The age of slavery

Subhash Kak
22 min readDec 30, 2023
Registration of Christian boys for the devshirme blood-tax, painting 1588.

This essay is about some fascinating parallels in the practice of slavery during the medieval period in India, Turkey and Central Asia. Slavery became an essential part of life for the intrusive ruling class in those places to obtain workers, women, servants, and soldiers.

Since the available manpower in support of the invaders camped in cities was insufficient, religious law came in handy. Non-Arabs were permitted to be enslaved to bolster the army, to recruit for the harem, as workers, and as servants in households [1]. Theoretically, the slave could look to advancement and future freedom with the possibility of rising to the highest levels as general and ruler, or even as queen for female slaves.

In many tribes and cultures of Central Asia from where the Turks originated, inheritance of power was not defined by primogeniture (eldest son as heir). The deceased sovereign’s sons and brothers were expected to fight it out to decide who was most fit to rule.

The “law of fratricide” was promulgated by Mehmed II in the middle of the 15th century. He proclaimed: “Two sultans cannot live in the same country. If any of my sons (shahzade) ascends the throne, it is acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people (nizam-i alem). The majority of the ulama have approved this.” It is estimated that this law resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the Ottoman royal family over a period of 150 years.

The prince had to be ever watchful and form alliances with powerful people in the court for security, and be ruthless enough to have his brothers murdered before they killed him. The most sensational case is that of Mehmet III who, upon claiming the throne, summoned his 19 brothers and half-brothers (four adults and fifteen children) to the palace, reassuring them that they were invited for a circumcision ceremony and had nothing to fear.

One by one, the princes were taken to an adjacent room, only to be strangled to death by Mehmed’s four mute-and-deaf executioners. Since Ottoman law forbade the splitting of royal blood, the princes were strangled with silken cords. In Mughal India, there was likewise much fratricide, as in Aurangzeb murdering his three brothers.

For religious reasons, women were segregated in the harem so that random men may not see them, and eunuchs were needed to guard them. The girls in the harem were often abducted by slavers from distant lands. Some eunuch slaves rose high in administration beyond work in the harem.

Slavery as a system was based on economic and political needs of the ruling elite within the moral code of the ruling elite. The demand could be satisfied from far-off places if trading networks made that possible.

It is remarkable that Megasthenes, Greek historian and ambassador to the Mauryan court in 3rd century BCE , is emphatic that India had no slavery: “[Their] law ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom, they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess: for it is but fair and reasonable to institute laws which bind all equally, but allow property to bo unevenly distributed.”

India may have had bondage but an absence of slavery in the sense it existed in Greece was no doubt a consequence of the belief that all humans have the same Atman (consciousness). The idea of one Atman is consistent with ahimsa, and it led to the principle that violence should be minimized, that war should be viewed as last resort for just ends, and that animals shouold be treatedm with kindness.

Ghilman and Mamluks

The Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) recruited slave soldiers (sing. ghulām, pl. ghilmān) from the Turkish tribes of Central Asia, or prisoners of war from conquered regions. These soldiers were excellent horse riders and fighters. and they were recruited into the Sultan’s personal guard.

The ghilman became powerful, and there were riots against them in Baghdad in 836. They were also part of revolts and during the 860s they killed four caliphs. A ghulam could earn his freedom through dedicated service. Some of them became the de facto rulers of the caliphate. The ghilman paved the way for the Ghaznavid Empire.

The Mamluks (“one who is owned”) were enslaved mercenaries, slave-soldiers, and freed slaves, who would offer their services to whoever controlled the reins of power. The Mamluks ruled at first from behind the scenes for years but at the end of the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt, they took direct control and made themselves masters of the empire as the Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517).

Enslavement of Indians by Arabs and Turks

India was a great magnet for Arabs and Turks due to the fabulous wealth of its temples and its dense population that made it easy to abduct men and women and turn them into servants and sex-slaves. The terrain from Punjab to Bengal was flat, so it was difficult for settled towns or villages to protect themselves from sudden slave raids.

During the Arab invasion of Sindh (712 CE), Muhammad bin Qasim first attacked Debal which was garrisoned by 7,000 soldiers and others. All males of the age of seventeen and upwards were put to the sword and their women and children were enslaved. Seven hundred beautiful females, who had taken shelter in the temple, were captured. One-fifth of the spoils were sent to Hajjaj, the military governor of the Umayyad caliphate, the rest four-fifths were distributed among the soldiers.

