Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Islamic Slavery, Part 2

Islamic slavery has been the most horrible yet the little known slavery in history. So, author M. A. Khan decided to publish the chapter "Islamic Slavery" from his book, "Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery". This part discusses Slavery in the Ancient World. While the Christian Europe and now Islamic civilizations are being condemned for slavery, the practice was common in all ancient civilizations, which warrants a brief discussion here. (Part 1; Part 3)


Slavery was not an Islamic invention, nor did Islam have a monopoly in it. Likely originated in the age of savagery, slavery had been a prominent feature of all major civilizations throughout recorded history. Slavery existed in Babylonia and Mesopotamia, and was prevalent in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome before the advent of Christianity. Slavery is approved in Christian scriptures and was practiced in the medieval Christendom.

Ancient Egypt. In ancient Egypt, slaves provided the labor-force in the construction of Pyramids. According to famous Greek traveler Herodotus (484–425 BCE), some 100,000 slaves worked for twenty years in the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, built by Cheops, a Pharaoh of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (r. 25892566 BCE).[1] Recorded from legendary accounts, this figure was obviously an exaggeration. It, nonetheless, informs us that slaves were used in large numbers in such ventures in those times. Pharaohs in Egypt used to capture slaves in wars or purchase them from foreign lands. They were the property of the state, not of private citizens, but were often presented as gifts to generals and priests.

Ancient Greece. In the ancient city states of Greece, namely Athens and Sparta, slavery was integrated into the socio-economic and political system. Alongside the free citizens and foreigners, there were the helots: the slave class, working as serfs in agricultural and other menial activities. This, assume many scholars, allowed the elites and free citizens to engage themselves in intellectual pursuits among other activities, likely contributing to the stunning intellectual, political, scientific and literary achievements of classical Greece. The bulk of the Greek peasants did not own lands and had to give away a large proportion of their crop to landlords. As a result, they fell into debt and ultimately offered themselves as slaves, forming the helot class. At one point, Athens is said to have had a staggering 460,000 slaves against only 2,100 free citizens. Slaves were treated mildly in Athens compared to those in Sparta. Later, the constitution of Draco (621 BCE) and the laws of Solon (638–558 BCE) made them property of the state, which improved their condition. The decree of Solon also banned enslavement because of debts. The slaves now possessed some basic rights and could not be put to death except by the state.

Roman Empire. In the ancient Roman Republic and early Roman Empire, about 15–20 percent of the population were slaves.[2] During Emperor Augustus Caesar (r. 63 BCE–14 CE), one master, it is said, left behind 4,000 slaves.[3] Until the second century BCE, masters could legally kill a slave although occurred rarely. The Cornelian Law (82 BCE) forbade masters from killing a slave. The Petronian Law (32 BCE) forbade masters from forcing slaves into warfare. Under Emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 CE), if a master neglected the health of his slaves resulting in death, he was guilty of murder. Dio Chrysostom—a famous orator, writer, philosopher, and historian—had devoted two Discourses (14 and 15) delivered at the Forum condemning slavery during Emperor Trajan (r. 98–117 CE). De Clementia (1:18), authored by Seneca the Elder (c. 54 BCE–39 CE), records that masters—cruel to slaves—were publicly insulted. Later on, Emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138 CE) renewed the Cornelian and Petronian laws. Ulpian, a Stoic lawyer under Emperor Caracalla (r. 211–217 CE), made it illegal for parents to sell their children into slavery. Diocletian (r. 284–305 CE), the last notable Pagan Emperor of Rome, made it illegal for a creditor to enslave a debtor and for a man to sell himself into slavery for paying up a debt. Constantine the Great (r. 306–337 CE) prohibited the separation of family members during the distribution of slaves. Evidently, the condition of slaves was slowly improving in the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

Ancient China. In ancient China, rich families owned slaves for doing menial works in the fields and at home. The Emperor usually owned slaves in hundreds and even in thousands. Most of the slaves were born to slave-mothers. Some became slaves for failing to pay up debts; others were captured in raids and wars.

Ancient India. There are few mentions of slavery in ancient India, another great civilization since early antiquity. Megasthenes (c. 350–290 BCE), the famous Greek traveler, who was familiar with slavery in Greece and other countries he had visited, failed to notice the existence of slavery in India. He wrote, ‘‘All Indians are free. None of them is a slave… They even do not reduce foreigners to slavery. There is thus no question of their reducing their own countrymen to slavery.’’[4] Similarly, Muslim chroniclers, who left abundant records of large-scale Islamic slavery in India, never mention any incidence of slavery in the pre-Islamic Hindu society. However, slavery did exist in ancient India, because references of slaves are found in Rigveda (ancient Hindu scripture) and other philosophical and religious literature, including in the teachings of Buddha.

Buddha (c. 563–483 BCE) enjoined his followers to assign only the amount of work to slaves that they could easily do. He also advised masters to attend to slaves when they fell ill. Kautaliya (aka Chanakya), a teacher of the Taxila University whose protégé Chandragupta Maurya founded the great Maurya dynasty (c. 320–100 BCE), had prohibited masters from punishing slaves without reasons; the defaulters were to be punished by the state. Emperor Ashoka (r. 273–232 BCE) of the Maurya dynasty, in his Rock Edict IX, advised masters to treat their slaves with sympathy and consideration. Ancient Hindu scripture Rigveda mentions of slaves being given as presents and rulers giving female slaves as gifts. Slaves in India served as domestic servants in the palaces of rulers and in the establishments of aristocrats and priests. It is likely that those, who failed to pay up debts, were reduced to slavery in India.[5]

It, however, appears that the practice of slavery in ancient India was much lower and that slaves received more humane treatment compared to those in contemporary Egypt, Greece, China and Rome. In India, slaves were never considered a commodity for trading; there was no slave-market. Slave-trade was never a feature of India’s economic system until Muslims brought the practice to India.

Slavery in Christianity. It is clear from the discussion above that the Christian world was not a stranger to the practice of slavery. Instead, slavery in the Christian world, particularly by European Christians, has been most thoroughly studied and condemned. However, unlike the Quran, the New Testament does not call for enslavement of innocent people through aggressive war; it does not condemn slavery either. Instead, Jesus [Mat 18:25, Mark 14:66, Mat 18:25] and Saint Paul [Eph 6:5–9, Cor 12:13, Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11 etc.] talk acceptingly of slavery as it existed in those days.

In line with the scriptural acceptance as it existed as social practice, slavery was practised, it even flourished at different points in time, in the Christian world. We have noted above that slavery was gradually declining in the pre-Christian Roman Empire; their conditions were improving. When Christians rose to imperial power in Rome after Emperor Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century, the trend reversed somewhat. For example, pro-Christian Emperor Flavius Gratianus (r. 375–383) enacted an edict that a slave, who would accuse his master of a crime, should be burned alive. In 694, the Spanish monarchy, in collaboration with the church, ordered the Jews to choose baptism or slavery. The church Fathers and Popes justified slavery in the medieval Christendom on religious grounds. They continued supporting the slave-trade even in the face of rising opposition against the institution in Europe. ‘The Churches, as everyone knows, opposed the abolition of slavery as long as they dared,’ writes Bertrand Russell.[6]

Discussed in next part: Extensive Enslavement by Muslims

[1]. Ibid, p. 2

[2]. Slavery, Wikipedia,

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

[4]. Ibid, p. 5

[5]. Ibid, p. 4

[6]. Russell B (1957) Why I Am Not a Christian, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 26