Slavery was common in pre-Islamic times and continued under Islam
Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, ranging from Arabia in the centre to North Africa in the west and to what is now Pakistan and Indonesia in the east. Some Islamic states, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, and the Sokoto caliphate [Nigeria], must be termed slave societies because slaves there were very important numerically as well as a focus of the polities' energies.Encyclopaedia Britannica - Slavery
Many societies throughout history have practised slavery, and Muslim societies were no exception.
It's thought that as many people were enslaved in the Eastern slave trade as in the Atlantic slave trade.
It's ironic that when the Atlantic slave trade was abolished the Eastern trade expanded, suggesting that for some Africans the abolition of the Atlantic trade didn't lead to freedom, but merely changed their slave destination.
It's misleading to use phrases such as 'Islamic slavery' and 'Muslim slave trade', even though slavery existed in many Muslim cultures at various times, since the Atlantic slave trade is not called the Christian slave trade, even though most of those responsible for it were Christians.
Slavery before Islam
Slavery was common in pre-Islamic times and accepted by many ancient legal systems and it continued under Islam.
Although Islam is much credited for moderating the age-old institution of slavery, which was also accepted and endorsed by the other monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism, and was a well-established custom of the pre-Islamic world, it has never preached the abolition of slavery as a doctrine.Forough Jahanbaksh, Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953-2000, 2001
The condition of slaves, like that of women, may well have improved with the coming of Islam, but the institution was not abolished, any more than it was under Christianity at this period.Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, 2000
How Islam moderated slavery
Islam's approach to slavery added the idea that freedom was the natural state of affairs for human beings and in line with this it limited the opportunities to enslave people, commended the freeing of slaves and regulated the way slaves were treated:
* Islam greatly limited those who could be enslaved and under what circumstances (although these restrictions were often evaded)
* Islam treated slaves as human beings as well as property
* Islam banned the mistreatment of slaves - indeed the tradition repeatedly stresses the importance of treating slaves with kindness and compassion
* Islam allowed slaves to achieve their freedom and made freeing slaves a virtuous act
* Islam barred Muslims from enslaving other Muslims
But the essential nature of slavery remained the same under Islam, as elsewhere. It involved serious breaches of human rights and however well they were treated the slaves still had restricted freedom, and, when the law was not obeyed their lives could be very unpleasant.
A poignant paradox of Islamic slavery is that the humanity of the various rules and customs that led to the freeing of slaves created a demand for new slaves that could only be supplied by war, forcing people into slavery or trading slaves.
Muslim slavery continued for centuries
The legality of slavery in Islam, together with the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who himself bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves, may explain why slavery persisted until the 19th century in many places (and later still in some countries). The impetus for the abolition of slavery came largely from colonial powers, although some Muslim thinkers argued strongly for abolition.
Slaves came from many places
Unlike the Atlantic slave traders, Muslims enslaved people from many cultures as well as Africa. Other sources included the Balkans, Central Asia and Mediterranean Europe.
Slaves could be assimilated into Muslim society
Muhammad's teaching that slaves were to be regarded as human beings with dignity and rights and not just as property, and that freeing slaves was a virtuous thing to do, may have helped to create a culture in which slaves became much more assimilated into the community than they were in the West.
Muslim slaves could achieve status
Slaves in the Islamic world were not always at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Slaves in Muslim societies had a greater range of work, and took on a wider range of responsibilities, than those enslaved in the Atlantic trade.
Some slaves earned respectable incomes and achieved considerable power, although even such elite slaves still remained in the power of their owners.
Muslim slavery was not just economic
Unlike the Western slave trade, slavery in Islam was not wholly motivated by economics.
Although some Muslim slaves were used as productive labour it was not generally on the same mass scale as in the West but in smaller agricultural enterprises, workshops, building, mining and transport.
Slaves were also taken for military service, some serving in elite corps essential to the ruler's control of the state, while others joined the equivalent of the civil service.
Another category of slavery was sexual slavery in which young women were made concubines, either on a small scale or in large harems of the powerful. Some of these women were able to achieve wealth and power.
These harems might be guarded by eunuchs, men who had been enslaved and castrated.
Where did the slaves come from?
Muslim traders took their slaves from three main areas:
* Non-Muslim Africa, in particular the Horn
* Central and Eastern Europe
* Central Asia
The legality of slavery today
While Islamic law does allow slavery under certain conditions, it's almost inconceivable that those conditions could ever occur in today's world, and so slavery is effectively illegal in modern Islam. Muslim countries also use secular law to prohibit slavery.
News stories do continue to report occasional instances of slavery in a few Muslim countries, but these are usually denied by the authorities concerned.