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Ask the Expert: Dr. Arye Oded on the Arab Slave Trade in East Africa

June 16, 2013


Ask the Expert: Dr. Arye Oded on the Arab Slave Trade in East Africa

June 16, 2013

  1. What was the role of the Arab slave trade in the expansion of Islam to the African mainland? 

The Arab slave trade itself didn’t have a direct impact on the spread of Islam. The impact was indirect. Since the Omani Sultan, Sayyid Said bin Sultan, wished to promote the slave and ivory trade, he encouraged the Arab and Swahili slave traders to penetrate, for the first time in history, from the coast deep into the East African hinterland. The slave traders established, along the trade routes, trade centers which became later foci for the spread of Islam when Arab and Swahili religious scholars arrived there.

A brief historical background on the expansion of Islam in East Africa

Arab traders from the Arabian Peninsula reached the East African coast in dhaws hundreds of years before Islam. We learn about it from a book written by an anonymous Greek trader in the first century after Christ, which is titled the Periplus of the Erytharean Sea, i.e., Guide to the Seamen in the Sea of Eritrea, who thought at that time that the Eritrean Sea spread from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.[1]

Some of these Arab traders, who decided to stay in the coast, married local Bantu women, and, thus, gradually, the Swahili community was created (from the Arabic word Sahil, which means coast). With the appearance of Islam in the seventh century, the traders in the coast converted to Islam. Remains of a mosque, which is dated to approximately the eighth century after Christ were found in the archaeological excavations done in the coast.

The gradual penetration of the Arabs into the continent started when the Sultan Sayyid Said bin Sultan moved his center of rule from Oman to Zanzibar in 1840 and encouraged the organization of large caravans, which paved roads into the continent and established trade centers in places such as: Bagamoyo and Tabora. In Tabora, the roads split: one road went northward all the way to Lake Nyanza, which is Lake Victoria, and the other road went westward all the way to Ujiji on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. From here, the caravans went northeastward to the Buganda Kingdom, where the traders reached at the middle of the nineteenth century (see a map).[2]

The caravans’ leaders, the Arab and Omani traders, who belonged to the puritanical Ibadiyyah sect, were not interested in spreading the word of Islam among the African rulers and their tribes whom they met on their way. They were interested only in trade. In addition, they regarded the Black Africans with contempt and as human beings who were not able and worthy of being Muslims. One can learn this from the Christian missioner Hutley, who following his travels in the region and his meetings with the Arab traders wrote a detailed report on the Islam in East Africa in 1881.[3] According to Hutley’s report, the Arab traders told him that they are not interested at all in the Islamization of the Africans since they are Gumu, i.e., heavy-headed. Yet, it seems like another reason for that was that according to Islam one must not enslave Muslims, while the traders’ main interest was the slave trade. The traders converted to Islam only their house workers, who were, among other things, the butchers of cattle and sheep, so that the meat would be halal. In his report, the missioner also mentions that the Omani traders treated him and the Christian Missioners in general cordially as long as they didn’t harm their trade. They behaved in the same way also with the European travelers Speke, Grant and others and assisted them in their way to discover the source of the Nile.

Only later, at the end of the nineteenth century, with the arrival of Sunni religious scholars from the Comoro Islands and Hadramaut, trade centers, such as Tabora, Ujiji, and the Buganda Kingdom, became important foci for the spread of Islam in East Africa. Since most of the trade roads passed through Tanganyika, the percentage of Muslims there (40%) is higher than the percentage of Muslims in Kenya (25%) and in Uganda (15%).[4]


2. Why couldn’t the Arabs penetrate Rwanda and Burundi in the nineteenth century?

The Omani traders did their best to maintain cordial relations with the chiefs inside the continent, to buy from them the slaves and the ivory and to pay them for the right to pass in their lands fees called hongo. Strong kings ruled in Rwanda and Burundi who were not interested in the arrival of foreigners, so the traders who didn’t want to fight with them, continued to advance northward to Karagwe. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Karagwe was ruled by King Rumanika, who was known for his positive attitude towards the foreigners and even allowed them to establish a trade center in his country called Kafuro. It should be mentioned that in East Africa there were few more strong chiefs, such as the chief of the Gogo tribe, who objected to enable the caravans to pass through their lands. As a result, the traders preferred to bypass their territory instead of fighting against them. 


3. Did the Arabs enslave also Muslims? If not, why is that?

The religion of Islam prohibits the enslavement of Muslims. Yet, Muslims practice it in a few Muslim countries. They don’t call it slavery but claim that they are workers who are treated as part of the family and the household.


4. What is the heritage of the Arab slave trade in East Africa today? And, what impact does the Arab slave trade have on the relations between the East African countries and the Arab world? 

The slave trade was formally abolished in the Eastern African countries during colonial rule, yet its memory still exists and it comes up from time to time whenever disagreements arise between Africans and Arabs in various issues. Here are some examples: 

During the Organization of African Unity (OAU) conference, which was held in Mogadishu, Somalia, in June 1974 at the time of the oil crisis and the huge rise of its cost, which terribly affected the economy of many African countries, severe disagreements arose between the Africans and the Arabs. The Africans were angry that the Arab oil producing countries were not ready to supply them with oil in cheaper prices. Then, the Africans raised historical arguments against the Arabs, and especially the slave trade.[5] Also during the discussion on the oil crisis in the Kenyan parliament, one of the delegates mentioned the “bitter experience of the African, who became trade items by the Arab slave traders”.[6] 

Later, on June 1, 1992, towards the general elections which took place in Kenya, President Daniel Arap Moi attacked the Muslims, in his speech held at the Nairobi Stadium, for conducting violent protests in Mombasa demanding that the government will cancel the its boycott on the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK). Among other things, he warned the Muslims that their violent activity against the government might revive again memories of the times in which the Muslims of the coast were slave traders. 

The President of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, was the first to renew the diplomatic relations with Israel on May 13, 1982 (after they have been cut off on October 4, 1973 on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. At that time, almost all the African countries cut off their diplomatic relations with Israel according to the decision of the OAU). Because of Zaire’s renewal of relations with Israel the Arab countries boycotted Zaire. In response, Mobutu said that the Arab countries had not yet freed themselves from the mentality of the slave traders, according to which the Black Africans must submit to their directives. Mobutu even described this attitude as “modern slavery”, since the Arab countries did not behaved in this way towards the Europeans, who have diplomatic relations with Israel.[7] 

A Ghanaian professor wrote a book on slavery, in which he claims that it still exists nowadays. He mentions cases of African pilgrims who arrived at Mecca, but when they could not finance their way back to their country, they were enslaved or they were forced to sell their children who came with them. He says that slavery exists in several Arab countries and explains that “when Arab leaders cannot understand the hostility of some Africans to their regimes, it may be worth reminding them that their part in enslaving Africans is a festering sore which cannot be easily cured”.[8] 

[1] Marsh,Zoe. East Af rica Through Contemporary Records (Camridge,1961), p. 3.

[2] Oded, Arye. Islam in Uganda (New York,1974), pp. 27-32

[3] Hutley,W. Mahommedanism in Central Africa and its influence. A repport written at Urambo in 1881. London Missionary Society Archives, file D 2

[4] Oded, Arye. Islam in Uganda, op.cit.

[5] East African Standard (Nairobi) 19,20 June 1974

[6] Ibid.

[7] L’agence Zaire –Press, 21 May 1982

[8] Ofosu Appiah, L. H. Slavery,A Brief Survey(Accra 1969) p.21; Derrick, J. Africa’s Slaves Today (New York 1975)

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