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North Africa Converts to Islam and Arab slave trade begins in 700 AD

Islam’s history in Africa started long before the Arab military conquest of the continent seven years after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD. During the years of persecution, the new Muslims fled across the Red Sea to make the very first migration (hijra) to Axum (in modern Ethiopia), and they sought refuge in the court of the Christian Axumite king Ashama ibn-Abjar. In December of 639 AD, Amr ibn Al-Asi led the very first military conquest of Africa from their base in Palestine. The Arab Muslim troops started the invasion in the Nile Delta, and Islam quickly spread throughout Egypt and most of North Africa during the next 50 years. By 700 AD, Byzantine Africa (Carthage), Maghrib, and Mauretania fell to the Muslims, and most of the North Africans (except for the Egyptian Copts) had converted to Islam which is where it is recorded in the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History.

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Arab Slave Trade

The Arabs had been involved in slave trade even before the rise of Islam in the peninsula and they continued this practice even after the death of Muhammad. For the eighth century Arabs, slavery was neither good nor bad—it was simply a natural part of the culture they grew up in, and various cities in the peninsula itself were station points for the slave trade. Muhammad did not abolish slavery in his lifetime, and Muslims consider servitude in a positive light when it is associated with God (servant of Allah). There was no explicit endorsement for the practice of slavery in the Quran, but neither was it forbidden in the Islamic world; passages in the Quran only laid down rules on how Muslims should treat their slaves, as well as when and how they should be freed.

Female Slave

Slaves were a part of life during much of Africa’s history and cities in Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Somalia were centers for slave trade as early as the reign of Thutmose III. The Arab slave trade was one of the oldest in history, and it preceded the Atlantic slave trade by at least eight hundred years. It rose to greater heights during the Muslim domination of North Africa around 700 AD. As the Arabs expanded their territories in North Africa, they acquired more captive slaves by military conquest and used the concept of jihad as justification.

Some of the captives were sold to buyers who used them as domestic servants while others were sent to work in the fields or herd their masters’ cattle. Some became soldiers, and many were prized either for their skills in wielding a weapon (bow and arrow, swords, etc.) or simply for their loyalty and obedience. Muslims were forbidden to enslave fellow Muslims, and they were only allowed to enslave non-believers and pagans. Non-Muslim slaves were allowed to convert to Islam, but they cannot return to freedom even after the conversion. The conversion of slaves to Islam was discouraged by Muslim authorities after some time as it narrowed down the pool of people that could be enslaved and it also reduced the taxes imposed to and paid by non-Muslims.

Muslims were also expressly forbidden to enslave Arabs, and the slave trade was especially prejudiced toward the black Africans (although Turks and Europeans were also captured and sold). They worked in places such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as distant Mesopotamia and Zanzibar. The large-scale slave trade in Africa flourished until its abolition in the 19th century, but small-time slave traders operated in some parts of Africa until the early years of the 20th century.

Picture By Georges Révoil, Public Domain,
“Al-Qur’an Al-Kareem – القرآن الكريم.” Accessed July 27, 2016.
Gordon, Murray. Slavery in the Arab World. New York: New Amsterdam, 1989.
“History-Of-Islam-Volume-1to6.” History-Of-Islam-Volume-1to6. Accessed July 27, 2016.
Newby, Gordon Darnell. A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. Oxford: Oneworld, 2002.
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1 thought on “North Africa Converts to Islam and Arab slave trade begins in 700 AD


    As to the Arab-Muslim slave trade, Ghanaian professor and minister John Azumah helped set the record straight in “The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa.” In an interview about his book, Azumah said the following:

    Over 28 Million Africans have been enslaved in the Muslim world during the past 14 centuries While much has been written concerning the Transatlantic slave trade, surprisingly little attention has been given to the Islamic slave trade across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

    While the European involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade to the Americas lasted for just over three centuries, the Arab involvement in the slave trade has lasted fourteen centuries, and in some parts of the Muslim world is still continuing to this day. A comparison of the Muslim slave trade to the American slave trade reveals some interesting contrasts.

    While two out of every three slaves shipped across the Atlantic were men, the proportions were reversed in the Muslim slave trade. Two women for every man were enslaved by the Muslims.

    While the mortality rate for slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of slaves dying in transit in the Transsahara and East African slave trade was between 80 and 90%! That meant that between 140 and 280 million Africans were murdered during by the islamic slave trade over these 1400 years.

    While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves destined for the Muslim Middle East were for sexual exploitation as concubines, in harems, and for military service.

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