Military Slaves: A Uniquely Muslim Phenomenon
by Daniel Pipes
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Even a cursory glance at the history of Muslim peoples reveals the extraordinary role played by men of slave origins in the armed forces. They served both as soldiers and as officers, then often acquired preeminent roles in administration, politics, and all aspects of public affairs.
As this conference makes clear, slaves have been used as soldiers in many places around the world; but I shall argue that there was something unique about their use in the Muslim countries. Among Muslims, this use of slaves acquired a systematic quality that permitted slaves to take on central military functions and to rise in the hierarchy of the state, sometimes even taking it over. I believe that the systematic use of slaves as soldiers constituted the single most distinctive feature of Muslim public life in premodern times.
To begin with, some terminology. Slave as used here means "a person of slave origins" regardless of his subsequent status. The term does not indicate whether he is later free in law, in fact, or both. This special usage corresponds to the use of slave in Muslim vernaculars. A military slave is a person of slave origins who undergoes acquisition in a systematic manner, followed by training and employment as a soldier. This term does not apply to all slaves who fight in wars, but only to those whose lives revolve around military service. The military slave keeps this appellation even after he attains legal or real freedom. Military slavery is the system which acquires, prepares, and employs military slaves.
For a full millennium, from the early ninth century until the early nineteenth century, Muslims regularly and deliberately employed slaves as soldiers. This occurred through nearly the whole of the Muslim world, from Central Africa to Central Asia, from Spain to Bengal, and perhaps beyond. Few dynasties within this longtime-span and broad area had no military slaves.
Dynasties. Precisely because of its prominence and wide extent, military slavery in the Muslim world defies brief description; slaves filled too many positions, served too many functions. Thus, comprehensive documentation of their incidence and activities cannot be given here, only some indication of their distribution. Selected examples demonstrate the importance, widespread occurrence, and frequency of military slavery.
The premier dynasties of the Muslim world nearly all depended on military slaves. These are the governments which governed the greatest areas, lasted the longest, and most influenced the development of Muslim institutions. I have selected seventeen preeminent dynasties; of them, it appears that all but one relied on military slaves. The exception, the Umayyad dynasty, preceded the existence of a military slave system; yet even it employed the unfree in a manner which foreshadowed military slavery. A brief characterization of slave soldiers in these dynasties follows:
In short, all the most influential Muslim dynasties relied militarily on slaves; in many, these soldiers played important roles. The visible, prevalent role of slave soldiers in the major dynasties attests to their central military and political importance. Looking beyond these key dynasties, it is clear that slave soldiers fought across the width and breadth of the Muslim world. Perhaps four-fifths of all Muslim dynasties made regular use of them. A few cases from the corners of the Muslim world (particularly those areas not represented by the major dynasties listed above) may help to illustrate this:
Sub-Saharan African Muslim dynasties probably made the greatest use of slave soldiers, a fact which reflects the especially important place of slaves in their economies and social lives. Slaves had ubiquitous military and political roles in many dynasties; some of the better-studied include Dar Fur, the Sudanese Mahdiya, Bornu, the Fulani emirates, and the Ton-Dyon.
Military slavery existed in most parts of the Arabian peninsula, but particularly in the region with the most highly developed political institutions-the Yemen. For example, a eleventh century dynasty there, the Najahids, emerged from a military slave corps. One of the very last incidents of slave soldiery was reported in Mecca at the beginning of the century now drawing to a close.
In India, military slaves in the north came mostly from Central Asia, while those in the south and east derived from Africa. For example, Malik Ambar, who ruled a sizable part of the Deccan in the years 1601-26, was a slave of African origin. It is not clear whether military slavery in its full form existed east of Bengal but it does appear likely.
The Egyptian case. Concentration on the use of military slaves in a single region or time period may convey the intensity of their usage. While nearly any area of the Muslim world would do, Egypt has the double advantage of being clear to observe and well studied.
