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Book Review


Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii + 351. Index. $34.99 (paper)

Mohammed Ennaji, Slavery, the State, and Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 252. Principal sources and index. $29.99 (paper)

Elisabeth McMahon, Slavery and Emancipation in Islamic East Africa: From Honor to Respectability. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013. Pp. xxvi + 265. Bibliography and index. $95.00 (hard cover)


     Many students enter the world history classroom with a simplistic conception of African slavery as a European creation which arose following the Columbian Exchange. While this version of events empathizes with African actors as victims and castigates European slave traders and colonizers, it has the principal defect of infantilizing Africans, erasing the complex history of the continent, and it rests upon a Eurocentric conception of Africans as the objects of European history. Cambridge University Press has published three works which should help teachers of Advanced Placement World History and college-level introductory courses dispel these misconceptions and teach students to analyze more critically the interactions between religion, conquest, and slavery in eastern and western Africa. Mohammed Ennaji's Slavery, the State, and Islam and Chouki El Hamel's Black Morocco explore the complex relationships between slavery and Islam in north Africa as they evolved from the time of Mohammad to the early modern period. Elisabeth McMahon examines the relationship between slavery, emancipation, Islam and the social changes brought by the European presence on the East African island of Pemba in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

     Although its contours are debated, the relationship between slavery and Islam can be traced to the founding of the religion and the influence of racial ideologies on Islamic slavery dates at least as far back as the ninth century. The ninth century Zanj revolt which pitted mostly black African slaves against Abassid rulers in Iraq, illustrated the early connections between race, slavery and Islamic caliphates. Brought to desalinate lands of absentee landlords, the Zanj – a term which may have referred to an area of East Africa or the black Africans from there – revolted in the late ninth century. Rebel leader Ali b. Muhammad seems to have been influenced by Shi'ism but also by Kharji'ism, a radical egalitarian Islamic sect. After more than two decades of revolt, Ali b. Muhammad's Zanj armies fell to superior Abassid forces. The Zanj revolt, however, illustrated the difficult relationship between Islamic teachings, slavery, race, and caliphal power.1

     Both Mohammed Ennaji and Chouki El Hamel examine the evolving relationship between Islam and slavery. While their works complement each other in many ways they draw different conclusions about the religious origins of slavery in the Islamic world. Both agree that Islamic scholars and jurists found religious justifications for monarchy and slavery. However, while El Hamel insists that those Islamic jurists who condoned slavery were deviating from the Qur'an, Ennaji roots Islamic acceptance of slavery in the Qur'an itself.

     Mohammed Ennaji impressively dissects early Arabic and Islamic texts and analyzes the evolution of Arabic terminology used to describe power relations in the Arab world before and after the emergence of Islam. He concludes that far from appearing as an emancipatory religion, Islam, from its origins, rationalized the existent systems of power and domination. These included absolute monarchy, slavery, and subjugation of women. Ennaji describes slavery as "a determining act of social relationships in the Arab-Muslim world." (3) He argues that although the Qur'an recognized emancipation as a form of charity (zakat), such charity was always revocable. Furthermore he describes the various ways in which the Qur'an and early texts discouraged emancipation and recognized the permanence of slavery.

     For Ennaji, Islamic teachings on slavery were central to the development of monarchy in the early Islamic world. The pillar, "… no god but Allah," he explains, signified the passing from earlier Arab forms of divine monarchy, to the caliphal state in which the caliph served as Allah's lieutenant on earth. "The religious realm," Ennaji writes, "… sought to legitimize the indisputable authority of the king by transferring its terrestrial origin into a delegation granted from heaven." (244)

     Early Islamic monarchs nonetheless preserved much of the symbolism of divinity and absolute control over life and death of their subjects. In a fascinating section (101-106), Ennaji shows how royal veiling replicated god's mysteriousness and reflected the divine nature of royal power. Kings lived behind layers of veiling curtains through which visitors seeking an audience would have to pass, but only with permission. Slaves on the other hand passed in and out in order to serve the king, implying their absolute degradation to an almost subhuman level. In the early Islamic period female veiling represented both piety and a status above slavery. Slave women, by contrast could not be veiled. They were products who had to be available for inspection.

     While many Islamic teachings on slavery and monarchy represented continuities from the pre-Islamic Arab world, some changes were noteworthy. Islamic rules on relations with "people of the book" reflected the needs of a rapidly growing and urbanizing centralized state that was more open to the outside world than its western Arabian predecessors. Rapid urbanization, and the decline of tribal power bases, led to a society in which powerful families attempted to establish connections to royalty and in which the state utilized such connections to establish its power. Once again, the wealth of such families was often measured by the numbers of slaves they owned.

     The absolute power of the king and prostration and servility of subject peoples are illustrated in the Abrahamic conception of resurrection, which Islamic teachings maintained.

