Slavery is not a fixed condition but a spectrum of unfreedom. The term Islamic slavery has been bandied about for four decades without an adequate definition. At the birth of Islam there were a large number of captives from endemic intertribal warfare, many of them Arabs who were often exchanged or ransomed. When the original Islamic state in Medina expanded to become dynastic Muslim empires that conquered large parts of the Byzantine and Persian empires, the ethical principles in the Quran and the hadiths regarding the treatment of captives were no longer adequate to deal with the new situation. They had to be reduced to enforceable laws by the various sharia schools. The empires inherited the Mesopotamian plains, which required irrigation on a large scale based on massive slave labor. Commercially acquired slaves became the norm, and large concentrations of imported slaves from Africa and elsewhere living under harsh conditions ultimately led to the Zanj Revolution. It threatened even the survival of the Abbasid dynasty, and led to the abandonment of plantation use of slaves.

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