African Military Slaves in the Muslim Middle East

Sub-Saharan African troops in Egypt in the 19th Century
Sub-Saharan African troops in Egypt in the 19th Century

In the following article Professor Emeritus Jere L. Bacharach, a specialist in Medieval Middle Eastern history, describes the little known saga of one of the largest groups of persons of African descent in the region, military slaves.  These enslaved men, utilized for centuries in the Muslim world, had no counterpart in Europe or the Americas.  His article appears below.

Most scholarly work on the external African slave trade has focused on the enslavement and forced migration of over ten million Africans across the Atlantic where their primary role was as plantation slave labor.  However, there was also another, less well documented forced exodus of almost as many Africans.  This one, however, was toward the north and northeast, that is, across the Sahara to the Islamic Middle East from Morocco to Egypt and the Fertile Crescent and across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula and through the Persian Gulf to Iraq.

Although the earlier Roman Empire was centered on the Mediterranean, relatively few African slaves outside of Egypt were imported into their lands.  The establishment of Islamic rule along the southern shores of the Mediterranean and in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf beginning in the 7th century created a vast new market for African slaves.  The ability and interest of Muslim merchants, military forces, and religious men to cross the Sahara and sail south along the East African coast enabled slave traders to move enslaved African into the growing markets of the Middle East.  Scholars estimate that over four million Africans were transported from sub-Saharan Africa into the Islamic Middle East Even before the trans-Atlantic slave traffic began in the 1500s.

The Saharan-Indian Ocean slave trade not only lasted significantly longer than the trans-Atlantic trade, that is, from the early 7th century well in the 20th century, but the market demand was different.   Whereas males were favored in the trans-Atlantic trade, females were a higher priority in most Middle Eastern markets where they served as domestics, concubines and wives.   Plantation style slavery was rare in the Middle East although East African males served as miners of salt in 8th and 9th century Iraq and worked the land in Morocco.   The most valued males were eunuchs who survived the horrors of castration and the terrible conditions crossing the seas of sand and water.  But from the ninth century there was another role for African male slaves, which was radically different from anything they did in the New World.  These African slaves served as a major military force.  Most were infantry but on rare occasions they also composed cavalry units for Muslim rulers.

The Islamic Middle East is unusual in world history for its extensive reliance on men of slave origin to serve as the core of their military.   The first Muslim armies in the mid-7th century were overwhelmingly composed of cavalry and were of Arab origin.  But by the early 9th century, the time of the second Muslim dynasty, the Abbasids [750–1258], Muslim rulers decided that they would rely upon troops of slave origin in the hope that these forces would be totally dependent upon the ruler as they had no local ties and therefore more loyal to the Muslim rulers.  At the same time non-slave troops continued to serve in the Muslim military.

The most famous group of these military slave troops were Central Asian Turks known collectively as mamluks.  Mamluks were young non-Muslim males who were raised on the Central Asian steppe where they developed horseback riding and archery skills.  They were transported to the Middle East as slaves where they were converted to Islam, trained to use swords, spears as well as more sophisticated bows and arrows, rode larger horses and followed military orders.  By the 13th century, if not earlier, these Mamluk slave troops were manumitted.  According to Islamic law, children of a free Muslim father can not be enslaved.  Therefore, unless both parents were slaves, even if they were both Muslim, their children could not be mamluks.  This meant that there was a constant demand for new male military slaves since under the dominant mamluk system military service in theory could not be hereditary.  A Muslim female, free or enslaved, could only marry a Muslim male.

Muslim armies of the medieval period organized themselves along occupational and ethnic-geographic-linguistic-racial lines.  The dominant military theory was that armies should be composed of “homogeneous” units so that they would compete among themselves to outdo one another on the battlefield and still be loyal to their military commander.  In terms of organization, this meant cavalry versus infantry while their sub-units would normally be limited to people who were lumped together as if they constituted one ethnic body.  These divisions included Central Asian Turkish mamluks, free Arabs, free North African Berber tribes, free Persians called Dailaimites, enslaved Europeans often called Rumi, and Africans.  The last were known by a number of terms in the medieval Arab sources such as ‘abid, Sudanese, and Zanj, although the medieval sources do not tell us exactly where in Africa these males came from.

There is limited evidence for the use of African military slaves as infantry under the Abbasid rulers in Iraq in the 8th through 10th centuries, but the most famous and detailed cases of the role of African military slaves comes from Egypt for the period 868 to 1171.  The story begins with the arrival Ahmad ibn Tulun in 868 in Egypt.  He was the descendant of a mamluk and had had extensive military experience.  His goal was to make himself as independent of the Abbasid rulers in Iraq as possible.  His first step was to seize control of Egypt’s financial resources.  But he still needed an army which he felt would be loyal to him to ensure his semi-independence.  To build up his cavalry forces he imported mamluks but they had to cross Abbasid lands to reach Egypt which limited the number he could acquire.  To these mamluks he added European slaves and free Arabs as his cavalry.  To create an infantry he imported thousands of Africans for whom he had special barracks built.  With this army Ahmad ibn Tulun’s family was able to maintain its quasi-independence until 905 when an Abbasid army from Iraq conquered Egypt.  The surviving Egyptian African infantry were able to switch sides to the conquering Abbasid army since the Abbasids also needed infantry and were familiar with the use of Africans of slave origin in this role.

