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Slavery in Islam

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by Samuel Cotton


African Americans have contended for decades with a rage born of remembrance--a resentment fomented by poignant images of black Africans captured, bound, and sent into the horrors of slavery. Some have been driven to travel to the continent of Africa, and stand on the shores of West Africa to view the actual places where the degradation of a race began. At these places, the grandchildren of ancient slaves--survivors of a holocaust--wrestle with a terrible mixture of emotions. The passions produced by t he realization that the forts before them housed their African ancestors in their last days of freedom before a long voyage delivered them into the hands of cruel masters. The white hot anger that rises slowly in African Americans as they recall these events and the epithets that dance in the heads of these observers of the past, sometimes escapes their lips as curses and bitter mutterings. Occasionally, African Americans simply fulminate. These bitter expressions of resentment and grief have only be en cooled and soothed by a belief that African Americans hold. The comforting assurance that the buying and selling of black African slaves ended in the distant past. Such a belief is a myth.

It has become clear that the enslavement of black Africans did not stop with the demise of the Atlantic Slave Trade. That on this very day and hour, as you read this, black Africans are bought and sold in two North African countries. In the Islamic R epublic of Mauritania, black Africans continue to be enslaved by their Arab-Berber masters. Although slavery was declared abolished three times since Mauritania's independence in 1960, it persists. Slaves are given as wedding gifts, traded for camels, g uns or trucks, and inherited. The children of slaves belong to the master and slaves who displease their masters or attempt escapes are tortured in the most brutal manner imaginable.

In Sudan, Africa's largest country, the Islamic Republic of the Sudan, as a result of an Islamic-vs.-Christian civil war, black women and children (mostly Christian) are captured in raids on their villages and sold as chattel slaves, sometimes, according to the UN in "modern-day slave markets."

The Mauritanian Embassy and the Sudanese Mission were contacted several times for comment—they did not return the calls.


Mauritania—A Legacy of Slave Trading

The enslavement of black Africans has existed in Mauritania for many centuries. It is a country that joins the descendants of Arabs and Berbers from the North, known as beydanes [white men], and the black ethnic communities living in the South. Blacks, mostly sedentary farmers, consisting of the Tukulor, the Fulani, and the Wolof tribes were brought north after being captured by raiding Arab/Berber tribes. This activity predates and postdates the Atlantic slave trade. Simply put, the slave trade that brought black Africans to these shores never stopped in Mauritania. "More than 100,000 descendants of Africans conquered by Arabs during the 12th century are still thought to be living as old-fashioned chattel slaves in Mauritania" says Newsweek after co nducting a yearlong, four-continent investigation of slavery.

Differing only slightly with this estimate, the U.S. State Department estimates that 90,000 blacks still live as the property of Berbers, "and that's a conservative estimate," said Dr. Jacobs, who puts the actual figure closer to 300,000 when interviewe d by The News Tribune. In addition, Newsweek states that "Aside from the shantytowns and a strip of land along the Senegal River, virtually all blacks are slaves, and they are more than half the population."

"Black Africans in Mauritania were converted to Islam more than 100 years ago," says Mohamed Athie, Executive Director of the American Anti-Slavery Group, [and]. . ."the Koran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, but in this country race outranks r eligious doctrine. . . Though they are Muslims, these people are chattel: used for labor, sex and breeding."

Africa Watch reported that "Religion has been used by masters as an important instrument to perpetuate slavery. Relying on the fact that Islam recognizes the practice of slavery, they have misinterpreted it to justify current practices. In truth, Islam only permits treating as slaves, non-Islamic captives caught after holy wars, on condition that they are released as soon as they convert to Islam. People living as slaves in Mauritania long before the first abolition in 1905 were all Moslems, but this d id not lead to their emancipation. We received numerous complaints about the extent of which qadis (judges in Islamic courts) continue to exercise their judicial functions to protect the institution of slavery, rather than to ensure its eradication."

