The 9th century slave rebellion in Iraq may have deterred Muslims from the industrial use of slaves by showing the danger of having a very large slave community in any one place. Apart from 9th century Iraq, the largest scale slave use outside the military was on the clove plantations of Zanzibar. Nonetheless, as William Gervase Clarence-Smith writes, slaves did play a large part in Muslim economies:.
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Even if large estates were rare, they were not absent. More striking were the numerous slaves on middling and small properties, a phenomenon about which surprisingly little has been written. Servile labour was also common in workshops, construction, mining, water control, transport by land and sea, and the extraction of marine resources.
Whether a 'Slave Mode of Production' ever existed in Islam is moot, but the economic role of slavery was substantial, at least in certain places and at specific times. Slaves were also used for domestic work, military service, sexual slavery and civil administration. Something particular to Islamic slave systems was the creation of a slave elite in some Muslim societies that allowed individuals to achieve considerable status, and even power and wealth, while still remaining in some form of 'enslavement'. The slave elite had enormous value to their Muslim masters because they were a military and administrative group made up of 'outsiders' who didn't have tribal and family allegiances that could conflict with their loyalty to their masters.
It was believed that a corps of highly trained slaves loyal only to the ruler and dependent entirely on his good will would serve the state more reliably and efficiently than a hereditary nobility, whose interests might compete with those of the ruler. Leslie P. Elite slavery is something of a paradox: how can a person have power and hold high office and yet still keep the status of a slave? One answer is that the slave gets authority and high office because they are dependant on the person who gives them their authority and status and who could remove that status if they chose.
Thus elite slaves must give total loyalty and obedience to their master in order to maintain their privileges.
Another view is that the slave who achieves elite status is no longer really a slave, and is able to use their position and power to free themselves of many of the limitations of slavery. This is less convincing since even elite slaves are at risk of losing their privileged status until they break free completely. The dependency was not all one way - the masters in many ways relied on their elite slaves, because those slaves were the only people they could really trust.
And there was another reason why elite slaves were valuable - precisely because they were slaves, the elite slaves were free of some of the restrictions that limited free people, and this allowed them to do things for their masters that their masters could not otherwise achieve. The Mamluks were 'slave soldiers' who eventually came to rule Egypt for over two centuries from until overthrown by the Ottomans in the 16th century.
After a brief period of oppression the Mamluks were able, once again, to play a significant role in running the country. Mamluks were originally soldiers captured in Central Asia, but later boys aged were specifically taken or bought to be trained as slave soldiers. Their slave status was shown by the name 'Mamluk' which means 'owned'. Although the Mamluks were not free men they could not, for example, pass anything on to their children they were elite slaves who were held in high regard as professional soldiers loyal to their Islamic masters.
Historians have been fascinated by the uniqueness of the Mamluk phenomenon. It was inhuman in some respects for example, Mamluks being denied the opportunity to bequeath their positions and privileges to their sons , yet it provided Islam with a superb military force and a sophisticated political system.
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In 13th century Egypt loyalty to the masters dissolved and the Mamluks established themselves as the ruling dynasty. Once the Mamluks had successfully revolted against their masters they were, of course, no longer slaves. The basic ideal of military slavery - the Mamluk's total loyalty to his master who had bought, trained, maintained and freed him - was a pillar of Mamluk society in Ottoman Egypt, as it had been in the Mamluk Sultanate. When the master decided that his Mamluk had reached maturity and was ready to assume an office, he set him free, and 'allowed him to grow his beard.
The master often appointed these former slaves to army posts, to the beylicate [the beys were high ranking emirs who held important positions in Egyptian government], or to the regimental command. Very often, the master decided whom his former slave would marry, a decision which could advance the Mamluk socially and financially.
The devshirme system introduced in the 14th century compelled non-Muslims in parts of the Ottoman Empire to hand over some of their children to be converted to Islam and work as slaves. Some writers say that between half a million to one million people were enslaved in this way over the centuries. Conquered Christian communities, especially in the Balkans, had to surrender twenty percent of their male children to the state.
Some of these were trained for government service, where they were able to reach very high ranks, even that of Grand Vezir. Many of the others served in the elite military corps of the Ottoman Empire, called the Janissaries, which was almost exclusively made up of forced converts from Christianity.
The devshirme played a key role in Sultan Mehmet's conquest of Constantinople, and from then on regularly held very senior posts in the imperial administration. Although members of the devshirme class were technically slaves, they were of great importance to the Sultan because they owed him their absolute loyalty and became vital to his power.
This status enabled some of the 'slaves' to become both powerful and wealthy. Their status remained restricted, and their children were not permitted to inherit their wealth or follow in their footsteps.
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Not all writers agree that the devshirme system was beneficial as well as oppressive, and point out that many Christian families were hostile and resentful about it - which is perhaps underlined by the use of force to impose the system. Male slaves who had had their sexual organs removed were called eunuchs, and played an important part in some Muslim societies as they did in some other cultures.
They had the advantage for their masters of not being subject to sexual influence, and as they were unlikely to marry, they had no family ties to hinder their devotion to duty. Eunuch slavery involved compulsory mutilation, which usually took place between the ages of 8 and Without modern medical skills and anaesthetics this was painful, and often led to fatal complications, and sometimes to physical or psychological problems for those who survived the operation. Eunuchs had a particular role as guardians of the harem and were the main way in which the women of the harem had contact with the world outside.
In the Ottoman Empire eunuchs from Africa held considerable power from the mid sixteenth century to the eighteenth. It's recorded that the Ottoman family owned eunuchs as late as , of whom 35 'bore a title of some seniority'. Concubinage may be defined as the more or less permanent cohabitation outside the marriage bond of a man with a woman or women, whose position would be that of secondary wives, women bought, acquired by gift, captured in war, or domestic slaves. Enslaved women were given many tasks and one of the most common was working as a domestic servant.
But some female slaves were forced to become sex workers: not prostitutes, as this is forbidden in Islam, but concubines. Concubines were women who were sexually available to their master, but not married to him. A Muslim man could have as many concubines as he could afford. Concubinage was not unique to Islam; the Bible records that King Solomon and King David both had concubines, and it is recorded in other cultures too.
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Being a concubine did have some benefits: if a slave woman gave birth to her owner's child, her status improved dramatically - she could not be sold or given away, and when her owner died she became free. The child was also free and would inherit from their father as any other children. Concubinage was not prostitution in the commercial sense both because that was explicitly forbidden and because only the owner could legitimately have sex with a female slave; anyone else who had sex with her was guilty of fornication. Concubines lived in the harem, an area of the household where women lived separately from men.
The nature of Ottoman harems is described by Ehud R Toledano:. The harem system grew out of the need in Ottoman society to achieve gender segregation and limit women's accessibility to men who did not belong to their family. Households were divided into two separate sections: the selamlik, housing the male members, and the haremlik, where the women and children dwelt. At the head of the women's part reigned the master's mother or his first wife out of a maximum of four wives allowed by Islam.
The concubines were also part of the harem, where all the attendants were women.
Male guests of the master were not entertained in the harem. An active and well-developed social network linked harems of similar status across Ottoman towns and villages; mutual visits and outdoor excursions were common. For the women who actually spent their lives in the harems, reality was, of course, far more mixed and complicated. As they grew up, they would be paired with the men of the family either as concubines or as legal wives. However, harem slaves' freedom of choice was rather limited, as was that of women in general in an essentially male-dominated environment.
Harem slaves frequently had to endure sexual harassment from male members of the family. A balanced view might be to say that sexual slavery in this context was a very bad thing, but that it was possible for some of the more fortunate victims to gain benefits that provided some degree of compensation.
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