Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Islamic Slavery, Part 10: Sex-Slavery - Concubinage and Ghilman

This is Part 9 of the chapter "Islamic Slavery" from M. A. Khan's book, "Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery". The part discusses sexual exploitation of Islamic slaves -- namely female sex-slaves or concubines and sex-boys or Ghilman's for sodomy --- all for the enjoyment of male Muslims (Part 1, Part 9). [warning erotic pictures inside]


Arab Sheikh checking if she is perfect for sex

The female slaves worked as domestic maids and in the backyards, while the young and pretty ones also had to provide sex to their masters. Thus, they not only provided menial services and pleasure to masters, but also helped swell the Muslim populace through procreation. Sex-slavery is not a negligible institution in Islam; Allah has shown utmost seriousness about its practice by repeatedly reminding Muslims about it in the Quran. Prophet Muhammad himself had taken at least three slave-girls as his concubines, namely Juwairiya of Banu Mustaliq [Bukhari 3:46:717], Rayhana of Banu Qurayza, and Maria, sent by the Egyptian governor to pacify Muhammad after receiving his threatening letter. From his large share of captives, he also distributed slave-girls amongst his companions for keeping as concubines. In one instance, he gave Ali (his son-in-law and the fourth caliph), Uthman b. Affan (his son-in-law and the third caliph) and Omar ibn Khattab (his father-in-law and the second caliph) a slave-girl each.[1] In explaining the institution of slavery on the basis of Quranic verses 23:5–6, brilliant Islamic scholar Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi (d. 1979) wrote:

Two categories of women have been excluded from the general command of guarding the private parts: (a) wives, (b) women who are legally in one’s possession, i.e. slave-girls. Thus the verse [Quran 23:5–6] clearly lays down the law that one is allowed to have sexual relation with one’s slave-girl as with one’s wife, the basis being possession and not marriage. If marriage had been the condition, the slave-girl also would have been included among the wives, and there was no need to mention them separately.[2]

In agreement with the institution of sex-slavery in Islam and its above-mentioned purpose, the Hedayah states that the object of owning female slaves is ‘cohabitation and generation of children.[3] Accordingly, physical fitness, regular menstruation and absence of disabilities became major considerations in purchasing a female slave. According to Hedayah, odor in the mouth and armpit of a female slave is a defect—obviously because, she is meant for kissing, caressing and sleeping with; but the same does not matter in case of male slaves. The Hedayah further stipulates that when a female slave is shared by two masters, she becomes property of the one, who establishes sexual relationship with her with the consent of the other.[4] Fatwa-i-Alamgiri stipulates that if a purchased female slave has too large breasts, or too loose or wide vagina, the purchaser has the right to return her for a refund—obviously because, the owner cannot get maximum pleasure from sex with such a woman, as she is intended for. Similarly, the purchaser can return a slave on the basis of whether she is a virgin.[5]

These criteria for chosing or judging female slaves come from the time of Prophet Muhammad himself. He was in the habit of choosing the prettiest of captive women for himself. In Khaybar, he chose Safiyah, wife of Kinana, for himself, hearing that she was of exquisite beauty and worthy of himself only. He, thereby, deprived another Jihadi, who had obtained her initially.[6] In another example, after the Prophet had distributed the captured women of the Hawazin tribe among his Jihadi comrades, a deputation from the tribe came to him seeking the release of their women. He agreed to release them for six camels apiece. His disciple Uyayna bin Hisn refused to release a woman of some nobility, fallen in his share, expecting a higher price. To this, Zubayr Abu Surad, another companion of Muhammad, convinced Uyayna to let her go, because ‘her mouth was cold and her breast was flat; she could not concieve… and her milk was not rich.’ When Uyayna complained about this to Al-Aqra, another comrade of the Prophet, he persuaded Uyayna by saying: ‘By God, you did not take her as virgin in her prime nor even full-figured in her middle age![7]

Using the female slaves for sex—a norm and a widespread practice throughout the history of Islam—is clearly sanctioned in the Quran, the Sunnah and the Sharia. It has, therefore, received unabashed and overt approval of Islamic jurists, imams and scholars well into the modern age. Apart from the lure of booty, the greed for capturing the women for using as sex-slaves became a significant motivating factor for Muslim Jihadis to take part in holy wars since Muhammad’s time. According to Islamic laws, the slayer becomes the owner of the victim’s wife, children and properties. Sir William Muir thought that the sanction of the sex-slavery in Islam acted ‘as an inducement to fight in the hope of capturing the females who would then be lawful concubines as ‘that their right hand possessed.’’[8]

