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Reviews of Slavery in the Islamic Middle East

“The history of slavery and slave trading among Muslims in Africa and the Middle East has received little attention in relation to the history of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas … In this context, the edited volume Slavery in the Islamic Middle East makes an important contribution to a growing literature that counteracts this imbalance. While we must wait a little longer for a full-length historical survey of slavery in North Africa and the Middle East similar to the recently published Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa, by Humphrey J. Fisher (New York: New York University Press 2001), or the well-established works of Paul E. Lovejoy (Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1983) and Patrick Manning (Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990), a collection of essays such as this brings together a preliminary sampling of the multiple contexts in which slaves played a part in the history of the Islamic world.

“Shaun E. Marmon, editor of [this volume] and author of an earlier study of the eunuch in the medieval Middle East (Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995), prefaces the five essays included in the volume with a short introduction focusing attention on the issue of Islamic legal theory and its relationship to the practical reality of slavery: ‘The relationship between the legal paradigm and social reality is one of the most important questions confronting anyone who undertakes the study of slavery in an Islamic context’ (p.vii). Three of the five essays that follow this preface, including Marmon’s own contribution, approach the history of Middle Eastern slavery in light of the tensions between the theory and practice of Islamic law. While law certainly does not represent the only paradigm through which to analyse the institution of slavery and the experience of slaves in Islamic society, these three essays make a case for the power and flexibility of legal texts, legal scholars and the judicial system in shaping the history of slavery among Muslims.

“After this introduction, Marmon’s essay on domestic slavery in the Mamluk Empire takes as its starting point the legal parameters that determined free and unfree status in Egypt and Syria from the late thirteenth century to the end of the fifteenth century. The Mamluk ruling elite was itself made up of former military slaves, a phenomenon that has attracted considerable scholarly attention, but Marmon chooses to focus instead on the less glamorous but more ubiquitous ranks of household and artisan slaves in the urban centres of the empire. Marmon also discusses the legal ramifications and social realities of manumission and of client-patron relations between former slaves and their masters. The emphasis on theory and nomenclature in this essay suggests its more general usefulness as an introduction or as a teaching tool, but a lack of precision about certain key translated terms and some conceptual assumptions weakens its analytical impact. For instance, while Marmon defines the Arabic word ‘abd’ as ‘chattel slave’ at the beginning of the essay (pp. 1-2), she translates the same word in subsequent quotations as ‘slave’, ‘black slave’ and ‘black domestic slave’, without indicating whether the additional modifiers appeared in the original Arabic as separate adjectives or should be understood as connotations established by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century usage. Nevertheless, as a case study of non-military slavery in the Mamluk Empire, Marmon’s chapter is not only extremely relevant to the volume at hand, but also a much-needed corrective to the emphasis on military slavery in the medieval Middle East.

“Yvonne Seng’s essay on slavery in an ethnically, linguistically and devotionally diverse suburb of sixteenth-century Istanbul highlights the agency of individual slaves as they took advantage of the Ottoman judicial system to improve their situation and ultimately to move into the free community. Seng uses the anthropological notion of liminality to interpret the status of slave as a transition period between separation from and reincorporation into the quotidian community. While free men and women used the Ottoman court system only as a last resort in disputes, Seng argues that slaves used it much more frequently as a rite of passage in this transition, a method of petitioning for and legitimising their membership in the community. The fact that all the slaves in Seng’s study appear to be destined for manumission, their participation in the judicial system being just a step along the way, begs the question of whether any slaves in the community might not expect manumission at some point down the line. However, Seng’s research into sixteenth-century Ottoman court records provides us with a rare glimpse of slaves in action, asserting their rights within the system as ‘property-with-voice’ (p.25) and later as freed-men and -women.

“The third essay in the volume, John Hunwick’s ‘Islamic Law and Polemics over Race and Slavery in North and West Africa (16th-19th Century)’, tackles the complex and highly charged question of the relationship between black skin and slave status. This elegantly written chapter analyses original documents written over four centuries by jurists and rulers on both sides of the Sahara debating the legal criteria determining who could be enslaved. Hunwick’s original research and historically specific case studies deepen existing analyses of attitudes toward race in the Middle East (see especially Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992) and broaden our knowledge of the centuries-long intellectual and material interchange between Africans north and south of the Sahara. Hunwick recently collaborated with Moroccan scholar Fatima Harrak to produce a full-length translation of a treatise by one of the key figures in these debates, the early seventeenth-century Timbuktu jurist Ahmad Baba, which was reviewed in a previous issue of this journal (6/3, 2001, pp.96-9) and which figures prominently in his contribution to the volume under review here. Hunwick presents Ahmad Baba’s important series of legal opinions challenging the validity of using skin colour as evidence of unbelief in Islam (kufr), the only legal criterion for enslavement. He also quotes original material providing legally based justifications for and protests against the assembly of armies of ‘black slaves’ under the late sixteenth-century Moroccan monarch, Ahmad al-Mansur, repeated a century later under Mulay Ismacil. He concludes with impassioned written attacks by two nineteenth-century scholars, Ahmad b. Khalid al-Nasiri and Muhammad al-Sanusi al-Jarimi, against contemporary attitudes and practices that conflated slave status with black skin. Through this series of primary sources Hunwick establishes the reality of race-based slavery in North and West Africa from the sixteenth through to the nineteenth centuries, and examines the ways in which Islamic legal theory was used both to rationalise and to oppose the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans within the region.

“The fourth essay in the volume is Michel Le Gall’s translation from the French of a memoir written by Louis Frank, a European doctor residing in Cairo at the turn of the nineteenth century. Frank was a keen observer of the importation of slaves to Cairo from Sudanese kingdoms in the south. Le Gall’s translation provides English-speaking students with vivid descriptions of the conditions under which newly enslaved captives lived and the mechanics of their sale as slaves in Cairo. Very much a man of his time, Frank displays attitudes toward race and slavery that appear at best anachronistic today; thus, his memoir reveals not only aspects of the late eighteenth-century slave trade, but also contemporary European views of slaves and Africans. The medical information contained in this memoir on the physical condition of the slaves Frank encountered is not as thoroughly annotated as might benefit a non-specialist, but it certainly sheds light on the important relationship between slavery and the human body and between the slave trade and the disease landscape of north-east Africa at the time.

“A pioneering scholar of military slavery in the Islamic world, David Ayalon authored the final essay on the role of slave warriors in Middle Eastern history shortly before his death. He opens by underscoring the importance of military slavery to the spread and defence of Islamic civilisation and then moves on to a sweeping history of ten centuries of military conflict between Islam and the West. Ayalon concludes that while military slavery assured the survival of Islam in conflicts on land with Christian Europe for centuries, ultimately it condemned the Islamic world to technological obsolescence and inferiority vis-a-vis the West. Broad and certainly debatable in its conclusions, this chapter represents more a posthumous tribute to Ayalon’s distinguished career in scholarship than it does a reinforcement of the thematic unity of the edited volume.

Slavery in the Islamic Middle East makes available five interesting perspectives on a topic that is beginning to generate the scholarly attention it deserves. The tension between Islamic legal theory and social reality receives complex and original analysis in several of the essays that make up this volume. Furthermore, the translations and discussions of primary sources included in most of the chapters elucidate the ideas and practices that shaped the multiple experiences of slaves and that gave flexibility to the boundary between slavery and freedom in different regions and periods of the history of the Islamic world.”
The Journal of North African Studies