Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It has become a feature of today’s atheist chic to shy bricks at Christianity for its record on slavery. This is part of a larger assault on Western history and society, which, by accident or design, plays into the hands of those who are today mounting on a global scale a sweeping and explicit cultural challenge to Judeo-Christian as well as post-Christian values. The fundamentally most misunderstood and overlooked aspect of today’s defense against the global jihad is this challenge that Jihadists make to Western values, which are in large part Judeo-Christian. Combine this with a historical critique that relentlessly portrays the West as the aggressors against the rest of the world, and as uniquely responsible for its evils, and Westerners’ will to defend something as rotten as Western civilization begins to ebb away.

This is the concern of my book Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t ¯which I wrote in order to counter these tendencies and answer the Islamic cultural critique. For in fact, taken at face value, the Bible condones slavery. The Apostle Paul says flatly: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5). He wasn’t saying anything remotely controversial (and of course has been criticized for apparently accepting the cultural status quo instead of challenging it). No culture on earth, Christian or otherwise, ever questioned the morality of slavery until relatively recent times.

But in the popular mind the onus for slavery is squarely on the West. When Britain commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of its abolition of the slave trade in March 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair called it “an opportunity for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret for our nation’s role in the slave trade and for the unbearable suffering, individually and collectively, it caused.” Britain’s role in the slave trade? Some Americans might be surprised to learn that the British, or anyone besides American southerners, ever owned slaves, since after coming through American schools as they stand today many people no doubt have the impression that slavery was invented in Charleston and Mobile. “The American education system,” observes Mark Steyn, “teaches it as such¯as a kind of wicked perversion the Atlantic settlers had conjured out of their own ambition.”

However, as Steyn details, it was a cross-cultural fact of life for centuries: “In reality, it was more like the common cold¯a fact of life. The institution predates the word’s etymology, from the Slavs brought from eastern Europe to the glittering metropolis of Rome. It predates by some millennia the earliest laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia. The first legally recognized slave in the American colonies was owned by a black man who had himself arrived as an indentured servant. The first slave owners on the North American continent were hunter-gatherers. As Eric Metaxas puts it, ‘Slavery was as accepted as birth and marriage and death, was so woven into the tapestry of human history that you could barely see its threads, much less pull them out. Everywhere on the globe, for 5,000 years, the idea of human civilization without slavery was unimaginable.’”

Likewise unacknowledged has been the role that Christian principles played in the abolition of slavery in the West, which was an enterprise unprecedented in the annals of human history. The roots of abolitionism can be traced to the Church’s practice of baptizing slaves and treating them as human beings equal in dignity to all others. St. Isidore of Seville (560“636) declared that “God has made no difference between the soul of the slave and that of the freedman.” His statement was rooted in what St. Paul told the slaveowner Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus: “Perhaps this was why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Phil. 15“16).

Once it was recognized that the slave had a soul just as did the master, it could not forever be justified that he be another person’s chattel. In the year 649, Clovis II, king of the Franks, married a slave¯who later began a campaign to halt the traffic in slaves. The Catholic Church now honors her as St. Bathilda. Charlemagne and others later also opposed the practice in Christian Europe. According to historian 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 of Jews). Within the context of medieval Europe, that prohibition was effectively a rule of universal abolition.” And in the New World, when the Spanish conquistadors were energetically enslaving South American Indians, and importing black Africans as slaves as well, their chief opponent was a Catholic missionary and bishop, Bartolome de las Casas (1474“1566), who was instrumental in compelling the Spanish crown to enact a law in 1542 prohibiting the enslavement of the Indians.

Still, there was no consensus about slavery within Christendom. Slavery persisted, and was at times even given ecclesiastical sanction. In the antebellum United States, there was no shortage of Southerners who used Scripture to support the morality of slavery. Typical of such expositions was one delivered in 1822 by the Rev. Dr. Richard Furman, President of the South Carolina Baptist State Convention, to South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson. Although slavery was not in 1822 the nation-rending controversy it would become in the succeeding decades, Furman was already feeling pressure from the arguments against slavery that abolitionists were advancing on Christian principles. He complained that “certain writers on politics, morals and religion, and some of them highly respectable, have advanced positions, and inculcated sentiments, very unfriendly to the principle and practice of holding slaves,” and had even attributed those positions “to the Holy Scriptures, and to the genius of Christianity.” On the contrary, Furman affirmed that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were directed to purchase their bond-men and bond-maids of the Heathen nations; except they were of the Canaanites, for these were to be destroyed. And it is declared, that the persons purchased were to be their ‘bond-men forever;’ and an ‘inheritance for them and their children.’”

