Against Ignoring Race: The Zanj Revolution as Black Slave Revolt

Derek Ide | Race & Ethnicity | History | April 20th, 2019

Numerous controversies exist surrounding one of the most historic uprisings in the pre-modern world. The Thawrat al-Zanj was a mass uprising in the area surrounding Basra against the Abbasid Caliphate from 869 to 883.[1] The Zanj revolt has been variously described as a "typical class war" and "proletarian movement based on a coherent politico-religious doctrine,"[2] a "state run by bandits," [3] a "semi-barbarian movement,"[4] and a "terrible revolt" which "sowed the seeds of Lower Mesopotamia's ruin." [5] Eventually, the Abbasids brutally crushed the rebellion, particularly after the leader of the Saffarid uprising in Persia declined a formal alliance with theSahib al-Zanj, Ali ibn Muhammad. [6] Despite prodigious bloodshed, the revolutionaries who revolted against their former masters, landlords, and the general class of Arab ruling elites were driven by a deeply-rooted egalitarianism, officially articulated by Ali ibn Muhammad, who at times borrowed from Kharijite slogans. There were certainly material and ideological limits to the revolution, limits that adherents of modernity's universal humanistic claims may find unsavory. One in particular was the unwillingness or inability to abolish slavery as an institution but instead to reverse the position of slave and slave-master. Yet, in spite of limited primary source material, enough evidence exists to understand the Zanj revolution as primarily a slave revolt first, and a racialized one at that. This neo-traditionalist analysis positions the former slave class in a vanguard role, even if other classes eventually joined the revolt.

There are a few distinct criteria that can be established in order to confirm that the Zanj revolution was a slave rebellion led by black slaves. First, we must trace the etymological lineage of the word "Zanj," a word of considerable disputation. Second, we must establish that the rulers of Abbasid Iraq did indeed utilize black slave labor, particularly in the marshy areas around Basra. Finally, we must establish that Ali ibn Muhammad specifically organized the black Zanj as the primary motor to lead the revolt against the Abbasid caliphate. After addressing these three variables, the second task of this essay will be to review existing literature on the topic, primarily split between those who assert the black slave character of the revolt and those who obscure or deny it. For the sake of simplicity, the labels "traditionalist" (or neo-traditionalist) will be used for the former while the term "revisionist" will be used for the latter. Despite the claims of revisionist historians who attempt to obscure the racialized nature of the revolt, [7] the Zanj revolution was certainly about slavery, even if its goals were not to abolish slavery as an institution but simply reverse the role of slave and slave master.

The Etymology and Use of the Word "Zanj"

There are several theses on the origin of the word Zanj. The one common denominator is that it is not an Arabic word in origin, but that its tri-consonant structure (z-n-j) allowed it to be easily adapted. At least one scholar asserts it is of Ethiopian origin, connected with " zenega" (to prattle, stammer, to barbarize). Another group of scholars claim it is of Persian origin, claiming zang/zangi is used to denote "Negro." [8] Others still claim it is Greek, coming from "zingis," although this is less likely. The more heated area of contestation focuses on the interpretation of the word and how contemporaries of the Zanj revolt employed it. In general, however, Popovic asserts that to talk about a "land of the Zanj," as it has sometimes been employed, to denote a general territory south of Abyssinia and along the Eastern coast of Africa, is misleading. This is due to the fact that the term "Zanj" include "blacks from numerous peoples bought or seized in all ports of call all along the coast." [9]

It is evident from both contemporaneous Arab commentators, as well as those who lived in the wake of the Zanj revolt, that racial tropes were regular elements of Arab thought. For instance, Arab cosmographer and geographer Kazouini attributes "fetid odor, limited intelligence, extreme exuberance, [and] cannibalistic customs" to the Zanj. [10] Masudi likewise notes the Zanj are of "smelly skin, excessive petulance, sparse eyebrows, [and] highly developed sexual organs." [11] Fourteenth century Arab writer Al-Bakoui notes the Zanj are characterized by their "odor, their quicknes ot anger, their lack of intellect, their habit of eating one another and their enemies." Finally, Arab geographer al-Kindi argues that the hot climate in the land of the Zanj causes the brain to lose "its balance, and the soul can no longer exert its complete action on it; the swell of perceptions and the absence of any act of intelligence are the result."[12] French translator L. M. Devic that amongst Arab authors of the Middle Ages, such commentaries were ordinary. The Zanj are variously: evil, "surpass brute animals in their unfitness and perverse natures," are "so hideous and so ugly," idolaters, etc.[13] It should be noted, however, that exceptions to such characterizations exist. For instance, centuries later Ibn Khaldun chastises Masudi, Galen, and al-Kindi for asserting that the Zanj character is dominated by a "weakness of the brain," which for Ibn Khaldun was a "worthless" explanation that "proves nothing." [14]

