How Islam breathed new life into slavery and the slave trade in Europe
by John J. O’Neill
In my newly-published book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, I argue at length that a great majority of the things commonly regarded as “Medieval” were in fact introduced to Europe from Islam, and that it was Islam, and not the Huns, Vandals and Goths, which terminated Classical Civilization, the rational and humane civilization of Greece and Rome. This civilization survived in Europe and in North Africa and the Near East until the seventh century, at which point it was terminated by the Muslim conquests.
In point of fact, Islam’s influence upon Europe was much greater than is commonly imagined, but that influence was entirely negative. Not only did the Muslims terminate Classical Civilization, but they dragged Europe, on many levels, down to a more barbarous level of culture. It was from the Muslims, for example, that Christian Europeans got the idea of “Holy War,” a concept that would have been unthinkable in earlier centuries. And from Islam too, the institution of slavery, as well as the slave trade, received a new and powerful impetus.
Contrary to the beliefs of some modern anti-Christian writers, Christianity brought an immediate and dramatic improvement in the living conditions of slaves in the Roman Empire. It was also, eventually, instrumental in the abolition of the entire institution. The improvement was an inevitable consequence of the Christian notion that the mistreatment of any human being, whether slave or free, was gravely sinful. In the words of one writer, “The effect of the Church upon the Empire may be summed up in the word ‘freedom’.” (H. F. Stewart, “Thoughts and Ideas of the Period,” in The Cambridge Medieval History: The Christian Empire, Vol. 1 (2nd ed. 1936), p. 592) And, “Close upon the Church’s victory follows legislation more favorable to the slave than any that had gone before.”(Ibid.) Whilst it is true that “Constantine did not attempt sudden or wholesale emancipation, which would have been unwise and impossible,” he nevertheless immediately “sought to lessen his [the slave’s] hardships by measures which with all their inequalities are unique in the statute-book of Rome. … he forbade cruelty towards slaves in terms which are themselves an indictment of existing practice.”(Ibid., p. 593) The Gospel passages of relevance here are too numerous to mention, but we should note in particular the story of the Final Judgment as told in Mark 25: 31-46, where the King (God) tells His servants: “So long as you did it to these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” It should be remarked also, at this point, that the whole concept of human rights, attributed by many contemporary westerners to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, is rooted in this Gospel concept – a fact admitted by the Enlightenment philosophers themselves. Human rights are a moral as well as a judicial concept. If God will hold each of us accountable for our behavior towards the lowliest members of society, this places the latter on a par, in moral terms, with the highest members of society.
Thus from the start, the lives of slaves improved. This was especially the case with female and younger male slaves, whose function, in the past, was very often to provide sexual pleasure for their owners. This type of transgression was especially frowned upon by Christians. And so, whilst the owning of slaves was not, to begin with, illegal, mistreatment – from the very start – was. This view led, inexorably, to the abandonment and abolition of the entire slave system. We find therefore, from the earliest times, many Christian leaders, such as Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, condemning slavery itself and calling for better treatment for slaves. In fact, tradition describes Pope Clement I (92 – 99), Pope Pius I (roughly 158 – 167) and Pope Callixtus I (217 – 222) as former slaves.
After Christianity became the official religion of the Empire the more noxious manifestations of slavery, such as gladiatorial contests, were one by one abolished; and finally, with the Corpus of laws promulgated by Justinian, in the sixth century, we find a formal condemnation of the institution. The rationale was explained in the Institutiones, (Title III, Book 1, paragraph 2) where we read the following: “Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature, subjecting one man to the dominion of another.” Again, in Title II, Book 1, paragraph 2, it states “… the law of nations is common to the whole human race; for nations have settled certain things for themselves as occasion and the necessities of human life required. For instance, wars arose and then followed captivity and slavery, which are contrary to the law of nature; for by the law of nature all men from the beginning were born free.”
The Justinianic code was introduced into Italy (in 554), from where it was to pass to Western Europe in the twelfth century and become the basis of much European law. It passed also to Eastern Europe where it appeared in Slavic editions, and became the cornerstone of Russian law.
The end result of all this was that by the tenth or even ninth century the Church had effectively ended slavery in Europe. And this is a fact well-known. In the words of Rodney Stark, “… slavery ended in medieval Europe only because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and Jews). Within the context of medieval Europe, that prohibition was effectively a rule of universal abolition.” (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (Random House, New York, 2005) p. 28)
The above statement is conservative. In fact, by the seventh century slavery was well on the way to disappearing throughout Europe; but then, at that point, new life was breathed into it, and the slave-trade experienced a massive revival. The revival was a direct result of the arrival of Islam.
