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A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929

A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929

The leading authority on slavery and the African diaspora in modern Iran presents the first history of slavery in this key Middle Eastern country and shows how slavery helped to shape the nation’s unique character.

May 2017
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344 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 1 color and 15 b&w photos, 4 b&w maps, 1 b&w chart/graph |

Slavery in the Middle East is a growing field of study, but the history of slavery in a key country, Iran, has never before been written. This history extends to Africa in the west and India in the east, to Russia and Turkmenistan in the north, and to the Arab states in the south. As the slave trade between Iran and these regions shifted over time, it transformed the nation and helped forge its unique culture and identity. Thus, a history of Iranian slavery is crucial to understanding the character of the modern nation.

Drawing on extensive archival research in Iran, Tanzania, England, and France, as well as fieldwork and interviews in Iran, Behnaz A. Mirzai offers the first history of slavery in modern Iran from the early nineteenth century to emancipation in the mid-twentieth century. She investigates how foreign military incursion, frontier insecurity, political instability, and economic crisis altered the patterns of enslavement, as well as the ethnicity of the slaves themselves. Mirzai’s interdisciplinary analysis illuminates the complex issues surrounding the history of the slave trade and the process of emancipation in Iran, while also giving voice to social groups that have never been studied—enslaved Africans and Iranians. Her research builds a clear case that the trade in slaves was inexorably linked to the authority of the state. During periods of greater decentralization, slave trading increased, while periods of greater governmental autonomy saw more freedom and peace.

  • A Note to the Reader
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Commerce and Slavery on Iran’s Frontiers, 1600–1800: An Overview
  • Chapter 2. Slavery and Forging New Iranian Frontiers, 1800–1900
  • Chapter 3. The Trade in Enslaved People from Africa to Iran, 1800–1900
  • Chapter 4. Patterns of Enslavement
  • Chapter 5. Slaves in Nineteenth-Century Iran
  • Chapter 6. Slave Trade Suppression Legislation
  • Chapter 7. Antislavery Debates Within Iran
  • Chapter 8. Emancipation
  • Final Thoughts
  • Glossary
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

St. Catharines, Ontario

Mirzai is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at Brock University in Canada. She is a co-coordinator and member of the preparatory committee for the Slave Trade Route project, UNESCO, and the founder of the website Brock/UNESCO Project for the Study of the Slave Trade and Slavery in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Indian Ocean



This book traces the legacy of more than a century of enslaved individuals who journeyed from enslavement to ultimate freedom. The mapping of their path and echoing enslaved people’s voices (enslaved Iranians/non-Iranians and enslaved Muslims/non-Muslims), thus, brings together a vast picture and many stories of the societies that sponsored, perpetuated, and banned slavery, extending to Africa in the west and India in the east, to Russia and Central Asia in the north and northeast and the Arab states in the south. The convergence of these stories in Iran1 transformed the nation and helped forge its unique culture and identity.

This study examines various factors that affected the institution of slavery in Iran in the period from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. It explores a period during which the ancient practice of slavery was altered in terms of patterns of enslavement as well as the ethnicity of the enslaved people themselves. These changes emerged in the context of a period of great social, political, and economic change. The study also focuses on the impact of foreign military incursion, frontier insecurity, political instability, and economic crisis insofar as these forces exacerbated traditional slave-trading networks and infrastructures in the enslavement of people. What is most apparent is that the trade in enslaved people was inexorably linked to the authority of the state. Thus, just as slave trading increased during periods of greater decentralization, periods of greater governmental autonomy saw more freedom and peace.

The book’s examination of the institution of slavery in Iran reveals that the ethnocultural heterogeneity combined with peculiar features of local social fabric and historical, economic, and political circumstances resulted in a unique expression both before and after abolition in the early twentieth century. Furthermore, it analyses issues of gender within the Iranian society— for both men and women—their differing occupational experiences and challenges.


There is a significant scholarly literature covering the diverse aspects of Iran’s history, culture, politics, and traditions. However, no single monograph in Persian, English, or any other language has been written to examine the history of slavery in modern Iran. Although the subject has received some attention in recent years, most international scholarship has tended to focus on slavery in Africa and the Americas. It is within this context that this historical work intends to make an important contribution. The book builds on more than a decade’s worth of archival research in Iran, Tanzania, England, and France along with fieldwork studies and interviews throughout Iran. As the title suggests, the book provides an interdisciplinary synthesis in its attempt to understand the complex issues surrounding the history of slavery in modern Iran.

This analysis of slavery in modern Iran considers the full social, political, and economic spectrum. It also serves as a counterpoint to studies of slavery in the Indian Ocean and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, although these may be considered analogous (especially since Iran’s Qajar dynasty [1785–1925] shared a belief system and language with its neighbor to the northwest), it is important to avoid generalizations; that is, it is important to view each country’s achievement of political and intellectual reforms underpinning abolition through the lens of its own culture and history. As such, this work intends to complement the work of Ottoman historians such as Ehud Toledano,2 Hakan Erdem,3 and Madeline Zilfi.4

In reconstructing the past, we must use interpretative approaches that situate events within the social, economic, and even psychological context of that time—and not in accordance with the needs of the present. As the historian of the modern Middle East Roger Owen points out, there exists a lack of specialist studies on many aspects of Middle Eastern economic life as well as a scarcity of statistical and reliable census material.5 With the exception of some data reported by British officials about the suppression of slave trading, there are few available figures regarding enslaved people of all ethnic groups in nineteenth-century Iranian sources. As such, traditional historiography has tended to focus on the details of those about whose lives we know more: rulers and other sociopolitical elites. This is similar for foreign policy and political developments. It is my intention therefore to give voice not only to ordinary Iranians, but also to a social group that has never been studied: the enslaved. As such, this work attempts to provide a fully comprehensive study of slavery in modern Iran and place it within the context of global slavery.

Although the ideology supporting abolitionism is considered to have worldwide relevance, the focus of this study has been the local conditions in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia. Thus, while foreign diplomatic correspondence has been examined, the principal sources on which I have relied are scattered data from archival materials and other primary and secondary sources written in Persian and various European languages. These include a range of slave narratives, travel accounts, histories and geographical studies, personal memoirs, chronicles, newspapers, letters of freedom, religious injunctions and decrees, and so on. In all, they can be divided into two groups: those addressing the banning of the slave trade and those considering liberation. Political correspondence between the British and Iranian governments largely comprises information on the former, while the other archival sources relate to the latter, providing rich descriptions of the internal changes and the socioreligious circumstances during the period. Indeed, they relay the kind of detail found nowhere else: poignant descriptions about the lives of enslaved individuals.

