“Race and Slavery in the Middle East” by Bernard Lewis

Book Review and Analysis

Race and Slavery in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis tackles one of the more taboo topics within Islam and the Muslim community; racism and slavery. Usually, when race and the history of the Arab slave trade is discussed, this makes religious figures uneasy. One cannot deny the fact that Islam allows slavery even while promoting manumission. The Qur’an does not however, allow for racial or tribal stratification. Lewis does a great job in separating what the Qur’an says as a holy text and what Muslims say on behalf of Islam. With chapters ranging from “Race” and “Slavery” (chapters 1 and 2) to “The Discovery of Africa” (chapter 7) and “Image and Stereotypes.” (chapter 13). It is also important to understand Lewis does talk about Christianity and Judaism as it relates to slavery in the Middle East. For this review, I will focus on Islam. Lewis also talks about racist attitudes towards non Blacks as well but, I will focus on Blacks.

Speaking on Lewis’ ideals on slavery he makes the claim that even though slavery is a horrible institution there must be an honest conversation held about it within an Islamic context. Lewis says, that Islam greatly improved the condition of slaves from chattel to humans with religious and social status and “quasi-legal rights.  The early Caliphs passed laws concerning slavery which; made the enslavement of free Muslims prohibited, a free Muslim could not sell himself or his children into slavery, and free Muslims could not be enslaved based on crime/debts. With this line of thinking, Islamic jurisprudence began to move towards the idea that the natural status of humans, Muslim and non Muslim was freedom.

With all human being naturally free, slavery could only arise from two conditions 1) being born to slave parents 2) being captured during war. This limited the means in which people could be enslaved but, the rapid spread of Islam aided to the slave population but, not by much. As organized Muslim armies started to face other organized armies, usually Christian armies of the Byzantine Empire, ransom was the first option. The only way a non Muslim could be enslaved is if they violated the terms of dhimma, the contract which determined their social status. Converting to Islam did not guarantee a slave’s freedom nor did being born from Muslim slave parents.

The Islamic world did not rely on slaves as did the United States, especially the Southern states. Slaves in the Middle East under Islamic rule, could rise in ranks in the military or even become government officials. This was usually reserved for European slaves living under Ottoman rule. Black slaves would usually be used for working in salt and gold mines.

This brings up Lewis’ next point, how Middle Eastern people saw race. Lewis early on in chapter two makes the claim that different races can share a culture. Lewis also makes the claim that race in the pre-Islamic Middle East, as we know it today was of little importance. Unlike Roman and Greek thinkers who made claims of a “slave race”, this was absent in the Middle East.

Arabs would refer to themselves as a combination of different colors; white, swarthy whites, and sometimes brown. Once again, at this point in time, of skin color did not denote a race as we know it today. Culture cues such as, language and clothing style more so divided people than skin tone. It was not until after the death of Muhammad that skin color began to describe one’s birthplace or heritage. Black became associated with Sub-Saharan Africa (West, Central, and East Africans). White and Red became a classifier for Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Greeks. This is when the onslaught of anti-Blackness revved up and anti-Black literature began to surface. Stories of Da’ud “The Black”, who was famous for his ugliness (blackness) circulated. Da’ud was dragged in front of a Moroccan judge who had him flogged for a crime while his Arab partner in crime was set free. Anti-Black hadith stories began to surface such as the Kaba will be destroyed by a black man. With this avalanche of legal and social racism sprouting, pro-Black literature also rose.

Works such as The Boast of Blacks the Whites” by Jahiz of Basra (776-869) began to be published. Jahiz wrote against the ill treatment of assumptions that Whites had against Blacks. Jahiz also writes on the equality of Black people as marriage partners in Islam. Egyptian philosopher, Jalal Al- Din wrote Raising of the Status of Ethiopians (1501). Jalal Al-Din would reject hostility towards Blacks and stated that Blackness was a good quality in plants, stones, and animals.  

Moroccan jurist Ahmad al-Wansharisi (1431-1508) wrote extensively on if Ethiopian convert slaves could be set free by their own merit. Wansharisi reminds his community that conversion to Islam does not set one free, slavery is a condition arising from previous or current unbelief. Malian jurist, Ahmed Baba (1556-1627) wrote that Muslims and non-Muslims living under Muslim rule could not be enslaved. He also dismissed generational slavery as unmerciful thus not permissible by Sharia. Ahmad ibn Khalid (1834-97) wrote on the mass enslavement of Black Muslims during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Lewis covers a very large time from in his book, covering pre-Islamic Middle East to the 19th century. Lewis refrains from using overly academic words as he Is writing for a very wide range of readers. One may have trouble with some Arabic terms but, Lewis does a fantastic job defining most of them. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the intersections of race and religion, especially concerning Black Muslims. It is important to remember that this is not a treatise against Arabs or the Middle East. Lewis tackles a very touchy subject that many Muslims reply to with, “we are one ummah. Race does not matter.” Lewis is honest with his sources and uses them to creates an honest narrative of racism and slavery in the Middle East.


Further Reading:

Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection by Sherman Jackson

Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race by Edward Blyden

Five Classic Muslim Slave Narratives by Muhammad al-Ahari

Servants of Allah: American Muslims Enslaved in the Americas


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