A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine sent me an article on the little known or talked about African-Arab Islamic slave trade.
After reading the article and another book on slavery, I discovered how little I knew on the subject, especially since I considered myself to be a fairly avid reader of history.
I then decided to find out if others around me knew as much, or as little. I asked a group of eager beaver students that meet regularly to discuss issues on worldview and culture.
To my surprise, this bright group of young people could tell me nothing on the subject.
I then dug deeper, and asked about what they knew about Stalin’s reign of tyranny or Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. Not a word.
What could explain this? Fortunately, we had just been watching a series of how Christianity has impacted history, including in the area of slavery.
In a sidebar interview, historian Dr Simon Begg noted that Christianity is unique in that it has within it a self-critique employed by its own adherents that speaks truth to oneself.
Whether it is David’s confession of his sin in the Psalms, or the disciples’ lack of faith and selfish ambitions, what we see in the Old and New testaments, are story upon story of God’s spokesmen and women who openly and freely declare when they have acted in a way that is contrary to what they know to be right.
And so when Christianity became the dominant influence in the West, Begg argues, it also brought with it this unique quality of self-critique that influenced the Western world and later the world at large.
How then does this play out in the world around us? We see the impact of this when we return to the historic issue of slavery.
What do people think of when they hear the words “the slave trade”. Immediately, most people around the world will think of one specific slave trade: The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade.
If we were to ask about slavery by the Romans, Greeks, South American peoples, Africans, Pacific islanders etc, we would probably be stumped.
In fact, looking at our South African schools history curriculum, I saw that there was a sizeable chunk devoted to the Transatlantic slave trade, but no other forms of slavery feature, giving the impression that this was the major, if not the only form of slavery that affected Africa.
Like the rest of us, I am fairly well acquainted with this terrible slave trade from Africa to the Americas. I clearly remember visiting the Portugese slave fort, Elmina castle, in Ghana in 1986.
And then there was the series Roots and countless movies including one of my favourites, Amazing Grace.
In literature, I have memories of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the narrative of Frederick Douglass, 12 years a slave, and biographies of Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Newton and others.
As terrible as this was, there is a self-critique that says: this was wrong. As a result, there are monuments to visit, books that are written, abolitionists that we can discover, and so on. It’s all there in the public domain.
Turning to the East African slave trade, I was appalled and astonished at both the larger numbers of slaves taken than the translatlantic, the greater period of history over which it has occurred, even well into the 20th century, and the greater indignities suffered.
10 to 20 milion enslaved
In the article sent to me by my friend, A Moore wrote the following in a 2014 publication of the Atlanta Black Star: “Some historians estimate that between AD 650 and 1900, 10 to 20 million people were enslaved by Arab slave traders.
“Others believe over 20 million enslaved Africans alone had been delivered through the trans-Sahara route alone to the Islamic world…Dr John Alembellah Azumah in his 2001 book, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa estimates that over 80 million black people died en route…
“The Arab slave trade typically dealt in the sale of castrated male slaves…to prevent them from reproducing. About six of every 10 boys bled to death during the procedure, according to some sources, but the high price brought by eunuchs on the market made the practice profitable.
“Some men were castrated to be eunuchs in domestic service and the practice of neutering male slaves was not limited to only black males…The Arab slave trade was the longest yet least discussed of the two major slave trades. It began in seventh century as Arabs and other Asians poured into northern and eastern Africa under the banner of Islam.
“The Arab trade of blacks in Southeast Africa predates the European transatlantic slave trade by 700 years. Some scholars say the Arab slave trade continued in one form or another up until the 1960s, however, slavery in Mauritania was criminalised as recently as August 2007.”
In addition, the article highlighted another facet that had hitherto been unbeknown to me: that this slavery was not only meted out to black Africans, but several other ethnicities, including Europeans, who constituted the majority of slaves during the eighth and ninth centuries of the Fatimid Caliphate.
Where were the abolitionists?
All of that then begs the question: where were the abolitionists, where are the movies, where are the biographies of the East African slave trade, and besides the Zanzibar monument ironically due to the cause of missionary David Livingstone, and why are there no monuments that come to mind?
Where is the self-critique within Islam that says: we did wrong? I use the East African/Arab slave trade as a comparative example, because we have heard a lot about the transatlantic, and rightly so.
But we could equally say: where is the self-critique in Stalinist Russia, in Maoist China and so on? Instead, were it not for defectors such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn (who became a believer in Christ at a Soviet slave labour camp), all we would get would be silence for those that perished under these regimes.
When was the last time you visited a memorial dedicated to the tens of millions killed in the name of Stalinism, Maoism and other variations of Marxism? In part, this also explains how and why Marxism remains so popular in academic circles despite its track record.
Why is this the case? Partly because it has largely remained silent regarding its past, refusing to engage in self-critique.
All this brings us to a very strange situation. Author Loren Cunningham describes the following scene in The Book That Transforms Nations: The Power of The Bible To Change Any Country : “Come with me to a scene I have often observed. We could see this outside any Western embassy in any developing nation. A tropical sun blisters the heads and shoulders of people standing in a long line…People who want a better future for themselves and their children stand in lines at the embassies of all Western nations.
No queues outside the embassies
“But no one stands in a long line outside the embassy of Cuba or Sudan or India (we could add wealthier Saudi Arabia, China and others). Why not? Why aren’t millions of people trying to become permanent residents of those nations?”
One explanation is this: that because a biblically inspired culture of self-critique has greatly influenced these nations and their historic issues are exposed and called out for what they are, resulting in greater freedom politically, economically and spiritually.
Nations that have opened themselves to the greatest level of public scrutiny for their actions past and present are frequently the most free and prosperous, and vice versa.
As a result, people all over the world flock to these countries, even ignoring or bypassing other nations that are not poor economically, yet not as open.
Conversely, there are countries that are never spoken of in a negative light, and yet no one wants to emigrate there, and locals are desperate to leave.
I say all this to make a simple point: sometimes a culture of self-critique does not mean a person or a worldview is less virtuous than others. All it tells us is where that individual or society has acknowledged its wrong.
In contrast, when a individual or a worldview does not embrace a culture of self-critique, we must not presume they are any better, any freer or any virtuous because of that absence. In fact, history and contemporary society would say the opposite.