Terence Walz and Kenneth Cuno explain that until recently slavery was not a major area of study for historians of the modern Middle East for various reasons. One reason was the absence of anything resembling the traumatic American experience of slavery: indeed, that more than one tenth of the US population descends from enslaved Africans helps explain how slavery divided the nation and led to civil war. Postemancipation racial oppression and segregation has further driven scholarly research on the subject. By comparison, Walz and Cuno note that although slavery was integral to Middle Eastern societies, its history and notions of race were constructed differently. Moreover, minority and marginal populations have largely been ignored because of absent or inaccessible historical materials and archives.6

Given the exigencies described above, it has not been possible to rely on one single model to write this book. It has thus been necessary to collate and disaggregate the scattered, published and unpublished information that exists on the slave trade and the process of emancipation in Iran from the early nineteenth century from political, commercial, cultural, and social sources to vignettes, anecdotes, and even cinematic documentaries.7 These together have been used to characterize the emergence of culture and identity in modern Iran and its transformation from a slave-owning society to one embracing full emancipation.

primAry sources Just as it is problematic to suggest that the Iranian consciousness was uniquely disposed to racial inclusivity, it is noticeable that Persian documents generally do not contain reference to the racial provenance of enslaved people. By contrast, European travelers and officials appear to have gone out of their way to refer to race and racial classifications in Iran in their writings. It is not clear whether these attitudes or inclinations were the result of their own perceived Orientalist notions and ideas—or whether they were, in some way or another, seeking to fill a gap in Iranian documentation. Either way, this contrast does tend to suggest attitudinal differences and approaches between indigenous and colonizing peoples, which in turn appear to have influenced scholarship on the subject over the last decades.

Almost half of this study considers the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (1848– 1896), the Qajar king, given his role in passing several pieces of legislation banning the trade in enslaved Africans. As such, the study relies heavily on sources pertaining to this period. In both Persian and English, these come from courtiers, reformers, intellectuals, court physicians, the royal family, government officials, and travelers. Of these, the most common source was the travelogue, a highly popular genre in nineteenth-century Europe. These offered perhaps the best and most objective insights into the lives of enslaved people in Iran at the time. One of the best examples is that of Jakob Polak (1818–1891), Nasir al-Din Shah’s private physician. His two-volume memoir recounted his time in Iran from 1851 to 1860.8 In addition to providing general information on culture, social mores, and medical attitudes and practices in the country, a short section of his work focused on several enslaved people and eunuchs of various races, noting their purchase prices and social status. Other similar examples are those of the official courtiers, like that of Abdulghaffar Najm al-Daula9 (1843–1908)—known as Najm al-Daula—a notable Iranian mathematician. When in the 1880s, he was sent as a consultant to oversee the construction of dams and roads in Khuzistan, he paid special attention to the inhabitants’ economic and social conditions of the settlements he visited.

It was not uncommon in the nineteenth century to refer to the lives of enslaved people as part of lengthy descriptive passages about geography, people, social life, and economic conditions. Firuz Mirza Farman Farma10 (1817– 1885), the son of ʿAbbas Mirza (1798–1833), wrote such an account describing the economy, geography, and the lives of people in Kerman and adjacent Baluchistan when he was appointed governor of the former in an attempt to stabilize political unrests there.11 His son, Abdulhussain Mirza Farman Farma12 (1858–1900), who later became the governor of both provinces, carried on the tradition begun by his father and wrote an extensively detailed account of the communities and inhabitants. The Geography of Baluchistan13 was written in 1871 by a member of the Qajar royal family, Ahmad ʿAli Khan Vaziri (d. 1878). Amidst extensive descriptions of the region’s geography, he made sporadic— but important—references to the slave trade. Another author of this caliber was Muhammad ʿAli Sadid al-Saltana Kababi14 (1874–1902), a senior governmental official in Iranian port cities and on islands of the Persian Gulf. His works provide richly detailed information about customs, culture, economy, and communities.

Perhaps the best-known works of this nature are the writings of John Gordon Lorimer (1870–1914), an official of the British Indian Civil Service. In 1903, he was assigned to compile the Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia,15 based on British government archives and fieldwork. Published twelve years later, the work ranges from factual data and historical analysis to descriptive geographical information including significant references to enslaved Africans in the Persian Gulf region.

Even if subjective and personal, memoirs have also been used as an invaluable source of information for this study. During a campaign to suppress the Turcoman raids into Iran in 1853, the high-ranking general Esmaʿil Khan Mirpanjeh16 was enslaved. Escaping a decade later, he was ordered by Nasir al-Din Shah to produce a memoir of his years in captivity, providing details of the Turcoman people and their culture. His observations offer a fascinating firsthand account of the sociopolitical insecurity of the northern and eastern frontiers as well as the extent to which Turcomans enslaved Iranians. At the other end of the spectrum, the shah’s grandson, Dust ʿAli Khan Muʿayyir al-Mamalek (1819–1873),17 takes us into the royal harem, where he himself grew up. The memoir details the personal lives, behavior, and duties of enslaved individuals.

Chronicles have similarly played an important role in this study. One example is Nasekh al-tawarikh tarikh-i Qajariya (Effacement of the chronicles of the history of Qajar)18 by the prominent historian Muhammad Taqi Lesan al-Mulk Sepehr (1801–1879). In 1842, Muhammad Shah (1808–1848) ordered him to write a history of the Qajar dynasty, and the result is an insightful overview of the country’s social conditions on the cusp of great sociopolitical transition.

The works of political leaders, intellectuals, and reformers of the Qajar period can also help us understand more fully the society in which the suppression of slavery was viewed as necessary. Tarikh-i bidari-yi Iranian (History of the awakening of Iranians) is a three-volume work written by Nazem al-Islam Kermani (1863–1918), a leader in the Constitutional Revolution movement of the latter part of the nineteenth century.19 In addition to describing political and social changes at this time, Kermani offered a glimpse into Iranian attitudes as they gradually coalesced in opposition to the institution of slavery. In this regard, he was able to demonstrate the extent to which the protestations of ordinary people against the enslavement of their fellow citizens and relatives were influential in prompting the ʿulamaʾ to urge the shah that justice and the country’s security depended on full emancipation.

Autobiographies written by members of the elite provide information about the slave trade and slavery within the context of social change. Under Five Shahs by General Hassan Arfa (d. 1984)20 is one such example. Born in Tiflis in 1895, Arfa was an army officer for thirty-three years before producing memoirs based on his political and diplomatic career. In describing the effects of Reza Shah’s attempts to bring all provincial governors under centralized control, he described the enslavement of many Iranians by Turcomans before military campaigns pushed them back to the Russian hinterland. Sources such as these offer us the opportunity to gain useful historical insights into the lot of the enslaved Iranians.

A final primary source is political and diplomatic correspondence between the British and Iranian government officials that focused on aspects of the suppression of the trade in enslaved Africans. Source materials examined include the extensive holdings of the National Archives and British Library in London, Zanzibar National Library, and various provincial and state archives in Iran.

