April 27, 2013

Some Passing Thoughts on The Dead-End Notion of "Islamic Slavery"

Regarding Western distortions of slavery in Zanzibar, a frequent line of defense I encounter in my research in Oman is that slavery in Zanzibar was of more benevolent variety because Islam mediated the brutality of the master-slave relationship. I am skeptical of such a defense for the following reasons:

The solution to Western distortions of the "Arab" slave trade is not to produce Orientalized set pieces drawn from Quranic texts, in which "Arab" and "Muslim" slaveholders practice a benevolent and more exalted form of slavery. This is an intellectual dead end, and amounts to an indirect apology for something which requires a much deeper critical response. First of all the slave trade itself ought to be distinguished from the practice of slavery. Historians have an important role to play in showing how the trade rose and fell in interaction with economic systems and the demand for labor. The same rule applies to slavery itself--how slaves and slavemasters actually interacted in various times and places either in agreement or contradiction to the text.

Additonally, a true historian will not absolve anyone simply because they "abided by the Quran" in their dealings with slaves. Rather a historian will ask critical questions about how and why slavery was justified in the first place, what it meant to be a slave in particular societies in Africa and Southern Arabia, from the perspective (inasmuch as this is possible) from former slaves. Statements like, "all African societies practice slavery" obscure important differences in systems of enslavement to the point of rendering the word without any meaning. In other words, when Arab intellectuals employ this argument, they fall into the same trap that stymied an earlier generation of colonial historians, essentializing African societies and making them complicit in their own enslavement. Needless to say, this is a repeat of a racist colonial argument that was repeatedly used to justify European involvement in the trans-Atlantic trade.

None of what I am saying here is new. Eminent historians like Abdul Sherrif, Jon Glassman and Fred Cooper have been making such arguments for years. The problem is that a great many of those who defend (for instance) slavery in Zanzibar, do not seem to be aware of their work or their arguments, instead relying mostly on British colonial writers for their interpretation. This produces in many ways a distorted sense of the most urgent historical problem surrounding slavery. Books like Kinyanginyiro na Utumwa by Issa bin Nasser al-Ismaily succeed in dispelling many of the myths surrounding the "Arab" slave trade, but miss a chance to take the conversation further, to an actual substantial discussion of slavery and the various parties involved--Europeans, Arabs, Indians and Africans--and their various interests and understandings.

One way to approach the troubling issue of slavery in Zanzibar is to consider the following quote from Talal Asad:

"One trouble with their consensus argument is that it fuses the distinction between deceiver and deceived with the opposition between dominator and dominated. There is no a priori reason to suppose that social categories that define relations between dominators and dominated must involve credulity on the part of the latter and cynicism on that of the former. In any case, such suppositions are irrelevant to the problem. What is shared in such situations is not "belief" as an interior state of mind but cultural discourses that constitute objective social conditions and thus define forms of behaviour appropriate to them. Such conditions do not rule out the possibility of conflict--by which I mean not merely that conflicts may erupt to upset them but that conflicts, including the use of force, are entirely compatible with them."

The language of slavery in Zanzibar is often cloaked in paternalism, and historians would do well to analyze the role of this paternalism, and how the relationships of paternalism (including the squatter-landowner relationship) was gradually undone in the decades after abolition.

Historians of slavery in Zanzibar cannot accept at face value the anti-Arab canards of partisans of the Zanzibar Revolution; they will be skeptical of the idea that slavery was a driving force behind the Revolution, and attendant to the way this discourse justified racist violence against Arabs. At the same time, they must be critical of the discourse of the exiled Arab diaspora, insofar as that discourse tends to avoid substantive analysis of slavery and its function and role in 19th century Zanzibar.


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