This is Part 8 of the chapter "Islamic Slavery" from M. A. Khan's book, "Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery". The part discusses degrading treatments and the horrendous pain and sufferings the slaves of Islam endured. (Part 1Part 7, Part 8)


According to Ibn Warraq:

Under Islam, slaves have no legal rights whatsoever, they are considered mere "things"—the property of their master, who may dispose them in any way he chooses—sale, gifts etc. Slaves cannot be guardians or testamentary executors, and what they earned belongs to their owner. A slave cannot give evidence in a court of law. Even conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave does not mean that he is automatically liberated. There is no obligation on the part of the owner to free him (and her).[1]

It will be seen below that Sharia law lists slaves amongst common properties and commodities, and stipulates rules and guidelines for their sale as applies to an article of trade. After buying a slave, if the master finds any defect in him, he may beat and torture him without leaving visible wounds or scars. According to Fatwa-i-Alamgiri, the master may return the slave to the seller with full compensation as long as the beating and torture cause no permanent injuries. The Hedayah, a twelfth-century compendium of Hanafi laws, informs us that ‘amputation of a slave for theft was a common practice recognized by the law.’ Although Islam recommends good treatment of slaves, it is considered a natural death if a master kills his slave.[2]

In their victorious assaults on the infidels, the Muslim holy warriors often used to slaughter all male captives of weapon-bearing age (who could pose security threats by regrouping later) and enslaved the women and children, who normally had to embrace Islam. Concerning slaying of captives, the Hedayah says, ‘The Imam (ruler), with respect to captives, has it in his choice to slay them, because the Prophet put captives to death, and also because, slaying them terminates their wickedness.’ The non-threatening women and children were generally enslaved, says the Hedayah, ‘because by enslaving them (for conversion to Islam), the wickedness is remedied; and at the same time, Muslims reap an advantage (by exploiting their labor and growing in number)…[3] Famous Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), eulogized even by many Western scholars,[4] describes the profession of slavery with religious pride: ‘…[captives] were brought from the House of War to the House of Islam under the rule of slavery, which hides in itself a divine providence; cured by slavery, they entered the Muslim religion with the firm resolve of true believers…[5] In Bakhtiyar Khilji’s sack of Kol in 1194, the "wise and cute" ones among the besieged, as already noted, were converted to Islam, but those who stood by their religion were slaughtered. Here "wise and cute" ones meant those who were quick to accept Islam to avoid the sword and become slaves. The Hedayah stipulates that even if a captive becomes Muslim, ‘he (the Imam) may lawfully make them slaves, because the reason for making slaves (i.e., being infidel) had been in existence pervious to their embracing the faith. It is otherwise where infidels become Muslims before their capture…[6]



Undoubtedly, reducing human beings into something like deaf and dumb domestic animals causes great psychological and mental pains, plus the loss of dignity, honor and self-respect, to victims. Moreover, Muslim captors generally subjected the captives to ridicule and degradation by parading them in public squares. Those of noble birth and dignity were normally singled out for subjecting to heightened indignity and ridicule. For example, Sultan Mahmud brought enslaved Hindu King Jaipal of Kabul to Ghazni and subjected him to extreme humiliation. In a slave-market, where he was auctioned like an ordinary slave, he ‘was paraded about so that his sons and chieftains might see him in that condition of shame, bonds and disgrace… inflicting upon him the public indignity of ‘commingling him in one common servitude.’’[7] Choosing death rather than living with such extreme humiliation, Jaipal committed suicide by jumping into fire.

The fate of slaves was the same or worse everywhere even during the late period. Late in the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismail of Moroccan (d. 1727), the white captives, caught in the sea, were put in chains upon their capture and ceremoniously marched through the town on their arrival at the coast or the capital. Large numbers of roughish people used to assemble to curse and ridicule them and to subject them to all kinds of degrading, hostile treatments. According to English captive George Elliot caught on a ship, when brought to the shore, he and his crewmates were surrounded by ‘‘several hundred idle, rascally people and roughish boys’’ who made barbarous shouts at them and they were ‘‘forced like a drove of sheep through several streets.’’[8]

The greatest pain and sufferings that slaves endured were the physical ones: hunger, thirst and disease. Physical pain and sufferings started immediately after the capture and continued until they arrived at the destination. The destinations were often situated thousands of miles away in foreign lands, where they were herded like common animals through difficult terrains. The captives used to be kept in chains until sold to their ultimate masters. Sometimes, a slave changed handed up to twenty times.

