared in accordance with the strict letter of the law, and there are no living descendants of legitimate slaves, which means that legal enslavement is unthinkable.

Slavery Act
Islamic law recognizes slavery as an institution within society and attempts to regulate and limit it in various ways.

Different Islamic law schools differ in their interpretation of Islamic slavery law. Local customs in Muslim lands also influenced the attitude towards slaves.

In the trade cities of Southeast Asia, the Shari’a helped establish a legal distinction between slaves and non-slaves unknown in rural areas.

However, more often the use of Sharia outside the Middle East was restrained by local customs. This allowed Muslims in such remote regions as Somalia, India and Indonesia, to advocate for the preservation of pre-Islamic and other local structures of slavery, even if it was contrary to the requirements of the Shari’a.

Gwyn Campbell; Frank Cass, The Structure of Slavery in the Indian Ocean, Africa and Asia, 2004

Islamic law clearly recognizes that slaves are human, but it often treats slaves as if they were property, setting the rules governing the purchase and sale of slaves.

It encourages the emancipation of slaves, which has a good effect of reducing the slave population in the culture and, paradoxically, the bad effect of encouraging those whose livelihood depends on slave labor, in the search for new ways to acquire slaves.

Who can be enslaved

According to Islamic law, people can be enslaved by law only in two circumstances:

as a result of defeat in a war that was legal under sharia
if they are born as children of two slave parents
Other legal systems of the time allowed people to be enslaved in a much wider range of circumstances.
Sharia restrictions were often either ignored or ignored, and many instances of slave trade by Muslims were in fact illegal, but tolerable.

The following groups of people cannot be slaves:
Free Muslims, but note that:
Slaves who converted to Islam are not automatically released
Babies born to Muslim slaves are also slaves.
Slave Rights
Islamic law gives slaves certain rights:
Slaves should not be mistreated or overworked, but should be well addressed.
Slaves must be in proper order
Slaves may take legal action for violating these rules and may be released as a result.
Slaves can own property
Slaves can own slaves
Slaves can marry if their owner agrees.
Slaves can conduct business on behalf of the owner
Slaves guilty of crimes can receive only half of the punishment that would have been given to non-slaves (although some schools of Islamic law allow the slave who commits murder to be executed)

A slave cannot be separated from her child until he is 7 years old
Female slaves cannot be forced into prostitution

Slave rights to freedom
Islamic law allows slaves to gain freedom under certain circumstances. He divides slaves with the right to freedom into various classes:
Mukatab: a slave who has a contractual right over time to buy his freedom

Mudabbar: a slave who will be released after the death of their owner (this may not happen if the property of the owner is too small)
Um Walid, a slave who gave birth to her master as a child

Slaves must accept
Owners are allowed to have sex with their slaves.

Restrictions on slaves
Islamic law imposes many restrictions on slaves:
Slaves cannot perform certain religious roles.
Slaves can only have limited power
Slaves cannot be witnesses in court
Killing a slave does not carry the death penalty in most schools of Islamic law
Slaves are punished under Islamic law if they commit a crime, although for some serious crimes they receive only half the punishment of free people

Mohammed and slavery

The Prophet Mohammed did not try to abolish slavery, but he bought, sold, seized and owned slaves. But he insisted that slave owners treat their slaves well, and stressed the importance of freeing the slaves.

There are two different ways of interpreting this:
Some contemporary authors believe that Mohammed wanted his teaching to lead to a gradual cessation of slavery, limiting the possibilities of acquiring new slaves and allowing existing slaves to become free. This idea does not appear in the early works.

other authors claim that by regulating slavery, the Prophet gave his power to his further existence, and that, having slaves himself, he showed his approval

Muhammad treated slaves as people and clearly treated some of them with great respect.

For example, he personally provided the freedom of Bilal, an African slave who converted to Islam. Bilal was chosen as the first muezzin of Islam because of his beautiful voice. Muezzin is a person who calls the community for daily prayers, and he occupies an important place and is responsible.

