Arab Slave Trade

Arab Slave Trade

Slavery December 10, 2016 Alik Shahadah

The History of Arab Slavery in Africa

Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph.— Haile Selassie

While Europeans targeted men in West Africa, the ‘Arab’ [1] trade primarily targeted the women of East Africa to serve as domestic slaves, wet nannies and sex-slaves in the infamous harems. This trade trickled over millennia is estimated to have taken more than 10 million Africans via the Swahili coast to India, Saudi Arabia, China, and Turkey, and also via the Trans-Saharan route to North Africa and the Mediterranean, where in slave markets such as Ceuta, Morocco. Africans were purchased to work as domestic servants in Spain, Portugal, and other Western European countries.

The study of the Arab slave trade, like the Atlantic slave trade and the continental trade, are not just historical events, they are also political tools, and maneuvered around as such. It has become increasingly important to deal with both the historical as well as the political in any treatment of these subjects in our contemporary moment.


The Arab slave trade for most of it’s history was a trickle trade, which boomed in the 19th century. Prior to this period the trade between Arabia and Africa was more focused on iron, ivory and animal products. There is very little evidence in the sources to support the claim that slaving was ever a major enterprise of any significance prior to the 19 th century boom.

Genetic evidence does however point to a 2500 year old female mediated gene flow from Africa to Arabia. This means that African woman have been part of the population of Arabia, especially Yemen.

This points to some form of enslavement due to the dynamics of gender and conquest; conquering men impregnate conquered women.[1] Which proves the Arab slave trade had to be one of the oldest forced exodus of African people out of Africa.

Arab slave market

Africa’s internal slave trade is the oldest in the world, since some of the oldest civilizations/communities are in Africa. Moreover, Africa is not a country, and should not be treated as a united single polity. “Oldest” however is a loaded term because being older has nothing to do with impact. [2] But in terms of external trades, and forced exodus of Africans, the Arab trade is the oldest, as far as Africa is concerned. And its influence is still responsible for the social status of some African groups especially in Chad, Sudan and Mauritania. And it is during the Arab slave trade that we see the first clear evidence of a racist attitude in history towards African people as a race. [note]

Arab enslavement of Africans was radically different from its European counterpart. [3] It was more complex and

Slave Routes of Arab Slave Trade

Slave Routes

varied depending on time and place. Its legacy was also radically different in the terms of post-slavery racism and disruption to African sovereignty. The slavery seen in Iraq with the Zanj/Zinj and slavery in Zanzibar was more akin to the slavery in the America’s, and those were the exceptions. Also ‘Arab’ is not a racial group, but an overarching term hugging Arabs who are African and some who are White and Jewish. (Mizrahi, which includes Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, Kurdish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and Tunisian Jews). This makes any discussion of the Arab slave trade problematic using 21st century identity models.African Race in Antiquity

It was once believed that the Atlantic slave trade was a largely self-contained phenomenon. However, it is now acknowledged that this slave trade was part of a much wider picture, which includes traditional African slave systems, and the Arab slave trade. All conflicted at various stages in their history as well as complemented each other.


The Arab conquests dear to sociologists are necessary to their theories but did not exist in reality. To this day no reliable historical documents substantiate such theories.– Cheika Anta Diop

Contrary to popular belief, it was not in the immediate interest of Arab slavers to convert enslaved Africans to Islam, because being Muslim granted the enslaved Africans more rights to manumission. (See Umayyad Caliphate)[2] And if the people they were capturing were already Muslim it would “delegitimize” the capture.

One of the biggest differences between Arab slaving and European slaving was that slaves were drawn from all racial groups and they were rarely used as a means of crop production; slaves were not the economic engine behind Arab economies. Social mobility was possible “from slave to Sultan” (Mamluks and Najahid dynasty‎), many Africans were used in the armies of Moroccan sultan (17th century) and also in the Egyptian forces during the early days of Islamic expansion.

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Upward mobility within Islamic/Arab slavery, as within African systems, was not rare. Even Tariq ibn Ziyad (who conquered Spain and Gibraltar was named after) was a slave of the emir of Ifriqiya, Musa bin Nusayr, who gave him his freedom and appointed him a general in his army. This has never occurred, even once, in three centuries of the Atlantic system.Religiosity had no bearing in the New World, only skin color: Class, literacy levels, ethnicity, social-status were of zero consideration on the plantations of the New World. However, In both systems the stigma attached to being a slave, became attached to being African which lead to the perception of inferiority. In the case of the African trade this was diminished since enslaver and enslaved generally looked the same (except in places like Sudan, Sahel, and Ethiopia). As with Christianity, Islam did compound the issue due to the culture of the bearers that transferred the religion to weaker people accepting Islam (this was not the case in most of Africa since powerful rulers accepted Islam on their African terms). [note]

Arab slavery generally lacked massive plantations, where large droves of slaves toiled to the crack of a whip in the hot sun. Iraq was one of the exceptions, and according to Ali Mazrui the Zanj uprising deterred further attempts in the Arab world; with the notable exception of Zanzibar in the 19th century

Unlike the European trade in enslaved Africans, the physical remnants of this trade are very hard to measure. No one has detailed records of numbers lost, or a full chronology of events. Anyone claiming to have actual numbers is not doing history, but political guesswork. There are also no ghettos, mental institutions or prisons holding African people. And this is where the “agendas” in history come into play. We must never forget the role of political objectives in the study of history. The current anti-Arab, anti-Islamic Islamophobic trend has played a significant role in this study.

