Muslim Resistance to the Abolition of Slavery in the Islamic Empire.

Muslim Resistance to the Abolition of Slavery in the Islamic Empire.

As the European colonial era approached its end, Western forces sought even more to abolish norms that were inconsistent with the UDHR charter. One of such norms, prevalent in many societies for millennia, was slavery. The Islamic empire was the largest empire pre the rise of the West. In Islamic societies, a tripartite model of slavery, inaugurated into Islam by Prophet Muhammad fully thrived. It encompassed domestic enslavement, chattel slavery and slave concubinage. It was Prophet Muhammad himself who personally inaugurated wholesale enslavement of disbelievers for selling or engaging in concubinage and household work. He very well freed some slaves as an exemplary act of goodwill, but he enslaved many more. Prophet Muhammad certified slave trade when he sold his enslaved Banu Qurayza (Jewish) captive women to Najd for acquiring weapons and horses, while forbidding anyone from enslaving the born Muslim. Muslim apologists often argue that Prophet Muhammad never really endorsed slavery, but merely allowed it since it was already prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia. They then refer to the fact that Muhammad also preached manumission to his followers, and personally freed slaves himself, as a testament to the aforementioned premise. The fact of the matter however is that slavery of the vanquished infidels was an integral component of the Islamic empire’s booming economy. Slave trade remained a vital source of wealth in the Islamic world throughout the reigns of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (632-60), the Umayyads (661-750) and the Abbasids (751-1250). After slaughtering all able-bodied Banu Qurayza men, Muhammad confiscated all the women and children as war captives and distributed four-fifth of them among his followers. Early Muslims in their continuous expansionist wars, captured slaves in such great numbers and sold them in slave markets to provide labour throughout the empire, that slave trade became a booming lucrative business enterprise, one that lasted throughout the history of Khilafa. Much so that when outside influences sought to abolish it later on, Muslims staunchly resisted such efforts.

Islamic forces resisted Western efforts to abolish slavery in the Muslim world. As they continue to do today, partly when they fallaciously attempt to promote Islam in a Western-friendly positive light and resort to denying that Islamic doctrine sanctions slavery. All the while, gullible civilians of the non-Muslim world are being disarmed as fascist Islamic doctrines creep into their societies. Claiming that Islamic doctrine does not sanction slavery – out of a bid to protect something that one feels enormous sentiments for – when in fact it does, only aggravates the process of abolishing Islamic slavery (or any of the other fascist doctrines glorified in Islam). As reality would have it, slavery is alive and well in Islamic countries today. In keeping with the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Western Empire imposed a ban on slavery, in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s, and in a number of other Islamic countries before and after then. In spite of this ban imposed by the ‘head of the snake’, there are many reports of slavery still endorsed by senior officials in Saudi Arabia today. About half a million slaves still exist in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. When the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to presidential powers in Egypt and re-wrote the country’s constitutions, it quickly decriminalised slavery by omitting an outright ban on it. Secular countries have no justification for slavery in secularism. Islamic countries however, find no condemnation of slavery in Islamic jurisprudence. The rise of fundamentalist Islamic movements around the globe poses an existential threat to the task of making an all time ban on slavery around the globe, materialise into absolute reality.

This piece is an exposé, uncovering the opposition meted on endeavours to abolish Islamic slavery. M. A. Khan looks in-depth into various acts of resistance put up by Muslims, against Western initiatives to outlaw slavery in Islamic territories. He commences with Britain’s initiative to abolish slavery, courses through the struggle of U.S. and British forces aiming to ban slavery in Islamic territories, discusses Muslims resistance against the British-allied Ottoman’s attempt to outlaw slavery, touches on the revival of slavery in Muslim countries and the implication of the revival of slavery as a global franchise, should Islamic fundamentalists incrementally rise to power. The excerpt below is taken from chapter VII of his book  Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Imperialism, Forced Conversion and Slavery.

©2013. Secular African Society. All Rights Reserved.


Slavery is evidently a divinely-sanctioned institution of Islam; its practice is theoretically binding on the Muslim community at all times. Hence, the campaign for its abolition, quite expectedly, faced staunch resistance in the Muslim world and has not achieved complete success to this day. Slavery still exists in Mauritania, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia etc. in one form or another.

European nations banned slave-trade in 1815 and Britain abolished slavery altogether and freed all slaves in 1833. During the same century, the Islamic world continued the profession, enslaving two million Blacks in Africa; another eight million likely perished in the process. This happened despite active efforts by Western nations to stop slavery in the Muslim world. When India slowly came under the British control beginning in 1757, the enslavement of Indian infidels by Muslims eventually ended. In 1843, the East India Company passed a bill, Indian Slavery Act V, banning slavery, which led to its eventual disappearance. A study at the time of passing the bill found that individual proprietors owned bodies of 2,000 slaves in Bengal, Madras and Bombay.912

In Afghanistan, which remained outside European control, violent enslavement of non-Muslims continued. Alexander Gardner, who extensively traveled across Central Asia between 1819 and 1823, left an eyewitness account of slave-hunting and slave-trade still ongoing in Kafiristan, a province in Afghanistan inhabited by non-Muslims. He observed that the sultan of Kunduz had reduced Kafiristan to ‘‘the lowest state of poverty and wretchedness’’ through regular raids for plunder and catching slaves for supplying to the markets in Balkh and Buhkara. Gardner added: ‘‘All this misery was caused by the oppression of the Kunduz chief, who, not content with plundering his wretched subjects, made an annual raid into the country south of Oxus; and by chappaos (night attacks), carried off all the inhabitants on whom his troops could lay hands. These, after the best had been chosen by the chief and his courtiers, were publicly sold in the bazaars of Turkestan.’’913

In the nineteenth century, there were hardly any families in the Islamic heartland of Mecca that did not possess slaves, including concubines. It is already noted that slaves constituted 6 percent to two-thirds of the population in the 1870–80s in the Muslim-controlled regions of Indonesia and Malaysia.