The same thing was repeated in attacks on other cities, where many women of the higher class immolated themselves. Most captive women and children were converted, and batches of them were despatched to al-Walid, the Caliph. Young ladies of the royal blood were sent to Hajjaj who sold some and sent others to the Caliph. In total, tens of thousands of men were killed, and several hundred thousand men and women were enslaved.

Ghaznavid capture of Hindu slaves

Mahmud of Ghazni invaded India seventeen times and his secretary and chronicler Utbi provides us much first-hand information. When Mahmud attacked Waihind in 1001–02, he reportedly took 500,000 persons of both sexes as captive. In Mahmud’s attack on Ninduna in the Punjab (1014), Utbi says that “slaves were so plentiful that they became very cheap; and men of respectability in their native land (India) were degraded by becoming slaves of common shop-keepers (in Ghazni).”

The next year from Thanesar, Ghazni’s army broought 200,000 captives so that the capital appeared like an Indian city, for every soldier of the army had several slaves and slave girls. In 1019, Mahmud’s booty included 53,000 captives.

Utbi informs us that Jayapal, the Hindu Shahiya king of Kabul, “his children and grandchildren, his nephews, and the chief men of his tribe, and his relatives, were taken prisoners, and being strongly bound with ropes, were carried before the Sultan (Mahmud) like common evil-doers Some had their arms forcibly tied behind their backs, some were seized by the cheek, some were driven by blows on their neck.” Jayapal was publicly exposed at one of the slave-auctions in some market in Khurasan, and in the end he immolated himself.

Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526)

The Delhi Sultanate started off as a Mamluk dynasty (1206–1290). The Indian economy was mostly decentralized with self-sufficient village communities. The Turkish and Afghan invaders, being relatively few, needed to live in cities where they could defend themselves, and from where they could project power. The economy of the Delhi Sultanate depended on military expeditions to the scattered Hindu kingdoms and their agrarian lands. Theirs was a war economy of conquest in which slaves played an important role. One measure of the success of a military campaign was the number of captives who could be enslaved [2].

The writ of Delhi Sultanate authority did not exceed beyond the major cities in northern India. It has been estimated that the population of medieval India was in the range of 100–140 million, whereas the invading Muslims normally confined to cities or fortifications in the rural areas were only several hundred thousand. The garrisons included a huge number of slaves that exceeded the number of Afghans and Turks. During the period of Firuz Shah (r. 1351–1388), Delhi with a population of about 400,000 had nearly 180,000 slaves.

The acquisition of slaves happened in various ways: through war in which the defeated army was enslaved, raids into the countryside to abduct girls and women, servants, artisans and craftsmen, and for debt default. Enslavement of the defeated army served the purpose of preventing the defeated soldiers from regrouping and becoming rebels.

The Table below provides relatives prices of slaves, horses, and animals.

The talented and well-trained slaves were expensive. For instance, Iltutmish, the third sultan of the Delhi Sultanate who started off as a slave, was purchased for one hundred thousand tankā. The slave system also required a huge gap in the income between the slaveholders and slaves. The next table shows that the income of the top aristocrats was over 10,000 times the price of a slave-girl.

To provide an idea of the importance of slavery in the economy, note that Qutb ud-Din Aibak in his military operation in Gujrat in 1195 captured 20,000 slaves, and seven years later, in the Kalinjar campaign he had another 50,000. In 1380, Firuz Shah marched to Katehar to subdue a rebellious king and enslaved 23,000, and together with captured slaves from other campaigns, he had 40,000 for his own use.

Beyond the number the sultan could use in Delhi, the extra ones were shared with regional subordinate officers and governors, who were also independently acquiring their own slaves.


Eunuch slaves were employed for the care and surveillance of the females of the harem. They were usually bought as boys and castrated. Since they couldn’t have children of their own, it was felt they would be less likely to siphon off money. They also served as spies.

The eunuch Malik Kafur, who was to become a successful general, is believed to have been the lover of Alauddin Khalji. During the final days of Alauddin’s reign, when he was sick, Kafur allowed no one to see the sultan, and became the de facto ruler of the Sultanate.

According to the chronicler Ziauddin Barani (1285–1357): “In those four or five years when the Sultan was losing his memory and his senses, he had fallen deeply and madly in love with the Malik Naib [Kafur]. He had entrusted the responsibility of the government and the control of the servants to this useless, ungrateful, ingratiate, sodomite.”

