Part 1 of 2
It is amazing how many genuine proletarian revolts have begun by us throwing pots, pans and the kitchen sink at the class enemy. The Zanj Slaves' Rebellion (869-883 A.D.) began in similar humble circumstances. Armed with sticks, two horses and three swords the wretched of the earth declared war on slavery and the Holy Empire of Islam.
What distinguishes the Zanj from numerous other slave rebellions cannot be measured in terms of numbers or the length of their struggle alone because one needs to bear in mind the aptitude displayed time and again in outmaneuvering the ruling class. Instinctively they knew what needs to be done. That is not to belittle their numbers for this is one instance when quantitative comparisons are not misleading. The Spartacus Rebellion lasted for 3 years (73-71 BCE) and involved around 120,000 slaves. By contrast, the Zanj were 500,000 strong and maintained a marooned state for 15 years. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that their history has not been subjected to the gaze of Hollywood for the latter has an inbuilt tendency for de-memorizing and reifying proletarian resistance to class society. It is, therefore, left to us 21st century proles to re-create the world and times of kindred spirits separated from us by more than a millennium.
"Hence a wise general makes a point of foraging on the enemy. One cartload of the enemy's provisions is equivalent to twenty of one's own..."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
No sooner had they taken up arms (well pots and pans to be more precise) against their exploiters that they became adept at night-raids on enemy territory, liberating weapons, horses, food and fellow slaves, burning the rest to cinders to delay retaliation. During their 15 year uprising (869-883 A.D.) the Zanj acquired what was for its time state of the art technology: siege-laying catapults; flame-throwers; rapid chariots; multi-headed arrows. They trained expert engineers who blocked the enemy's advance by constructing impenetrable fortresses, cocooned inside layers of water canals or conversely built rapid bridges and communication lines for uninvited courtesy calls to the citadels of the gods.
Perhaps taking a leaf out of Spartacus's defeat they did not handicap themselves by ignoring the seas. They possessed war ships and freighters. In one battle alone they overcame the Khalifeh's navy to capture 24 ships, which had been chained together by their captains to enhance their defensive capabilities! Rafi' in what seems to us an exaggeration puts the Zanj naval force at 1900 ships!
"We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country - its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
ISLAMIC EMPIRE AND RACE
The Abbasi Empire (750-1258 AD) understood the concept of a progressive civilization as one constantly increasing its surplus profit. The Tigris-Euphrates delta, which had become abandoned marshland as a result of peasant migration and repeated flooding, could be reclaimed through intensive labour. Wealthy proprietors "had received extensive grants of tidal land on the condition that they would make it arable" (Davis, Slavery And Human Progress, p5).
To this end Zanjis, or black slaves of East African origin, were imported. The term Zanj appears on the one hand associated to a certain geographical area and on the other it became a "free-floating" classificatory label used for stereotyping the zanj-as-enslaveable barbarians. This construct then facilitates the ideological justification for slavery (P. F. de Moraes Farias, Slave & Slavery in Muslim Africa, ed. J. R. Willis, vol. I, p 27).
The preponderance of foreign slaves in the Islamic Empire was due to an ironic quirk in the evolution of Islam. The orientalist, Bernard Lewis, is reasonably lucid on this. He starts by noting, "Quran expresses no racist or colour prejudice" (B. Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, p 21). In fact it had no conception of race in terms of colour, having already decided on the believer/non-believer criterion for social exclusion. That is not to say early Muslims were colour blind (see for example, Quran, Chapter XLIX, Verse 13). Quran's lack of prejudice merely reflected the attitude of pre-Islamic Arabs who possessed a tribal/ethnic rather than a racial consciousness. Although, it is worth remembering that, as a reaction against Persian expansionism the latter were derogatory referred to as "the red people".
There was a gigantic hypocrisy at the heart of the Islamic attitude to slavery from the outset. For whereas the prophet himself both possessed slaves and permitted slavery as an institution to flourish, the humanitarian tendencies within Islam prohibited actual enslavement (except during war or as tribute). Thus a dialectical loop was established whereby economic productivity required an increase in the importation of slaves leading to the further commodification of humans and a corollary racist ideology to justify subjugation, which in turn fuelled crusades in search of more slaves.