An example of how the journey began for slaves can be found in the description of King Jaipal’s enslavement by Sultan Mahmud. According to al-Utbi, ‘his (Jaipal’s) children and grand children, his nephews and the chief men of his tribe, and his relatives, were taken prisoners, and being strongly bounded with ropes, were carried before the Sultan like common evil-doers… Some had their arms forcibly tied behind their backs, some were seized by the neck, some were driven by blows on their neck.[9]

It should be understood that Sultan Mahmud sometimes spent months on his campaigns in India capturing slaves in tens to hundreds of thousands along the way. These captives, tied together in an uncomfortable and agonizing condition, were then driven away to his capital in Ghazni, hundreds to thousands of miles away. The majority of these slaves used to be feeble women and children, who had to travel bare-footed under such uncomfortable conditions through rugged terrain and jungles, sometimes for months. When Timur embarked on his expedition to India, it lasted four–five months (Sept. 1398 to Jan. 1399). Along the way, he had accumulated 100,000 slaves before reaching Delhi; they were intended to be driven back to his capital Samarkhand in Central Asia. On his way back from Delhi, he captured another two millions or more slaves and drove them to Samarkhand, thousands of miles away.

These examples clearly point to the enormous physical strain, pain and sufferings endured by captives. Those who failed to keep up the pace, because of physical weakness and fatigue, received beating of the worst kind in order to keep them walking. There was little guarantee that such large numbers of captives got enough food and water along the way. Those who fell ill certainly did not receive required medical treatment. If they failed to carry on, they were abandoned half-alive to die on their own in the wilderness in agonizing pain or to be devoured by wild animals.

The suffering of captives has been vividly recounted in an eyewitness account of Ulugh Khan Balban’s attack of King Kanhardeva of Jalor (Rajasthan), documented by Prabandha, a fifteenth-century Indian author. Referring to the large number of women and children taken slaves, tied and huddled together, the author wrote: ‘‘During the day, they bore the heat of the scorching sun, without shade or shelter as they were (in sandy Rajasthan deserts) and shivering cold during the night under the open sky. Children, torn away from their mother’s breasts and homes, were crying. Each one of the captives seems as miserable as the other. Already writhing in agony due to thirst, the pangs of hunger… added to their distress. Some of the captives were sick, some unable to sit up. Some had no shoes to put on and no clothes to wear…’’ He added: ‘‘Some had iron shackles on their feet. Separated from each other, they were huddled together and tied with straps of hide. Children were separated from their parents, wives from their husbands, thrown apart by this cruel raid. Young and old were seen writhing in agony, as loud wailings arose from that part of the camp where they were all huddled up… Weeping and wailing, they were hoping that some miracle might save them even now.’’[10]

This is only an account of the early few days of sufferings. It will not be difficult to guess how terribly the captives suffered when they had to travel thousands of miles over months to reach foreign capitals: those of Sultan Mahmud, Muhammad Ghauri and Amir Timur. Similar was the case with the black slaves of Africa, who had to travel long distance in such agonizing condition to reach the markets in the Middle East and even India. The terrible sufferings that European captives, caught in the sea by Barbary pirates, endured will give a general idea of their horrifying treatments and sufferings. When Sultan Moulay Ismail captured the fortified town of Taroudant, a French outpost, in 1687 and put the inhabitants to the sword, 120 French citizens found there were enslaved, a treasured gift for the sultan. Upon their capture, they were poked and prodded and declared overfed and denied food for a week. When they started crying for food, the sultan ordered them on a long march to his capital at Meknes. One of the slaves, Jean Ladire, later recounted the dreadful 300-mile journey to French padre, Dominique Busnot. Chained and shackled as they were herded along, they suffered from debilitating sickness and fatigue; several of them dropped dead. The heads of the dead were cut off and the survivors had to carry those heads, because their guards feared that the dreaded sultan will accuse them of having sold the missing captives or let them escape.[11]

