The Other African Diaspora: Islam's Black Slaves
From the New York Times, "Human Cargo: A study of the little-known slave trade in the Islamic world," by Adam Hochschild, on 4 March 2001 -- Early on in ''Islam's Black Slaves,'' his history of slavery in the Muslim world, Ronald Segal cites some estimates. One scholar puts the rough total at 11.5 million slaves during more than a dozen centuries, and another at 14 million. We will never know the precise number, of course, but it is striking that these two figures neatly bracket many scholars' estimates for the much-better-documented Atlantic slave trade. So why in the West today do we generally pay so little attention to Islamic slavery? One reason, suggests Segal, a South African-born editor and the author of ''The Black Diaspora,'' is that in the Muslim world slavery never became the publicly fought moral and political issue that it did in the United States and Europe.
Islamic slavery began long before the Atlantic slave trade, and its purposes were largely different. Although some slaves were put to work in the fields, they were more valued as items of conspicuous consumption. The Muslim elite wanted them as guards and soldiers, as concubines, as cooks, as musicians and simply to show how rich they were: a 10th-century caliph of Baghdad had 11,000 slaves at his palace.
The boundary between slavery and freedom, or at least between slavery and power, was much more fluid than in the West. The Ottoman sultan commonly married off his daughters and sisters to slaves, and in this and many other Islamic regimes, slaves or former slaves reached astonishingly high positions. Baybars, a former Turkish slave, led an army that defeated a Mongol invasion of Egypt in 1260; there were other slave generals as well. An Ethiopian slave became vizier to the sultan of Delhi and later governor of a province. A caliph who ruled in Egypt for most of the 11th century was the son of a black slave concubine. A Slavic slave -- not all slaves were Africans -- was governor of Valencia in Islamic Spain.