Islam’s Black Slaves, by Ronald Segal
One man’s perspective is another man’s ax to grind. I read this particular book for two reasons: one, because the subject of slavery is fascinating to me and I had read little on the Islamic Slave Trade, and two, because the book was shown on my local library’s website as dealing with the slave trade in Somalia, a subject of some historical interest to me. I was not disappointed on either count, though I must say the author has his own perspective that I feel shaped his argument. The book is a tough read—focusing, it would appear, on the way in which Islam’s moral standard was corrupted by the long presence of slavery. It would appear as if the author, due to what appears to be an anti-business bias, considers slavery for reason of conspicuous consumption to be morally superior than the use of slavery for economic gain. However, as the author is Jewish (and makes a point of making that plain), the author has another purpose in this book than merely to discuss and detail the practice of slavery among Muslims in Africa and the Middle East (and even China), but also to discredit the mistaken view among black Muslims in the United States that the Jews were responsible for the Islamic slave trade.
Whether one thinks that the racist views of American black Muslims is worth spending a chapter on (I don’t) or not, at least the author makes that the last chapter, which does not greatly detract from the sobering and unpleasant look at Islamic slavery that this book presents. The fact that this book details a great deal of racism against the black victims of the Islamic slave trade, and the destructive effects that slavery and the slave trade still have in Mauritania and Sudan, and details the surprising and eye-opening role of Somalia in the East African slave trade (something which may be of future research use for this reviewer), makes this book an excellent read as a historical source.
However, there is no denying this book is a supremely unpleasant read for a variety of reasons. For one, this book explains in grisly detail the exploitation of black Africans for the luxury purposes of people ranging from Muslim rulers in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other realms to common folk in Egypt and the Sahara regions. The book seems to go out of its way to detail the destruction slavery held for the black African tribes of Ethiopia, the Sahel region, and East Africa (near the coast), and into such hotspots as Darfur. The book also details over and over again horrors such as the way in which it took hundreds of young black male slaves to make one (surviving) eunuch. Some of the material in this book is frankly revolting, including the way in which the Saudis, in the 20th century, were caught luring African Muslims to the hajj in Mecca for the purpose of making some into slaves, and the behavior of homosexual slave owners in purchasing male slaves to be catamites.
In short, this book is unlikely to find many friends and supporters among those who would whitewash Muslims of the guilt of the horrors of the slave trade, even though (ironically, perhaps) the author is much more favorable to the official egalitarianism of Islam and the use of slaves as luxury goods than he is to the African slave trade, which he wrote about in another work but still condemns here. The tragedy that slavery, and its aftereffects, still plague the African continent is a reminder of the evil and insidious and lasting powers of sin to deform societies and destroy the possibility of human progress. However, the author makes a profound statement towards the end of the book, on page 222, that points to the reason why one would study such a gruesome and unpleasant subject: “…ultimately, it [the persistence of slavery] is a challenge to the redemptive force of experience and memory, without which we may as well not even bother with history at all.” Very true, indeed.