Everybody is aware of the European slave-trade, but little about the much longer, widespread, and brutal practice of slavery in the Muslim world, which was started by Prophet Muhammad himself.

Muhammad was a slaver

In the previous article “Humanitarian Muhammad: Did Muhammad Abolished Slavery”, it has been said that, neither Prophet Muhammad nor Islam took any step to abolish slavery. Instead, Muhammad supported and patronized slavery for the interest of Islam as well as his own. Evidence is overwhelming in the Quran, hadith and sira and the writings of Muslim historians that how Muhammad took, purchased, sold, and gave away both male and female slaves. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya - a great scholar, astronomer, chemist, philosopher, psychologist, scientist, theologian and Islamic historian - says: "Muhammad had many male and female slaves. He used to buy and sell them, but he purchased more slaves then he sold. He once sold one black slave for two.  His purchases of slaves were more than he sold." [Zad al-Ma'ad", part 1, p. 160] (Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah's (1292-1350 CE) Zad al-Ma'ad, translated as Provisions of the Hereafter, is rated as one of the finest books on the biography of Mohammed.)[1]

"Muhammad had a number of black slaves. One of them was named 'Mahran'. Muhammad forced him to do more labor than the average man. Whenever Muhammad went on a trip and he, or his people, got tired of carrying their stuff, he made Mahran carry it. Mahran said "Even if I were already carrying the load of 6 or 7 donkeys while we were on a journey, anyone who felt weak would throw his clothes or his shield or his sword on me so I would carry that, a heavy load". Tabari and Jawziyya both record this, so Islam accepts this as true." (Behind the Veil) [2]

On one occasion, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali whipped a female slave of Aisha in front of Muhammad to make her speak out about the adultery charges brought against Aisha. Muhammad did not say a word to protest Ali's beating of the slave-girl. On another occasion, Umar beat a slave-girl for wearing the veil (veil is for free Muslim women only). It has been said in the previous article that Muhammad massacred 800 male Koreiza Jews and took their women and children, about 1200 heads, as slaves. He kept at least one Jewish female, named Rihana, as his concubine, and gave the rest away to his companions. He sent his disciple Sa'd bin-Zayd with a portion of the captive women and children to Nejd to sell them for horse and weapons for organizing future jihad-raids.

All these incidents bear testimony to the fact that Muhammad was an enslaver and slave-trader. The names of many of Muhammad's slaves are given in detail in Muslim writings and they can be found in "Behind the Veil". Moreover, even under Muhammad, slaves were treated brutally as above examples make it clear, although some Muslims, groundlessly, claim that slaves under Islam were always treated fairly and kindly.

The rights of slaves under Islam

According to the Thomas Hughes' The Dictionary of Islam, slaves had few civil or legal rights. For example:

  1. Muslim masters enjoyed the right to have sex anytime with female slaves (Koran: 4:3, 4:29, 33:49).
  2. Slaves are as helpless before their masters as idols are before Allah (Koran: 16:77).
  3. According to Islamic Tradition, people at the time of their capture were either to be killed, or enslaved.
  4. According to Islamic jurisprudence, slaves were merchandise. The sale-proceeds of slaves were kept in accordance with those for animals.
  5. Muhammad ordered that some slaves who were freed by their master be re-enslaved.
  6. It is permissible under Islamic law to whip slaves.
  7. According to Islam, a Muslim could not be put to death for murdering a slave. Ref. 2:178 and the Jalalayn confirm this.
  8. According to Islam, the testimony of slaves is not admissible in court. Ibn Timiyya and Bukhari state this.
  9. According to Islamic jurisprudence, slaves cannot choose their own marriage mate. - Ibn Hazm, vo.6, part 9.
  10. According to Islamic jurisprudence, slaves can be forced to marry who their masters want. - Malik ibn Anas, vol. 2, p. 155.

