Posts Tagged ‘Quran’

A History of Racism in the Islamic Middle East

May 27, 2022

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.

Black and Muslim YouTubers Discuss Slavery and Racism in Islam

March 30, 2022

I found this fascinating video on Sa Ra Garvey’s YouTube channel. I don’t know anything about Garvey, except that he’s probably a proud man of colour concerned with his people’s improvement and liberation. His name appears to be a reference to the Black activist and Jazz muso Sun Ra and the great Jamaican Black activist Marcus Garvey. Since the issue of slavery and reparations emerged once again in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, many, largely conservative commenters, have also been raising the issue of slavery in Islam. Slavery did not, after all, begin with Europe and the transatlantic slave trade. It has existed in various forms around the world since antiquity, and before White Europeans turned to enslaving Black Africans for the plantations in the New World, Islam had also done so. The first Black slaves imported into Europe were slaves brought into Islamic, Moorish Spain. Stephen Howe in his book Afrocentrism, states that the Arabs enslaved 5 million Black Africans, comparable to the 12 million taken by White Europeans.

In the video Black and Muslim speakers discuss the Islamic enslavement of Black Africans and the resulting legacy of racism in the Arab, Middle Eastern and south Asian worlds. One of the terms used in Arabic for Blacks is ‘abid’, which means ‘slaves’. The video also contains footage from documentaries filming the slave markets that have opened in Libya, selling Black migrants hoping to reach Europe. It also contains comments from enslaved Africans and free Blacks further south in Africa justifiably furious at the enslavement of their fellows. There are also clips from an al-Jazeera documentary on Black Iraqis. They are the descendants of enslaved Africans, and complain about the racism and marginalisation they suffer from and their political aspirations to gain power and improve their lot. One Black American contrasts the attitude of White westerners with that of the Saudis. He states that if you ask a western White about slavery, they’ll respond with remorse. The Saudis never do.

I have a few caveats about the video. Some of the material comes from Memri TV, and the video’s edited by Taqiyya Watch. These are both anti-Islam channels. ‘Taqiyya’ is an Islamic term for lying to defend Islam. It started out, I believe, as a Shi’a strategy to avoid persecution. It initially meant that a Muslim could deny he was a member of the faith in order to avoid being killed. Since then it has been expanded to the production of falsehoods to protect the faith itself. Memri TV seem to be an Israeli outfit specialising in translating material from the Islamic world which Muslims would like to hide. This is often when Middle Eastern politicians present a moderate face to the West, but present themselves as much more hard line to domestic Muslim audiences. However, the important point is that these organisations also have their overt biases against the Islamic world.

Regarding racism, Jonathan A.C. Brown discusses this in his book Slavery & Islam. He notes that the Qur’an actually condemns racism, and during the Middle Ages a series of Muslim scholars wrote books defending Blacks with titles such as The Excellence of the Negroes. He also describes the shock of one 19th century Arab visitor to France, who was shocked at how the standard of beauty was confined to White complexions, excluding the darker skin colours the Arabs preferred. The anti-Black racism is therefore against the letter and spirit of Islam, but persists nonetheless.

I am not trying to be deliberately controversial by posting this video. I find it interesting because it shows that Blacks in America and Africa are concerned about the Arab/Muslim slave trade, its legacy and resurgence. I find it particularly interesting that Afro-Iraqis are challenging racism in their country. That’s something I doubt very many people have heard about, unless they’re studying Islam or Middle Eastern politics at a post-graduate level in academia. The two speakers at the start of the video, a Black man and an Asian Muslim woman, describe how Blacks and Arabs are both minorities and so have allied with each other. But they feel that in this alliance, Blacks are very much the junior partner. They are the minorities’ minority. This is a comment on the politics of intersectional leftism, which seeks to unite a range of disparate groups, such as Blacks and ethnic minorities, gays and feminists in order to challenge conventional society. It shows that, despite right-wing attempts to present such alliances as a monolithic block, there are strains and criticisms within them. As for the re-opening of the slave markets in Libya, this is deeply offensive and troubling to the majority of severely normal Muslims around the world. In 1856, for example, the Muslim ruler of Tunis banned slavery completely within his dominions. That was 164 years ago. It is deeply repulsive and shocking that after all that time, real slavery is returning to the world.