The first large-scale expedition of slave soldiers in history was probably that of al-Mu'tasim in 828, which consisted of 4,000 Turks sent to Egypt for two years. As military slaves came to form a large part of the Abbasid army in the following decades, they gained a greater role in Egypt as well, culminating in 868 when the son of a Turkish military slave, Ahmad b. Tulun, became governor of the province and then independent ruler, relying in large part on an armed force made up of slaves. By the time the Abbasids won back control of the country in 905, slave soldiers had a major role in the military structure. Under the next dynasty, the Ikhshidids, "many freed slaves carried arms and entered the military organization, some of them reaching high positions in it." Kefir, a black slave eunuch with military experience, took over the Ikhshidid government in 946 (becoming its official head in 966) and ruled until just before the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969.
With the advent of Fatimid rule, military slaves acquired new importance; perhaps most characteristically soldiers of diverse origins fought under the Shi'i leadership, which led to constant turmoil in the armed forces. From the time the Ayyubids took over in 1169, slaves of Central Asian origins predominated. In time, their hold over the army and the government increased, until in 1250 they took over the rule, too, keeping it for over two and half centuries. Even after the Ottoman conquest in 1517, military slaves and their descendants continued to dominate Egyptian politics. They lost to Napoleon in 1798 and were massacred by Muhammad 'Ali in 1811, which ended their hold over Egyptian public life. Some of their descendants, dubbed Turco-Egyptians, retained important positions until the overthrow of King Faruq by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952.
Was there a system? We know many facts about military slaves but almost nothing about military slavery. Although military slaves appeared in nearly every premodern Muslim dynasty between Spain and Bengal, the system that prepared and employed them is known to exist in only a few cases, This curious state of knowledge reflects information in the contemporary sources; though highly aware of the military slaves as individuals, the writers seem not to notice that a system made military slavery operate. In the substantial and varied corpus of premodern Muslim literature, only a handful of writers-most notably Nizam al-Mulk and Ibn Khaldun - recognized this system and described it.
Despite the unawareness of contemporaries, a system to acquire, train, and employ military slaves did exist; painstaking reconstructions from scattered evidence have established this system in several dynasties, most notably for several in the thirteenth century and later. The Mamluk and Ottoman organizations are by far the best known, but we also have some idea of the systems in other areas of the Muslim world. However different in detail one is from the other, a comparative reading shows that they all shared these crucial features: systematic acquisition, organized training, and employment of slaves as professional soldiers.
In brief, the system went like this: Born a non-Muslim in some region not under Muslim control, the military slave was acquired by a Muslim ruling figure as a youth who is old enough to undergo training but still young enough to be molded by it. Brought to an Islamic country as a slave, he converted to Islam and entered a military training program, emerging some five to eight years later as an adult soldier. If he had special abilities, he could rise to any heights in the army or (sometimes) in the government; while most military slaves spent their adults lives in the ruler's army, they were not just soldiers but a key element of the ruling elite in most Muslim dynasties.
The blindness of contemporaries to the system of military slavery constitutes the foremost difficulty confronting a modern historian who wishes to study it; but although nothing can remedy gaps in the sources, extensive reading and careful hypothesis can bring this elusive institution back to life. Information on military slavery before the thirteenth century is meager; David Ayalon, the foremost scholar of this institution, gave up on those times: "Our information is severely limited in what concerns the mamluk system from its origins to 1250. It is doubtful that the sources we must know can be used to throw much light on that long period." My research into the first two Islamic centuries confirms Ayalon's conclusion: the sources do not provide enough evidence even to posit the existence of a system, much less to recreate it.
