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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