Successive regimes outlawed slavery in 1905, at independence in 1960, and most recently in 1980. These edicts were only lip service and window dressing. The proof is that since independence all economic and political power have remained firmly in the h ands of beydanes.

The Sudanese government never passed any laws providing punishment for enslaving black Africans and they never bothered to tell many of the slaves about emancipation. In 1980, the government sought to have its ruling ratified by a body of religious juri st, the ulema. The jurists said that slavery is not wrong on religious grounds, but that outlawing it would be within the government's competence--provided that owners were compensated for the manumission of slaves. Nobody has ever applied for compensation."

These black African slaves in Mauritania are subjected to mental and emotional torments that have always been concomitant with slavery. "Routine punishments for the slightest fault include beatings, denial of food and prolonged exposure to the sun, with hands and feet tied together. "Serious" infringement of the master's rule can mean prolonged tortures, documented in a report by Africa Watch. These include 1. The "camel treatment," where a human being is wrapped around the belly of a dehydrated came l and tied there. The camel is then given water and drinks until its belly expands enough to tear apart the slave. 2. The "insect treatment," where insects are put in his ears. The ears are waxed shut. The arms and legs are bound. The person goes ins ane from the bugs running around in his head. 3. The "burning coals" where the victim is seated flat, with his legs spread out. He is then buried in sand up to his waist, until he cannot move. Coals are placed between his legs and are burnt slowly. A fter a while, the legs, thighs and sex of the victim are burnt. There are other gruesome tortures--none of which is fit to describe in a family newspaper" states Africa Watch. Another report states that some slaves caught fleeing are often castrated or branded like cattle.


Slave Trade in Sudan

"Sudan is the Arabic word for "black" but only the southern part of the country is populated by black Africans who practice traditional religions or Christianity. In the southern Nile Basin the Dinka and Nuer tribes practice a semi-nomadic economy base d on cattle raising.

The Sudan is formerly a parliamentary democracy. From 1899 through 1955 it was ruled jointly by the British and the Egyptians as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Sudanese nationalism gradually redeveloped, and on January 1, 1956, Sudan became independent. Upon independence, civil war broke out between the black southerners and the Arab northerners who now ruled the country. This war lasted until 1972 and ended with the Addis Ababa accord.

In 1989, Lt. General Omar Hassan Bashir and the Sudanese People's Armed Forces overthrew Sudan's democratic government and dissolved all political institutions. This new government and it's Popular Defense Force (PDF), is said to be controlled by a fund amentalist Islamic group called the National Islamic Front.

This action set the stage for the second civil war when southerners, 6,000,000 people, saw their special constitutional status overthrown by the Arab government in Khartoum. Previously, the black south had its own regional parliament and government. Additional pressures were the Arabization and Islamization of the country, particularly the imposition since 1983 of Islamic law in the South. The people of the South, many of them Christians, feel this is oppressive and strongly resisted. Under the lead ership of John Garang, the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA) was formed. Garang, a former colonel in the Presidential Guard, is a Dinka and his movement has splintered along tribal lines.

The civil war also led to the resurgence of the slave trade. The Sudan was once virtually rid of slavery, but "Time has spun backward since rebel leader John Garang rallied the African tribes of the country's fertile south against the country's Muslim e lite" says Newsweek. ". . .The government counterinsurgency strategy has included arming the Arab tribespeople who live on the fault line between the Muslim north and the animist south. Consequently, there has been a resurgence of traditional raiding--i ncluding slave taking, human-rights organization charge." Arab militias, armed by the Government, raid villages, mostly those of the Dinka tribe, shoot the men and enslave the women and children. These are kept as personal property or marched north and sold," wrote AASG's Jacobs and Athie in the New York Times (July 13, 94.) [and] "Many of the children are auctioned off."

Corroborating this testimony is Gaspar Biro, a specially appointed United Nations human rights monitor, who returned from the Sudan in March to report that ". . .abducted children are often sent to camps that become 20th century slave markets. The price varies with supply. According to the London Economist (January 6, 90) in 1989, a woman or child could be bought for $90. In 1990, as the raids increased, the price fell to $15.