Starting in the 1530s, Muslim pirates in Barbary North Africa continued catching white slaves until the 1830s from onboard European ships, and from the islands and coastal villages of Europe. The worst-hit were Spain, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. Following independence from Britain in 1776, the U.S. ships and their crews also became victims of Barbary piracy and enslavement. This section will highlight the British and US struggle against enslavement of their citizens in North Africa.

The British struggle

In the 1620s, the wives of enslaved British mariners—some 2,000 of them—joined hands to raise a campaign to force the government to act on releasing their enslaved husbands, who ‘‘for a long time continued in most woeful, miserable and lamentable captivity and slavery…’’ in North Africa. They further added that the misery they have suffered, caused by the absence of their husbands, to the extent that their poor children and infants were almost ready to perish from starvation for the lack of means and food.914

Having suffered depredations of their trade-ships and coastal villages and ports for nearly a century, British King Charles I, after assuming power in 1625, was already acting on the issue. He sent young adventurer John Harrison to North Africa for securing the release of British captives and for signing a treaty against attacks on British ships. The King wrote a letter addressing the hard-headed Sultan Moulay Zidan, while suggesting Harrison that he might have a better prospect of success in direct negotiations with the corsairs of Salé, who often acted in defiance of the sultan.

John Harrison, deciding for a direct negotiation with the pirates of Salé, set off on a hazardous and arduous journey in the summer of 1625 in the guise of a Muslim penitent—bare-legged and in a pilgrim-like garb. After arriving at Salé, he tried to contact Sidi Mohammed el-Ayyachi, the spiritual leader of the slave- hunters of the city. Sidi Mohammed was a wily holy man (marabout or Sufi master), who boasted of causing the death of 7,600 Christians. He showed inclination toward freeing the slaves only if Britain offered him assistance in attacking the Spanish. He also demanded a supply of heavy weaponry, including fourteen brass pieces of ordnance and a proportion of powder and shot. He also asked for taking some of his damaged cannons to England for their repair. Harrison returned to London to discuss the terms with the King and Privy Council. He returned to Salé with a reduced cache of weapons and the promise to assist in his attack of the Spanish. Sidi Mohammed released some 190 captives from his dungeons, although Harrison was expecting some 2,000 of them. At length, he realized that a great many of them had died from plagues, while others were sold to the sultan or elsewhere in North Africa.915

John Harrison landed with the freed slaves in England in the summer of 1627. In his eight diplomatic voyages to North Africa, he made repeated visits to the court of Sultan Moulay Abdalla Malek (r.1627–31), but failed to secure the release of British slaves held there. Sidi Mohammed also broke the truce after some time as his men—dependent on slave-hunting for making a living—pressurized him on the ground that the British government gave them a smaller cache of weapons and was not forthcoming in attacking the Spanish. They executed a number of spectacular raids on British ships and soon they had captured 1,200 British sailors, including twenty-seven women.

The British King ran out of patience. In 1637, he sent a fleet of six warships under the command of Captain William Rainsborough toward the corsair stronghold of Salé for bombarding it into rubbles. He reached Salé after a month’s voyage, when the pirates had just made all their ships ready to go on the hunt to the coast of England. The English fleet was surprised by the huge number of ships under their command. The new governor of Salé had ordered the corsairs ‘‘that they should go for the coasts of England… [and] fetch the men, women and children out of their bed.’’916

Having realized that a deadly and likely disastrous confrontation lie ahead, Rainsborough took stock of the situation in Salé and found out that there was a power-struggle between two groups. One was led by Sidi Mohammed, another by a rebel named Abdallah ben Ali el-Kasri, who had seized control of a part of Salé and was holding 328 English captives. Instead of going on a likely disastrous offensive, Rainsborough decided to exploit the rivalry between the two warlords. He proposed to Sidi Mohammed to launch a joint attack against el-Kasri, hoping that this will enable him secure the release of all British captives and a peace treaty with Sidi Mohammed. Sidi Mohammed, anxious of getting rid of el-Kasri, agreed to the proposal. Rainsborough showered el-Kasri’s stronghold with heavy bombardments, causing total carnage and killing many. Rainsborough then directed his heavy cannon at the corsair ships belonging to el-Kasri, destroying many of them. Meanwhile Sidi Mohammed attacked the rebel stronghold with 20,000 soldiers, wreaking havoc. After three weeks of intense bombardment, the rebels capitulated. They were forced to release the British captives. Rainsborough, having thus completely crushed the rebels and securing a solemn assurance from Sidi Mohammed that he would refrain from attacking the English vessels and villages, sailed back to England in the autumn of 1637 with 230 British slaves.

Rainsborough received a hero’s welcome back to England. There was a widespread feeling that the menace of the Salé corsairs was over once and for all. This belief was reinforced by the signing of a treaty with Moroccan Sultan Mohammed esh-Sheikh es-Seghir (r. 1636–55); he agreed to prohibit and restrain all his subjects from taking, buying or receiving British subjects to use as slaves or bondsmen. But the illusion was soon over as the sultan threw away the treaty within a few months, because of the British government’s failure to stop English merchants from trading with Moroccan rebels. The corsairs of Salé also resumed their attacks. By 1643, a great many British ships were plundered and their crews enslaved. By the 1640s, some 3,000 British citizens were in the hands of Barbary slave-hunters.917

In 1646, merchant Edmund Cason was sent to Algiers with a large sum of money to free the British slaves. He was able to locate 750 English captives, while many more were forced to turn Muslim (who were never released; neither the British government desired so because of their apostasy). Cason paid £38 apiece for each male captive, while a hopping £800, £1,100 and £1,392 for three females. Having run out of cash, he returned to England with only 244 captives, leaving many more behind.