Today, due to lack of information, beyond rhetoric and Eurocentric propaganda, some think that the Arab slave trade and the European trade shared all the same properties—that they were mirrors of the same reality. So wherever a sentences says “European slave trade” just replace it with “Arab slave trade” and you have that history. Because Christianity in the African world (excluding Ethiopia) was largely the product of slavery and colonialism, it must also be true for Islam in Africa. So this produces a forced ahistorical casual association between the rise of Islam in Africa, and the Arab slave trade. So now the entire Islamic history of Africa is a consequence of a supposed Arab invasion. Without any evidence to qualify these myths, another wave of intellectual destruction is taking away the agency and legacy of African Muslim contributions.[5] (As well as independent Christian history in Africa)African-Arab relations and African-Islamic ties are all outside of the interest of Europe. The rise of the Nation of Islam (especially the leadership of Farrakhan) and Islam among African-Diaspora is also not desirable by Western nations. (Mathonsi) The influx of Somali, and other Muslim groups is a serious concern for places such as Norway and other Western Nations. All of this is necessary to show the backdrop to the attitudes and motives for the “new” focus on Arabs. And when we look at the principal authors of this “new” study we see the hands of people like Ronald Segal, Bernard Lewis as the prime authorities on a slave trade that Africans experienced.[3]

Europeans and Islam have been in conflict since the Crusades, a lot of the histories around the “Arab slave trade” are a direct outcrop of that hostility; creating a deeply prejudicial study. (Bangura) Its principle end result is the perpetual demonizing of Islam.(Mirmotahari 2011) There is also the position of “sharing” responsibility with Arabs which has now shifted to “revealing” how more disastrous in scale the Arab trade was. This “look at them – dont watch me” allows greater de-emphasis on European slaving legacy. It also brings a counter-argument such as “But don’t forget the Arab trade predated European slaving and lasted millennia.” Slavery was not unique to Europe, many African nations engaged in slavery far longer than Arabia and Europe. But without understanding the massive apex role of Europeans it is easy to confuse duration with impact and legacy.

One position rarely detailed is why the Europeans were so eager to destroy the Arab slave trade on the Swahili coast. The destruction of slaving was not a “humanitarian” activity by David Livingstone (the colonial fixer) because several undeniable things happened after the extinguishing of Arab monopoly in the region:

  • Diminished the economic and hence political power of their (The Arabs) competitors for African resources
  • Allowed missionaries to create new Christians. (Mental Slavery)
  • Creating strategic trade and military positions in the Red Sea.
  • Most importantly it was the precursor to Colonialism (a humanitarian excuse to invade.) Resulting in the acquisition of African resources which still goes on until this day.

There is nothing nice about being a slave of either Arabs, Europeans or even Africans. Slavery, mild or otherwise, is a crime against a human being. But it would be historically and morally inaccurate not to cite that there is a serious difference between vassalship and Chattelship.

Western Europe not only corrupted the slave/servility systems in Africa they also caused the Arab slave boom in the 19th century.[2] And most critical is Europe’s continuation of the African Holocaust up through colonialism, apartheid, neocolonialism and the current exploitation of Africa’s resources.[3] These events are not disconnected, although attempts are made to dichotomize these realities.

Where are the massive companies in Ghana, Lagos, and Arabia that funded slavery? But you can find the likes of JP Morgan and Lloyds of London all over the Western world.[3] Right now you can look at millions of Brazilians, millions of African Americans, millions of African Caribbean, millions of broken communities in West Africa, millions of people in South Africa, every single one of them the product of European systems.

The global racism towards Africans is again the work of the West in fashioning media to write, and wipe Africans out of humanity. It is therefore ironic, but perhaps evidence of the crisis, that some African-Americans wearing the names of Europeans chose to find greater issue with the Arab Slave Trade while living in the legacy of the European trade.

The distant Arab slave trade with its states in Zanzibar have long vanished from the economic-political landscape. [3] The legacy of race dynamics in the Arab world, however, has not. But the wealth of Great Britain and France continue uninterrupted. The governments, churches, businesses, royal decree, that funded and approved slavery remain unaltered. 140 million Africans in the Western Hemisphere, representing around 14% of the world’s population are the visible consequences of Western Slaving and this is not only a numbers issue, as this Diaspora also represent the absolute bottom of every social-economic graph. And while the Arab racism in academia (which was never dominant) has dropped off more than a 100 years ago, the European discourse in corrupting, footnoting, washing out the history of Africans is an institutionalized industry.