“Slavery continued in Islamic lands from about the beginning to this very day.  Muslim rulers always found support in the Quran to call 'jihad', partly for booty and partly for the purpose of taking slaves.  As the Islamic empire disintegrated into smaller kingdoms, and each ruler was able to decide what Islam's theology really meant.  Usually, he always found it in support (in Koran) of what he wanted to do.  Their calls for jihad against their neighbor facilitated the taking of slaves for Islam. The Quran and Islamic jurisprudence support the taking of slaves, so, those petty Muslim rulers were following the Quran when they needed slaves”, says Silas. [4]

It is estimated that over the past 1,400 years at least 112 million black Africans were enslaved by Muslim slavers. Hundreds of thousands of white Europeans also ended up in Islamic slave-markets, the young women, who were kept as sex-slaves, being a favorite of Arab slavers.[5]

Who could be slaves under Islam?

1) Islam allows Muslims to make slaves out of anyone who is captured during war.

2) Islam allows for the children of slaves to be raised as slaves

3) Islam allows for Christians and Jews or non-Muslims to be made into slaves if they are captured in war. After Muslim armies attacked and conquered Spain, they took thousands of slaves back to Damascus. The key prize was 1000 virgins as slaves. They were forced to go all the way back to Damascus.

4) Christians and Jews, who had made a treaty with the ruling Muslims could be made into slaves if they did not pay the "protection" tax. This paying for 'protection' was just like paying a Mafia racketeer! This allowed Muslim rulers to extort money from non-Muslim people.

Based on two good books on slavery -- namely "Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa" (Allan Fisher, 1971) and "The Slave Trade Today" (Sean O'Callaghan, 1961) -- reader steadyfriend commented: Everyone knows about the abuses of slaves in the new world. What do you know about the abuses of slaves under Islam? …Both books really opened my eyes to how terrible slavery under Islam really is. I use the present tense, because it is obvious that these abuses continue to this day. I also have a number of other references concerning slavery in Islam. A general survey is. It notes a few basic points:

a) Slaves have no civil liberty, but are entirely under the authority of their owners.

b) Slavery is in complete harmony with the spirit of Islam. Islam did make life better for the average slave, but Muhammad intended it to be a perpetual institution.

c) Hughes also says that it is a righteous act to free a slave. I just find it hard to understand that the god who told Muhammad to take slaves later tells him it's good to free slaves?”

Post-Muhammad slavery

Although Muslims took slaves from all over the lands they conquered, many of the Muslim slaves were black Africans. They were forced to do the harshest labor. There was a famous black slave revolt in Iraq where thousands of black slaves revolted and killed tens of thousands of Arabs in Basrah. There slaves were forced to work in the large Muslim saltpeter mines. During their revolt, they conquered the city of Basrah, in Iraq. They conquered city after city, and they couldn't be stopped. Their uprising and drive for freedom lasted for about 11 (or 15) years.

This revolt, popularly known as The Zanj Revolt was the culmination of series of small revolts. Regarding this revolt, Wikipedia writes, “It took place near the city of Basra, located in southern Iraq over a period of fifteen years (869-883 AD). It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves who were imported from across the Muslim empire and claimed over “tens of thousands of lives in lower Iraq”. The revolt was said to have been led by Ali ibn Muhammad, who claimed to be a descendent of Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib. Several historians, such as Al-Tabari and Al-Masudi, consider this revolt one of the “most vicious and brutal uprisings” of the many disturbances that plagued the Abbasid central government.”[7]

As the Muslim armies continued to conquer land, they acquired many slaves. Bernard Lewis in "The Arabs in History" writes: "polytheists and idolaters were seen primarily as sources of slaves." In the early years of the Arab conquests, vast numbers of slaves were acquired by capture.  In The Islamic Dynasties, C.E. Bosworth writes: "The use of this labor enabled the Arabs to live on the conquered land as a rentier class and to exploit some of the economic potential of the rich Fertile Crescent."

Ibn Warraq writes: "Arabs were deeply involved in the vast network of slave trading - they scoured the slave markets of China, India, and Southeast Asia.  There were Turkish slaves from Central Asia, slaves from the Byzantine Empire, white slave from Central and East Europe, and Black slaves from West and East Africa.  Every city in the Islamic world had its slave market."[8]

Ibn Warraq is the pen name of an anti-Islam polemicist of Pakistani origin who founded the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society (ISIS). He is a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry focusing on Qur'anic criticism. Warraq gathered world notice through his historiographies of the early centuries of the Islamic timeline and has published works which question mainstream conceptions of the period. He is the author of seven books, including Why I Am Not a Muslim (1995). He has also spoken at the United Nations "Victims of Jihad" conference organized by the International Humanist and Ethical Union alongside speakers such as Bat Ye'orAyaan Hirsi Ali, and Simon Deng.