Furman goes on to assert that “had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church.” And moreover, “in proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions.”

Such arguments held no water for the abolitionists, who read from the same Bible as did the slaveholders. The abolitionist movement was predicated upon the Christian principle of the dignity of all the redeemed in Christ. The pioneering English abolitionists Thomas Clarkson (1760“1846) and William Wilberforce (1759“1833) were both motivated to work for an end to slavery by their deep Christian faith; so was the American anti-slavery crusader William Lloyd Garrison (1805“1879), who remarked in a speech in Charleston, South Carolina on the day Abraham Lincoln was shot: “Abolitionism, what is it? Liberty. What is liberty? Abolitionism. What are they both? Politically, one is the Declaration of Independence; religiously, the other is the Golden Rule of our Savior.”

Abraham Lincoln was himself much preoccupied with Genesis 3:19, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” In May 1864, he wrote to a delegation of Baptists, “To read in the Bible, as the word of God himself, that ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,’ and to preach there—from that, ‘In the sweat of other mans faces shalt thou eat bread,’ to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity.” Later that same year he replied to the wife of a Confederate prisoner who had appealed to him for the release of her husband: “You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven!” He gave this theme its most lapidary formulation in his Second Inaugural Address, saying of the opposing sides in the Civil War:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

This is, of course, the view that has prevailed in the Christian world: that it is indeed “strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” And this was the view that was instrumental in the global abolition of slavery.

Islamic Slavery

In the Islamic world, however, the situation is very different. The Muslim prophet Muhammad owned slaves, and like the Bible, 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). Jihad theorist Sayyid Qutb adduces this as evidence that in Islam “there is no difference between a prince and a pauper, a seigneur and a slave.” Nevertheless, while the freeing of a slave or two here and there is encouraged, the institution itself is never questioned. The Qur’an even gives a man permission to have sexual relations with his slave girls as well as with his wives: “The believers must (eventually) win through, those who humble themselves in their prayers; who avoid vain talk; who are active in deeds of charity; who 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” (23:1-6). A Muslim is not to have sexual relations with a woman who is married to someone else¯except a slave girl: “And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess. It is a decree of Allah for you” (4:24).

Why should such passages be any more troubling to anyone than passages in the Bible such as Exodus 21:7“11, which gives regulations for selling one’s daughter as a slave? Because in Islam there is no equivalent of the Golden Rule, as articulated by Jesus: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). The closest Islamic tradition comes to this is one hadith in which Muhammad says, “None of you will have faith till he likes for his (Muslim) brother what he likes for himself.” The parenthetical “Muslim” in that sentence was added by the Saudi translator, and does not appear in the original Arabic; however, “brother” is generally not used in Islamic tradition to refer to anyone but fellow Muslims. Also mitigating against a universal interpretation of this maxim is the sharp distinction between believers and unbelievers that runs through all of Islam. 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 in relation to a fellow Muslim, but according to the worldview presented by such verses and others like them, the same courtesy is not properly 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 in Islam were non-Muslims who had been captured during jihad warfare. The pioneering scholar of the treatment of non-Muslims in Islamic societies, Bat Ye’or, explains the system that developed out of jihad conquest:

The jihad slave system included contingents of both sexes delivered annually in conformity with the treaties of submission by sovereigns who were tributaries of the caliph. 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 [tax on non-Muslims]. 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, Sijistan, 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 [House of War, i.e., non-Islamic regions] and the military expeditions which swept more deeply into the infidel lands, emptying towns and provinces of their inhabitants.

