The Origins of the Muslim (Islamic) Slave System

Vishwa Bhaarath
The Origins of the Muslim (Islamic) Slave System

    From the day India became a target of Muslim invaders, its people began to be enslaved in droves to be sold in foreign lands or employed in various capacities on menial and not-so menial jobs within the country. To understand this phenomenon it is necessary to go into the origins and development of the Islamic system of slavery. For, wherever the Muslims went, mostly as conquerors but also as traders, there developed a system of slavery peculiar to the clime, terrain, and populace of the place. For example,  simultaneously with Muhammad bin Qasim’s invasion of  Sindh in the early 8th century, the expansion of Arab Islam had gone apace as far as Egypt, North Africa, and the Iberian  Peninsula in the West, as well as in Syria, Asia Minor, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Khurasan, Sistan, and Transoxiana. In all these countries Muslim slave system grew and developed in its own way. There was constant contact between India and most of these countries in medieval times. For example, as early as during the reigns of the slave sultans Iltutmish and Balban (1210-86), there arrived at their courts in Delhi a large number of princes with their followers from Iraq, Khurasan and Mawar-un-Nahr because of the Mongol upheaval.1Many localities in Delhi and its environs were settled by these elites and their slaves, soldiers and scholars. 
    In Balban’s royal procession 500 Sistani, Ghauri, and Samarqandi slave-troops withdrew swords used to march by his side pointing to the fact that a large number of foreign slaves from these lands had come to India in the 13th-14th centuries. When the Mughals launched their conquest of India, there was the establishment of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey which at its height included present-day Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and several other contiguous countries. Then there was the Safavid Empire in Iran. The Ottoman Empire traded with Europe and imported “their indispensable stock of slaves, (Slav, as the word indicates), supplied by merchants, sometimes Jewish, from Verdun, Venice or elsewhere in Italy. Other slaves were brought from black Africa, eastern Europe, and Turkish Central Asia.” The Mughals of India had very close contacts with the Turkish Ottoman and Iranian Safavid empires. This contact certainly included the exchange of slaves and ideas on slavery. But any attempt in this area of study, which is so vast and labyrinthine, is bound to deflect us from our main theme which is restricted to India. We shall therefore confine ourselves to the barest particulars of the beginnings of the institution outside India which will suffice for understanding the Muslim slave system in India in the medieval period.

   Prophet Muhammad found slavery existing in Arabia and recognized it in the Quran. The origins of Muslim slave the system can thus be traced to Arabia, the original Muslim homeland, and the regions into which Islam spread. Quranic injunctions, Islamic conquests, and Muslim administrative institutions gave it continuity and legitimacy. According to T.P. Hughes, Slavery is in complete harmony with the spirit of Islam… That Muhammad ameliorated the condition of the slave, as it existed under the heathen law of Arabia, we cannot doubt; but it is equally certain that the Arabian legislator intended it to be a permanent institution. D.S. Margoliouth elaborates on the theme adding that “On the whole… the Prophet did something to alleviate the existence of the captives… manumission was declared by him to be an act of piety… and murder or maiming of slaves was to be punished by retaliation.”  In one of his last sermons, Muhammad exhorted his followers thus: “And your Slaves! See that ye feed them with such food as ye eat yourselves, and clothe them with the stuff ye wear. And if they commit a fault which ye are not inclined to forgive, then sell them, for they are the servants of the Lord, and are not to be tormented.” His first orthodox biographer, Ibn Ishaq, however, mentions a transaction that set a precedent for the Islamic slave trade at a later stage: “Then the apostle sent Sa‘d b. Zayd Al-Ansari… with some of the captive women of B Qurayza to Najd and he sold them for horses and weapons.” The women had been made captive after their menfolk had been slaughtered en masse in the marketplace at Medina.

