Written by Adam Hasewinkle

The concept of “Orientalism” proposed by Edward Said unfortunately envelops much of modern scholarship as well as common modern perceptions of the Asia and particularly the Middle Eastern Islamic societies. When examining scholarship of the Islamic institution of military slavery the presence of “Orientalism” remains quite strong. The recent publications of Reuven Amaitai, Abdul Sheriff, Jere L. Bacharach, Gilles Veinstein (edited by Erik-Jan Zurcher), Gulay Yilmaz, Stephen Turnbull not only examine the institution of military slavery in Islamic societies, but critique previously held “orientalist” interpretations and offer more accurate perspectives exposing the complexities of this institution. 

The publications of the previously mentioned authors expose that the institution of military slavery in Islamic society was not a stagnant institution. The system was immensely complex and unique in its implementation and purpose. The act of generalizing military slavery across all Islamic Societies is a consequence of “Orientalist” thinking and ignores the densities that the system held. Military slavery was immensely different from domestic, and the individuals who found themselves in this position possessed the ability to advance their lives socially, politically, and economically. One of the most important factors is the agency that these individuals possessed. 

Abdul argues that to view the Zanj rebellion as a revolt purely of slave or black origin ignores the intricacies of Islamic military slavery. The shift from domestic to military forms of slavery presented great social mobility for those who found themselves in it. And the rights and traditions imbedded in the Quran and Hadith provided many protections for slaves in Islamic societies making it unique. In Bacharach’s analysis of Arabic chronicler Miskawayh, he concludes that while there may have been racial bias present in these military slave regiments, it does not serve as a valid explanation for the fate of African Slaves in the Zanj Rebellion. Bacharach determines that the factions present in the military slaves were not static, and allegiances could often change rapidly. It was not predetermined that when the African slaves present at the revolt chose their allegiance, it would be the losing side. Although it may be easier to attribute the loss of the African Slaves in the Zanj Rebellion to being influenced by racial prejudices, it is a lazy and inaccurate use of the primary sources and undermines the variance and coexistence present in Islamic military slavery institutions. African slaves, as well as any other possessed the ability to form allegiances, to act on those alliances, and to resist and revolt if felt necessary. Although they were unfree, the system enabled them with agency not paralleled outside the Islamic world. 

Military slavery offered individuals a new reality, filled with social, political, and economic opportunity. Giles Veinstein’s work on the subject highlights the attraction to Janissary corps by noting that even Muslims who were not eligible through the devsirme made attempts to enter fraudulently. Veinstein’s analysis of “Kadi” registers illuminates the economic opportunities that janissaries often precured. His work demonstrates that janissaries were both “soldiers and businessmen”, engaging in craft and commercial enterprises in both the capital and the various cities they may have been deployed to.  When examining Islamic institutions of slavery, there are a lot of gains that can be acquired by the individuals in some cases, but this is not to detract from the fact that these people were unfree and did not choose this. More importantly to remember is that military slaves like the janissaries were elite slaves of the sultan, and hence enjoyed enormous luxuries compared to more communal forms of slavery in the Ottoman state as well as other Islamic states. Military slaves, such as janissaries, in the Ottoman state were served as a bridge between the state and society. They were the lead negotiators and voiced the concerns of the public.

Gulay Yilmaz’s chapter on the devsirme system overturns previously held ‘”orientalist” views on Islamic slavery and demonstrates the coexistence that the institutions possessed. The “orientalist” view was that the Ottoman and other “eastern” military-administrations were enslaved under a despotic ruler whereas the Western counterparts possessed autonomy. The devsirme system undermined the “orientalist” view of bipolarity in the Ottoman state. Various types of loyalties formed through the devsirme system, and the changing methods of recruitment made it much more inclusive. Yilmaz concludes, counter to the “orientalist” view, that: “A devşirme was absorbed into the owner’s social group and engaged in the political, economic, and cultural life of Ottoman society according to the power of that group. Therefore, the concept of social alienation does not shed light on the devşirme’s position in Ottoman society, predominantly due to his excessive involvement in his patron’s social group”. Yilmaz also continues by articulating that devsrime’s were able to maintain regional as well as kinship ties. Utilizing Metin Kunt in his work, Yilmaz shows that devsrime’s spoke their native languages as well as wore the traditional regional dress (Mere Huseyin Pasha and Ibshir Mustafa Pasha). Yilmaz’s work undermines the previous “orientalist” views, the devsirme system is an excellent example of the coexistence and the agency that military-administrative “slaves” in the Ottoman state emitted, and perhaps further scholarship may demonstrate the efficiency of this system in contrast to the European. 

The account of Konstantin (the Serbian Janissary) is very useful primary source to account for the reality of the sieges and campaigns that the Ottoman janissaries went on throughout the Balkan region. However, Konstantin does not seem to be very happy with his position among the Turks. Despite being given a great deal of power and authority, he keeps his Christian ties very much intact. It has even been uncovered in this work by Stephen Turnbull that Konstantin even generated a falsehood to undermine the loyalty of Mahmut Pasha. What Konstantin’s account is demonstrative of is that those who were enslaved by the Ottomans for the purpose of possible military-administrative roles were not working under despotic rule. Konstantin’s final words in his memoirs were: “Lord God Almighty, help faithful Christians against the ignoble heathens, to wipe them out. Amen”.  Konstantin very much continued to keep his Christian identity, undermining the “orientalist” view of how slaves and the military-administrative system of the Ottomans operated. 

The rise in the importance and use of military slaves in Islamic states was not an institution of generic application. It varied across time and space in the Islamic world. Rueven Amitai’s work illuminates the both the development of the Turkish institution in the Islamic world and how it began to spread. Amitai utilized as a source North African historian and thinker Ibn Khaldu ̄n to conclude that: “This unequivocal passage by a perspicacious Muslim thinker indicates that a positive view toward the phenomenon of military slavery was not unknown in the medieval Islamic world. It also suggests that mamlu ̄ks—at least during the time of the Mamlu ̄k Sultanate—were held in high esteem, despite their humble origins and slave status during their youth. This would appear to belie somewhat the suggestion of Orlando Patterson that ‘‘social death’’ was also the status of the military slave of the Islamic world”.

The works of Amitai as well as the several authors previously mentioned overturn the previously held and perpetuated “orientalist” views on Islamic slavery through an analysis military slavery. Utilizing what primary sources are available to critique and expand upon the secondary works possessing “orientalist” viewpoints. It is no surprise that these works are very recent and reflect the contemporary attitudes of historians today, attempting to achieve historicity through critique of previously held schools of thought, such as “orientalism”.

Featured image credit: WikiCommons: Unknown Venetian artist, The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511, Louvre. The deer with antlers in the foreground is not known ever to have existed in the wild in Syria.

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