Hereafter, the Barbary corsairs intensified slave-hunting in the sea; they also widened their sphere, attacking ships from far away Norway and Newfoundland. The Russians and Greeks were also enslaved along with merchants and noblemen from the Holy Roman Empire. Spain and Italy were the worst-hit, while Britain, France and Portugal continued to be major victims. In 1672, famous Sultan Moulay Ismail consolidated power and intended to expand the slave-hunting venture to hold the European rulers to ransom for extracting large sums of tribute.

In 1661, Portugal had handed over Tangier to Britain, when King Charles II was betrothed to Catherine of Portugal. The British government had planned to use Tangier, which stood across the straits of Gibraltar, to attack and eradicate the Barbary pirates. In 1677, Sultan Moulay Ismail ordered the capture of Tangier to clear the way for his slave-hunters. Sultan’s General Kaid Omar laid a siege on the garrison city of 2,000 British occupants for five years but failed to overrun it. In 1678, Kaid Omar was able to capture eight defenders and another fifty-seven in a new wave of attacks that followed. In 1680, Kaid Omar’s forces were poised to overrun the garrison, but a British reinforcement arrived in time and beat back Kaid Omar’s forces, forcing the latter to abandon the offensive.918

King Charles II soon afterwards (December 1680) sent an ambassadorial delegation, headed by Sir James Leslie, to secure the release of the British soldiers, captured during the siege of Tangier. The arrival of the gifts for the sultan from London was delayed. So, Sir Leslie sent forth Colonel Percy Kirke to inform the sultan about the delay. A timid and drunkard with no diplomatic experience, Colonel Kirke was overwhelmed by the sight and charm of the dreaded sultan. Overawed by the extravagant welcome, hospitality and flattery shown by wily Moulay Ismail, who had kept Europe at ransom, Colonel Kirke forgot his role and started a negotiation himself. When raised the issue of a peace treaty, the sultan offered a four-year truce, but asked for ten big guns in return. The naïve Colonel not only obliged but also promised to ‘‘help him with everything he lacked.’’ Colonel Kirke not only breached his role as an emissary, not a diplomat, he also totally forgot about the captives, some 300 of them, held at the sultan’s palace. Overjoyed by his diplomatic success, he wrote to England, ‘‘I must tell the whole world, I have met with a kind prince and a just general.’’919

At length the presents intended for the sultan arrived at Gibraltar and Sir Leslie left for the sultan’s court. When he raised the issue of British prisoners, the sultan, not interested in the negotiation, withdrew and asked his General Kaid Omar to sign a truce. Unwilling to release the captives, the sultan reluctantly agreed to release the seventy soldiers captured during the siege of the Tangier garrison, but asked for so high a price that Sir Leslie had to return to London empty handed.

However, the sultan sent an ambassador, Kaid Muhammad ben Haddu Ottur, to London giving him all powers to negotiate the terms for the release of the English captives. The Sultan’s ambassadorial team was given excellent hospitality for months in London. After intense negotiations behind closed doors, a truce was eventually signed: the British captives would be released at 200 Spanish dollars apiece and that the sultan’s corsairs would spare England’s coastal villages. No mention was made of the attack on British ships. But the whimsical sultan disapproved the treaty and replied to the British King’s letter promising to rest only after ‘‘I have sat down before Tangier and filled it with Moors.’’ On the request for a negotiation about attacks on British ships, he wrote, ‘‘we have no need of it’’ and that the corsairs would continue their attacks.

Disheartened by the failure of the negotiation, the King lost interest in the Tangier garrison, which had failed to stop the depredations of the corsairs, and evacuated the post in the following year.920

British citizens continued to be captured and suffer in Sultan Moulay Ismail’s dungeons through the rest of the King’s reign. King Charles III, who ascended the throne in 1685, was very concerned and eager to have the captives released. After a protracted bargain lasting five years, the sultan agreed to free the captives at the exorbitant price of £15,000 and 1,200 barrels of gunpowder. ‘‘The ship was so full of powder that we were in continual fear of her blowing up,’’ wrote Captain George Delaval, who transported the ransom to Morocco. But the sultan started disputing the terms of the treaty after Delaval’s arrival. Delaval refused to handover the money until he was sure that the captives would be released. At length, the sultan released 194 British slaves, keeping thirty of them in his custody. Later on, when Queen Anne ascended the throne in 1702 and hinted at joining a Moroccan attack on the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, the remaining captives were suddenly released. Moroccan palace was empty of British captives for the first time in 150 years. Soon afterwards, the corsairs of Salé went on the offensive, when Queen Anne showed reluctance to join the sultan’s offensive against the Spaniards; British captives started streaming in.921

Another truce was signed between Sultan Moulay Ismail and Queen Anne in 1714 on the promise of huge gifts. As the Queen’s death in the summer of the same year delayed the delivery of the gift, the sultan sent his slave-hunters back into the sea. King George I, the German-born ruler of Hanover, was given the throne after the death of childless Queen Anne. He showed little interest in the miserable plight of British captives held in Morocco. In 1717, the wives and widows of the enslaved mariners wrote a desperate and emotionally-charged petition to the King, pleading for securing the release of their enslaved husbands. The King remained unmoved by it and the Secretary of State, Joseph Addison, took up the difficult cause. Just a few months earlier, Admiral Charles Cornwall had returned from the sultan’s palace empty-handed as the sultan was reluctant to sign a lasting peace-treaty and release the captives.