Islamic custom and practice with regard to slavery was always diametrically opposed to that of Christianity: For whereas Christianity acted to emphasize the equality of all before God and to alleviate the conditions of slaves, whose bodies were certainly not open to the sexual exploitation which was frequently the fate of the slave in classical antiquity, Islam had no problem whatsoever with slavery. Indeed, the taking of comely captives seems to have been seen, from the very beginning, as a legitimate bonus owed to the warriors fighting to spread the faith. Thus for example after the slaughter of the male members of the Jewish tribe of Banu Quraiza Muhammad took one of the most beautiful female captives as a concubine; whilst other successful military exploits of the Prophet invariably involved his procuring of slaves. And this behavior is fully sanctioned, for later generations, by the authority of the Koran. Thus, we read, in Sura 23: 5-6: “…abstain from sex, except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess – for (in their case) they are free from blame.” See also Sura 4:24.
In the words of Robert Spencer, “The Qur’an says that the followers of Muhammad are ‘ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another’ (48:29), and that the unbelievers are the ‘worst of created beings’ (98:6). One may exercise the Golden Rule [do unto others as you would have them do unto you] in relation to a fellow Muslim, but according to the laws of Islam, the same courtesy is not to be extended to unbelievers. That is one principal reason why the primary source of slaves in the Islamic world has been non-Muslims, whether Jews, Christians, Hindus, or pagans. Most slaves were non-Muslims who had been captured during jihad warfare.” (Robert Spencer, Religion of Peace: Why Christianity is and Islam isn’t (Regnery, 2008) p. 95).
The Muslim advance through the Middle East and North Africa meant the re-establishment, on a massive scale, of the slave trade, a trade which the Christian rulers of the late Roman Empire, particularly Justinian, had almost brought to an end. Historian Bat Ye’or says: “When Amr conquered Tripoli (Libya) in 643, he forced the Jewish and Christian Berbers to give their wives and children as slaves to the Arab army as part of their jizya. From 652 until its conquest in 1276, Nubia was forced to send an annual contingent of slaves to Cairo. Treaties concluded with the towns of Transoxiana [Iranian central Asia], Sijistan [eastern Iran], Armenia, and Fezzan (Maghreb) under the Umayyads and Abbasids stipulated an annual dispatch of slaves from both sexes. However, the main sources for the supply of slaves remained the regular raids on villages within the dar-al-harb [non-Islamic regions] and the military expeditions which swept more deeply into the infidel lands, emptying towns and provinces of their inhabitants.” (Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (New Jersey, 1996) p. 108).
In Holy Warriors I describe in detail the devastating effect of Muslim raids at this time across the Mediterranean world. The latter sea became a war-zone, and normal trade came to an end. One type of trade alone survived: the trade in human bodies. And the devastation was not confined to southern Europe. The north of the continent became quickly involved in the general ruin: For that strange phenomenon, the Viking expansion, was intimately and directly related to the arrival of Islam. Hugh Trevor-Roper puts it thus: “What were these Vikings doing? What sudden force drove these piratical Northmen to range over the seas and rivers of Europe, creating havoc? It used to be supposed that it was merely a sudden, unexplained growth of population in Scandinavia which lay behind this extraordinary outburst. No doubt this was true: so vast an expansion cannot have been sustained by a static population. But the scope and direction of the raids point also to other motives. There were opportunities abroad as well as pressures at home; and these opportunities link together the Viking raids and the Moslem conquests.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (London, 1966) p. 90).
Trevor-Roper goes on to describe the vast wealth accumulated by the Muslim Caliphate in its expansion across Asia and Africa, and how, with this wealth, it could purchase what it wanted from Europe. What the Muslims wanted, above all, was “eunuchs and slaves.” He continues: “It was one of the functions of the Vikings to supply these goods. Half traders, half pirates, they ranged over all northern Europe, and in their ranging, or through the method of piracy, they collected furs and kidnapped human beings. For preference they dealt in heathen Slavs, since Christian States had less compunction in handling a slave-trade in heathen bodies – they could always quote that useful text, Leviticus xxv, 44. So the Vikings fed both Byzantium and the rich new civilization of Islam with the goods which they demanded and for which they could pay. In doing so they penetrated all the coasts and rivers of Europe.” (Ibid., pp. 90-1) In the above quotation Trevor-Roper repeats the erroneous notion, prevalent until the last decades of the twentieth century, that Byzantium somehow escaped the ravages of the Saracens and that in her territory there continued to flourish an intact and prosperous branch of ancient Rome. Constantinople, he imagines, like Damascus, was a wealthy recipient of Russian slaves. Yet by the end of the seventh century, as I show in great detail in Holy Warriors, the formerly great power of Eastern Rome was little more than an impoverished rump, cut off, just as surely as the West, from the wealth and learning of Asia. If there was a slave trade in Byzantium, it was only as a link in the chain that brought eunuchs and concubines from Russia to Damascus and Baghdad. What little gold Byzantium possessed in the tenth and eleventh centuries was from the taxes levied on Muslim merchants of human flesh, who frequented the Viking-supplied markets of the ancient capital. The gold derived from this infamous trade was known as aurum arabicum, Arab gold, or, as humane men preferred to call it, aurum infelix, unhappy gold. By the tenth century large quantities of this Arab gold and silver had found its way to Scandinavia. Viking longboats were apparently not infrequent visitors to Islamic ports in Iberia, and the occasional Arab traveler returned the compliment by visiting Scandinavia.
