The description is submitted to:


Session R4785 (Histories of Slavery in Medieval Islamic Societies), 2017
In line with the roundtable’s aim to explore new sources for researching slavery in medieval Islamic societies, I will offer a perspective from Yemen. With the notable exception of ?usayn al-?Amr?'s pioneering works of 1987 and 1989, medieval Yemeni source material has not yet been drawn upon to inform our understanding of slavery at the time. My research focuses on sources from the 12th to the 14th century and encompasses chronicles, biographies, as well as administrative documents.

Slaves in high military and administrative positions figure prominently in the historiographic and biographical writings of ?Al? b. al-?asan al-Khazraj?, chronicler of the Rasulid court at the turn of the 15th century. Tracing the careers of these men allows for fruitful comparison with better-known cases of military and court slavery in the Islamic world. Given their political focus, however, al-Khazraj?’s works offer little evidence on the lives of low-class and female slaves. Two lesser-known works help mitigate this source bias. First, ?Um?ra al-?akam?’s 12th-century chronicle of the Naj??id slave dynasty is uniquely rich in descriptions of courtly concubines. They appear not only as objects of sale and desire, but also as actively furthering their own interests and exercising influence over their masters. Second, a 13th-century collection of administrative documents known as the N?r al-Ma??rif features slaves as cooks, stable boys, and in other menial occupations. Evidence from this collection suggests that the lowest levels of the Rasulid state apparatus relied heavily on slave labour.

Taken together, these works also offer insights into the many ways in which slavery shaped the formation of identity, society, and law in the medieval Islamic world. To give just one example, a patrilineal descent system and Islamic laws regulating concubinage facilitated the integration of children born to African slave mothers into local society. While this process presumably blurred the lines between local and foreign, free and enslaved, these very lines were at times upheld and reinforced by a rhetoric of othering which sought to single out individuals of African and slave descent as foreign, low-class, or otherwise inadequate.