Upon their capture, slaves were accommodated in miserable conditions in infamous underground dungeons, called matamores in Africa. Each matamore accommodated fifteen to twenty slaves; into these, the only light and ventilation came through a small iron-grate in the roof. In winter, rain poured through the grate flooding the floor. On weekly market-days, they were put on auction. The captives had to climb through this grate with the help of a suspended rope. They often had to spend weeks in these dungeons. Captive Germain Mouette wrote of the horrifying living conditions in matamores that ‘the water and sewage frequently bubbled up from the mud floor in the wet winter months.’ There used to be knee-deep water on the floor for six month of the year, making sleeping difficult. For sleeping, they used to make some sort of hammocks or beds of ropes hanged by nails, one above another, the lowest ones almost touching the water. Often times, the uppermost hammock would come down crashing bringing all others below down into the water; they would spend the rest of the night standing in the chilly water.

The dungeons used to be so small and crammed that they were forced to lie in a circle with feet meeting in the middle. ‘‘There is no more space left than to hold an earthen vessel to ease themselves in,’’ wrote Mouette. During humid summer days, the matamores, with so many people crammed inside, became ‘‘filthy, stinking and full of vermin’’ and ‘‘the place becomes intolerable when all the slaves are in and it grows warm,’’ continued Mouette, adding that death was a blessed relief for the inmates.[12] This was a general living condition of slaves in North Africa over the ages. About a century earlier, British captive Robert Adams, captured in the 1620s, was able to relay a letter to his parent in England, narrating the living condition in the slave-pen of Sultan Moulay Zidan (1603–27); it was ‘‘a dungeon underground, where some 150 to 200 of us lay altogether, having no comfort of the light, but a little hole.’’ His hair and rugged clothes, added Adams, ‘‘were full of vermin and not being allowed time to pick myself… I am almost eaten up by them.’’[13]

The captives, shut up in over-crowed matamores, received very little food, often ‘‘nothing but bread and water.’’ On the auction day, they were driven like wild beasts, whipped and put through their paces, to the market. At the auction bazaar, they were jostled through the crowd from one dealer to another. They were made to jump and skip to demonstrate their strength and agility, and fingers were poked into their ears and mouths causing a humiliating spectacle to the wretched captives,[14] who were honorable free men a few days earlier.

The suffering of slaves was not over after their arrival at their master’s abode. Thomas Pellow, a twelve-year-old British captive, caught onboard a ship, was bought by Sultan Moulay Ismail and ended up in the imperial palace. When Pellow and his comrades, trekking 120 miles through the desert, reached the capital, they were greeted by jeering and hostile Muslim crowds assembled outside the palace to mock and insult the hated Christians. The unruly crowd shouted, mocked and tried to attack them as they were led through to the palace. Despite guarding by the sultan’s soldiers, many in the crowd were able to punch and lash them and pull their hair.[15]

In the imperial palace, Pellow initially worked, alongside hundreds of European slaves, in the sultan’s huge armory, toiling for fifteen hours daily to repair and keep the arms in immaculate condition. He was soon given to his son, Prince Moulay es-Sfa. The prince had extreme contempt for Christian slaves and subjected Pellow to beating and harrowing torment by making him perform the useless task of running ‘‘from morning to night after his horse’s heels,’’ wrote Pellow. Later on, the prince, as was his custom, pressed Pellow to convert to Islam, saying: ‘‘if I would, I should have a very fine horse to ride on and I should live like one of his esteemed friends.’’ When Pellow firmly refused to convert and requested the prince not to press for his conversion, an enraged es-Sfa said, ‘‘then prepare yourself for such torture as shall be inflicted on you, and the nature of your obstinacy deserves.’’ Thereupon, es-Sfa locked Pellow in a room for several months and subjected him to terrible torture, ‘‘every day severely bastinading me,’’ wrote Pellow.[16]

