The Zanj Revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate

The Zanj Revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate.

Afro-Arab writer al-Jahiz said that the Zanj were “Black people from the coast of East Africa who had been imported [to Baghdad] as slaves, at an indeterminate date.” According to al-Jahiz, the Zanj were made of four ethnic groups: Qunbula, Lanjawiyya, Naml and Kilab.

Under Abbasid rule they were treated very harshly, which led to a series of revolts between 869 and 883. ‘Ali ibn Muhammad, a man who claimed to be a descendant of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, instigated the revolts.

The Zanj revolts were fomented by East African slaves, who were working in the saline areas of lower Mesopotamia to remove the salt sands and brine and open the area up to cultivation. As labour-intensive activities such as mining and plantation agriculture had expanded in the Muslim domains, so the slave trade had developed, especially the commerce in African slaves. Simultaneously, cultural justifications for the enslavement of Africans multiplied, with many classical writers depicting blacks as slow-witted and bestial.

The Zanj conquered large parts of Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, held the city of of Basra for a decade, established their own capital, and even minted their own currency.

The Zanj revolt signified a unique instance of solidarity among Africans in Iraq, because black soldiers of the Caliph deserted and joined the revolt. The Abbasids made use of weak or fabricated Prophetic traditions as well as Fatwas (Edicts) from Muslim clerics that did not disapprove of the enslavement of East Africans.
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