ISLAM'S BLACK SLAVES
THE OTHER BLACK DIASPORA

By RONALD SEGAL

FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

Copyright © 2001 Ronald Segal. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-374-22774-8



Chapter One


CONTRASTS


Both Christianity and Islam asserted the unique value of the individualhuman being, as created by God for His special purposes. Yet, for theirown special purposes, Christian and Muslim societies long sanctionedthe capture, sale, ownership, and use of men, women, and children fromblack Africa. We can never know the extent of the human cost. It is certainthat many millions lost their lives in the warfare and raiding thatprovided the captives for slavery. Millions more died in the process ofcollection, initial transport, and storage.

    The statistics connected with the West's so-called Atlantic Trade, ofthe slaves who were loaded onto boats and of the survivors who landed inthe Americas, have been comprehensively researched. Total numbersare now widely accepted as subject to no more than relatively minor adjustmentin the light of new evidence. Much, too, is known of mortalityrates—from overwork, undernourishment, and brutal discipline—in theslave-labor force. The Atlantic Trade and the plantation economies it fedbecame such a highly developed and organized business that ledgersrecording the details were commonly kept.

    The Islamic Trade was conducted on a different scale and with a differentimpact. Unlike the Atlantic Trade, which began late and grewintensively, it had begun some eight centuries earlier and, except at certainperiods, it involved lower average annual volumes. The social andcultural importance of slavery itself was greater than its economic one.Certainly, bankers and merchants, as individual investors or in partnershipenterprises, were prominently engaged, but only sparse records oftheir related accountancy survive. There were also numerous small-scaledealers, with stocks of a few slaves each, who were likely to have kept anyaccounts in their heads.

    Crucially informing the difference between the two trades was theeconomic system involved in each. Historians dispute the degree towhich the Atlantic Trade promoted the development of Western capitalismand its industrial revolution, primarily in the eighteenth century. Butthere can be no doubt of the connection between them. The evidence isplentiful that some of the huge profits engendered by the trade were investedin the development of industry, and also that much industry developedin order to supply the trade goods required for the procurementof slaves in black Africa. Not least, from the predominant use to whichslaves were put, there developed a view of slaves as essentially units of laborin a productive process that disregarded or denied their personality.

    Slavery in Islam was very different. A system of plantation labor,much like that which would emerge in the Americas, developed earlyon, but with such dire consequences that subsequent engagements wererelatively rare and reduced. Moreover, the need for agricultural labor, inan Islam with large peasant populations, was nowhere near as acute as inthe Americas, where in some West European colonies, conquest had ledto the virtual extermination of the indigenous peoples from new diseasesand forced labor.

    Slaves in Islam were directed mainly at the service sector—concubinesand cooks, porters and soldiers—with slavery itself primarily a formof consumption rather than a factor of production. The most telling evidenceof this is found in the gender ratio. The Atlantic Trade shippedoverall roughly two males for every female. Among black slaves traded inIslam across the centuries, there were roughly two females to every male.

    The difference between the two trades was related to the very natureof the state in Islam, as distinct from that in Western Christendom. Indeed,the term "Christendom"—though still useful as a defining difference—effectivelybecame an anachronism for states whose religiousallegiances increasingly gave place to national preoccupations and thesecular employment of power. In Islam the state itself was essentially anextension of the religion, without legitimacy or corresponding allegiancebeyond this. Even in the one arguable exception of Iran, whose historicalPersian identity confronted Arab linguistic and political dominance, theindependence it successfully asserted was based on a rival view of the legitimatesuccession to leadership of the entire Islamic community.

    To a degree unmatched by the various states of Western Christendom,for all the conflict between Protestant and Catholic, the nature ofsociety in Islam was informed by reference to the divine will, as communicatedin the Koran. And the Koran dealt in some detail with slaves.That pretensions to piety might coexist with disregard for the spirit andeven the letter of such details did not preclude their overall influence.Slaves were to be regarded and treated as people, not simply as possessions.

    This is not to romanticize their condition. A slave was a slave for allthat. Owners were endowed with such power over their slaves that fewcan have failed to abuse it, more often in trivial but still humiliating, andsometimes in brutal, ways. Even masters persuaded of their own pietyand benevolence sexually exploited their concubines, without a thoughtof whether this constituted a violation of their humanity. In the provisionof eunuchs, indeed, Islamic slavery was scarcely more compassionatethan its Western counterpart; and those who purchased them were theaccomplices of those who provided them. Yet the treatment of slaves inIslam was overall more benign, in part because the values and attitudespromoted by religion inhibited the very development of a Western-stylecapitalism, with its effective subjugation of people to the priority ofprofit. So crucial was the religious dynamic to Islamic society that thosewho served the faith, by scholarship or soldiering, enjoyed greater prestigethan those who grew rich by economic enterprise. While trade wasaccepted as necessary and useful, enrichment by speculation, or by anyother pursuits construed to be in conflict with the welfare of the community,was not only regarded with suspicion but might be severely penalized.

    Since enrichment brought such obvious rewards, from the purchaseof pleasures to the means of exercising or extending power, there wereinevitably those more attracted to amassing riches than to devout self-denialswhose rewards in another world required death as well as delay.In the business of this world, the advantages of enterprise were widelyrecognized. But the conditions for related capital accumulation on a sociallytransforming scale were largely absent.