Such was a general punishment for European slaves. The captives were suspended with ropes upside down and bastinaded, normally on the soles of their feet. On one occasion, according to Father Busnot, Sultan Moulay Ismail ordered two slaves to be given 500 bastinadoes, which dislocated the hip of one of them. The dislocated hip was put in place by another round of bastinadoes at a later date.[17]

Es-Sfa personally beat Pellow while uttering ‘‘Shehed, shehed! Cunmoora, Cunmoora! In English, Turn Moor (Muslim)! Turn Moor,’’ wrote Pellow. Daily beating had become unbearable for him as the intensity of beating increased by the day. He was denied food for days and when food was offered, it was only bread and water. After months of sufferance, wrote Pellow: ‘‘My tortures were now exceedingly increased…, burning my flesh off my bones by fire, which the tyrant did, by frequent repetitions, after a most cruel manner.’’ Tortures and pain of half-starved young Pellow reaching beyond endurance, he finally gave in one day as es-Sfa came in for another round of beating, ‘‘calling upon God to forgive me, who knows that I never gave up the consent of the heart,’’ added Pellow.[18] Decades earlier, John Harrison, who had made eight diplomatic voyages to Morocco (1610–32), wrote: ‘‘He (sultan) did cause some English boys perforce turn Moores.’’[19]

Torturing the European slaves for converting to Islam was not limited to the male captives alone; it equally applied to the female ones. The Barbary corsairs once plundered a British ship headed for Barbados; they took the crew captive and brought to Moulay Ismail’s palace. Among the captives were four women, one of them virgin. This delighted the sultan, who tempted her to give up her Christian faith ‘‘with promises of great rewards if she would turn Moor and lie with him,’’ noted British captive, Francis Brooks. Her refusal enraged the sultan, who ‘‘caused her to be stript and whipt [sic] by his eunuchs with small cords, so long till she lay for dead.’’ He then instructed to take her away and feed her nothing but rotten bread. Eventually, the poor girl had no option but to ‘‘resign her body to him, though her heart was otherwise inclined.’’ The sultan ‘‘had her washed and clothed… and lay with her.’’ Once his desire was sated, ‘‘he inhumanly, in great haste, forced her away out of his presence,’’ added Brooks.[20]

On another occasion, Anthony Hatfeild, a British consul to Morocco, narrated the fate of an Irish woman, taken captive aboard a ship in 1717. She was brutally tortured for refusing to convert. Failing to endure the torture, she gave in and became a Muslim and entered the sultan’s seraglio.[21] In 1723, father Jean de la Faye and his brother went to Morocco hoping to free the French captives from Moulay Ismail’s palace. He narrated the story of a female captive, who—upon her refusal to convert to Islam—was tortured so barbarically that she died of her injuries. ‘‘The blacks (guards) burnt her breasts with candles; and with the utmost cruelty they had thrown melted lead in those areas of her body which, out of decency, cannot be named,’’ wrote father Jean.[22]

Let us return to Pellow’s conversion to Islam. A ceremonial peasantry was thrown for his circumcision formally confirming his conversion to Islam. Whilst recovering from the painful wounds of circumcision, es-Sfa continued beating Pellow because of his refusal to wear Muslim garbs. Pellow finally gave in and donned the Muslim dress. Es-Sfa now continued punishing Pellow for his obstinate persistence to remain a Christian. The news of Pellow conversion reached the pious sultan; delighted, he ordered es-Sfa to release Pellow from his custody and send him to a madrasa for learning Arabic. The prince ignored the sultan’s instruction and continued torturing Pellow. This defiance infuriated the sultan, who summoned es-Sfa to his presence and at the sultan’s beaconing, his bodyguards dispatched es-Sfa instantly—a treatment, neither first nor the last, meted out to his offspring.[23]