Jacobs and Athie explain that "Not only are their bodies in bondage, but they are also stripped of their cultural, religious and personal identities." A case in point is the life of Abuk Thuc Akwar, a 13-year-old girl, who along with 24 other children, was captured by the militia, marched north and given to a farmer. Interviewed by an investigator from Anti-Slavery International she states that "Throughout the day she worked in his sorghum fields and at night in his bed. During the march she was raped and called a black donkey," the investigator wrote in a 1990 report.

Some have asked why the Dinkas allow themselves to be treated like this? The Reporter, a journal published in England, interviewed an educated Dinka. He explained: "The people taken are usually ignorant, and unorganized. Though many in number, they h ave no power or weapons. When displaced, they are frightened, vulnerable and weak. People in the slave trade, by contrast, are part of the government system -- army, police, militia -- and Government people have relatives who need labor; they turn a blind eye to it.

Many officials living now in Khartoum, who have served in the South, have slaves in their homes, though they deny this. The head of state, Omar Hassan el Beshir, is reputed to have six or eight slaves in his home in Khartoum."


The Race Factor

There is a belief among African Americans about Arabs near and far that may cause them to shrink in disbelief and doubt the credibility of these reports. Many blacks feel that racism and racist attitudes do not exist among Arabs, especially Muslims, and that there is a common bond between black people and Arabs, and again, I must add--particularly Muslims. It is partly for this reason, that the Arab slave trade has always been played down.

This perception was reinforced among African Americans by the experiences of Malcolm X. His positive interactions with beydanes (white men) played a significant part in his transformation from Black Muslim to Orthodox Muslim. Malcolm stated quite elate dly, "America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. "Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been consider ed 'white'--but the 'white' attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. . . .We were truly all the same (brothers)--because their belief in one God had removed the 'white' from their minds, the 'white' from their behavior, and the 'whi te' from their attitude." (The Autobiography of Malcolm X pg. 345, 346) Are these perceptions true? Does racism along with economics drive slavery in these two countries, and possibly other Arab nations, as was the case in the Judeo-Christian We st? This question must be asked of other Arab nations because "The UN report suspects that many blacks are sold into Libya."

In Mauritania, Newsweek spoke to Fahl Ould Saed Ahmed the owner of two 10-year slave boys.  He was asked if there was racism or slavery [in his country]. He replied "There is no racism, thaere is no slavery." The truth is that "In Mauritania, there is a Muslim ruling class made up of Berbers and Arabs, whose base is in the north of the country. They enslave thousands of blacks, who are cut off from their tribes in the south. from their language and culture.< P> They are Islamicized and made slaves for life." said Dr. Jacobs who, along with Mohamed Athie was featured on a PBS expose of modern day slavery that aired on Tony Brown's Journal, the week of January 6 to the 12. "All the blacks of Mauritania converte d to Islam a hundred years ago," Athie said. "The nation forbids it. The religion forbids it. Yet slavery goes on. And it is clearly racial in nature. These people are slaves solely because they are black. A non-black Muslim is not enslaved, a black one is."

In 1992, Newsweek spoke to a slave named Dada Ould Mbarek in Mauritania: "He was asked: weren't Mauritania's slaves emancipated? 'I never heard of it,' he said. 'And what's more, I don't believe it. Slaves free? Never here.' Isn't he the same as hi s master? 'No, I'm different. A master is a master and a slave is a slave. Masters are white, slaves are black.' Is this just? 'Naturally, we blacks should be the slaves of the whites." Dada Ould Mbarek manifests the effects of physical and psycholog ical slavery. He sadly has come to think that black men are inferior to whites.

Africa Watch spoke to Moussa Ndiaye (not his real name), he was a teacher in Tagant region from 1984 until he was deported in May 1989. Moussa Ndiaye sheds further light on the race factor when he explains that ". . .The center of the social order is th e white master who has the right to do nothing while the blacks do all the work.

