Christianity, Islam and Slavery

By Craig Keener

Islam has taken root in many urban centers of the United States today and is spreading particularly among young urban African-American men suspicious of White society's promises that have seemed out of their reach. The current crisis did not begin overnight. Spawned by the church's neglect, the movement continued to offer its warnings to an inattentive church until reaching its present proportions.

Islam Takes Root in the African-American Community

Resentful of White Christians' hypocritical practice of racism and the Black church's unwillingness to overtly challenge it, heterodox Islamic sects such as the Moorish Science Temple arose in the early decades of this century. Although such groups diverged considerably from the Quranic Islam practiced in the Middle East, they provided a cultural bridge to it for their converts.

In the 1930s, a white Turk named W. D. Fard began recruiting disciples for his heterodox Islamic sect; his most prominent disciple, who took the name Elijah Muhammad, claimed that Master Fard revealed that he was himself God and made other claims that would outrage most orthodox Muslims.[1] Elijah Muhammad declared that an evil genius, one Mr. Yacub, planned the creation of the white race by breeding the lightest of his 59,999 black followers on the island of Patmos, a process that produced a brown race after 200 years, a red race after 200 more, a yellow race after 200 more, and finally a race of "blonde, pale-skinned, cold-blue-eyed devils, savages, nude and shameless."[2] Malcolm X became the leading spokesman for Elijah Muhammad's cause until a rift between himself and Elijah Muhammad, strengthened by revelations of Elijah's extramarital affairs, led Malcolm to look elsewhere for truth.

Not only Malcolm, but Elijah Muhammad's own son, Warith D. Muhammad, recognized the difference between the Nation of Islam and Sunni Islam, and moved toward the latter position. Although traditional Islam lacked a component of urban appeal that the Nation of Islam possessed - anti-white sentiment and a myth to honor it - it provided more integrity and a larger network of allies (and, perhaps of some relevance, financial support), and still functioned as a protest against the racial insensitivities of most U.S. churches. Louis Farrakhan led many of W.D. Muhammad's followers back to the more original views of the Nation of Islam, yet more African-Americans today probably seriously follow Sunni Islam, as represented by W. D. Muhammad and the later Malcolm. Most adherents now hold to Islam out of sincere conviction of its truth; dissatisfaction with other traditional religious options, however, remains a major initial force in commending this religion to inquirers.

Charges Against Christianity

Muslims have raised many objections to Christianity, for instance, the charge of its collusion with Western imperialism in Africa. Yet Islamic expansionism from the seventh century on was no less colonial than Western imperialism came to be, and Western colonialism finds far less support in Jesus' teaching than Islamic expansionism finds in the Quran. Ancient African kingdoms like the mighty Medieval kingdom of Songhay (which had Islamic influence) were destroyed by Muslim imperialists from the north.[3] Other African kingdoms like Nubia and Ethiopia were forced to stand against Islamic armies for centuries,[4] to defend the Christian minority in Egypt.[5] These were the nearest Christian kingdoms that many Muslims experienced,[6] except for the remnant of Christians in their own territories. North Africa was predominantly Christian long before Muhammad's birth.

But one of the most prominent objections made by Black Muslims is that the Christian West participated in slave trade. Although we may question how genuine the Christianity of slave traders was, we cannot deny that professed Christians participated in slave trade. What we can question is whether Muslims are those best suited to raise this objection! Muhammad and his earliest followers did not shrink from the practice of slavery (quite in contrast to Jesus and the disciples);[7] but Muslim slavery, like most other kinds of slavery, was originally not racially based. After the revolt of the Mamelukes [white slaves] in Egypt, however, black slaves became the preferred commodity.[8]

Arabs, Berbers, and Persians pioneered the long-distance slave trade,[9] and the Spanish and Portuguese originally purchased Black African slaves from Arab dealers.[10] The first Africans in the British colonies arrived before the Mayflower, and were temporarily indentured servants like many White colonists. In time, however, colonists found African servants easier to exploit than European ones (the latter could appeal to authorities in Europe or, escaping, blend into the local populations). Economic incentives also led to African-American slavery and its racist ideological justification.[11] Whereas Arabs introduced this exploitation, Europeans perfected it.[12] The Arabs had no tortures comparable to the long journeys across the Atlantic with slaves chained side by side for months in dark cargo holds. For every slave brought to the so-called New World, more Africans were brutally murdered in their capture or died en route multiplied millions of human beings raped, butchered, or reduced to the status of animals.

