By Reuven Amitai
Lecture delivered at the University of Trier, Germany, 27 June 2007
Introduction: In 2006, a volume entitled Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age and edited by Philip Morgan and Christopher Brown was published by Yale University Press. The wide variety of papers in this book shows that military slavery has been a phenomenon in human society for thousands of years in just about every continent. Yet, with all due respect to the presence of armed slaves in various cultures, regions and times, in none of them does this institution take on the importance, geographical extension and longevity as it has in the Islamic world. From its first clear appearance in the early ninth century of the Common Era, to the extinguishing of its last embers in the nineteenth century, military slavery has played a significant – even decisive role – in the military, political, economic, social and even cultural history of the region from Central Asia to Egypt, and perhaps beyond. Can we say that with regard to any other cultural tradition?
At the same time, I will not claim that there is anything particularly Islamic about this institution, beyond that it took root and developed in the Muslim world. In the Qur’an and other sources of Islamic law there is nothing, explicit or otherwise, about military slavery, although slavery is of course permitted by the Shari`a. True, Islam from its beginning was a militant religion, spreading its political power by the force of arms, but here again we find little if anything in the activities and developments of these first “heroic” generations that might lead us to think that the highest authorities of the state, some century and a half after the first wave of conquests, would develop something along the lines of military slavery. I have therefore chosen my title carefully: not Islamic military slavery, nor even military slavery in Islam, but rather this specific form of slavery in the Muslim countries. If it is Islamic, it is because it happened to Muslims and developed in Muslim societies. Having commenced and taken root, it remained a potent force for a millennium.
The story of the birth of military slavery in the Islamic state is fairly well known, not the least because of the recent book by the American scholar Matthew Gordon. During the caliphate of the al-Ma’mun, who ruled from 813 to 833, his younger brother Abu Ishaq began putting together a large unit of slave soldiers, invariably of Turkish provenance. This development was most probably abetted by the Caliph, or at least tacitly permitted by him. In any event, this regiment helped Abu Ishaq gain power at his brother’s death, and he became the caliph al-Mu`tasim, ruling until 842. Now the slave soldiers, or ghilman, as they were then usually called, became the mainstay of the army, and the caliph built a new capital, Samarra’, to house them. This is not the place to follow the fortune of the slave soldiers or their commanders, many also of slave origin, but I will mention that by 861 some of them were involved in the successful plot to assassinate the then caliph al-Mutawakkil, for his perceived anti-slave soldier policies. We can see that military slavery in the Muslim world was not just a military matter, but one with political implications, and it might be suggested it also had economic and social ones too.