From Muhammad’s own practice of slave-concubinage, it flourished into a widely practised institution in later periods as captives became numerous. Islam puts no limit on the number of sex-slaves Muslim men can keep; ‘there is absolutely no limit to the number of slave girls with whom a Mohammedan may cohabit, and it is the consecration of this illimitable indulgence which so popularizes the Mohammedan religion amongst the uncivilized nations and so popularizes slavery in the Muslim religion,’ writes Thomas Hughes.[9] Accordingly, writes Lewis, ‘The slave women of every ethnic origin were acquired in great numbers to staff the harems of the Islamic world—as concubines or menials, the two functions not always clearly differentiated… Some were trained as performers—singers, dancers, and musicians.[10] Ronald Segal also affirms this in saying: ‘Female slaves were required in considerable numbers for musicians, singers and dancers—many more were bought as domestic workers and many were in demand as concubines. The harems of rulers could be enormous. The harem of Abd al-Rahman III (d. 961) in Cordoba contained over 6,000 concubines; and the one in the Fatimid palace in Cairo had twice as many.[11] Muslim rulers of India did not lag behind either; even enlightened Akbar had 5,000 women in his harem, while Jahangir and Shah Jahan had 5,000 to 6,000 each. In the eighteenth century, Sultan Moulay Ismail had 4,000 concubines in his harem.


Clearly, Muslim rulers—from Africa to Europe, from the Middle East to India—had accumulated sex-slaves in their thousands. In the heyday of Islam, court officials, nobles, high-ranking generals and provincial governors had dozens to hundreds and even thousands of slaves. Even the poor Muslim households or common shopkeepers used to have many slaves, as recorded by Muslim chroniclers. In general, the young female slaves in all households had to provide sex to their masters as demanded. It appears that capturing the women for keeping as concubines was a major focus of Islamic slave-hunting; because, for every male slave, two females were captured in Africa for transporting to the Muslim world. And for those transported by Europeans to the new world, there were two males for every female.

Niccolao Manucci, who lived in India during Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, observed of the Muslim infatuation with women and sex that ‘all Mohammedans are fond of women, who are their principal relaxation and almost their only pleasure.[12] Dutchman Francisco Pelsaert, who visited India during Emperor Jahagir’s reign (1605-27), wrote of the sexual indulgence of Muslim rulers and noblemen in the harems that:

‘…each night the Amir visits a particular wife or mahal (quarter), receives a very warm welcome from his wife and from the slaves [girls], who dressed especially for the occasion… If it is the hot weather, they… rub his body with pounded sandalwood and rosewater. Fans are kept going steadily. Some of the slaves chafe the master’s hand and feet, some sit and sing, or play music and dance, or provide other recreation, the wife sitting near him all the time. Then if one of the pretty slave girls takes his fancy, he calls her and enjoys her, his wife not daring to show any signs of displeasure, but dissembling, though she will take it out on the slave girl later on.’[13]

However, the wife could never get rid of such beautiful slave-girls from the harem, because it was only in the power of the master to free her (Muslim women cannot own slaves).

Similarly Maria Ter Meetelen, a Dutch slave-girl of Moulay Ismail’s palace in Morocco, left an eyewitness account of the sultan’s sensual indulgence with his wives and concubines in the harem. She wrote: ‘‘I found myself in front of the sultan in his room, where he was lying with at least fifty women,’’ who ‘‘were painted on their faces and clothed like goddesses, extraordinarily beautiful, and each with her instrument.’’ Maria added: ‘‘…they played and sang, for it was a melody more lovely than anything I’d ever heard before.’’[14]

In sum, slave-concubinage—the most degrading and dehumanizing form of prostitution—became a prominent hallmark of Islamic tradition well into modern age. The Ottoman sultans maintained a harem full of women until the empire was dissolved in 1921. In the princely state of Bahawalpur in Sindh, first to be conquered by Muslim invaders—the last Nawab, who ruled until 1954 before its incorporation into Pakistan, ‘had more than three hundred and ninety women’ in his harem. The Nawab had become impotent early and used all kinds of tools to satisfy his great multitude of concubines and wives. When Pakistani army took over his palace, ‘they found a whole collection of dildos. About six hundred, some made of clays, some bought in England and battery-operated. The army dug a pit and buried these dildos.[15] The Arab kings till today maintain sizable harems of some kind.