Khusrau Khan became a gay lover of Alauddin’s son Mubarak Shah, who was to ascend the throne in 1316. In 1320, Khusrau led a revolt against Mubarak Shah and killed him, and ruled as Sultan for three months.

Muhammad ibn Tughluq’s slaves fought in front of his elephants. When the Sultan moved from one palace to the other, there were 12,000 foot-soldier slaves protecting him; he was also accompanied by ten thousand eunuchs.


Imagine being at the losing end of war in a besieged fort with the prospect of men being slaughtered or castrated and women sold into sex slavery. With death appearing to be the only honourable way out, women and children walked into a fire to immolate themselves by jauhar. The act of jauhar would be followed by the fighting men charging defiantly onto the battlefield one last time, embracing death in battle as befitting a warrior in an act known as shaka.

One heroic acts of jauhar is that of Queen Rani Rang Devi with daughter Padmala in 1301 who committed mass suicide by jumping into the reservoir at the fort for there was no time to prepare the fire. In another case in 1303, the women of Chitorgarh led by Queen Rani Padmini cast themselves into a fire. In 1535, at the end of a siege by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, Queen Rani Karnavati toogether with 13,000 women blew themselves up with gunpowder.

Devshirme system

The Devshirme, a blood-tax levied on the Christian territories, was a variation to the Ghilman system. Estimated to have begun in the late 14th century, in this system Christian boys (usually between the ages of 6 and 14, mainly from the Balkans) were subjected to forced circumcision and conversion to Islam.

The Turkish soldiers would scour their regions every five years for the strongest sons of the sultan’s Christian subjects. Their aim was to create a group that would be loyal to the Sultan rather than to their own families. The boys were taken to Istanbul and placed with Muslim families or in schools. They were subjected to severe discipline and were prohibited from growing a beard.

Many became soldiers and army officers, including the elite Janissary corps, the sultan’s personal troops. Others became government ministers, provincial governors, and even grand viziers, the highest office except for the sultan. The Devshirme system slowly declined in the 17th century. The Devshirme system created Turks who were genetically Greek or from the Balkans. Another round of Turkification occurred in 19th century when Pontian Greeks adopted Turkish language and culture, and converted to Islam in order to have greater opportunities in Turkish society.


The formation of the Janissaries (Turkish: yeŋiçeri, “new soldier”) is traced to around 1365, during the rule of Orhan’s son Murad I, the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries became the first Ottoman standing army replacing forces that mostly consisted of tribal warriors (ghazis) whose loyalty and morale were not always guaranteed.

Legally slaves of the sultan, they served over the centuries as bowmen, crossbowmen, and musketeers. They were distinguished from the main body of the army, which was made up of cavalrymen (sipahis) drawn from the freeborn retinues of provincial officials and notables.

They were the first modern standing army, and the first regular army to wear unique uniforms, to be paid regular salaries for their service, to march to music (the mehter), to live in barracks and to make extensive use of firearms. They were famous for their distinctive marching style and headgear; their special military bands inspired military bands all over Europe.

Forbidden to marry before the age of 40 or engage in trade, their complete loyalty to the Sultan was expected. The janissaries were a formidable military unit but as Western Europe modernized its military organization and technology, the janissaries resisted change. By the time the janissaries were suppressed, it was too late for Ottoman military power to catch up with the West. The corps was abolished by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826 in the Auspicious Incident, in which 6,000 or more of them were executed.

Osman II in a procession of Janissaries and guards

Women slaves and consorts

Ottoman slavers would regularly kidnap young girls from central Europe to be sold into concubinage. Some of them would find their way into the harem of the Ottoman sultan, where they would vie to find favor with their master. It was possible for a young girl, separated from family and taken as a captive to a faraway land and sold in the most depraved of circumstances, to rise to power and become the consort and the sultan valide, the queen mother, the second most powerful individual in the empire.

The most famous example was Roxelana. Originally from Russia, she entered the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566) where her name was changed to Hürrem, and she rose through the ranks and became the favourite wife of the sultan. Breaking Ottoman tradition, Suleiman married Hürrem, making her his legal wife and giving her the title Haseki Sultan (Imperial Consort). It is believed that she convinced Suleiman to have his son Mustafa (born to a rival queen and the eldest shahzade) killed so that her own son Selim II would ascend to the throne. Selim II’s own imperial consort, Nurbanu Sultan, was herself abducted from either Venice or Greece according to different accounts, and she was also to become sultan valide.

