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ISLAM’S BLACK SLAVES by Ronald Segal

ISLAM’S BLACK SLAVES

The Other Black Diaspora

By Ronald Segal

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-374-22774-8
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In a volume designed to complement his history of blacks outside Africa, The Black Diaspora (1995), Segal examines the lesser-known story of the black slave trade in the Islamic world.

The author begins this sturdy but sometimes arid analysis by recognizing that slavery in the Islamic world was less pervasive and harsh than elsewhere. He is sensitive enough to recognize that no form of slavery is humane, but throughout their long history, Muslims—obeying the precepts of the Koran—treated their black slaves far less severely than did their New World counterparts. Slaveholders were encouraged to free their slaves, who then enjoyed equal rights under the law. Slaves were also used for different purposes in the Islamic world, where the demand for them was related more to social status than to economics. Segal provides a thumbnail history of Islam (explaining, for example, the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims) and examines the history of black slavery within each geographic region where Islam came to be the predominant religion. He and other researchers are restricted, however, by the relative dearth of documentation: because the Atlantic slave trade was a much larger and more profitable enterprise, more precise records were kept. Much of the evidence for the Islamic trade, by contrast, is anecdotal and inferential. (Many of the quotations here are from secondary—even tertiary—sources.) Still, Segal estimates that in the 12 centuries of trade in black slaves in the Islamic world, some 11.5 million blacks were bought and sold—a number comparable to the 4-century total of the Atlantic slave trade. The author includes some horrifying details, including a graphic account of emasculation (black eunuchs were especially prized), and reveals that the buying and selling of humans continues today in Mauritania and Sudan. In a provocative epilogue, Segal assails the anti-Semitic extremists in America’s Black Muslim movement, comparing them more than once to the Nazis of the Third Reich.

Segal has ably sketched the outlines of the subject; other historians will have to provide the color—and the depth. (12 maps, some not seen)