Assumptions. In order to study the system, therefore, one starts by postulating its existence; the following two assumptions can serve as the basis for doing this:
1. Whenever soldiers of slave origins become a dominant military force, a system must exist to acquire, train, and employ them. Slaves can take on support, auxiliary, or emergency roles for an army in an unorganized way, but to become a major independent power they must be used systematically. This is not a theory but an assumption; slaves attained predominant power in many Muslim dynasties for which we have hardly a trace of a system. Yet this assumption finds some confirmation in a comparative reading of slave systems. In particular, two facts support it: when a training program is known to exist, slaves often acquire overwhelming importance (for example, the Abbasids under al-Mu'tadid, the Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans, Tunisia under the Beys, and Dar Fur); outside the Muslim world, where no system is known to have existed, slaves never acquired such predominance.
2. A system of military slavery must exist at least thirty years before military slaves assert power. Thirty years marks the approximate length of time between the training of slaves in a corps (at about age fifteen) and their rise to prominence (at about age forty-five). It might also take slaves much longer to acquire power, or they may never do so, but their advancing to an important military and political role in less than thirty years appears highly unlikely.
In combination, these two assumptions permit me to postulate the existence of a military slave system at least thirty years before slaves come to dominate a dynasty. For example, the Ayyubids lost power to their military slaves in 1250; this implies that a system existed by at least 1220.
The system itself. From the moment a ruler or other notable decides to acquire military slaves, he lavishes exceptional care on selecting recruits. Specifically, the prospective owner seeks two qualities: military potential and malleability. A preference for youths of noble origins and the high prices paid for outstanding recruits reflect the master's interest in finding the most highly qualified prospects as military slaves. In one well-known case, al-Mansur Qala'un al-Alfi, a Mamluk sultan (r. 1280-90), is said to have received the last part of his name (alf, Arabic for "thousand") from his considerable purchase price, 1,000 dinars. Selection criteria also determine geographical sources of military slaves, for some regions are known to produce better soldiers than others. So, while Indian slaves do not often fight, Central Asian male slaves almost invariably do.
Besides high quality, a master seeks potential loyalty in his military slaves. A master ensures strong relations by acquiring slaves both young and foreign. Ordinary slaves can be coerced into doing their jobs (even including some military assignments), but military slaves have to be convinced. Since these men nearly always assume great responsibilities and acquire considerable freedom of action, personal bonds between the master and his slave matter greatly. Children being far more impressionable than adults, the master spares no effort in acquiring youthful recruits. He accepts boys as old as seventeen but prefers them about twelve; at that age they are still highly amenable to training but are already skilled in the martial arts of their own peoples. The transferal of these skills to the master's army constitutes one of the main benefits of military slavery. Of the numerous qualities desired in a military slave, youth is unquestionably the most important. Noble origins, high potential, and being foreign all help, but youth matters most, because this quality alone suffices to ensure the success of the next stage, the training program.
A slave owner recruits aliens because their foreign origin also increases their susceptibility to being molded; the owner can isolate a foreigner by eliminating any ties outside his immediate household and by forcing him to depend entirely on the small world of the master and his fellow slaves. To complete this isolation, most military slaves arrive on the scene ignorant of the language of the country in which they will serve.
The military slave's special status becomes even more pronounced during his first years in bondage. On arrival in his new country, he faces a number of experiences intended to prepare him for a military career. Clearly, for the slave to be used most effectively, he cannot be enrolled directly in the army but has to learn its ways and form new loyalties. The transition period serves to change him from a self-willed, alien boy into a skilled and loyal soldier. His capabilities, youth, and isolation combined with the thoroughness of the training program work to assure this change. At the time when ordinary slaves are being exploited for their labor, military slaves are being trained and educated. These long years of schooling and reorientation sharpen still further the contrast between them.
The training program is the core of military slavery. To understand the achievements of these soldiers, we must study their training, for this experience shapes their entire adult life. Whereas untrained slaves provide dubious skills and loyalty, only suitable for limited military functions, trained slaves fill every position of skill and responsibility. The program lasts about five to eight years and has a twofold purpose: to develop skills and to imbue loyalty. Skills are imparted through an intensive program of physical and spiritual instruction, with rather more emphasis placed on the former. Through games, contests, hunts, and the like, recruits exercise continuously in the martial arts. The product is a superbly trained and highly disciplined soldier. Or, if assessed as intellectually promising, a slave may be further educated and prepared for governmental work.
