The Koran takes for granted slavery's existence as a permanent human institution; regulates its practice in considerable detail; endows it with divine approval; and explicitly guarantees Muslims the right to own slaves, either by purchase or as bounty of war. A Koranic "decree of Allah" gives a man permission to have sexual relations with his slave girls as well as with his wives and nonetheless remain "free from blame." (4:24; 23:1-6).
The Koran permits the emancipation of slaves as an act of "expiation" for the breaking of an oath (5:89). But while such occasional gestures are encouraged under a narrow range of circumstances, the institution of slavery itself is never questioned.
The Prophet Muhammed himself possessed dozens of slaves, both male and female, and he regularly traded them when he became independently wealthy in Medina.
The four caliphs or religious rulers who came to power after Muhammed, discouraged the enslavement of free Muslims. Nevertheless, the assumption of freedom as the norm of the human condition did not extend to non-Muslims. Disobedient or rebellious dhimmis (subject peoples, i.e. Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Africans) were often enslaved, and so were prisoners captured in jihad if they could not be exchanged or ransomed. In Africa, Arab rulers regularly raided black tribes to the south and captured slaves, claiming their raids to be jihad; in India, many Hindus were enslaved on the same justification.
Historian Speros Vryonis observes that “since the beginning of the Arab razzias [raids] into the [Byzantine Empire], human booty had come to constitute a very important portion of the spoils.” As they steadily conquered more and more of Anatolia, the Turks reduced many of the Greeks and other non-Muslims there to slave status: “They enslaved men, women, and children from all major urban centers and from the countryside where the populations were defenseless.”
The Indian historian K. S. Lal states that wherever jihadists conquered a territory, “there developed a system of slavery peculiar to the clime, terrain and populace of the place.” When Muslim armies invaded India, “its people began to be enslaved in droves to be sold in foreign lands or employed in various capacities on menial and not-so-menial jobs within the country.”
People enslaved by Muslims faced intense pressure (often in the form of torture) to convert to Islam. In an analysis of Islamic political theories, Danish scholar Patricia Crone notes that after a jihad battle was concluded: “[M]ale captives might be killed or enslaved … Dispersed in Muslim households, slaves almost always converted, encouraged or pressurized [sic] by their masters, driven by a need to bond with others, or slowly, becoming accustomed to seeing things through Muslim eyes even if they tried to resist.”
While historians estimate that the transatlantic slave trade, which operated between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, involved approximately 10.5 million victims, the Islamic slave trade in the Sahara, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean areas began in the seventh century and lasted into the nineteenth, and involved at least 17 million people.
When a campaign to end slavery around the world was eventually launched, it moved from Christendom into Islam, not the other way around. The Muslim world has yet to produce a serious indigenous movement to abolish slavery that was not the consequence of Western pressure; indeed, the Arab Muslim slave trade in Africa was ended by the force of British arms in the nineteenth century.
Notwithstanding the official worldwide ban on slavery today, the practice continues to exist more or less openly in Africa's two Islamic Republics: Mauritania and Sudan. In those nations, black people have been enslaved on a scale so large that the term "black" has become synonymous with "slave." According to the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan, which is a human rights and abolitionist movement:
“The current Khartoum [Sudan] government wants to bring the non-Muslim black South in line with Sharia law, laid down and interpreted by conservative Muslim clergy. The black animist and Christian South has been ravaged for many years [by] slave raids by Arabs from the north and east, and resists Muslim religious rule and the perceived economic, cultural, and religious expansion behind it.”
There is also evidence that slavery continues in Saudi Arabia, which formally abolished the practice in 1962; in Yemen and Oman, both of which ended legal slavery in 1970; and in Niger, which did not outlaw it until 2004. In Niger the ban is widely ignored, and as many as one million people remain in bondage.
Adapted from "The Persistence of Islamic Slavery," by Robert Spencer (July 20, 2007), and "Islam's Wretched Record on Slavery," by Serge Trifkovic (November 20, 2002).