Whilst, as Trevor-Roper says, the majority of European slaves delivered to the Arabs were Slavs, not all of them were. Indeed, the Vikings plundered all of western Europe to supply the markets of the Caliphate. Dublin, for example, established by the Vikings in Ireland, was a major slave market, with most of the captives bought and sold coming from Ireland and Britain. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the majority of slaves sold to the Muslims were heathen Slavs, and there is no doubt also that some of the Christian rulers of western Europe were complicit in the trade. Venice, for example, acted as a depot for the collection and sale of Slavic captives from Dalmatia. Marseilles too, it seems, also was active. In the words of Trevor-Roper: “For if the Vikings were the pioneers, the princes of Europe, or some of them, were the middlemen in the new slave-trade. They licensed it and they profited by it, though they left the direct traffic in it to the Jews, who could move most easily across the frontiers of the two societies. We have plenty of evidence of this trade and its routes … Liutprand of Cremona, the ambassador of the West who, in the tenth century, stood agog before the kaleidoscope pageantry of the Byzantine court, tells us that it was the merchants of Verdun who, for the immense profit of the trade, made boys into eunuchs and sold them through Moorish Spain to the rich Moslem world … The trade has left its mark in the languages of both Christendom and Islam. Sclavi, ‘Slavs’, has formed, in every European language, the word for slaves; and the same word, Sakaliba, has provided the Arabic word for eunuchs.” (Ibid., p. 92)
By the late tenth and eleventh centuries Scandinavia was converted to Christianity, and the slave trade came to an end in the north of Europe. In the south, however, it was a very different story. For centuries, in Spain, in Sicily, in Greece, and all along the Mediterranean coastlands, Muslim corsairs raided incessantly, capturing entire communities and selling them in the slave markets of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Even worse, the Christian populations of southern Europe, especially of Spain and southern Italy, began to take on many of the habits and customs of their Islamic foes. These included the keeping and marketing of slaves. It is little surprise then, that the great revival of slave-trading, which marked the European colonization of the Americas, would be driven by freebooters from the Iberian Peninsula. And we should never forget that, to begin with, the Atlantic slave trade with the Americas was entirely a Spanish and Portuguese enterprise. The nations of northern Europe did not participate. Famously, Queen Elizabeth I of England initially refused to become involved, declaring the trade an outrage against God and humanity. Later however, probably corrupted by the example of the Spaniards and Portuguese, she changed tack and began Britain’s involvement in the noxious trade.
Louis Betrand is scathing of the influence exerted upon Christian Spain by Islam. “The worst characteristic which the Spaniards acquired was the parasitism of the Arabs and the nomad Africans: the custom of living off one’s neighbour’s territory, the raid raised to the level of an institution, marauding and brigandage recognized as the sole means of existence for the man-at-arms. In the same way they went to win their bread in Moorish territory, so the Spaniards later went to win gold and territory in Mexico and Peru.
“They were to introduce there, too, the barbarous, summary practices of the Arabs: putting everything to fire and sword, cutting down fruit-trees, razing crops, devastating whole districts to starve out the enemy and bring them to terms; making slaves everywhere, condemning the population of the conquered countries to forced labour. All these detestable ways the conquistadores learnt from the Arabs.
“For several centuries slavery maintained itself in Christian Spain, as in the Islamic lands. Very certainly, also, it was to the Arabs that the Spaniards owed the intransigence of their fanaticism, the pretension to be, if not the chosen of God, at least the most Catholic nation of Christendom. Philip II, like Abd er Rahman or El Mansour, was Defender of the Faith.
“Finally, it was not without contagion that the Spaniards lived for centuries in contact with a race of men who crucified their enemies and gloried in piling up thousands of severed heads by way of trophies. The cruelty of the Arabs and the Berbers also founded a school in the Peninsula. The ferocity of the emirs and the caliphs who killed their brothers or their sons with their own hands was to be handed on to Pedro the Cruel and Henry of Trastamare, those stranglers under canvas, no better than common assassins.” (Louis Betrand and Sir Charles Petrie, The History of Spain (2nd ed. London, 1945), p. 160).
Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization is published by Felibri (August, 2009).