February 3, 2013

African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Book Review)

This book review from Dr. Alamin Mazrui can also be found at JSTOR. I reproduce it in full here because it speaks to the methodological issues that scholars of slavery and the African diaspora in the Indian Ocean must continue to wrestle with. 

The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. JOHN HUNWICK and EVE TROUTT POWELL (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2002), 282 pp. Price PB £17.50. ISBN 1–558–76275–2.

In 1993, a major newspaper debate erupted in Kenya between two of the nation’s most prominent intellectuals, Ali Mazrui and Bethwel Ogot. It concerned whether the Arab-Muslim world should be held accountable for its role in African enslavement to the same degree as the West, and whether there were differences of scale and culpability between the two that should strategically make the West the initial focus for the African campaign for reparations. What was particularly noticeable is that the only general sources on African slaves in Arab-Muslim lands that the two scholars invoked in support of their different positions were those of Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) and Joseph Harris, The African Presence in Asia (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971). These two, in fact, continue to be among the tiny handful of book-length studies of the issue available in the English language. In a real sense, then, the study of African enslavement in the Arab-Muslim world is still virtually in its infancy, and the publication of Hunwick’s and Powell’s The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam is a very welcome contribution to the scholarship on this important subject.
This book distinguishes itself from the others, however, in its documentary approach, essentially being a compilation of primary sources. The only interpretive portions are the two introductions by the authors. Hunwick’s introduction, ‘The Same but Different’, is an excellent overview of some of the factors that may have led to the dearth of research in this area, the interplay between race and enslavement, the roles that slaves played in the Arab-Muslim world, and the quality of experience—a rather mixed record—that enslaved Africans encountered. If there is an Arab literature on the inferiority of ‘blackness’, there is also a literature that speaks of its virtues, leading Hunwick to conclude that ‘there is a lack of consistent literature that theorizes the inferiority of black people. Islam did not have its Gobineau’ (p. xx). Powell’s introduction, ‘The Silence of the Slaves’, on the other hand, discusses not the absence of scholarly works on the subject, but the absence of the voices of the enslaved themselves, whether in fictional or non-fictional format. Among the rare exceptions, discussed by Powell, is the slave narrative of Sister Josephine Bakhita, an enslaved southern Sudanese woman who finally converted to Catholicism.
The rest of the book is divided into fifteen sections, each containing extracts of documents on a specific theme. The first four sections provide a conceptual frame of reference about slavery in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean region. Section I looks at what the canonical Islamic texts, the Quran and the Hadith, say about the institution of slavery. It concludes with al-Ghazali’s reading of the texts, that that ‘the rights of the one possessed are that he should share in the owner’s food and clothing and should not be assigned work above his capacity. [Nor should the owner] look at him/her with arrogance or disdain’ (p. 9). Section II, ‘Some Muslim Views on Slavery’, is a small sample of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Muslim responses, mostly apologetic, to Western association of slavery with Islam. But how did the above doctrines of Islam combine with the prevailing medieval culture of Islam to translate into actual law dealing with slaves? This question is the subject of Section III, though all the documentary material included here is from the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence. Section IV amplifies the scope of Section II, looking at perceptions of Africans in some Arabic and Turkish texts, some equating blackness with slavery and others rejecting such an equation. Even more provocative, however, are the ‘theories’ on the origins of blackness, ranging from versions of the Hamitic myth to environmental explanations (articulated particularly forcefully by Ibn Khaldun.
The next three sections give us a glimpse of the experience of Africans in the intervening period from the moment of capture (Section V), to the perilous journey especially across the Sahara Desert (Section VI), to the slave markets in the Arab-Muslim world (Section VII). Here we see how slave merchants went well beyond the provisions of Islam by capturing and enslaving individuals who could not be classified as war captives, the horrific cruelty that accompanied the transport of the enslaved, and the humiliation and abuse suffered at the slave market.
The book then proceeds to look at the actual master–slave relationships and the functions that enslaved Africans played. In Section VIII, on eunuchs and concubines, the authors make a compelling observation in their introductory remarks that, ‘It is a curious irony [of slavery in Arab-Muslim lands] that the best path to an easier life for male slaves was to be deprived of their sexuality, whereas for female slaves it was to have their sexuality exploited’ (p. 99). The aberration of castration, of course, was part of the Mediterranean culture of the time, but it acquired new proportions of frequency and cruelty in African enslavement, the increased authority that eunuchs later enjoyed in the houses of their masters notwithstanding. As for the concubines, they were there for the sexual enjoyment of the master at his will. Nonetheless, the documents indicate that many virtually acquired the status of additional wives, especially if they bore children: ‘A woman who bore such children could not thereafter legally be sold, and was automatically free on her master’s death’ (p. 99).
In addition to eunuchs (who were used to guard the harem) and concubines, the majority of enslaved Africans—especially women who, we are told, constituted about two-thirds of those who crossed the Sahara desert in the nineteenth century—are said to have provided other types of domestic service (Section IX). With regard to their treatment by their owners, the documents in this section indicate that these domestic slaves were far less fortunate than eunuchs and concubines. In addition, male slaves provided agricultural labour in North African oases, sometimes forced to carry out dangerous work like cleaning wells and underground irrigation systems (Section X) and military service in North African armies of the royal state (Section XI). In performing these various roles as slaves, most Africans eventually converted to Islam: in the process, their Islam sometimes became hybridized, combining practices of the faith they encountered in the new society with the spiritual beliefs from their original homeland (Section XII).
Islam made the freeing of slaves an act both of piety and atonement. Section XIII looks at the life of Diaspora Africans after such emancipation. The three case studies of the section demonstrate how post-enslavement life varied according to personal circumstances, the fortunes of the masters, and the pre- existing relationship between slave and master. It was not until the mid-1800s that some Arab governments moved decisively to abolish slavery in their countries; Section XIV considers the legacy of abolition in Tunisia and Egypt, sometimes in response to British appeals. The book concludes with a lengthy excerpt of the slave narrative of a certain Fulani slave, Griga, recorded in French by a French commandant, detailing his life from the moment of bondage to freedom. This narrative raises one fundamental limitation that cuts across the larger portion of this book. All the documents from Section VII onward are, in fact, based on records of European observers of one shade or another. The authors themselves acknowledge this problem, claiming that their reliance on this documentation is due to the dearth of other sources. While this kind of evidence cannot be wholly discounted, its Euro-Christian origin and its construction at a time of intense Muslim resistance to European colonial rule raises questions about the extent of its reliability.
The documents in this book offer an excellent opportunity for a comparative study of slave systems between the Atlantic world and that of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. What was the place of race in the two slave systems and what kind of comparative space did they provide for the assimilation of subsequent generations of the enslaved? Can there be different scales of slavery, just as there are different scales of murder in law? If so, how do the two fare relative to each other? And should the campaign for reparations, therefore, begin with the first degree of African suffering? What was the balance between sexual exploitation and economic exploitation between the two paradigms of slavery? This landmark publication is likely to shed light on some of these burning questions in the history of African enslavement. In the meantime, however, readers should bear in mind Edward Alpers’ words of caution against imposing on the slavery system of the Arab- Muslim world ‘paradigms developed from the experience of Africans in the Diaspora of the Atlantic world, with its particular forms of Euro-American racism and concomitant black responses’ (‘Recollecting Africa: Diasporic Memory in the Indian Ocean World’, African Studies Review, 43.1 (2000), 83).
Alamin Mazrui
Ohio State Universtiy


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