Ahmad Bey’s 1846 Decree Abolishing Slavery in Tunis

March 23, 2022

Jonathan A.C. Brown’s book, Islam & Slavery, naturally discusses the abolitionist movements in the Muslim world and the arguments advanced by Muslims for the abolition of slavery. Many of these are based on the detailed regulations regarding slaves governing who could be legitimately enslaved, their protection and rights, and especially Mohammed’s urging masters to free their slaves as a righteous and beneficent act. This has led many Muslims to conclude that although the Quran and hadith legitimised slavery, the real goal and aim of Islam has been its abolition. And regarding their treatment of slaves, the book notes the various western visitors to the Islamic world who considered that Muslims treated their slaves exceptionally well, indeed far better than the miserable wretched enslaved on the plantations in the Caribbean and America. Indeed, Muslim visitors to these areas were shocked at how appallingly those slaves were treated, and British officials and commenters noted how this had lowered Britain and Europe in Muslim eyes.

Ahmed Bey was the 19th century ruler of Tunis. In 1841 the British consul requested him to do something to stop the slave trade and slavery in his realm. Bey shocked him by promptly abolishing the slave trade and the slave market. Five years later he promulgated this decree outlawing slavery altogether.

‘To proceed: it has been established beyond all doubt that most of the people in our state in this time are not properly exercising ownership (milkiyya) over Black African slaves (Sudan), who have no power or means themselves, since, according to discussions among the scholars, the basis of their ownership has not been established. This is particularly the case since the faith (of Islam) dawned n the (Sahel) region some time ago.

So where are those who own their brothers in the legitimate legal manner that the Lord of Messengers (Muhammad) taught to us in his final lesson, at the end of his time in this world and the beginning of his time in the next, that among the principles of his Sacred Law is aspiring to freedom and obliging the slave’s owner to manumit him on the basis of harms (done to him).

Thus our concern that kindness be done for those poor (enslaved) people in their earthly life, and also for their owners in their afterlife, in our current condition, entails that we prohibit people from this permanent (masbih) but disagreed on practice (i.e., slavery) This is out of our worry that the slave holders) might fall into something agreed upon by commonsense and study as forbidden, namely their harming their brothers whom God put in their care. And in this we also have common political interests, among them the (slaves) fleeing to the sanctuaries of officials outside their nation (i.e., European consulates).

So, we have assigned official notaries to the Sufi lodge (zawiya) of Sidi Muhriz of the Bakriyya, and of Sidi Mansur to record (documentary) proof of our ruling on manumission for any (slave) who comes seeking aid against his owner, which should be presented to us for us to seal. And you all, may God guard you, if a slave should come to you all seeking aid against his master, or if you should hear of some instance of a slave being owned, send the slave to us. And beware of his owner seeking out means against him, for your sanctuary is being sought for emancipation (fakk, ragabatihi) by those whose proper ownership is most probably not valid. And we would not rule in favor of the (slave owner) claiming that it was (valid) in this current age. And avoiding what is permitted out of fear of falling into the realm of the forbidden is part of the Sacred Law, especially since this factor has now been added to by what the common good (maslaha) demands. So people must be directed to this end. And God guides us to what is straightest and gives good tidings of great reward to those believers who do good deeds. And peace.’ (Pp.228-9).

God bless the Bey, and all who fight for human freedom and dignity.

Ta-Ha Book on Learning Arabic

November 28, 2020

A.T. Ayyad, Teach Yourself Arabic: Rules of Reading and Writing (London: Ta-Ha Publishers 1982).

This is another book on Arabic that I bought when I was briefly trying to learn the language three decades ago. Ta-Ha are, I think, an Islamic publisher and this book begins with the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran. I think they take their name from two of the syllables that begin various chapters of the Quran, whose meaning according to some Quranic scholars, is known only Allah.

Ayyad was a teacher of Arabic at the Lycee Francaise in Cairo from 1930 to 1953, and says in his introduction that the book is an English version of the methods used to teach the language to Arab students. The book is really a short – 114 pages – introduction to standard Arabic, and includes the alphabet as well as transliterations of the Arabic vocabulary. The book subtitle says it for understanding the rules for reading and writing the language, and it concentrates on grammar rather than vocabulary. It’s probably intended for those wishing to learn Arabic so they can read the Quran, but apart from the quote at the beginning of the book, the sample sentences and exercises aren’t religious. As well as practice exercises, it also includes sample conversations, traditional folktales and proverbs, as well as a section on punctuation, abbreviation and the numerical values of the Arabic alphabet. This seems to be used as a system of numerals rather like the Latin alphabet. There is also a grammatical appendix.

I am definitely no expert, but my guess is that this book gives a basic grounding in the standard, written language. Where I think it might be improved is by providing a little more information about actually writing the letters. Some books on languages that use a different alphabet actually show how they are written with diagrams of the individual pen strokes. This doesn’t. It simply shows the shape of the letters, leaving the reader to work out for themselves how to write them.