Essays

Arabian Peninsula

Arabs dominated the slave trade in the Indian Ocean from the sixth century until the arrival, in the late 15th century, of the Portuguese, who initially worked within the largely Muslim-run maritime trading system before trying to control the major ports of the Indian Ocean. African men were often crew members on Arab ships, and they would also join the crews of the Portuguese, who increasingly relied on black labor in their maritime expansion. Women were regularly engaged in a variety of tasks, serving as domestics, cooks, cleaners, nurses and washerwomen; others performed as musicians, dancers and singers. Schools in Medina (as well as in the Muslim seats of power at Baghdad and as far away as Cordoba in Spain) trained them in the arts. Many women, however, served as concubines, and with their children became members of Arab families.

Under Islamic law and its guiding principles (sharia), once a concubine bore a child, she could not be sold or given away; the child was free and automatically became part of the slaveholder's household. Concubines often married their owners, binding them further, but upon their husbands' deaths, they were emancipated. The social and legal tradition within Islam of children not following the status of their mothers, and of a child's ethnicity being determined by that of the father, accelerated the process of assimilation of the Africans, who when converting to Islam adopted Arabic names (making it difficult to trace African heritage in historical records by name alone). This absorption of Africans into the kin systems of indigenous Muslim Arab, Persian or Indian slaveholders helps account for much of the invisibility in the historical written record of men and women of African descent in the Indian Ocean world.

 

Western Arabia

Starting in pre-Islamic times, Arabs traded Africans at Mecca, the crossroad for many of the caravan routes in the Arabian Peninsula. Mecca—with Medina one of the two holiest sites for Muslims—was a major slave market, and it was where an emancipated Habshi, Bilal ibn Rabah, came to prominence.

According to the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet and his Companions), among Muhammad's earliest converts was Bilal, the "son of an Abyssinian slave-girl," who became a trusted companion of the Prophet. Bilal Al-Habash (the Ethiopian), as he was also known, was described as tall and dark, with lean features. He was enslaved by Umayyah ibn Khalaf, who violently opposed Muhammad and his teachings of a single god. When Bilal converted, Ibn Khalaf tortured him in an effort to get him to recant his faith. Having heard of Bilal's tenacity, Abu Bakr (later Sunni Islam's first caliph) purchased and emancipated him. Muhammad asked Bilal, who was known to have a powerful, melodic voice, to serve as the community's first muezzin.

Bilal, whose name is prevalent among Muslim men on the Horn of Africa, went on to fight alongside the Prophet in the most critical battles during the earliest days of Islam. He lived for a time in Basra, the major port city of southern Iraq, before returning to Arabia. The high esteem in which Muslims in the Indian Ocean world hold Bilal can be seen in the Persian Gulf, where musical performances by men and women of African descent pay homage to him. In Pakistan, songs of religious devotion—including by Muslims of non-African descent—praise him; and in Africa and Turkey muezzin guilds venerate the founder of their religious art form. Bilal's "song" continues to be heard across the entire ummah, the global Muslim community.

With the rise of Islam, captives were increasingly sought in areas outside the frontiers of Muslim-held lands, since, as one of the conditions set by sharia, Muslims could not theoretically enslave a fellow Muslim—a rule that was regularly broken. Although "The freeing of the slave" is implored in the Quran (Sura Al-Balad [The City] 90:13) as the righteous path, it was not required; and Islamic law made clear that slaves could be purchased and sold, with some conditions attached. Specifically, it was not permitted to take people who had been kidnapped, sold by parents, or obtained through wars for political expansion—only in wars of self-defense. These rules were easily circumvented in practice, and none of the major legal schools within Islam opposed slavery on Qur'anic grounds.