    It was no accident that in the Ottoman Empire, for instance, charitablefoundations were a prime source of investment capital but spentmost of their income on building mosques, establishing or subsidizingschools, and contributing to social welfare; that wealth so often went intothe purchase of property rather than into productive assets; and that foreigngoods were permitted to compete so damagingly with domestic productionbecause their relative cheapness served the needs of the poor inthe community.

    Of some significance, too, was the absence of primogeniture as theprinciple of inheritance. The distribution of estates among the familymembers of the deceased, in conformity with Koranic precepts, mightwell have been both fair and compassionate. In contrast to the practiceof primogeniture in the West, however, it did little to secure the concentrationof wealth and its related investment. Moreover, Muslims tendedto respect the prohibition of usury in the Old Testament, while in theWest, Jews, often barred from other forms of economic enterprise, andincreasingly Christians, tended to ignore it. In short, far from pursuingthe development of an economic system that promoted the depersonalizationof slave labor, Islamic influence was responsible for impeding it.

    Such influence also successfully confronted the emergence of racismas a form of institutionalized discrimination, because the Koran expresslycondemned racism along with tribalism and nationalism. In the West,economic enterprise and the advance of the secular state promoted eachother, to mock such spiritual messages as that the meek should inheritthe earth. The slave system was so incompatible not only with the teachingsof Christianity but with the decent sensibilities of the less devoutthat they required some rationalization to sustain them. The Bible wasscrutinized to find support, however specious, for a divine curse onblacks; and science was perverted to support a biological case for theirenslavement.

    Christianity did come to play a crucial part in the opposition led byBritain, first to the slave trade and then to slavery itself. Most of the leadingabolitionists took the teachings of their religion seriously. Yet it isdoubtful that they would have succeeded without support from industrialcapitalists. The workshop of the world had outgrown the value ofslave-labor colonies whose land, exploited to relative impoverishment,now produced high-cost sugar, while other slave-labor colonies producedan abundance of low-cost sugar from still richly productive land.

    The cry for "free trade" was also one for a level competitiveness of"free labor" that would enable Britain to sustain her industrial leadershipand extend its scope to new markets, including an Africa rescued frompillage for the achievement of such prosperity as would afford a muchgreater demand for British goods. By the time this combination of moraland economic campaigns captured the state, so that British financial,diplomatic, and naval power came to be deployed in their cause, thedays of the Atlantic slave trade and then of slavery itself in the West werenumbered.

    Yet racism vigorously survived the end of slavery. If old habits diehard, racism would already have been old enough to take an unconscionabletime dying. But there were reasons why it thrived rather thandeclined. The colonial powers, engaged in extending their role acrossmost of the world, found a pretext in the concept of "the white man'sburden," with its corresponding presumption of the cultural and even biologicalinferiority of blacks and others of color.

    Within the metropolitan societies, there were many whites at thelower social levels who found comfort or consolation in asserting theirracial superiority to blacks. In the late nineteenth century and for muchof the twentieth, white workers, particularly in the United States with itslarge black population, found in racism a cause with which to confrontthe competition for jobs from blacks now free to sell their labor. Racialsegregation, written into law or so secured by custom as to have hardlyless force, took elaborate form.

    Neither law nor custom had precluded miscegenation during slavery,even in the South of the United States. But with the notable exception ofBrazil—where the lack of sufficient white immigrants had long allowed aselective merging by mulattos into a pragmatic whiteness—those descendedfrom such unions were no less barred than were blacks fromsocial assimilation with whites. And they remained so under the reinvigoratedregime of racism after slavery.

    White supremacy bred among those discriminated against an imitativehigh value on lightness of complexion and a corresponding disparagementof dark features. Yet the very exclusiveness of white supremacyguarded the frontier against all but a few furtive crossings. It was this thatessentially promoted and secured the existence of a vast black diaspora,increasingly conscious of its peculiar identity, its collective past, and itscultural heritage. Relevantly, in a movement that might have emergedsomewhat tentatively but developed an assertive assurance, leadershipcame from among the "colored" as well as the black. Decisively from the1960s, the term "Negro," rejected for its historical associations with racialdisparagement, gave place to "black" as the term used even by many oflight complexion.

    It is not inconsistent both to deplore the causes and conditions thatcreated a black diaspora and to exult in its achievements; the expressionof its identity and experience, in every artistic form, especially music,and in that passion for freedom which belongs to a people born in slaveryand released into racial victimization. Nor is that victimization byany means at an end.

    In many "host" countries of their settlement, and for all that some ofthem have attained the higher reaches of society, blacks are, in undeniabledisproportion, numbered among the poor, the unemployed, theill-educated, the imprisoned, and even—where such barbarism still survives—thejudicially killed. In similar disproportion, blacks inhabit functionallysegregated areas of shantytowns or inner-city decay. And thoseblacks whose material success has enabled them to live in sleek andguarded apartment complexes or suburbs can scarcely doubt that racism,albeit in an attentuated functional form, is alive and well and evident inthe very ghettos they have escaped.

(Continues...)