     "Fear of the day of resurrection was not a pure image invented from scratch by the prophecy; it came from the familiar language of the world below. Al-hachr was the assemblage engraved in the collective memory of a population confronted with poverty and need. During great catastrophes when droughts wiped out the herds, populations moved in waves toward the cities that were the seats of power, seeking food either sold or distributed by the kings. Al-hachr, which in the holy text was the name of the Resurrection, took on its meaning from those images of populations haunted by imminent death, approaching to bend their knees before the authority." (221)

     Ennaji calls for a secular reading of the Qur'an and early Islamic history. He insists that we see past scriptural interpretations of Islamic history in order to examine "real society with its everyday concerns and its contradictions, the hard labor of ordinary people". In a poignant plea for his approach he adds "The sacred draws a veil over the functioning of society … The orthodox caliphs, stripped of their social and historical dimensions, occupy the scene, and politics appear futile in a universe where conflicts were resolved or eliminated with the swift application of Koranic verses and decrees borrowed from the prophetic tradition. The present age forcefully reminds us of the power of such arguments." (242)

     Ennaji's discussion of the relationship between Islamic teachings, political developments, and slavery is welcome and convincing. Although his work would have been stronger had it been organized around a clearer chronology, it should be of great use to instructors attempting to help students understand how religion both reflected and helped reshape existing power relations in the Mediterranean world.

     Chouki El Hamel agrees that early Islamic scholars, and the main schools of Islamic law, justified slavery. In fact, he frequently cites Ennaji's earlier work on Moroccan slavery. However, El Hamel insists on a distinction between Mohammad's views on slavery, as recorded in the Qur'an, and the teachings of Islamic scholars and jurists, found in the Hadith (posthumously recorded ideas and actions of the Prophet) and sharia.

     El Hamel's work is offered as a critique of north African scholars who contend that Islamic slavery in north Africa was less harsh than in those parts of the world Europe dominated. He argues instead that from early in the Umayyad period (661-750 CE) Islamic scholars, who reflected the worldviews of the privileged clergy (ulama), interpreted Qur'anic teachings in a way that justified existing social relationships. El Hamel, however, believes that the Qur'an, recognized that slavery existed in the Arab world but emphasized manumission. "Indeed, the Qur'anic prescriptions of manumission are expressed in the Qur'an as pious deeds, clearly implying that ending slavery was a crucial goal in Islam at times when slavery formed a fundamental part of human culture." (36) Furthermore, he agrees with feminist authors Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi that the Qur'an discouraged polygyny.

     What follows is a powerfully-written and richly-documented history of the development of Islamic teachings on slavery in North Africa and the evolution of slave systems in Morocco over the course of the second millennium. El Hamel traces the origins of Islamic legal theory to the emergence of the four main schools of Muslim jurisprudence in the Umayyad world of the eight century. El Hamel explains, "Islamic law was built during the time of the monarchical Islam whose elite was inspired by the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian empires' model and was therefore imperial in its aspirations." (47) In the Maghreb, his area of focus, the Maliki school prevailed. Unlike Shi'i schools which recommended manumission after seven years of slavery, the Maliki school rationalized and regulated slavery and assumed its continued existence. In fact, by the ninth through tenth centuries slavery became "a well-established institution" and by the seventeenth century Islamic scholars would even develop racialized "ideologies of enslavement in order to justify the needs of the state to use slaves, particularly for military service." (50)

     El Hamel makes an interesting comparison between the Maliki school's theory of slavery and the Siete Partidas, the Catholic regulations of thirteenth century Castille. Both assumed slavery was primarily domestic. Unlike ancient Roman laws, both schools granted slaves limited rights. The Maliki school granted freedom for the offspring of masters and concubines and restricted cruel treatment of slaves. Maliki scholars, however, did not regard rape of concubines as cruel.

     Prior to the rise of the Ottoman state to the east, Maghrebi slavery was multi-racial. Slaves could be sub-Saharan Africans, Slavs, or Turks. Nonetheless, racial prejudice and racialized theories of slavery pervade early Islamic texts, although El Hamel insists that Muhammad preached against racial prejudices. The myth of Ham, as told in the Babylonian Talmud, casts the descendants of Ham, Noah's son, as slaves to the descendants of his other son Sham. Some scholars root the identification of blacks with Ham's lineage in early Jewish and Christian teachings. El Hamel argues that Abassid era (eighth through thirteenth centuries, CE) Islamic scholars incorporated the Hamitic myth, which had never appeared in the Qur'an. The story of Ham would justify the inferior status of blacks. Abassid scholars did not yet fully articulate a race-based theory of slavery, however. The Hamitic myth justified slavery in those cases where blacks were enslaved but it did not imply that all blacks were slaves by nature.