In 1976, M.A. Shaban argued that a distinction between the term sudan and zanj was integral to understanding the revolt around Basra. As he explains, this terminology was "not used at random; they were meant to define certain groups of mankind." The Zanj were from East Africa and extending into Central Africa, while the sudan indicated the Western Sudan of today to the shores of the Atlantic. [15] According to Shaban, the governor of Egypt Ibn Tulun enlisted tens of thousands of "negroid" Sudanese to fight against the Zanj, in order to capture certain port cities and restore lucrative trade routes that had been severed because of the uprising.[16] However, this binary etymological distinction is complicated when Shaban discusses the Qaramita revolt after the crushing of the Zanj. For instance, he suggests that the Qaramat first appeared to describe a "group who had supported the Zanj revolt, the reference being to the Qarmatiyyun and to Nubians who could hardly speak Arabic." [17] He notes that the geographer Maqdisi associates these two people with the Sudan. Shaban argues that the Qaramita were "remnants of the Zanj revolts who… were ready to take part in any revolt." [18]

In her 1986 work "Toward a Definition of the Term Zanj," Marina Tolmacheva makes a compelling and cohesive argument undermining the thesis that "Zanj" is etymologically associated only with a specific portion of the East African coast.[19] In many ways, she borrows from Talhami, who argues that there is an "overemphasis" on Arab commercial interactions with East Africa in the early Abbasid era, and that "the assumption that 'Abbasid writers used Zanj to mean specifically the East African coast, and that therefore the people they called Zanj originated in a specific part of that region, is completely unjustified."[20] Tolmacheva posits a new argument:

I would like to suggest that the history of the term Zanj, and the growth of its geographic and racial scope, may be more closely connected with the history of commercial ties between Africa, Arabia and the Persian Gulf than with political-military expansions, whether of Rome, Persia or the Islamic caliphate. Continually under certain constraints of navigation and temporarily focused under the Sassanids on the Red Sea area, these ties were eventually restored to include the East African coast. In this process the word formerly used to describe negroid slaves exported from north-east Africa may have developed a new connotation for peoples of the coast well past Cape Guardafui .[21]

Thus, while possibly weakening the idea that the slaves working in the marshy areas of Baghdad were specifically Southeast African in origin only, this reinforces the notion that these were likely black slaves from other areas of Africa.

The Class Economy of Basra in the Latter Half of the Ninth Century

The Zanj Revolt primarily occurred in what is modern day Iraq and a section of Iran (Khuzistan). Two regions in particular, Batiha and Maysan in lower Iraq's canal region, are of particular importance. [22] As Alexandre Popovic notes, this importance can be attributed to the "nature of their soil," which were largely marshy flatland areas that are regularly flooded with mud.[23] Swamp reeds and growths permeated the wide but shallow canals crossed the area. Only small, flat boats could navigate these canals, making navigation in al-Batiha extraordinarily difficult (and often a perfect hideaway for brigands and rebels of all sorts).[24] Lower Iraq's "Canal Region," especially the Nahr Abd al-Khasib where the Zanj capital of al-Mukhtara ("The Chosen") was established, facilitated guerrilla activity and acted as the base from which the rebels could launch raids.[25] While the reeds and rushes that naturally adorned the area were put to many uses by local inhabitants, the agrarian population also grew melons, onions, rice, barley, corn, and other grains. Yet, as al-Tabari noted, swarms of mosquitoes were a scourge on the population and malaria was an omnipresent threat.[26]

Prior to Umayyad governor al-Hajjaj and his successors, the Arabs of Iraq (either Bedouins or merchants) showed little care for land reclamation projects. The Abbasid Caliphs augmented the land revival projects, which were carried out by overseers (wakil) and freemen (mawla) who had been granted the land as rewards. As Popovic notes, four points are of significant interest: 1) the existence of "dead lands" around Basra, 2) the possibility of "acquiring these lands," 3) the presence in Basra of people with substantial capital, and 4) the presence of slave laborers to transform the land.[27]