Training has another purpose too: to transform the identity of the recruit. He begins as a pagan foreigner with loyalty only to his own people; by the end of the transition period he is a Muslim, conversant in the manners of his new country and intensely loyal to his master and fellow slaves. As a result, military slaves habitually prove themselves to be their master's most solid and loyal troops.
Upon completing training, military slaves join the army. No support, auxiliary, or emergency roles here: they enroll as full-time professional soldiers. Their master gives them direct financial support, so they have no competing interests to distract them from military service. Military slaves perform key military duties and carry heavy burdens; they serve all year round, form elite corps, supply many officers, and rise quickly in the military hierarchy. No complete listing of their activities can be given here; in differing circumstances, they undertake every conceivable military duty.
The rhythm. A new dynasty usually does not depend on slave soldiers at the time when it comes to power; these usually turn up two or three generations later, as a ruler casts about to replace unreliable soldiers with ones from new sources whom he can better control. Typically, the pattern goes like this: Military slaves first serve the ruler as royal body-guards, then move to other parts of his entourage, and from there to the army, government, and even into the provincial administration. As the ruler increasingly relies on military slaves, they acquire independent power bases and sometimes take matters into their own hands, either controlling the ruler or even usurping his position. Not always, however: in many cases, when judiciously used, military slaves render competent and faithful service to their masters for long: periods of time.
Differences from Other Slaves
In contrast to all other slaves, the military slave devotes his life to military service. His characteristic features derive from the fact that he works as a soldier. From the time he is acquired until his retirement, he lives differently from other slaves, for he participates in a lifelong system with its own rules and rationale. Specifically, he differs from two other kinds of slaves: ordinary slaves who happen to fight and government slaves.
Ordinary slaves in warfare. Ordinary slaves are all those not in the army or government. They come to mind when one thinks of slavery in its usual form: domestic service or labor at some economically productive task. Such slaves do happen to fight occasionally, but they are entirely different from military slaves. For the sake of comparison with ordinary slaves, the life of a military slave may be divided into three parts: acquisition, transition, and employment; at each stage his life-pattern differs dramatically from that of the ordinary slave.
The differences begin with ownership, for the possession of a military slave is much more limited than that of ordinary slaves. While even a poor person can own an ordinary slave, only leading political figures-the ruler, his officials, provincial leaders-can own military slaves, for they represent military power. Most military slaves, in fact, belong to the ruler and the central government. This exclusive ownership means that military slaves always breathe rarefied air and keep company with the powerful.
Further, while the decision to purchase an ordinary slave comes down primarily to a question of economics (can the master afford his domestic services or does he gain from a slave's economic activities?), acquisition of a military slave depends on military considerations; it also depends on the availability of slaves deemed suitable for this sort of work. The master insists on greater capabilities than those required of ordinary slaves; while any misfit can carry water or dig for salt, a future soldier has to bear graver responsibilities. As a result, the trade in military slaves has a drive and rhythm of its own. A master seeks ordinary slaves among young adults, when they are at the peak of their economic productivity; military slaves he prefers much younger, so he can mould them.
Unlike ordinary slaves, they habitually become the mainstay of the armies they serve. And whereas ordinary slaves belong to private individuals, military slaves belong to leaders; so the former tend to fight alongside their masters, while the latter form large corps and fight in separate slave units.
