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TRANS-SAHARAN SLAVE TRADE AND RACISM IN THE

ARAB WORLD BY BALLANDALUS IN HISTORY, NOVEBER 24, 2013


EDITED BY EDWIN MASSAI, HISTORY DEPARTMENT SANJARANDA SECONDARY, 29 JULY, 2017

It is deeply problematic that the trans-Saharan slave tradewhich both pre-dates and post-dates the trans-
Atlantic slave trade and destroyed at least twice as many lives as the latter (many scholars estimate that
close to 18 million people were enslaved between 800 and 1900)receives such little attention when we
teach history in the 21st century, especially within an Arab-Muslim context. This slave-trade was no less
brutal than its trans-Atlantic counterpart, with millions of people being captured, bought, sold, and forcibly
dislocated from their homeland to serve the elites throughout the Middle East and North Africa in various
domestic, military, and sexual capacities. Unlike other slave trades in Islamic contexts, this was a slave trade
accompanied by an entire culture that accepted it and an ideology that condoned it. Perhaps if this horrific
historical reality of the trans-Saharan slave trade was more emphasized, the use of terms such as abd
(slave) by many Arabs to refer to people of African origin would be less acceptable.

Indeed, in modern Arabic parlance the word for slave and the word for black person have become almost
interchangeable with many people not even pausing to consider the derogatory and oppressive connotations
of the terminology they are using to designate their fellow human beings. A strong awareness of the history
and legacy of the trans-Saharan slave trade would go a long way towards sensitizing people to the
problematic use of language. Educating people about this slave trade would also alert people to the fact that
it was not just Euro-American civilization that was guilty of the worst abuses of colonialism and genocide
in the past several centuries. It is also just as important to be conscious of major differences and nuances of
the trans-Saharan slave trade and its legacies from its trans-Atlantic counterpart as we seek to deconstruct
the manifestations of racism and its structures in Arab-Islamic societies.

It is largely unacknowledged that


the structures of racism, slavery and
oppression existed and flourished
just as well in the Arab-Islamic
world as they did in Europe and the
Americas. The culture of Arab
supremacy and the legitimacy of
enslaving Africans was so
entrenched by the fourteenth
century that the great North African
polymath and sociologist, Abd al-
Rahman ibn Khaldun (d. 1406)
could assert without fear of
controversy that the Negro nations
are, as a rule, submissive to slavery,
because [Negroes] have little [that
is essentially] human and have
attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated (Ibn Khaldun, The
Muqaddimah).

This level of dehumanization was not uncommon in medieval Arab culture (despite the clearly egalitarian
teachings of Islam which explicitly condemns racism). In many ways, the legacy of the trans-Saharan slave
trade (which had various economic and political contexts) and the culture of racism has persisted into the
modern period with negative stereotypes of dark-skinned people, the stigmatization of black features, and
the derogatory references to Africans in general throughout the Arab world. This is to say nothing of the
vestiges of the institution of slavery, which can still be seen from Mauritania
(http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2012/03/world/mauritania.slaverys.last.stronghold/index.html) to Qatar
(http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/18/qatar-world-cup-india-migrant-worker-deaths), in which
thousands, if not millions of people are forced to serve under a system which is unjust and dehumanizing.
As it stands, the vast majority of Arabs (both those who also identify as black and those who consider
themselves white) are ignorant of the reality of the trans-Saharan slave trade, a fact which makes them
oblivious to the modern-day consequences of slavery and the structures of racism. This ignorance, which
allows many Arabic-speaking youths (from the Middle East to North America) to use with impunity such
vile terms as abd to refer to anyone of African descent, underscores the urgency of educating ourselves and
others on the topic.

In the case in North America, where the majority of Arabs form part of the middle and upper-class and are
detached from the struggles and realities of their fellow Afro-American citizens, the issue is complicated by
the existence of an additional layer of legacies of race and slavery. This is not the place to discuss the ways
in which a certain privileged position of the Arab community manifests itself, but it is important to
remember that discourses of racism are inextricably linked with realities of power. Although many Arabs
have often found themselves on the receiving end of racism and marginalization from the dominant
community in the US, they have nevertheless played a role in perpetuating a culture of racism and
reinforcing the structural inequality that has characterized the country.