When the master goes to the fields, he usually sits in the shade of a tree and is served tea while the blacks do all the work. No white woman does any domestic work. All household tasks are done by slave women who have grown up in the household. Altho ugh she grows up together with the white children, she is made to understand, from a tender age, that she is at the service of the master."


Slavery and the Media’s Silence

Since the existence of human bondage has been proved undoubtely, there are two questions that must be answered. First, why has the media given such little attention to this story, and second, who if anyone, is doing anything about it.

Dr. Jacobs, Director of Research of AASG, claims that slavery has been legitimately documented by any number of human rights groups around the globe for many years now. So, why is there so little coverage?

Jacobs: "People have to understand that what is called "the news" is primarily the account of the exploits of white people. Blacks appear only in the context of white action, usually on the receiving end. Non-whites are not portrayed as agents of histo ry, only as victims and responders to it. Newscasters who are conservative show good white action to celebrate Western civilization. Liberal newscasters show bad white action to scold and/or to improve whites.

In North Africa, there are no white actors, good or bad, so the place is essentially invisible. Compare this to South Africa where the news went wild, in my view, to show whites how they might become better people by abandoning apartheid. The media doe sn't care that the slaves in Khartoum suffer more than the disenfranchised in Johannesburg, no whites, no news."

Q: But some would say, it is hard for the media to get into the closed societies of Mauritania and Sudan.

A: "They get everywhere else. If whites were made slaves, they'd find a way to cover it. And besides, there are some pictures. Newsweek did one story on it, but the media does not think it is important enough to follow up."


A Political Problem

Slavery is not the work solely of individuals--the governments of Mauritania and the Sudan are involved. Gaspar Biro, the UN human rights monitor reports that the government in Khartoum is complicit in these crimes, if not committing them outright. Con sequently, this problem of slavery requires both the actions of individuals and political action from the United States and other world governments.

There have been efforts from certain congressmen to pass needed legislation. Congressman Barney Frank, in part as a response of the work of Athie and Jacobs, introduced a House Resolution (#572) last year in the Congress that would require the US to act against slaving nations. It was lost in the shuffle and died at the end of a hectic session. Frank says he will soon re-introduce the item in this session of Congress. In addition, Congressman Frank Torricelli (D-NJ) is calling for Congressional Heari ngs on the slave trade.

Yet a peculiar silence is observed from those who would be the most natural forces to fight for black slaves -- the coalition that fought apartheid -- blacks and liberals. When asked on PBS who was helping their group to fight the slave trade, Jacobs an d Athie cited Frank and Torricelli, but said no one from the Black Caucus was being supportive.

When asked recently by a reporter, Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) said he would support Barney Frank's Resolution. and, referring to the Black Caucus, he said "We certainly have grave concerns about these reported cases, [and] "I remember that we condemned th e treatment of black people in Mauritania in the House about two years ago." Yet, it seems strange that in condemning the treatment of Mauritanians, the Black Caucus frames the issue in Mauritania as one of human rights, and does not speak of it as chatt el slavery. Torricelli has no such compunction.

Similarly, Payne went to Sudan last year, visited the refugee camps, but again came back not mentioning the issue of slavery, yet UN special investigator Gaspar Biro came back with stories of modern day slave markets. Has Payne not read Biro's report?

Frank Kiehne, Payne's foreign affairs advisor responded, "We're convinced that slavery still exists in Mauritnia. The congressman is one of those sponsoring HR505, the bill to cut off foreign aid to Mauritania until they shape up. We know that slavery exists in the Sudan but it's pretty hard to pin down, because it's mainly in the south and it's hard to get in and out of there."

The Black Caucus was criticized last March, when 25 relief groups met to call for stepped-up pressures on the Sudanese government. Washington Post staff writer Ken Ringle reported that "the black caucus was noticeably absent." The only black Congressman to attend was Floyd Flake (D-N.Y.) who stated clearly that he was there on his own and not as a representative of the Caucus.

