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The Islamic Slave Trade

Dr. Peter Hammond of Cape Town, South Africa wrote a long article in the monthly “Christian Action” about the Tslamic slave trade across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

He said that while the European involvement in the Trans Atlantic slave trade to the Americas lasted for just over three centuries, the Arab involvement in the slave trade has lasted fourteen centuries, and in some parts of the Muslim world is continuing to this day.

There are however some interesting contrasts. While two out of every three slaves shipped across the Atlantic were men, the proportions were reversed in the Islamic slave trade. Two women for every man were enslaved by the Moslems.

While the mortality rate for slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of slaves dying in transit in the Trans Sahara and East African slave trade was between 80 and 90%!

While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves destined for the Muslim Middle East were for exploitation in harems, and for military service.

While many children were born to slaves in the Americas, and millions of their descendants are citizens in Brazil and the USA to this day, very few descendants of the slaves that ended up in the Middle East have survived. While most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated.

Possibly as many as 11 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, mainly to South and Central America. However, at least 28 million Africans were enslaved in the Muslim Middle East. About 80% of these captured by Muslim slave traders died before reaching the slave markets. The death toll from the 14 centuries of Muslim slave raids into Africa could have been more than 140 million people.

While Christian reformers spearheaded the anti-slavery movements in Europe and North America, and Great Britain mobilized her navy, throughout most of the 19th century, to intercept slave ships and set the captives free, there was no comparable opposition to slavery within the Muslim world! Even after Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1815, the Muslims enslaved a further 2 million Africans—this despite vigorous British naval activity and military intervention to limit the Islamic slave trade. Nearly 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in America, and 130 years after all slaves within the British Empire were set free by parliamentary decree, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, in 1962, and Mauritania in 1980, begrudgingly removed legalized slavery from their statute books. Many international organizations document that slavery continues in some Muslim countries.

Slavery long predated Christianity; there were Christian slaves in the Roman Empire. The great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and all the civilizations in Central America and Africa were built upon slave labor.

People became slaves by being an insolvent debtor, being sold into slavery by their parents, being born to slave parents, being captured in war, or through kidnapping by slave raiders and pirates. Slave dealing was an accepted way of life, fully established in all societies. Most of these slaves were white people, or European. In fact the very word “slave” comes from the people of Eastern Europe, the Slays.

The Greeks, from whom we derive many modern, humanistic ideas, were utterly dependent on slavery. Even Plato’s “Republic” was firmly based on slave labor. Plato said that 50 or more slaves represented the possessions of a wealthy man.

Under Roman law, when a slave owner was found murdered, all his slaves were to be executed. In one case, when a certain Pedanius Secundas was murdered, all 400 of his slaves were put to death. That was the rule.

Before the coming of Jesus Christ, the heathen nations despised manual work and confined it to slaves. When Christ was born, half of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. Three quarters of the population of Athens were slaves.

Slavery was indigenous to African and Arab countries before it made its way to Europe. It was widely practiced by the tribes of the American Indians, long before Columbus set foot on the shores of the New World. Ethiopia allowed slavery until 1942; Saudi Arabia until 1962; Peru until 1968; India until 1976; and Mauritania until 1980.

What is seldom remembered is that many black Americans in the 19th century owned slaves. For example, according to the United States census of 1830, in just the one town of Charleston, South Carolina, 407 black Americans owned slaves themselves.

Christianity undercut slavery by giving dignity to work. By reforming work, Christianity transformed the social order. Jesus took up the saw, the axe, the hammer and the plane. When the apostle Paul wrote to Philemon, concerning his escaped slave, he urged him to welcome back Onesimus as a brother in the Lord.

The Scriptures commands us to love our neighbor, to be a Good Samaritan; and to do for others what we would want them to do for us. Christians like William Wilverforce, John Newton, William Carey, David Livingstone, Lord Shaftsbury and General Charles Gordon worked tirelessly to end the slave trade, stop child labor and set the captives free. From the very beginning of the Christian church, Christians freed slaves. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries many tens of thousands of slaves were freed by people who converted to Christ.