In Defense of Christians

Yet Christians provided resistance. William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, in fervor fueled by the Wesleyan Revival, pushed the abolitionist cause through the British Parliament, leading to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.[13] The evangelical revival movement fueled the abolitionist cause in the United States as well, and abolitionist revivalists such as Charles Finney and the evangelicals at Oberlin College helped galvanize popular support for abolitionism; others, like the Tappans, defied their culture still more directly by demanding integration.[14] Black Christians in the north contributed still more to the abolitionist cause one may sample Frederick Douglass (an ordained A. M. E. Zion deacon), Sojourner Truth, and the great heroine of the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman.[15]

Some Black Christians, in fact, practiced a resistance more vibrant than that of the Nation of Islam. Whatever else we may say of it, slave revolts were led by such figures as Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher; Denmark Vesey, with much A. M. E. support; Gabriel Prosser, envisioning himself as a new Samson; and the White visionary John Brown.[16] The Black minister David Walker called hypocritical White Christians "devils" in 1829, although (unlike the original Nation of Islam) he allowed for exceptions.[17]

Islam provides no analogous abolitionist imperative. Just as Britain and France were finally working to shut down the Atlantic slave trade, it was picking up in East Africa, and most of the slaves were being sold to kingdoms in Arabia and the Persian Gulf.[18] The Arabian peninsula in 1962 became the world's final region to officially abolish slavery,[19] yet even afterward Saudi Arabia alone was estimated to contain a quarter of a million slaves.[20] As many as 20 million Pakistanis (mainly Christians and lower-caste Muslims) are now being held in bondage.[21] Arab Muslims in the northern Sudan have been systematically starving the Black African adherents of traditional African religions and Christians in the south;[22] raids have also been taking slaves, a practice Sudan had once abolished.[23] In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Arab-Berber Muslims from the north hold possibly over 100,000 Black African slaves from the south;[24] "aside from the shantytowns and a strip of land along the Senegal River, virtually all blacks are slaves and they are more than half the population."[25]

One African-American writer specializing in African history thus laments the confusion of many US youth, who "are dropping their white western slave masters' names and adopting, not African, but their Arab and Berber slave masters' names!"[26] Indeed, because "the importation of Black slaves into Islamic lands" over 1200 years may have involved more slaves than the European slave trade did, some African writers have suggested that both the West and the Middle East should pay reparations to Africa.[27]


Islam has gained many of its converts in the African-American community by pointing to historic weaknesses in professed Christianity, such as Christian participation in the slave trade. While this charge, like most other charges, reflects a very selective reading of the historical evidence, these charges are rendered believable by the state of much of the church in North America. Can inner city Black youth believe a gospel that plainly teaches racial reconciliation when examples of it are nowhere to be found in the inner cities? Articles like this can provide an apologetic on paper, but the real apologetic will be far more costly. Until North American Christians learn to live the gospel of reconciliation they preach, paying any necessary price to bridge the gaps historically formed by White racism, Islam will continue to appear credible by contrast to a Christianity that is often indistinguishable from the rest of North American culture.