Slavery in Iran

Slavery was a common institution in Safavid and Qajar Iran (1502–1926), with slaves employed in many levels of society. Slaves were brought from East Africa as well as from India via the Indian Ocean slave trade, and white slaves were obtained by raids into the Christain areas of the Caucasus or from regions by the Caspian Sea (Circasssian slave trade).

Paralleling Devshirme, Christian Armenians were forced to regularly provide girls and male youths as tributes to the ruler, which continued until 1780. Children were sometimes sold into slavery by their poor families, often in Armenia, Southern Iran, and Kurdistan. Both male and female slaves were employed by their masters as entertainers, dancing, playing music, serving and by giving sexual services at private parties.

The court of Shah Sultan Hossain (r. 1694–1722) has been estimated to include five thousand slaves; male and female, black and white, of which one hundred were black eunuchs. The monarchs of the Safavid dynasty preferred to procreate through slave concubines, which would eliminate potential ambitions from relatives and protect patrimony. The slave concubines (and later mothers) of the Shah mainly consisted of enslaved Caucasian, Georgian and Armenian women, captured as war booty, bought at the slave market or received as gifts from local potentates.

The slave concubines were referred to as kaniz. Slave eunuchs performed various tasks in many levels of the harem as well as the general court. Eunuchs had offices in the general court, such as in the royal treasury and as tutors and adoptive fathers of non-castrated slaves selected to be slave soldiers (ghilman), as well as inside the harem, and served as a channel between the secluded harem women and the outside court and world.

White slaves were obtained through warfare such as the Russo-Iranian wars, tribal incursions, slave raids and punitive expeditions in Caucasus and Northern Iran. Inside Iran, non-Muslims, often Jewish women, were kidnapped from their homes, and Muslim tribespeople were kidnapped or taken as war prisoners during tribal warfare, often by Turkoman slave traders. In southeast Iran, slave raids were conducted by slavers, often local chieftains, as late as around 1900.

The domestic slave pattern was similar in regard to the royal Qajar harem. The wives and slave concubines of shah Fath-Ali Shah Qajar came from the harems of the vanquished houses of Zand and Afšār; from the Georgian and Armenian campaigns; as well as from slave markets, and presented as gifts to the shah from the provinces.

The capture of Russians by Iran as slaves was one factor in the first Russo-Iran War (1804–1813) which Iran lost. The 1813 Treaty of Gulistan forced Iran to cede Dagestan, eastern Georgia, most of the Republic of Azerbaijan and parts of northern Armenia to the Russian empire.

In the second Russo-Iran War (1826–1828), Iranian forces were again defeated. In the following Treaty of Turkmenchay, Qajar Iran lost possession of its last remaining Caucasian territories, comprising modern-day Armenia and the remaining part of modern-day Azerbaijan. By 1828, Iran had lost by both treaties all of those integral territories in Transcaucasia and the North Caucasus.

The 1828 war with Russia put an end to the import of white slaves from the Russian Empire borderlands. When the number of white slaves diminished, free Iranian men were employed for the royal guards rather than the previous white ghilmans.

Slavery and life in Central Asia

Alexander Burnes (1805–1841), Scottish explorer, military officer, and diplomat played an important role in the first Anglo-Afghan War. He wrote of his travels (with assistant Mohan Lal Zutshi) and published a book, Travels into Bokhara, which became an overnight success in 1835 [3].

Here’s his description of the slave bazar at Bukhara, which was held every Saturday morning. “The Uzbeks manage all their affairs by means of slaves, who are chiefly brought from Persia by the Toorkmuns. Here these poor wretches are exposed for sale, and occupy thirty or forty stalls, where they are examined like cattle, only with this difference, that they are able to give an account of themselves vivâ voce. On the morning I visited the bazar, there were only six unfortunate beings, and I witnessed the manner in which they are disposed of. They are first interrogated regarding their parentage and capture, and if they are Mahommedans, that is, Soonees [Sunni]. The question is put in that form, for the Uzbeks do not consider a Shiah to be a true believer; with them, as with the primitive Christians, a sectary is more odious than an unbeliever. After the intended purchaser is satisfied of the slave being an infidel (kaffir), he examines his body, particularly noting if he be free from leprosy, so common in Toorkistan, and then proceeds to bargain for his price. Three of the Persian boys were for sale at thirty tillas of gold apiece; and it was surprising to see how contented the poor fellows sat under their lot. I heard one of them telling how he had been seized south of Meshid, while tending his flocks. There was one unfortunate girl, who had been long in service, and was now exposed for sale by her master, because of his poverty. I felt certain that many a tear had been shed in the court where I surveyed the scene; but I was assured from every quarter that slaves are kindly treated; and the circumstance of so many of them continuing in the country after they have been manumitted, seems to establish this fact. The bazars of Bokhara are chiefly supplied from Orgunje. Russian and Chinese are also sold, but rarely. The feelings of an European revolt at this most odious traffic; but the Uzbeks entertain no such notions, and believe that they are conferring a benefit on a Persian when they purchase him, and see that he renounces his heretical opinions.”

