A History of Racism in the Islamic Middle East

Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (Oxford: OUP 1990).

Bernard Lewis is a veteran scholar of Islam, and this book is an examination of the emergence and development of predominantly Muslim Arab racism in the Middle East. The book is a reworking of two previous studies from the 1970s, one of which was first published in French. It started off as part of an academic examination of intolerance, concentrating on religious bigotry. Lewis, however, believed that issue had been solved and so moved on to racial intolerance. Unfortunately, as the past fifty years have unfortunately shown, religious hatred and bigotry has certainly not died out, as shown here in Britain with the sectarian violence in Ulster.

Arab Ethnic Identity Before Colour Prejudice

Islam is viewed as an anti-racist religion, and the Qur’an states categorically that Blacks and Whites are both equal and should be treated as such. This admirable attitude was maintained by its theologians and jurists. However, with the emergence and expansion of the Islamic empires this began to change and prejudice and racism, based initially in ethnic differences and then on skin colour, emerged. The book argues that the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabs, like the other nations around them, had a strong sense of their own superiority against those of the surrounding peoples. This was based on ethnicity, not colour. A variety of colours were used to describe the variations in human complexion, and were used in relative rather than absolute terms. Thus the Arabs saw themselves as black compared to the ‘red’ Persians, but white compared to the Black peoples of Africa. As the new Arab ruling class intermarried with the peoples they had conquered, so there developed an attitude which saw Arabs of mixed descent as inferior, leading to dynastic conflicts between those of pure and mixed race. Muslim Arabs also saw themselves as superior to converts to Islam from the indigenous peoples of the Islamic empire, and a set of rules developed to enforce the converts’ inferior social status. At the same time, the Arabs formed various explanations based on the environment for the ethnic differences they observed among different peoples. An Iraqi writer believed that Whites had been undercooked in the womb due to the coldness of the environment they occupied. Blacks, on the other hand, were overcooked. The Iraqi people, however, were brown and mentally and physically superior to the other two races.

Development of Anti-Black Prejudice

As Islam expanded into sub-Saharan Africa anti-Black racism developed. This did not initially exist, not least because Ethiopia had been one of the major superpowers in the Arabian peninsula with a superior culture. Muslims also respected the Abyssinians for giving sanctuary to many of Mohammed’s followers during their persecution by the Meccan pagans. Over time, however, an attitude of contempt and racial superiority emerged towards Blacks. This racism even extended towards highly regarded Black Arabic poets and the governors of provinces, who were reproached and vilified for their colour by their enemies. Here Arab racist views of Blacks is nearly identical to those of White European racists. They were seen as lazy, ugly, stupid and lustful. The prurient view of Black women as boiling with sexual desire mirrors the racist attitude towards Jewish women amongst western anti-Semites. On the other hand, Blacks were also seen as strong, loyal, generous and merry. They also had excellent rhythm. Although both Whites and Blacks were enslaved, White slaves had a higher status and different terms were used to describe them. White slaves were mawlana, literally, ‘owned’. Only Black slaves were described as slaves, abid, a term that is still used to mean Black people in parts of the Arab world today.

The expansion of the European states and empires effectively cut off or severely diminished the supply of White slaves, and as a consequence the value of Black slaves began to rise. Unable to afford White slaves and concubines from Europe and the Caucasus, the peoples of the Middle East turned instead to Abyssinians and the Zanj, Black Africans from further south. Abyssinians in particular were prized for their beauty and other qualities, and its from this period that the Arab taste for the beauty of Black Africans rather than Whites developed. And as anti-Black racism developed, so Muslims scholars and authors wrote pieces defending Blacks from racism, not least because many of Mohammed’s Companions had been Black and the emergence of powerful Muslim kingdoms in Africa.

Islamic Slavery and Slave Armies

Islamic slavery was comparatively milder and more enlightened than western slavery. Although technically slaves could not own property and were disbarred from giving evidence in court, there was limitations on the punishments that could be inflicted on them. Muslims were urged to treat their slaves humanely and manumission was praised as a noble act. It was particularly recommended for the expiation of particular sins. At the same time Islam permitted contracts to be made between master and slave allowing the slave to save enough money to purchase his freedom at an agreed date. There were stories of particular Muslims who freed their slaves even in circumstances where punishment would have been expected. One master freed a female slave after she asked him why he was still alive, as she had been trying to poison him for a year. Slaves could rise to high office. The viziers and other chief dignitaries of the Ottoman empire were slaves. Slaves were used to staff Muslim armies, and there were separate regiments for White and Blacks slaves. Sometimes this resulted in battles between the two, as during the dynastic battles where one side used Black soldiers and the other White. The mamlukes, the Egyptian warriors who ruled Egypt and who expelled the Crusaders and stopped the Mongols conquering the Middle East, were White slaves. They were freed after completing their military training and their leaders preferred to purchase other slaves for training as their successors rather than pass on their position to their own children.