Secondary Sources

The study of slavery in Middle Eastern and North African societies has elicited considerable scholarly attention over the last several decades, and especially since the turn of the millennium. There have, however, been important limitations within this scholarly output. First, a disproportionate number have focused on the Ottoman Empire. Second, many of these studies have overemphasized the relationship between Islam and slavery (within various contexts and from different perspectives) and, as such, have failed to appreciate fully the subtle nuances of Islamic law as expressed in varying local, historical, socioeconomic, and cultural circumstances. Finally, a meaningful assessment of the evolving nature of the western imperialist mandate in the development of and implementation of abolitionist legislation in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf is absent from the literature.

It is important to note that there have been several important contributions to the study of slavery in Iran by Persian scholars over this same period. Fereydun Adamiyat’s 1983 book Amir Kabir va Iran (Amir Kabir and Iran), for instance, considers the abolition of the trade in enslaved Africans in the Persian Gulf within the context of diplomatic and political relations of Iran and Britain. Limited to a subsection of one chapter, his theories rely on correspondence and treaties between the two nations as found in British archives.21 Asserting that while the British Slave Trade Act of 1807 was inspired by the liberal idealism of the French abolition of slavery in 1794, he suggests that the legislation became a political tool wielded by the British government to enforce its economic and political interests in other countries including Iran. Similarly considering abolition within the context of British imperialism by recourse with Adamiyat’s work and Persian archives, Esmaʿil Raʾin argues that the British expanded the sphere of their political, military, and commercial influences in Asian and African countries under the guise of humanitarianism and abolitionism.22

Afsaneh Najmabadi adopts a different perspective by writing a tale about the enslavement of Iranian females by the Turcomans.23 Based on primary and secondary Persian sources dating from the Constitutional period (1905–1911), she illustrates how poverty and insecurity in the Khorasan province forced peasants to sell their daughters into slavery. The author skillfully situates these events within a political context, showing Parliament’s reaction to slavery. She also considers issues of gender and the vulnerability of women under slavery.

Mohammed Ennaji makes an important contribution to the study of slavery in relation to Islam by exploring notions of state and slavery in pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabian societies through the lens of terminological analysis.24 He reviews slavery, power relationships, social construction of servitude and hierarchy in the Arab world through the examination of Arabic texts during the advent of Islam, and the dynasties of Umayyad (661–750) and Abbasid (749–1258). Importantly, he argues that only through an examination of those Arab societies that have not embraced democracy and freedom can one fully appreciate the power mechanisms of the past. He believes “that slavery was a determining aspect of social relationships in the Arab-Muslim world.”25

In contrast to Ennaji’s nuanced assessment of the relationship between slavery and religious protocols, the approach of many Western scholars has been to link slavery specifically to Islam. In detailing the history of abolitionism between Persian Gulf countries and Britain, J. B. Kelly, for instance, views the institution of slavery as forming an inherent part of the Islamic teachings and as such being entrenched in the social structure of the “Islamic world”—from the period of Muslim expansion to the jihadi enslavement of “infidels.”26 Two chapters of his book are devoted to the study of slavery in the Indian Ocean: first, “The Arab Slave Trade, 1800–1842” provides a narrative in which principally Omani Arabs are identified as being responsible for developing sophisticated trafficking trade networks from the East African coast to the Persian Gulf; and second, “The Attack on the Slave Trade, 1842–1873” evaluates the “humanitarian” roots of the British policies that resulted in the conclusion of agreements with local rulers to bring an end to slavery in the region. Kelly, thus, sees abolition as a single, ineluctable process.

Recognizing the complexity of the situation, the scholar of African history Frederick Cooper has insisted on the importance of cultural sensitivity in the analysis of slavery vis-à-vis religion: “The role of Islam among the peoples of the Indian Ocean must be approached as cautiously as that of Christianity in Atlantic societies. Profit could undermine piety, and laws could be ignored.”27 By comparison with plantation slavery in the Americas, he identifies profound differences in the experience of slavery in Middle Eastern and African societies: from the fact that the Indian Ocean commercial system was composed of a heterogeneous assemblage slave holders to the importance of kinship and the master-slave relationships.28

William Gervase Clarence-Smith’s work claims to study the concept of slavery and abolition through recourse to Islamic jurisprudence and various schools of thought.29 Although his book commendably collates Western scholarship on the subject of slavery in Muslim societies, he fails to organize the material in a way meaningful of the varied social and political circumstances in which slavery was practiced and abolished in these countries. Moreover, he does not link the proclamations of Muslim jurists and political leaders to the Qurʾanic texts on which they were based.

In spite of systemic differences, scholarship on slavery in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere in the Middle East can provide a useful comparative framework for the study of slavery in Iran. For example, Toledano examines the complex nature of Ottoman slavery and “the variety of modes of servility” including “kul/harem” and “agricultural slavery” practiced by Circassian refugees. He contends that abolitionism first emerged when the semi-independent Ottoman province of Tunis established direct links with the British in 1841.30 Emboldened by this success, the British exerted more pressure on the Ottoman government with a resultant series of negotiations and treaties to suppress the trade in enslaved Africans that were strikingly similar to that later found in Iran. Similarly, the abolitionist discourses on liberty and equality as expressed by writers and intellectuals during the Tanzimat period of the mid-nineteenth century are not dissimilar to those expressed during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in the early twentieth century.31

Erdem’s examination of the Ottoman Empire’s gradual transformation from a slave-holding to a free society considers employment opportunities for enslaved people as well as the government’s stance on slavery and abolition. As later seen also in Iran, he demonstrates both that “official British policy was directed against the slave trade rather than the institution itself in foreign countries”32 and that the government’s antislavery policies were closely linked to constitutional reform and the efforts of reformists.33

For her part, Zilfi focuses on gender and social representations and vulnerabilities of women and enslaved females in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. She argues that the racialized notions of “blackness” and “Africanness” seen in the Atlantic cannot be fit into a Middle Eastern and North African context. By examining historical complexities and social values, she demonstrates that all women, regardless of skin color, shared common difficulties and entitlements.34

The focus of El Hamel’s work on slavery, race, and gender in Morocco are the three groups: the Berbers, Arabs, and Africans. He explores the development of racial stereotypes from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, arguing that although Morocco was a Muslim society, the status (enslavement, freedom, and integration) of enslaved people was informed by deeply entrenched cultural practices and Maliki interpretations of Islamic law. The slave-holders’ denial of the fundamental prohibition against Muslims enslaving other Muslims helped justify the enslavement of the Muslim Haratin (free blacks or ex-enslaved people). Not only did this support the overt division of society based on skin color, but it also helped articulate a racial ideology of enslavement based on color and culture.35 Parallels in this dichotomy of Islamic ideals and historical realities can be found in arguments used by Iranian slave holders.

