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Slavery and Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: How Two Institutions shaped Each Other


This was for history of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. The assignment was:  Discuss slavery as an Islamic institution. Account for its legitimacy and historical role by drawing on examples from West and East African societies.

Slavery was not an invention of Islam, nor did Islam introduce it to sub-Saharan Africa. However, slavery and Islam were intertwined, one reinforcing the other. Islamic practices largely institutionalized African slavery and slavery contributed to the Islamization of the sub-Saharan zone. This altered the practice and perception of slavery by owner and slave alike, shaping economies and societies.

Slavery has existed in Africa for most of recorded history, but according to John A. Azumah, was fairly rare before the fifteenth century with no active trade in the practice. Earlier slaves were mostly prisoners of war, but could also be criminals or debtors. Raids for the specific purpose of capturing slaves were unknown. Over the course of about four-hundred years after its introduction, Islamic slavery came to dominate the cultures of the Sudan.[1]

I would be remiss to speak of the legal protections for slaves without first addressing raiding, one of the main differences between Islamic forms of slavery and its African precursors. The taking of slaves in war was an established practice in Africa and elsewhere, but in practice this meant a few wealthy rulers had a small number of slaves. When ownership of slaves was expanded, demand drove a new form of war, started for the specific purpose of acquiring slaves, thus increasing regional violence. Women and children were the most popular slaves as Islamic law required they be spared. Men, while sometimes also captured, were generally killed, even if they survived the initial battle. Those captured frequently died on the long march to the market. Those unable to carry their burden or keep up were killed on the spot and many died of exhaustion and dehydration. Major slave roads were lined with skeletons. For every ten people in a raided settlement, approximately one would survive the journey to be sold.[2]

This increase in slave supply drove its own demand as new economic models became completely dependent on slavery. Islamic scholars needed slaves to run the day-to-day aspects of their businesses and households to free their time for study and civic involvement. Family life reorganized around domestic slavery and, by the early nineteenth century, particularly along the Swahili coast, large-scale plantation agriculture for cash crops like cloves, cassava, coconuts, grains and peanuts became dominant industries. [3] This further drove demand for slaves, which couldn’t be fulfilled internally because slaves had generally poor rates of fertility and mortality, leading to more raids.[4] However, the brutal reality did not detract from popular conceptions of slavery as a beneficial practice for the improvement of “heathens.”

Islam spread slavery, but slavery also spread Islam. This led many slavers to rationalize that slavery was a blessing to the enslaved. Azumah relates a traditional story about an African king who was captured by Persian slave traders and sold in Iraq. He later escaped and returned to his kingdom. When the merchants who enslaved him came by again years later, rather than retaliate, he thanked them for introducing him to Islam. While this account is fanciful, the fact that it was wide disseminated shows it had resonance with slave owners and illustrates how many of them viewed slavery.[5]

The Islamic conception of slavery was dependent on the ideas of Dar al-Islam, the land of the believers, and Dar al-Kufr, land of the unbelievers. While it was permissible to enslave followers of traditional African religions, enslavement of fellow Muslims was forbidden. This division of world societies was a key element separating Islamic slavery from other forms. Thus, slavery was key in enforcing group allegiances. It was not only allowed by Islam, but encouraged as a sort of missionary work and a solution to the problem of the kufr.[6] In fact, many of the Islamic, slave-trading societies of Western Sudan were first introduced to Islam through nineteenth-century slave raids. In a well known hadith, or saying, Mohammed allegedly said the enslaved were being “dragged to paradise.” [7] While slaves were encouraged to convert to Islam, slavery also spread Islamic through indirect means as Muslims were exempt from enslavement, meaning the areas around slaving societies could convert for protection.

While free Muslims could not be enslaved, but this did not mean there were no Muslim slaves. Slaves who converted were not freed, nor were their children necessarily born free. While this standard theoretically applied on an individual basis, prior adherence to Islam was difficult to prove in practice and the burden was on the enslaved to provide proof. Whether one was considered to be a Muslim, and thus safe, was judged largely by group membership. Thus, it was important not to just be Muslim, but belong to a recognized Muslim society. People-groups as a whole were judged to be Muslim or non-Muslim in legal edicts, which influenced slave-taking policy of local rulers.[8]

Slavery in Islamic tradition operated in a paternalistic fashion. The owner was the slaves’ legal guardian and was expected to care for them. The slaves, in turn were his or her dependents, connected to society through their master. Under principles set in the Koran, kind treatment was encouraged, but not mandated. While slaves were chattel in most regards, they were not entirely without rights. This did not necessarily prevent abuse but did mean they had some level of social recognition. The master had control over the slave’s finances and sexuality. Slaves could not marry without permission. With these diminished rights came diminished responsibility. Owner and slave shared responsibility for the slave’s criminal behavior and for their spiritual duties. Owners were expected to be their religious guides, integrate them into society, feed and clothe them, keep their workload manageable and generally look out for their welfare. This was in the master’s best interest as well because a slave with a stake in the society was more likely to cooperate.[9]

