Islam's Black Slaves
The Other Black Diaspora
By Ronald Segal
Farrar Straus & Giroux
273 pgs. US$25/C$39.95

A missed opportunity

Reviewed by Steven Martinovich
web posted March 19, 2001

Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black DiasporaReaders hoping for a book length investigation of modern day slavery scantly reported on by the press or those looking for an exhaustive survey of slave owning and selling by adherents of Islam will be profoundly disappointed by Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora. Readers who are looking for a covert attack on western society and capitalism, on the other hand, will love this book.

The Islamic slave trade is a little discussed event in African history. It and the better-known Atlantic trade both sent at least 11 million human beings into slavery, but unlike America, which is witness to thriving black cultures, there is no similar artifact in the Middle East. The raison d'être for this book is to find out why that is.

Most of the book is taken up by a general historical review of Islam and the slave trade. Ronald Segal traces the expansion of Islam through conversions and force of arms from its birthplace in the Middle East to places as far away as western China and Spain. As Islam and its adherents spread, so did the institution of slavery.

It's through this process that Segal's real agenda occasionally makes itself known. Segal spends a considerable amount of time arguing that unlike Christians, Islam's followers treated their slaves relatively humanely because of fundamental differences in the two faiths. The Koran, writes Segal, admirably recognizes that there are no differences between human beings regardless of their culture or color and it makes no suggestion as to which race is superior. The faith is generally tolerant of others and slave owners were promised rewards in heaven for showing their piety and treating their slaves well.

Those differences in Islam, writes Segal, translated into Africans generally being used in household roles in Islamic societies, with some even achieving prominence and ruling them on occasion, while in North America they were dehumanized units of labour in North America ("the effective subjugation of people to the priority of profit" as Segal writes).

They are a compelling set of arguments until the reader stops to consider the more brutal aspects of slavery present in Islamic society, brutal aspects all reported on by Segal himself in his own book. In direct contrast to North American practices, Islamic owners owned women at a two-to-one ratio to men which when combined with a tradition of concubines and polygamy meant those women generally became sex objects and slaves. Africans were also forced into military service - with typically low rates of survival - and untold numbers of men were killed in the creation of eunuchs. In the 19th century, one that slave raiding was conducted "on a scale and with a ruthlessness that seemed at times to be frantic," Segal writes that the most number of blacks died because of the Islamic trade - the same time that Western pressures against that trade were increasing.

Entire tribes ceased to exist and the eastern interior of Africa was devastated by Islamic slavers but Segal argues that because Africans were used in a productive sense - that is to say, labour - by the capitalist west (the "ultimate totalitarianism of money"), the Islamic world was more humane to use them as symbols of consumption. It is an argument that could be believable if you weren't one of the one hundred Africans who sometimes had to die in order for one to be captured by a slaver.

Islam's Black Slaves reaches its most bizarre level with its last chapter "America's Black Muslim Backlash." Segal makes little attempt to connect it with the proceeding chapters and he gives the Nation of Islam a level of importance that it is wildly undeserving of. Papering over the NOI's virulent anti-Semitism and unfounded charges of Jewish complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, Segal benignly ascribes and excuses the group's racism as a frustrated response to racism. He even barely makes mention of modern day slavery of black Christians and animists in the Sudan and Mauritania, committing the same sin as the Nation of Islam.

Had Segal, a South African-born high-flyer in the African National Congress back in the 1950s and 60s, simply stuck to a historical survey of the field, Islam's Black Slaves would have been a serviceable entry in a field that has been largely ignored. He dismisses his original question, what happened to the Africans in Islamic societies, with the book equivalent of an aside explaining low fertility, death and miscegenation meant their disappearance. As an indepth study of the issue, Muslim's Black Slaves is a notable failure. As a political attack on the west and capitalism, it doesn't work much better.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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