Islam’s acceptance and regulation of slavery, like Judaism, Christianity and other religions, as well as the views of ancient philosophers like Aristotle, also meant that there was opposition to its abolition. Muslim defenders of slavery produced the same arguments as their Christian counterparts, including the argument that Blacks and other infidels were better off enslaved as it introduced them to a superior civilisation. When a 19th century British consul inquired of the king of Morocco what steps he was taking regarding slavery and the slave trade, he was politely informed that all the legislation was based on the Qur’an and sharia and that there was no intention of banning slavery as it was permitted by Islam. Indeed, the Ottoman province of the Hijaz, the area around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was exempt from the Ottoman ban on slavery and the slave trade after the ulema and nobles declared it to be an attack on Islam, along with legislation allowing women to go in public without the veil. The Turks were declared to be apostates, who could be killed and their children enslaved. Many of the pilgrims to Mecca came with a number of slaves, who acted as living sources of funding. When the pilgrim needed more money, he sold one or two of them.

The Myth of Muslim Non-Racism

In the last two chapters, Lewis discusses the emergence of the view of Islam as completely non-racist and that its slavery was benign. He argues that this was largely the creation of western scholars reacting to the horrors of New World slavery during the American Civil War. Christian missionaries also contributed to this myth. They attempted to explain their failure to make converts by arguing that it was due to Black African revulsion against harsh western slavery. In fact it was due to differences of colour. Islam spread because it was promoted by Black African preachers, rather than White westerners. Particularly influential in the creation of this myth was Edward Blydon, a Black West Indian who was educated in Liberia by the missionaries. He became convinced that Islam was more suited to the needs of Black people, and his books also stressed White guilt, contrasting it with Muslim tolerance. Lewis also believes that the myth is also due to a widespread feeling of guilt among western Whites, which he sees as the modern counterpart to Kipling’s White man’s burden.

Along with the text of the book itself are extensive notes and a documentary appendix containing texts including a Muslim discussion on national character, the rights of slaves and diplomatic correspondence and observations on the 19th century slave trade.

Race and Slavery Compared with Brown’s Slavery & Islam

This book should ideally be read alongside Jonathan A.C. Brown’s Slavery & Islam, as the two present contrasting views of slavery and racism in Islam. Brown is a White, American academic and convert to Islam. While he condemns slavery totally, his book presents a much more positive view of Islamic slavery compared with western servitude and even the conditions endured by 19th century free European workers. He also extensively discusses Islamic abolition and the voices for it, while Lewis lays more stress on Muslim opposition. Brown recognises the existence of racism in the Islamic world, but also emphasises Muslim anti-racist texts like The Excellence of the Negroes. But as Lewis points out, these texts also show the opposite, that there was racism and bigotry in the Muslim world.

Lewis also recognises that Muslim slaves generally enjoyed good conditions and were treated well. However, the real brutality was inflicted on them during the journey from their place of capture to the Islamic heartlands. He also suggests that this relatively benign image may be due to bias in the information available. Most Muslim slaves were domestic servants, unlike the mass of slave labouring on the plantations in America. There were gangs of slaves working cotton plantations and employed in mining and public works, and these laboured in appalling conditions. It may also be that there were more slaves working in agriculture than recognised, because the majority of the information available comes from the towns, and so ignore what may have been the harsher treatment in the countryside.

He also discusses the absence of descendants of the Black slaves, except for a few pockets, in the modern Middle East. David Starkey in an interview for GB News claimed it was because the Muslim slave masters killed any babies born by their slaves. I don’t know where he got this idea. Lewis doesn’t mention such atrocities. He instead suggests that it may have been due to the castration of large numbers of boys to serve as eunuchs in the harems. The other slaves were forbidden to marry and have sex, except for female slaves purchased for that purpose. Slaves were also particularly vulnerable to disease, and so an epidemic lasting five years could carry off an entire generation.

Importance of the Book for an Examination of Contemporary Racial Politics

I was interested in reading this book because of the comparative lack of information on slavery and racism in Islam, despite the existence of books like Islam’s Black Slaves. Lewis in his introduction states that researching the issue may be difficult and dangerous, as it can be interpreted as hostility rather than a genuinely disinterested investigation. I think there needs to be more awareness of the history of Muslim slavery and Islam. For one reason, it explains the emergence of the slave markets in that part of Libya now occupied by the Islamists. It also needs to be more widely known because, I believe, the emphasis on western historic slavery and racism can present a distorted image in which the west is held to be uniquely responsible for these evils.

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4 Responses to “A History of Racism in the Islamic Middle East”

  1. Mark Pattie Says:

    Good critique as per usual. Certainly the issue of slavery in the Islamic world needs to called out/explored more than it currently seems to be. I’m not sure our “favourite” right-wing YouTube historian has posted much on the subject. He seems to be more recently preoccupied with interviewing a bunch of unsavoury far-right “personalities”.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Mark. As regards our favourite right-wing YouTuber, he’s posted a couple of videos on African slavery, which he believes is being played down. But you’re right, I don’t remember him doing anything about Islamic slavery.

      • Mark Pattie Says:

        Also. having read your article, I’ve a theory that maybe the Bell Curve BS has possible ancient roots in 8th-century Arabia, given that the Arab conquerors no doubt thought themselves more intelligent than their Berber/Bedouin etc. subjects?

      • beastrabban Says:

        Possibly – the Arabs definitely thought they were more intelligent than Blacks, but it might simply also be the case of similar ideas developing independently from similar circumstances. I haven’t heard of any Arab racist texts being translated and used by White racists, though it wouldn’t surprise me if western racists didn’t support their views by citing Arab racism and discrimination.

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