The date of arrival for black slaves to Iraq from the East Coast of Africa is contested. One scholar, F. Al-Samir, suggests 720 as the date for Muslim trade outposts in East Africa. If, as it is believed, black slaves were captured, bought, or obtained from subject states on the coast as tribute, it can be surmised that slaves proliferated in Iraqi society after this date. Some scholars, such as Charles Pellat claim an earlier but indeterminate date of origin, noting that Arab historians reported general "Zanj revolts" (not the Zanj revolt of Basra) as early as 689-90 and 694-5. [28] As Jere L. Bacharach explains:

It was not unusual to find references to African slaves in Iraq without any warning of when and how they got there or what happened to them after the specific event was recorded; for example, a revolt of African Zanj slaves in Basra in 76/695 or the appearance of 4,000 Zanj military slaves in Mosul in I33/75I. Therefore, the silence in the Arabic chronicles on the numbers and activities of African military slaves in Iraq from 210/825 to the Zanj rebellion (255/869-271/883) may reflect their absence or, more likely, their relative unimportance in the eyes of the chroniclers. [29]

By the Abbasid era, as Bacharach argues, the "Muslim military reflected an organizational pattern more familiar to the pre-Islamic Fertile Crescent than to the Arabia of Muhammad." [30] Imported military slaves, notable Turkish cavalrymen and African infantry, were used by Arab rulers to control large swaths of territory. Africans were generally considered inferior to Turks due to a circular logic (infantry inferior to cavalry, Africans associated with the former and Turks with the latter) that was self-reinforcing. The kind of racialized and occupational inferiority assigned by Arab rulers and writers to Africans in a military context was grafted onto slaves utilized for extractive labor as well.

According to Tabari, the future rebels were employed as laborers ( kassahin) to prepare the land in lower Iraqi so that the area around Shatt al-Arab could be cultivated. The arduous objective was removing the top crust from the surface, transfer it by mule, and pile it in large heaps. These laborers were recruited from among black slaves, camped in groups of 500 to 5,000, [31] and forced to survive off handfuls of flour, semolina, and dates. In general, only the wealthy had access to such lands and could afford to purchase and exploit such large quantities of slaves. Al-Tabari suggests around 15,000 slaves were employed in such a manner. [32] Louis Massignon's description of Basra's "intense crisis" during this period is apt:

Basra was destined to furnish the first example of the destructive social crisis of the city in Islam, when social restraints were broken, when usury, indirect taxes, government borrowing were rampant, and the opposition was exasperated by the luxury of the wealthy… expensive clothes and jewelry, African ivory, pearls from the Gulf, precious wood from India made a mockery of the working proletariat's misery on the plantations. Canonically, the lands of Basra were "amwat" ("dead lands"), under their original crust of unproductive natron or sebakh, "revived" by the coolie labor of the Zanj… who were refused their claim to freedom following their conversion… in Basra it ended in a fight to the death between the privileged elite of the City that wanted everything for itself, and the starved proletariat of the plantations and sand-filled oases who pounced on the City to destroy it. Babel, which was alive as long as it was a place where the exogamous exchange of values and language was carried on, became Sodom, and burned. [33]

Yet for all the hyperbole regarding the "burning" and "destruction" caused by the Zanj, there is remarkably little information regarding the actual internal organization of the revolutionary state. It is also likely that the "destructive" nature of the event has been overemphasized by Arab commentators who were driven by a severe disdain for the black rebels.

Black Slaves as Revolutionaries under Ali ibn Muhammad

Information on Ali ibn Muhammad is quite scarce. The book of Ali ibn Muhammad's foremost biographer, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Sahl's Kitab Akhbar Sahib al-Zanj, which Tabari relies on for biographical information, has been lost to us. [34] It is likely that the Sahib al-Zanj was born in a village outside of Tehran, although he was probably of Arab descent. [35] His maternal grandfather had been a Kharijite involved in the struggle against the 10 th Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, and had fled to al-Rayy outside of Tehran as an exile. [36] Ali ibn Muhammad spent some time as a court poet in Samarra, where he also taught writing, grammar, and astronomy.[37] In 863-4 he left Samarra for Bahrain, where he claimed to be a descendent of Ali.[38] In the Bahraini village of Al-Hajar, Ali ibn Muhammad attempts to galvanize a following, which he partially succeeds in doing. After acrimonious clashes between his supporters and detractors, he leaves al-Hajar and ended up in al-Ahsa (modern day Saudi Arabia), where he convinced certain tribes of his prophethood and collected taxes in his own name. Already he was mobilizing against the Abbasid caliphate. After some wayward clashes in the desert, where he loses many of his supporter, he decides to make his way to Basra. His attempts to organize there are quickly smashed by the ruling tribes, his supporters are jailed, and he is sent fleeing to Baghdad.

