Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Book Review


On November 4th, I posted the first half of a two-part essay on slavery in Islam and the West. After losing the second half of the essay, I promised that it would be replaced, with a review for this book.

The book is a historical overview of the Muslim enslavement of Africans over the last fourteen hundred years. Due to its very specific subject matter, the book necessarily overlooks the over one million white European Christians who were taken captive by the Muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast between 1530 and 1780, as well as the tradition of self-criticism and abolition that separates the West not only from the Islamic world, but from every other civilisation that has ever existed.

Azumah's analysis is essentially designed to prove one basic point: that regardless of the evils committed by Westerners against the African population, Muslims have been no less guilty of the enslavement of Africans (as well as the inhabitants of every other area they have conquered throughout history). Azumah, who works at the Henry Martyn Institute International Centre for Research, Interfaith Relations and Reconciliation in India, argues that this is absolutely necessary in order to initiate meaningful dialogue between Muslims and people of other religions in Africa.

Although the book achieves the author's basic intention, I feel that it does not go far enough in emphasising that the Islamic slave trade was actually worse than the Western slave trade. For example, while Westerners are estimated to have enslaved roughly ten to eleven million Africans between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth, Muslims are estimated to have enslaved at least seventeen million Africans between the seventh century and the nineteenth. That the Islamic slave trade ultimately lasted longer and enslaved more people than its Western counterpart is a fact that is never subjected to any exposure in Western academic circles.

Azumah's book contains a detailed exposition on the way that the mere non-belief in Islam of the indigenous African people was used as a primary justification for their enslavement by the Muslims. For example, the medieval Muslim jurist Abd al-Aziz bin Ahmad al-Bukhari (d.1330) declared: "Servitude is a vestige of obstinacy in refusing to believe in the One God (kufr), and this in the eyes of the law is death itself." Ahmad Baba, a seventeenth-century Muslim leader from Timbuktu, wrote a popular enslavement manual called the Mi'raj, which became a standard reference used by Muslims in Sudan. This manual states plainly that "the reason for slavery [in Islam] is non-belief".

Azumah also dedicates a whole section to demonstrating overwhelmingly that Arab Muslims were prone to racist attitudes towards black Africans, which may surprise those Western liberals who see only white people as the epitome of bigoted racism. The Spanish Muslim thinker Sa'id al-Andalusi (d.1070) wrote that blacks were "more like animals than men". Ibn Sina (d.1037), a Muslim philosopher known in the West as Avicenna, also wrote of blacks as inherently inferior to lighter-skinned people, and believed that they were by their very nature slaves (incidentally, the Arabic word abd is used synonymously to mean both a slave and a black person). Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d.1274), believed that "the Negro does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth". Finally, the great Muslim sociologist Ibn Khaldun (d.1406) wrote: "[T]he Negro nations are, as rule, submissive to slavery because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes quite similar to those of dumb animals".

The rest of the book is dedicated to describing the terrible conditions African slaves were subjected to by their Muslim masters, which easily match those imposed upon slaves in the West. One of the most heinous aspects of this is the practice of castration, which Azumah describes as follows:

The operation, done on boys aged between eight and ten...was carried out with an exceedingly high death rate...[O]n the whole about 30 per cent survived the operation in Bagirmi, while other estimates put the mortality rate at up to eighty per cent. This barbaric act was made particularly cruel for black victims in that, in contrast to their white counterparts whose operations did not deny them the ability to perform coitus, the castration of blacks involved what was commonly referred to as 'level with the abdomen', i.e. a complete amputation of the genetalia.

Azumah also demonstrates the total devstation wrought by the (alarmingly violent) Islamic slave trade in Africa, and provides enslavement figures:

In 1894, thanks to the French efforts to assess the situation of slavery in the region, it was revealed that about 30 to 50 per cent of the total population of the Western Sudan were slaves, with up to 80 per cent near some commercial centres...

In Kankan 57 per cent of the population were slaves while in Sikasso, the capital of Tieba, two-thirds of the population were found to be slaves in 1904. The same percentage was estimated for the slave population of Bobo-Dioulasso. In areas immediately around Kong and Bandama, however, the proportion of slaves approached 80 per cent. In Northern Nigeria the same pattern of slave concentration is revealed...

Within the Sokoto caliphate as a whole, during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, slaves are said to have 'certainly numbered in many millions and perhaps as many as 10 million.' On the island of Zanzibar in east Africa in 1907 there were 27,000 freed slaves, and 140,000 slaves out of an estimated population of 208,700.

Finally, Azumah points out that slavery was not formally abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1962, Oman in 1970, and Mauritania in 1981 - all under Western pressure. The Islamic world never spawned its own abolitionist movement, and slavery has always been accepted in Islamic societies, due to its basic acceptance in the Qur'an and in the example of Muhammad, who is known to have owned around sixty slaves in his lifetime. The beliefs enshrined in these sacred Muslim sources about the inherent inferiority of unbelievers militated against any Muslim movement to abolish slavery. Moreover, there is evidence that slavery is still practised in many Islamic countries, such as Sudan, today.

The author concludes this fascinating book with an appeal for genuine dialogue on this issue, which must necessarily involve Muslims taking a step back and engaging in some meaningful self-criticism akin to that practised in the West during the abolition era:

[T]here is no doubt that contemporary relations between communities in general are rooted in the historical past. The historical past, which was in itself formed by religious and ideological traditions has made some significant 'mis-steps'...It is these 'mis-steps' that both the Arab-Muslim and black African sides have to acknkowledge, and accept so that lessons can be learnt from them, to make dialogue worthwhile and sustainable. Unless we are prepared to react to history together, we are left with no alternative but to use history to react against each other...

This may be called critical faithfulness...Acknowledging the 'mis-steps' within one's inherited tradition is, first of all, a sign of strength rather than weakness. This strength of integrity is...crucial for dialogue. Second, critical faithfulness to one's tradition will, on the one hand, help bring restorative justice to victims, and prevent the injustices associated with these aspects from repeating themselves, on the other hand. Third, being critically faihtful to one's tradition will enable an intelligent appropriation and adaptation of these traditions in contemporary times.

Finally, critical faithfulness will help bring about change in old and preconceived unhelpful attitudes and perceptions so as to promote mutual respect and peaceful co-existence between and among communities. Inter-religious and inter-ideological dialogue is therefore inpossible without the parties involved being prepared to be critically faithful to the various inherited traditions.

Azumah's insights underscore the desperate need for Muslims to acknowledge the errors of their past, and indeed, their present, as well as to confront the ideological basis for slavery in Islam. All the while they refuse to do this - and all the while Leftists in the West continue to focus all their attention on our own past crimes (for which we have already paid our pennance by inventing abolitionism, the ultimate display of self-criticism) - people will continue to suffer as slaves under the yoke of Islam.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Most educated people know that slavery continues to exist in many parts of the world. It exists in the Islamic world, it exists in Europe (illegal immigrants forced into slave labour in agricultural work, black and white people from Africa and Eastern Europe forced by deceptive practices into prostitution etc). There are plenty of ways of owning people and abusing them without technically being identified as slavery. If one goes a little beyond the narrow legal status of slave, then a better picture emerges of slavery in the modern world. My point is that slavery as an issue should be seen as a continuing phenomenon, although illegal, rather than a legal but historically past phenomenon.