The sultan was, however, no kind guardian of his captives. The slaves of the imperial palace lived a horrid life. They were accommodated in a military prison-like compound surrounded by high ramparts. Although the compound was large, the large number of inmates made living very uncomfortable. It was the most barbarous place in the world, said British captive John Willdon of the living condition and treatment of the slaves in the imperial palace. Willdon and his slave-mates were ‘‘forced to draw carts of lead with ropes about our shoulders, all one as horses,’’ he wrote. They were beaten and whipped until their skin was raw, and made them to carry ‘‘great bars of iron upon our shoulders, as long as we could well get up, and up to our knees in dart, and as slippery that we could hardly go without the load,’’ added Willdon.[24]

British ship Captain John Stocker, captured in the sea and brought to the sultan’s palace, left an account of the horrible diet served to slaves. They were given ‘‘nothing but one small cake and water for 24 hours after hard work’’ and ‘‘I am in a most deplorable condition,’’ he wrote to a friend in England. Of the living condition in the slave-pen, he wrote, ‘‘[I] live upon the bare ground, and [have] nothing to cover me, and [am] as lousy (louse-infested) as possible.’’ Thomas Pellow’s crewmates in the slave-pen were given an old straw mat and they slept bare on the cold ground. The compound was infested with fleas and cockroaches. In midsummer days, the slave-pen used to get oppressively hot, humid and airless. In the open slave-barrack, ‘‘they are exposed to the scorching heat of the sun in summer, and the violence of frost, snow, excessive rain and stormy winds in winter,’’ wrote Simon Ockley.[25]

The daily food ration was fourteen ounces of black bread and an ounce of oil, badly inadequate for the overworked slaves. The bread was made from stinking barley dough, which sometimes gave ‘‘such a nauseous smell that a man could not endure it at his nose,’’ wrote captive John Whitehead. Moreover, when the stock of barley ran low, they were given nothing at all. Willdon wrote, ‘‘we have not had a bit of bread allowed us for eight days…’’[26]

More terrifying was the unbearable load of hard work and torture, which the slaves endured at the hands of the black guards appointed to oversee them. These slave-drivers drove them at daybreak to respective works, where they continued toiling until it got dark in the evening. They played the master over their charge of captives and used to take sadistic delight at torturing and beating the poor slaves and making their life as miserable as possible. They would often torture or torment the white slaves to amuse themselves by making the exhausted souls walk at night or do filthy works. They would punish them for the most negligible lapses in work or other mistakes, by denying them food or beating them with a heavy cudgel that they always carried while on duty. In beating, they chose those parts of the body, where it would hurt most, wrote Pellow. If a slave was beaten so hard that he could not work, the slave-drivers enabled him for work by ‘‘redoubling the stripes, so that the new ones made him forget the old,’’ wrote Mouette.[27]

Sickness of the slaves was no excuse for missing work. They were not allowed to rest ‘‘till they (black guards) see they are not able to wag hand or foot…,’’ wrote Mouette. As for treatment of sick slaves, ‘‘If the slaves complained of any pains in their body…, they have iron rods, with buttons of the same metal at the end, as big as walnuts, which they made red hot and burn the wretched patient in several parts,’’ added Mouette. The sultan had no mercy for those, who fell ill. Instead, he used to beat them for not working hard enough. When the building program was once delayed because of illness of a large number of slaves, the slave-guards, upon the sultan’s order, dragged the sick slaves out of the infirmary to the sultan’s presence. Seeing that the sick slaves could not stand on their feet, the infuriated sultan, ‘‘instantly killed seven of them, making their resting place a slaughter house,’’ wrote Brooks.[28]

On his daily visit to the construction sites, Sultan Moulay Ismail was merciless with those, who were slack in work or if their quality of work was not to his satisfaction. While inspecting bricks on one occasion, he found them too thin. The angry sultan ordered his black guards to break fifty bricks on the head of the master mason. After the punishment, the blood-soaked slave was thrown into prison. On another occasion, the sultan accused a number of slaves for producing mortar of inferior quality. The enraged sultan struck their heads one by one ‘‘with his own hands and broke their heads so miserably that the place was all bloody like a butcher’s stall.’’[29]

