28. August 2023

Conference: Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Societies Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Societies

A conference jointly organized by the BCDSS and TraSIS - Trajectories of Slavery in Islamicate Societies - a project at the University of Bern.

Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Societies.png
Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Societies.png © TRASIS
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BCDSS speaker Prof. Dr. Stephan Conermann, together with Prof. Dr. Serena Tolino of the University of Bern and the team of TraSIS, are inviting participants to explore the historical manifestations of diverse forms of slavery within Islamicate societies. The collaborative initiative seeks to analyze the profound influence of various legal constructs on the intricate tapestry of social realities within these societies.

The keynote lecture will be held by Christian Müller (CNRS, Paris) on:

"New Sources for Muslim Social History?
Premodern Legal Documents from a Comparative Perspective"

Further fields to be explored:

  • Slavery, Abolition and Race in North and West Africa
  • Clientage and Relations of Dependency
  • Labour and the Regulation of Slavery in Legal and Non-Legal Sources
  • Dependency and Household Relations in Early Legal Sources
  • Concubinage and the Umm al-Walad

About the TraSIS  - Trajectories of Slavery in Islamicate Societies - Project


For centuries, slavery in various forms was an integral part of Islamicate societies. Different manifestations of unfreedom are rooted in different legal concepts and have produced varying social realities for the individuals concerned. For the purposes of this project, slavery is an analytical category that includes various forms of dependency, even if the connections between them are not explicitly reflected in their Arabic terms. 

Content and aim of the research project

Muslim jurists have conceptualised freedom and unfreedom in a range of different ways over time. Of particular interest for historical research is the question of how and to what extent social realities were and still are impacted by these differing conceptions. This project focuses on three legal concepts that can be located beyond the freedom/slavery binary: firstly, the umm al-walad, literally the “mother of the child,” a female slave who bears her master’s child and thereby, according to most Sunni jurists, enjoys a special legal status that entails her release upon the death of her master. 

Secondly, the project explores the kitāba, a contract which allows an enslaved person to purchase their freedom by paying instalments to their owner over a period of time, during which process the enslaved person enjoys an intermediate status somewhere between freedom and slavery. 

Thirdly, there is the kafāla. This concept has its roots in commercial law, where it originally referred to a guarantee. In the 20thcentury, however, it was established on the one hand as a form of tutelage for children, but also as a system of immigration and labour market control, especially in the Gulf States, Jordan, and Lebanon. Today, this system is linked to unfree labour relations. 

These three concepts are explored with a historical focus on the modern period, aiming at expanding our knowledge of various conceptualisations of slavery in the Arabophone world. The project examines continuities and ruptures in the legal discourse on different forms of slavery in order to explore how these categories have been re-deployed in the modern period. Through this approach, the project challenges the frequently encountered assumption that slavery is a phenomenon confined to the pre-modern era. Finally, an intersectional view of different relations of inequality such as gender, ethnicity, class, and religion adds analytical depth to the project and allows for an innovative approach to exploring the interplay of bondage and other factors in the historical discourse of Muslim jurists.

Scientific and societal context

For a considerable time, the study of slavery has been dominated by approaches rooted in the consideration of Transatlantic slavery. This project weds research on gender (based on intersectionality) with the study of slavery and forced labour. To do so, it explores legal materials using the method of historical discourse analysis. It thus complements existing research while addressing the current Eurocentric bias in the study of slavery. 

See the full program
More info on the TraSIS Blog

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