Slaves At The Top

English-speaking people who think about the past concept of “nobility” tend to assume three groups: nobles, free commoners and serfs or slaves. Many societies have, however, operated with only two categories, namely the free and the unfree, where free and noble is the same thing. The word liberal, for example, was originally Old French for a completely free man. In medieval Germany, the noble was called Freiherr, because everyone else wasn’t. That does not mean that everyone else was groaning under the lash. Even the imperial officials, the ministeriales, were unfree; shall we then say that these high state officials resembled Roman or Louisianan slaves? I think not.

In the same way, the East, from the Muslim world to China, made enormous use of unfree persons as administrators and soldiers, all the way to the top. In some cases the military slaves, the mamluks, who were purchased as boys from the warrior nations of the Turkic steppes and retrained, became the ruling elite, and both Egypt and Delhi had dynasties of rulers who were technically slaves, or had begun as slaves. Juvaini, for example, writes: “When Shihab ad-Din [of Ghur, in the present Afghanistan] departed from this vile abode to the eternal mansion, his slaves, each of whom had become a local ruler [in India], now achieved independence within the territory under their sway. Thus Qutb ad-Din Ai-Beg was for a time ruler of Delhi and the frontiers of India and carried out several great expeditions against the infidel of that country. When he died and left no heir, a slave of his own, Il-Tutmish by name, renowned for his intelligence and acumen, was set upon the throne as his successor……” Shall we then imagine that such rulers had anything in common with field-hands? It is clear that slavery must mean something quite different here. A slave serving as a Treasury official, a prime minister, a city governor or a general is very difficult to imagine in either Republican Rome or the Confederacy, but in the Islamic world was the normal state of affairs.

Another example of the way medieval Islam regarded slaves may be found in the memoirs of the 12th-century Syrian prince Usamah ibn Munqidh. His uncle had a slave, “known for his valour and love of adventure, whose name was Sanduq. He was afraid of snakes, to the point of losing his wits. One day my father … said to him as he was standing in the presence of my uncle, ‘O Sanduq, thou art a good man, known for thy valour. Art thou not therefore ashamed on account of thy fear of a snake?’ He replied, ‘O my lord, what is there strange about this? In Hims there is a valiant man, a real hero, who fears the mouse to the point of death,’ referring to his master. My uncle …. who heard him, said to him, ‘May Allah blight thee, thou so and so!’” One suspects that in other jurisdictions a slave who made a public joke at his master’s expense would suffer more than a good-humoured cussing. There again, other slaveholding societies would not praise a slave for his “valour and love of adventure” either.

I do not myself read Arabic, but I have a suspicion the various terms that Usamah’s first translator, Philip Hitti, employs in various places – slaves, servants and attendants – actually translate the same underlying word. If this is so, we may wonder whether “slave” is in fact the most accurate translation, bearing in mind that connotation may be more important than the dictionary definition. The term(s) surely denote some kind of employment relationship.

Posted on May 12, 2012 at 10:16 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Universal Template

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