Teaching Race and Islam

One of the best experiences in graduate school is teaching and this quarter I have the opportunity to teach my own historical sources and methods course on Race and Slavery in Muslim societies. Here are some snippets from my course:

Slavery, Race, and Society in the Middle East and Islamic Africa from the 7th century to the 20th century

Why are there still reports of slavery in some Muslim majority countries? How does slavery and race overlap in Muslim societies? During the rapid expansion of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula to Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe, Islamic concepts of universal brotherhood at times united disparate ethnic groups and various social classes. Yet, the Muslim world experienced one of history’s most substantial slave revolts and numerous ethnic conflicts. This course broaches a number of questions involving slavery and community identity in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Students will have the opportunity to explore issues of slavery and ethnic-identity Muslim societies in the Middle East, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, through a close reading of primary sources. Students will analyze Islamic religious texts, epics, poetry, prose literature, Arab and European travel writings, slave narratives, polemics on slavery and race, inventory and manumission documents, colonial reports, and pictorial representations. As this is a comparative course covering a broad historical sweep, students will be required to compare and contrast periods and geographic regions. This course also allows students to examine the particularities of various Muslim societies keeping in mind universal Islamic principles. Throughout the quarter we will explore historiographical issues raised by studies of slavery and race in Middle Eastern and Muslim societies.

This is a thematic and comparative course examining several periods and locales. The course introduces Islamic principles of universal brotherhood and the Muslim community and examines how various Muslim societies dealt with social inequality, slavery, and ethnic boundaries. The chronological range stretches from the classical period of Islam (from the rise of Islam in the 7th century to the 10th century), African slavery including trans-Saharan slave trade until 1800 and Indian Ocean slave trade, trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the abolition of slavery in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan during the early 20th century. The quarter concludes with an examination of slavery in the Muslim societies in 20th century.

 In the course, we examine various types of sources to try to explore themes of race and slavery over time and through space. One of the challenges is that you will find that there is no clear coherent narrative of slavery. The issues play out different depending on the society and historical circumstances. This is why I picked the following thematic approach:

Week 1. Islamic Traditions on Slavery and Race

9/22 Introduction to the Course

9/24 Islamic Traditions on Race and Slavery

Race: Quran Chapter 49 verse 13 3 translations; Prophet Muhammad’s Last sermon

Slaves: Primary: The Qur’an and Hadith on slaves in Hunwick 2-7

Week 2. Transformation in Slavery from Pre-Islamic Arabia to the Early Muslim community

9/29 Pre-Islamic  Traditions ‘Antar: From Slave To Knight (late 6th century)

10/1 The Caller: Islamic views on slavery and  Bilal ibn Rabah (7th century)

Week 3 Islamic Dynasties and Slavery

10/6 Berbers and the Islamic Conquest of North Africa (7th and 10 century)

10/8 The Abbasids: The Zanj  (10th century Iraq)


Week 4. Muslim Civilization and Cultural Encounters

10/13 The Shuubiya: High culture and  Controversy between Arabs and Persians (10th and 11th century Iraq and Persia)

10/15 Discovery of Europe (10th century Iraq)


Week 5 Medieval Arab views of Africa

10/20 Blacks in Arabic Literature

10/22 Sociology and Travel literature: Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun


Week 6 Concubines and Royal Soldiers until the Early Modern Period

10/27 Mamlukes and Ottomans

10/29 Inside the Harem: Concubines and Eunuchs


Week 7. The African Slave Trade

11/3 Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

11/5 Indian Ocean Slave Trade


Outside Film Viewing : Prince Among Slaves, Preliminary Dates Week 11/5 or 11/6


Week 8 African Slave Narratives

11/10 Slavery in Africa

11/12 African Muslims in the Americas


Week 9 Islamic Slavery and the West

11/17 Barbary Pirates and White Slaves

11/19 Islamic Slavery and the European Lens


Week 10 Slavery in the 20th Century

Readings on Slavery Sudan and Mauritania


I have the privilege of a small class with a group of sharp and motivated students. My class is multi-cultural with students from various backgrounds and majors. As the texts get richer, they are contributing critical insight into the texts themselves. So far, we have examined the Qur’an, the hadith, the Prophet’s Last Sermon, one of the seven hanging verses written by ‘Antara, early biographical literature, al-Tabari’s account of the Zanj Salve revolt (one that he lived through), Ghazali’s text on the rights of slaves, al-Jahiz’s humorous essay on the “Glory of the Blacks,” and this quarter we have still more to come. Some of what we find in the text is jarring, at times it confirms our assumptions.