Zayd was a little boy who grew up in a family of the Prophet as a slave, and remained in the family almost like an adopted son, even after he was released. He was among the first four people to convert to Islam. Indeed, when Zeid’s father (a rich nobleman) tracked down his son and offered to buy his freedom from Mohammed, Muhammad told Zayd that he was free to go with his father without money, passing from hand to hand, and to his father’s surprise, Zayd decided to stay with Muhammad .

The Prophet also married a Coptic Christian slave.

During his lifetime, the Prophet introduced the following rules on slavery:

It is stated that the release of slaves was an act that God found most acceptable
Zakat (the charitable third pillar of Islam) was often used by the state to free slaves

It is stated that the release of a slave was a proper way to obtain forgiveness for certain offenses.
It is ordered that those who have committed certain offenses should be penalized for being released
It is stated that slaves should be allowed to buy their freedom, and if necessary, should be given the opportunity to earn money or receive money from the state in order to do so.
Allowed slaves must be released under certain circumstances.
It is stated that slave contracts should be interpreted in favor of slaves.
It is stated that kindness towards slaves is the same as towards family, neighbors and others
It is stated that when a slave owner has a child with a slave, the child must be released and may inherit from his father, like any other child (as in the case of Ibrahim)
There are a number of hadiths which show that the Prophet treated slaves well and expected others to do the same …

He will not enter Paradise, which behaves badly with his slaves. The comrades said: “Oh, the Apostle of God! Did you not tell us that among your students there will be a lot of slaves and orphans? “He said,” Yes; then be kind to them, as to your own children, and let them eat what you eat yourself. The slaves who say their prayers are your brothers.

Be kind to slaves as you would your own children … and those who say their prayers are your brothers.

They (slaves or servants) are your brothers, and Allah placed them under your command. Therefore, the one under whose hand Allah placed his brother should feed him with what he eats, and give him the dresses of what he wears, and should not ask him to do something beyond his capabilities. And if he even asks him to perform a difficult task, he must help him with this. ”

There are three categories of people against whom I myself will become the plaintiff on the Day of Judgment. Of these three, one is one who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats that money. ”
Al-Bukhari and Ibn Majja

Said Abu Musa Al-Ashari: “The Prophet said:” Give food to the hungry, visit the sick and free (release) the one who is in captivity (by paying a ransom). ”

Compared to the Atlantic slave trade
Slavery in Muslim cultures and the slave trade in the Atlantic

Slavery in Muslim history lasted much longer than the slave trade in the Atlantic, although slavery existed in many cultures long before Islam.

The trafficking of Muslim slaves from Africa appears to have enslaved about as much (estimated to range from 11 to 14 million Africans) to the slave trade in the Atlantic, and the transportation conditions faced by the victims of eastern trade were probably equally terrible as they are. those of the atlantic slave trade.

One striking fact is that when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished, eastern trade expanded, suggesting that for some Africans the abolition of Atlantic trade did not lead to freedom, but only changed their slave destiny.

Slavery played a significant role in the history of Muslim civilization, but it was a form of slavery, which in its essence differed from the “slave trade” in that the Muslim concept of slavery was considered to be those enslaved by people who had some, although smaller, human rights that must be respected.

However, what was markedly different from the slavery of the Western world was the extent to which they [slaves] were protected by Muslim law. When the law was observed, their conversion was good. They can expect marriage and have their own families, and they had a good chance of being released. Paths for salvation were also built.

Gwyn Campbell; Frank Cass, The Structure of Slavery in the Indian Ocean, Africa and Asia, 2004

But even though slavery in Islam can be considerably less severe than slavery in the Atlantic slave trade, both are associated with serious violations of human rights and restriction of freedom. No matter how well they were treated, slaves still had limited freedom, and if they did not abide by the law, their lives could be very unpleasant.

The relationship between the slave and the master in Islam is very different from the relationship between the American worker on the plantation and the owner. It was a much more personalized and relatively benevolent relationship. Everything is relative here: to be a slave is to be a slave, and it should not be romanticized.