After a long deliberation in a crisis meeting in May 1717, a high level delegation, led by Captain Coninsby Norbury, was sent to Morocco. Angered by the continued illegal capture of British mariners and breach of every peace-treaty signed, Norbury was too haughty for such a delicate negotiation and showed an air of defiance and disdain of the sultan. When Sultan Moulay Ismail first met him rather courteously hoping to receive the huge gift from England, Norbury ‘‘demanded the slave, saying that without them, he’d make no peace, and would blockade all their sea-ports and destroy their commerce, with other threats of that kind.’’922 In the habit of treating foreign dignitaries with contempt, the sultan was obviously unprepared for the snub and nothing came out of Norbury’s mission. But the sultan agreed to the posting of a British consul in Morocco. Merchant Anthony Hatfeild, chosen for the post, made diligent efforts over the years to release the captives, but failed to achieve anything.

Hatfeild gathered intelligence about the activities of the corsairs, which had increased since 1717, and kept London informed about it. Alarmed by the intelligence, another diplomatic mission, led by Commodore Charles Stewart, was sent in 1720. Stewart possessed all the diplomatic niceties and skills for negotiation with the unpredictable and haughty ruler of Morocco. He signed a treaty first with Basha Hamet, the sultan’s governor of Tetouan in Northern Morocco. Thereafter, he proceeded to the sultan’s court, where his delegation was received with great hospitality. After protracted negotiations, a treaty was eventually signed in exchange of large gifts for the sultan. The slaves, 293 of them, from both England and colonial America, were released.923

The sultan and his pirates could hardly be restrained for long. By 1726, the corsairs had arraigned more British ships; the captives were sent to the sultan’s palace in Meknes. The next year (1727), Sultan Moulay Ismail died, which followed a period of deadly chaos and turmoil. During such chaotic periods, rogue elements, including the slave-hunters, normally increased their criminal activities. As a result, large numbers of European captives streamed into the slave-pens of North Africa. In 1746, the British ship, Inspector, was wrecked by the corsairs and eighty-seven survivors were captured. ‘‘Large chains were locked around our necks and twenty of us were linked together in one chain,’’ wrote Thomas Troughton, one of the ship’s crew. The British government once again secured the release of the captives from the palace at Meknes in 1751. The sultans of Morocco rarely released slaves of other nationalities: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch etc. Finally, a more humane and level-headed man, Sidi Mohammed, seized the throne in 1757. He was an enlightened man and believed that the shattered economy of Morocco could be repaired better by promoting international trade than by piracy and slavery. He, therefore, declared war against the pirates of Salé and decimated them. He signed peace treaties, first with Denmark in 1757 and, eventually, with all European nations that had fallen victim to Barbary piracy, including the United States.924

The deadly piracy in seas off the Moroccan Coast was dead for many years, although corsairs in Algiers and Tunis continued the depredation of European and American ships. After the death of Sultan Sidi Mohammed in 1790, his successor and son Moulay Sulaiman, despite ratifying his father’s treaty, encouraged the corsairs of Salé to attack European ships. However, the heydays of the Barbary slave-hunters in Salé and elsewhere in North Africa were becoming numbered. Britain and the United States—seeing no end to the scourge after centuries of inaction, appeasement and ransom payment—finally decided to hit back with military might to put an end to the piracy in North Africa forever.

One must bear in mind that the British struggle against the Barbary piracy and enslavement recount above is only a part of whole struggle in North Africa; similar struggles also took place in Tripoli and Algiers.

The U.S. struggle and strike-back

U.S. trade-ships also fell victim to Barbary piracy in North Africa. In 1646, the first U.S. ship and its crew were captured by the pirates of Salé. Until the U.S. independence in 1776, American ships in North Africa were under the British protection. The release of British captives from North African dungeons also included the American captives. British protection to American ships was withdrawn after the U.S. achieved independence in 1776. The U.S. ships from then on became the direct target of Barbary pirate attack. In 1784, Muslim pirates in Morocco and Algiers captured three American merchant ships, enslaving the crew. After protracted negotiations, $60,000 ransom was paid to release the hostages from Moroccans. Those captured by the Algerian pirates suffered a worse fate; they were sold into slavery.

To discuss about this issue, the exasperated U.S. diplomats Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met Abd al-Rahman, the Tripolian Ambassador to London, in 1785. When they enquired by what right the Barbary States justified their raids on American ships, enslaving the crew and passengers, al-Rahman informed them that ‘‘it was written in the Quran that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their (Islamic) authority were sinners; that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.’’925 The ambassador demanded tribute as protection against the attack and also asked for his own commission.

Right from that moment, Thomas Jefferson promised to wage war against the Barbary States for putting an end to the barbaric practice of slavery as well as to make the sea-ways secure for trade. While on diplomatic duty in Paris, he unsuccessfully tried to build a coalition of American-European naval powers for putting an end to the Barbary depredations of European and American trading ships. He faced opposition even back from home; even John Adams opposed his idea. Adams, amongst many others, preferred the payment of tribute than engaging in a protracted war against a doggedly warrior people. When asked for Adams’ opinion about organizing ‘‘an international taskforce comprised of all European nations whose shipping was being victimized,’’ he wrote to Jefferson that although his idea was ‘‘bold and wholly honourable…, We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.’’926

Meanwhile the depredation of American ships and enslavement of their crews continued; 130 seamen had been captured between 1785 and 1793. The U.S. Government dispatched diplomats Joel Barlow, Joseph Donaldson, and Richard O’Brien to North Africa in 1795, who successfully concluded treaties with Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli agreeing to pay tribute for the safe passage of American ships. Algiers also freed 83 American sailors, it had enslaved. During the presidency of John Adams (1797–1801), America continued paying tribute, which gradually reached as high as 10 percent of the national budget.