The implementation of these principles varied widely in practice, both regionally and individually. For instance, in Zanzibar by the 1840s, slavery had transformed into something like a serf system. Slaves worked their master’s land as needed and their own land the rest of the time. Slaves and masters had an understanding on what was a reasonable amount of labor. They were generally well-fed and physical punishment was rare. However, in this situation, masters had limited means to recapture runaway slaves, giving slaves more leverage than was typical. In 1820s Senegambia, the balance of power was quite different. Slaves were beaten, underfed and worked long hours nearly naked in the sun. In Zanzibar, masters were required to feed slaves, even if they were unable to work, but that did not stop some sick slaves from being abandoned anyway. While slaves had legal recourse through Islamic courts, the judges were also slaveholders and thus more likely to be sympathetic to the master.[10]

Slaves had numerous strategies with which to fit into their new role in Islamic society. Cooperating with the paternalistic framework and converting to Islam would gain the favor and protection of the master. Since slave owners were expected to lead conversions, this improved their social status, which would be reflected in the slave’s treatment. Slaves were considered the social inferiors, but spiritual equals of their masters. They were exempted from religious duties that would interfere with their work, such as the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, meaning they were not on equal ground religiously, but while Islamic law required slaves to show deference to their masters, this was just a social order, not seen as God favoring one group. Religion was one of the few areas where slaves were not considered inferior, making conversion very attractive. In fact, it made the slave, in the eyes of their new society, the superior of his or her free kin. Piety offered some means of social advancement. A particularly successful slave could afford to put himself through Koranic school and possibly become a scholar, but the means for this were rare. The vast majority of slaves did convert to Islam, perhaps superficially, but second-and-third-generation slaves thoroughly internalized the Muslim worldview.[11]

Slaves could be integrated into society in several ways depending on their role, which could be domestic, agricultural or in a trade. For instance, generally speaking, rural slave owners had fewer slaves and worked alongside them in the fields. This meant there was relatively little social separation between the groups and slaves were often considered members of the family or became members through intermarriage. This applied to domestic servants who worked closely with masters as well. In more urban settings, owners tended to have more slaves, who were managed by other slaves, thus limiting direct contact and increasing social stratification, however this separation from the master also afforded them more independence.[12]

Concubinage is an example of a strategy in which slaves integrated very thoroughly into Islamic society. Concubines were female slaves who entered into a legally-recognized sort of quasi-marriage with their owner. While still a slave, concubines were relatively free of domestic work and a concubine who bore the master’s child could not be sold and was freed upon the master’s death. The legal status of her children varied regionally, from full equality to children born of a free wife on most of the Swahili coast, to Lamu, where her sons would be free but social inferiors and her daughters would be slaves. Thus, concubines gave up a great deal of their already- limited autonomy, but gained a path to equality and freedom.[13]

Slaves could take the opposite tact and run away rather than integrate, but even this would not free them from slavery’s influence. Escaped slaves had little support system. Masters made sure to integrate slaves heavily into their own society while separating them from their kin, minimizing the opportunities for cooperation. While revolts did occur, even in areas like Zanzibar where slaves enjoyed a relatively high level of legal protection, they were quite rare compared to most slaving societies. Even slaves who successfully escaped still found themselves having to work inside the system, often doing work-for-hire alongside slaves or joining the military and going on slave raids of their own.[14]

As the society that enslaved them was essentially inescapable, most slaves did integrate, not usually because of physical force, but because it was the only social role open to them. Cooperation had many benefits. A male who won his master’s favor would be allowed to marry. His master could purchase a female slave for him. This encouraged loyalty and any children born of this union would belong to the master. Since the marriage was performed by the owner, it reinforced his authority and apparent benevolence. Partaking in a basic social institution such as marriage also increased ties to the religion and the society. A slave with a family would be unlikely to run away.[15]

A particularly industrious or clever slave could be promoted to a more prestigious duty. An agricultural slave could become an overseer, a court slave could become a bureaucrat, and an artisan could become a manager. These duties carried extra responsibilities but more importantly made slaves feel like they were an integral part of their society rather than just its victims. While their new position put them closer to the master, their experience made them better suited to supervise other slaves and less likely to mistreat them than a free man would be.[16]