Ronald Seagal, interview with Susie Hansen in Salon magazine, 2001

Here are some of the main differences between Muslim slavery and the Atlantic slave trade:

Atlantic trade lasted from the 15th to the 19th century, eastern trade from the 7th to the 9th century

Under Islam, slaves were considered first as human beings, and then as property. In the Atlantic, trading slaves were considered property, not people, and were often simply considered units of productive labor.
Islamic law provided significant protection for slaves; those that were accepted for trade in the Atlantic had very little protection
Islamic law allowed enslavement only of those who were defeated in a legitimate war, and all other methods were illegal, although this was often ignored, while trade in the Atlantic enslaved anyone who had commercial value.
In Islam, slave owners were forbidden to take small children from their mothers, which is often found in trade in the Atlantic.
Owner-slave relations may be kinder in Islam than in trade in the Atlantic, and often more personal
Islam recommends the emancipation of slaves in itself as a “good” religious act and says that slaves who convert to Islam should be freed. Zakat (the requirement of charity) was used by Muslim states for the liberation of slaves. There were many other ways by which the slave could be freed, for example, as redemption for violations in other religious rituals; as a result, far more slaves were freed than in trade in the Atlantic
In accordance with Islamic law, a slave may bring his master to Islamic courts to consider a complaint, and the judge has the right to grant freedom against the wishes of the owner and / or other compensations; there was no such protection for slaves captured by Atlantic commerce
Islam allowed slaves to hold high posts; those that were taken for trade in the Atlantic remained at the bottom of society
In the Atlantic trade, there were two men for every woman; in the Islamic trade for every man there were two women
Islam allowed women to be enslaved for sexual purposes, but not for prostitution
Africans were enslaved to trade in the Atlantic in order to work on an industrial scale in agricultural labor; in Islamic commerce they had a much wider variety of roles
Only Black Africans participated in the Atlantic trade; Muslim slavery included many racial groups
Slavery in trade in the Atlantic was highly racist, which was forbidden by Islam, where there was much less legitimate racism. Both gentlemen and slaves had a wide range of colors and backgrounds; As a result, the former slaves were absorbed by the Islamic world, while the former slaves remained the lowest class of discrimination in the United States until relatively recently.
The nature of trade in the Atlantic and, consequently, the survival of racism in the West was one of segregation. There was no such separation in Islam. White does not repel blacks from the pavement. They did not forbid restaurants to serve them. I do not think anyone disputes the fact that slavery was a more benevolent institution in Islam than in the West.
Ronald Seagal, an interview in Chicago Sun-Times, 02/17/2002

Economic slavery
Economic slavery in islam
Western slavery was motivated by the economy, people were enslaved to provide cheap and affordable labor on the plantations.
Historically, Muslims did not use slaves as an engine of economic production on the same scale as the West, although some Muslims benefited from real slave trade.

Although Arab and Muslim traders became infamous in supplying African slaves to American and Caribbean plantations, there are few examples of collective forced labor found in the western hemisphere in the annals of Islam.
Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, 2000

The 9th century slave rebellion in Iraq may have kept Muslims from industrializing slaves by demonstrating the danger of having a very large slave community anywhere. Besides Iraq of the 9th century, the largest use of slaves of scale outside the armed forces was on the plantations of the carnation of Zanzibar.

Nevertheless, as William Jervas Clarence-Smith writes, slaves played a large role in the Muslim economy:

… productive slavery was more common in Islam than traditional accounts allow. Even if large estates were rare, they were not absent.
More striking were the numerous slaves in medium and small objects, about which surprisingly little was written.
Slave labor was also common in workshops, construction, mining, water management, land and maritime transport and the extraction of marine resources.
The question of whether there has ever been a “slave mode of production” in Islam is controversial, but the economic role of slavery was essential, at least in certain places and at certain times.
William Jervas Clarence-Smith, Islam and Slavery

Slaves were also used for domestic work, military service, sexual slavery, and civil administration.

Slave trade
Muslims did play a significant role in the slave trade as slave suppliers to others.