The next semi-independent dynasty in Egypt was the Ikhshidid dynasty, 935 – 969, and the pattern repeated itself.  In order to make himself free of control from the Abbasid ruler, the founder of the Ikhshidid dynasty created his own army and used large numbers of African slaves to serve as his infantry.  The Ikhshidid rulers fell to a new dynasty, the Fatimids who came from North Africa and claimed that they were the only legitimate rulers in the Islamic world.  They were Shi’ites while the competing Abbasids were Sunni.  To meet their military needs the Fatimids imported even more Africans males to serve in their army as infantry.  The infantry probably numbered in the thousands with a top of 10,000 although some sources speak of over 200,000 troops.

During the reign of the Fatimid ruler al-Mustansir [1035 – 1095] a new situation arose as his mother, who was of African slave origin, worked with slave dealers to build an even larger military force.  This time the African forces included African slaves who served as cavalry.  The appearance of African cavalry created a major racial and political conflict with the light skinned Central Asian Turkish speaking mamluks who saw the African cavalry as a direct threat to their role as the leading military contingent in the army of Egypt.  A civil war followed in which the Turkish mamluks triumphed and the African slave cavalry was destroyed.  But the need for African slaves as infantry continued as they still had a military role to play in the Fatimid state and more Africans were imported and trained as infantry.

When Saladin [master of Egypt: 1169–1193], a Sunni with ties to the Abbasids, took control of the Fatimid government, the African infantry found themselves literary fighting for their life.  The new military philosophy of Saladin and his contemporaries was to rely only upon mamluks and only use infantry during sieges.  The African slave infantry troops could not switch sides as they had done when earlier armies had conquered Egypt because the new army of Saladin had no role for a standing infantry.   Saladin and his supporters were successful and with Saladin’s triumph the role of African slaves as military troops ended with a few minor exceptions.

In 1498 a new and young ruler of Egypt fearing the rising power of the Ottoman Empire which was based in what is today Turkey, imported large numbers of African slaves to create a new military force but this time to train them in the use of firearms, the new weapon that the Ottomans were effectively employing.  The Mamluks who had ruled Egypt and Syria since 1250 and who as light-skinned cavalry had distain for both infantry and Africans, destroyed this African slave force and then killed the young ruler.  In 1517 the Mamluks of Egypt fell to the Ottomans who effectively used firearms in their military campaign while the Mamluks had none.

In Morocco African troops of slave origin played a very important part in the establishment and consolidation of the Alawite dynasty [1631- ], which continues to rule Morocco today.  The ruler Mawlay Ismail [1672–1727] felt he could not rely upon traditional military forces available in Morocco and so from 1680 he seized or demanded as tribute many of the African slaves living in the lands he controlled.  He built up a military force of between 10,000 and 15,000 men.  These forces were called ‘abid al-Bukhara.  Again, these were African slaves already in Morocco and were working the land or serving in other capacities.  In addition to training them as troops, both infantry and cavalry, he gave them African enslaved women as wives as a means of creating greater loyalty to him and, possibly, hoping for future African slave troops since both parents were enslaved although both were Muslim.  How many additional slaves were imported versus acquired through child raising, raiding new lands, or tribute from conquered territories is not known although slaves were regularly imported into Morocco from sub-Saharan African for centuries both before and after these events.  Ismail was very successful using this new military force and conquered most of modern Morocco and made the ‘abid al-Bukhara his primary tool for imposing central control over his lands.

After Mawlay Ismail’s death, the role of the ‘abid al-Bukhara declined as they were caught up in the civil wars that racked Morocco for thirty years until Sidi Muhammad III [1757–1790] became ruler.  Muhammad III rebuilt the ‘abid al-Bukhara forces and appeared to be more successful than his immediate predecessors in consolidating his rule over Morocco.  However, the ‘abid al-Bukhara, for reasons not altogether clear, revolted in 1787 against Muhammad III and with the end of the revolt in 1783, the ‘abid al-Bukhara were dispersed as a unified fighting force and the role of African slaves as separate military forces in Morocco ended.

The last major case took place in the early 19th century when Muhammad Ali [1805 – 49], an Ottoman soldier of Albanian descent, was attempting to create an army to make himself independent of Ottoman rule.  In 1820 he sent both his son and son-in-law south from Egypt on military campaigns to capture young African males whom he wanted to enslave and then train to serve as his new army.  The campaigns had only limited success.   Many of the African slaves died being forced to walk from the Sudan to Aswan in southern Egypt.  The majority of those that survived the trip, died from diseases in Egypt.  The plan was a total failure and Muhammad Ali took the unprecedented step of conscripting Egyptians into his army.  In the Sudan, a small contingent of these African military slaves continued to operate into the last quarter of the 19th century.

African slaves played many roles in the history of the Islamic Middle East but their military service as slave troops was unique.  Unlike the slave experience in the New World tens of thousands of young African males served Muslim rulers as infantrymen for over 300 years while others served as cavalry for shorter periods.  The memory of their service even influenced decisions by later Muslim rulers who tried to use them.