Enslaved on Hajj

Some readers are generally confused as to why I discount to a large extent the influence of official ideology, text, or received tradition, over the long-term course of a religious society. The main reason is that the exceptions to the rule are so common, and religious people are so ingenious at getting around proscribed practices if there’s a will, that the idea that texts could bind humans seem kind of ludicrous to me (though I accept the effect on the margin).

I just stumbled onto a new instance of ingenuity in the face of the commandments of the Almighty. I had known that one of the “problems” Muslims had with obtaining slaves over the past few centuries is that in Islam one could not enslave a Muslim. When most of what became the Muslim world was non-Muslim this was not a major issue, but eventually Muslims had to reach further and further into black Africa and the Slavic world. With the Islamicization of the Sahel and the rise of a Christian Europe which could resist slaving a conundrum of supply loomed. The demand was insatiable. Despite the role of black slaves in primary production in Iraq early in the history of Islam, by the early modern period slaves were a luxury item, a status symbol. And the demand for status never ends.

One way the demand was met was to declare black Muslims non-Muslims. So a Muslim king for whom slaving was a great revenue source would enforce a rate of taxation which his subjects simply could not satisfy. The potentate would then obtain a declaration from a cleric that to disobey the commands of one’s monarch was apostasy, and so the strictures of the law were met. The slaves exported to the Arab world and Ottoman lands were now apostates from Islam, pagans who could be placed into bondage (interestingly, the Muslim religious laws which compelled apostates to return to Islam, or be executed, were not enforced). One might also add that there’s a fair amount of evidence that many non-elite Muslims outside of the core Muslim world were only nominally Islamicized in the pre-modern period as well.

But that’s nothing compared to what I just learned. Saudi Arabia had legal slavery up until 1962. The black minority of the kingdom derives from this slave population. Where did they get the slaves? Deep into the 20th century slave runs were made to the Horn of Africa, while East Africa was still a viable source for most of the 19th century. Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem offers up another source: black African pilgrims to Mecca were kidnapped and enslaved on en route!

…African pilgrims were sold by the very shaykhs appointed to protect them. Slave dealing no longer took place in the other market, but continued undisguised in brokers’ houses in the towns…Bond believed the king had taken no action because slavery contributed to his “comfort, prestige, and influence.” A hundred slaves had been sent to his palance in Riyadh from Lith and Asir in 1928. When told West Africans (Takruni) were being imported illegaly or sold during pilgrimate, he replied that they “lived like beasts” in their homelands and were better off as slaves. If he had his way, he would enslave all Takruni pilgrims to raise them out of their “depraved state” and turn them into “happy, prosperous and civilized beings.”

Such are the sentiments of the barbaric “Fundamentalist” king of the House of Saud, whose dynasty was allied with the self-declared Salafis, the Wahhabi movement of Arabia. Salafis of course presume themselves most punctilious in following the precepts of their religion. Somehow this didn’t prevent them from looking the other way when the tyrant whose dominion they sanctioned condoned the kidnapping of black African Muslims endeavouring to complete the Hajj, one of the Five Pillars of Islamic faith. I am not philosophical enough to be particularly troubled with issues of theodicy, but I can certainly see the position of those who wonder if there is no God, but rather only the Devil.

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10 Responses to Enslaved on Hajj

  1. Åse says:

    So, the plot in the Tintin book Red Sea Sharks were actually in some ways true… Who’da thunk.

  2. Bob Smith says:

    The Arabic language uses the same word for “slave” as it does for “black man”. Further, it is obvious in the Islamic religion that Arabs are the highest of Muslims: the Quran was “revealed” in Arabic, Islam enforces Arab norms of culture, dress, and even personal names on its adherents no matter where they’re from, the Perfect Man (Muhammad) was an Arab, and Mecca is in Arabia. Arabs are still slaughtering black Africans to this day. Given this, is it surprising that Arab Muslims enslaved blacks?

  3. outeast says:

    The Arabic language uses the same word for “slave” as it does for “black man”.

    I believe this is wrong. I don’t know Arabic so I’m dependent on teh Internets for this, but if what I’ve read is correct then the Arabic word for slave is sometimes used as a perjorative for black people. That’s a horse of a very different water: after all, you wouldn’t say that American English uses the same word for ‘aubergine’ and for ‘black person’, would you?

  4. Meng Bomin says:

    Not well versed in Arabic myself, I am reminded of the word kaffir used in South Africa as a racial slur for blacks coming from the Arabic for unbelievers, having read the book Kaffir Boy in high school.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymology had some relationship with the dynamic that Razib described above, though I’m not particularly knowledgeable on the topic.

  5. Polichinello says:

    The word used by Arabs for blacks collectively is abeed, which is the plural of abd, or slave. I know this because my wife’s family is Arabic (Christian). They speak a colloquial Levantine dialect. (nB: spoken Arabic is a lot like Chinese, where you have a uniform script, but the spoken language can be almost incomprensible to Arabic speakers from different parts of the world.)

    I was puzzled by the word because when I tried to learn Arabic, I learned the words for basic colors, and the word for black was aswad, while the word for white is abyad. I wondered how they got to abeed for blacks until I put together the meaning of names like Abd ur-Rahman or Abdullah.

    Funny story, my liberal, Arabic brother-in-law was so oblivious to this etymology that when he was running down America for racism, he fell short when I pointed out that he called blacks “abeed” all the time. He just never grokked the origin of the word he had used so casually.

  6. Polichinello says:

    In fairness, our word “slave” is an ethnic label as well: “slav”. So many slavs were enslaved that their ethnicity apparently became synonymous with slavery. We, of course, don’t even think about it when we use the word slave. In colloquial Arabic situation is reversed, where the word for slave has been turned into an ethnic label, so that is worse situation, but current Arabs aren’t using the word in a consciously perjorative sense when they refer to blacks as “abeed”.

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    Polichinello: Actually, no, “Slav” comes from “slovo”, “word”.

  8. Polichinello says:


    I meant that the English word “slave” came from the ethnic label “slav.”

    From here:
    “slave (n.) Look up slave at Dictionary.com
    late 13c., “person who is the property of another,” from O.Fr. esclave (13c.), from M.L. Sclavus “slave” (cf. It. schiavo, Fr. esclave, Sp. esclavo), originally “Slav” (see Slav), so called because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples.”

  9. Which raises the question of what is the role of sacred texts? Clearly, they play a much bigger role in some religions than others.

    If texts are not binding constraints, they are still constraints in some sense. Religions strike me as having certain logics to them. What those logics are will incline people to certain sorts of outlooks, and certain sorts of circumlocutions to get around them. In cases of religions with sacred texts, those texts will tend to express those logics.

    So, I agree that they are not binding constraints, but they are not causal nothings either.

  10. I discuss the connection between religion and ideas with consequences here. It is an analysis which compares the debates in Islam, Judaism and Christianity on Aristotelianism and the question of whether to emphasize the primacy of God’s Will or God’s Rationality. Judaism and Christianity accepted Aristotelian rationality, mainstream Islam rejected with consequences that still matter. So, not a position of doctrinal determinism but one of ideas having consequences.

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