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New Texts Out Now: Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam

[Cover of Chouki El Hamel, [Cover of Chouki El Hamel, "Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam"]

Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Questions by Brahim El Guabli

Brahim El Guabli (BEG): Why Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam?

Chouki El Hamel (CEH): Written history about Morocco is generally silent regarding slavery and racial attitudes, discrimination, and marginalization, and paints a picture of Morocco as free from such social problems. Such problems are usually associated more with slavery and its historical aftermath in the United States. Slavery and racial questions are issues that were previously taboo in academic work on Morocco. The objective of my book is to fill a gap in the scholarship concerning slavery and race in North Africa and to demonstrate the role that Morocco played in slavery’s history in the African diaspora and the Islamic world.

The history of slavery in Morocco cannot be considered separately from the racial terror and horrors of the global practice of slavery. For ethnic groups such as the blacks in Morocco, the problems of slavery, cultural and racial prejudices, and marginalization are neither foreign nor introduced by European colonial discourse. Blacks in Morocco have been marginalized for centuries, with the dominant Moroccan culture defining this marginalized group as ‘Abid (slaves), Haratin (a problematic term that generally meant freed black people or formerly enslaved black persons), Sudan (black Africans), Gnawa (black West Africans), Sahrawa (from the Saharan region), and other terms which make reference to the fact that they were black and/or descendants from slaves.

My book poses new questions that examine the extent to which religion orders a society, and the extensive influence of secular conditions on the religious discourse and the ideology of enslavement in Morocco. The interpretation and application of Islam did not guarantee the freedom and integration of Black Moroccan ex-slaves into society. The book starts with the legal discourse and racial stereotypes that existed in Moroccan society leading to the era of Mawlay Isma‘il (r. 1672-1727), with a special emphasis on the black army during and after the Mawlay Isma‘il era. I have written the story of the “black army” to inform readers beyond those with narrow specialist knowledge. Hence, the first part of my book provides a narrative relating the legal discourse on race, concubinage, and slavery, as well as historical events and developments that are not well known in printed scholarship and western contexts.

The second part of the book, and especially chapters four, five, and six, oscillates between narrative and analysis in order to give the reader a deeper sense of the historical and sociological implications of the story being told across a long period of time, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Though the strongest element of these chapters concerns the “black army,” an important component of my discussion was the role of female slaves. The shortcomings of this analysis rest on a limited “evidentiary base.” My goal was to broaden this base and make clear the importance of female slaves in relation to the army and Moroccan society at large.

BEG: What do you think will be the contribution of Black Morocco to understanding the history of North Africa?

CEH: My study of slavery in the Islamic Mediterranean provides an important perspective that contributes to understanding the wider political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of the Islamic Mediterranean. Islamic Morocco did not exist in an isolated vacuum, but rather was a dynamic part of the Islamic world. The historical record on slavery in Morocco, and the forces at work that shaped the lives of enslaved people in Morocco, were a consequence of how the Qur’an and hadith were interpreted by Islamic jurists, some of whom did not live in Morocco but nonetheless had a direct influence on slavery in Morocco and in the wider Islamic world. My book is intended to establish a foundation for further, more comparative inquiries into how racial attitudes and the cultural exchange that was endemic of the African diaspora influenced interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith that justified slavery, even where such justification was inconsistent with the tenets of Islam, as explicitly expressed in the sacred texts.

The Moroccan case is a key part of the Maghreb. My analysis weaves the many strands of its history of race and slavery into a fundamental understanding of the practice of slavery that applies to the wider Islamic world. The institution of slavery, the enslavement of blacks, and concubinage extended through virtually the entire Islamic world. Trends throughout this great region are exemplified in Morocco, often in particularly clear and well-documented form. In addition, Morocco is part of the African diaspora as a whole and shares patterns with (and in fact participates in) the Atlantic African diaspora.

BEG: How does your book shed light on the existence and roles played by female slaves in in the persistence of this Black Morocco?

CEH: In North Africa, there were more female slaves than male slaves. This gender preference was the foundation upon which a larger burden rested on females. Within Morocco’s institution of slavery there were two systems based on gender relations—one for women and the other for men—as a consequence of Islamic law, which decrees that a female slave who bears her owner’s child will acquire certain legal rights and her child will be free. This dual system developed partly because slave owners had differing expectations for male and female slaves. These expectations, which were articulated in religious ideology, translated into different responsibilities, which often determined the life chances of slaves.

The striving for survival and the tragic drama of the female slaves’ lives entailed emotional and sexual bonds via concubinage. For free Moroccan men, concubinage is legalized and is secured by means of the connection to sexual desire. Enslaved black women who became concubines of their masters might have used sexual liaisons with their masters to secure a better position within a society where gender was hierarchical—patrilineal and patriarchal. There were cases when a concubine might even be freed and marry her master. For instance, Zaydana’s bond with Mawlay Isma‘il seemed to go further, to the point that he freed her and made her his prime wife.

But concubinage remains a statutory rape. If it was legally and socially established for a male to be entitled to a female slave sexuality, it was, as well, legally and socially conventional for the progeny of female slaves to inherit their father’s legal status. It is through this legal status of umm al-walad (mother of the child) that the offspring of genetically dissimilar parents were homogenized. In this instance, the interplay of color, consanguinity, and social function complicated the racial positioning in Morocco. This is how the Moroccan definition of race accepted blacks in the Arab family, as long as they possessed a “drop” of Arab blood. However, this process of assimilation camouflaged the dismissal of the diverse affiliations of Sub-Saharan African blacks, and manufactured Arab hegemony and political unity by insisting on the sacredness of the language of the Qur’an: Arabic. Hence, even people descended from mixed marriages did not see any ambivalence in claiming one identity, namely, their Arab lineage.