One of the conference arrangers, Nina Shea, of the Puebla Institute, a Washington-based human rights group focusing on religio us freedom, speculated that the caucus didn't want to be involved in the criticism of an Islamic government.

Ringle himself guessed that the issue of black slaves serving Arab Islamic masters was "discomfiting to those in this country promoting the idea of African unity, in part because it reawakens the image of the Arab slave trade in Africa that long pre-date d and post-dated that in the New World." He went on to say that the slave issue could "further exacerbate the tensions between black Christian ministers and followers of Louis Farrakan's National of Islam."

On the TV program, Tony Brown's Journal, Jacobs and Athie said they had written and called members of the caucus with their documentation of the slave trade, but were ignored. When asked specifically if he thought there was a fear on the part of the cau cus to criticize an Islamic country or if the caucus had Farrakan in mind when they thought about black slaves serving Arab Islamic masters, Jacobs replied, "I can't imagine any member of the Black Caucus who would place his relationship with anybody or a nything in front of what he must feel is a sacred duty to black women and children who are now slaves. I am sure that when they finally become aware of this issue, they will act with dispatch."

Mohamed Athie, as the keynote speaker on Martin Luther King Day at the University of Chicago said, "We need people to support the legislative proposals of Barney Frank and Robert Toricelli,"

Jacobs said . "We need to get the word out that these things are going on. We are trying to form a grass-roots organization to combat this horror. To my mind, the largest pressure brought upon South Africa to end apartheid came from the United States and especially from the organized blacks of the United States. We need the Congressional Black Caucus and other black organizations to really pay attention to this issue of slavery. We can end slavery like we ended apartheid."

Despite overwhelming evidence of the slave trade, the silence and apathy persist. Despite the powerful evidence presented by Dr. Jacobs -- evidence strong enough in June, to get the beleaguered American branch of Amnesty International to decide it was time to abolish slavery.

When presented with evidence of human bondage in North Africa, the members voted to add to an already crowded mandate the emancipation of chattel slaves. What more do black and white political officials need to know to shatter t heir apathy and strange silence?

Perhaps fear of incurring the wrath of the Islamic governments of Mauritania and the Sudan lies at the heart of the issue. It is dangerous business to expose corrupt regimes in Islamic countries.

Examine the experiences of Gaspar Biro. Gaspar Biro is a 36-year-old Romanian-born lawyer, who was dispatched by the U.N. a year ago to investigate allegations of human rights abuses so widespread and so flagrant they have drawn denunciations from around the globe says the Washington Post. Biro produced a 4 2-page report to the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. He pointed to slave trafficking, and that the Sudanese criminal law provides routinely for flogging, amputation, death by stoning, and in special cases, for the execution and crucifixion of children as young as 7. The Sudanese called his report a "flagr ant blasphemy and a deliberate insult to the Islamic Religion" on which it says Sudanese law is based. In the press they compared him to Salman Rushdie in affronts to the Koran "for which Mr. Biro should bear the responsibility."

The Washington Post states that Biro said it would be out of his mandate as a monitor or "Special Rapporteur" for the U.N. to question the wisdom of any religious ordinance or belief. He said provisions of Sudanese law providing for things like the ston ing of adulterers or the crucifixion of children were brought into effect not by religious authorities but by the secular machinery of a secular government organized in many respects like a Western-style state. "It's a very schizoid situation over there. They didn't have to join these U.N. conventions on human rights," he said. "Saudi Arabia, for example, has not. But since they did they must be held accountable. That was my mission to examine this sort of thing." Despite this logic, an official rep ly from the Sudanese government called it "a prejudiced report against Muslim beliefs all over the world, demeaning the source of their inspiration and faith."

In addition, to veiled threats against his life, Biro has received very clear threats. On March 25, 1994 Biro had breakfast at the Puebla Institute, located in Washington, with about 10 members of groups making up the coalition for Peace in the Horn of Africa. In walks Safwat Siddiq of the Sudanese embassy who had not been invited. Safwat Siddiq then proceeded to tape the proceedings and warn Biro about offenses to Islam. "He was very polite," said Puebla's Nina Shea, who witnessed and reported the e ncounter. "But the point was made."