Slave trade by the Arabs

To describe the slave trade by the Arabs during their heyday, Wikipedia writes, The Arab slave trade was the practice of slavery in the Arab World, mainly Western Asia, North Africa, East Africa and certain parts of Europe (such as Iberia and southern Italy) during their period of domination by Arab leaders. The trade was focused on the slave markets of the Middle East and North Africa. People traded were not limited to a certain color, ethnicity, or religion and included Arabs and Berbers, especially in its early days.

Later, during the 8th and 9th centuries of the Islamic Caliphate, most of the slaves were Slavic Eastern Europeans (called Saqaliba). However, slaves were drawn from a wide variety of regions and included Mediterranean peoples, Persians, Turks, peoples from the Caucasus mountain regions (such as Georgia, Armenia and Circassia) and parts of Central Asia and Scandinavia, English, Dutch and Irish, Berbers from North Africa, and various other peoples of varied origins as well as those of African origins. Later, toward the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves increasingly came from East Africa, until slavery was officially abolished by the end of the 19th century.”[9]

“Historians agree between 11 and 18 million Africans were enslaved by Arab slave traders and taken across the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Sahara desert between 650 and 1900, compared to 9.4 to 14 million Africans brought to the Americas in the Atlantic slave trade from 15th century to the early 19th century. (ref)

Periodic Arab raiding expeditions were sent from Islamic Iberia to ravage the Christian Iberian kingdoms, bringing back booty and slaves. In a raid against Lisbon in 1189, for example, the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansur took 3,000 female and child captives, while his governor of Córdoba, in a subsequent attack upon Silves in 1191, took 3,000 Christian slaves.

Arabs also enslaved substantial numbers of Europeans. According to Robert Davis between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary corsairs, who were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and sold as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries. These slaves were captured mainly from seaside villages from Italy, Spain, Portugal and also from more distant places like France or England, the Netherlands, Ireland and even Iceland. The impact of these attacks was devastating – France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships, and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. Pirate raids discouraged settlement along the coast until the 19th century."[9]

In those days, slave trade was a highly profitable business. The usual practice was to encircle a coastal village in the darkness of late night and capture the unarmed villagers and forced them to board a ship. The unfortunate people were then sailed to the Middle East and Arab countries and sold in the slave markets. Male slaves were used as agricultural labors and soldiers in the army. Most of the female slaves were used as concubines of the rich Muslims or simply as sex slaves.

History of Arab Muslim slave trade

Capturing slaves by raids in eastern Africa by Arab
slave traders

Murray Gordon in his Slavery in the Arab World, has made a comprehensive study of Arab slave trade and Susan Stephen, in her article Two Views of The History of Islamic Slavery in Africa [10] has profusely quoted from Gordon’s work. She writes, “In his fact-filled work on the history of the Muslim Arab slave trade in Africa, Murray Gordon notes that this trade pre-dated the European Christian African slave trade by a thousand years and continued for more than a century after the Europeans had abolished the practice. Gordon estimates the number of slaves “harvested” from Black Africa over the period of the Muslim Arab slave trade at 11 million – roughly equal to the number taken by European Christians for their colonies in the New World.”

The above comment the Arab trade of African slaves began nearly 1000 years ago that the European Christians began the trade and she writes, “Despite the long history of slavery in the Arab World and in other Muslim lands, little has been written about this tragedy,” writes Gordon in his introduction of his book. “Except for the few abolitionists, mainly in England, who rallied against Arab slavery and put pressure upon Western governments to end the traffic in slaves, the issue has all but been ignored in the West”, adds Mr Gordon.

Among the scholars in the Arab world, none raised the voice against and Mr Gordon the author points out, “No moral opprobrium has clung to slavery since it was sanctioned by the Koran and enjoyed an undisputed place in Arab society.” Gordon’s book starts out with a brief outline of the growth of the Islamic attitude toward slavery and Susan Stephen writes, “There is no evidence that Muhammad sought to abolish slavery, notes Gordon, although he urged slave-owners to treat their slaves well and grant them freedom as a meritorious deed.”

