Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

March 19, 2012

The collapse of logic & human culture

Filed under: Culture,History,slavery — Razib Khan @ 8:31 am

Slavery’s last stronghold:

Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert to find something unimaginable: Her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors to die.

The usually stoic mother — whose jet-black eyes and cardboard hands carry decades of sadness — wept when she saw her child’s lifeless face, eyes open and covered in ants, resting in the orange sands of the Mauritanian desert. The master who raped Moulkheir to produce the child wanted to punish his slave. He told her she would work faster without the child on her back.

Trying to pull herself together, Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial. Her master’s reply: Get back to work.

“Her soul is a dog’s soul,” she recalls him saying.

Consider this. A father in a biological sense leaves his daughter out to die of exposure so as to increase the economic production of the mother of his daughter! Not only that, he obviously considers his daughter an animal. The full article is about slavery in Mauretania, a nation which maintains the practice in de facto form. Because this slavery clearly has a racial character, with a light-skinned population of North African origin enslaving a dark-skinned population of Sub-Saharan origin, there is an obvious “hook” for a Western, and particularly American, audience. But to be fair, if I can use that term, de facto slavery exists in organized form in other parts of the Sahel and Sahara (e.g., among the Tuareg), though the practice is far less pervasive in magnitude.


The reason I highlight this is to emphasize the “irrationality” in a biological sense of this behavior. Economic production is short term, while biological production is long term. A father should attempt to allow his child to flourish, so as to increase his fitness. One can probably save the biological rationale by arguing that increasing economic production redounds to the benefit of his legitimate children, but too often this strikes me as an attempt to preserve the coherency of the model at all costs. Stalin’s treatment of his eldest son is not so easy to rationalize. The point is that there are short term limits on the power of biological logic, as the frothy swirl of empirical events can sometimes dampen out the long term signal of inclusive fitness. In the long term biology wins out, but the long term can also be irrelevant to the case at hand.

This issue is not true of just biology. The a priori signal can be totally suffocated by the course of events. If one reads the Koran and the Hadith, the core canon of the religion of Islam, would one predict that this one religious-cultural complex would maintain and preserve the practice of slavery down into the modern era? The other civilizations of the past 1,500 years, that of the Christian West and East, and South and East Asia, did not practice slavery on a widespread scale (though the practice was known). In contrast, wherever Muslims went they brought with them slaves and slavery. The character of this slavery was not always quite so dehumanizing as that which flourished in the New World after the Columbian Exchange, but it was, and is, brutal nonetheless.

Over the past 1,500 years the Dar-al-Islam, served as a great siphon for slaves from the north, south, and east, Slavs, blacks, and Turks. Only after 1500, and especially after the rise of modern plantation agriculture in the New World, did the Christian West come to rival the Islamic nations in the practice of slavery (slavery disappeared in the medieval period after the last European pagans disappeared). And after Christendom abolished the practice Muslims continued it; Saudi Arabia did not abolish slavery until 1960.

Though Muslim apologists contrast the relatively humane condition of slaves under Islam to that under European rule (the latter being purely units of economic production), this is grading on a very generous curve. A large proportion of African male slaves were eunuchs, and these were the survivors of the procedure. This is discernible in the fact that mtDNA, maternal, African ancestry is noticeable across the Middle East, but Y chromosomal lineages, paternal, far less so. Not only that, but there was a racial hierarchy in slavery, with European and Turkic slaves generally monopolizing prestigious military posts, with Sub-Saharan Africans left to the role of household attendants (agricultural slavery was far less common in the Muslim world for various historical reasons).

One might contend that Muslim slavery was a dehumanization which impacted unbelievers, that the circle of humanism extended out toward the in-group. This is a plausible story, and is analogous to the practice of bondage in the Christian world, where pagan Baltic people were enslaved or subjugated in a particular brutal manner on account of their religious difference. But as we approach the early modern period outside of Africa sources of non-Muslim slaves disappeared. In the Mauretanian case you see hereditary race slavery of black Muslims by North African Muslims. Up until the early 20th century there was the danger that African Muslims on hajj would be enslaved on en route to Mecca, a practice which the kings of Saudi Arabia sometimes defended as ennobling a lesser race (through service to the superior Arabs).

My point with this digression is that even critics of Islam often admit that in its basis the religion is eminently egalitarian. Certainly in comparison to Hinduism, and even a faith like Roman Catholicism, with its division between the priesthood and believers. Superficially this collapses, insofar as there are distinctions between the descendants of Muhammad, the religious elite (the ulema), etc. But more fundamentally this most egalitarian of faiths on a priori grounds has perpetuated one of the least egalitarian traditions of the past 10,000 years down to the modern period. Why?

I would point out a major historical dynamic: there are three complex civilizations which have relied to a great extent on slave labor. The core Muslim world is one. That of the post-Columbian New World in certain locales is another. And finally, there is the world of Classical Antiquity. Setting aside the post-Columbian case, what Classical Antiquity and the Muslim world share is an overlap of geography and historical continuity. To a great extent the Islamic world is an heir to many of the traditions and customs of Classical Antiquity. Some historians would likely argue that slavery persisted in the Islamic world, and not in the Christian fragments of the post-Roman scene, because of the relatively economically advanced state of the former in relation to the latter! In particular, the persistence of a taxation system which was not based purely on labor service or goods, but specie. The truth of the matter is not relevant here. My point is that instead of looking at what Muslims say about their faith, this is a situation where historical contingency is far more informative. And that is a hard lesson too often forgotten.

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