In recent years, two Western scholars examined the twentieth-century slave trade in the Persian Gulf. While both Jerzy Zdanowski36 and Suzanne Miers37 have compiled useful information, their works are limited by reliance on British sources. As such, they fail to appreciate regional and local subtleties along with the impact of social, economic, and historical developments. By referencing slave narratives, Zdanowski examines the involvement of the British in suppressing the slave trade in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Miers examines the British-led antislavery movement and considers the growth of various forms of slavery in the twentieth century. She also examines the extent to which philanthropy or national interests ended slavery, noting that international abolitionist treaties have not yet succeeded: “At the outset of the twenty-first century, it is fair to say that while more is known of these evils, and much effort has been spent in describing and analyzing them, the goal of eradication seems as distant as ever.”38

Organization of the Book

The scope of this study spans the years 1800 to 1929. The starting period represents the importance of the global slave trade in the context of foreign influence in Iran. The terminus marks the legal emancipation of enslaved people in Iran, when the country faced dynamic and complex pressures about the slave trade and after it embarked on a series of agreements and reforms regarding its abolition. Importantly, this book seeks to provide an analysis of the way slavery transformed culture and identity in Iran within each specific geographical division from a historical perspective.

The book is organized into three interrelated sections. First, the initial two chapters provide some historical background by focusing on the commercial and geostrategic importance of Iran. Because the slave trade occurred predominantly on the fringes of the country, the two chapters examine Iran’s commercial contacts, diplomatic relations, and military encounters with foreign powers with a particular emphasis on the transformations on Iranian frontiers. The first chapter begins with an overview of the commercial activities including the slave trade on Iran’s borders during which slavery was globally legal. Chapter 2 describes how complex patterns of war and peace treaties handling captives and their liberation extended over many frontiers of land and sea for nearly one hundred years. This will demonstrate the extent to which foreign diplomatic relations and territorial encroachment changed the pattern of the slave trade in Iran and impacted its ultimate suppression.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 consider the ongoing social, political, military, and economic processes that shaped issues of ethnicity as regards slave-trading patterns during the Qajar period. Aspects of the trade are explored with reference to war, poverty, and industry both internally and externally. Of particular note, chapter 5 describes the lives of enslaved people in nineteenth-century Iran in the context of their social and political functions. The objective throughout is not to present a comprehensive historical overview but rather to depict the ethnography of and ongoing transformations within the institution of slavery in Iran.

A third area of consideration addresses issues central to understanding the process of emancipation and the postliberation era in Iran. Chapter 6 examines diplomatic and political correspondence between British and Iranian governments and with various religious leaders about the suppression of the trade in enslaved Africans. It also discusses royal decrees and treatises. The chapter considers strategies and responses by the Iranian state in terms of enforcement in jurisdictions where its authority was weakest. It also explores the foreign and domestic reactions to an escalation of the enslavement of indigenous Iranians after the ban in 1848 on the trade in Africans. The perception that abolition was necessary in the context of internal religious, cultural, secular, and national reform movements is treated in chapter 7. The final chapter narrates stories of enslaved people—black and white, male and female—and echoes their voices and examines various methods (Islamic and governmental) through which enslaved people were liberated before Iran proclaimed emancipation. Special attention is paid to the process of identity formation in the postemancipation era.


The main objective of this study is to provide an account of the development and ultimate decline of the institution of slavery in modern Iran in order to enhance our appreciation of the link between the slave trade and emancipation within the context of culture and identity transformation. In so doing, it has been essential to interpret the role foreign nations played on the development, perpetuation, and eradication of the slave trade. Once identifying their impact, it has then been necessary to disaggregate what—for the purposes of this study—I have termed the “internal” and “external” factors that influenced these processes.

While the Middle East and North Africa share many inherently similar ethnocultural characteristics, many of their differences emerged as a result of historical processes driven by foreign influences. In the nineteenth century, Iran was governed by rulers whose authority was effectively restricted to their capital cities and environs, thus leaving outlying regions to the suzerainty of autonomous chiefs and princes. It was during this period that European powers were partitioning Africa and extending their spheres of influence into the Arab regions of the Persian Gulf. As such, by the end of World War I, Britain and France had begun to establish an imperialist momentum throughout the region.

But, since British traders were the single most important traffickers of enslaved Africans to the New World before 1807, the process of dismantling the slave trade not only occurred in areas under British imperial domination but was subject to its prodding during the nineteenth century.39 For this reason, Britain was able to exert geostrategic domination in the Persian Gulf region. This situation has not escaped the attention of many scholars of British, African, and Middle Eastern history. Seymour Drescher, for instance, argues that “the six-decade British campaign for the suppression of the slave trade entailed ‘imperialist’ methods by mixtures of coercion and intimidation, stretching and breaching international law.”40 Similarly, Robin Law writes,

the British suppression of the slave trade was in practice carried out, in part, by “imperialist” methods, that is, by coercion and intimidation of other states—albeit normally by techniques of “informal imperialism,” rather than actual annexation.41

While Middle Eastern and North African religion, mores, and values shaped society and politics even when its constituent nations were at their weakest and most passive, Charles Issawi notes that they were never able to shake off the impact of foreign economic intervention: “The Middle East was the ‘periphery’ and subjected to impulses emanating from the ‘center.’”42 First drawn by the rich natural resources available in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century, European powers initiated commercial contacts with Iran. Local economies were damaged internally by lawlessness, insecurity, and political instability and were continually weakened by the incursions of neighboring countries through open conflict and territorial losses. Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen has observed that local peace, order, human freedoms, and economic development are all closely interconnected.43 Without these guarantees, the descent into chaos is inevitable—as it was for Iran, a country that increasingly embraced the institution of slavery at a time when it was declining elsewhere in the world.

Although the oil industry in the early twentieth century relied to some extent on the persistence of the slave trade in the Middle East (especially in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf),44 it also came to provide the kind of wealth that allowed Iran to break free of these ties. Exportation of oil that started just before World War I began to yield large revenues to the governments in the late 1930s.45 To this day, the world’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil and natural gas, as reflected in the geostrategic importance of the Persian Gulf, began with the signing of the first oil concession between Muzaffar al-Din Shah (1853–1907) and the British businessman William Knox D’Arcy in 1901.46

We cannot understand slavery in Iran unless we are sensitive to the nuances of the country’s complex social character in terms of its transformation of traditional, social, political, and economic institutions as per communal structures, reform movements, foreign influences, and employment patterns over this period. Indeed, notions of family, community, government, religion, and culture all developed within these contexts. It would be perhaps more accurate to avoid conceptualizing slave systems in terms of “Islamic,” “African,” “Indian Ocean,” and “Atlantic Ocean” and instead discuss the particular roles enslaved people played in the society and the place slavery played in the economy. As Cooper aptly notes, the study of a slave system “involves analyzing the ways in which the various influences on slavery—economic, institutional, social, political, and ideological—reinforced, contradicted, or transformed one another.”47 Toledano also asserts that a differentiated approach to the complex realities of slavery is required: “Here is a continuum of various degrees of bondage rather than a dichotomy between slave and free.”48 As elsewhere, so too in Iran: slavery found expression in the restricted spheres of domestic and agricultural servitude, but also more casually in the bureaucratic apparatus of government. As such, this analysis of the institution of slavery and the emancipation process has closely referenced the complex economic needs, values, norms, religious beliefs, and social settings that have shaped historical processes at all levels of society.