Historian Speros Vryonis observes that “since the beginning of the Arab razzias [raids] into the land of Rum [the Byzantine Empire], human booty had come to constitute a very important portion of the spoils.” The Turks, as they steadily conquered more and more of Anatolia, reduced many of the Greeks and other non-Muslims there to slave status: “They enslaved men, women, and children from all major urban centers and from the countryside where the populations were defenseless.” The Indian historian K. S. Lal states that wherever jihadists conquered a territory, “there developed a system of slavery peculiar to the clime, terrain and populace of the place.” When Muslim armies invaded India, “its people began to be enslaved in droves to be sold in foreign lands or employed in various capacities on menial and not-so-menial jobs within the country.”

Slaves faced pressure to convert to Islam. Patricia Crone, in an analysis of Islamic political theories, notes that after a jihad battle was concluded, “male captives might be killed or enslaved . . . Dispersed in Muslim households, slaves almost always converted, encouraged or pressurized by their masters, driven by a need to bond with others, or slowly, becoming accustomed to seeing things through Muslim eyes even if they tried to resist.” Thomas Pellow, an Englishman who was enslaved in Morocco for twenty-three years after being captured as a cabin boy on a small English vessel in 1716, was tortured until he accepted Islam. For weeks he was beaten and starved, and finally gave in after his torturer resorted to “burning my flesh off my bones by fire, which the tyrant did, by frequent repetitions, after a most cruel manner.”

Slavery was taken for granted throughout Islamic history, as it was, of course, in the West as well up until relatively recent times. Yet while the European and American slave trade get lavish attention from historians (as well as from mau-mauing reparations advocates and their marks, guilt-ridden contemporary politicians), the Islamic slave trade actually lasted longer and brought suffering to a larger number of people. It is exceedingly ironic that Islam has been presented to American blacks as the egalitarian alternative to the “white man’s slave religion” of Christianity, since Islamic slavery operated on a larger scale than did the Western slave trade, and lasted longer. While historians estimate that the transatlantic slave trade, which operated between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, involved around 10.5 million people, the Islamic slave trade in the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean areas began in the seventh century and lasted into the nineteenth, and involved 17 million people.

Also, the pressure to end it moved from Christendom into Islam, not the other way around. There was no Muslim Clarkson, Wilberforce, or Garrison. In fact, when the British government in the nineteenth century adopted the view of Wilberforce and the other abolitionists as its own and thereupon began to put pressure on pro-slavery regimes, the Sultan of Morocco was incredulous precisely because of the audacity of the innovation that the British were proposing: “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.”

However, it was not the unanimity of human practice, but the plain words of the Qur’an and Muhammad that were decisive in stifling abolitionist movements within the Islamic world. Slavery was abolished under Western pressure; the Arab Muslim slave trade in Africa was ended by the force of British arms in the nineteenth century.

There is evidence that slavery still continues beneath the surface in some majority-Muslim countries as well¯notably Saudi Arabia, which only abolished slavery in 1962, Yemen and Oman, both of which ended legal slavery in 1970, and Niger, which didn’t abolish slavery until 2004. In Niger, the ban is widely ignored, and as many as one million people remain in bondage. Slaves are bred, often raped, and generally treated like animals.

Some of the evidence that Islamic slavery still goes on consists of a spate of slavery cases involving Muslims in the United States. A Saudi named Homaidan Al-Turki was sentenced in September 2006 to 27 years to life in prison, for keeping a woman as a slave in his home in Colorado. For his part, Al-Turki claimed that he was a victim of anti-Muslim bias. He told the judge: “Your honor, I am not here to apologize, for I cannot apologize for things I did not do and for crimes I did not commit. The state has criminalized these basic Muslim behaviors. Attacking traditional Muslim behaviors was the focal point of the prosecution.” The following month, an Egyptian couple living in Southern California received a fine and prison terms, to be followed by deportation, after pleading guilty to holding a ten-year-old girl as a slave. And in January 2007, an attaché of the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington and his wife were charged with keeping three Christian domestic workers from India in slave-like conditions in al-Saleh’s Virginia home. One of the women remarked: “I believed that I had no choice but to continue working for them even though they beat me and treated me worse than a slave.”

