Who can be made a slave?

Enslavement and the treatment of slaves in the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East were theoretically subject to strict legal guidelines and protections. In Islamic law, a person could become a slave in only one of two ways:

  1. The capture of an unbeliever in a legitimate jihad
  2. By being born to an enslaved woman.

While there are important exceptions to the second rule– namely those children born from a union of a slave concubine and her master, known as the umm walad (mother of a child), who were legally considered as free and legitimate heirs of the master should he acknowledge paternity– the methods of legitimate enslavement in Islamic law were few. It was also an established principle in Islamic law that no Muslim could be legitimately enslaved through capture. Unlike the Atlantic slave trade, race was not a consideration in determining who could be legitimately enslaved. Anyone was theoretically subject to potential enslavement should they meet the above criteria and both white-skinned circassians and black-skinned Africans served as slaves throughout the Middle East.

Legal formulations often differ significantly from social reality, however. Muslims were commonly abducted and enslaved in the Persian Gulf, and slaves of African origin often served different socioeconomic roles than Circassian and other slaves. Many slaves who appear in the manumission statements were born slaves, while many others were Muslims who had been abducted from East Africa, Zanzibar, Yemen, the Hejaz, Iranian Baluchistan, and India before being sold into the Persian Gulf.