By the end of this course, I hope to write a scholarly article on teaching race and Islam. There are many challenges and problems in teaching slavery and race. There is no clear historical narrative linking all the case studies we are exploring. But what we do have in each case is the acceptance of slavery and inequality as a given. The course is not polemical, we often refrain from making judgments, at the same time we try to not overly historicize and overlook the brutality of human bondage. But by looking at the ways we can reconstruct the voices of the enslaved, understand how Muslim elites and literati thought about slavery and race, and explore the debates and contestations that centered around servitude and community identity, we can better understand these societies. Looking at slavery does not tell us everything about a particular society, but it provides an important view into the ways in which people saw themselves, the ways they asserted their power over their lives and/or over others, and the relationship that individuals had with power. Through this type of critical engagement my students will be better equipped to dialog about race and inequality both in Muslim majority societies and within Muslim minority communities in the West.

Charles Catchings lent his support by providing a rare edition of the al-Jahiz text. We spoke of doing some collaborative work to make the text more available, as well as many of the insights we’ve explored this quarter. I encourage you to be on the lookout for this upcoming project. In the meantime, I am working on a short reading list of primary and secondary sources for those who are interested. Please email me if you are interested, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these texts also.

16 thoughts on “Teaching Race and Islam

  1. salaams!

    alhamdulillah! this is such a great opportunity for you as well as the students. whenever you get a chance to make a list of the sources, please do. again, this is truly great to here. and i am looking forward to the day when we can all call you dr. or professor hill 🙂


  2. Ohh, how I would love to take part in one of those discussions. You remind me so such of myself, except that you are a true scholar and academic!

    While I love learning,I simply dont think I have the monetary resources,as well as the sheer determination to go the route that you did. I’m so easily destracted by current affairs.

    Ohh, but if I 9 lives, you better believe 8 of them would have been spent discovering the rich history, religions, languages, and cultures within Africa and the Arabian Gulf…like a Historian/Anthropologist. I dont think I could ever get enough…

    I do hope I get the priviledge one day to attend one of your lectures Dr. Hill.


  3. wow, I wish I could take this class. Congrats. I am sure your students will find it interesting and complicate they think about race and slavery.

    man, I really wish I could take this class.


  4. Salaams,
    Diddo on what everyone said and especially what kameelahd said: please post sources when you get a chance. Best of luck with the class.


  5. Salaams Sis:

    I would be interested to read about slavery in Mauritania. If I remember correctly, Hamza Yusuf speaks of Maritania as if it’s a paradise.

    May Allah (swt) bless you and reward your efforts in this class, sis.

    I, too, wish I could take your class 🙂


  6. Wow, I am so envious (mashallah mashallah mashallah) of your students.

    It is interesting to see this info presesented in an academic way…I am so used to seeing it either a)presented by white Westerners to deflect from white racist history/history from slavery and to show how baaad the Arabs/Muslims were (are still) about race, especially black and Arab race issues…or b)some sort of English language superficial apologistic explanation from Western based Muslim sources which absolves Muslims and Islam from racism and minimizes the history with slavery and says that Islam implemented a system to eventually free all slaves.

    My ears perk up when issues of race arise in my surroundings in the Arabian Peninsula, but honestly I feel weird discussing my observations too much because it is taboo here, also, I am white, and I don’t like discussing it with non-Muslims (like say Western colleagues) because they tend to have strong biases against the local ppl and think of them as backwards and race issues would be just one more thing that they think they are sooo superior about…

    But just the other day one of my local students, not black, was showing me a rough draft of a report decribing her family history before Unification and she wrote “my family had many animals and many slaves”…just the way that is constructed in a classroom in which the descendents of slaves are also sitting, I mean the racial dynamics here are so very complicated and have a lot of implications for race relations today…interestingly the students go through “racism is from the old days, let’s be colorblind and hold hands” rhetoric type lessons in school which is not dissimiliar to what US students imbibe.

    anywayz, your class sounds really enlightening. Good luck on your paper…


  7. Salaams Margari,

    Ma sha Allah! An interesting and well structured course, to be sure. I would be very interested in finding out more myself.

    Allah bless you through it and all of your students.

    Abdur Rahman


  8. What a great post and a great blog! I hardly meet sisters in Islam who have their own blogs and write so well, MashaAllah!

    Wheres the contact form? I wanted to email ya!

    I also have a blog which I initially used to “roar” out whatever I felt like but its gradually becoming just my daily “hoohaas” check it out, http://www.xaasid.com



  9. This sounds excellent. I am assuming you will be tying in alot of the legal discussion when it comes to muslim elites of the time and their views on slaves, etc. Would you be able to post some notes here and there about this?


  10. salamz sister
    randomly came across ur site(one of those random links on another blog on wordpress)
    im a muslim female as well.
    i really dont understand the difference between being black or white or blue or yellow. we’re muslim at the end of the day, should our colour really matter?
    ws sister


  11. Hmm, would love to take part in the discussions. If anything, some of the topics you have chosen just go to show how much more widespread the concept of slavery is outside of the North American history.

    Take the Mamlukes for example, they were slaves of Circassian and Kipchak Turkic origin. Circassians come from the Caucasus mountains, they literally are Caucasians. My mother’s people are Circassians, and their women have a history of being sold as slaves, eg there were a lot of them in the Ottoman harems, and quite a few of the Ottoman sultans probably have Circassian heritage due to this fact. When they were taken as slaves centuries earlier by the Abbasids, they ended up revolting and establishing the Mamluke empire. The region of origin is still a volatile region, most recently the Georgia/Ossetia/Russia troubles and the Chechen/Russian conflicts for example.