Manumission was a meritorious act under Islam. This means it was not in any way required, but socially encouraged as an act of piety. If a Muslim freed his or her own slave, or purchased freedom for another, this counted toward their zakat, or required charitable giving. Freeing one’s slaves upon death was also common. Slaves who were less economically valuable were more likely to be freed in this way. There was also the option of murgu. A slave owner could allow a slave with sufficient finances to purchase his or her own freedom. Courts could order manumission as compensation for mistreatment or as a sort of fine another major sin by the master. All of these promoted the idea that Islam wants slaves to be free and again, by giving slaves an escape through the society and religion, encouraged them to cooperate rather than rebel.[17]

Before slavery was banned in most areas, the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars accepted its legitimacy. Since slaves overwhelmingly converted to Islam, they accepted the mainstream view and there was little opposition to slavery per se. While many slaves resented their own status, there was no abolitionist movement. It took external anti-slavery pressures to ultimately end the practice. The intertwined nature of Islamic society, religion and slavery are clear in the results. European opinion had turned strongly against slavery by the late nineteenth century, and perhaps more importantly, the social instability created by slave raiding threatened colonial goals. British and French colonial powers essentially forced abolition, but this was phased in. The slave trade was stopped first, route-by-route, starting in the mid-nineteenth century.[18] This was more practical than trying to change a cultural institution, but administrators also feared a complete ban would cause economic collapse.[19] Even before abolition, without fresh sources of slaves, Zanzibar was unable to get enough labor to harvest the clove crop by the 1890s.[20] In one example, Britain ended slavery in Northern Nigeria by first blocking the slave trade in the 1890s, then making the established tradition of murgu obligatory in 1901 and declaring all people born after that point to be born free. However, Nigerian judges refused to enforce laws obligating masters to free slaves or allow former slaves to inherit property into the 1920s.[21] Even when slavery was abolished entirely in 1936, social recognition of the dependant relationships remained. In Kenya, marital rules preventing formerly enslaved men from marrying free women were still in force forty years after abolition. Protests that bans on slavery were un-Islamic lasted at least until the 1960s.[22]

Slavery was an existing institution, but was utterly transformed by Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Islam provided the legal rules by which slavery was practiced and the religious motivation for its spread. It defined the social status and roles of master and slave alike and enforced them through social and legal mechanisms. While the rules were not always followed, its teachings provided a framework in which slavery operated. Islam gave slaves their subservient status, but also hope for advancement and freedom. Because of its prevalence, Islamic slavery shaped the entire society and its influence lasts even to the present.[23]



Azumah, John A. The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-religious Dialogue. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd, 2001.

Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. London: C. Hurst & Co., 2006.

Cooper, Frederick. Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa. Binghamton, New York: The Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., 1977.

Dunbar, Roberta A. “Slavery and the Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Damagaram.” In Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropolical Perspectives, by Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff, 155-177. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

Hogendorn, J.S., and Paul E. Lovejoy. “The Reform of Slavery in Early Colonial Northern Nigeria.” In The End of Slavery in Africa, by Suzanne miers and Richard Roberts, 391-414. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Winsconsin Press, 1988.

Pouwels, Randall L. Horn and Crescent. New York: Cambridge University Presss, 1987.

Robinson, David. Muslim Societies in African History: New Approaches to African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[1] John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-religious Dialogue, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001), 112-122.

[2] Ibid., 143-146., Roberta A. Dunbar, “Slavery and the Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Damagaram,”

in Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropolical Perspectives, Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff, eds. (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1977) 173-175.

[3] William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2006), 3-4., Frederick Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, (New York: The Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., 1977), Cooper 24-25 162-170, 223-224.

[4] Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, 116, 163-164.

[5] Ibid., 122-128.

[6] Ibid., 117.

[7] Ibid., 121-123.

[8] Ibid., 126-127.

[9] Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 8, 25, 213-215, 223, 233.

[10] Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, 163., Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 163-170.  ,

[11] Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, 159-160., Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 215-217.

[12] Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 169-170, 184., Dunbar, “Slavery and the Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Damagaram,” 173.

[13] Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 195-197.

[14] Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, 164., Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 203, 210-212., Dunbar, “Slavery and the Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Damagaram,” 173-175.

[15] Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 184.

[16] Ibid., 172., David Robinson, Muslim Societies in African History: New Approaches to African History. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 64.

[17] Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, 124., Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 242-252.

[18] Randall L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 181.

[19] Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, 119-120

[20] Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 264.

[21] Dunbar, “Slavery and the Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Damagaram,” 391-394.

[22]Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, 144-147., Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 25-26.

[23] Slaves could be up to eighty percent of the population in some areas. Azumah, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, 151.

From → history, Religion

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