     The growth of the Ottoman state in the fifteenth century then incorporated much southern Slavic territory and ended the availability of Turks and Slavs to be sold as slaves in Arab and Iberian slave markets. Moroccan rulers, in particular, then concentrated on enslaving black Africans to their south. This, however, created a problem because by then much of west Africa had converted to Islam and Islamic teachings prohibited the enslavement of Muslims.2 At this time Iberian slave merchants, seeking slaves for sugar processing, began to appear in west Africa as well.3

     While theories of racial inferiority for blacks and the racial superiority of Arabs and Berbers had pervaded Islamic legal texts since at least the Abassid period, race was rarely regarded as the type of fixed category that it became in European and U.S. racial ideologies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Children of black slaves and Arab masters could be freed and considered Arabs, giving them sharif (descent from Muhammad). One cause of this relative flexibility may have been the economic role of slavery in Morocco as compared to slavery in the United States. El Hamel writes, "Slave functions in Morocco were diverse but visibly domestic in nature, and in agriculture it was small-scale economy. There was no need for mass labor, as was the case on American plantations, that necessitated rigid impersonal policies guaranteeing cheap labor and making the creation of wealth for landowners and mercantilists possible." (101)

     Key to the evolution of Moroccan slavery and racial ideologies was the role of black slaves as soldiers in various North African armies. The Almoravid conquerors of Spain in the eleventh century, like their successors, the Berber Almohads of the twelfth century, relied on black slaves as soldiers. Future conquerors also relied on black soldiers. The sixteenth century Sa'di empire, one of a string of Moroccan dynasties which became increasingly militarized in response to the Portuguese threat, used black slaves and conquered the west African Songhay empire. But it was the seventeenth century 'Alawites under Mawlay Isma'il who created a strong centralized state backed by a black army more than 200,000 strong. In order to recruit that many soldiers Mawlay Isma'il had to enslave Muslim blacks. To do so required a renovation of Islamic teachings. Many Islamic scholars, dependent on royal patronage, argued that enslavement of blacks known as haratins was justified because they were descendants of slaves. Thus, although earlier Islamic scholars had developed theories of racial superiority, the jurists of seventeenth century Morocco were the first to articulate a racial basis for enslavement. "Mawlay Isma'il's project created a racial classification for enslavement that went against the tenets of the Qur'an because free black Muslims were enslaved simply because they were black, resulting in the displacement of black Moroccans outside of the community." (183)

     The massive black army became a major force in Moroccan politics. It collected taxes and preserved the power of the sultanate. Although Mawlay Isma'il justified its creation by describing the black army as a "shield of Islam" against Iberian Christianity, it was rarely employed against European armies. "It seems the sultan's real priority for his army was to impose and protect his authority after decades of continual political disorder." (208).

     The black army played an important political role until the nineteenth century, often intervening in dynastic contests in order to guarantee access to state funding. However, the Napoleonic invasions of North Africa shook up Arab polities. In response Moroccan rulers began to conscript Arabs and Berbers in the hopes of creating a European-style army. The role of the black army declined. Later in the century European powers justified conquest with the language of abolitionism. The French abolished slavery in Algeria in the 1830s and the British pressured Moroccan sultans to do the same. Islamic jurists began to advocate abolition, although female sex slavery persisted well into the twentieth century. As the French imposed capitalist relations in agriculture in the oases, many ex-slaves began migrating to urban slums.

     El Hamel concludes with an interesting story of the Gnawa people. A west African diasporic community whose modern members speak Arabic or Berber, the Gnawa claimed to be descendants of Bilal. Bilal, a seventh century black man converted to Islam and became an ally of Muhammad. Because he converted before the Prophet's own tribe did, the Gnawa consider themselves among the original Muslims and not the descendants of slaves. The Manding (Mandinka) peoples of the eleventh century would use the Bilal story for similar purposes. Modern Gnawa culture is preserved by female griottes and their music is filled with references to suffering and past kidnappings. El Hamel compares Gnawa music to the "sorrow songs" and spirituals of nineteenth century African Americans. Like American blues, modern-day Gnawa music – secularized and commercialized – has attracted growing international attention and a following among young Arabs and Berbers.

     While Ennaji and El Hamel detail the relationship between slavery and Islam during the centuries of Islamic empires, Elisabeth McMahon examines the connections between slave emancipation and Islamic political and legal systems during the period of growing European power in East Africa. McMahon focuses on the Zanzibari island of Pemba in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although she refers extensively to the broader scholarship on East African slavery. In the late nineteenth century, Pemba was controlled by the Omani sultanate, which dominated the Zanzibari region after the collapse of Portuguese power in Kilwa and before the established of British influence. In Pemba the Omani rulers maintained a domestic class of landowners. Under the "half-half" system local landowners – Arabs, Indians, and native Pembans – owned clove plantations and utilized slaves imported from the mainland.4

     Although the establishment of the British protectorate over Pemba implied emancipation, the process for applying for emancipation was cumbersome and only 21% of slaves attained it between 1890 and 1907. And the results were gendered. Men had an easier time simply leaving the plantations while British authorities regarded women travelling alone to be prostitutes. Because of lax British enforcement of abolition, Pemba became a stopping point for illegal African slave trading in the Indian Ocean at the turn of the century and women were often kidnapped and sold into sex slavery.