When asked about these threats, Biro said "I was aware from the first day of this situation, and that it would come to this state if I described things as they are," he said softly. "This, you see, is nothing new for me." Biro was raised amid the repre ssive Romania of the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, "I lived always with one foot in prison. I know well how totalitarian governments operate, how they think they can hide things and what they try to do. I think perhaps the Sudanese overlooked that possibility when they let me in the country."

On this subject of attacking Islam, Rep. Barney Frank said in the Washington Post: "But this is not an indictment of all Arabs, just a few Arabs. When abuses occur it is much better to identify them than to ignore them because of fear or possible reper cussions. That way the abuse continues and the situation worsens." Frank is correct. This is not an indictment of the tenets of Islam, but of those men who claim to be Muslim but are not following its teachings.

This should cause Arabs to rise up in indignation--not at those exposing this injustice, but at those disrespecting the word of Allah. And Muslims have done just that. Courageous Arabs have risked there lives to get this information out.

Men who kno w and actually live the law of Allah. Men like Dr. Ushari Ahmad Mahmud, a lecturer at Khartoum University, and Dr. Suleyman Ali Baldo who drew the attention of the international community to the re-emergence of slavery in Sudan. In July 1987 they wrote Al Diein Massacre: Slavery in the Sudan, which detailed the massacre of over 1,000 Dinka men women and children, some of whom were burnt to death, in El Diein, the main town in the province of Southern Darfur. Bravely these two men reported that hundred s of Dinka children and women have been kidnapped from Diein and other villages by government-supported Rizeigat militias and are now living in slavery.

The two Muslims stated that "We believe it is the role of Sudanese intellectuals to squarely address instances of the violation of human right[s] in the country. And it was this belief which prompted us to investigate the Diein massacre and the re-emergence of slavery in the Sudan.. . .We present the results of our investigations into the massacre and t he practice of slavery in this report. We hope that it will encourage others to work to expose publicly all violations of human rights in the Sudan so that we may work together to change the conditions that make such violations possible.



When that which was done in the dark is brought into the light. When evils are exposed, such as the evils of slavery, invariably the characters of those who grasp the revelation are ineluctably tested. For, it is easy to rant and rage against horrors lost in antiquity, to express bitterness and anger for those tortured souls now asleep in death, or to shake our fists at ghosts. The difficulty lies in opposing a living adversary whose rapacious appetites have devastated all that one holds dear.

It is a profound experience when an adversary stops running and turns to meet you in battle. When a plunderer points to his spoils and hurls a challenge that finds its mark in the very center of your being -- " Yes, I did it--now what are you going to do about it?" Yes, what will be done about the question of slavery?

It must be remembered that this present curse is also a blessing--an opportunity. History rarely gives one a chance to confront a tormentor lost to time and place. Have we not, one and all, fantasized and conjured up visions of arriving in time to prevent the rape of mother Africa, or fighting our way to the main deck of the slave ship Zion to free its terrified cargo. Well, a window in time has reopened, but what will we do about it?

Ultimately, each African American must examine the evidence with their heart and conscience, and decide where they will stand on this issue of slavery. Whether they choose to close their eyes and ignore the enslavement of black Africans—preferring to shake their fist at the ghosts of the distant past. Or whether they decide to join the ranks of the newly formed abolitionist movements to raise a unified voice in protest. One thing is clear: Until the enslavement of Black African men, women, and chil dren vanishes from this earth, this discussion will go on--and on, and on.





Slavery in the Arab World

Murray Gordon

New Amsterdam Books, New York, NY 1989 

In his fact-filled work on the history of the Muslim Arab slave trade in Africa, Murray Gordon notes that this trade pre-dated the European Christian African slave trade by a thousand years and continued for more than a century after the Europeans had abolished the practice. Gordon estimates the number of slaves “harvested” from Black Africa over the period of the Muslim Arab slave trade at 11 million – roughly equal to the number taken by European Christians for their colonies in the New World. 