The humiliating exercise of paying tribute, combined with stories of appalling sufferings of white slaves in North African dungeons, gradually changed the public sentiment against ransom-payment and in favor of military actions. When Thomas Jefferson became the President in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, citing late payment of tribute declared war on the United States, seizing two American brigs, and demanded additional tributes. This followed demands for larger tributes from other Barbary States as well. Jefferson was all along totally against the humiliating exercise of paying tribute to the Barbary States. As early as in 1784, he had told Congressman James Monroe (later U.S. President, 1817–25): ‘‘Would it not be better to offer then an equal treaty? If they refuse, why not go to war with them… We ought to begin a naval power if we mean to carry on our own commerce.’’927

Not forgotten of his encounter with the Tripolian ambassador sixteen years earlier, the new President, without informing the Congress, sent forth a naval fleet to Barbary North Africa. In retaliation, Tripoli declared war on the United States in May 1801 and Morocco soon followed suit. America soon suffered a setback when Tripoli captured the U.S. frigate Philadelphia, but Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur soon mounted a heroic raid on the Tripolian harbor, destroying the captured ship and inflicting heavy damage on the city’s defences. This news created great excitement in the U.S. and Europe: a new power has arrived on the world-stage.

Meanwhile William Eaton, American consul in Tunis, allied with Hamid, the exiled brother of Tripolian pasha Yusuf Karamanli, offering him to make the American nominee for Tripoli’s crown. The ploy did not receive appreciation back home, but Eaton pursued it anyway. In 1805, he made a daring journey with a small detachment of marines and a force of irregulars across the desert from Egypt to Tripoli. They made a surprise attack and the city of Darna with its huge garrison surrendered. As Eaton had engaged pasha’s forces, Jefferson and Karamanli reached an understanding to end the war. The terms of truce included the release of the Philadelphia crew upon payment of a tribute, but America would pay no more tribute in future. In this, stressed Jefferson, Eaton’s derring-do had played a part. Daring and uncompromising, Eaton denounced the deal as a sellout.

New hostilities began between Britain and the United States in 1812. Exploiting this Anglo- American hostility, the new pasha of Algiers, Hajji Ali, rejected the American tribute negotiated in the 1795 treaty as insufficient. Algerian corsairs resumed the capture of American ships. Once the Treaty of Ghent ended the war with Britain, President James Madison requested the Congress to declare war on Algiers. On 3 March 1815, the war was declared and Madison dispatched the battle-hardened naval force under the command of Stephen Decatur to North Africa again to put a complete end to the piracy problem. The U.S. navy destroyed the fleets of reigning Dey Omar Pasha, filled his grand harbor with heavily armed American ships and took hundreds prisoner. Dey Omar capitulated and reluctantly accepted the treaty dictated by Decatur, which called for an exchange of U.S. and Algerian prisoners and an end to the practice of tribute and ransom. Having defeated Algiers—the most powerful Barbary State, Decatur sailed to Tunis and Tripoli, and dictated the signing of similar treaties. Decatur also secured the release of all European captives from Pasha Qaramanli’s dungeons in Tripoli. President Madison’s words on this occasion—‘‘It is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute; the United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none’’—inaugurated a new U.S. foreign policy paradigm.928

The British-led European strike-back

The United States settled her accounts with the Barbary States in 1815: the year, all European nations jointly declared a ban on slave-trade. But the depredation of European ships continued. The U.S. derring-do actions in Barbary North Africa (1801–05, 1815) had elicited calls for similar actions in Europe, particularly in Britain. When the crown heads and ministers of Europe gathered for the Congress of Vienna in 1814 to discuss a peace treaty following the end of the Napoleonic war, Sir Sydney Smith, a staunch proponent of military settlement of the Barbary piracy crisis, petitioned for a military showdown with the rulers of North Africa. ‘‘This shameful slavery is not only revolting to humanity, but it fetters commerce in the most disastrous manner,’’ he told the Congress.

Sir Smith’s plea drew attention to a dehumanizing and commercially crippling problem that had lasted centuries. Britain pushed for the inclusion of a ban on slave-trade in the European treaty. The Vienna Congress passed a resolution condemning all forms of slavery, but took no steps against the Barbary States. However, the support for Sir Smith’s battle-cry for military actions was soon forthcoming from all corners Europe; they had all suffered terribly from this obnoxious enemy. They were taking cues and encouragement from the U.S. success in Algiers a few months earlier. Because Britain was not as bad a sufferer, who intermittently concluded truce and secured release of English captives, other nations criticized Britain for ‘turning a blind eye to the ravages of the corsairs, since Britain stood to benefit whenever her trading rivals were attacked.’929

Stricken by the criticism, Britain, a proponent for the abolition of black slavery, now resolved to end the white slavery as well. In 1815, the British government dispatched a large fleet, commanded by Sir Edward Pellow, to the North African coastal waters, aiming to compel the rulers of Barbary States to abstain from seizing ships and slaves from anywhere in Europe. The British government resolved against the payment of tributes, stating: ‘‘If force must be resorted to, we have the consolation of knowing that we fight in the sacred cause of humanity.’’930

Having arrived with an impressive fleet in the waters off Algiers in late 1815, Sir Pellow sent an uncompromising message to Omar Pasha demanding his unconditional surrender within one hour, release of all European slaves and abandonment of capturing European ships and slaves forever. After the earlier U.S. attacks, Omar Pasha had fortified his defences and recruited battle-hardened soldiers to ward off likely European attacks. When no response from him came, Sir Pellow declared war. The British fleet was bolstered by a squadron of six Dutch vessels. The battle began with heavy bombardment of Algiers destroying the city to rubbles. The forces of Omar Pasha showed stiff resistance and counterattacked, causing significant damage and casualties to the British side. Having reduced the city to rubbles, Sir Pellow directed his attention to the fleet of corsair ships docked in the harbor firebombing and shelling them, which set them all in flames. By the next morning, the city and the corsair fleets were in total ruin. The British side had 141 men dead and 78 wounded, while 2,000 were dead on the enemy side. After surveying the devastation the next morning, Omar Pasha, swallowing his pride, surrendered unconditionally, agreeing to all demands of the British commander. The terms for the truce included releasing of all European captives and complete stoppage to enslaving Europeans.

