Throughout much of history, human bondage has been an acceptable institution to a large part of mankind. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the world-wide movement for abolition began slavery’s long and sometimes painful decline to the status of a generally recognized evil. Racism, particularly that directed toward black Africans, is not as ancient as slavery, but, by the nineteenth century, these two unsavory features of human existence had become inexorably coupled. It is almost impossible to discuss one completely without, in some way, coming to grips with the other. Slavery, racism, and the relationship between the two have become favorite subjects of inquiry for historians and social scientists, and hundreds of books have been produced examining the problem from almost every conceivable angle. One surprising area of scholarly neglect, however, is the long and complex history of slavery and race in the world of Islam—the Middle East. Bernard Lewis, Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies emeritus at Princeton University, attempts to begin the process of filling in this unusual gap in the historical record with his brief “historical enquiry.”
The explanation for the lack of hard data about Middle Eastern slavery and racial attitudes, according to Lewis, is “the extreme sensitivity of the subject.” Neither scholars inside nor outside the world of Islam have found such questions open for thorough and objective examination. Middle Eastern governments as well as the general populace often see such research from Western scholars as an attack upon their religion and culture, and Muslim scholars simply do not have the same freedom of inquiry as their American and European counterparts. This is particularly regrettable since it has led to a confused and inaccurate image fostered by Western scholars as well-known as Arnold Toynbee. According to this distorted view, the Islamic world was largely color-blind, and Islamic slavery was somehow less repugnant than the Western variety. While Lewis warns his readers not to make the assumption that Muslim racial attitudes mirror those of South Africa or that Islamic slavery was a replica of the plantation system in the American South, he makes it clear that slavery was a crucial element in Middle Eastern society for much of its history and, like slavery everywhere, produced human suffering. Morever, it was also accompanied by various forms of prejudice and discrimination against black Africans.
Historians generally agree that racial distinction played no appreciable role in the systems of bondage in antiquity, such as Greece and Rome. While most ancient societies did assume that outsiders were inferior, using descriptive terms such as “barbarian,” and foreignness was generally sufficient justification for enslavement, nowhere in the ancient world did this almost universal ethnocentrism take on the characteristics of what is termed racism in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Modern racism places primary emphasis on supposedly inherent characteristics, which can never be changed, while prejudice against foreigners in the ancient world was largely an expression of cultural difference. This meant, in effect, that anyone might be a slave, regardless of physical characteristics, and that once free an individual found it easier to become part of the general population.
The three great religions of the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—originated in an era in which slavery was the accepted norm, and all three contained instructions to believers intended to soften the lot of the slave. In Lewis’ estimation, Islam, the youngest of the three, contained the strongest bias toward freedom. Still, slavery was an accepted institution, and the rapid expansion of Islam through conquest brought the Arab peoples into contact with thousands of potential candidates for enslavement. As a result, human bondage became a very important part of Islamic society, and while it never played as crucial a role as plantation slavery in European expansion centuries later, it did have significant impact on the Middle Eastern economy.
Ironically, the efforts of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and jurists to regulate the treatment of slaves in the spirit of their religious beliefs left a body of law and custom that would eventually act as support for slavery when it was attacked from outside. In 1855, for example, the Ottoman government, in response to British pressure, attempted to halt the traffic in slaves within the Turkish Empire. The Arab leaders of the Al-Hijaz province, who were responsible for protecting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, rose in revolt citing the ban on the...
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