Guaraní family in India captured by Muslim slave
hunters. (Painting by Jean Baptiste Debret)

"Some Muslim scholars have taken this to mean that his true motive was to bring about a gradual elimination of slavery. Far more persuasive is the argument that by lending the moral authority of Islam to slavery, Muhammad assured its legitimacy. Thus, in lightening the fetter, he riveted it ever more firmly in place”, Ms Stephen asserts.

“The taking of slaves – in razzias, or raids, on peaceful African villages – also had a high casualty rate. Gordon notes that the typical practice was to conduct a pre-dawn raid on an unsuspecting village and kill off as many of the men and older women as possible. Young women and children were then abducted as the preferred “booty” for the raiders”, Ms Stephen writes.

Young women were targeted first because of their higher value as concubines or sex slaves in markets. “The most common and enduring purpose for acquiring slaves in the Arab world was to exploit them for sexual purposes. … These women were nothing less than sexual objects who, with some limitations, were expected to make themselves available to their owners. . .Islamic law, as already noted, catered to the sexual interests of a man by allowing him to take as many as four wives at one time and to have as many concubines as his purse allowed,” writes Gordon. “Young women and girls were often “inspected” before purchase in private areas of the slave market by the prospective buyer”, Stephen adds.

While Gordon acknowledges that at times the Islamic version of slavery could be more “humane” than the European colonial version, he provides many facts which point out that the Muslim variety of slavery could be extremely cruel as well. He writes, "One particularly brutal practice was the mutilation of young African boys, sometimes no more than 9 or ten years old, to create eunuchs, who brought a higher price in the slave markets of the Middle East. Slave traders often created “eunuch stations” along the major African slave routes where the necessary surgery was performed in unsanitary conditions. Gordon estimates that only one out of every 10 boys subjected to the mutilation actually survived the surgery.”

One important aspect of Islamic slavery was the large-scale castration of male-slaves, who were employed widely as harem guards and partners for sodomy. This practice is approved or alluded to in Quranic verse 24:31 (Malik): "…male attendants who lack sexual desires".


In India, the castrated African slaves were called “Khojas” and were employed to guard the harems of the lecherous Mughal rulers that contained thousands of slave girls turned concubines. Even enslaved local Hindu boys were widely castrated and sold in India. There were 5000 concubines in the harem of Akbar. When Akbar died, his son Jahangir became the owner of that harem. Later on, he augmented his harem by inducting 1000 new concubines. The majority of these concubines were not slaves bought from the slave-markets, but Hindu women kidnapped or captured from the household of defeated Hindu rulers.

thireenth century-yemen slave market
A 13th century slave market in Yemen

Author Helen Fisher writes in the Hastings Women's Law Journal (2001): "So with the connivance of the Saudi authorities the ancient trade in black ivory is perpetuated in our time in spite of the international conventions". Fisher also notes that white slaves are most highly prized. Another interesting comment I've come across is that there were regions in black Africa that Muslim missionaries wouldn't go into. The reason is that if those blacks became Muslim, they could no longer enslave them. So, the Muslims banned spreading the word of Islam among certain black tribes. It was from these tribes that local Muslim rulers would harvest slaves, and sell them throughout the Islamic world. Time and time again, slavery in Islam is abused. The west has finished with slavery, Islam continues it, and with that, the abuses go on.

It has been mentioned above that the Barbary States, term used for the North African states of Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, were engaged in the trade of white Christian slaves captured from Europe. We hope to discuss this aspect and some other aspects of the Arab Muslim slave trade in the next part of this article.


[1] http://fafirrooelaallaah.wordpress.com/category/quotes/ibn-qayyim-al-jawziyyah/

[2] http://debate.org.uk/topics/coolcalm/slaves1.html

[3] http://www.faithfreedom.org/articles/op-ed/an-excellent-taqiyyah-by-a-bengali-muslim-author-part-2/

[4] SLAVERY IN ISLAM by Silas: http://www.answering-islam.org/Silas/slavery.htm

[5] http://www.islam-watch.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=679:islams-disturbing-legacy-of-slavery&catid=81:acharya&Itemid=58

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanj_Rebellion

[8] en.­wikipedia.­org/­wiki/­Ibn Warraq

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_slave_trade

[10] http://www.faithfreedom.org/Articles/SStephan/islamic_slavery.htm

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