Having suffered the shocking battering by the United States and Britain, the Barbary States stopped attacking the British and U.S. ships, but continued ravaging ships from other nations. For example, the French ships continued to suffer. The French government then stepped up its own military action. A joint Anglo- French naval fleet was sent to the Barbary Coast again in 1819 to batter the Barbary ports. In order to put a complete end to the depredation of Barbary corsairs and to liberate Christians who suffered terrible subjection in North Africa, France conquered Algiers in 1830, ending the Barbary slave-hunting forever.


Under pressure from the West, the Ottoman government declared a ban on slave-trade in the empire in 1855. This ban of the divine institution sometimes faced fierce popular resistance, prominently in the Hejaz and Sudan. Armed with the argument that this was a West-dictated ban on a God-sanctioned institution, Muslims in the Islamic heartland of Hejaz (Saudi region) rose in revolt against the Ottomans. Sheikh Jamal, the chief of the Ulema in Hejaz, issued a fatwa against the ban on slave-trade and other Christian-inspired anti-Islamic reforms undertaken by the Ottomans. It read: ‘The ban on slave is contrary to the Holy Shari’a… With such proposals, the Turks have become infidels. Their blood is forfeit and it is lawful to make their children slaves.’931

The Ottomans were able to put down the renewed Jihad in the Hejaz within a year. However, the revolt and the fatwa had their desired effect. Fearful of long-term fallout from this ban on a divine institution in the Islamic heartland, the Ottomans declared a concession, exempting Hejaz from the ban on slavery. In this connection, the Ottoman sultan had the Chief Mufti of Istanbul, Aref Efendi, written a letter to the Qadi, Mufti, Ulema, Sharifs, Imams and preachers of Mecca, calling the ban on slavery and other Ottoman reforms as “slanderous rumors”. The letter read: ‘‘It has come to our hearing and has been confirmed to us that certain impudent persons lustful for the goods of this world have fabricated strange lies and invented repulsive vanities to the effect that the Lofty Ottoman state was perpetrating—almighty God preserve us— such things as prohibition of male and female slaves… all of which is nothing but libelous lies…’’ 932

The Ottoman-Egyptian effort to disband slave-trade also faced strong resistance in Sudan, the most fertile ground for Muslim slave hunters and traders through the ages. According to Rudolph Peters, ‘Discontent amongst the Sudanese increased when the European Powers compelled the Egyptian government to suppress the slave trade.’ The discontent was not only for material reasons, notes Peters, ‘but also for religious considerations.’ He adds: ‘As Islam permits slavery, most Muslims did not see any harm in it. Suppression of it, especially as it was actually carried out by Europeans employed by the Egyptian government, was seen as an affront against Islam.’933 As a result, Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885), a Sufi leader, rose in Jihad against the Ottoman-Egyptian administration and their Western allies. The aggrieved slave- traders and Sufi masters, with their private armies, joined the Jihad movement.934

Following the Ottoman failure to disband slavery in the Hejaz (Saudi region), slave-trade remained legal in Saudi Arabia for another 107 years. Lord Shackleton reported to the House of Lords in 1960 that African Muslims going for the Hajj pilgrimage carried slaves with them for selling in Mecca, ‘‘using them as living travelers cheques.’’935 Saudi Arabia and Yemen banned slave-trade in 1962, nearly 155 years after its ban in Britain; Mauritania banned it only in 1980. This ban was, of course, enacted by virtue of intense international pressure, mainly from the West, but with only partial success.


Slavery continues in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Mauritania in various forms to this day. Reuters recently published a report, entitled Slavery Still Exist in Mauritania, which said:

They do not wear chains, nor are they branded with the mark of their masters, but slaves still exist in Mauritania… Herding camels or goats out in the sun-blasted dunes of the Sahara, or serving hot mint tea to guests in the richly carpeted villas of Nouakchott, Mauritanian slaves serve their masters and are passed on as family chattels from generation to generation… They may number thousands, anti-slavery activists say.’ Boubacar Messaoud, a born slave and now an anti-slavery activist told Reuters that ‘It’s like having sheep or goats. If a woman is a slave, her descendants are slaves.’936

Slavery also continues in Saudi Arabia; but because of the secretive nature of the holy Islamic kingdom, very little information comes out of it. The hundreds of thousands of young women from poor countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and so on, who go to Saudi Arabia to work as maids at the homes of Saudi Sheikhs, live a life of virtual slavery in domestic confinement. A majority of them likely end up providing sexual service to their masters to comply with the Quranic sanction of concubinage. Homaidan Al-Turki, a former Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado from Saudi Arabia, who was sentenced in 2006 to twenty-year imprisonment for sexually assaulting his Indonesian maid, denied that it was a sexual assault; it is a ‘traditional Muslim behaviour,’ he claimed.937 Human Rights Watch reports on the exploitation and abuse of foreign maids in Saudi that,

Some women workers that we interviewed were still traumatized from rape and sexual abuse at the hands of Saudi male employers, and could not narrate their accounts without anger or tears. Accustomed to unrestricted freedom of movement in their home countries, these and other women described to us locked doors and gates in Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina, and Dammam that kept them virtual prisoners in workshops, private homes, and the dormitory-style housing that labor subcontracting companies provided to them. Living in forced confinement and extreme isolation made it difficult or impossible for these women to call for help, escape situations of exploitation and abuse, and seek legal redress.938

The Times of India wrote on 10 December 1993 that ‘There is no doubt that many thousands of slaves are still serving in the wealthy palaces of Arabia.’ The old and rich Saudi Sheikhs frequently travel to Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt and other poor countries to marry young girls from poor families paying handsome amount of money to their parents and take the girls to Saudi Arabia, where they naturally live as nothing but slaves.

