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Reviews of African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam

“Mention the phrase ‘African diaspora’ and it will be automatically assumed you are referring to the descendants of African slaves in the United States. In North America, in particular, the study of slavery focuses almost entirely on the Atlantic slave trade and its lasting effects on American society, to the exclusion of slavery elsewhere. Among the most neglected and, at the same time, largest contingents of the global African diaspora are those Africans taken to Islamic societies — a group that has until recently been almost totally ignored.

“In the past decade, researchers have made progress towards writing the history of slavery in the Sahara and North Africa. Several interesting monographs and edited collections have appeared and an important conference was recently held at al-Akhawayn University in Morocco. These inquiries have shown just how little we know about an institution that has existed for so long and has had such a deep impact on African societies.

The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam is a significant, welcome step forward, not only in the study of African slavery but also more broadly in the history of the African diaspora. The book is a series of translated primary source documents dealing with slavery in the Sahara and the Maghrib, with occasional comparative perspectives from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. Selections are organized topically and include over 80 representative texts addressing the process of enslavement, markets, everyday life, social roles, identity, education, gender issues, status and social mobility, and emancipation. Also included are background texts from the Quran, hadith, and other authorities that address slavery, as well as passages illustrating a range of popular attitudes about the image of Africans over time. A short historical contextualization accompanies each major topic, introducing related textual selections.

“Introductory articles by Hunwick and Troutt Powell are among the best available on slavery in Islam and do a good job of orienting readers new to the subject. Both explain why relatively few studies have been made to date, and trace the subject’s broader historiographic contours. Hunwick addresses the lasting legacies of slavery in delineating some of what was similar to and, at the same time, different from the institution as it developed in the Americas. At the same time, however, he notes the degree of diversity of slavery not only within dar al-Islam, but also even within the same region. Troutt Powell’s article, meanwhile, unpacks the meaning of ‘slave’ and how slavery relates to the social construction of race and class in both Islamic and non-Islamic societies. Both address the significant challenges in finding slave voices and highlight the need to consider critically the European sources that make up the bulk of the material currently available to us.

“A main objective of this project is to stimulate discussion and provoke further critical work. While the editors keep their commentary on individual texts to a minimum, they do include basic information on provenance and historical context. Some of this information can be found in the footnotes, which are generally helpful. Given the newness and relative obscurity of this field, however, readers — particularly students new to the subject — may find themselves without the necessary background to judge the comparative importance of given selections.

“The brevity of historical contextualization may at times challenge readers. For instance, even assuming that students understand the place of al-Bukhari’s Sahih, a collection of hadith in Islamic law generally, some additional explanation of the special role of al-Bukhari in Maliki law as it is interpreted and practiced in the Maghrib and Sahara would be beneficial. The editors have certainly done well to include relevant hadith, but readers also need to know how these hadith and their local interpreters contributed to constructing legal and religious justifications for enslavement and to defining the normative social spaces that slaves often occupied in local communities. Another example is Ahmad Shafiq Bek’s 1891 response to Cardinal Charles Lavergerie. The relationship between the growth of the anti-slavery movement in the West and its obsession with Islamic slavery in Africa deserves a monograph of its own. Over the three final decades of the nineteenth century, Islamic slavery became another excuse for colonization and Cardinal Lavergerie, Archbishop of Algiers and the founder of the White Fathers order, emerged as one of the most important shapers of European public opinion on Islamic Africa. His 1888 London address to the Anti-Slavery Society on the Muslim slave trade — coming just after the Berlin Conference — influenced a whole generation of not only missionaries and abolitionists, but also colonial officials. Ahmad Shafiq Bek was one of the few Muslim intellectuals at that time who recognized the import of Lavergerie’s address. While space is always at a premium in works like this, having a bit more context gives weight and meaning to many of these passages. Teachers, in some cases, may want to provide students with additional historical background.

“It is usually easy for reviewers to criticise the choices that editors make in putting together volumes that include primary source documents. This is not so easy with African Diaspora. Other texts might have been included. There are certainly relevant documents in the private archives of southern Morocco, particularly in the Saquiat al-Hamra and the Dra’ Valley, and in the Tuwat oasis complex of Algeria. Hunwick’s own work has pointed to the rich possibilities of Timbuktu archives, and here it should be mentioned that the Centre d’études, de documentation et de recherche Ahmad Baba at Timbuktu is as yet largely untapped by researchers (17,000+ manuscripts, of which only about 12,000 have been catalogued in any form). But in deciding what to include in a limited space, editors make difficult choices. This is, however the first collection of its kind in any language, and brings together texts from diverse origins. In this, the editor’s selective approach matches well with the overarching purposes of the book.

“As enjoyable and useful as this book is, it points up the lack of attention to slavery and the significant barriers to the study of slavery in Islamic societies. These include a lack of Arabic skills among Africanists to conduct research, a relative lack of interest among Middle East/North Africa scholars in this type of history, and the paucity and disparate nature of the source materials. An additional, but serious, hindrance is the continued artificial boundaries that segregate African from Middle Eastern Studies. The result is that those who live in the Sahara, and more broadly in the Maghrib, occupy a peculiar liminal state in academic inquiry, not quite African and not quite Middle Eastern. Further, Western scholars have been reluctant to consider seriously slavery in northern Africa for fear of being labelled anti-Muslim, with a concomitant avoidance by Muslim scholars in North Africa and the Middle East.

“The market for this work is wide and suggests something about its importance. Those interested in the origins of slavery in the Sahara and Maghrib will not only find useful primary materials to draw on, but also a broader framework for understanding the nature of the institution and some of its comparative dynamics over time. This work provides an excellent text for undergraduate and graduate courses on this subject, on comparative slavery or more broadly on social history, with, as mentioned above, some appropriate level of guidance from the teacher. Others interested in this overlooked history of the African diaspora will find this book not just informative and engaging, but also frequently riveting.

“As the editors themselves point out, most of the voices currently available on the subject of Islamic slavery in Africa are not slaves themselves. This will change over time, however, as more researchers look into rich private archives in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania and Mali and begin to interview slaves and slave descendants in Africa. The result will not only be a greater diversity of voices, but also a more nuanced approach to slavery in Islamic societies. This neglected aspect of the African Diaspora deserves to be understood in a larger historical framework, and there is clearly much left to do. Hunwick and Troutt Powell have offered an effective way of enticing the next generation of researchers.”

The Journal of North African Studies

“John Hunwick (Shari’a in Songhay) and Eve Troutt Powell (A Different Shade of Colonialism) have gathered (and briefly annotated) primary sources from the Koran, Islamic historians and theologians, non-Muslim anthropologists and others to end ‘the silence surrounding the experience … of African slaves in the Islamic Mediterranean.’ Though this ‘other’ slave trade spanned nearly 10 centuries, no definitive history exists; The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam offers scholars and students insight into the relationships between the brutal culture of slavery and the rich traditions of the Islamic world.”

Publishers Weekly

“This interesting book examines the relatively neglected topic of the ‘forced migration’ of Africans to the Mediterranean world—a process that began as early as the mid-seventh century. Through a collection of original texts by Islamic writers as well as external, non-Islamic sources, the authors reveal the Islamic cultural context within which this process took place and the impact it had on its African victims.”

— David Gutelius, International Journal of African Historical Studies