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Varieties of Slavery and Unfreedom in Medieval Islamic History

Panel III-22, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Slavery in the first Islamic centuries is the object of renewed scholarly attention. While studying the normative sources (Qurʾān, ḥadīth) and the development of jurisprudence remains vital, a wide range of other sources — literary, historical, biographical — may be analyzed for the traces left by this complex and variegated phenomenon. Additionally, new questions can be posed regarding gender, racialisation, imaginaries of servitude, continuity between chattel slavery and other forms of forced labor, and liminal statuses between enslavement and freedom. How do different sources portray unfreedom and slavery, and how do the attitudes, interests, and positionalities of different authors determine what they say and how they say it? How does the gendering of enslaved persons affect what our sources tell us? How do the sources justify enslavement, if at all? How did enslaved people resist, and in what ways might the concept of the ‘slave revolt’ have relevance for medieval Islamic history? What value may be had from comparison with slavery and slave trades elsewhere in the world? Is it still meaningful to talk of a distinctively ‘Islamic’ slavery, or should we be more attentive to gradations of unfreedom and the ways in which gender, race, geographical origin, skin color, manumission, and occupational setting shaped possibly very different experiences of subjection? The papers in this panel address these questions by looking at how “freedwomen” (mawlāyāt), hitherto little treated by historians, are presented in a number of legal, historical, and exegetical works, appearing variously as liminal and intersectional figures, as performing intimate household roles and linking households to one another, and as transmitters connected to authoritative figures; at how conceptions of slavery and the slave trade in the tenth/fourth century in the Wonders of India combine a “civilizing” narrative with accounts of its brutality and the possibility of resistance; and how comparative perspectives on the Zanj Revolt suggest we should retain the concept of “slave revolt”, but only once the continuity of both terms with related phenomena has been incorporated into the analysis.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • The historiography of the Zanj Rebellion in southern al-ʿIrāq and al-Ahwāz, which established a de facto state with its capital outside Basra and held off the forces of the ʿAbbasid caliphate for fourteen years, has either labeled it a ‘slave revolt’, drawing analogies with Spartacus and Toussaint without ever pursuing them; or adduced the limited evidence for an extensive slave trade between the Persian Gulf and the Bilād al-Zanj (East Africa) in the 3rd/9th century to argue most rebels could not have been enslaved. Kurt Franz’s recent interventions, attending carefully to the rebellion and the norms of ‘Islamic slavery’, argue both that the Zanj did come to the region through the slave trade, and that ‘slavery’ is not the most helpful vocabulary for analyzing the revolt. While Franz correctly emphasizes the divergence of Zanj slavery from Islamic legal norms, the sui generis character in the Islamic world of this example of agricultural slavery, and the continuity of Zanj labor with other forms of agrarian exploitation, these three observations do not necessitate an alternative terminology; nor must describing the uprising as a ‘slave revolt’ imply romanticism. A double comparison is valuable here. Firstly, Orlando Patterson’s theorization of slavery as social death remains highly relevant to the Zanj case, given the circumstances of enslaved laborers’ arrival in the region. Recalling that the natal alienation of many of the rebels continued beyond what Franz terms their ‘original enslavement’, we cannot simply observe that their labor formed a continuum with other exploited labor and conclude with Franz that the rebellion more closely resembled ‘peasant revolts.’ Secondly, comparison with ancient Mediterranean and early modern American slave revolts suggests common features including: alliances of different oppressed groups; a variety of statuses within formerly enslaved rebels; participation of disgruntled elite figures; a charismatic visionary leader; and objectives like permanent freedom for participants, wealth, dignity, and revenge, but not fully-fledged revolution. The historiography of the Americas helps us delimit the concept of the ‘slave revolt’, avoiding both romanticization and denial. Comparison enables us to insert the Zanj Rebellion on a spectrum of resistance, from individual flight to marronage, from small-scale conspiracy to extensive insurrection, transcending the rebellion’s unique character within the framework of ‘Islamic’ slavery, requiring greater attention to enslaved people’s forms of resistance throughout Islamic history.