Revival of slavery in Sudan: Sudan (Nubia) has been the worst victim of Islamic slavery, which struck Sudan very early: it was forced to send an annual tribute of 400 slaves between 652 and 1276. Since the early days of Islam, suggests the tenth-century document Hudud al-Alam, Sudan had become a fertile ground for the Muslim slave-hunters and continues to be so till today. John Eibner, who worked on a project for freeing slaves in Sudan in the 1990s, reports the enslavement of black Sudanese women and children—Christian, Animist and even Muslim—by Arab militias and the government-sponsored Popular Defence Force (PDF). The enslaved women were forced to become Muslim and generally used as concubines, while the young boys were trained to become Jihadis for fighting their coreligionists. He freed 1,783 slaves in 1999, while his organization, the Christian Solidarity International, freed 15,447 slaves between 1945 and 1999.939 Even the colonial British government (1899–1956) had failed to stop enslavement and slave-trade effectively in Sudan. A 1947 memorandum prepared by the British civil servants noted that, in the late 1920s, ‘an extensive trade in slaves from Ethiopia was unmasked and even today there are occasional kidnappings, and the victims are hurried into the hands of the desert nomads of the far north.’940

Worse still is the fact that, with the government-sponsored resurgence of Islamism since the 1980s, there has been a revival of violent enslavement in Sudan. In 1983, the Islamist Sudanese government headed by President Jaafar Nimeiry, prodded by the Islamist leader Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, declared unification of the black Christian- and Animist-dominated Southern Sudan with the Arab-dominated North, abrogating former’s long-standing autonomy. The government also enacted Sharia laws uniformly all over Sudan. The purpose of the government was to transform multireligious and multiethnic Sudan into an Arab dominated Muslim state through the process of Jihad.

In protest, rebels in the dominantly non-Muslim south formed a resistance movement, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), headed by Colonel John Garang. In response, the Islamist government started arming tribal Arab militias (Baqqara). Armed with automatic weapons, these Arab brigands spearheaded the government’s war effort against the rebels and their sympathizers. They attacked villages killing the adult men, abducting the women and children, looting and plundering cows, goats and grain, and burning the rest. There was a brief respite after the Islamist government was overthrown in 1985. The Jihad resumed again after Sadiq al-Mahdi, an Islamist and brother-in-law of al-Turabi, became the Prime Minister in the 1986 election. The Arab militia raids returned with ‘deliberate killing of tens of thousands of civilians’ and ‘the abduction of women and children, who were forced into slavery.’941

After the coup in 1989, led by al-Turabi and General Umar al-Bashir of the National Islamic Front (NIF), slave-raids by Arab militias became widespread and institutionalized. The authoritarian Islamist regime of President al-Bashir formed an irregular force, the PDF, for spearheading Jihad against the rebels, and the communities sympathetic to them. The worst victim of the PDF raids and slave-hunting has been the Dinka people in the Southwest Bahr al-Ghazal states and the Nuba tribes of southern Kordofan region. The Blacks of the southern Nuba Mountains, despite being Muslims, were declared apostates in an Islamic fatwa on the account of their sympathy for the rebels. The fatwa, according to U.N. special rapporteur Gaspar Biro, read:942

An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a nonbeliever standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them.

In 1998, the PDF, supported by the regular army, waged a harrowing slave-raiding campaign against the Dinkas in Bahr al-Ghazal, displacing over 300,000 and enslaving and slaughtering unknown numbers. Following these raids, claimed Santino Deng, an advisor to the provincial government, that the Islamic militia were holding 50,000 Dinka children captives in Babanusa (Western Kordofan). A UNICEF report claimed that the PDF enslaved 2,064 people and killed 181 between December 1998 and February 1999.943 Based on the ongoing slave-raiding in Sudan, estimates John Eibner, there were some 100,000 chattel slaves in 1999.944 Between 1986 and 2003, notes an Anti-Slavery document, an estimated 14,000 people have been abducted and forced into slavery in Sudan.945

The worse was yet to come, this time in Darfur. In 2004, Arab militias (Janjaweed), patronized by the Sudan government, launched a harrowing wave of Jihad against the rebels and their sympathizers. The government-sponsored Jihad in Sudan killed some two million people between 1983 and 2003. In the renewed Jihad in Darfur since 2004, the U.N. puts the death toll at roughly 300,000; the former U.N. undersecretary-general puts the number at no less than 400,000.946 In Darfur, an estimated two-and-a-half million people have been displaced and an unknown number likely enslaved. In July 2008, the International Criminal Court charged President al-Bashir of sponsoring war-crime and crime against humanity in Darfur.947

Trimingham observed in 1949 that the Baqqara Arabs, who had lived on slave-raiding for ages and whose life was made difficult by the colonial British administration’s ban on slavery, ‘still hanker after the practice.’948 After the infidel British rulers were kicked out in 1956, the Arabs in Sudan slowly got back what they had lost and hankered after: their God-sanctioned age-old profession of slavery.


