Cover image for Islam's Black slaves : the other Black diaspora
Islam's Black slaves : the other Black diaspora
Segal, Ronald, 1932-2008.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Physical Description:
xi, 273 pages : maps ; 24 cm
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HT919 .S45 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HT919 .S45 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ

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A pioneering history of the Eastern slave trade In this groundbreaking work intended as a companion volume to The Black Diaspora, Ronald Segal tells the fascinating and horrifying story of the Islamic slave trade. Documenting a centuries-old institution that still survives today, Islam's Black Slaves outlines the differences between the trades in the East and West. Slaves in Islam, for example, were kept mainly in the service sector as cooks, porters, soldiers, and concubines, and while the Atlantic trade valued men over women, the Eastern trade preferred women, in numbers as high as two to one. Tracing slavery through history, from Islam's inception in the seventh century, across China, India, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Spain, and the Sudan and Morocco, which still have active markets, Segal reveals for the first time the extent of the trade and the sheer number of slaves-as many as twelve million-bought and sold in the course of the subsequent centuries. In an illuminating conclusion, Segal addresses the popularity of Islam in African American communities. Islam's Black Slaves is a pioneering account of this often unacknowledged tradition and a riveting cross-cultural commentary.

Author Notes

Founding editor of the Penguin African Library, South African-born Ronald Segal is the author of fourteen books, including The Crisis of India, The Race War, The Americans, and The Black Diaspora (FSG, 1995). He lives in Surrey, England.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Designed as a companion volume to Segal's The Black Diaspora, which traced the movements of blacks in the Western Hemisphere from the Atlantic slave trade to the present, this book undertakes the formidable task of recounting the dispersion of black Africans in Asia and the Middle East, most of which was forced by the Islamic slave trade. "In Islam, slavery was never the moral, political, and economic issue that it was in the West, so there are fewer sources about its history," notes Segal, the founding editor of the Penguin African Library and the author of 14 other books. Still, he pieces together a compelling drama of conquests and conversions, beginning with an illuminating chapter about the differences between the Atlantic and Islamic trades: the Islamic trade began some eight centuries before the Atlantic one, and preferred women slaves over men. His account then moves from early Islam, when laws did not subject slaves to any special racial discrimination, into the 19th century, when the process of enslaving blacks came to involve violence and brutality on a gigantic scale. Segal also discusses the extension of the Islamic trade into China, India and Spain, the role of the Ottoman Empire, slavery in Iran and Libya, and the effect of European colonization, which he argues "preserved the force if not the face of old subjugations." A preliminary dig in a little-explored area, this book has a rough-hewn quality about it; scholars may find it too general, even if it provides seeds for further study. General readers, however, will find much that is new, particularly in the early chapters, where Segal trains his eye on the part slaves played in the development of the high civilization attained by imperial Islam. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Segal is a former South African newspaper publisher who has made a second career writing on subjects as varied as conflict in Israel, the life of Leon Trotsky, US monetary policy, and contemporary India. All his books are aimed at general audiences. His style is smooth and light, with an emphasis on the illustrative vignette. This latest volume is a 1,200-year summary of the history of the Islamic world, with the running theme of the role that African slaves played in that history. While Segal stresses that Islamic slavery was primarily for domestic rather than commercial purposes, there is little more analysis offered. Quoting liberally from his secondary and, usually, Western sources, Segal topically organizes the 13 short chapters, which range from a summary of the foundation of Islam through the description of African slaves in Iran, China, and colonial West Africa to slavery in the 20th-century Middle East. The book concludes with a curious digression on the history of the Nation of Islam in the US. Entertaining for an uninformed audience, but open to criticism from the specialist. R. T. Brown formerly, Westfield State College

Booklist Review

Segal, founding editor of the Penguin African Library, has written a companion volume to his acclaimed history, The Black Diaspora (1995). Here he tells the less familiar story of the Islamic slave trade in Africa, which involved an estimated 12 million captives over more than 1,000 years. Drawing on eyewitness accounts and scholarly sources, he shows that there were marked differences between the Atlantic slave trade and that of Islam. In general, the Islamic one was less racist and brutal; the trade was more in women and boys than in men; some slaves could buy their freedom and even hold powerful positions. The horror is more in the accounts of capture and the journeys across the Sahara and to the coast: in some cases, the estimate is that for every slave sold at auction, 10 died on the way. And slavery continues today in the Sudan and Mauritania. The strength of this account is the meticulous documentation of what is fact and what is surmise. The dramatic narrative is sure to spark discussion and further research. --Hazel Rochman

