Selective Theses on the Arab Slave Trade

A French-Senegalese author has raised his voice in protest. Tidiane N'Diaye accuses Arabs of not acknowledging their responsibility for the slave trade. He demands an explanation, yet sheds very little new light on the situation himself. A review by Moritz Behrendt

By Moritz Behrendt

13th century slave market in the Yemen, Iraqi illustration (image: Wikipedia/Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale)
"The excessive lifestyle and laziness of the Arabs": N'Diaye's book lacks a real discussion on whether and why the "Arab-Muslim" slave trade was more terrible than the other forms of trade in human beings, writes Behrendt

​​When a book deals with Africa, sometimes a bit of sensationalism is necessary for it to be even noticed. In this case, the key words "GENOCIDE" and "SLAVE TRADE" can be read in the title in upper case letters. And as if this weren't enough, the word genocide is also "veiled," insinuating an inherent "Muslim" connection to the slave trade.

When it comes to Africa, one doesn't necessarily have to stick so close to the truth. At least, this must have been the main idea at Rowohlt publishing house when they decided to publish the work of the French-Senegalese economist and anthropologist Tidiane N'Diaye.

The author attempts to rewrite the history of the slave trade with two controversial theses. First, N'Diaye claims "that the slave trade conducted mercilessly by Arab Muslim robbers and the jihad they simultaneously pursued had a far more devastating effect on black Africa than the trans-Atlantic slave trade". Secondly, he attempts to demonstrate that this continuous "campaign of destruction" lasting from the 6th to the 20th century has been and continues to be systematically "covered up."

A moral legitimacy for the colonization of Africa

​​N'Diaye's problem, however, is that his proof for the first thesis fundamentally contradicts his second claim. In order to show how brutal the slave dealers on the East African coast and in the Sahara region were, the author quotes almost exclusively from the writings of European explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley and Gerhard Rohlfs. N'Diaye fails to mention that their books were bestsellers in their day.

The "Muslim" slave trade was a hot topic of discussion in Europe in the late 19th century and provided, not least of all, a moral legitimacy for the colonization of Africa.

Yet, N'Diaye's wholesale acceptance of these sources without much reflection does not necessarily disqualify his claim that the "Muslim" slave trade was more far-reaching in the damage it did to Africa than the trans-Atlantic trade. There is ample historical research on this topic and the figures, at least, seem to confirm N'Diaye's thesis. It is now accepted that some 29 million people were exported from black Africa as slaves – 12 million by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 9 million by the trans-Sahara slave trade, and 8 million from the East African coast.

Boisterous theses and no academic debate

N'Diaye adopts these figures, but presents them as if they were something new. He seems completely disinterested in the academic debate on the various forms of the slave trade and their consequences for Africa. He almost completely ignores the last 30 years of literature on the subject. This is a shame, as N'Diaye's book lacks a real discussion on whether and why the "Arab-Muslim" slave trade was more terrible than the other forms of trade in human beings.

African slaves in Africa, historic illustration (source: Leibniz University Hanover, Germany)
Crime against humanity: 29 million people were exported from black Africa as slaves – 12 million by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 9 million by the trans-Sahara slave trade, and 8 million from the East African coast

​​N'Diaye also fails to sufficiently explain why he refers to the one side as "Arab-Muslim" and the other not as "European-Christian," but rather as the "trans-Atlantic" slave trade. It is true that Islamic scholars justified the trade in non-believers for centuries. Religious dogma likewise veiled the racist motivation for the kidnapping of black Africans. Muslims and Christian apologists, however, equally referred to Noah's curse upon Ham, offering a misanthropist interpretation that justified a subservient role for black Africans.

If N'Diaye truly wanted to focus on the subject of "Muslim slavery," then he would also have to protest against the practices of the Caliphate of Sokoto in the 19th century. According to Paul Lovejoy, a respected researcher on slavery, this was the "second or third largest slave society in modern history." The Caliphate, which is located in the north of present-day Nigeria, only receives a mention in passing by N'Diaye, probably because he finds it difficult to attribute the atrocities there to the Arabs.

The excessive lifestyle and laziness of the Arabs

Instead, he unremittingly repeats his central accusation. "The Arab Muslims were the most murderous of all those involved in the slave trade," writes N'Diaye, without specifying whether he is referring to the slavery at the court of the Moroccan kings in the 17th century, those forced to tend the fields in Iraq in the 7th century, or the slaves on the plantations of Zanzibar in the 19th century, when the island became the most important exporter of cloves.

N'Diaye Tidiane (photo: Catherine Hélie © Editions Gallimard)
Tidiane N'Diaye: His book was nominated for the Prix Renaudot</i> in 2008

​​All three were brutal crimes, but, under closer scrutiny, they shared little in common. Tidiane N'Diaye tends to ignore such historical discontinuities, leaping from region to region and from century to century. What is important to him are the actors. "The duration of the slave trade from the 7th to the 20th century and Arab Muslim slavery in Africa has to do with the traditions of the Arabs themselves, who because of their excessive lifestyle and laziness could not do without the blood and muscle of servants."

By resorting to such culturalistic explanations, N'Diaye completely misses his target. He thereby resorts to means that he elsewhere justifiably condemns. Racism is indeed a great problem in Arab countries, even today. Black Africans are accepted, at best, only in the role of servants in countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya, and even Lebanon. Tidiane N'Diaye therefore demands that the Arab world confront the darkest chapter of its history and come to grips with slavery.

This desire is justified, yet it is highly doubtful whether the publication of a pamphlet loaded with prejudices and full of historical inaccuracies will help the situation.

Moritz Behrendt

© 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Tidiane N'Diaye's Le génocide voilé ("The veiled genocide") has not yet been published in English. Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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