It is thus both an ignorance of their communitys historic role in the trans-Saharan slave trade as well as
their belonging to a privileged socio-economic class of citizens in the US that allows many Arab-Americans
to utilize racist terminology while remaining entirely ignorant of the implications. Worse, in some cases
there is an acute awareness of the implications but such bigotry and racism is perpetuated regardless. It is
fundamental that an understanding of anti-black racism in the Arab community should not be limited to
inter-personal interactions or even communal relations, but should be centered around the discussion of
structures of racism, most of which do have their origins in the colonial period. Just as important is
understanding the nuanced manner in which these structures and discourses of racism manifest themselves
in an Arab-Muslim context. I leave that discussion to individuals who are far more competent to address it
than myself.

It is simply my contention in this piece that breaking the barrier of ignorance and denial about the issue in
the Arab community would be the first step to addressing the broader problem of racism. It is furthermore
important to contextualize the discussion of anti-Black racism within the broader category of racism in
general in Arab communities, which also targets other groups such as South Asians, Persians, Kurds, East
Asians and Jews. Again, here it is essential to be aware of the various social, historical, and cultural contexts
rather than essentializing. The Arab-Muslim world consists of over 350 million people. Clearly, therefore,
structures of racism and discrimination take different shapes and forms in different Arab-Muslim societies.

Although it is important to be aware that slavery and its legacies has taken a different form in the Arab-
Muslim world than in the Atlantic, it is equally important to be aware that in essence it also exhibited many
similarities, with mass violence and structural oppression characterizing the phenomenon in both cases.
There was a reason that it was banned in the nineteenth-century by the consensus of Muslim jurists, as it
was seen as fundamentally incompatible with the egalitarian values of Islam. Unfortunately, however,
although the institution of slavery was officially abolished, many of the attitudes and culture which
accompanied it were not. It is crucial that we engage seriously with the issues of racism and structural
inequality as they manifest in the Arab community today. Beginning with a serious engagement of the trans-
Saharan slave trade would perhaps be a prudent place to begin. This piece was not intended to be a grand
theoretical exposition of a very complex issue nor a detailed outline of the history. Rather, it was a
preliminary attempt to explore some of the ways in which the legacies (and the ignorance of these legacies)
of a terrible historical processthe trans-Saharan slave tradehas manifested itself in Arab consciousness.
The following article, which does a much better job than I in highlighting the fundamental issues at stake in
this discussion, may be a useful starting point.

- http://www.theatlanticpost.com/culture/dangerous-denial-anti-black-racism-arab-world-4971.html

Some articles on various communities of African descent in the Muslim world:


- Afro-Palestinians: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/11/black-palestinians-suffer-
racism.html
- Afro-
Iraqis: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2010/01/201011153951276431.html; http://www.al-
monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/06/black-iraqis-face-discrimination-
racism.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/03/world/middleeast/03basra.html?_r=0
- Afro-Turks: http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/turkish-descendants-of-african-slaves-
begin-to-discover-their-identity
- Afro-Iranians: http://www.afroiranianlives.com/ and http://ajammc.com/2012/06/20/the-afro-iranian-
community-beyond-haji-firuz-blackface-slavery-bandari-music/

For those wishing to educate themselves further on the nature and extent of slavery in the medieval and
early modern Arab-Islamic world, see the following:

- Frederic Cooper. Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa. 1997


- Robert C. Davis. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary
Coast and Italy, 1500-1800. 2004.
- Chouki El-Hamel. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race and Islam. 2012. I recommend this book
very highly, since the author has done meticulous research and does a great job deconstructing the various
categories and concepts that he engages with.
- Allan G.B. Fisher. Slavery in the History of Black Muslim Africa. 2001.
- Allan G.B. Fisher. Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa. 1970.
- William Gervase Clarence-Smith. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. 2006.
- David Goldenberg. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Princeton, 2005
- Murray Gordon. Slavery in the Arab World. 1998.
- John Hunwick. The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. Princeton, 2002.
- Paul E. Lovejoy. Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. 2004.
- Behnaz Mirzai. Slavery, Islam and Diaspora. 2009.
- Alexandra Popovic. The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9th Century. 1998.
- Ehud Toledano. As if Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. 2007.
- Ehud Toledano. Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. 1997.
- Ronald Segal. Islams Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora. 2002.
- Terence Walz. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-
Century Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Mediterranean. 2011.
- John Wright. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. 2007.