How did Medieval Muslim Merchants think about Race and Slavery? 900-1450 CE

Many people ask if the Indian Ocean Slave Trade was about race. While it didn’t use the same racial system as the Atlantic Slave Trade, and people of many ethnicities could be enslaved, we can’t just give no for an answer.

*Disclaimer: I’m talking about the Indian Ocean world BEFORE European exploration/colonization started there circa 1500. I haven’t researched anything after that. There was a boom in the Indian Ocean slave trade around 1900 when the Atlantic trade was banned. My knowledge is between 900-1450 AD, the heyday of maritime trade between Africa, Middle East, India, Indonesia and China.*


The Atlantic slave trade was very clear cut. One drop and you’re black (thus subhuman and legally discriminated against) and you’re a slave unless your master frees you. Even then you’re still legally black. **There was no one drop rule in Asia, and race was not a legal status all by itself. BUT! There is a persistent historical association between slavery and blackness, and prejudice towards black Africans.** Africa was the main source of people who became commodities on the global maritime market in the Indian Ocean.


**LONG ANSWER** (see bottom of post for a paragraph sketching the time period if you want context)


Slavery was common within all these societies and most slaves were owned by someone of the same ethnicity as them. But when speaking of a slave trade, it’s mostly African. Many parts of Africa could be raided for slaves with impunity, unheard of for India or Oman. Sometimes a local leader would sell people from his realm, or poor parents would sell a child. Other people just got kidnapped–by foreigners or a neighboring nation. A non African person could of course be kidnapped by pirates and sold, or sold by her family. But there wasn’t the same kind of steady stream of people shipped all over the way there was for Africa.

Most slaves in this trade were women and children, with women becoming domestic workers or concubines. Agriculture was not based on the slave trade. It was more of a luxury to have a slave than an economic necessity. The exception to this is the Zanj slave revolt in Iraq 869-883. Large numbers of African slaves, supported by other low ranking members of society, rose up after being forced to do backbreaking work converting salt marshes into farmland. Zanj is an Arabic word for African, which also can mean slave. It was one of the largest and most successful slave revolts in history, with a multi ethnic rebel coalition ruling much of Iraq for decades.

Islam reformed slavery and made it more humane. The Quran frequently encourages people to free their slaves and to treat them kindly. It stresses that no person is superior to the other aside from their moral character. Muslims freed their slaves far more often than Europeans did. Islamic custom declared an enslaved woman who gave birth to her master’s child was set free. It was also customary for a master to release all his slaves when he died. Children of slaves were not slaves themselves. Slaves could be educated, and some became high ranking government officials! Paradoxically, many people might have looked down on Africans and also got bossed around by one. There is even an empire in India founded by a slave. Some historians say an unintended consequence of Muslim reforms was to encourage raiding for new slaves, rather than building up a large population of slaves at home. It was against Islamic law to enslave another Muslim, though many people chose to ignore this.

Muslims saw each other as part of one community that transcended wealth and ethnic ties. Muslims of all colors went on the same pilgrimage, and would offer each other hospitality during travel. Arabic became a unifying language spoken everywhere there were Muslims.



The Arabic word *abeed* means slave, and today is still used as a synonym for black (it’s a slur). You can find racist descriptions in the writing of scholars and travelers from the time– all the way back to Galen (Roman Empire) who wrote that black men were sexually insatiable.

* In the Hadhramaut– a desert on the coast of Syria– slaves and freed slaves had to live in a ghetto on the outskirts of town. Freed black slaves in Syria were often stuck doing domestic work, so many of them went to sea, mostly settling in Southeast Asia. The only people lower than them were the descendants of Ethiopians who had invaded Arabia before Islam. Merchants came from the highest class of people in this society, the siyyids. Siyyids settled heavily abroad and married foreign women, but would only let their daughters marry other siyyids. The mixed children and grandchildren of these marriages were called *muwallad*. Some people in the siyyid ex pat community were prejudiced against muwallad, reflecting their anxiety about preserving Hadhrami culture while living somewhere else.
* Black Iraqis and Iranians today have a long history of discrimination, living in ghettos, restricted to lowly professions, and being told “don’t marry my daughter.” Their culture is still distinct from the dominant national culture and their heritage is excluded from the national narrative. Iranian theater has a history of blackface, which has many parallels to minstrel shows in the United States.

However, ethnic lines were not as clearly drawn back then (900-1400). Many people who would have been black by European standards identified as Arab because that was their culture. Wealth, religion and connections were often way more important than what you looked like. In Hindu law on the coast of India, all foreign merchants were “impure” according to the caste system and lumped together. They had to live together in a certain part of the port city (which is what the foreigners preferred anyway!)

On the East Coast of Africa, or the Swahili Coast, a hybrid culture formed between Africans and foreign merchants, mostly from Oman, Syria and Iran. The monsoon season meant you had to wait several months for the winds to change, so the merchants would bide their time in Africa and get to know people there. Parts of the Swahili Coast (East Africa between the Horn and next to Madagascar) were ruled by Muslims from Shiraz (Iran) and Oman at times, and local Africans had a lower status than people of mixed Arab and African descent.



**But most societies enslaved “their own people,” right?** Yes, but the line between a slave and a servant was blurry and had variations in different places. Before buying a slave from Africa was possible, the wealthy had longstanding traditions of relying on people to fulfill their whims and impunity in how they treated them. I remember the biography of Virginia Woolf remarked that before modern appliances, having servants was considered essential for having a comfortable life. Not unique to England.

Concubines and maids in China were bought at a market with money and vulnerable to abuse and stigma. But you became a concubine when you or your parents signed a contract. It could happen to anybody, though an upright man would be horrified if he found out his new concubine came from a noble family and might let her go or even set up a proper marriage for her. Ordinary maids in China had contracts and would seek a new employer when their term of service was up.

In India, the Brahmins and military leaders had plantations worked by serfs, bound to the land. These serfs were local people.

In Arabia, both before and after Muhammad, you could become a slave if you got into debt or were captured in war. But you could also buy your way out.



So the whole coast of the Indian Ocean is engaged in constant trade, cramming multiple voyages every year thanks to the predictable monsoon winds. Madagascar, East Coast of Africa, Oman, Yemen, Iran, India, Indonesia, China and even Australia are involved. **The heyday of the trade is roughly 900-1450 AD.** Keep in mind that it was going on at least since the Roman Empire complained about spending all its silver on India’s goods. Also remember there’s a healthy overland trade as well, to bring the stuff from the ships to people living inland.

There’s a cosmopolitan coastal culture that is separate from the inland cultures, but melded all the continents together. If a city was a center of trade, it was home to THOUSANDS of merchants from all over the world and closely connected to other cities like it. (Keep in mind the world had way fewer people back then). It was common for sailors to have wives and children on multiple continents! Ordinary people ate exotic food and the rich enjoyed luxuries from around the world. Not many ethnically Chinese merchants actually sailed for most of this period because the central government restricted trade, though Chinese goods were everywhere. Foreigners living in China often handled most of the trade.




My sources (It would take a long time to list them all, but here’s a few)

Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam by Abdul Sheriff (book)

Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 by K. N. Chaudhuri (book)

[]( Malik Ambar: from Slave to King of India

#Medieval #Muslim #Merchants #Race #Slavery

What do you think?

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