The spectacular Arab conquests, like those of the earlier Romans, revolutionized geographic boundaries and produced an immense flow of slaves for employment as servants, soldiers, members of harems, eunuch chaperons, and bureaucrats. Thanks to such earlier innovations as the North Arabian saddle and camel caravans, Arabs, Berbers, and their converts made deep inroads into sub-Saharan Africa, thus tapping, through purchase or capture, an unprecedented pool of slave labor. According to some scholarship, this importation of black slaves into Islamic lands from Spain to India constituted a continuous, large-scale migration—by caravan and sea over a period of more than twelve centuries, beginning in the 600s— that may have equaled in total numbers all the African slaves transported to the Western Hemisphere. One French scholar, Raymond Mauny, estimates that as many as fourteen million African slaves were exported to Muslim regions.
But who exactly were the Zanj? Some identify them specifically as black slaves from east Africa—think Zanzibar—but it was a much looser term than that (“Zanj,” an Arabic word, is often translated as “black”). The best book on the subject is The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9th Century by Alexandre Popovic. (I had the pleasure of writing the introduction to the French-to-English translation in 1999.) As Popovic explains, Zanj was a label used for black slaves, specifically those tasked with the hardest, plantation-style work.
Key information on the Zanj work sites within Mesopotamia comes to us through Popovic by way of ninth-century Arab historian al-Tabari, who remembered the Zanj as black slaves who were forced to undertake the massive field project to drain the salt marshes of Lower Mesopotamia. It was backbreaking work, and the men were underfed and stuffed into labor camps of 500 to 5,000. While most slaves in Islamic countries were domestic workers, the Zanj toiled at the bottom of society at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula.
Over time, their presence reinforced Arabs’ negative stereotypes of blacks in general. Davis explains:
[R]egardless of their continuing enslavement and purchase of white Christian infidels, medieval Arabs came to associate the most degrading forms of labor with black slaves—with the Zanj whom the medieval Arab writer Maqdisi described as ‘people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.’ In fact, the Arabic word for slave, abd, came in time to mean only a black slave and, in some regions, referred to any black person whether slave or free. Many Arab writers echoed the racial contempt typified by the famous fourteenth-century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun when he wrote that black people ‘are, as a whole submissive to slavery, because Negroes have little that is essentially human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.’
Throughout history, the hardest work has had a way of landing on the lowliest workers, who, in turn, are bestialized by the master class in order to justify the very conditions they imposed. It is important to remember that this process, historically throughout the world, has not always been based on differences of color or “race,” though it became color-coded early on in the history of the British colonies, just as it had in the Middle East. And many white immigrant groups—such as the earliest Irish immigrants—were demeaned and stereotyped in very similar ways to the treatment of black people. The quickest way to justify exploiting an entire race, nationality or religious group is to represent them as subhuman. As Georgia congressman John Lewis recently tweeted about the United States, “In many ways this country was built by slaves and immigrants, something we should not forget in our ‘debate’ about immigration.” Except that we always do.
What the caliphate of the ninth century failed to remember, to its detriment, was that however long and cruelly a master might use his slaves as “tool[s] or instrument[s],” he can never erase their will to survive—and be free. As Davis writes, “The slave is of course an independent center of consciousness, a unique human mind often aware of an owner’s weaknesses and capable of defiance, retaliation, or subtle triumphs that uncloak a master’s pretensions to godhood.”
In other words, the Zanj camps were a powder keg.