Elite slavery
Something special for Islamic slave systems was the creation of a slave elite in some Muslim societies that allowed people to achieve significant status, and even power and wealth, while remaining in some form of “enslavement.”
The slave elite was of tremendous value to their Muslim masters, because they were a military and administrative group consisting of “outsiders” who had no tribal or family bias that could contradict their loyalty to their masters.
It was believed that the corps of highly skilled slaves, devoted only to the governor and fully dependent on his goodwill, would serve the state more reliably and efficiently than the hereditary nobility, whose interests can compete with the interests of the ruler.
Leslie P. Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, 1993

The paradox of elite slavery
Elite slavery is a kind of paradox: how can a person have power and hold high positions, but at the same time maintain slave status?
One answer is that the slave receives power and high office, because he depends on the person who gives him power and status and who can remove this status if they wish. Thus, elite slaves must show complete loyalty and obedience to their master in order to preserve their privileges.

Another point of view is that a slave who has received elite status is no longer a slave and can use his position and power to free himself from the many limitations of slavery. This is less convincing, since even elite slaves risk losing their privileged status until they are completely free.

Dependence was not the only one, as the masters relied heavily on their elite slaves, because these slaves were the only people they could really trust.

And there was another reason why elite slaves were valuable precisely because they were slaves, elite slaves were free from certain restrictions that restricted free people, and this allowed them to do things for their masters that their masters could not otherwise to reach.

Examples of elite slavery
Two examples of elite slavery were the Mamluks and the Devshirme system.

Ottoman Mamluk, Karl Verne, 1810 ©
The Mamluk system was firmly established in the Abbasid Empire in the 9th century.
The Mamluks were “slave soldiers” who eventually began to rule Egypt for more than two centuries, from 1250 to the overthrow of the Ottomans in the 16th century. After a short period of oppression, the Mamluks were able to play a significant role in governing the country.

The Mamluks were originally soldiers captured in Central Asia, but later, boys aged 12–14 were specially taken away or bought for training as slave soldiers. Their slave status was shown under the name “Mamluk”, which means “owned”.

Although the Mamluks were not free people (they, for example, could not pass on anything to their children), they were elite slaves who were highly regarded as professional soldiers loyal to their Islamic masters.

Historians have been fascinated by the uniqueness of the Mamluk phenomenon. In some respects, he was inhuman (for example, the Mamluks were denied the opportunity to bequeath their positions and privileges to their sons), but he provided Islam with excellent military power and a complex political system.

Michael Winter, Egyptian society under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, 1517-1798, 1992

In the 13th century, Egyptian loyalty to the masters disappeared, and the Mamluks established themselves as the ruling dynasty. As soon as the Mamluks successfully rebelled against their masters, they, of course, were no longer slaves.
They remained in power for a period of 1250-1517.

The main ideal of military slavery – the complete loyalty of the Mamluk to his master, who bought, trained, supported and freed him – is the backbone of the Mamluk society in Ottoman Egypt, as it was in the Mamluk sultanate.

When the owner decided that his Mamluk had reached maturity and was ready to take office, he released him and “allowed him to grow a beard.” Now he was a free man, no longer addicted.

The master often appointed these former slaves to army posts, to the beyshif or the regimental team. Very often, the owner decided who his former slave would marry – a decision that could promote Mamluk socially and financially.
Michael Winter, Egyptian society under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, 1517-1798, 1992

System Devshirme
The devshirme system introduced in the 14th century compelled non-Muslims in parts of the Ottoman Empire to hand over some of their children to be converted to Islam and work as slaves. Some writers say that between half a million to one million people were enslaved in this way over the centuries.

Conquered Christian communities, especially in the Balkans, had to surrender twenty percent of their male children to the state.
Some of these were trained for government service, where they were able to reach very high ranks, even that of Grand Vezir.
Many of the others served in the elite military corps of the Ottoman Empire, called the Janissaries, which was almost exclusively made up of forced converts from Christianity.

The devshirme played a key role in Sultan Mehmet’s conquest of Constantinople, and from then on regularly held very senior posts in the imperial administration.

Although members of the devshirme class were technically slaves, they were of great importance to the Sultan because they owed him their absolute loyalty and became vital to his power.