St. Melania was said to have emancipated 8,000 slaves, St. Ovidius freed 5,000, Chromarius freed 1,400, Hermes freed 1,200. Many of the Christian clergy at Hippo under St. Augustine “freed their slaves as an act of piety.” In AD 315, the emperor Constantine, two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity, imposed the death penalty on those who stole children to bring them up as slaves.

The emperor Justinian abolished all laws that prevented the freeing of slaves. St. Augustine (354-430) saw slavery as the product of sin and as contrary to God’s divine plan (The City of God). St. Chrysostom in the 4th century taught that when Christ came He annulled slavery. He proclaimed: “in Christ Jesus there is no slave. Therefore it is not necessary to have a slave…buy them, and after you have taught them some skill by which they can maintain themselves, set them free.” For centuries, throughout the Middle Ages, bishops and church councils recommended the redemption of captive slaves, and for five centuries the Trinitarian monks redeemed Christian slaves from Moorish (Muslim) servitude.

In 1102 AD, the London Church Council outlawed slavery and the slave trade. By the 12th century slaves in Europe were rare, and by the 14th century slavery was almost unknown on the continent of Europe.

However, with the birth of Islam came a rebirth of the slave trade. As Ronald Segal in Islam’s Black Slaves documents: “When Islam conquered the Persian Sassanid Empire and much of the Byzantine Empire, including Syria and Egypt, in the 7th century, it acquired immense quantities of gold… stripping churches and monasteries… either directly or by taxes, payable in gold, imposed on the clergy and looting gold from tombs. The state encouraged the search and sanctioned the seizure, in return for a fifth of the finds.”

Segal notes: “Female slaves were required in considerable numbers for musicians, singers and dancers. Many more were bought for domestic work, and many were in demand as concubines. The harems of rulers were enormous. For example, the harem of Abdal Rahman III (912-961) in Cordoba contained over 6,000 women. And the one in the Fatimid Palace in Cairo had twice as many.”

Islam’s Black Slaves notes that Islamic teachers throughout the centuries consistently defended slavery: “For there must be masters and slaves. Blacks lack self-control and steadiness of mind and they are overcome by fickleness, foolishness and ignorance. Such are the blacks who live in the extremity of the land of Ethiopia, the Nubians, Zanj and the like.” Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406); the preeminent Islamic medieval historian and social thinker wrote:

The Negro nations are as a rule submissive to slavery, because they have attributes that are quite similar to dumb animals….

By the Middle Ages, the Arab word “abd” was in general use to denote a black slave while the word “mamluk” referred to a white slave. Even as late as the 19th century it was noted that in Mecca “there are few families that do not keep slaves. They all keep mistresses in common with their lawful wives.

When the Fatimids (named after Fatima, a daughter of Mohammed) came to power, they slaughtered all the tens of thousands of black military slaves and raised an entirely new slave army. Some of these slaves were conscripted into the army at age ten. From Persia to Egypt to Morocco slave armies from 30,000 to up to 250,000 became common place.

Even Ronald Segal, who is sympathetic to Islam and prejudiced against Christianity admits that well over 30 million black Africans would have died at the hands of Muslim slave traders or ended up in Islamic slavery. The Islamic slave trade took place across the Sahara Desert, from the coast of the Red Sea, and from East Africa across the Indian Ocean. The Trans Sahara trade was conducted along six major slave routes Just in the 19th century, for which there are more accurate records, 1.2 million slaves were brought across the Sahara into the Middle East, 450,000 down the Red Sea and 442,000 from East African coastal ports. That is a total of 2 million black slaves—just in the 1800s. At least 8 million more were calculated to have died before reaching the Muslim slave markets.