Historical Context

Without a doubt, foreign influences impacted the growth, development, and suppression of a market-driven slave trade in Iran. Because it stands in a unique geographic position—bridging the rest of the Middle East to the south and west, the Asian subcontinent to the east, Central Asia, the Caucasus Mountains, and the waters of the Caspian Sea to the north, and the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Indian Ocean49 to the south—Iran has always been a multiethnic and heterogeneous country, with inhabitants having come voluntarily (and involuntarily) from as far away as China. For centuries, foreign invasions have remapped the country’s borders and have caused therein the relocation, captivity, and enslavement of people of various ethnic groups. Comparing the economic development of Japan and the Middle East, the historian Issawi has pointed to Japan’s geographical isolation as being one of the most important reasons for “the aggressive imperialism of the nineteenth-century—British, French, and Russian—could reach Japan only at the end of a very long line of communications, where their impact was greatly attenuated.”50 He argues that countries situated at important crossroads were especially vulnerable to foreign intervention, thus affecting economic freedom and political independence.

Issawi’s theory bears scrutiny. Indeed, in the seventh century ce, Iran was occupied by invading Arabs, who replaced the official Zoroastrian religion with Islam and relegated the indigenous Persians to second-class citizens or clients (mawali) especially during the Umayyad Caliphate. A central feature of the expanding Islamic Arab Empire of the Abbasids was the policy of enslavement. While they were often the spoils of war from as near as Africa and as far away as Spain, enslaved people were also used as forms of payment for taxation, used in pawnship (in lieu of debts), purchased, and given as gifts. Many were also born into slavery. In addition to their labor in agriculture, industry, and domestic contexts, there emerged an institution of military slavery as seen, for instance, with the Turks from Central Asia who were enslaved as imperial soldiers from the eighth century.51 The Abbasid Empire came to a catastrophic end in the thirteenth century at the hands of invading Mongols.

Three centuries later, the Safavids took power (1501–1722) and helped forge modern Iranian cultural identity through the declaration of Shiʿi Islam as the official religion. To counterbalance military threats and internal conflict, this dynasty recruited enslaved people from the Caucasus region and formed a new army to respond to foreign incursions and internal threats.52 Until the early twentieth century, slavery remained a social, political, economic, and military phenomenon. Although enslaved people were involved in a range of economic activities in Iran, the workforce relied heavily on rural or peasant labor.53

Slavery in the Modern Era

The trade in indigenous Iranians did, however, experience growth after the firmān in 1848 brought an end to the importation of enslaved Africans into Iran from the Persian Gulf. The weakening centralized authority in Iran was also responsible for this growth. This in turn allowed some provincial governors and chiefs to exploit the trade in indigenous populations on the peripheral provinces and frontiers of Iran in order to enhance their economic advantages. But other factors were also responsible for exacerbating the situation and encouraging the perpetuation of slavery: that is, political instability, social disruption and ethnic displacement, economic fragmentation, and military encroachment combined with disease, natural disaster, and famine from the mid-nineteenth century to the first decade of the twentieth century.

There is no denying that internal mismanagements, foreign territorial occupations and diplomatic pressures affected the traditional social, political, and economic order. One of the impacts was the rendering of otherwise free peasants equivalent to indentured feudal servants. Not only did the Qajar rulers replace indigenous modes of local production with a dependency on European commercial goods, but they also severely undermined export networks, repossessed lands, and gave concessions to foreign powers. Internal political rivalries and exploitative acts of local rulers led to the imposition of self-determined judicial and taxation laws on local people. It was in this atmosphere of deteriorating economic, political, and social realities that the internal slave trade began its ascendancy in Iran.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the slave trade became prevalent in regions most directly under the influence of the governors or occupiers where the Iranian government had least authority. From the mid-eighteenth century, for instance, much of the southern part of Iran was under the influence of the British, the Qawasem and Omani Arabs—the former through political and commercial bureaucratic infrastructures and the latter through land lease and capture practices. At the same time, Russian incursions into the Caucasus region and Turcoman invasions from the northeast resulted in the occupation of large tracts of Iranian territory. The ramification of these encroachments was the acceleration of regional insecurity and the expansion of the slave trade.

Territorial occupations—especially by foreigners—had important impacts on indigenous populations both in terms of social structures and popular reactions. For example, when the British established their political residency and commercial enterprises in Baluchistan, their policies produced a more hierarchical society. Thus, there evolved more rigid social groups called the ghulām (slave class), the hakim (the ruler), Baluch, and the hidmatkar (the dependent) in order to exert greater control over the indigenous peoples.54 Although the semifeudal populations relied on social differentiation, the new dividing lines became more obvious and social mobility more difficult to achieve. Moreover, they financed sardars to facilitate their bureaucratic management of the area; but in doing so, they further entrenched social divisions, created economic stagnation, and led to the exploitation of the seminomadic and peasant masses. As the Indian scholar Aijaz Ahmad has noted: “The serfs, the slaves, the rural wage-workers, the seminomadic cattle-breeders thus began to face a double oppression—practiced directly by the Sardars but with the assistance of the new law-and-order apparatus paid for by the British.”55

The British policies of suppressing the transportation of and trade in enslaved Africans in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf regions, which began in the early nineteenth century, also had a great impact on indigenous populations. These impacted long-established networks for trafficking not just Africans but also Iranians and Indians that the Qawasem and the Omani traders had established from East Africa to the southern coast of Iran to southern India.56 In response to market forces, they sought to continue the steady importation of enslaved people throughout the region in spite of increasingly restrictive abolitionism over the course of the century by mobilizing the trade in various ethnic groups in Iran—most notably, the Baluchis. Border insecurity and local rulers’ conflicts and rivalries within Iran had also an impact on the expansion of internal regional networks responsible for the kidnapping and exchange of enslaved people.

Nationalism and Modernization

The idea of the Iranian nation and land (Iranzamin) was not a nineteenth-century innovation. Indeed, classical and ancient Persian sources reveal that the notion of a political and cultural entity with a modern statelike territory and boundaries existed from pre-Islamic times.57 Modern nationalism, however, emerged in response to several forces.58 Responding to perceived im

perialist ambitions, nineteenth-century activists sought to preserve national honor as well as to articulate culturally innovative political arguments that focused on notions of Iranian identity.59 Crucial to these activists were those that reacted to the problem of indigenous enslavement and the institution of slavery itself. The nationalist discourse found expression in various ways: it synthesized either pre-Islamic and Iranian identities or Islamic and Iranian identities, or opted for a modern Iranian national identity. Islamic modernists such as Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi (known as al-Afghani; 1838–1897)60 sought to interpret Islam to make it compatible with the modern world. Intellectuals such as Mirza Fath ʿAli Akhund Zadeh (1812–1878) and mass protest movements such as the Tobacco Protest (1891–1892) and the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) all stressed modernization within the context of Iranian integrity and autonomy against the influence of foreign powers and culture. Echoed throughout was the call for equality and the banning of slavery.

