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The Christian Slave Trade versus the Islamic Slave Trade

As I discuss in my upcoming book, Muslim Mechanics, many Muslims from Africa were among the slaves brought into America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While this early introduction of Islam into the Western Hemisphere did not catch on, it opens up a topic discussing the Christian slave trade and the Islamic slave trade.

The year 1619 is the year most people point to when discussing the beginnings of slavery in the United States. That is the year that 20 African slaves arrived in Virginia. At that time, Virginia did not allow the ownership of slaves but did allow indentured servants. The 20 African slaves were bartered to the colonists for goods and ship repairs and later allowed to work off their debts before being freed. However, the transatlantic slave trade that had begun in the mid-fifteenth century was more brutal to those who were its victims. Led by Portugal and followed by other European kingdoms, slave traders sailed to Africa. The Portuguese were the first to kidnap people from the west coast of Africa and take them back to Europe. Soon after, the Spanish and the British took the slaves to their colonies in the new world. The Spanish brought their first African captives to the Americas from Europe as early as 1503. By 1518, the first captives arrived in the Caribbean from Africa. In 1619, an English pirate captured the slaves from a Spanish slave trader headed to Mexico and brought them to Jamestown, Virginia.

While 1619 is considered the beginning of the slave trade in the North American British colonies, the British, by that date, already had numerous settlements in the West Indies where their sugar plantations needed lots of labor to harvest the sugar cane. The tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake region initially drove the need for slaves in North America. Later, the demand for slaves was exacerbated by the cotton plantations in the southern colonies. While the Portuguese originated the practice, the Spanish, Dutch, English, and French participated in that illicit trade. Slaves were "sourced" primarily from West Africa, between the Senegal and Niger rivers. We would recognize that geographic area today as Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. Later regions would include all west African countries south to Namibia and around the cape to include states on the continent's east coast. Inland areas adjacent to the seaboard, such as Mali and the Congo, were also raided.

By the late eighth century, Islam had spread through North Africa and into Spain. But it was also creeping south down the west African coast, initially into Mauritania and Senegal. Over time, many of these regions developed Islamic enclaves, and many inland ethnic groups converted. Fast forward 700 years, and it becomes conceivable that many of the slaves captured by European traders and sent to the Americas were Muslims. One source estimates that some 90 percent of the Africans came from four areas where Islam was a part of the tribal culture: those areas being west-central Africa (Congo and Angola), the Senegambia Confederation, the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Sierra Leone. Historian Michael Gomez estimates that over half of the 481,000 West Africans "imported into British North America" due to the slave trade "came from areas influenced by Islam."

While these slaves represented the arrival of the first Muslims to the "New World," slave owners kept them under control by repressing their previous culture and forcing new languages and customs into their lives. Restrictions of Islamic rituals and worship removed almost all mention of Islam, with only a few exceptions, from the slaves during that period.

Historians still debate the number of Africans forcibly transported across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1866. An extensive research effort started in the 1960s places the total at more than 12 million people. Of that amount, less than 9.6 million made it through the so-called "middle passage" over the Atlantic because of the inhuman conditions they encountered while being transported and the brutal suppression of any onboard resistance. One website,, has cataloged 34,000 individual trans-Atlantic voyages made during this period.

While there was a vibrant slave trade from Africa's west coast to the Americas, there was also a lively slave trade from Africa's east coast to the Islamic Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen. The total number of Africans taken from the continent's east coast and transported to the Arab community is between 9.4 million and 14 million. These figures are estimates due to the absence of documented records.

While the Christian slave trade originated mainly on Africa's west coast, the Islamic slave trade occurred mostly on Africa's eastern half of the continent closest to the Islamic countries of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The early Islamic slave trade included Africans and Turks, eastern Europeans, and even a few western Europeans. To be fair, slavery existed before Islam. Still, after the Prophet Muhammad made it haram that Muslims should not be taken into slavery by other Muslims, the institution of slavery expanded into non-Islamic locations. People, who did not worship the one true god, were seen primarily as sources of slaves. Since they possessed no religion worth the mention, they were natural recruits for Islam. Interestingly enough, Muslim missionaries were restricted from proselytizing because of its effect in reducing the potential reservoir of slaves.

Just as in the Americas, slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, agriculture, animal husbandry, and domestic workers and servants. Many Islamic caliphs and sultans had plantation farms and industries, just like the Christian nations. There were two occupations commonly staffed in the East by slaves you would not find in the West. Female slaves would be used for concubines and male slaves for soldiers. Islamic law allows sexual intercourse with female slaves, and men were permitted to have as many concubines as they could afford. As for soldiers, early Islamic army formation was primarily cavalry. However, the two forces that Muhammad and the caliphs that followed him kept bumping up against were the Byzantine and the Sassasian (Persian) empires and their armies had both infantry and cavalry. Up until the crusades, African slaves were used widely as Islamic infantry. For example, in 870, one governor in Egypt working for the Abbasid caliphate had 45,000 foot soldiers, all African slaves

There were several apparent differences between the Christian slave trade and the Islamic slave trade. The male: female ratio in the Atlantic slave trade was 2:1, whereas, in Islamic lands, the ratio was 1:2. The Atlantic passage was brutal and male slaves had a better chance of survival. Also, plantation farms were more numerous in the Western Hemisphere and needed more manual labor. Another difference between the two was that slavery in the West had a racial component, whereas the Qur'an explicitly condemned racism. In the East, concubines were accepted, and children born of slaves and their masters were quickly assimilated into the population. Female slaves were more accessible because the supply source was closer. One big difference between Christian and Islamic slave policies was the issue of manumission. Manumission is the act of freeing slaves by their master. Muslims encouraged the manumission of slaves if they converted to Islam as a way of expiating sins. There are numerous stories how manumitted slaves rose to become famous generals, traders, bankers, artists and even one became a sultan. In the Christian West, the only way to win one's freedom was to escape to the undeveloped western lands or the abolitionist north, and even then, some laws forced authorities to return escaped slaves.

When Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States in 1801, he found that the North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Tripolitania (Libya) were pirate dens looking for slaves. These Islamic pirates and slave traders raided the Mediterranean coasts of Europe as far afield as the British Isles. They attacked any boat from non-Islamic countries, and sought booty and plunder, especially slaves. When they attacked American ships, Jefferson took them on, and the rest is history. This bit of history is still sung with pride in the U.S. Marine Corps hymn.

Slavery in the West was officially over in the 1860s. In the Islamic East, the slave trade was officially over in 2007, although there are rumors it is still going on in the Islamic countries of the Sahel (south of the Sahara across Africa). The high estimate for the Christian slave trade is 12 million people forcibly taken. The high estimate for the Islamic slave trade is 14 million. The forced deportation of up to 26 million people from the African continent impacted population growth there. It was in that period from 1500 to 1900 that Africa's population stayed stagnant or even declined. I find it interesting that people from the two largest religions in the world were the largest perpetrators of human slavery. It should be the other way around.

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