Islamic Humanism preceded its Renaissance counterpart by centuries, finding its negation in the institutions of slavery. It was to the Zanjis credit that they managed to temporarily supercede this dichotomy. Later on, this humanism having failed to connect to a generalized system of commodity production degenerated into humanitarianism. Paul Mattick (Anti-Bolshevik Communism, p 158) makes a valid generalization for the European arena where humanism did reach impressive levels of achievement and where its fall from grace was even more spectacular than its 'oriental' counterpart: "With the bourgeoisie securely established, humanism degenerated into humanitarianism for the alleviation of the social misery that accompanied the capital formation process". The reign of the Islamic bourgeoisie has been more halting and uneven, less secure. Some of the battles won by the 'western' bourgeoisie against European feudalism are still to be completed by its 'eastern' counterpart. Consequently, one would expect a more lingering humanist tradition amongst the Islamic intelligentsia. This is precisely why (bourgeois) sufism remains a powerful current within 'Islamic' societies.
Compared to the Roman Empire whose slaves were mostly local, the greater distances involved in the transport of slaves, led to a more sophisticated slave trade in Islam. Lewis reminds us that through conquest, commerce, concubage and pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam created the first truly universal civilization. Here the term 'civilization' is not employed in a moralistic sense but refers to a system, which creates more surplus value than previous ones. Moreover, we would qualify the universalistic claims of Islam by pointing out that its foundation, the umma (Islamic community) is an 'imagined community' where class and gender inequalities are systematically covered up. It is significant that this imagined community needed external enemies for its survival and employed divide-and-rule tactics as brazenly as its 'western' equivalent. However, despite the policy of dividing the laborers by nationality, pursued by successive khalifehs, international solidarity between the slaves reached new heights.
"What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Although African slaves working the marshlands and salt mines of Mesopotamia, especially those around Basra, sparked the rebellion, they were soon joined by other slaves, serfs, peasants, artisans, tribal Arabs, manumissioned slaves and the usual rent-a-mob-rabble that are forever lurking around the dark and dubious alleyways of history, waiting for an opportunity to do mischief.
One such malcontent was a Persian by the name of Ali Razi (aka Zangi-yar, literally translated, mate of the Zanjis) who became the leader of the rebellion. He promised his followers heaven on earth and punished slave-owners severely in public trials. His knowledge of the occult and expertise with the astrolabe confirmed his supernatural status. This is not as strange as it sounds. Spartacus was credited with similar powers: "According to the credulous Greek historian, Plutarch, serpents curled around [Spartacus] whilst he slept, and his prophetess wife foretold his greatness even when he was still a slave" (F. A. Ridley, Spartacus, p 37). Razi appropriated the wealthy and persuaded their slaves through reasoned arguments to join his ranks. In his speeches he repeatedly asks the slaves to execute him unhesitatingly if he should betray their trust. Razi's pledge seems far more genuine than similar oaths in other secret societies, for instance the Caraboneri.
The fact that the success of the rebellion depended on the leadership of Razi is certainly a source of weakness. However, it is pointless to deny that many past struggles suffered from having to rely on charismatic leaders (Of course, some idiots still need the charisma of people like Subcommandante Marcos, Che, Malcolm X, Bakunin and Lenin to make them feel safe. The problem may have been ameliorated in recent decades but not completely overcome). For example, the First Sicilian Slave-War (134-129 BC) witnessed the rise of the Syrian rebel/king, Eunus, who was credited with magical power. The first widespread uprising of the Zanj in 866 AD was led by an African called Sharih Habash. Three years later the Zanj chose Ali Razi to be their leader. In so far as he stamped his personality on the revolt, we need to consider him.
From their fortress-city of Mokhtarieh (Autonomia) they attacked and vanquished two Khalifehs, numerous hapless generals, raised mosques to the ground- all the time increasing their power and prestige. Davis in Slavery and Human Progress concedes that the Zanj established what might have been the first maroon community in recorded history, "that is, protected, self-sufficient communities of fugitive slaves". Arguably, the Zanj were even more ambitious than this quote suggests and western scholars marginalization of their struggles seems a tad suspicious to paranoids like us. Davis seems particularly confused on this score. As for Mokhtarieh, perhaps it should be compared with the intended utopian City of the Sun, Heliopolis. Aristonicus (a disgruntled Royal turned rebel) "issued a proclamation freeing all slaves who should come to this city" (circa 130 BC). Mokhtarieh was Heliopolis incarnated. Slaves from neighbouring countries flocked to their banner, Turks, Slavs, Persians, Arabs, so that by the end of their 15-year reign of revolutionary terror non-Africans outnumbered the original rebels.
"Keep your army continually on the move, and devise unfathomable plans".
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War