The Pahlavi monarchy (1925–1979), which replaced the Qajar dynasty, developed under the influence of European models of modernity. The aim of its leader Reza Shah (r. 1925–1941) was to reform traditional customs and institutions with reference to Iranian nationalist ideals according to Western European models. Thus, modernization was driven by a nationalist idiom that blended a pre-Islamic Iranian identity within the context of Westernization.61 Thus, not only was the institution of slavery abolished in 1929, but the consolidation of centralized government authority realized the goals of this legislation—by sealing national frontiers and eliminating the traditional slave-trade infrastructure.

The postemancipation era was characterized by other social, political, and economic changes. Being the first country in the Middle East to exploit its oil reserves in 1903,62 Iran was able to shift relatively seamlessly from an agricultural to a semi-industrial economy.63 The country’s transformation to a wage-labor economy facilitated the disabling of traditional linkages between landlord and peasant, master and enslaved person. The profound impact the oil industry has had on Iran’s social structure and national economy can be seen throughout society, but especially in the participation of freed Africans as recorded by the scholar Khusraw Khusravi of the community on Kharg Island in 1962.64

villAge And enslAved peoples’ lives The diversity of cultural identity, ethnic composition, and population distribution seen today in Iranian villages and cities, both coastal and inland, has been influenced by a myriad of political, social, and economic conditions. Nearly 85 percent of Iran’s population was rural in the nineteenth century, being comprised of agricultural laborers, peasants, enslaved people, and gypsies. Village communities engaged principally in land cultivation and animal husbandry, while nomadic people tended to forage off the land.65 Even though many of these communities were largely self-sufficient and not dependent on enslaved labor (thus distinguishing them from the large-scale slave-driven plantations that existed in Africa or the Americas), most of the rural population was economically dependent on landowners and masters for shelter and food.66

Iranian society was arranged along hierarchical lines with the king (hakim) at the pinnacle and the masses, literally known as “servants” ( ghulāmān and kanīzān), at the bottom. This unequal and essentially exploitative feudal categorization meant that most Iranians had no rights over their lives and property. Similarly, the social system within villages was divided between the master, landlord or landholder (arbāb), and the subject, landless cultivator, peasant, or enslaved (raʿyat). Sharecropping was the most common tenancy system, in which disadvantaged peasants often received no more than one-fifth of their labors. Landowners were not the only exploiters; indeed, the government rented state lands and sold tax-collecting rights to various elites and the Arab shaykhs of the Persian and Oman Gulfs. Predominantly, local governors appointed a feudal landlord (khan)—often with noble ties—to be a superintendent and oversee the estates and collect taxes completely at their leisure and usually with the use of physical force. Under the khan was a village headman (kadkhudā) who administered village activities. Because the agricultural subjects had little or no control over their property or lives, their lot was harsh and cruel.

Kinship networks lay at the root of communal and collective identities, whether through family, clan, and community or the village itself. Each network was hierarchically structured and governed by a specific leader (shaykh) who administered customary law. Communal and household lives were also strongly patriarchal and based on seniority.67 As per religious mores, men and women were subject to special rules that separated them in private and public spaces. This public-private dichotomy that dictated occupational specialization in labor, however, was more prevalent in urban settings, as the contingencies of rural life meant that women and men (including enslaved people) often had to work side by side in the fields. Economic and occupational organization could also serve as the basis for ethnic identity and unity. Thus, some tasks and activities fell under the purview of a particular ethnic or religious group—for example, the African specialization and involvement in music, dancing, and entertainment. Similar situations also existed in Egypt where the enslaved Sudanese regiments of the Egyptian army known for their musical performances formed musical bands.68 An explanation may be that an occupation such as music and dance was considered unsuitable for Muslims and thus not only became associated with foreign communities but necessarily also became a hereditary ethnic occupation.

Southern coastal cities and the life of enslaved people Coastal cities in Iran such as Bandar ʿAbbas and Bushehr differed from those in the interior: not only were they situated along important economic maritime trade routes, but also they usually showcased a wider range of ethnic and cultural diversity. People of African descent largely concentrated in these areas and engaged in a range of occupations from the most menial to skilled. As a rule, enslaved male Africans were employed in labor-intensive outdoor activities, while the women worked in the marketing of produce and domestic activities. Labor conditions in these areas tended to be harsher and more exploitative.

The work and lifestyle of enslaved people living in cities contrasted strikingly with the work and lifestyle of those living in rural or coastal areas. Industrial, commercial, and administrative roles constituted the main activities in towns and cities. Urban enslaved people tended to be put to work in households (as domestic servants) and were subject to the rules of the harem. (As such, gender-based occupations were based on notions of private and public space.) But unlike their cohorts in the country, the lot for urban harem enslaved people was better overall—indeed they could realize opportunities for upward mobility by becoming liberated members of society. Notwithstanding, it was easier for liberated enslaved males to join the ranks of salaried laborers than for liberated enslaved females; indeed, various social and economic pressures made it all but impossible for them to maintain their own households or to live alone—accordingly, they tended to remain within more domesticated settings.

As with other Middle Eastern cities, those in Iran have traditionally been organized into quarters. These neighborhoods were occupied by people who shared occupations, ethnicity, or religion. Kinship, blood relations, or religious affiliations also tended to define the collective identity of these communities. For instance, nineteenth-century literature often refers to “black” or African quarters. This was the case for other religious and ethnic groups in Iran, such as various Jewish and Arab precincts69 or the places such as the Turks’ Mosque in Tehran. Importantly, these quarters were not ghettos, as the inhabitants were not segregated but rather willingly gathered in such locations to meet and enjoy the company of others with common bonds and identities.

Whether they hailed from urban, coastal, or rural settings, the economic impact of the burgeoning oil industry and the rapid urbanization it brought in the twentieth century had a profound impact on all liberated enslaved populations.

Master-slave Relationships

The fundamental characteristic of slavery was its endorsement of the ownership of individual human beings by those in a superior socioeconomic position. In Iran, social status and prestige were equated with conspicuous consumption—owning enslaved people being one of the most obvious symbols of that wealth. Most enslaved people living in an urban household lived in or near the master’s residence. Labor conditions for enslaved people were affected by differing social and cultural environments, but as a rule enslaved people could expect to be subject to the vagaries of their master’s expectations. However, it is evident that, in rural regions, large peasant and enslaved groups created their communities, given their distant relationships with their masters.70 As such, they tended to form distinct ethnic and social entities. By contrast, urban enslaved people had much closer relationships with their masters; as a result, they formed primary ties and found a degree of economic security and social protection in this environment. To some extent the social process of inclusion of enslaved people within the household reflected the master’s need to control and dominate. In this case, enslaved people who lived far from their master enjoyed more freedom than their counterparts in urban areas. While enslaved persons’ owners’ control and their cultural hegemony are undeniable, enslaved people also possessed a degree of mobility.

