Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Zanj Revolt

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Working in intolerably humid conditions clearing the salt marshes of southern Mesopotamia, fed on a poor diet of dates and semolina, frequently racially abused, the ‘Zanj’ – east African slaves in 9th Century Iraq – rose in their hundreds of thousands in a revolt which lasted for 15 years. They conquered large parts of Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, held the city of Basra for a decade, established their own capital, and even minted their own currency.

As labour intensive activities such as mining and plantation agriculture had expanded in the Muslim empires, so the slave trade had developed, especially the commerce in African slaves. Simultaneously, cultural justifications for the enslavement of Africans multiplied, with many classical writers depicting blacks as slow-witted and bestial. One writer who did not rehearse the stereotype was Jahiz of Basra, himself perhaps of African origin, who wrote: “Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.”

The Zanj rebels appealed to Islam, the common frame of reference of all social classes in the Abbasi empire. The Zanj were mindful that Islam had begun as a revolution of the dispossessed. The freed Syrian slave Zayd was the Prophet’s adopted son and military commander. The man the Prophet appointed to call the faithful to prayer, the first muezzin in Islam, was the freed Ethiopian slave Bilal. Although the Qur’an, like the earlier Abrahamic revelations, does not explicitly ban slavery, it repeatedly calls on believers to ‘emancipate slaves and feed orphans,’ and the position of slaves in Islam was theoretically closer to that of well-treated serfs than that of the chattel-slaves of the Americas. Islamic regulations stated clearly that a slave must be provided with food and clothing equal to his master’s. Slaves could marry and own property. The use of violence against a slave was firmly prohibited. As for racial bases for slavery, in his final sermon the Prophet stated that there is no difference between an Arab and a non-Arab or between a red man and a black man, except in God-consciousness. The Zanj revolutionaries saw these precepts betrayed by the merchants and land owners who had enslaved and abused them.

The rebellion was led by Ali ibn Muhammad, a man of mixed Persian and Arab origin, perhaps of African blood too. He claimed to be a descendant of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, and employed Shii and Khariji ideas and vocabulary. He was credited with magical powers, and spoke in quasi-prophetic terms: “A cloud cast a shadow upon me. Thunder crackled and lightning flashed, and a voice addressed me, saying, ‘Head for Basra.’” He was followed by some of the local workers and peasants and some Beduin as well as by the Zanj.

Guerrilla tactics and ruthless massacre, as well as the sectarian, tribal and class divisions of the Abbasi state, quickly multiplied Zanj victories. Turkic, Slavic, Persian and Arab slaves flocked to the banner of the revolution and to the maroon city of al-Mukhtara, ‘the Chosen’, so that by the end of the rebellion non-Africans outnumbered ethnic Zanj in the revolutionary ranks.

In its final days, the ‘republic of slaves’ had become as divided by sect, class and competing centres of power as its enemies. It should be noted that Ali ibn Muhammad had promised that the liberated slaves would have slaves of their own. With Zanj unity and moral purity destroyed, it was a matter of time until revitalised Abbasi armies put down the revolt. Ali ibn Muhammad’s skewered head was paraded through Baghdad.

The final defeat of the rebellion resulted not in the reintroduction of mass enslavement but in the incorporation of the rebels into central government forces. Slavery persisted, but there would be no further attempts at mass enslavement in the eastern Arab world until a thousand years later, when Omani-controlled Zanzibar sent slave-produced coconuts and spices to European markets.

I commented indirectly on Oman’s history of slavery here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 8, 2008 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Iraq

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2 Responses

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  1. Can’t wait to read your book! I was always fascinated to read about the Zanj revolt after stumbling across accounts of it online. It’s so strange, I had never heard of it when I was growing up and yet it was an important event. I’d be interested to know your sources.


    May 8, 2008 at 9:39 pm

  2. Just wonder how Zayd bin Haaritha is Syrian. And does that mean that you’re writing your second book?


    May 12, 2008 at 4:43 pm

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