The manner in which Islamic law was administered created many contradictions. “From the slave-market I passed on that morning to the great bazar, and the very first sight which fell under my notice was the offenders against Mahommedanism of the preceding Friday. They consisted of four individuals, who had been caught asleep at prayer time, and a youth, who had been smoking in public. They were all tied to each other, and the person who had been found using tobacco led the way, holding the hookah, or pipe, in his hand. The officer of police followed with a thick thong, and chastised them as he went, calling aloud, ‘Ye followers of Islam, behold the punishment of those who violate the law!’ Never, however, was there such a series of contradiction and absurdity as in the practice and theory of religion in Bokhara. You may openly purchase tobacco and all the most approved apparatus for inhaling it; yet if seen smoking in public you are straightway dragged before the Cazee [Kazi], punished by stripes, or paraded on a donkey, with a blackened face, as a warning to others. If a person is caught flying pigeons on a Friday, he is sent forth with the dead bird round his neck, seated on a camel. If seen in the streets at the time of prayers, and convicted of such habitual neglect, fines and imprisonment follow; yet there are bands of the most abominable wretches, who frequent the streets at evening for purposes as contrary to the Koran as to nature. Every thing, indeed, presents a tissue of contrarieties; and none were more apparent to me than the punishment of the culprits who were marching, with all the pomp of publicity, past the very gateway of the court where human beings were levelled with the brutes of the earth, no doubt against the laws of humanity, but as certainly against the laws of Mahommed.”

There is also an interesting section on Hindus in Bukhara and how they managed to function in a country where the laws were stacked against them: “The Hindoos of Bokhara courted our society, for that people seem to look upon the English as their natural superiors. They visited us in every country we passed, and would never speak any other language than Hindoostanee, which was a bond of union between us and them. In this country they appeared to enjoy a sufficient degree of toleration to enable them to live happily. An enumeration of their restrictions might make them appear a persecuted race. They are not permitted to build temples, nor set up idols, nor walk in procession: they do not ride within the walls of the city, and must wear a peculiar dress. They pay the ‘jizyu,’ or poll-tax, which varies from four to eight rupees a year; but this they only render in common with others, not Mahommedans. They must never abuse or ill-use a Mahommedan. When the king passes their quarter of the city, they must draw up, and wish him health and prosperity; when on horseback outside the city, they must dismount if they meet his majesty or the Cazee [Kazi]. They are not permitted to purchase female slaves, as an infidel would defile a believer; nor do any of them bring their families beyond the Oxus. For these sacrifices the Hindoos in Bokhara live unmolested, and, in all trials and suits, have equal justice with the Mahommedans. I could hear of no forcible instance of conversion to Islam, though three or four individuals had changed their creed in as many years. The deportment of these people is most sober and orderly; — one would imagine that the tribe had renounced laughter, if he judged by the gravity of their countenances. They themselves, however, speak highly of their privileges, and are satisfied at the celerity with which they can realise money, though it be at the sacrifice of their prejudices. There are about 300 Hindoos in Bokhara, living in a caravansary of their own. They are chiefly natives of Shikarpoor in Sinde, and their number has of late years rather increased. The Uzbeks, and, indeed, all the Mahommedans, find themselves vanquished by the industry of these people, who will stake the largest sums of money for the smallest gain.”

The story of a Hindu pilgrim visiting fire-temples on the shores of the Caspian is most intriguing. “Among the Hindoos we had a singular visiter in a deserter from the Indian army at Bombay. He had set out on a pilgrimage to all the shrines of the Hindoo world, and was then proceeding to the fire temples on the shores of the Caspian! I knew many of the officers of the regiment (the 24th N. I.) to which he had belonged, and felt pleased at hearing names which were familiar to me in this remote city. I listened with interest to the man’s detail of his adventures and travels, nor was he deterred by any fear that I would lodge information against him, and secure his apprehension. I looked upon him as a brother in arms, and he amused me with many a tale of my friend Moorad Beg of Koondooz, whom he had followed in his campaigns, and served as a bombardier. This man, when he first showed himself, was disguised in the dress of a pilgrim; but the carriage of a soldier is not to be mistaken, even if met at Bokhara.”