Slavery, Race, and Islam

Considerable attention has been paid to a perception that there was a penchant for slavery in Islam, as scholars like Clarence-Smith have suggested. The notion that “Islamic slavery” is a unique category is something this study seeks to disprove through recourse to the evidence.

Iran has long been a pluralistic society and a heterogeneous nation: thus while the majority of Iranians follow the Athna ʿAshri school of Shiʿa Islam,71 there are many other branches of Islam and non-Islamic religions represented in Iran, including Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. It is worth noting that Iran was a Sunni nation until the sixteenth century when the ruling Safavids converted to Shiʿi Islam in order to distinguish themselves from the Turks against whom they were at war. Due to the country’s geographical location and political boundaries, those populations living in frontier provinces tended to adopt the faith and culture of their neighbors—such as the Sunni Baluchis in the southeast, Aimaq and Persians in the northeast, Turcomans and Uzbeks in the north and northeast, and Persians and Arabs in the south along the coast. The enslaved people, thus, adopted the prevailing schools of thought practiced in their respective regions. For example, while the Sunni Hanafi school is predominant in Baluchistan, many descendants of enslaved Africans are followers of the Zikri sect of the Hanfi school prevalent in the Makran region. And yet, even though this extensive ethnocultural diversity shaped many aspects of regional, social, and economic interactions among the varying populations, both branches of Islam adopted laws regarding slavery within the context of specific local ethnocultural mores and customs. As such, the nature and practice of slavery in Qajar Iran of the nineteenth century needs to be studied through the lens of local and regional contexts.

Although Islam provided protocols for the legitimation of slavery, there was as much divergence in opinion among religious scholars as there was violation of the religion’s basic tenets.72 Ignorance of the Qurʾan meant that many texts were open to interpretation by jurists and were defined within specific contexts and practices. As such, some religious scholars, ruling elites, and slave owners enforced a legal system that justified and maintained the perpetuation of slavery. It is a fact that while religion could be used to justify the slave trade, the reality is that it was motivated, formulated, and perpetuated by factors including customary attitudes and economic need. Indeed, people practiced slavery within their own cultural, economic, political, and social milieux. In the same way, the process of the integration, assimilation, or marginalization of freed enslaved people was determined by local socioeconomic factors. As such, given the complexities inherent in religion and society, an interpretation of slavery via the general term “Islamic slavery” can be highly misleading and distort the realities of slavery in the Middle East. This is apparent when Clarence-Smith asserts: “A preliminary and tentative stab at quantification further shows that slavery in Islam was on a grand scale. Conjectures as to how abolition came about are mixed, and the central suggestion made here is that Islam played a neglected role in the process.”73 In a review of this work, Toledano states that this interpretation of slavery ignores the impact of local practices and cultures in societies as distant and different as Morocco and Indonesia.74 Chouki El Hamel maintains a similar position: “Islam and Islamic law was surely a powerful social dynamic, but other cultural and ethnic factors figure prominently into how Islam was engendered in particular historical social settings.”75 In noting that racial distinctions and tribal prejudices were no more rooted in Islam than a characteristic therein that encouraged the sponsorship of slavery, he suggests that “the othering of blacks goes back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah, and the Hamitic curse and discourse.”76 Moreover, nowhere in the Middle East was legalized or customary racial segregation found as it was in the Americas, states Ronald Segal; instead, Islam “confronted the emergence of racism as a form of institutionalized discrimination, because the Koran expressly condemned racism along with tribalism and nationalism.”77 The study of slavery in Middle Eastern societies therefore requires the consideration of specifics, variations, and differences rather than an abstract view of “Islamic” slavery. Its practice within an Islamic context, therefore, requires an interpretation of the various relationships: between the owners of enslaved persons and enslaved persons; their occupations, rights, and personal circumstances; and the economic and social conditions of the communities into which enslaved persons were brought.78

Bernard Lewis is one Western scholar who reinforces historical misinterpretation of the relationship between Islam and racial prejudice. Notably, his assumptions have been challenged by scholars such as Frederick Cooper, who suggests that Lewis “confuses religion with the societies in which that religion is practiced.” He observes that the British-American historian cannot “go beyond a tu quo que argument: Muslims, like everyone else, could be prejudiced. A religion, however, cannot have attitudes; people living in societies develop them.”79 Moreover, his inability “to explain the significance of race and colour to social structure”80 has perpetuated a stereotype that Islam could justify slavery because it does not recognize the fundamental equality of all human beings. For this reason, Cooper suggests that the focus should be on the historical processes that caused people within a single society to use and reshape Islam to rationalize domination. Further, in order to study slavery where Islam is important or dominant, one not only should refute the notion of a unified Islamic society but also look beyond the idea of Islamic societies. Eve Troutt Powell also challenges Lewis’s conceptualizations of race in the Islamic world (which defined the geographic separation of slavery in the West and the East), when he was suggesting that “slavery in the ‘one’ is the obverse of slavery in the ‘other’, so what African slavery really meant is described only in the negative.”81 Noting that his “black” and “white” distinction in Middle Eastern societies was influenced by the race debates in Afro-American studies, she adds that “although cited by many scholars, [Lewis’s] Race and Slavery in the Middle East remains part of the tradition created by the British ‘men on the spot,’ whose descriptions of African slavery in the Muslim world left much to the imagination of their readers.”82 And, of course, it has been shown that race and color were by no means the only factors influencing slave trading and owning patterns, for the simple fact that there were nonblack enslaved people in Iran too.

Again, it must be reiterated that the relationship between Islam and the institution of slavery is complicated. Indeed, Qurʾanic teachings and concepts acknowledged the reality of slavery and, in offering advice for its regulation, guidelines were provided for the treatment of enslaved people, including where they could be sourced, aspects of their personal lives (including marriage), and so forth. Not surprisingly, theory and practice were often discordant.83 One important example regarded the liberation of enslaved people, which was considered a sign of piety. Although “the Shiʿi legal school recommended that the Muslim slave should be set free after seven years of service,”84 documents demonstrated this was rarely put into practice.85 In the same way, it is possible to compare slavery with polygamy and concubinage. Although legal and practiced by some, they were frowned upon by the great majority of Iranians.

As a rule, the Shiʿi ʿulamaʾ were divided on the issue of slavery in Iran. Even acknowledging the absence of any explicit provision in Islamic law banning slavery, some of them tended to voice disquiet about the practice of buying and selling human beings throughout the mid-nineteenth-century abolitionist debate. But rather than issuing edicts or proclamations to this effect, they tended to focus on the social and religious ramifications of full emancipation, particularly as it pertained to the liberation of enslaved females. What emerged at this time was a distinct antireformist movement that tended to view abolition as both a conspiracy of colonialists and a betrayal of Muslim values: it was perceived as cultural imperialism.

