Arab slavery (fl. 650-1962) is slavery as practised by Arabs. Saudi Arabia outlawed it in 1962, Sudan in 2005. Mauritania outlawed slavery at least five times: 1905, 1961, 1961, 1981, 2007. It probably still goes on there. This post is about the sort that went on from 650 to 1962 with the support of Islam and the law.
Some slaves worked in households, fields, mines or galley ships. Some were eunuchs, some were concubines. Some were white, some were black. Some guarded harems, some fought in the army. Some commanded armies, some ruled cities.
Rights and wrongs:
- Islam was cool with slavery so long as Muslims were not made into slaves. Arabs got most of their slaves from beyond the Muslim world – but did not necessarily free those who later converted to Islam.
- Slaves could not in most cases own property, enter contracts (except with their master), marry (unless their master agreed) or give testimony in court.
- Judges could free slaves from cruel masters.
- Umm walad: A slave woman who had a son for her master was, in most cases, freed when her master died, if not sooner.
- Slavery was not race-based. While some argued that blacks and Turks were born to be slaves, the idea never caught on.
- Slaves could work their way up to high positions, especially if they were in the military or the palace guard. Many of these were freed.
- War: This was the main source in the early years of the Arab Empire when it was still growing.
- Trade: The main long-term source. Arabs mainly bought slaves from African and European dealers, though they did some slave raiding of their own (even on American shipping). Jews, Genoa and Venice were big on selling Slavs and other whites to Arabs. The trade in white slaves lasted till at least the early 1800s when Russia cracked down on it. The African trade lasted into the 1900s.
- Tribute: Nubia, for example, used to send 442 slaves a year to Egypt as part of a peace treaty.
- Natural increase: This was weak due to castration, high death rate among black slaves (especially from disease), freeing slaves, legitimating sons of concubines, etc.
Kinds of slaves, among others:
- Eunuchs (castrated males): used especially as harem guards. Some in the palace became powerful. Most were castrated between the age of eight and ten. Castration doubled a slave’s market value.
- Concubines (sex slaves): While Islam allows up to four wives, the well-to-do generally had one wife and then one or more concubines. Any children could be made legitimate after the fact. Most prized: women from the Caucasus mountains. Among African women, Ethiopians.
- Slave soldiers: Soldiers and even commanders were often slaves. That sounds like it would not work but it did. Rulers liked it because foreign slaves were far more loyal and dependable than any native force of free men.
Slave uprisings: One of the most famous was in the late 800s in Basra (Iraq) by East African field slaves.
Source: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East” (1990).