The sultan was only slightly out of date concerning the enactment of laws to abolish or limit the slave trade, and he was sadly right in his general historic perspective. The institution of slavery had indeed been practiced from time immemorial. It existed in all the ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe, and pre-Columbian America. It had been accepted and even endorsed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as other religions of the world.
In the ancient Middle East, as elsewhere, slavery is attested from the very earliest written records, among the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and other ancient peoples. The earliest slaves, it would seem, were captives taken in warfare. Their numbers were augmented from other sources of supply. In pre-classical antiquity, most slaves appear to have been the property of kings, priests, and temples, and only a relatively small proportion were in private possession. They were employed to till the fields and tend the flocks of their royal and priestly masters but otherwise seem to have played little role in economic production, which was mostly left to small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers and to artisans and journeymen. The slave population was also recruited by the sale, abandonment, or kidnapping of small children. Free persons could sell themselves or, more frequently, their offspring into slavery. They could be enslaved for insolvency, as could be the persons offered by them as pledges. In some systems, notably that of Rome, free persons could also be enslaved for a variety of offenses against the law.
Both the Old and New Testaments recognize and accept the institution of slavery. Both from time to time insist on the basic humanity of the slave, and the consequent need to treat him humanely. The Jews are frequently reminded, in both Bible and Talmud, that they too were slaves in Egypt and should therefore treat their slaves decently. Psalm 123, which compares the worshipper's appeal to God for mercy with the slave's appeal to his master, is cited to enjoin slave owners to treat their slaves with compassion. A verse in the book of Job has even been interpreted as an argument against slavery as such: "Did not He that made me in the womb make him [the slave]? And did not One fashion us both?" (Job 31:15). This probably means no more, however, than that the slave is a fellow human being and not a mere chattel. The same is true of the much-quoted passage in the New Testament, that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." These and similar verses were not understood to mean that ethnic, social, and gender differences were unimportant or should be abolished, only that they conferred no religious privilege. From many allusions, it is clear that slavery is accepted in the New Testament as a fact of life. Some passages in the Pauline Epistles even endorse it. Thus in the Epistle to Philemon, a runaway slave is returned to his master; in Ephesians 6, the duty owed by a slave to his master is compared with the duty owed by a child to his parent, and the slave is enjoined "to be obedient to them that are your masters, according to the flesh, in fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ." Parents and masters are likewise enjoined to show consideration for their children and slaves. All humans, of the true faith, were equal in the eyes of God and in the afterlife but not necessarily in the laws of man and in this world. Those not of the true faith -- whichever it was -- were in another, and in most respects an inferior, category. In this respect, the Greek perception of the barbarian and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic perception of the unbeliever coincide.
Jews, Christians, and pagans alike owned slaves and exercised the rights and powers accorded to them by their various religious laws. In all communities, there were men of compassion who urged slave owners to treat their slaves humanely, and there was even some attempt to secure this by law. But the institution of slavery as such was not seriously questioned, and was indeed often defended in terms of either Natural Law or Divine Dispensation. Thus Aristotle defends the condition of slavery and even the forcible enslavement of those who are "by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is beneficial"; other Greek philosophers express similar ideas, particularly about enslaved captives from conquered peoples. For such, slavery is not only right; it is also to their advantage.
The ancient Israelites did not claim that slavery was beneficial to the slaves, but, like the ancient Greeks, they felt the need to explain and justify the enslavement of their neighbors. In this, as in other matters, they sought a religious rather than a philosophical sanction and found it in the biblical story of the curse of Ham. Significantly, this curse was restricted to one line only of the descendants of Ham, namely, the children of Canaan, whom the Israelites had subjugated when they conquered the Promised Land, and did not affect the others.
The Qur'an, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it. The Prophet Muhammad and those of his Companions who could afford it themselves owned slaves; some of them acquired more by conquest.
Bernard Lewis, "Race and Slavery in the Middle East. "Oxford University Press, 1994
Unfortunately, many of the images and perceptions which the public holds of slavery have been shaped by images found in Hollywood films and fictional novels. Recent scholarship on "the peculiar institution" has taken giant steps forward in eroding these stereotype images. How, for example, is one to interpret such American Civil War figures as Confederate Major General Patrick R. Cleburne? Born in Ireland, he migrated to the South in his twenties where he worked as a druggist and later as an attorney. Enlisting in the Confederacy he rose to the rank of Major General, participated in six major battles and won for himself the sobriquet of "Stonewall of the West." Yet he opposed slavery and took the then radical step of advocating their emancipation. In a letter to his family in 1861 he wrote that "I am with the South in death, in victory or defeat. (Like most Southerners, he said) I never owned a Negro and care nothing for them, but these people have been my friends and have stood up to me on all occasions." If it is hard to put Cleburne into a neat pigeonhole, how much more difficult is it to stereotype Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln's running mate in 1864, a staunch Unionists who eventually became President despite the fact that he was a slave owner. Stereotypes exist, in all dimensions and need to be set aside by an examination of the historical record. Students can make their contribution to this end, which is the goal of this site, and help us all to reach new levels of understanding by learning from the past and accurately informing those who come after us.