By virtue of their military strength, the lives of these men differ remarkably from those of ordinary slaves. Far from being lowly domestics or servile laborers, they enjoy the respect and the power of soldiers. Although slaves, they are part of the ruling elite; they bear arms, have access to the ruler, fill important positions, and enjoy the amenities of wealth and power. Indeed, they enjoy many advantages which most free men cannot attain and, as a result, their slave status carries with it no stigma. On the contrary, it becomes a badge of distinction; slavery, in an extraordinary reversal, gives access to power and social superiority which free birth might deny. Far from considering it a humiliation, free men covet this status and slaves jealously guard it. None of this, of course, holds true for ordinary slaves.
The power held by military slaves enables them to gain control over their own destinies. Ordinary slaves become free only when their master decides to manumit them. They can flee or revolt, but these efforts usually fail; slave revolts can cause great upheavals and bring governments down, but they do not place slaves in power for long. How different the situation with military slaves! They commonly free themselves through a gradual shift in relations with their master. With time, they evolve from being his subordinates into being an independent military force. This opportunity of acquiring power from within is completely closed to ordinary slaves.
Government slaves. A ruler may use his household slaves as political agents; they then share the high standing of military slaves but are not soldiers. Government slaves acquire political power if a ruler needs trusted agents, for as his domestic slaves they are totally under his control and serve him with great loyalty. Lacking any power base other than his favor, such men are ideal tools for their master; and should he wish to retire to pleasanter pursuits, they can take over the responsibilities of state without threatening his position as ruler.
Government slaves are found all over the world. In Europe, the servi Caesaris in the Roman Empire are the most renowned and the best studied; but they are far from unique. One finds government slaves, for example, in the East Gothic, Vandal, and Burgundian kingdoms; they were called ministeriales in medieval Germany; and in Muscovy, they dominated both the central and provincial governments for several centuries until about 1550. Outside Europe, the early Ch'ing use of servile administrators is perhaps the best-known example; their presence in Ethiopia may have been due to imitation of Muslim models.
Despite the high standing and power which government slaves share with military slaves, the two groups are fundamentally different. Whereas government slaves are chosen from among~ the ruler's servants, military slaves are soldiers. Government slaves cannot build up a power base of their own and almost never threaten their master; military slaves, however, can develop such a base from within their own corps and use it to stand up to the ruler. The difference here is explained by origins, not functions, for government slaves can take on military duties and military slaves often receive administrative appointments Yet, even when they have military command, government slaves remain merely the agents of their master; military slaves in administrative or political positions, however, retain their military base and can build up independent political power from it. Their military connections, group solidarity, and close ties to the ruler propel them into a wide variety of positions-as personal counselors, top administrators, provincial governors, special agents, confidential agents, and so on. In case after case they enter the ruler's entourage, go on to dominate the court, then the central government, and sometimes even take over the realm itself. These many opportunities are uniquely open to military slaves.
Two brief conclusions. First, why did military slavery have such a key role in the Muslim world? The systematic enslavement of soldiers is certainly not an Islamic precept nor was it a Middle Eastern trait; rather, I believe it resulted from the rulers' non-implementation of Islamic precepts and ideals in public life, the resulting withdrawal from public life by the great majority of the Muslim population, and the rulers' need to go out and find trustworthy replacements. When Muslim peoples perceived that their public order did not correspond to those goals, they withdrew from their own armies, compelling the rulers to look for soldiers elsewhere, which in turn led to the development of military slavery as a solution. In this sense, the system symbolizes the historic impossibility of Muslim peoples attaining the political and military goals prescribed by their religion.
Second, this Muslim use of slaves as soldiers is unique. Unlike the institutionalized use of slaves as soldiers in the Muslim world, slaves elsewhere fought as emergency forces, personal retainers, auxiliaries, or cannon fodder. No where else were they used in large numbers on a regular basis as professional soldiers, much less as a nearly universal tool of statecraft. Also, in bears noting that the few systematic examples of non-Muslims using slaves date only from the sixteenth century, long after the establishment and proliferation of the Muslim system. Except for these unusual cases, Muslims alone chose to recruit soldiers through enslavement.
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