Slavery in Khiva

Russia had an interest in establishing a trade route from Moscow to India, and the issue of Russian slaves in the Central Asian khanates was also important. In 1557, Bokhara and Khiva sent ambassadors to Ivan IV seeking permission to trade in Russia [4].

Khiva prospered from its slave-market, and Russian ambassadors to the region spent much time trying to free Russians who had been taken as slaves by the khanates. The slavery of Russians was one motivating factor for Russia to conquer the khanates.

During the first half of the 19th century alone, some one million Persians and an unknown number of Russians, ended up in Central Asian khanates. When the Russian troops took the Khanate of Bukhara in 1898, its population was 1.2 million together with 200,000 Persian slaves.

The slaves were supplied by Turkmen and Kazakhs who took captives during raids made at night for settled places or at sunrise for caravans. The newly captured slaves were dragged through the desert, hands tied and ropes around the necks, to the bazaars of Khiva or Bukhara.

Iranian Shῑ’ites constituted most Central Asia’s enslaved people for three centuries for Sunni clerics had declared the Shīʿa as heretics and, therefore, legally enslavable.

We have already mentioned Mohan Lal Zutshi who was to write the biography of Dost Mohammad Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan in Kabul, which is a primary source for the first Anglo-Afghan War. In his travels with Alexander Burnes, he visiteed several slave-bazars in the Khanate of Bukhara. He writes of a visit to a town called Qarshi, not too far from Bukhara [5]:

On my return from the bazar, I asked my companion to shew me the house of a slave-dealer; so I was conducted through numerous hot streets, and after a short walk, I got into the caravansarae where the merchant resided. He received me with courtesy and sent for three women from the room next to his own. They sat unveiled, and their master asked me which of the three I liked the best. I pretended to select the younger one; she had regular features and most agreeable manners, her stature was elegant, and her personal attractions great. On my choosing her, the others retired to their lodgings, and she followed them, but sat in a separate room guarded by an old slave. The merchant told me to go to her, speak to and content her. After a good deal of conversation, she felt pleased with my choice; but told me to swear not to sell her again. She was thirteen years of age, and an inhabitant of Chatrar, a place near Badakhshan. She said that she belonged to a large family, and had been carried off by the ruler of the country, who reduced her to slavery. Her eyes filled with tears, and she asked me to release her soon from the hands of the oppressive Uzbeg. As my object was only to examine the feelings of the slave-dealer, and also to gratify my curiosity, and not to purchase her, I came back to my camp without bidding farewell to the merchant.

Imagine the situation from the perspective of the young girl: the cultured Mohan Lal must have appeared to her as a life saver, excepting that he just walked away at the end.

This was an age of cruelty in which people going about their work in agriculture fields or in bazars, or simply sleeping in their homes, could be picked up for no fault of theirs, their hopes and dreams shattered, and sold into a life of slavery.

The system worked so long as the state had large non-believing host population that could be taxed at a higher rate or raided for wealth and slaves. Since this economy was based on physical things (gold and slaves) and not on knowledge-based wealth, the slave-holding states lapsed into poverty once everyone had been converted.

But the idea of slavery as a means to prosperity lives on. Slavery was widely practiced by Islamic State (IS) against the Yazidis in 2014. The UN estimates that more than 5,000 Yazidis were killed and 7,000 girls and women were forced into sex slavery and about 2,800 remain in captivity [6]. Slavery in its many forms remains a matter of great contemporary relevance.


  1. On the scriptural support for slavery:
  2. K.S. Lal, Muslim Slave System in Medieval India
  3. A. Burnes, Travels into Bokhara. (John Murray, 1835)
  4. Slavery in Khiva
  5. Mohan Lal, Travels in the Panjab, Afghanistan, and Turkistan, to Balk, Bokhara, and Herat; and a visit to Great Britain and Germany. (W. H. Allen, 1846)
  6. N. Walker and P. Loft, Atrocities against the Yazidi religious community. UK Parliament, 8 February 2022. See also, Islam and slavery. “A more worrying trend is that ‘fundamentalists,’ better described as literalists, have called for the reinstatement of slavery, as an integral part of the shari’a in an Islamic state. This is inspired by the dogged refusal of Mawlana Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat-i Islami in South Asia in 1941, to give up on slavery.”