Sexual exploitation of slave-boys of Ghilman in Islam

Another extremely cruel, dehumanizing and degrading aspect of Islamic slavery was the large-scale castration of male captives. It has received little attention of critics and historians. Historically, castration did receive little opposition in the Muslim world well into the modern age. But Muslims normally engaged Jews or other non-Muslims to perform the operation on the argument that mutilation of human bodies was prohibited in Islam. (This is hypocritical in the least, since beheading of totally innocent people in large numbers has been a common practice right from the days of the Prophet, while amputation of hands and legs are divine Islamic punishment for certain crimes.) Yet, the employment of eunuchs is clearly sanctioned by Allah, as the Quran instructs Muslim women to cover their body and ornaments with cloaks except ‘to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women)…’ [Quran 24:31]. Prophet Muhammad had himself accepted a eunuch as gift, says a hadith, which has been excluded from canonical collections.[16]

Castrated males, normally young handsome boys, were in great demands amongst Muslim rulers and elites mainly for three reasons. First, Muslim harems and households used to have a few to thousands of wives and concubines. Naturally, most of these women were left sexually unsatisfied as well as jealous and indignant about sharing their husbands and masters with so many women. Keeping male slaves in such palaces and households was a cause of concern for the husband and master, because those sexually unsatisfied and often indignant women could be tempted into sexual contact with the male-slaves. Attraction of harem women to other men was rather common. For example, when Pellow, not a eunuch, was surprisingly placed as a harem-guard by Moulay Ismail upon a request from one of his favourite wives, his wives showed amorous interest in him. Aware of the consequence of such a tango if the sultan found out, ‘‘I thought it highly prudent to keep a very strict guard upon all my actions,’’ wrote Pellow.[17]

It was, therefore, safer for masters—particularly the rulers and high officials, who kept large harem—to keep eunuchs, instead of virile men, in their households and palaces. It is no wonder that the term harem originated from haram, meaning prohibited—more specifically, "out of bounds" (to unrelated men).

According to John Laffin, black slaves were generally castrated ‘based on the assumption that the blacks had an ungovernable sexual appetite.[18] From India to Africa, eunuchs were specifically engaged in guarding the royal harems. They kept tab on the passage of men and women in and out of the seraglio and spied for the ruler on the harem women about their behaviour, infidelity in particular. Eunuchs were needed in their thousands to look after huge harems, probably the largest royal department in medieval Islamic kingdoms.

Secondly, the castrated men, with no hope of a family or offspring to look forward to in their old age, were likely to show greater fidelity and devotion to the master in order to earn their favor and support when they grew old. The castrated slaves, devoid of sexual distractions, could also devote themselves exclusively to work relatively easily in the usually sexually-charged Islamic culture.

The third reason for the high demand for eunuchs was homosexual infatuation of many Muslim rulers, generals and nobles. Eunuchs, kept for carnal indulgence, also called ghilman, used to be handsome young boys. They used to wear ‘rich and attractive uniforms and often beautified and perfumed their bodies in effeminate fashion.’ The concept of ghilman comes from the following verses of the Quran, which describes heavenly male attendants (ghilman) in paradise:

  • ‘Round about them will serve, (devoted) to them, young male servants (handsome) as Pearls well-guarded.’ [Quran 52:24]
  • ‘There wait on them immortal youths, with bowls and ewers and a cup from a pure spring.’ [Quran 56:17–18]

Anwar Shaikh in his essay Islamic Morality describes ghilman as follows: ‘Paradise is the description of the luxurious surroundings dwelt in by Houris and Ghilman. Houris are the most beautiful ever-young virgins with wide, flexing eyes and swelling bosoms. Ghilman are the immortal young boys, pretty like pearls, clothed in green silk and brocade and embellished with bracelets of silver.[19] The concept of ghilman in Islam may have been prompted by the dominant culture of sodomy that existed amongst Arabs during Muhammad’s time as discussed already (see p. 174–75). Sodomy was also prevalent in Persia. According Hitti, ‘We read of ghilman in the reign of al-Rashid; but it was evidently the Caliph al-Amin, who, following Persian precedent, established in the Arab world the ghilman institution for the practice of sexual relations. A judge of whom there is record used four hundred such youths. Poets did not disdain to give public expression to their perverted passions and to address amorous pieces of their compositions to beardless young boys.[20]

Castration was not performed on the black captives alone, but on captives of all shades and races: be it the blacks of Africa, the browns of India, the yellows of Central Asia or the whites of Europe. In the Middle Ages, notes Segal, Prague and Verdun became castration centers for white eunuchs, while Kharazon near the Caspian Sea for Central Asian eunuchs. Islamic Spain was another center for producing white eunuchs. At the beginning of the tenth century, Caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 908–937) had assembled in the Baghdad palace some 11,000 eunuchs: 7,000 Blacks and 4,000 Whites (Greek).[21]