“Despite the long history of slavery in the Arab World and in other Muslim lands, little has been written about this tragedy,” writes Gordon in his introduction. “Except for the few abolitionists, mainly in England, who railed against Arab slavery and put pressure upon Western governments to end the traffic in slaves, the issue has all but been ignored in the West.” 

‘Conspiracy of Silence’ on Arab Slave Trade 

Gordon decries a “conspiracy of silence. . .[that] has blocked out all light on this sensitive subject.” Among scholars in the Arab world, the author points out, “No moral opprobrium has clung to slavery since it was sanctioned by the Koran and enjoyed an undisputed place in Arab society.” 

The book starts out with a brief outline of the growth of the Islamic attitude toward slavery. There is no evidence that Muhammad sought to abolish slavery, notes Gordon, although he urged slave-owners to treat their slaves well and grant them freedom as a meritorious deed. 

“Some Muslim scholars have taken this to mean that his true motive was to bring about a gradual elimination of slavery. Far more persuasive is the argument that by lending the moral authority of Islam to slavery, Muhammad assured its legitimacy. Thus, in lightening the fetter, he riveted it ever more firmly in place.”


High Rate of Black African Casualties 

While Gordon acknowledges that at times the Islamic version of slavery could be more “humane” than the European colonial version, he provides many facts which point out that the Muslim variety of slavery could be extremely cruel as well. 

One particularly brutal practice was the mutilation of young African boys, sometimes no more than 9 or ten years old, to create eunuchs, who brought a higher price in the slave markets of the Middle East. Slave traders often created “eunuch stations” along the major African slave routes where the necessary surgery was performed in unsanitary conditions. Gordon estimates that only one out of every 10 boys subjected to the mutilation actually survived the surgery. 

The taking of slaves – in razzias, or raids, on peaceful African villages – also had a high casualty rate. Gordon notes that the typical practice was to conduct a pre-dawn raid on an unsuspecting village and kill off as many of the men and older women as possible. Young women and children were then abducted as the preferred “booty” for the raiders. 

Young women were targeted because of their value as concubines or sex slaves in markets. “The most common and enduring purpose for acquiring slaves in the Arab world was to exploit them for sexual purposes,” writes Gordon. “These women were nothing less than sexual objects who, with some limitations, were expected to make themselves available to their owners. . .Islamic law, as already noted, catered to the sexual interests of a man by allowing him to take as many as four wives at one time and to have as many concubines as his purse allowed.” Young women and girls were often “inspected” before purchase in private areas of the slave market by the prospective buyer.


Racism Toward Black Africans 

Some of Gordon’s research disputes the oft-repeated charge that racism did not play a part in Islamic slave society. While it is true that the Muslims of the Middle East took slaves of all colors and ethnicities,  they considered white slaves more valuable than black ones and developed racist attitudes toward the darker skinned people. 

Even the famous Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, expressed racist attitudes toward black Africans: “The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and their proximity to the animal stage,” Khaldun wrote. Another Arab writer, of the 14th Century, asked: “Is there anything more vile than black slaves, of less good and more evil than they?” 

Gordon covers the Arab/African slave trades up until the mid-20th Century, noting that Saudi Arabia only abolished the practice in the early 1960s. Unlike the European nations and the USA, the Arab nations did not abolish African slavery voluntarily out of moral conscience, but due to considerable economic and military pressure applied by the great colonial powers of time, France and Britain. Slavery is still practiced in two Islamic nations: The Sudan and Mauritania. 