  12. Assalaamualaikum

    I also would love to be in your class. I took a graduate history class, Lit of the Field: African Diaspora with Michael Gomez at NYU where we briefly looked at the Trans-Saharan slave trade but nothing quite as extensive as what you are doing.

    Your giving me hope to get through my comps this spring so that, Insha’Allah, I’ll be able to teach my research. Right now my project is centered around the representation of education in African-American literature with an emphasis in looking at what happens “post-segregation”. I’m also starting to look at 19th century Native American representations of education. We’ll see…


  13. This looks like a great start to exploring an issue that is very close to my heart as an African and as someone who still gets called an ab’d every now and then.

    Muslims really need to deal with the legacy of the slave trade and its current pratice and religious justification, particularly the issue of the sexual exploitation of female slaves (what the right hand possesses). We need to stop going on and on about how Muslim slavery was so much better than Christian slavery. I’m sure that the slave on the plantation in Iraq or Zanzibar was thanking his luck stars he wasn’t on a plantation in Louisiana. Ya right! Do Muslims listen to themselves when they say this crap? Excuse me for being “judgemental” but this stuff makes me sick.

    We also need to deal with the fact that Muslims never willingly abolished slavery. For that reason, you have Muslims today actually calling for its return or defending its continued practice in the name of “resisting Western cultural imperialism”.

    You don’t seem to look much at South Asia and slavery or is that covered in the section on the Indian Ocean. A good book on this topic is “Slavery and South Asian History” edited by Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton (Indiana University Press).

    I recommend reading some of Pakistani Scholar Mawdoodi’s (who’s book on Islam I always run into) writing on slavery. Cringe.

    Do you cover the Zanzibar Revolution and the fall of the Omani Sultanate?

    Also, it might be interesting to examine how the current treatment of migrant workers in the Middle East relates to slavery as in many ways these people have replaced slaves.

    Check out this landmark ruling in Niger:

    “Koraou, a Niger national, sued the government of her vast, largely arid country on the southern edge of the Sahara for failure to enforce its anti-slavery laws.

    She was sold into slavery as a 12-year-old for the equivalent of 330 euros in the south of the country, and over the next decade she was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work.

    She also lived as a sexual slave or sadaka to her master, who already had four wives and seven other sadaka, according to the NGO Anti-Slavery International, which has backed her case.

    Adijatou “served her master and his family for 10 years. She was never paid for her work and lived in a state of complete submission to her master, being subjected to regular beatings and sexual violence.”



  14. I found your course details very interesting I just wanted to make a couple of comments. The historic transition from Arab Empire, to Muslim Civilization occurs at the time of the Abbasid Revolution in 749 AD. The Abbasid Revolution was a revolt fueled by the Mawali (non-Arab Muslims) who rejected the notion that Islam should be dominated by an ethno-centric imperial system, one dominated by an Arab ascendancy. The Abbasids are the transition from an; Arab-ethnic dominated society and political hierarchy to one whose source of loyalty was Islam and not an ethnic identity. As such it is considered the transition from Empire to Civilization. The Abbasids are the foundation of what became asociety based on the principals of a multi-ethnic uni-culture, based on a common Muslim loyalty. In order to emphasize the point the Abbasids founded an institutional based military, to replace the former tribal based levy system, whose loyalties were considered uncertain. This they accomplished through the institution of military slavery in the 9th century. They purchased young Turkic boys who were educated at large military and civil educational facilities at Baghdad and later Sammara, these later became high military commanders, provincial governors and were the rank and file of their elite, slave ‘Ghulam’ cavalry formations. (later they became known as Mamlukes) At a later date there was a revolt of the ‘Zanj’ who were black African agricultural slaves employed on vast agricultural estates, similar to Roman ‘Latifundia’ these revolts were suppressed, but it had been discovered that the Zanj had fought very well, and as such it was decided that the Zanj should be inducted for military service as an infantry counterpart to the Ghulam Turkic slave cavalry. This was done and much of the infantry forces of the Muslim armies in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt were made up of the ‘Zanj.’ These were known as ‘Qara’ Ghulams (Qara = Black in the Turkish language) To the extent that much of the infantry that fought in the Muslim armies against the crusades was made up of Qara-Ghulams and this is noted in early Crusader chronologies. One additional point is that both the Turkic Ghulams and the Qara-Ghulams were in a state of legal servitude until their graduation to becoming active members of their military formations, at which point they were given their freedom in exchange for the oath of loyalty and obedience. They were slaves so long as they were apprentices in training for these military roles.
    I am unaware to what extent the issue of military slavery has been researched or studied from the Arabic language primary sources, it is certainly a very important component to understanding the issue of slavery and the military efforts to organize a military force loyal only to the central authority and not to rival tribal chieftains.


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