It is noted already that there was widespread castration of slaves in Bengal during Mughal Emperor Jahangir, which had become a widespread practice across India. It appears that since Bakhtiyar Khilji’s conquest of Bengal in 1205, it had become a leading source of enslavement and castration for supplying eunuchs. On his way back to Venice from Kublai Khan’s Court, Marco Polo visited India in the late thirteenth century; he found Bengal as a major source of eunuchs. Duarte Barbosa in the late sultanate period (1206–1526) and Francois Pyrard in the Mughal period (1526–1799) also found Bengal as the leading supplier of castrated slaves. Ain-i-Akbari (compiled 1590s) also affirms the same.[22] Some 22,000 individuals were emasculated in 1659 in Golkunda during Aurangzeb. Said Khan Chaghtai of Jahangir’s reign owned 1,200 eunuchs. Even kind-hearted Akbar employed eunuchs in large numbers. According to Ain-i-Akbari, Akbar’s harem ‘contained 5,000 ladies, each of whom had separate apartments… watched in successive circles by female guards, eunuchs, Rajputs and the porters at the gates…[23]

Sultan Alauddin Khilji had engaged 50,000 young boys in his personal services, while Muhammad Tughlaq had 20,000 and Firoz Tughlaq 40,000. Many, if not most, of these slave-boys were likely castrated. Even Malik Kafur, Alauddin’s famous commander, was a eunuch. Khusrau Khan, Sultan Kutbuddin Mubarak Khilji’s favorite commander, who killed the sultan in 1320 and occupied the throne briefly, was a eunuch too. Medieval Muslim historians—namely Muhammad Ferishtah, Khondamir, Minhaj Siraj and Ziauddin Barani et al., have recorded stories of infatuation of other illustrious sultans, namely Mahmud Ghazni, Qutbuddin Aibak and Sikandar Lodi—for handsome young boys. Sikandar Lodi had once boasted, ‘If I order one of my slaves to be seated in a palanquin,[24] the entire body of nobility would carry him on their shoulders at my bidding.[25] Sultan Mahmud had infatuation toward charming Tilak the Hindu, his favorite commander.[26]

Castration of male captives was performed on an unprecedented scale in order to meet the demand of eunuchs in the Muslim world. It was Muslims, who inaugurated the practice of castrating male slaves on a grand scale. Most of the male slaves of the Muslim world—particularly, those captured in Africa—were castrated. While eleven million African slaves were transported to the New World (West Indies and Americas) during the 350-year trans-Atlantic slave-trade, a larger number of them ended up in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, India, Islamic Spain and Ottoman Europe during the thirteen centuries of Islamic domination. However, if compared the Diaspora left by black slaves in the New World with that in the Islamic world, it becomes evident that the overwhelming majority of the black slaves of the Islamic world were castrated; therefore, they failed to leave a notable Diaspora behind.

The fate of the millions of European, Indian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern infidels—reduced to wearing the shackles of Islamic slavery—might not have been much different. Marco Polo (1280s) and Duarte Barbosa (1500s) witnessed large-scale castrations in India; the same was occurring in the reign of Abkar (d. 1605), Jahangir (d. 1628) and Aurangzeb (d. 1707). Castration, therefore, was a common practice in India throughout the Muslim rule. It might have contributed to some extent to the decrease in India’s population from about 200 million in 1000 CE to 170 million in 1500 CE (discussed earlier).

[1]. Ibn Ishaq, p. 592–93; Al-Tabari (1988 imprint) The History of Al-Tabari, State University of New York Press, New York, Vol. IX, p. 29

[2]. Maududi SAA, The Meaning of the Quran, Islamic Publications, Lahore, Vol. III, p. 241, note 7

[3]. Lal (1994), p. 142

[4]. Ibid, p. 145,147

[5]. Ibid, p. 145

[6]. Ibn Ishaq, p. 511; Muir W (1894) The Life of Mahomet, Voice of India, New Delhi, p. 377

[7]. Ibn Ishaq, p. 593

[8]. Muir, p. 74, notes; also Quran 4:3

[9]. Huges, p. 600

[10]. Lewis (2000), p. 209

[11]. Segal, p. 39

[12]. Manucci N (1906) Storia do Mogor, trs. Irvine W, Hohn Murray, London, Vol. II, p. 240

[13]. Lal (1994), p. 169–70

[14]. Milton, p. 120

[15]. Naipaul VS (1998) Beyond Belief: The Islamic Incursions among the Converted Peoples, Random House, New York, p. 332

[16]. Pellat Ch, Lambton AKS and Orhonlu C (1978) Khasi, In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, E J Brill ed., Leiden, Vol. IV, p. 1089

[17]. Milton, p. 126

[18]. Segal, p. 52

[19]. Shaikh A, Islamic Morality,

[20]. Hitti PK (1948) The Arabs : A Short History, Macmillan, London, p. 99

[21]. Segal, p. 40–41; Hitti (1961), p. 276

[22]. Moreland, p. 93, note 1

[23]. Ibid, p. 87–88

[24]. Palanquins were used for carrying the women, especially the newly married brides, in medieval India.

[25]. Lal (1994), p. 106–09

[26]. Elliot & Dawson, Vol. II, p. 127–29