     McMahon details the ways in which British legal authority interacted with the Islamic legal system and Islamic courts known as khadis. In the last decade of the twentieth century many slaves seeking emancipation pursued redress in British courts because the khadis considered testimony from slaves and women to be only one half as valuable as testimony from free men. Moreover, khadis paid deference to heshima – the traditional system of honor one had achieved because of one's social standing. Heshima could be the basis for judging the credibility of witnesses. However, British courts were also problematic for slaves because the British legal system emphasized documentary evidence and many slaves were illiterate and documents could have been written in a variety of languages.

     Heshima plays a substantial role in McMahon's analysis and is a window through which we can see the ways in which the growing British presence reshaped social relations on the island. While traditionally a measure of social standing, heshima was transformed by the early twentieth century from "honor" to "respectability." As the traditional clan-based power system faded before the British protectorate, heshima came to measure one's reputation and credibility, rather than simply one's hereditary social standing. Heshima could now be grounded in gossip but often reflected one's deeds and determined one's reliability in legal or financial transactions.

     Former slaves could achieve heshima by demonstrating Islamic piety. Slaves had been prevented from demonstrating piety in many ways. They could not, for example, make hajj without their master's permission. After emancipation many ex-slaves sought Sufi orders which accepted followers based on a simple pronouncement of faith. The Sufi emphasis on a spiritual rather than scriptural connection to Islam appealed to many ex-slaves because of their low levels of literacy. Some Sufi orders were headed by upper class women and appealed to many female ex-slaves. Between 1900 and 1920 clothing became a mechanism for establishing both heshima and piety. Ex-slaves began to wear more and cover their heads to demonstrate their new standing within the social structure and within Islam.

     Both slavery and the unevenness of emancipation had disrupted family life on Pemba. Often former slaves bonded together in families for mutual support. McMahon is critical of many western scholars who refer to these bonds as "fictive kinships." She argues that such a description betrays a European conception of families based only on connections of "blood." However, the British courts operated with the same European prejudices and, consequently, many ex-slaves had difficulty passing down property because the British recognized only "blood" relationships for purposes of inheritance.

     Students of U.S. history should not be surprised that emancipation was a contested process and would not lead automatically to social equality. McMahon's detailed descriptions of the social and legal challenges ex-slaves faced are most illuminating. They demonstrate with great specificity the overlap of racial, gender, and social hierarchies and how they shaped the experiences of emancipation. Furthermore, although it is not the principal focus of her story, McMahon also illustrates the interactions between British authorities and local rulers and how the cause of abolition was always subordinate to Britain's imperial agenda.

     Taken together these three works should help teachers and instructors bring some key concepts into their classrooms. First, they demonstrate critical changes and continuities in the relationships between Islam and social structures in the Islamic world from the earliest times to the modern period. Second, they provide critical insights into some African and Islamic theories of slavery and emancipation. While perhaps written at too advanced a level for most students in introductory courses, they will be quite useful for instructors who would like to teach these topics with a greater deal of complexity.

Kit Adam Wainer teaches Social Studies and Advanced Placement World History at Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, NY. He can be reached at



1 For a history of the Zanj revolt see Alexandre Popovic, The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9th century (Princeton, NJ: Marcus Wiener Publishers. 1999). Ghada Hashem Talhami disputes the East African origins of the Zanj rebels and doubts the role of Arab merchants in transporting East African slaves to the middle east. See Ghada Hashem Talhami "The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered" International Journal of African Historical Studies, 3, no. 10 (1977) 443-461. Both Abdul Sheriff and J. Alexander, however, confirm the East African black origins of Zanj slaves. Abdul Sheriff, Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam. (New York: Columbia University Press. 2010) 222-229. J. Alexander, "Islam, Archaeology and Slavery in Africa," World Archaeology, 33, no. 1, (Jun., 2001) 44-60.

2 For a useful description of how the expansion of Islam forced slave merchants to seek slaves from further and further south after the 9th century see Alexander, "Islam," 49-50.

3 For a very detailed examination of the relationships between slavery in West Africa, West African political systems, and Iberian merchants see Toby Green, The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589. (New York: Cambridge University Press 2012), 78-104.

4 See also Alexander, "Islam," 54.



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