Ironically, enslaved Africans often wielded greater authority over free Muslims, particularly eunuchs who served in the courts at Mecca and Medina, some becoming keepers of the Kaaba (the site towards which all Muslims pray.) One of their primary roles was as intermediaries in harems, gatekeepers and communicators between the inside and outside worlds of these enclosed societies. But even with the kind of authority eunuchs, slave soldiers or administrators wielded, they remained in bondage and could not, for instance, perform the hajj on their own. Still, they expressed themselves in their own unique ways: African Muslims in Mecca were seen well into the 19th century celebrating their ancestry with performances that involved two or more people dancing with long sticks and moving as if in combat in a manner reminiscent of the Afro-Brazilian capoeira.

During the late 19th century tens of thousands of African captives were shipped up the Red Sea for sale to other parts of the Middle East following the annual pilgrimages to Mecca. They were sold at Jeddah and Mecca, or were otherwise exchanged for goods, including steel weapons from Damascus, turquoise or carpets from Persia, or silks from China. The London-based Anti-Slavery Reporter noted that up to 25,000 people were sold or exchanged in Mecca in 1878; a decade later an estimated 8,000 Ethiopians were still being traded at the holy city. Slavery was not officially abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1962.

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Yemen and Oman

The ancestors of the Yemeni of African descent arrived in several waves. The Akhdam, Hajur and Subians descend from Ethiopian conquerors, notably Abraha al-Ashram, who settled in Yemen between the third and sixth centuries. Subsequently, their descendants worked as agricultural laborers and fishermen. They were joined by Somalis, Eritreans and other Ethiopians, who traded in Aden and remained there. Finally, forced migrants from Mozambique and the Swahili coast were brought to perform a range of labor in the region. Indian-bound ships on their way back from Mozambique and the Swahili coast transported captives to Mocha (a major port on the Red Sea in western Yemen). Only a minority of these Africans actually remained in Yemen; most only passed through on their way to Oman, Iran, Iraq and India.

Africans worked on coffee plantations (Mocha became the leading center for the export of Coffea arabica—the world's coffee bean source), in harbors, as divers in pearl fisheries, and as drummers on dhows, maintaining the rhythm of work. African cultural influences are particularly prominent in the music of Aden and the Hadramaut (on the southern coast). Instruments, including the zamzamiya, a type of harp resembling the sunsumia played in Zanzibar, as well as the music of the Tihamah (a coastal region of Arabia on the Red Sea), where drumming and dancing are closely tied, are all reminiscent of East Africa in the juxtaposition of opposing rhythms, polyrhythm, singing in thirds, and the use of call and response.

Today, the "black Yemeni," as they are referred to locally, are marginalized. Many of the now Muslim descendants of the once Christian Ethiopian conquerors of southern Arabia, along with other people of African origin, are relegated to performing the most menial jobs, facing poverty and social isolation. The 3,000 people comprising the Akhdam community in the district of Mahwa Dar Salm, south of the capital Sanaa, live in slumlike conditions, with virtually no access to electricity, running water or schools.

 

Omani Arabs settled on the Makran coast of southern Iran and Pakistan (Sindh and Baluchistan) as early as the third century, and while the area was never part of the Omani empire, it was an integral part of the trading route connecting East African ports with Muscat, the Omani capital, and the other slave trading ports of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and western India.

In 1970, Oman was the last nation to abolish slavery in the Indian Ocean world. Theoretically all Omanis have equal access to education as well as to government positions; however, Afro-Omanis continue to be treated as second-class citizens. They work the most menial jobs and live in substandard conditions relative to the rest of the population.

In Oman, as was the case across much of the Persian Gulf, enslaved Africans and their descendants perform tanburah. This tradition of music and dance is named after the six-string lyre (tanburah), an instrument used in many rituals for curing illnesses caused by spirit possession (zar), for mourning the dead, or for celebrating weddings. Although there are variations across the region, tanburah generally consist of men or women dancing in rows accompanied by the lyre, several drums and a rattle belt; they respond to a person leading the song in chorus (although singing is not systematic). These ceremonies can last for hours and are performed over a number of consecutive days until the person possessed by a jinn (evil spirit) is cured. Several rituals, such as the nouba (derived from Nubia), have been traced directly to Ethiopia and Sudan. They include songs in African languages that are now unintelligible to their modern practitioners.

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