Library Journal Review

Segal (The Black Diaspora: Five Centureis of the Black Experience Outside Africa), founding editor of the Penguin African Library, has written an overview of black slavery in the Islamic world from its beginnings to modern Sudan and Morocco. Relying primarily on secondary sources, the author explores Islamic slavery in China, India, the Middle East, and Africa and focuses on the differences between Islamic and Western slavery. He notes that while most slaves in the Americas were male and worked as agricultural laborers, in Islam female black slaves outnumbered males, and most slaves worked as servants. Segal concludes his study with an interesting epilog on the Black Muslim faith in the United States. Though it breaks little new ground, this book is an essential survey that serves as a helpful introduction to the topic. Recommended for public and academic libraries.DA.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One CONTRASTS Both Christianity and Islam asserted the unique value of the individual human being, as created by God for His special purposes. Yet, for their own special purposes, Christian and Muslim societies long sanctioned the capture, sale, ownership, and use of men, women, and children from black Africa. We can never know the extent of the human cost. It is certain that many millions lost their lives in the warfare and raiding that provided the captives for slavery. Millions more died in the process of collection, initial transport, and storage.     The statistics connected with the West's so-called Atlantic Trade, of the slaves who were loaded onto boats and of the survivors who landed in the Americas, have been comprehensively researched. Total numbers are now widely accepted as subject to no more than relatively minor adjustment in the light of new evidence. Much, too, is known of mortality rates--from overwork, undernourishment, and brutal discipline--in the slave-labor force. The Atlantic Trade and the plantation economies it fed became such a highly developed and organized business that ledgers recording the details were commonly kept.     The Islamic Trade was conducted on a different scale and with a different impact. Unlike the Atlantic Trade, which began late and grew intensively, it had begun some eight centuries earlier and, except at certain periods, it involved lower average annual volumes. The social and cultural importance of slavery itself was greater than its economic one. Certainly, bankers and merchants, as individual investors or in partnership enterprises, were prominently engaged, but only sparse records of their related accountancy survive. There were also numerous small-scale dealers, with stocks of a few slaves each, who were likely to have kept any accounts in their heads.     Crucially informing the difference between the two trades was the economic system involved in each. Historians dispute the degree to which the Atlantic Trade promoted the development of Western capitalism and its industrial revolution, primarily in the eighteenth century. But there can be no doubt of the connection between them. The evidence is plentiful that some of the huge profits engendered by the trade were invested in the development of industry, and also that much industry developed in order to supply the trade goods required for the procurement of slaves in black Africa. Not least, from the predominant use to which slaves were put, there developed a view of slaves as essentially units of labor in 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 early on, but with such dire consequences that subsequent engagements were relatively rare and reduced. Moreover, the need for agricultural labor, in an Islam with large peasant populations, was nowhere near as acute as in the Americas, where in some West European colonies, conquest had led to the virtual extermination of the indigenous peoples from new diseases and forced labor.     Slaves in Islam were directed mainly at the service sector--concubines and cooks, porters and soldiers--with slavery itself primarily a form of consumption rather than a factor of production. The most telling evidence of this is found in the gender ratio. The Atlantic Trade shipped overall roughly two males for every female. Among black slaves traded in Islam across the centuries, there were roughly two females to every male.     The difference between the two trades was related to the very nature of the state in Islam, as distinct from that in Western Christendom. Indeed, the term "Christendom"--though still useful as a defining difference--effectively became an anachronism for states whose religious allegiances increasingly gave place to national preoccupations and the secular employment of power. In Islam the state itself was essentially an extension of the religion, without legitimacy or corresponding allegiance beyond this. Even in the one arguable exception of Iran, whose historical Persian identity confronted Arab linguistic and political dominance, the independence it successfully asserted was based on a rival view of the legitimate succession 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 of society in Islam was informed by reference to the divine will, as communicated in the Koran. And the Koran dealt in some detail with slaves. That pretensions to piety might coexist with disregard for the spirit and even 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 all that. Owners were endowed with such power over their slaves that few can have failed to abuse it, more often in trivial but still humiliating, and sometimes in brutal, ways. Even masters persuaded of their own piety and benevolence sexually exploited their concubines, without a thought of whether this constituted a violation of their humanity. In the provision of eunuchs, indeed, Islamic slavery was scarcely more compassionate than its Western counterpart; and those who purchased them were the accomplices of those who provided them. Yet the treatment of slaves in Islam was overall more benign, in part because the values and attitudes promoted by religion inhibited the very development of a Western-style capitalism, with its effective subjugation of people to the priority of profit. So crucial was the religious dynamic to Islamic society that those who served the faith, by scholarship or soldiering, enjoyed greater prestige than those who grew rich by economic enterprise. While trade was accepted as necessary and useful, enrichment by speculation, or by any other 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 purchase of pleasures to the means of exercising or extending power, there were inevitably those more attracted to amassing riches than to devout self-denials whose rewards in another world required death as well as delay. In the business of this world, the advantages of enterprise were widely recognized. But the conditions for related capital accumulation on a socially transforming scale were largely absent.     