Abolitionism inspired a debate that remains current to this day: that of the view among the more patriarchal societies in the Middle East about the protection and support of women by men. Not only is it viewed as a symbol of sexual morality, but also it is seen as an affirmation of Islamic tenets and cultural traditions. The whole debate about controlling female sexuality within the context of a value system that preserves group identity is closely related to the complex concept of honor—or a man’s pride and his own sense of value. As such, abolition and liberation were to have significant implications on the position of women in Iranian society. It is not surprising that from the moment the abolitionist discourse began in 1847 until the firmān banning the importation of enslaved Africans was passed a year later, Muhammad Shah focused on the social destabilization and moral disorder the process would engender. And it was to remain the topic of intense discussion and the subject of many royal, governmental, and religious decrees up until the institution of slavery was finally abolished in 1929. Notably, it was the liberation of enslaved female Africans that attracted the most attention, since as a result of being displaced and uprooted from their homelands, they required special social and economic protection. By contrast, indigenous enslaved females elicited less concern because it was understood that they could return to their families for protection.

Slavery and Ethnicity

Ethnic identity in parts of the Middle East tends not to be associated with phenotypic race or biological variations, as the region is home to so many different and overlapping populations. As such, identity has generally been expressed in terms of cultural expression, tradition, and so forth, rather than according to specific racial characteristics. In Iran enslaved people came from all racial and ethnic groups: “white” enslaved Circassians and Georgians were often war booty, and Iranians were enslaved in lieu of paying tax and tribute gifts or served as wageless laborers, while “black” Africans usually came into Iranian ports as commodities and were distributed through well-organized trade networks. Attempts to establish interpretative models to determine the features governing the choices of the enslavement of one group of people over another have led scholars, like Zilfi, to emphasize the role of religious affiliation and geographic origin: “Islamic regimes like the Ottoman Empire,” she observes, “defined liability to enslavement not in terms of race, color, or ethnicity but in accordance with the conjoined attributes of geography and religion.”86 Although this is evident in Iran as well, the Iranian paradigm also suggested an emphasis on society, culture, and class (translating into power or wealth). It is important to realize therefore that the exigencies characterizing the slave trade in the Atlantic were quite different than those in Iran: indeed, where the divide between slave holder and enslaved for the former was always racial, for the latter it was tended to be more subtle and to rely on a range of cultural, social, and geographical considerations. As such, it is important not to overemphasize the fact that enslaved people from certain racial backgrounds tended to be found in certain positions. Instead, one must look at the socioeconomic factors that found them in these roles. For instance, it was common for African eunuchs, who were highly prized because of their functions, to be chosen for the harems.

Many indigenous Iranians were also taken into slavery as the result of political instability, especially along the Iranian frontiers. Sectarian rivalry, military weakness, and famine were responsible for the enslavement of Iranians by Turcomans and their sale at the bazaars of Khiva, Ashgabat, and Bukhara. Economic depression also led to the voluntary enslavement of Iranians in Khorasan. In the south and southeast, many Iranians were kidnapped and sold as enslaved people in Arab countries. In this region, Baluchis were particularly vulnerable. A combination of factors, including systemic socioeconomic poverty and political instability, almost guaranteed a worsening of the situation after 1848. Indeed, while there was a decline in the sale of other ethnic groups hereafter, the trade in Iranians actually accelerated.

Historical processes affect the development of identity and ethnic expression for individuals and groups in many ways—just as it did for enslaved people. Their ethnic identity was often reinvented in the host society according to new norms but also relied on the experiences of shared kinship history, culture, and language. What is notable about the status of former enslaved Iranians in the postemancipation period after 1929 is that many lost their distinct ethnocultural identities through a process of integration and collective social liberation. First, demographic patterns were forever altered with the wide-scale migration of populations from rural areas to the cities. In turn, the emergence of semi-industrial economy transformed the social and cultural aspects of rural life. Second, liberation meant that not only did they become guaranteed wage laborers, but many former enslaved people partnered with free peasants in rural areas and established communities.


An examination of the use of various expressions and terms in the Persian literature provides a fascinating picture of societal attitudes about enslaved people. The translation of the word “enslaved” in Persian is bardeh, and it referred to enslaved people from all geographic regions, although asīr (“war captive”; plural usarā or asīrān) and zarkharīd (“purchased with gold”) were also used. The most commonly used words were the gendered terms ghulām87 (plural ghulāmān, ghulāmhā) for a man and kanīz88 (plural kanīzān, kanīzhā) for a woman—both meaning “servant” as distinct from “enslaved” and referred to domestic servitude. Notably, references in nineteenth-century Persian literature to the ghulāmān and kanīzān of the king were understood to include free Iranians, too. According to ʿAbdullah Mustaufi, a Qajar courtier, black kanīzān and ghulāmān were specifically identified as ḥājī (a male) and ḥajīa (a female)89 because many came to Iran from Mecca.90 A eunuch was called a khauja (plural khaujagān)—or an āghā, as a title before their names— while a liberated enslaved person was designated an āzād. Sīyāh (“black”) was the most commonly used term by which enslaved Africans were designated in nineteenth-century manuscripts. Within the context of kinship, kākā (“brother” or “home-grown enslaved man”) was respectful and familiar ways of referring to black enslaved people; in fact, dādā and dada (“sister” or “home-grown enslaved woman”) were common terms used to describe an enslaved female, who served the master since childhood and looked after children. Sayfeh and jārīyah (“concubine”) were terms used to designate the relationship of an enslaved female to her master. Terms like Āfrīqāʾī, Sudanī, Ḥabashī, Zangī, Nubī, and Sīdī all referenced geographical origin of enslaved Africans.91 The fluidity of these terms not only indicates that the identity of enslaved people could be transformed, but that they were not confined to a static position within the system and could, in fact, elevate their statuses.

In conclusion, the study of slavery in nineteenth-century Iran presents a model both for understanding internal political, economic, and social structures and international relations in the Middle East, as well as for enhancing our knowledge of culture and identity transformation in modern Iran. It is therefore of interest to those who desire to learn not only about the history of Iran but also to understand the root cause of societal transformations in this region. Centuries of old institutions and traditional customs were altered as a consequence of global interactions and internal changes. Policy makers and intellectuals influenced by new Western ideologies implemented reforms and centralized the government to secure the borders and protect the motherland. Within this context, we may say that the question of national identity became symbolic to both free and enslaved Iranians in the struggle for nationhood, a struggle that found expression in the universal concepts of freedom, equality, and brotherhood.


“This is a major contribution to the study of enslavement in Iran, which will doubtlessly become a must-read for any future studies of Middle Eastern and Islamic enslavement and abolition, as well as for any work on Iranian history in general.”
Ehud R. Toledano, Tel Aviv University, author of As If Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East

“While this book will be revelatory to scholars of Iran, it also promises to engage with theoretical trends in the study of slavery elsewhere. It frames many research questions broadly to engage with scholars of slavery in other Muslim lands, as well as slavery elsewhere.”
Kamran Scot Aghaie, University of Texas at Austin, coeditor of Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity


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