This status enabled some of the ‘slaves’ to become both powerful and wealthy. Their status remained restricted, and their children were not permitted to inherit their wealth or follow in their footsteps.

Not all writers agree that the devshirme system was beneficial as well as oppressive, and point out that many Christian families were hostile and resentful about it which is perhaps underlined by the use of force to impose the system.
The devshirme system continued until the end of the seventeenth century.

Male slaves who had had their sexual organs removed were called eunuchs, and played an important part in some Muslim societies (as they did in some other cultures).

They had the advantage for their masters of not being subject to sexual influence, and as they were unlikely to marry, they had no family ties to hinder their devotion to duty.

Eunuch slavery involved compulsory mutilation, which usually took place between the ages of 8 and 12. Without modern medical skills and anaesthetics this was painful, and often led to fatal complications, and sometimes to physical or psychological problems for those who survived the operation.

Eunuchs had a particular role as guardians of the harem and were the main way in which the women of the harem had contact with the world outside.

In the Ottoman Empire eunuchs from Africa held considerable power from the mid sixteenth century to the eighteenth.
It’s recorded that the Ottoman family owned 194 eunuchs as late as 1903, of whom 35 ‘bore a title of some seniority’.
Eunuchs could also play important military roles.

Sexual slavery the harem
Concubinage may be defined as the more or less permanent cohabitation (outside the marriage bond) of a man with a woman or women, whose position would be that of secondary wives, women bought, acquired by gift, captured in war, or domestic slaves.
Encyclopaedia of Islam

Muslim cultures are thought to have had more female slaves than male slaves.

Enslaved women were given many tasks and one of the most common was working as a domestic servant.
But some female slaves were forced to become sex workers: not prostitutes, as this is forbidden in Islam, but concubines. Concubines were women who were sexually available to their master, but not married to him. A Muslim man could have as many concubines as he could afford.

Concubinage was not unique to Islam; the Bible records that King Solomon and King David both had concubines, and it is recorded in other cultures too.

Being a concubine did have some benefits: if a slave woman gave birth to her owner’s child, her status improved dramatically she could not be sold or given away, and when her owner died she became free. The child was also free and would inherit from their father as any other children.

Concubinage was not prostitution in the commercial sense both because that was explicitly forbidden and because only the owner could legitimately have sex with a female slave; anyone else who had sex with her was guilty of fornication.

The harem
Concubines lived in the harem, an area of the household where women lived separately from men. The nature of Ottoman harems is described by Ehud R Toledano:

The harem system grew out of the need in Ottoman society to achieve gender segregation and limit women’s accessibility to men who did not belong to their family.

Households were divided into two separate sections: the selamlik, housing the male members, and the haremlik, where the women and children dwelt.

At the head of the women’s part reigned the master’s mother or his first wife (out of a maximum of four wives allowed by Islam).
The concubines were also part of the harem, where all the attendants were women. Male guests of the master were not entertained in the harem.

An active and well-developed social network linked harems of similar status across Ottoman towns and villages; mutual visits and outdoor excursions were common.

For the women who actually spent their lives in the harems, reality was, of course, far more mixed and complicated.

The women who came into the harem as slaves (câriyes) were taught and trained to be “ladies,” learning all the domestic and social roles attached to that position. As they grew up, they would be paired with the men of the family either as concubines or as legal wives.
However, harem slaves’ freedom of choice was rather limited, as was that of women in general in an essentially male-dominated environment. Harem slaves frequently had to endure sexual harassment from male members of the family.
Ehud R. Toledano, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East, 1998

The nature of concubinage
Writers disagree over the nature of concubinage and the harem:
Some argue that it was seriously wrong in that
it was just slavery
it breached human rights
it exploited women
women could be bought and sold, or given as gifts
it involved compulsory non-consensual sex which would nowadays be called ‘rape’
it reinforced male power in the culture
Others say that it was relatively benign, because
it gave female slaves a relatively easy existence
it gave female slaves a chance to rise socially
it gave female slaves a chance to gain power
it gave female slaves a chance to gain their freedom

A balanced view might be to say that sexual slavery in this context was a very bad thing, but that it was possible for some of the more fortunate victims to gain benefits that provided some degree of compensation.