  1. See e.g., The Autobiography of Malcolm X, p. 208.
  2. Autobiography of Malcolm X, pp. 165-68; Malcolm renounced this view when he recanted the beliefs of the Nation of Islam (Autobiography, p. 169).
  3. See Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (Chicago Third World Press, 1987), pp. 207-9; Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower; rev ed. (Baltimore, MD Penguin, 1966), p. 17; cf. W.E.B. Du Bois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part which Africa Has Played in History, rev. ed. (New York International Publishers, 1965), p. 212.
  4. John H. Taylor, Egypt and Nubia (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 64; Williams, Destruction, pp. 145-46, 149; Du Bois, World and Africa, pp. 147, 215; William Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 539-44; idem, "Medieval Nubia," pp. 120-125 in Africa in Antiquity 1. The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan - The Essays (Brooklyn, NY Brooklyn Museum, 1978), p. 125.
  5. William Leo Hansberry, Pillars in Ethiopian History, ed. Joseph Harris (Washington, DC Howard University Press, 1981), pp. 131-32; Williams, Destruction, p. 148; Du Bois, World and Africa, p. 186.
  6. Cf. Williams, Destruction, p. 149.
  7. On slavery and the New Testament, see e.g., Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives (Peabody, MA Hendrickson, 1992), pp. 184-224.
  8. See Williams, Destruction, pp. 77, 153.
  9. This is commonly noted, e.g., by Bennett, Mayflower, pp. 34-35.
  10. Because of Nation of Islam propaganda, William Dwight McKissic, Beyond Roots (Wenonah, NJ Renaissance Productions, 1990) p. 52, notes his astonishment when he learned that "Arab Muslims" were the first "to target Blacks...for slavery," and that many Black Africans had converted to Islam only to gain kinder treatment from their masters.
  11. See especially Bennett, Before Mayflower, pp. 29-37; cf. C. Eric Lincoln, Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma (New York Hill & Wang, 1984), p. 135.
  12. Wesley's evangelical preaching against slavery also compared European slavery with Islamic slavery unfavorably (La Roy Sutherland, The Testimony of God Against Slavery [Boston Webster & Southard, 1835], p. 91).
  13. Cf. e.g., The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. (Chicago University of Chicago, 1992), 12654; Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1977), p. 561 (cf. p. 556 "In the 1790s the evangelical was marked out as much by a desire for the abolition of the slave trade as by an interest in missions").
  14. This is often documented; cf. e.g., Nancy A. Hardesty, Women Called to Witness Evangelical Feminism in the 19th Century (Nashville Abingdom, 1984); for a sample of abolitionist preaching, see Sunderland, Slavery.
  15. Cf. e.g., James Cone, For My People Black: Theology and the Black Church (Maryknoll Orbis, 1984), pp. 123-25.
  16. On slave resistance and religion, see especially Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People, 2nd rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY Orbis, 1983); Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York Oxford University Press, 1978).
  17. Wilmore, Black Religion, p. 40.
  18. Norman Robert Bennett, Mirambo of Tansania, ca. 1840-1884 (New York Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 16.
  19. Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston Little, Brown & Company, 1974), p. 13.
  20. Jorge I. Domínguez, "Assessing Human Rights Conditions," pp. 21-116 in Enhancing Global Human Rights, by Jorge I. Domínguez, Nigel S. Rodley, Bryce Wood, Richard Falk, 1980s Project/Council on Foreign Relations (New York McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1979), p. 91.
  21. Tom Masland, Rod Nordland, Melinda Liu, and Joseph Contreras, "Slavery," Newsweek May 4, 1992, pp. 30-39, p. 37.
  22. Cf. many reports, e.g., in Africa News, July 6-19, 1992, p. 16; Newsweek, Oct. 12, 1992, p. 49; ESA Advocate, Oct. 1992, p. 6; World Press Review, March 1989, pp. 28-29; June 1991, p. 36.
  23. "Forgotten Slaves," World Press Review, Jan. 1991, p. 57; "Slavery," Newsweek, May 4, 1992, p. 32.
  24. "Slavery," Newsweek, May 4, 1992, p. 30.
  25. "Slavery," Newsweek, May 4, 1992, p. 32.
  26. Williams, Destruction, p. 23.
  27. Bethwell Ogot, "The Muslim Trade," in the Daily Nation of Nairobi, Kenya, responding to Ali Mazrui and citing substantial historical data (reprinted in World Press Review, Aug. 1993, p. 23).

Craig Keener is a minister in the National Baptist Convention, USA and teaches at Hood Theological Seminary ( A. M. E. Zion Church). He has a Ph.D. from Duke University and is the author of The IVP Bible Background Commentary.

This article was originally published by Horizons International in ReachOut, Vol. 7. No. 3&4, 1994, pp. 20-22. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.

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