Some women stolen from Africa were stolen to serve the infamous Arabian harems (exploited as sex-slaves); their children were born free to Arab fathers, and thus would have been heirs to wealth and status, fully and equally assimilated into the population (good for Arabia, bad for African identity). [5] Their mothers receives the title of “umm walad” (lit. mother of a child), which was an improvement in her status as she could no longer be sold. Among Sunnis, he is automatically freed upon her master’s death, however for Shi’a, she is only freed if her child is still alive; her value is then deducted from this child’s share of the inheritance.[1] These umm walad, attained “an intermediate position between slave and free” pending their freedom, although they would sometimes be nominally freed as soon as they gave birth.

Monuments to the history of slavery in Zanzibar

Some Afro-Arabs rose to great stations by virtue of their Arab fathers. This also added to disassociation with African culture due to the opportunities “being Arab” brought. (similar to the mulatto culture seen in the Caribbean) So we see a diminishing of Africa and a rise of Arabia, at the expense of African identity by the process of enslavement and cultural displacement. The infamous eunuchs were infertile, and the other men who were enslaved would have gradually married non-African women, hence facilitating the absorption of African culture and lineage into an Arab one (acculturation that is a force still at work today). The contrasting differences between racial definitions on the Arabian continent as opposed to Europe assist in blending the majority of Africans stolen from Africa into the general population of Arabia. However, in the West there was no transcending “racial stigmas.” in any way shape or form.


8 replies

  1. Very interesting article— thank you
    This my comment— slavery in Islamic law.
    I urge Muslim do not need to follow this Islamic law, this law should be declared “ invalid” in 21 century— but unfortunately the extremist Muslim ( isis) say that all Islamic law cannot be changed or reformed for ever— that is why we saw ISIS still implemented slave law—

    Muslim do not need to follow Prophet Muhammad saw who had many wives ( 9 ) and many slaves. This tradition fit at ancient time, not fit in Modern time any more.

    O prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee; and daughters of thy paternal uncles and aunts and daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Makkah) with thee; and any believing woman who dedicates her soul to the Prophet if the Prophet wishes to wed her― this only for thee, and not for the Believers (at large); We know what We have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess in order that there should be no difficulty for Thee. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful QS 33:50

    Progressive Muslim promote to reform the old Islamic laws such above.

    Do you agree the slave- law above can be implement to day? As ISIS did in Syria??

    Where does Ahmadiyya stand for? We lije to know.
    Please your comment. Thank you

    Watch ISIS video
    – deleted by editor –
    All love ❤️

    • I do not need to watch ISIS videos. – According to my knowledge when the Prophet (pboh) married Khadija he freed (with her permission) all her slaves and did not have any slaves. Slavery in Islam was supposed to be abolished gradually and consequently should not have continued as long as it did (according to this article). In any case we have to see the difference between the Arab slavery and the American one. Children of slaves were always born free. Slaves could have ‘upwards mobility’, even becoming Generals and Kings. That said, no, there is no time that slavery should ‘come back’. That time has gone.

      • Dear Rafiq—I am afraid every time you delate my comment your lovely soul is getting darker —I love and care you—Rafiq. Please do not do it!

        Dear Rafiq—since you ( ahmafiyyah) do not agree ISIS who still impliment the Islamic slave law Q.33:50 in Iraq— it means that you agree God’s law is invalid to be implemented in Modern time. Right?

        Can you clarify it
        All love ❤️

      • Stop this nonsense of telling me that my soul is getting darker when I do my job as editor. Yes, slavery is an example that some quranic verses may no longer apply in this age. But that does not mean that I would like you – nor me – to go and ‘overhaul’ the whole Qur’an and start deleting verses. They applied at their appropriate time. By the grace of Allah in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at we have scholars and the ultimate teacher, the Khalifa, may Allah strengthen his hand, who will guide us in our interpretation.

      • How about Mauritania in 2019? descendants of slaves are still slaves – not born free. Black African (some are Muslims) are being killed or sold as slaves in Libya today – Black Libyan are asked to show if they are really Libyan – Being black in the Muslims world is not a walk in the park, just ask the African women that went there to work as maids and how they are treated… It is still going on, just like or even worst then being black in the west.

  2. What is pertinent to our discussion here is how we understand and read the holy Quran or how the Christians read the holy Bible.

    The Quran should always be understood in the context of the time. I have a 21st century mindset and that is how I read the holy Quran. I cannot with any good success create a version of myself for 15th, 10th or 7th century.

    I have submitted an article about Islamism for Muslim Sunrise, when it is published in June, I will share it with our readers.

    • Zia—I agree with you that we have to interprete God laws according the to the context of time.
      I would like to ask you some question hopefully you can clarify for me please.

      1. Dose Ahmadiyyah forbid women to shake hand with men?
      2. Does Ahmadiyyah forbid women not to wear hijab?
      3. Does Ahmadiyyah forbid women to sing at Tv or public place?
      4. Does Ahmadiyya promote equal right male and female, including inheritance?
      5. Does Ahmadiyyah promote women to be public leader?

      When I ask Rafiq , he did not answer it, but he delated my question.

      If you can answer it I appreciate it, Thank you.
      All ❤️

      • Somi does not appear to read what we write. All the above points have been replied and explained several times already.

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