It was no accident that in the Ottoman Empire, for instance, charitable foundations were a prime source of investment capital but spent most of their income on building mosques, establishing or subsidizing schools, and contributing to social welfare; that wealth so often went into the purchase of property rather than into productive assets; and that foreign goods were permitted to compete so damagingly with domestic production because their relative cheapness served the needs of the poor in the community.     Of some significance, too, was the absence of primogeniture as the principle of inheritance. The distribution of estates among the family members of the deceased, in conformity with Koranic precepts, might well have been both fair and compassionate. In contrast to the practice of primogeniture in the West, however, it did little to secure the concentration of wealth and its related investment. Moreover, Muslims tended to respect the prohibition of usury in the Old Testament, while in the West, Jews, often barred from other forms of economic enterprise, and increasingly Christians, tended to ignore it. In short, far from pursuing the development of an economic system that promoted the depersonalization of slave labor, Islamic influence was responsible for impeding it.     Such influence also successfully confronted the emergence of racism as a form of institutionalized discrimination, because the Koran expressly condemned racism along with tribalism and nationalism. In the West, economic enterprise and the advance of the secular state promoted each other, to mock such spiritual messages as that the meek should inherit the earth. The slave system was so incompatible not only with the teachings of Christianity but with the decent sensibilities of the less devout that they required some rationalization to sustain them. The Bible was scrutinized to find support, however specious, for a divine curse on blacks; and science was perverted to support a biological case for their enslavement.     Christianity did come to play a crucial part in the opposition led by Britain, first to the slave trade and then to slavery itself. Most of the leading abolitionists took the teachings of their religion seriously. Yet it is doubtful that they would have succeeded without support from industrial capitalists. The workshop of the world had outgrown the value of slave-labor colonies whose land, exploited to relative impoverishment, now produced high-cost sugar, while other slave-labor colonies produced an 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 leadership and extend its scope to new markets, including an Africa rescued from pillage for the achievement of such prosperity as would afford a much greater demand for British goods. By the time this combination of moral and economic campaigns captured the state, so that British financial, diplomatic, and naval power came to be deployed in their cause, the days of the Atlantic slave trade and then of slavery itself in the West were numbered.     Yet racism vigorously survived the end of slavery. If old habits die hard, racism would already have been old enough to take an unconscionable time dying. But there were reasons why it thrived rather than declined. The colonial powers, engaged in extending their role across most of the world, found a pretext in the concept of "the white man's burden," with its corresponding presumption of the cultural and even biological inferiority of blacks and others of color.     Within the metropolitan societies, there were many whites at the lower social levels who found comfort or consolation in asserting their racial superiority to blacks. In the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, white workers, particularly in the United States with its large black population, found in racism a cause with which to confront the competition for jobs from blacks now free to sell their labor. Racial segregation, written into law or so secured by custom as to have hardly less 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 of Brazil--where the lack of sufficient white immigrants had long allowed a selective merging by mulattos into a pragmatic whiteness--those descended from such unions were no less barred than were blacks from social assimilation with whites. And they remained so under the reinvigorated regime of racism after slavery.     White supremacy bred among those discriminated against an imitative high value on lightness of complexion and a corresponding disparagement of dark features. Yet the very exclusiveness of white supremacy guarded the frontier against all but a few furtive crossings. It was this that essentially promoted and secured the existence of a vast black diaspora, increasingly conscious of its peculiar identity, its collective past, and its cultural heritage. Relevantly, in a movement that might have emerged somewhat tentatively but developed an assertive assurance, leadership came from among the "colored" as well as the black. Decisively from the 1960s, the term "Negro," rejected for its historical associations with racial disparagement, gave place to "black" as the term used even by many of light complexion.     It is not inconsistent both to deplore the causes and conditions that created a black diaspora and to exult in its achievements; the expression of its identity and experience, in every artistic form, especially music, and in that passion for freedom which belongs to a people born in slavery and released into racial victimization. Nor is that victimization by any means at an end.     In many "host" countries of their settlement, and for all that some of them have attained the higher reaches of society, blacks are, in undeniable disproportion, numbered among the poor, the unemployed, the ill-educated, the imprisoned, and even--where such barbarism still survives--the judicially killed. In similar disproportion, blacks inhabit functionally segregated areas of shantytowns or inner-city decay. And those blacks whose material success has enabled them to live in sleek and guarded apartment complexes or suburbs can scarcely doubt that racism, albeit in an attentuated functional form, is alive and well and evident in the very ghettos they have escaped. (Continues...) Copyright © 2001 Ronald Segal. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
1 Contrastsp. 3
2 Out of Arabiap. 13
3 Imperial Islamp. 23
4 The Practice of Slaveryp. 35
5 The Farther Reachesp. 67
Chinap. 67
Indiap. 71
Spainp. 76
6 Into Black Africap. 89
7 The Ottoman Empirep. 103
8 The "Heretic" State: Iranp. 119
9 The Libyan Connectionp. 129
10 The Terrible Centuryp. 145
East Africap. 145
The Sudanic States and Saharap. 162
11 Colonial Translationsp. 177
Northern Nigeriap. 178
French Soudanp. 180
Mauritaniap. 183
Somaliap. 187
Zanzibar and the Kenyan Coastp. 190
12 Survivals of Slaveryp. 199
Mauritaniap. 204
Sudanp. 213
Epilogue: America's Black Muslim Backlashp. 225
Notesp. 243
Indexp. 263