I thus use the analysis of the concubinage system as a process to investigate the interplay of agency, emotions, identity, race, and gender in Morocco.

BEG: Michael Gomez has said about your book that "There is nothing quite like it," and Eve Troutt Powell has written that your "work teaches us to look within, and also beyond, Islam, for answers to the experience and the conditions of slavery in Morocco." How do you see this work changing the study and understanding of the existence of slavery in North Africa?

CEH: My book is meant to demonstrate that the legal foundations of slavery in the Mediterranean basin, as justified under Islamic law, were not unique to Morocco. The imperatives in the practice and nature of slavery were at base cultural and economic and sanctioned through religious interpretation colored by cultural lenses, often inconsistent and even contradictory to the tenets of the initial and explicit religious doctrines. The arguments of the book are meant to raise strong objections to the idea that the institutions and practice of slavery are historically marked by religious boundaries, boundaries that have been given a significant role by other scholars who attribute differences in the practice and justification of slavery to differences in religion and the domain of those different religions.

The purported domains of the Islamic world and the Christian world, as a marker of differences in the justification and practice of slavery among the countries upon whose shores Mediterranean waves break, is far more similar than dissimilar. Here we see that, at least in relation to slavery, religion was not much of a boundary marker. But in addition to the common, if not analogically shared, legal foundations for the practice of slavery, my study demonstrates that historical attitudes toward slavery and its practice were exchanged throughout the Mediterranean basin and the Atlantic Ocean—that is, one country’s practice of slavery was influenced by another’s. Thus, it also proves that the notion of the monolithic idea of “Islamic slavery” held among some scholars in the West, as well as among scholars in the Islamic world, is a misconception.

In sum, my book is a contribution to a scholarly debate about the historical nature of Moroccan slavery and an original analysis of racial issues, as well as of concubinage and gender, with a special focus on their theoretical aspects. I offer in this book a new paradigm for the study of race in the region that will transform the way we approach and understand ethnicity and racial identities in North Africa. Most crucially, the book helps eliminate the culture of silence—the refusal to engage in discussions about slavery, racial attitudes, and gender issues.

Excerpts from Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam

Another crucial testimonial is the historical memory and the living experiences of the descendants of enslaved people living in the rural south of Morocco, for example, in the Tata and Aqqa oases. In the words of as-Sudani, the grandson of an enslaved man who belonged to a rich family in southern Morocco:

This ambivalence [in talking about slavery in Morocco] is further compounded by a deep upwelling of frustration at the beliefs and attitudes shaped by the historical legacy of slavery and injustice to black people. Yet, there is still a fear of stirring up the ashes, lest they would start a fire that might hurt me and my nation, instead of helping it to overcome the scars of the past. Yes, slavery existed, especially in the south of Morocco, for a long time, and into the twentieth century. Of course, it has faded slowly, but in the beginning of the century people were still bought and sold. The majority of African people who were enslaved were Muslims, including my own grandfather and the “guard” slaves in my village. One of my uncles still remembers the names of twenty-five slaves still owned by rich white Berbers.


This analysis gives sufficient warrant to my claim that racialist ideas and positions were the product of deeply entrenched cultural prejudices that were not dislodged by the egalitarian color-blind tenets of Islam. In fact, against the socially just aspirations of Islam, interpretations of the Qur’an were used to justify the continuation of preexisting cultural racial prejudices rather than to abolish them. The phenomenon of race in Morocco is old; it is as old as the Arab invasion of North Africa in the seventh century. In Morocco, the two cultures, Arabic and Berber, found ideological convergence in the sense of using Islam to justify preexisting prejudice against black Africans. At that time, such prejudice seldom amounted to a consistent and obvious racist ideology, but later as ethno-cultural distinctions became more popularly perceived as fixed, inherent, and static, the strength of these racial prejudices promoted supremacy of a certain race and established a sociopolitical order based on race.

Historical events point to instances when Muslims in fact enslaved free black Muslims, the most poignant example occurring during the reign of the ‘Alawi sultan Mawlay Isma‘il (r. 1672–1727). The tragic events surrounding the enslavement of free Moroccan blacks were not an outgrowth of happenstance but rather a product of Arabo-Berber-centered prejudice. The enslavement of black Muslims amounts, borrowing George Frederickson’s definition, to a color-coded racialist attitude. Such racism played a substantial role in Sultan Mawlay Isma‘il’s decision to enslave all blacks in Morocco including free black Muslims, supported by many ‘ulama’ in order to legitimize the enslavement of the free blacks and to undermine any opposition to this project. Historian Fredrickson stated that he would withhold the “R” word if assimilation was genuine. What would he say about the enslavement of free Muslim blacks? The abrogation of their free status as Muslims into a permanent slave status in turn perpetuated and reinforced the racial attitudes of Arab-Berbers toward blacks. In this context, social mobility was impeded for the blacks to remain a distinctive group. The end result has been that at least since the seventeenth century, the Arabic term for “black” (aswad) became interchangeable with “slave” (‘abd). Indeed, in the same era, Muhammad az-Zabidi (d. in Cairo in 1791), an expert in lexicography, reported in his voluminous dictionary Taj al-‘Arus: “the master (as-sayyid) is generally white and the slave (al-‘abd) is usually black.”

[Excerpted from Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam, by Chouki El Hamel, by permission of the author. © 2013 Chouki El Hamel. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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