Norms and Empires Lecture Series: The Justification of Concubinage as an Institution of Slavery: The Establishment of Gender Categories and the Stigma of Racial Slavery

Norms and Empires Lecture Series

  • Date: Nov 5, 2019
  • Time: 17:00 - 19:00
  • Speaker: Prof. Dr. Chouki El Hamel (Arizona State University)
  • Organisation: Thomas Duve, Manuel Bastias Saavedra (MPIeR)
  • Location: MPIeR
  • Room: Lecture hall of the MPI
Norms and Empires Lecture Series: The Justification of Concubinage as an Institution of Slavery: The Establishment of Gender Categories and the Stigma of Racial Slavery

Most Islamic judicial texts and the compilations of reports of the Prophet have been used to condone and to normalize the practice of using slaves as concubines. I argue that contrary to these foundational texts, the Qur’an not only does not support this practice but also places a high priority on manumitting slaves, with the ultimate objective of abolishing slavery. The Qur’an, the primary and fundamental source of Islam and Islamic law, does not authorize or formalize using slaves as concubines. How, then, do we explain the discrepancy between the interpretations of the Qur’an codified in Islamic law that condone concubinage and the Qur’an itself that promotes a structure of social life aimed at a socially just environment in service to God rather than condoning relations of servitude among people.

Indeed, by the ninth century and with the compilation of the first manuals on Islamic law, concubinage and slavery were clearly defined as institutions allowed under Islamic law. The Islamic law that was the codification of the male-dominated and male-sanctioned interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith created a patriarchal idol-model legal discourse in the service of the first empire in Islam.

Therefore, the political and legal implications on marginalized people and women was place in a legal caste system at best. For instance, in the late sixteenth century, the status of the Moroccan prince Ahmad within the Sa‘adi dynastic family was ambiguous. Part of that ambiguity arose from the status of Ahmad’s mother, who was originally a slave from West Africa. According to the Timbuktu historian ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sa‘di (1596-1656), the man who would become known as Ahmad al-Mansur was born in 1549, the fifth son of Muhammad ash-Shaykh (1490–1557), the founder of the Sa‘adi dynasty who made himself the Sultan of Morocco. Muhammad ash-Shaykh also claimed to be a sharif, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima; so, as his son, Ahmad was also a sharif. But the Timbuktu chronicler described Ahmad’s mother as Muhammad ash-Shaykh’s Fulani concubine, whose name was Lalla ‘Uda. Two centuries later, the Moroccan historian an-Nasiri (1835-1897) described Ahmad’s mother as a free woman named Mas‘uda al-Wazikitiyya. Likewise, the mother of the ‘Alawi Sultan Mawlay Isma‘il (r. 1672-1727), Mubarka bint Yark al-Maghfiri, was born a black slave among the Arab Mghafra tribe. Mawlay Isma‘il referred to them as the tribe of his uncles. He totally dismissed her blackness, ethnicity, and servitude status, but he claimed the fictive kinship tied to his mother’s birthplace, albeit unrelated by blood, in order to seek their loyalty, and he even invited them to live in the city of Fez. 

This lecture compares and investigates primary sources to argue that the dynastic intrigue and lineage status of princes were partly the product of racial slavery and concubinage. Most historians have been silent and have dismissed the sub-Saharan origins of these rulers and others of similar origins. I will investigate the archival silence and racism that implicate scholars in this explicit racial bias.

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