Status of Slaves in Islam

    The appeal of Muhammad contained some fundamental perceptions about the status of slaves in Islam. It recognized the slave as the property of the master. A slave could be sold but, being a Muslim or servant of the Lord, was not to be treated harshly. Here it needs to be observed that in the early days of Islam it was the scum of the society the flocked to the standard of Muhammad and became his fighting force. “Koran acknowledges so distinctly that the followers of the Prophet were the lowest of the people.” Arabian aristocracy “requested him to send away this scum before they would argue with him”, (as did the Turkish ruling classes treat the early Muslim converts in India). But the mission of Muhammad was to spread his creed and any non-humane regulations would have presented a very unfavorable picture of Islam to the captives. This would have discouraged proselytization. On conversion also Muslim slaves could not be treated badly for that again would have been damaging to the reputation of the new creed and galling to the lives of the new converts. How these injunctions were later on followed or flouted by Muslim invaders and rulers in other countries is a different matter. In the original land of Islam, in Arabia, it was enjoined not to treat the slaves harshly; instead, the masters were encouraged to utilize to the best the services of men slaves and enjoy the intimate company of women slaves.

This tolerant treatment was not without conditions. A slave was the property of his master. His tenor of life was determined by the latter. For example, he could not marry without the master’s permission. Although he was free to move from place to place, he could not hold pleasure parties nor pay visits to friends. A slave could not bestow aims or grant a loan or make a pilgrimage. If he managed to accumulate any property, it was inherited not by his sons but by the master.12 In theory a slave could purchase his freedom, but a bond of freedom was granted to a slave in return for money paid, and until full money was paid there was no total redemption. A slave should not seek his emancipation by running away, “The slave who fled from his master committed an act of infidelity”, says Muhammad.
   The emancipation of slaves was not unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia. It was an old custom among the Arabs of more pious disposition to will that their slaves would be freed at their death. To Muhammad, the freeing of a slave was an act of charity on the part of the master, not a matter of justice, and only a believing slave deserved freedom.

In short, slavery in Islam is a permanent and perennial institution. As Margoliouth points out, “the abolition of slavery was not a notion that ever entered the Prophet’s mind.” “The fact remains,” writes Ram Swarup “that Muhammad, by introducing the concept of religious war and by denying human rights to non-Muslims, sanctioned slavery on an unprecedented scale… (and on) such massive proportions. Zubair, a close companion of the Prophet, owned one thousand slaves when he died. The Prophet himself possessed at least fifty-nine slaves at one stage or another, besides thirty-eight servants, both male and female. Mirkhond, the Prophet’s fifteenth-century biographer, names them all in his Rauzat-us-Safa. The fact is that slavery, tribute, and booty became the main props of the new Arab aristocracy..” “The Slavery of Islam is interwoven with the Law of marriage, the Law of sale, and the Law of inheritance, of the system, and its abolition would strike at the very foundations of the code of Muhaminadanism.”

Extension of Islamic Slavery 

    Islamic slave system spread and developed wherever Muslim rule was established. Ghulam or quallar (‘slave’) was the creation of the Safavid state. Mamluks were found in Egypt. In the Ottoman Empire, they were called Kapi-kulus. “Kapi-Kulu were recruited originally from the Sultan's share of prisoners of war, and subsequently from a periodical levy (depshrime) of Christian boys. Most of the youths entered the Janissary corps.” Christian slaves were drawn from the ranks of the Georgian, Armenian and Circassian prisoners or their descendants.” Black slaves, natives of East Africa, were called Zanj. Majority of slaves who penetrated and 
flourished in India were Turks.

Immediately after its birth, Muhammadanism entered upon a career of aggressive and expansionist conquest. Its Caliphs conquered extensively and set up autocratic governments based on the tenets of Islam rather than democratic governments based on the will of the people. Conquests required large armies; despotic governments could not be run without a train of bureaucrats. From the ninth to the thirteenth century in particular it was a period of feverish activity in Muslim Asia; empires were established and pulled down; cities were founded and destroyed. In other words, the whole of Central Asia, Transoxiana, and Turkistan was a very disturbed region in the medieval period. Armies and bureaucrats were needed in large numbers to administer the ever-expanding dominions of Islam. The Turks came in handy for such services.
The Slave Trade
The Slave Trade

Turkish Slaves 

   The Abbasids had built up a very large empire with capital at Baghdad, and its provinces were administered by their Turkish slave officers and Turk mercenary troops. Caliph al-Mutasim (833-842 C.E.) introduced the Turkish element into the army, and he was the first Caliph to have Turkish slaves under his employment. For it was soon discovered that the young slaves acquired from Turkistan and Mawar-un-Nahr formed an excellent material for such a corps.

