The Role of Islam in Slavery in Africa

Punishment of enslaved people, Muslim custom, engraving from Description of Africa, by Olfert Dapper (circa 1635-1689), 1686, Africa, 17th century
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Slavery and the enslavement of people were widespread throughout ancient history. Most, if not all, ancient civilizations practiced this institution and it is described (and defended) in early writings of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. It was also practiced by early societies in Central America and Africa.

According to the Qur'an, free men could not be enslaved, and those faithful to foreign religions could live as protected persons, dhimmis, under Muslim rule (as long as they maintained payment of taxes called Kharaj and Jizya). However, the spread of the Islamic Empire resulted in a much harsher interpretation of the law. For example, if a dhimmi was unable to pay the taxes they could be enslaved, and people from outside the borders of the Islamic Empire were also in danger of becoming enslaved.

Although the law required enslavers to treat enslaved people well and provide medical treatment, an enslaved person had no right to be heard in court (testimony was forbidden by enslaved people), had no right to property, could marry only with permission of their enslaver, and were considered to be the (moveable) "property" of their enslaver. Conversion to Islam did not automatically give an enslaved person freedom nor did it confer freedom to their children. Whilst highly educated enslaved people and those in the military did win their freedom, those who fulfilled basic duties such as manual labor rarely achieved freedom. In addition, the recorded mortality rate was high—this was still significant even as late as the nineteenth century and was remarked upon by western travelers in North Africa and Egypt.

Enslaved people were captured through conquest, given as tribute from vassal states, and purchased. Children of enslaved people were also born into enslavement, but since many enslaved people were castrated, obtaining newly enslaved people this way was not as common as it had been in the Roman empire. Purchases provided the majority of enslaved people, and at the borders of the Islamic Empire vast number of newly enslaved people were castrated ready for sale. The majority of these enslaved people came from Europe and Africa—there were always enterprising locals ready to kidnap or capture their fellow countrymen.

Black African captives were transported to the Islamic empire across the Sahara to Morocco and Tunisia from West Africa, from Chad to Libya, along the Nile from East Africa, and up the coast of East Africa to the Persian Gulf. This trade had been well entrenched for over 600 years before Europeans arrived, and had driven the rapid expansion of Islam across North Africa.

By the time of the Ottoman Empire, the majority of enslaved people were obtained by raiding in Africa. Russian expansion had put an end to the source of enslaved "exceptionally beautiful" females and "brave" males from the Caucasians—the women were highly prized in the harem, the men in the military. The great trade networks across North Africa were as much to do with the safe transportation of enslaved Africans as other goods. An analysis of prices at various slave markets shows that castrated enslaved men fetched higher prices than other enslaved men, encouraging the castration of enslaved people before export.

Documentation suggests that enslaved people throughout the Islamic world were mainly used for domestic and commercial purposes. Castrated enslaved males were especially prized as bodyguards and confidential servants; enslaved women as menials and often the regular victims of rape and sexual assault. A Muslim enslaver was entitled by law to use his enslaved women for sexual pleasure.

As primary source material becomes available to Western scholars, the bias towards urban enslaved people is being questioned. Records also show that thousands of enslaved people were used in gangs for agriculture and mining. Large landowners and rulers used thousands of such enslaved people, usually in dire conditions: "of the Saharan salt mines, it is said that no slave lived there for more than five years.1"


  1. Bernard Lewis ​Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, Chapter 1 -- Slavery, Oxford Univ Press 1994.
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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Role of Islam in Slavery in Africa." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, September 1). The Role of Islam in Slavery in Africa. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Role of Islam in Slavery in Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).