Read Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry Online

Authors: Bernard Lewis

Tags: #Education & Reference, #History, #Middle East, #World, #Slavery & Emancipation, #Medical Books, #Medicine, #Internal Medicine, #Cardiology

Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry

BOOK: Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry
9.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



The research presented in this book was first undertaken as part of a group
project on tolerance and intolerance in human societies, for which I was asked
to prepare a paper on the Islamic world. I began by examining this topic in
conventional terms and collected data on the relations between different
religions-that is, in the sense in which the words "tolerance" and "intolerance" have in the past normally been used. At a certain point it occurred to
me that such an enquiry need no longer be bound by the habits and concerns
of a previous generation, concerns which have lost their sharpness for many of
us at the present time, at least in the Western world. But if these concerns
have diminished or disappeared, they have been replaced by others no less
acute. In the present climate of opinion what matters most in this respect is
not creed, or even class, but race. This is seen as the ultimate basis of identity
and of difference; and it is in this area that, in much of the world, the crucial
test of tolerance or intolerance is now applied. I therefore turned to this
problem and, in the course of my work, began to examine certain assumptions
hitherto unquestioningly accepted by Western as well as Islamic scholars.

The group project on tolerance and intolerance was never completed. The
material on Islam, however, aroused some interest, and I was stimulated to
pursue it further by an invitation to lecture on the subject at a combined
meeting of the three institutes of Anthropology, International Affairs, and
Race Relations in London. The lecture was delivered in December 1969 and
published in a slightly expanded form in the London monthly Encounter in
August 1970. This was, in turn, further expanded and published as a small
book in New York in 1971, entitled Race and Color in Islamn.

The publication of a French translation in Paris in 1982 gave me the
opportunity to make a number of substantial changes. In addition to correcting some errors, I added new documentation and discussed some further
topics not touched upon in the earlier versions. I also appended a selection of
relevant original sources, most of them translated from Arabic.

The study of race led inevitably, in the Islamic world as elsewhere, to the problem of slavery, by which both race relations and racial attitudes were
profoundly affected. In preparing my successive earlier treatments of this
topic, I was obliged to devote increasing attention to this aspect and to examine it in a Middle Eastern rather than in an Islamic context. In embarking,
after an interval of years, on a new exploration of the theme, I decided to give
the institution of slavery a more central position.

This immediately raised serious difficulties. One of them is the remarkable
dearth of scholarly work on the subject. The bibliography of studies on slavery in the Greek and Roman worlds, or in the Americas, runs to thousands of
items. Even for medieval Western Europe, where slavery was of relatively
minor importance, European scholars have produced a significant literature
of research and exposition. For the central Islamic lands, despite the subject's
importance in virtually every area and period, a list of serious scholarly monographs on slavery-in law, in doctrine, or in practice-could be printed on a
single page. The documentation for a study on Islamic slavery is almost endless; its exploration has barely begun.

Perhaps the main reason for the lack of scholarly research on Islamic
slavery is the extreme sensitivity of the subject. This makes it difficult, and
sometimes professionally hazardous, for a young scholar to turn his attention
in this direction. In time, we may hope, it will be possible for Muslim scholars
to examine and discuss Islamic slavery as freely and as openly as European
and American scholars have, with the cooperation of scholars from other
countries, been willing to discuss this unhappy chapter in their own past. But
that time is not yet; meanwhile, Islamic slavery remains both an obscure and a
highly sensitive topic, the mere mention of which is often seen as a sign of
hostile intentions. Sometimes indeed it is, but it need not and should not be
so, and the imposition of taboos on topics of historical research can only
impede and delay a better and more accurate understanding. In this little
hook, I have tried to deal fairly and objectively with a subject of great historical and comparative importance and to do so without recourse to either
polemics or apologetics.

BOOK: Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry
9.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The World in Reverse by Nelson, Latrivia
Predator by Vonna Harper
10 A Script for Danger by Carolyn Keene
Outsider by Sara Craven