Muhammad owned slaves, and the Qur'an takes the existence of slavery for granted, even as it enjoins the freeing of slaves under certain circumstances, such as the breaking of an oath: “Allah will not call you to account for what is futile in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom” (5:89).
While the freeing of a few slaves here and there is encouraged, however, the institution itself is never questioned. Slavery was taken for granted throughout Islamic history, as it was, of course, in the West up until relatively recent times. Yet the impetus to end slavery moved from Christendom into Islam, not the other way around. Because the Qur'anic word cannot be questioned, and the book does not contain the Biblical principles that led to the abolition of slavery in the West, there has never been a Muslim abolitionist movement. Slavery ended in Islamic lands under pressure from the West.
In fact, when the British government began pressuring other regimes to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century, the Sultan of Morocco was incredulous. “The traffic in slaves,” he noted, “is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam...up to this day.” He said that he was “not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect” and that the very idea that anyone would question its morality was absurd: “No one need ask this question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.”
Sadiq al-Mahdi, former prime minister of Sudan, would agree. On March 24, 1999, he wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, that “the traditional concept of JIHAD does allow slavery as a by-product.” And so slavery persists in some areas of the Islamic world. The BBC reported in December 2008 that “strong evidence has emerged of children and adults being used as slaves in Sudan’s Darfur region.”
Mauritanian human rights crusader Boubakar Messaoud asserted that in that country, people are born and bred as slaves: “A Mauritanian slave, whose parents and grandparents before him were slaves, doesn’t need chains. He has been brought up as a domesticated animal.” Three years later, nothing had changed. Messaoud explained in March 2007: “It’s like having sheep or goats. If a woman is a slave, her descendants are slaves.” Likewise in Niger, which formally abolished slavery only in 2003, slavery is a long-standing practice. Journalist and anti-slavery activist Souleymane Cisse explained that even Western colonial governments did nothing to halt the practice: “The colonial rulers preferred to ignore it because they wanted to co-operate with the aristocracy who kept these slaves.”
Islamic slavery has not been unknown even in the United States. When the Saudi national Homaidan Al-Turki was imprisoned for holding a woman as a slave in Colorado, he complained that “the state has criminalized these basic Muslim behaviors. Attacking traditional Muslim behaviors was the focal point of the prosecution.” Where did he get the idea that slavery was a “traditional Muslim behavior”? From the Qur'an.
TIMBUKTU, Mali — Her light-skinned master no longer beats her with a camel whip. He no longer makes her work from dawn to night without pay. He fled with his family four months ago, along with the Islamists who briefly ruled this historic city.
“I am free,” said Aminaya Traore, a 50-year-old woman who was born into slavery. “I can do whatever I want.”
Across this sand-swept city, hundreds of modern-day slaves are experiencing a sense of liberation, many for the first time. Nearly all the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arab Moors who for generations exploited them have fled the city, fearing reprisal attacks for supporting supporting the Islamists or the Tuareg separatists whose rebellion helped ignite the Islamist takeover of Mali’s north last year.
“Under the Islamists, blacks were exploited even more by the pink-skinned people,” said Roukiatou Cisse, a social worker with Temedt, a human rights group, referring to the Tuaregs and Arab Moors. “They told them, ‘We are with the Islamists. We are in power. We are the masters and you are our slaves. We will do what we want.’ ”
“Now, the slaves have profited by the pink-skinned people leaving.”
The jubilation underscores how deeply divided Mali’s northern communities became during the 10-month rule of the Islamists, who included homegrown jihadists, such as the Tuaregs and Arab Moors, as well as foreigners with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s West and North Africa branch. A French-led military intervention that began in January ousted the Islamists from towns in the north, though a guerrilla war continues.
Under the Islamists, many Tuaregs and Arab Moors took advantage of their shared ethnic backgrounds with the jihadists and asserted themselves over their black neighbors. The widened rift between the communities could take years, if not decades, to close, residents say....
Slavery was abolished in 1960 after the West African nation gained independence, and all people are considered equal under Mali’s constitution. Yet there’s no law that criminalizes slavery, making it hard to seek legal action. And there’s little political will to address the problem: Many government officials deny the practice exists.
Today, an estimated 200,000 people live as slaves or in slavelike conditions in Mali, mostly in rural areas, according to Temedt, which means “solidarity.” The advocacy group Anti-Slavery International says that “descent-based slavery” exists in other West African countries as well, including Mauritania and Niger.
Those who have been freed, often by running away, still face discrimination because of their family’s historical status as slaves. Most of the people who have slaves are Tuareg, though some black ethnic groups in northern Mali have also been known to have slaves, who are known as Bella, which means both “black” and “slave.”