Further reading about the Arab/Muslim slave trades can be found in the following book:


Race and Slavery in the Middle East

Bernard Lewis

Oxford University Press  (Trade); Reprint edition (April 1992)  

An excerpt from this book can be found here 

To learn more about the 21st Century slave conditions in The Sudan and Mauritania, please visit 


# # # 

White Slaves, African Masters

An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives

Edited and with an introduction by Paul Baepler

The University of Chicago Press 1999 

This book illuminates a subject once well-known in the history of the West but which is now somewhat neglected: the enslavement, over several centuries, of tens of thousands of white Christian Europeans and (later) Americans in Muslim North Africa -- or the so-called “Barbary” states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli. Over the course of 10 centuries, tens of thousands of these unfortunates became the possessions of Muslims in North Africa courtesy of the feared Barbary pirates. These pirates cruised the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in search of European and, later, American ships to pillage and plunder. 

Edited by a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Paul Baepler, this book focuses on first-person accounts of American Christians who served as slaves to high-ranking Muslim officials in North Africa. Baepler also provides fascinating background commentary that puts the narratives into historical perspective. He includes two “fictional” narratives of female captives. (According to Baepler, Christian women captives of the Barbary states – unlike male captives – usually did not publish their testimonies under their real names, due to the fact that many of them had been “dishonored” by service in the harems of Barbary potentates.) 

As Baepler notes in his introduction, Christian slaves of European ancestry were hardly an uncommon phenomenon in the Barbary States. The Barbary pirates were excellent seafarers and, from the Coasts of North Africa, sailed as far north as Iceland (where they went ashore and captured 800 slaves during one incident) and as far West as Newfoundland, Canada, where they pillaged more than 40 vessels at one time. By 1620, reports Baepler, there were more than 20,000 white Christian slaves in Algiers alone, and by the 1630s that number tolled more than 30,000 men and 2,000 women. The most famous of all white Christian Europeans to serve as a slave in the Barbary States was probably Miguel de Cervantes, the great Spanish author of the “Don Quixote” epic, who was taken as a slave in the late 1500s. 

An Important Source of Revenue 

European and (later on) American slaves appeared to have been important source of foreign revenue for the local economies for several centuries. First, European and (later) American governments paid huge sums in “tribute” to the Muslim governments in exchange for “peace treaties” that were supposed to halt the pirate attacks on their trading and naval ships. Those nations who did not pay suffered the consequences. Second, enslaved Europeans and Americans were often redeemed for a handsome ransom. And third, even if the Muslim governments received no “tribute” or ransom, they still benefited from the unpaid labor of their captives. 

Baepler quotes a Barbary Coast maxim that illustrates the viewpoints of the pirates and their sponsoring states: “The Christians who would be on good terms with [the Barbary States] must [either] fight well or pay well.” 

The first-person narratives reproduced in this book do not support the often-repeated contention that slavery was somehow a more human institution in the Islamic world than it was in the European colonies of the New World. 

By and large, the Christian slaves were poorly fed and housed, existing, by one account, on a meager ration of two slices of bread and a small quantity of beans per day. Clothing – and medical care -- was provided by sympathetic free Europeans living in North Africa; slave-owners provided nothing. Spanish Catholic priests even built a large hospital in Algeria to look after ill and dying Christian slaves. 

The most popular punishment was the “bastinado” – hundreds of blows on the soles of the feet with a thick wooden truncheon. For more severe offenses, such as attempting to escape or ridiculing the Muslim religion or prophet, slaves were executed in particularly cruel ways: by crucifixion, burning at the stake or impalement on huge iron hooks until death. The narrators of these slave accounts witnessed many acts of brutality toward the Christian slaves, as well as toward the general North African populace ruled over by the elite: the beys, deys and bashaws of the Barbary States. 

Baepler quotes from, but does not include, the narrative of one James Riley, an American Barbary captive of the early 1800s who published a book about his experiences upon returning to the United States. The book became an influential “best-seller” in the young nation of the USA and influenced those Americans who worked for abolition of the shameful practice of Black African slavery in the Southern States of the USA. Riley’s book was said to have greatly influenced one young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who, as 16th president of the United States, signed the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in the U.S. in 1863. 

As for the Barbary pirate slave trade, it continued sporadically up until the dawn of the 20th Century, and was not abolished until military and economic pressure was applied by the colonial powers of Europe (with, in come cases, assistance from the military might of the USA). 




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