It is a disturbing fact that Muslims, especially those from some Middle East countries, have been importing the imprints of slavery to the West. In recent years, there have been a number of reports of Saudi and Sudanese families in the United States and United Kingdom, who have reduced their maids to slavery, leading to legal processes. According to the Anti-Slavery document cited above, a former slave named Mende Nazer—who recently published her autobiography, Slave: My True Story—was captured in 1992 from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. She was a slave first in a rich Arab family in Khartoum, and then, to a Sudanese diplomat in London, from where she escaped in 2002 and sought political asylum in Britain. According to a 2003 report in National Reviews,949

Three members of the Saudi royal family, including a sister of King Fahd, were caught up in a scandal five years ago in London for their treatment of three Filipina women. The women sued the Saudi royals, alleging that they had been physically abused, starved, and held against their will in the Saudis’ mansion in London. The Filipinas said they were often locked in the attic, were fed mere scraps of food, and were denied medical attention when they became gravely ill.

About the treatment of domestic workers in Saudi homes in the United States, it reported:

…most situations involving domestics working for Saudis have seven hallmarks: confiscation of passports, contract terms unilaterally changed, overlong working hours, denial of medical attention, verbal and often physical abuse, a prison-like atmosphere… All of the women with whom we spoke worked in the U.S., although some first worked inside Saudi Arabia; the women who worked in both countries said their conditions did not improve once in the U.S.


Whatever residues of slavery that exist in the Muslim world today are insignificant to what existed throughout the history of Islam: right from the days of Prophet Muhammad to the mid-twentieth century. Undoubtedly, external pressures, namely from Western countries and the U.N. etc., has played a decisive role in limiting slavery in Muslim countries. But the rise of orthodox Islamic militants globally, who aim to conquer the world for establishing Islamic rule, styled after the medieval Islamic caliphate, is a worrying sign. In a London demonstration against the publication of Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons in a Danish newspaper in 2006, a Muslim protester shouted that let us invade Denmark and ‘take their women as war booty,’ while another called out: ‘take lessons of the Jews of Khaybar.’950 However shameful the institution of slavery is and those historical incidents are, the pious Muslim minds, often highly educated ones, feel inspired by them even today.

In 1999, the Sudanese government even took the justification of its supports for the ongoing slavery in Sudan to the U.N. On 23 March 1999, Sudanese rebel leader John Garang complained to Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, about the Government-sponsored violent Jihad and enslavement. In response, the former PM Sadiq al-Mahdi (r. 1986–89) wrote to Robinson defending the Sudanese Government’s complicity in the harrowing activities on a religious basis. He wrote,951

The traditional concept of Jihad …is based upon a division of the world into two zones: one the zone of Peace, the other the zone of War. It requires initiating hostilities for religious purposes… It is true that the (NIF) regime has not enacted a law to realize slavery in Sudan. But the traditional concept of Jihad does allow slavery as a by-product (of jihad).

Therefore, if the radical Islamist movements worldwide succeed in achieving their goals, the revival of the sacred institution of Islamic slavery on the world stage with its past glory remains quite a possibility.

912. Moreland, p. 90

913. Lal (1994), p. 8

914. Milton, p17

915. Ibid, p. 17–20

916. Ibid, p. 22–23

917. Ibid, p. 23–6

918. Ibid, p. 28,37–38

919. Ibid, p. 39–41

920. Ibid, p. 39–41

921. Ibid, p. 49–50

922. Ibid, p. 116

923. Ibid, p. 172–95

924. Ibid, p. 269–70

925. Berube CG and Rodgaard JA (2005) A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution, Potomac Books Inc., Dulles, p. 22

926. Ibid 927. Ibid

928. Hitchens, op cit 929. Milton, p. 272 930. Ibid

931. Lewis, p. 102–3

932. Ibid, p. 103

933. Peters, p. 64

934. Ibid, p. 64–65

935. Lal (1994), p. 176
936. Fletcher P, Slavery still exists in Mauritania, Reuters, 21 March 2007
937. US Urged to Review Saudi Student’s Case, Arab News, Riyadh, 28 March 2008

938. Human Rights Watch, Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia,

939. Eibner J (1999), My Career Redeeming Slaves, Middle East Quarterly, December Issue
940. Henderson KDD (1965) Sudan Republic, Ernest Benn, London, p. 197
941. Metz HC ed. (1992) Sudan: A Country Study, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 4th ed., p. 257

942. David Littman (1996) The U.N. Finds Slavery in the Sudan, Middle East Quarterly, September Issue

943. Inter Press Service (Khartoum), July 24, 1998.

944. Eibner, op cit

945. Anti-Slavery, Mende Nazer―From Slavery to Freedom, October 2003

946. Lederer, EM, UN Says Darfur Conflict Worsening, with Perhaps 300,000 Dead, Associated Press, 22 April 2008.

947. Walker P and Sturcke J, Darfur genocide charges for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, Guardian, 14 July 2008

948. Trimingham JS (1949) Islam in the Sudan, Oxford University Press, London, p. 29
949. Joel Mowbray, Maids, Slaves, and Prisoners: To be employed in a Saudi home—forced servitude of women in

Saudi Arabia and in homes of Saudis in US, National Review, 24 Feb. 2003 267

950. Chilling Islamic Demonstration of Cartoons, London,, accessed on 20 July 2008.

951. Letter from Sadiq Al-Mahdi to Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (Section III: War Crimes), Mar. 24, 1999.


©2013. Secular African Society. All Rights Reserved.


11 thoughts on “Muslim Resistance to the Abolition of Slavery in the Islamic Empire.

  1. I’m honored to receive a call from a friend immediately he identified the important tips shared on your own site. Browsing your blog posting is a real brilliant experience. Thank you for thinking about readers much like me, and I would like for you the best of achievements being a professional in this field.

  2. This is one of the best blogs i have ever got to read,as a Muslim rapidly losing his faith i see nothing in the contents you give about Islams role in slavery as exaggerated,this is probably the most bitterest of Islams many bitter realities that a conscious Muslim just cannot swallow.

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