The political role of concubines
Concubines could play an important political role and have considerable direct political influence on the policy of the state.
More than any other Muslim dynasty, the Ottomans raised the practice of slave concubinage to a reproductive principle: after the generations of Osman and Orhan, virtually all offspring of the sultans appear to have been born of concubine mothers.
Leslie P. Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, 1993

The benefit to the state, or at least to the ruling dynasty, of having the ruling line born through concubines rather than wives was that only one family was involved the family of a concubine was irrelevant, but the family of a wife would expect to gain power and influence through their relationship to the mother of the son. These conflicting interests could threaten the succession and weaken the ruling family. (This didn’t eliminate conflict between heirs and families altogether, but it probably reduced it.)

Concubines as well as wives also played an important role in strengthening cohesion, stability, and continuity at household level too, as this remark about 18th century Cairo demonstrates:
Marital and nonmarital unions strengthened the links among men; women legitimized the succession of men to power, and women’s property ownership added to the overall wealth, prestige, and power of a household.
Mary Ann Fay, From Concubines to Capitalists: Women, Property, and Power in Eighteenth-century Cairo, Journal of Women’s History, 1998

And later in the same article the writer describes the inevitable tension inherent in the status of harem women in that society:

However, the harem was not a prison; it was instead the family quarters of an upper-class home which became exclusively female space when men not to the women were in the house and whose entry into the harem was forbidden. Women, heavily veiled, could and did leave their homes…

… Women were not imprisoned in the harem or in the veils and cloaks that concealed their bodies and faces on the street, but both customs were important signifiers of women’s lack of sexual autonomy and of men’s control over the selection of women’s sexual and marital partners.

In the economic sphere, however, women had a great deal of autonomy…

… Therefore, the eighteenth-century Egyptian household should not be seen as the site of unrelieved oppression of women but rather in terms of asymmetries of power between men and women.

Mary Ann Fay, From Concubines to Capitalists: Women, Property, and Power in Eighteenth-century Cairo, Journal of Women’s History, 1998

In the Ottoman Empire the sale of woman as slaves continued until 1908.

Muslims and the abolition of slavery
Slavery remained part of the fabric of Islam for over 1200 years (although the Druze, a group that sprung from Muslim roots, abolished it in the 11th century).

While slavery was in theory greatly limited by Islamic law, in practice it persisted on a large scale in Muslim lands.

During the 20th century attitudes to slavery changed radically and in 1990 The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam stated that:
Human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them, and there can be no subjugation but to God the Most-High.

Article 11, Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, 1990

The Declaration also includes a number of other articles that are incompatible with slavery, although “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah”.

Since slavery is permitted by Islamic law, Muslim countries have used secular law to ban it. Some countries outlawed slavery only comparatively recently:

Qatar in 1952
Yemen and Saudi Arabia in 1962
Mauritania in 1980
Early opponents

The idea that slavery should be abandoned began to be seriously discussed in the 16th century. The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) banned the slave trade in his Indian territory.

The Muslim leader and reformer Nasr al-Din denounced slavery to the people of Senegal in the 1670s and banned the sale of slaves to Christians there, undermining the French trade in slaves.

In some countries, slaves who held high rank demonstrated that slaves were perfectly capable of playing any role in society if they were freed. Egypt had even been ruled by a slave dynasty for more than a century. These traditions slowly changed some Muslim thinking about slavery, and gradually created a climate in which the pressure for abolition could build.

But serious abolition for the Muslim world had to wait until the 19th century.

Attacking the slave trade
Because slavery was accepted by Islamic law it would have been difficult or impossible to forbid slavery itself, so the abolition pressure was concentrated on the transportation of slaves, including the slave markets, which was where the worst cruelties were to be found.
Islam forbade raids to gain slaves, making a slave out of a free person and other cruelties. So Muslim abolitionists focused on showing slave trading was illegal under Islamic law, knowing that if they could stop the trade in slaves, slavery itself would slowly die out from lack of supply. For the same reason, colonial powers attacked the trade in slaves as much as the institution of slavery.