Turks is a generic term comprehending peoples of sundry denominations and tribes. The Turkistan of medieval historians was an extensive country. It was bounded on the east by China, on the west by Rum or Turkey, on the north by the walls of Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog), and on the south by the mountains of Hindustan. The Turks as a people were both civilized town-dwellers and the migratory tribes trekking across the desert or wilderness. With the extension of the Muslim frontier to the north and west of Persia one tribe after another, like Turks, Tartars, Turkomen, and even Mongols and Afghans came under subjection. They attracted the attention of their conquerors by their bravery and spirit of adventure. They were acquired in groups and droves as slaves. The Caliphs of Islam also purchased Turkish slaves to manage their far-flung empire. The Turkish slaves helped the cause of Islam through their fighting spirit. 

But as their numbers grew, they became unmanageable. For example, Caliph al-Mutasim’s own guard was of 4000 Turks; the number later rose to 70,000 slave mercenaries. With time the tyranny, lawlessness, and power of the Turks went on increasing. The unscrupulous policy of religious persecution followed by the Caliph Mutawakkil was responsible for the alienation of the subject races. His own son entered into a conspiracy with the Turks, which ended in the Caliph’s murder in 861. The Caliph Mutadid (892-902) was unable to suppress the power of the Turks. The final decline of the Caliphate set in just after the murder of Muqtadir in 932 C.E. “The Turkish soldiers made and murdered Caliphs at their pleasure.” As the Caliphal empire disintegrated, in the third century of Islam, its provincial governors became independent.

But technically these Turkish governors were only slaves and their tenure of power rested on military force and chance victory and not on any moral foundations. On the other hand,  the Caliphs were objects of respect. The first four Caliphs were directly related to Muhammad. Muawiyah, the founder of the Ummayad Caliphate, was a cousin of Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet. Abbas himself was a founder of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Turkish slaves, therefore, considered it politic to keep a sort of special relationship with the Caliph: they went on paying him tribute and seeking from his recognition of their ‘sovereignty’. That is how, in course of time, their political power was firmly established.


1 Minhaj, 598-99; Farishtah, I, 73, 75. 
2 Barani, 57-58. 
3 Cambridge History of Islam, II, 524. The word slave, observes Ram Swarup, “is derived from Stavs, the Slavonic peoples of Central Europe. When they were captured and made bondsmen, they gave birth to the word ‘slave’”, The word as Revelation: Names of Gods, 23; also J.H. Kremers, The Legacy of Islam, 101.
4 Dictionary of Islam, 596, 600. 
5 Margoliouth, Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, 461-62. 
6 Cited in Muir, The Life of Mahomet, 473. 
7 The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’sSirat Rasul Allah by A. Gillaume, CUP, Karachi (1955), Eighth Impression, 1987, 466. 
8 Margoliouth, 98 quoting Quran, 11:27. 
9 Ibid., 97 
10 Ibid., 406-407; Quran, 4:3, 4:24, 4:25, 23:6; Muir, Life of Mahomet, 334-35, 365, 421. 
11 Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, 598. 
12 Sahib Muslim, Hadis, 3584, 3585, 3595. 
13 Quran, 24:33. 
14 Ram Swarup, Understanding Islam Through Hadis, 76. 
15 Margoliouth, Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, 461. 
16 Ram Swarup, op.cit., 75. 
17 Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, 600. 
18 Cambridge History of Islam, I, 280 and n., 342. 
19 Ibid., 415, also 407. 
20 Ibid.. 129-30, 179. 
21 Ruben Levy, The Baghdad Chronicle, Cambridge, 1929, 13. 
22 Hamdullah Mustaufi, Tarikh-i-Guzidah, ed. E.G. Browne, London, 1910, 318. 
23 Fakr-i-Mudabbir, Tarikh-i-Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah, 38. 
24 Cambridge History of Islam, I, 125. 
25 Ibn Asir, Kamil-ut-Tawarikh, Urdu trs. Hyderabad, 1933, VI, 319. 
26 Sykes, P.M., History of Persia, 2 vols., London, 1915, II, 83. 
27 Ruben Levy, The Social Structure of Islam, Cambridge, 1962, 282. 

By : Kishori Sharan Lal - Voice of India (full-width)

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