Monthly Archives: September 2012

Fettered by Enlightenment: Muslim and European Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade is known as one of the main sins of western civilization, a fact frequently mentioned by its critics, above all in the Muslim world. However, as anti-Islamic circles recently began to argue, the Arabs traded African slaves long before (and after) the Europeans. Was the Muslim slave trade truly similar to the European one, and if not- what were the differences between the two? As we shall see, western enlightenment made the European slave trade much crueler, but also brought it to a relatively early end. And what does it have to do with the way we sweeten our tea, and with counting of calories?


Two weeks ago, on Sunday, I opted for a short respite from my dissertation research at the National Archives, London, and ventured into the infamous “speakers’ corner” at Hyde Park. Always keen to hear the latest news from the clowns and eccentrics congregating there, I was moving between the different speakers, gathering anecdotes and curiosities. This time, the preacher who used to blame all difficulties in the world on free masons (and Jews) was absent, and the stage was left for Islamic and anti-Islamic demagogues happily clashing with one another.

Most interesting of them all was a black Christian preacher, who spoke with a shining blue-white Israeli flag behind him. He did not only blame Muslims for their usual sins (for example, not believing in Jesus), but also added an interesting accusation: Muslim invented black slavery, only to be imitated belatedly, and shortly, by the whites. The speech, as one may expect, aroused quite angry reactions from Muslim apologetics in the audience. As usual in Hyde Park, “yell and be yelled upon” was the norm, and the debate soon deteriorated into senseless chaos. Most of the apologetics were even less impressive than the preacher. The noisiest of them, a bald youth with blazing eyes, denied (in unimaginable ignorance) that Muslims ever traded slaves. Another soon made an escape, saying that “his child is bored”, and yet a third one- a black Muslim from Ghana, only mumbled incomprehensible Quranic verses.

An anti-Muslim preacher in Hyde Park, London: Did the Muslims “invent” black slavery?

Islamic and anti-Islamic demagoguery aside, the question raised by this Christian African preacher is far from being an uninteresting one. What were the differences, and similarities, between the western and Muslim slave trades? The answer, as usual, is complex. Both forms of slavery were of course similar, in the sense of treating human beings as goods, both were degrading, and each one had certain points of cruelty in which it “excelled” over the other. However, and this is the bitterest irony of all, western slave trade turned to be crueler and much more destructive, not in spite of western enlightenment, but vice versa, because of western enlightenment.

Read the rest of this entry