  • The Arabic “wonders” literature of the ninth through the eleventh centuries has usually been studied for its depictions of the dangers of the sea and marvels of exotic lands, an example of the geographic imagination of the culture which produced it. However, the Book of the Wonders of India contains several accounts touching on the slave trade which can provide insight into views of the actual conduct of the trade apart from prescriptive legal texts and slavery manuals. Although attributed to sea captain named Buzurg b. Shahriyār, the text was actually compiled for the Fatimid court by a Basran from Gulf informants and reflects the same Fatimid accumulation of knowledge of the world seen in the recently edited Book of Curiosities. Its social positionality thus includes influence from both slave traders and court elites who benefitted from the trade and were key in creating the medieval Islamicate world’s dominant civilizational self-image. The best-known enslavement account in the Wonders is that of a Zanj king who is betrayed by a slaving crew and sold in Oman. During his time as a slave he learns Islam and the ways of medieval Islamicate civilization, and ultimately returns to his kingdom to bring Islam to it. The effect is that while the slave traders are ethically problematic, their dealings ultimately brought benefits to those they betrayed. This is similar to justifications of slavery as “civilizing” found in other times and places, such as the U.S. South. Meanwhile, a sympathetic image of the enslaved is also found in an account in which some slaves turned out to be merpeople and capable of escaping. One who was kept captive until liberated by the sons she had borne in captivity blesses God while diving into the sea to escape. Finally, there is an account of a slave revolt on a ship in the South China Sea. The slavers treat the slaves harshly, and when the slaves revolt and seize the ship, the crew is stranded. This most realistic of the three accounts may be the one closest to actual events of slave resistance during the trade. Taken together, the accounts of the slave trade in the Wonders portrayed it as brutal and carried out by unsavory characters, but also ingrained into the self-conception of the society and culture.
  • Scholars who have studied manumission in early Islamic contexts have usually focused on male freedmen (mawālī). On the other hand, scholars who have studied unfree women have usually focused on women who are still enslaved, most notably “elite” enslaved women such as courtesans and concubine-mothers. These two bodies of scholarship often fail to consider the condition of freedwomen (mawlayāt) or the ways different sources in different genres depict such women. To address this gap, I use the searchable database al-Maktaba al-Shamela to locate all references to the term mawlāh in four different early Islamic texts from four different genres. These texts are ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Ṣan‘ānī’s (d. 211/827) legal compendium, al-Muṣannaf; Muḥammad ibn Sa‘d’s (d. 230/845) biographical dictionary, al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrā; Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī’s (d. 310/923) Quranic exegesis, Jāmi‘ al-Bayān, and al-Ṭabarī’s annalistic history, Tarīkh al-Rusul wa-al-Mulūk. In ‘Abd al-Razzāq’s text, mawlayāt figure in disputes about inheritance, manumission, marriage, and adultery. They often seem to function as “tricky” hypothetical legal cases, highlighting their liminality and the difficulty of navigating their intersectional legal status as freedwomen, wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. On the other hand, both Ibn Saʿd’s Ṭabaqāt and al-Ṭabarī’s Tārīkh focus on the stories of a few famous mawlayāt from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, most notably the wetnurse Umm Ayman, the midwife Salmā, and the enemy messenger Sārah. In their depiction of other mawlayāt, both Ibn Sa’d and al-Ṭabarī highlight how they participated in their master’s households by performing the intimate tasks of mothering and caretaking, as well as how they forged links between different households as wives, mothers, and go-betweens. However, Ibn Sa’d mentions more than twice as many mawlayāt as al-Ṭabarī, suggesting that mawlayāt figured more prominently in elite Hijazi society than in the grand political and military events that capture al-Ṭabarī’s attention. Finally, al-Ṭabarī’s tafsīr only mentions a few mawlayāt, and these appear as transmitters who gain their authority through their ties to prominent companions such as ‘Ā’isha and Ibn ‘Abbās. Ultimately, these sources present mawlayāt differently, which allows us to discern not only the various roles these women played in early Islamic society, but also the different attitudes, assumptions, and concerns different authors working in different genres held about them.