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Muslim slave trade in pre-colonial Africa

To mark the end of BLACK HISTORY MONTH in February:

The trade in African slaves is one of the darkest chapters in Western history. But even before Europe’s colonial rulers divided Africa amongst them, human trafficking flourished there: Africans hunted down other Africans and sold them to Muslim slave traders.

When Black Lives Matter activists smeared the word “racist” on the statue of Mahatma Ghandi in London in June 2020, it became clear that at least these young people knew too little about history – or deliberately ignored it. Politically incorrect, but internationally researched by historians: While the Europeans ruthlessly exploited their colonies, they nevertheless abolished human trafficking within Africa – against the fierce resistance of native tribal lords who wanted to continue the slave trade that was profitable for them. On January 10, my first feature on this topic was broadcast on SWR2.

Precolonial sklave trade

„The Arab part of the population here lives from the slave trade. All soldiers and the other sultan’s officials are accomplices and receive their share of the robbery..“

Baron of Eberstein, 1888

On August 16, 1888, Freiherr von Eberstein thus described his experiences in what would later become German East Africa, today’s Tanzania. In the port city of Lindi, he heads the station of the German East African Society. In the interior of the country, black Africans are hunted by other Africans and sold to Arab slave traders, who ship them further across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The baron is shocked. For since the so-called Berlin Congo Act of 1885, slavery has been prohibited under international law. But in Africa, human trafficking continues wherever the colonial powers have no military or political access. This even continued into the 20th century.

Muslim slave empire

In his book World History of Slavery, ancient historian Egon Flaig describes Islamic slavery as the most comprehensive, far eclipsing slavery both in antiquity and in the later United States.

“Islamic law has also clearly stated that a Muslim may take a non-Muslim as a slave. But conversely, a non-Muslim may not take a Muslim for a slave,” says the Islamic scholar Mouhanad Khorchide.

Skin colour racism

Africa was a special case in this respect. Here, even black Muslims were deliberately hunted down and enslaved. Not only the ancient historian Egon Flaig recognizes in this a racism of the Arab Muslims against dark-skinned people. In 1614, a black legal scholar in Mali wrote a fatwa, an Islamic legal expert opinion, against this racism. Ahmad Baba had witnessed how light-skinned Moroccans from Islamic North Africa destroyed and enslaved the Muslim metropolis of Timbuktu.

In his fatwa, he places orthodox Islamic teaching above Arab skin colour racism:

“The reason for slavery is unbelief. (…) Whoever is captured as an unbeliever may be taken into possession according to the law. But by no means the one who converted to Islam of his own free will from the beginning, no matter to which people he belongs. (…) These are free Muslims whom to enslave it is not permitted in any way.”

Ahmad Baba, 1614

Slavery until today

It was not until the 20th century that Islamic countries officially abolished slavery. For example, Persia in 1928, Turkey in 1933 and Saudi Arabia in 1962.

But paper is patient. Slavery is said to still exist in Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen. In 2017, CNN reported on a slave market in Libya where young male refugees from the Sahel were auctioned off for $400 US.

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