Slavery is still practiced openly today in two Muslim countries, Sudan and Mauritania. In line with historical practice, Muslim slavers in the Sudan primarily enslave non-Muslims, and chiefly Christians. According to the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan (CASMAS), a human rights and abolitionist movement founded in 1995, “The current Khartoum government wants to bring the non-Muslim Black South in line with Sharia law, laid down and interpreted by conservative Muslim clergy. The Black animist and Christian South remembers many years of slave raids by Arabs from the north and east and resists Muslim religious rule and the perceived economic, cultural, and religious expansion behind it.”

One modern-day Sudanese Christian slave, James Pareng Alier, was kidnapped and enslaved when he was twelve years old. Religion was a major element of his ordeal: “I was forced to learn the Koran and re-baptised Ahmed. They told me that Christianity was a bad religion. After a time we were given military training and they told us we would be sent to fight.” Alier has no idea of his family’s whereabouts. The BBC reported in March 2007 that slave raids “were a common feature of Sudan’s 21-year north-south war, which ended in 2005 . . . . According to a study by the Kenya-based Rift Valley Institute, some 11,000 young boys and girls were seized and taken across the internal border¯many to the states of South Darfur and West Kordofan . . . . Most were forcibly converted to Islam, given Muslim names and told not to speak their mother tongue.” Yet even today, while non-Muslims were enslaved and often forcibly converted to Islam, their conversion does not lead to their freedom. Mauritanian anti-slavery campaigner Boubacar Messaoud explains that “it’s like having sheep or goats. If a woman is a slave, her descendants are slaves.”

Anti-slavery crusaders like Messaoud have great difficulty working against this attitude, because it is rooted in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example. Particularly when the slaves are non-Muslims, there is no verse of the Qur’an corresponding to Lincoln’s favored Bible verse, Genesis 3:19, that anti-slavery Muslims can invoke against those who continue to approve of and even to practice slavery.

Most Westerners have not troubled to learn this history, and no one is telling them about it. If they did, the entire slavery guiltmongering industry would collapse. And we can’t let that happen, now, can we?

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of seven books about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades ) and The Truth About Muhammad .


Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t .

• “Slave Trade Shameful, Blair Says,” BBC News, March 25, 2007.

• Mark Steyn, “The Man Who ‘Murdered’ Slavery: Two Centuries Ago, a British Backbencher Changed an Entire Way of Seeing the World,” McLeans , March 19, 2007.

• John B. O’Connor, “St. Isidore of Seville,” The Catholic Encyclopedia .

• Richard Furman, Rev. Dr. Richard Furman’s Exposition of The Views of the Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States in a Communication to the Governor of South-Carolina .

• William Lloyd Garrison, speech at Charleston, South Carolina, April 14, 1865 .

• Abraham Lincoln, “Reply to Delegation of Baptists on May 30, 1864,” in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , Roy P. Basler, editor, Vol. VII, Rutgers University Press, 1953.

• Abraham Lincoln, “Story Written for Noah Brooks,” December 6, 1864, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , Roy P. Basler, editor, Vol. VIII, Rutgers University Press, 1953.

• Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address .

Social Justice in Islam .

Bukhari Hadith , vol. 1, book 2, no. 13.

The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude .

The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century .

Muslim Slave System in Medieval India .

God’s Rule: Government and Islam .

White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves .

The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic War and the Fate of Non-Muslims .

Race and Slavery in the Middle East

• Hilary Andersson, “Born to Be a Slave in Niger,” BBC News, February 11, 2005.

• Barbara Ferguson, “Saudi Gets 27 Years to Life for Enslaving Maid,” Arab News, September 1, 2006.

• “Egyptians Who Enslaved girl, 10, Get U.S. Prison,” Reuters, October 24, 2006.

• “Kuwaiti Diplomat Accused of Domestic Slavery,” ABC7 News, January 17, 2007.

• Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan, “ Sudan Q & A .”

• Aid to the Church in Need, “Religious Freedom in the Majority Islamic Countries 1998 Report: Sudan.”

• Joseph Winter, “No Return for Sudan’s Forgotten Slaves,” BBC News, March 16, 2007.

• Pascal Fletcher, “Slavery Still Exists in Mauritania,” Reuters, March 21, 2007.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles