International Slavery: Time for an Apology from Christian and Islamic Authorities

by Priye S. Torulagha

It is time for Christian and Islamic Authorities to Render Apology for instituting international slavery against Black Africans and others

Concerning the massive industrial-scale subjugation and enslavement of Sub-Saharan African people for centuries, it is surprising that secular authorities have been more forthcoming in accepting culpability and acknowledging the iniquities inflicted upon black Africans as a result of their violent capture, inhuman shipment and enslavement in the Middle East, Europe, Southwest Asia and the Americas.  In other words, it is indeed puzzling that politicians and public officials, who are generally maligned for being amoral, unethical and corrupt by religious authorities, have been forthright in accepting responsibility for the roles their governments and citizens played in initiating and organizing the international enslavement of black Africans.  Indeed, Western public officials are even willing to discuss the issue of reparations for slavery.  On the other hand, Christian and Arab/Islamic authorities have remained very quiet, almost to the point of feigning ignorance of the fact that their religions contributed immensely in issuing the proclamations, edicts, policies and practices that justified the invading, capturing, killing and enslaving of millions of Black Africans and others in the world.

Ordinarily, the leaders of Islam and Christianity would have been at the vanguard in apologizing and taking appropriate measures to redeem their honor for the ignominious roles that their religions played in setting the stage for sending millions of people into a living hell on earth for centuries.  On this matter, it is assumable that many black Christians and Muslims in the world do not realize that their religions played major roles in setting the agenda and climate which culminated in the organized capture, forcible transportation and enslavement of millions of their people.

It is probable that most Black Christians and Muslims are not aware of the roles their adopted religions played because Christian and Islamic religious leaders (popes, bishops, reverend fathers, pastors, caliphs, mullahs, imams and missionaries, teachers,) have been very adept in making sure that their congregations are not educated about the history of the roles that their religions played in killing and enslaving millions of people.  This seems to be particularly the case in black Africa, the Caribbean Islands, Latin America, the Middle East, Southwest Asia and Europe where millions of black people go to mosques on Fridays and to churches on Sundays to hear imams and pastors/reverend fathers preach.  These preachers always focus their sermons on biblical and koranic sayings without making any effort to teach the history of Christianity and Islam.  Therefore, it is argued here that most black Christians and Muslims do not have the slightest understanding of the violent history of their adopted religions, although many have vast knowledge of the Bible and the Koran.

The most pitiable part of the relationship between blacks and the two major religions (Christianity and Islam) is that there are now thousands of them who regard themselves as bishops, pastors, reverend fathers, caliphs, mullahs, Imams, emirs, missionaries, and religious scholars, yet, they keep their mouth sealed and pretend not to know that their religions played significant roles in the internationalization of black enslavement. They preach heavenly salvation but do not want to atone for the evil committed by their organizations in the past.  In other words, it seems that black leaders of these two religions do not want their members to know what really happened, hence, feed them constantly with selective biblical and koranic stories and ideas without teaching the history of the religions.  Thus, black Christian and Islamic leaders are doing today what Islamic and Christian leaders did in the past.   They avoid telling the violent history and focus entirely on the heavenly promises of salvation found in the holy books.

Although institutionalized international slavery was abolished in the 19th century, the effect of the evil commerce continues to haunt many African people.  In fact, in India, a group of black Africans known as Siddis, numbering about 20,000 or more have been living in isolated villages in the states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and the city of Hyderabad in Telangana state for centuries.  Some are also located in Pakistan.  They are black Africans from East Africa who were taken to India as far back as the 7th century by Arab and later by Portuguese and British slave traders.  They were originally referred to as Habshis but are now identified as Siddis (Vallangi, 2016, August 4).

There are also thousands, if not millions of black Africans living in Turkey, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.  These blacks are highly marginalized and deprived, hence, very poor with little education. They exist at the mercy of God because government authorities in those countries generally do not pay attention to them.  They are treated as invisible beings, even in the twenty-first century. For instance, in Turkey, archival information about the African people, otherwise, known as Afro-Turks, is scarce.  Due to utter neglect, their population is dwindling.  Fortunately, the late Mustafa Olpak wrote an insightful book to raise consciousness about the plight of his people before he passed away (Lerner & Whitehouse, 2917, October 27).   Similarly, even though there are more blacks (Afro-Iraqis) in Iraq than in Turkey, not much is known about them also.

Thus, despite frequent commentary about human rights in the world, the rights of African people who were taken away by force, then brutalized and exploited, are rarely the focus of international discussions.  Even the United Nations rarely initiate discussions about blacks who were forcibly taken out of their world to unknown places and treated as non-humans. Sadly, the African Union (AU) too has not made a concerted effort to connect with various groups of blacks who are located around the world, following the international slave trade.

Similarly, in many parts of Latin America, millions of blacks continue to live in obscurity and are highly marginalized because some of the governments treat them as invisible beings.  For instance, in Mexico, blacks are treated as untouchable people (Okeowo, n.d.)  The same could be said of blacks in Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador and so forth.  They, like their brothers in Turkey, Iraq, India, and other Middle Eastern countries, live at the mercy of God because they are generally ignored, maligned and discriminated.  It was recently that Peru officially accepted that blacks exist in the country (Peru This Week, 2008, December 8).

Arab/Islamic and European/Christian Contributions to the International Enslavement of Sub-Saharan Africans

It should be noted that slavery did not start with Arab/Islamic and European/Christian slave trades.  Slavery has been part of the human experience for a very long time.  Thus, every society in the past, including those in black Africa, had engaged in one form of slavery or another.  Similarly, the ancient empires and political kingdoms, in every part of the world, relied on slaves as a means to drive their engines of economic production and prosecute their wars.  Even in the twenty-first century, some forms of slavery, including human trafficking, sex trafficking and slave labor continue unabated in various parts of the world, despite laws against slavery.

Despite the historical fact about the existence of slavery as a social institution, Christianity and Islam, which promised to change human behavior and prepare the way for heavenly salvation, were supposed to operate on noble principles that treat people with godly dignity.  They were expected to create a globalized social environment that allows for peaceful and harmonious coexistence among peoples of different races, ethnic groups, tribes and classes.  Unfortunately, they fell short in propagating the noble principles to create a nirvana-like world of heavenly grace and instead, embarked upon an agenda which polarized the world, summarily condemned millions of people to death for being apostates, promote racism and ethnicity, destroy indigenous cultures, and sentenced millions of Sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans into slavery and death while constantly threatening the Jews with extinction.  In attempting to explain Christian and Islamic involvement in mass enslavement of people, Adam Hochschild stated:

In the end, neither Christianity nor Islam is that different from most other major religions, which usually remain major because they sanctify whatever is the social structure of the day. And for centuries that structure was one of slavery (2001, March 4).

Thus, it could be argued that Islam and Christianity assisted immeasurably in introducing an institutionalized industrial-scale form of international mass enslavement of people.  To show that Islam and Christianity are responsible for laying the religious and legal justifications for the mass-scale enslavement of millions of black Africans, it is necessary to briefly describe the contributions of the two religions towards mass-scale slavery.

  1. Arab/Islamic Contribution to International Slavery

First, Arab/Islamic involvement in commercialized whole-scale slavery started much earlier than the European/Christian Atlantic Slave trade. Part of the effort to spread Islam included the enslavement of defeated groups, including Arabs, Asians, Europeans and Black Africans.  Thus, the Arab/Islamic slave trade that affected black Africa could be broken into three segments: namely, the North African/Horn of Africa slave trade, the Eastern African slave trade, and the trans-Saharan slave trade.  In Africa, blacks in the North-Eastern and Eastern flanks of the continent were probably the first to experience the raiding and capturing of their members by Arab traders and later by Islamic jihadists.  It is reported that, perhaps, Bilal (b. Rabah), who was beholden to Abu Bakr, a major Islamic leader, was one of the first African blacks to have been a slave and also one of the first to convert to Islam (Hunwick, 2002, p1).  Zanzibar (for the Eastern African slave trade) and Mauretania (for the trans-Sahara slave trade) were noted for serving as transportation hubs for carting away millions of people.

Many black Africans ended up in North Africa, Middle East, India and probably Southern Europe through Turkey.  As Islam spread deeper into black Africa, more people were captured and sent away as slaves. It is estimated that about 10 to 20 million blacks were captured as slaves and sent away.  Some historians believed that over 20 million black people were sold into slavery through the trans-Saharan route (Moore, 2014, June 2).  Ronald Segal in his book “Islam’s Black Slaves:  The Other Black Diaspora” noted the enormity of the Arab/Islamic slave trade by stating “The Calipha in Baghdad at the beginning of the 10th century had 7,000 black and 4,000 white eunuchs in his palace” (Ibid). Adam Hochschild agreed with Segal by noting that the Caliph of Baghdad had 11,000 slaves at his palace (2001, March 4).

Second, in particular, the Arab/Islamic slave traders castrated many captured black men, especially young men so that they could not reproduce. Many of the castrated black men ended up serving in various palaces throughout the Islamic Middle East and Africa.  Adam Hochschild noted that Muslim elites “wanted them (slaves) as guards, and soldiers, as concubines, as cooks, as musicians, and simply to show how rich they were” (ibid). In particular, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs were noted for recruiting many blacks (Zanj) to serve as soldiers in their military forces.

It should be noted that under Islam, it is justifiable to treat non-Muslims as slaves.  However, the treatment of slaves is regulated, to a certain degree. Thus, the mistreatment of slaves is banned and they could gain freedom.  Likewise, slave owners are expected to provide medical care to them.  Therefore, it was not surprising that some slaves rose in rank and occupied important strategic positions in many Islamic states in the past.  For instance, a caliph in Egypt in the 11th century was the son of a black slave concubine.  Likewise, a former Turkish slave named Baybars, led a military force that defeated a Mongol army that attempted to conquer Egypt in 1260.  Similarly, an Ethiopian slave became the vizier to the sultan of Delhi in India (Hochschild, 2001, March 4).  While non-Muslims could be enslaved, they could pay a tax called Kharaj/Jizya to avoid being captured and enslaved (Boddy-Evans, 2019, June 30).

However, slaves were treated as humans in one hand and as property on the other hand.  They were not allowed to be heard in the court of law.  Hence, slavery was common and many Islamic leaders in the past had slaves.  This made it difficult to abolish slavery in Islamic societies, even after the international campaign to stop slavery had put a stop to the despicable trade in the West, it continued in the Islamic world up to the twentieth century.  The BBC noted that when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished, the Eastern slave trade actually expanded (2009, July 9).

Third, the Arab/Islamic slave trade existed for about thirteen centuries, starting from about 650 CE in the Middle East, including North Africa, since military forces were used to spread the religion in that part of the world.  However, it became a major feature of interaction in Black Africa, starting from about the 8th or 9th century, beginning from the North-East and extending to South-East and Southwest Africa.  It resulted in the deaths of millions of captured black people.   Carlos David Aquilar cited John Alembellah Azumah, who estimated that over 80 million black Africans died on their way to the slave centers of the Middle East through the trans-Sahara route (2017, June 27). Thus, the Arab/Islamic slave raids were very brutal and inhumane.  However, it must be noted that some scholars maintain that the total number of Africans captured and sold as slaves were less than ten million since the population of the sub-continent was less than the figures often quoted.

Fourth, unlike the Western/Christian Atlantic slave trade, slavery continues even today in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East.  Charles Jacob noted that blacks continue to be sold as slaves to serve Arab/Muslim masters in Algeria, Libya, Mauretania, Nigeria and Sudan (2018, July 16). Additionally, the rise in militant Islamic movements has led to the continuation of enslavement of people.  The Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabab in Somalia, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP) and a host of militant Islamic groups continue to raid, capture, abduct and engage in human trafficking which eventually results in the enslavement of people.  In Nigeria, herdsmen went on a rampage reminiscent of an Islamic jihad from 2016 to early 2019.  The herdsmen rampage in Nigeria seemed to have been borrowed from the Janjaweed rampage in Darfur in Sudan and the Seleka militants in Central African Republic.

Libya, after the fall of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, has been particularly notorious for being a center for human trafficking and enslavement. Many African migrants ended up serving as slaves in the country.  The victims are both Muslims and Christians.  It should also be noted that human trafficking and treatment of people as slaves also seem to take place in many parts of the world, including the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Thus, slavery has not abetted, rather, it is taking on a different coloration and modus operandi with a devastating effect in the modern era.

An important historical notation is that Islam was spread initially in black Africa through peaceful means.  Many black Africans voluntarily converted to the religion as they traded and intermingled with their Arab neighbors, starting from about the 8th century.  Two of the most noted African political leaders who converted to Islam were Mansa Uli and Mansa Musa 1 of the Mali Empire (Cartwright, 2019, May 10).  Although the leader of the ancient Ghana Empire did not convert, nevertheless, he tolerated the Muslims.  The militant form of Islamization began much later in black Africa as the Muslims attempted to convert those who had already converted to Christianity, especially in Nubia, Ethiopia and some parts of East Africa.  Around the 18th century, Muslim Fulanis initiated the Islamic jihad in the Lake Chad region of Africa (Cartwright, 2019, May 10).

  1. Christian Role in International Enslavement of Sub-Saharan Africans

Unknown to many Christians is the fact that it was the Christian Church (Roman Catholic) which laid the religious, military, political and legal basis for the Atlantic Slave Trade that resulted in the massive enslavement of black Africans and Native Americans and the eventual colonization of the non-Western world by some European nations.

First, Pope Nicholas V issued papal bull “Dum Diversas” on June 18th 1452 which declared:

We grant you (kings of Spain and Portugal) by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, countries, principalities and other property…And to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery (Browne, 2011, July 27).

Second, the same Pope Nicholas V issued the Romanus Pontifex of 1455 which gave Portugal the exclusive right to the territories along the West African coastline.  Under the papal bull, Portugal had a right to invade, plunder and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” of non-Christian societies (Elliott & Hughes, 2019, July 19). This meant that Portugal had a right to attack, plunder the resources and enslave the people in non-Christian territories. In this regard, Since Muslims (Saracens) were non-Christians, they were also subjected to capture and enslavement by Portugal.  Hence, many Arabs also fell prey to the papal bull, authorizing capture and enslavement.  Indeed, the Romanus Pontifex was an official proclamation or edict by the Christian Church, authorizing the conquest and enslavement of non-Christians.

Third, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull titled “Inter Caetera” in 1493 which authorized the Christian nations of Portugal and Spain to attack, conquer, loot, enslave and colonize non-Christian territories.  The papal bull read:

Out of our own sole largess and certain knowledge and out of the fullness of our apostolic power by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which we hold on earth, do by tenor of these presents, should any of said islands have been found by your envoys and captains, give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole , namely the north to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found, and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter, the said line to be distant

one hundred leagues towards the west and south from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores and Cape Verde.  With this proviso, however that none of the islands and mainlands, found , discovered and to be discovered, beyond that said line towards the west and south, be in the actual possession of any Christian king or prince up to the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ just past from which the present year one thousand four hundred ninety-three begins

(Timeline, n.d.).

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