Bernard Lewis’ “Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry”

Below are some excerpts from Bernard Lewis’ Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry which give some interesting perspectives on slavery in Islam. Bear in mind Bernard Lewis is a notorious historian and scholar of modern Western Orientalism and he is far from being an Islamophile.

"Though slavery was maintained, the Islamic dispensation enormously improved the position of the Arabian slave, who was now no longer merely a chattel but was also a human being with a certain religious and hence a social status and with certain quasi-legal rights. The early caliphs who ruled the Islamic community after the death of the Prophet also introduced some further reforms of a humanitarian tendency. The enslavement of free Muslims was soon discouraged and eventually prohibited. It was made unlawful for a freeman to sell himself or his children into slavery, and it was no longer permitted for freemen to be enslaved for either debt or crime, as was usual in the Roman world and, despite attempts at reform, in parts of Christian Europe until at least the sixteenth century. It became a fundamental principle of Islamic jurisprudence that the natural condition, and therefore the presumed status, of mankind was freedom, just as the basic rule concerning actions is permittedness: what is not expressly forbidden is permitted; whoever is not known to be a slave is free. This rule was not always strictly observed. Rebels and heretics were sometimes denounced as infidels or, worse, apostates, and reduced to slavery, as were the victims of some Muslim rulers in Africa, who proclaimed jihad against their neighbors, without looking closely at their religious beliefs, so as to provide legal cover for their enslavement. But by and large, and certainly in the central lands of Islam, under regimes of high civilization, the rule was honored, and free subjects of the state, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, were protected from unlawful enslavement.

Since all human beings were naturally free, slavery could only arise from two circumstances: (1) being born to slave parents or (2) being captured in war. The latter was soon restricted to infidels captured in a jihad.

These reforms seriously limited the supply of new slaves. Abandoned and unclaimed children could no longer be adopted as slaves, as was a common practice in antiquity, and free persons could no longer be enslaved…”

Further, Bernard Lewis states:

"”Ibn Khaldun, surely the greatest of all Arab historians, writing in the fourteenth century, saw in the coming of the Turks and in the institution of slavery by which they came, the manifestation of God's providential concern for the safety and survival of the Muslim state and people:

‘When the [Abbasid] state was drowned in decadence and luxury...and overthrown by the heathen Tatars ...because the people of the faith had become deficient in energy and reluctant to rally in defense...then it was God's benevolence that He rescued the faith by reviving its dying breath and restoring the unity of the Muslims in the Egyptian realms...He did this by sending to the Muslims, from among this Turkish nation and its great and numerous tribes, rulers to defend them and utterly loyal helpers, who were the House of Islam under the rule of slavery, which hides in itself a divine blessing. By means of slavery they learn glory and blessing and are exposed to divine providence; cured by slavery, they enter the Muslim religion with the firm resolve of true believers and yet with nomadic virtues unsullied by debased nature, unadulterated by the filth of pleasure, undefiled by ways of civilied living, and with their ardor unbroken by the profusion of luxury...Thus one intake comes after another and generation follows generation, and Islam rejoices in the benefit which it gains through them, and the branches of the kingdom flourish with the freshness of youth.’”

Published in: on February 9, 2007 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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