In the service of the Sultan
Fiachra Gibbons on an unsavoury chapter of Islamic history revealed in Islam's Black Slaves by Ronald Segal
The Guardian, Saturday 6 April 2002 15.16 BST
Islam's Black Slaves: A History of Africa's Other Black Diaspora
241pp, Atlantic Books, £20
At a time when the United States, crusading Christianity's last outpost, is again mounting its mangy charger, along comes another book documenting a dark, half-forgotten and deeply unsavoury aspect of Islam. Until Ronald Segal, author of the excellent and similarly panoramic survey of the Atlantic slave trade, The Black Diaspora, began to pick at the scars Arab raiders and their black African outriders left on large parts of the continent over 14 centuries, this had been one of the great untold stories.
You can find the descendants of Islam's black slaves even now, in places as diverse and surreal as suburban Greece, the badlands of Iran, southern Iraq, or in the paddy fields that still run up to the back doors of the hotels of tourist Turkey - and everywhere they share the same look of confusion and abandonment of those left on the high-water mark of retreating emirates and empires.
Unlike the millions of west Africans who were crammed on to coffin ships bound for plantations in the Americas, those dragged through the Sahara or down to the Indian ocean at Zanzibar were mostly women. Zanzibar was a black Belsen, a clearing house of shackled humanity, where the stench of death was masked by the cloves on which the island's Omani emirs built a great trading empire.
Without a nascent industrial complex to feed, many of the men were castrated for domestic service or drafted into slave armies that emptied the lands around the great lakes of their peoples. One in 10, by some estimates, survived the trek from the interior. By the mid-19th century, when east African slave magnates - many of them the free sons of Arab slavers and their black concubines - ran out of infidels and animists to enslave, they, and the expanding black Islamic empires that supplied them, circumvented the scruples set out in the Koran and carried off their own on the flimsiest of criminal pretexts.
Slaves were the luxury goods the Islamic world seemed unable to wean itself off, despite hectoring from a self-righteous west that had embraced emancipation just as mechanisation had rendered slavery obsolete. Like horses and gold, slaves conferred status, and the most opulent households had thousands. When he died in 1870, one Arab official of the black state of Bornu on the shores of Lake Chad had several thousand slaves to complement his stable of 1,000 stallions.
Despite the unconscionable cruelty of a practice that continues to this day in Mauritania - where a third of the population may still be in bonds - and to some extent lingers in Sudan also, there is little in this book to feed the new mood of Islamophobia. For if slaves were to have had the luxury of choice between the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies or domestic service in Arabia or Istanbul - which, let's be clear, they didn't - a Muslim master was more often the lesser of the two evils.
It was common custom for slaves to be freed, and in the Ottoman empire in particular, where slaves often held the great offices of state, several sultans were the sons of women brought to the Topkapi's multinational harem in chains. In fact, the Ottomans preferred to sire their heirs from among their slaves and subject peoples, lest rival Turkic houses get a sniff of power through dynastic marriage. Being a slave of the Sultan was not a stigma, but a position so exalted, if often tenuous (strangulation by bow string awaited the uppity), that many free- and high-born Muslims offered their sons.
The chief black eunuch - there were plenty of white ones, too, from the Balkans and the Caucasus - was a key figure in the imperial household, at times so powerful that his role was indistinguishable from that of chancellor of the exchequer. Which is all very exotic and makes for great yarns, but Segal is always careful to rein himself back from orientalist flights of fancy. For every black eunuch held in profound respect by the Turks, a thousand more were thrown, bleeding and mutilated, to the tides of Zanzibar.
There is much to be angry about in this book - and not just in the actions of the Arab and sub-Saharan slavers, but in the Islamic scholars today who seek to wish away or deny altogether the existence of this other black diaspora. Yet there is no anger in Segal's dry, though never dull, writing: just a hard, underlying core of conviction. Segal was a banned person in South Africa, and left for exile in London with Oliver Tambo in 1960. He is also a white man with Jewish roots, which makes him doubly suspect for many black Muslims in the US, to whom this book, you feel, is about as welcome as a Klezmer band at Eid.
Segal is clearly writing with one eye cast back worriedly towards the US, which is a pity. He devotes the closing chapter to a condensed history of the Nation of Islam, and its varying attempts to meld some kind of à la carte Islam to the black American experience. It is an obvious and probably inevitable epilogue. But America is not the world, although it fools the best of us at times.
It seems churlish to nit-pick, but for all its great strengths, the travelling for this book has mainly been done in libraries. We don't meet a single living being. Segal's great achievement has been to open up a difficult and neglected subject. His book is a Russian doll, with many other books inside it; those stories, the stories of the descendants of the Islamic slave diaspora, await their tellers.