Islam’s Black Slaves records: “In the 1570’s, a Frenchman visiting Egypt found many thousands of blacks on sale in Cairo on market days. In 1665 Father Antonios Gonzalis, a Spanish/Belgian traveler, reported 800–1,000 slaves on sale in the Cairo market on a single day. In 1796, a British traveler reported a caravan of 5,000 slaves departing from Darfur. In 1838 it was estimated that 10,000 to 17,000 slaves were arriving in Cairo each year” There was a high death rate and low birth rate among black slave women. Islamic civilization lagged behind the West in protecting public health. One caravan with 3,000 slaves proceeding from the coast in East Africa, lost two thirds of its number from starvation, disease and murder. In the Nubian Desert, one slave caravan of 2,000 slaves literally vanished as every slave died.

Records for Morocco in 1876 show that market prices for slaves in good health varied from $48 to $140. Attractive young women fetched between $192 and $386. The majority destined to become concubines in North Africa, the Middle East and sometimes further away.

White slaves from Spain, Central and Eastern Europe were seen in the Middle East serving in the palaces of rulers and the establishments of the rich. Historian Robert Davis in his book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, has estimated that North African Muslim pirates abducted and enslaved more than 1 million Europeans between 1530 and 1780.

These white Christians were seized in a series of raids which depopulated coastal towns from Sicily to Cornwall! Almost all the inhabitants of the village of Baltimore, in Ireland, were captured in 1631.

It was the enemies of the Reformation who brought Europe into the disgraceful trade. Emperor Charles V (whom Martin Luther defied with his historic “My conscience is captive to the Word of God… here I stand, I can do no other…” speech) of the Holy Roman Empire, first authorized Europe’s involvement in the slave trade in 1519.

Portugal, The Netherlands, France and Britain delivered slaves for the Spanish colonies in South America (2.5 million people), 2 million to the British West Indies, 1.6 million to the French West Indies, and half a million to the Dutch West Indies; half a million to North America, too. The United States, however, would eventually fight a war, in part over slavery. There came an enormous and vocal American opposition to slavery. This was in sharp contrast to the indifference that Muslims, Africans and many Europeans evidenced.

There was no need for the slave traders to risk their lives or venture into the jungles of Africa. They simply purchased the people from African chiefs and Muslim slave traders at the coast of Africa. Many chiefs found it more profitable to sell their enemies, criminals and debtors than to kill or imprison them. Slave ships sailed from Bristol or Liverpool loaded with cloths, beads, muskets, iron bars and brandy. This merchandise was then traded in West Africa in exchange for slaves.

The average man on the street was kept in the dark about this until in 1785 Thomas Clarkson wrote a book about it entitled Slavery and Commerce in the Human Species. William Wilberforce followed in his footsteps. After a fight in parliament of twenty years in the House of Commons in London (February 22, 1807), the slave trade was outlawed.

In 1809, the British government mobilized its navy to search suspected slave ships, even foreign vessels on the high seas. In 1810, the British Parliament declared slave trading a felony, punishable by fourteen years hard labor. In 1814, the British representative at the Congress of Vienna (Austria) insisted on the abolition of the slave trade being included in the international treaty. This treaty was signed by all the European powers on June 9, 1815. In 1825, Britain passed a bill making slave trading punishable by death. Finally, just three days before William Wilberforce died, by an Act of Parliament in 1833, the British abolished slavery itself; freeing all 700,000 slaves in British overseas territories.

The abolition of slavery was one of the great turning points in history. The long and vigorous crusade by the British navy throughout the 19th century against the slave trade ranks as one of the most extraordinary and unselfish applications of national policy ever seen in the history of nations.

Meanwhile the East African slave trade was increasing. David Livingstone brought the ravages of that trade to light. His Missionary Travels exposed the horrors. Islamic law (Sharia) contains elaborate regulations for slavery. A slave had no right to be heard in court (testimony was forbidden by slaves). They had no right to own property, could marry only with the permission of the owner, and were considered to be chattel, that is, the movable property of the slave owner. (Traditional Islamic culture still condones slavery. It persists in Saudi Arabia and Sudan).