There were other endless kinds of punishment, slaves suffered in the sultan’s palace. Once, a Spanish slave walked past the sultan, forgetting to remove his hat. The angry sultan threw his spear at the poor slave, which pierced deep into the flesh. The poor slaved took it out of his skin and returned to the sultan to be repeatedly stricken by it into his stomach. There was another punishment, frequently meted out to a slave, called "tossing"; three or four black guards, upon the sultan’s order, ‘‘taking hold of his hams (thighs), throw him up with all their strength and, at the same time, turning him round, pitch him down head foremost,’’ wrote Pellow. The horrible punishment often broke their neck or dislocated shoulders. This spectacle continued until the sultan ordered them to stop.[30]

Underfed, malnourished, overworked and living in horribly unhygienic condition in the slave-pen, disease and sickness was daily companion of the slaves. Plagues were a frequent visitor. With little medical attention, it killed large number of them, especially those who were already very weak or suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery. On one occasion, wrote Mouette, it killed one in four of the French slaves.[31]

At the imperial palace, a most insignificant mistake could earn death to Moulay Ismail’s slaves. The sultan’s son Moulay Zidan once ‘‘killed his favorite black slave with his own hand’’ for accidentally disturbing pigeons the prince was feeding. The sultan ‘‘was of so fickle, cruel and sanguine a nature that none could be even for an hour secure of life,’’ wrote Pellow.[32]

Nine decades earlier, John Harrison had made repeated diplomatic visits to the court of Sultan Moulay Abdallah Malek (r. 1627–31) for releasing British captives. While on these failed missions, Harrison observed the torture and suffering of slaves, of which, he wrote: ‘‘He (sultan) would cause men to be drubbed, or beaten almost to death in his presence… cause some to be beaten on the soles of their feet, and after, make them run up and down among the stones and thorns.’’ Harrison added that the sultan ordered some of his slaves be dragged by horses until they were torn to shreds, while a few had been dismembered while alive, with ‘‘their fingers and toes cut off by every joint; arms and legs and so head and all.’’ A few years earlier, captive Robert Adams wrote to his parents from his miserable captivity in the Barbary corsair town of Salé that ‘‘He (owner) made me work at a mill like a horse from morning until night, with chains upon my legs, of 36 pounds weights apiece.’[33]

These instances should give one a rough idea of the sufferings that the enslaved endured in Muslim hands at different stages of the captive life. It is widely accepted that 80 to 90 percent of those captured by Muslim slave-hunters and traders in Africa died before reaching the slave-markets. A great many of these died in the process of castration—a procedure, universally performed upon male black slaves to be sent to the Muslim world. What an enormous suffering and loss of human life that was! The pain, strain and agony—both mental and physical—they endured, is simply indescribable, probably even unimaginable.

[1]. Warraq, p. 203

[2]. Lal (1994), p. 148

[3]. Hughes TP (1998) Dictionary of Islam, Adam Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, p. 597

[4]. British historian Toynbee termed his Muqaddimah as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in time or place. Bernard Lewis in his The Arabs in History called him “the greatest historian of the Arabs and perhaps the greatest historical thinker of the Middle Ages.”

[5]. Lal (1994), p. 41

[6]. Hughes, p. 597

[7]. Lal (1994), p. 22

[8]. Milton, p. 65–66

[9]. Lal (1994), p. 22

[10]. Ibid, p. 54–55

[11]. Milton, p. 34

[12]. Ibid, p. 66–67

[13]. Ibid, p. 20

[14]. Ibid, p. 68–69

[15]. Ibid, p. 71–72

[16]. Ibid, p. 79–80

[17]. Ibid, p. 81

[18]. Ibid, p. 82

[19]. Ibid, p. 21

[20]. Ibid, p. 121

[21]. Ibid, p. 173

[22]. Ibid, p. 219

[23]. Ibid, p. 83–84

[24]. Ibid, p. 91–92

[25]. Ibid, p. 92,94

[26]. Ibid, p. 93

[27] Ibid, p. 105

[28]. Ibid, p. 96–97

[29]. Ibid, p. 106

[30]. Ibid, p. 107

[31]. Ibid, p. 99

[32]. Ibid, p. 124–25

[33]. Ibid, p. 16,20–21

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