The slave trade in Muslim societies ended not so much through a single act of abolition but by withering away as the result of external and internal pressure.

The outside pressure came from colonial powers that had only recently abandoned slavery themselves:

Colonial powers such as Britain and France applied great pressure for the abolition of slavery in their dominions. This pressure was successful in some places, like Egypt, but much less influential in others.
Colonial powers also took direct action against slave traders: the British Navy played a role in intercepting and taking action against slave traders, and between 1817 and 1890 signed treaties with over 80 territories allowing them to do this.
Christian missionaries, including David Livingstone, aroused public indignation in the West.
Internal pressure came from a variety of Muslim sources:
From the 1870s, radical and gradual rationalists, together with moderate literalists and progressive ulama, could all be placed in the broad category of opponents of slavery, despite their manifold disagreements.
William G. Clarence-Smith, Religions and the abolition of slavery a comparative approach

Muslim abolitionists were influenced by factors like these:
The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade provided an enlightening example
Some Muslim thinkers readdressed Islamic ideas on human equality
Some Muslim thinkers saw slavery as colonialist/imperialist behaviour that was incompatible with growing anti-colonialism
Some Muslim thinkers regarded slavery as an activity incompatible with the modern world
Changes in culture brought about by factors such as urbanisation, changes in the demand for labour, education, a desire to relate to Western nations as equals
An increase in the freeing of slaves in some territories helped to accustom people to the ending of slavery
The result of these forces was to shrink the slave trade, and put pressure on slavery itself.

Initially, it was a source of great hostility that the West dared to intervene in Islamic affairs in contradiction to what was allowed by the Koran.

But as Western influence, or modernism, became more and more [widespread], it became less fashionable as well as profitable in Islam to own slaves. And it became illegal over much of the area.

The pressures against slavery were extremely great from Western powers. It was the moral issue. It became more scandalous because the conditions of procurement and transport became more and more horrendous.
Ronald Segal, interview with Suzy Hansen, Salon Magazine, 2001

The Ottoman Empire was the major Muslim slave society of the abolition period, and it abolished the slave trade in stages.
Although the Ottomans never abolished slavery itself, their policy of restricting the slave trade and increasing opportunities for slaves to get their freedom greatly reduced the number of slaves in its territories:

1847: slave trade banned in Persian Gulf
1857: African slave trade banned
1864: Traffic in Georgian and Circassian child slaves restricted
1867: Programme introduced to help slaves from Russia get their freedom
1887-1880: Conventions against the slave trade signed with Britain
1890: Brussels Act against slave trade signed

Slavery was harder to outlaw in areas far from central government where tribal traditions had been less influenced by the factors above, and where the military power of the centre was much weaker.

The slavers retreated into these areas, and moved their slaves to market more secretly. Quite a few of the anti-slavery military initiatives ended in victory for the slavers rather than the forces of abolition.

Some other Muslim countries passed laws allowing for the prosecution not only of the sellers of slaves but the buyers too.
The Indian Slavery Act of 1844 made slavery illegal there, and Egypt in 1896 implemented laws with very severe penalties for slaving activities.

British colonial power played a major role, enforcing treaties that prohibited slaving.
The British felt that they had a mission to do this as can be seen from this Foreign Office document of 1861:

Captain Hamerton should take every opportunity of impressing upon these Arabs that the nations of Europe are destined to put an end to the African Slave Trade, and that Great Britain is the main instrument in the Hands of Providence for the accomplishment of this purpose.

That it is in vain for these Arabs to endeavour to resist the consummation of that which is written in the Book of Fate, and that they ought to bow to superior power, to leave off a pursuit which is doomed to annihilation, and a perseverance in which will only involve them in losses and other evils.
British Foreign Office document, 1861



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  1. oprol evorter says

    so much good info on here, : D.

  2. Robyn Frie says

    I am a mother and this helped me!

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