With slavery in the news, thanks to its practice in Sudan and Mauritania, Ennaji's scrupulous and lively research into this phenomenon holds both historical and current interest. What precisely is the status of slaves in Muslim countries and how will this evil social structure be abolished?
By making extensive use of the Moroccan State Archives, Ennaji, a Moroccan scholar, can provide a perhaps unprecedented richness of detail in sketching the institution of slavery in a Muslim country. He finds the practice of slavery bewilderingly diverse, as slaves of the elite dispose of skills and consume goods far beyond the reach of the average free person (for example, accompanying their master on the pilgrimage to Mecca). One particularly educated and pious slave won "the deepest respect" of all who encountered him—indeed, most would kiss his hand! At the other extreme, field hands toiled away in distant obscurity under conditions not too different from those of the American South. The rich trained and cultivated their slaves, both for economic purposes and for personal pleasure; the poor merely made do. The most highly prized slaves were the geisha-like women who could entertain their masters in public and private; they sometimes enjoyed more benefits than the wife. Badly treated slaves constantly ran away—"fugitives were part of the traveling landscape"; in contrast, those well treated were "canine" in their fidelity, as one French observer carelessly put it. As a symbol of the slave's powerlessness, the master would haphazardly change his name from one year or one day to the other. Female slaves served their owners as both concubines and breeders. Females outnumbered males among slaves 2-to-1. Emancipation was fairly rare.
Despite this variety, Ennaji does hazard some generalizations: "Brutality formed part of their daily lives." Slaves symbolized power for their owners. Education and skills "created a hierarchy among slaves and deepened differences in treatment" among them. Slaves trembled at the prospect of being sent to market to be sold ("nothing equaled the sadness of a slave sale"); and the value of slaves decreased as they grew older.
As for abolition, Ennaji shows that the slave institution died out in the first half of this century due less to the French Protectorate (which found it politic to go easy on this practice, so popular among the country's powerful—and present even among some resident Frenchmen), and more due to a drying up of supplies. Slavery "disappeared not by edict, but by force of circumstances." Given the conditions today of war in Sudan and the endemic slavery of Mauritania, this is not a good sign.