After a year, Ali ibn Muhammad snuck back into Basra, pretending to be a wealthy merchant who was selling land in the area. One of his first recruits was a man named Rayhan ibn Salih, who was a worker that transported flour from Basra for distribution to the Zanj slaves. Through Rayhan, Ali ibn Muhammad was able to begin organizing amongst the Zanj. [39] In the month of Ramadan, 869, Ali ibn Muhammad proclaimed the revolt. He began intercepting groups of slaves on their way to the worksites, bound the slave drivers, and compelled the slaves to join his uprising. Within days he had organized hundreds of slaves. Ali ibn Muhammad promised improved conditions, wealth, and to never deceive or fail the newly emancipated slaves. He condemned the former slaveholders, ordered the slaves to beat their former masters, and after a period of physical vengeance the former masters were allowed to leave after an oath of secrecy regarding the rebels' location. One of the former owners escaped and warned the overseer of a "large camp" where reportedly 15,000 slaves were employed. [40] Still, as others have noted, success brought more success: "there is no doubt that the blacks were quickly aided by poor peasants, Bedouins always eager to pillage… and finally, even black deserters from the Caliph's army." [41] Most scholars, including Popovic, Lewis, Cahen, and Noldeke assert that it is likely poor peasants joined the Zanj revolutionaries.

Popovic's reading of Tabari's narrative, in line with the traditionalist scholars, is one of a battle between slave and slavemaster. As he explains, "one after the other, successive detachments sent out by the 'people of Basra' were defeated and freed slaves swelled the ranks of the insurgents." [42] At one juncture, according to Tabari, the Abbasid general Rumays offered Ali ibn Muhammad five dinars for each slave returned and promised him free passage out of the territory. In response, Ali ibn Muhammad assembled the Zanj, and through an interpreter (as many of the slaves did not speak Arabic), swore that none would ever be returned to their former master. In one particularly moving line, Ali ibn Muhammad proclaims: "May some of you remain with me and kill me if you feel that I am betraying you." [43] As late as February, 881, two years from total defeat, Ali ibn Muhammad refused an absolute pardon and great rewards in exchange for capitulation. [44] It was clear that Ali ibn Muhammad's sincerity to the cause of Zanj liberation was genuine. We find another measure of his class and racial egalitarianism in the fact that of his two daughters, one was married to Sulayman ibn Jami'a, a black slave and measurer of grain from Hajar. [45] At one juncture, Hamdan Qarmat approaches Ali ibn Muhammad in order to negotiate an alliance. From Tabari's account, Qarmat purportedly met the "prince of the blacks" but decided they could "never agree" and refused to concretize any alliance.[46]

The task of outlining the internal organization of the Zanj state under Ali ibn Muhammad is a difficult task for two reasons. First, Arab chroniclers were significantly more interested in the minutiae of the battles between Abbasid generals and Zanj rebels. Second, the writers generally considered the Zanj enemies of religion and law, and as such any descriptions handed down are generally pejorative in nature. Either way, it is hardly accurate to describe Zanj social relations, as some earlier writers have, as "communistic" in nature. [47] It is far more likely that the social order was reversed, not abolished. One anecdotal passage from Al-Masudi is of importance in this regard. Masudi, who despises the Zanj, explains that their "insolence" was so great that at one point they "auctioned off the women of the Hasan, the Husayn, and the Abbas families, descendants of Hashem, of Quraysh and of the most noble Arab families… Each black owned ten, twenty, and even thirty of these women, who served them as concubines and performed humble tasks for their wives."[48] Thus, Masudi's consternation is in large part derived from his racial sensibilities. For him, it is inconceivable that blacks could hold noble Arab women as concubines, even though black women were regularly forced into concubinage by Arab masters.

The Divide Between Traditional and Revisionist Historians

For a long time the Zanj revolt was understood as a classic slave revolt. Both al-Tabari, an influential Persian contemporary of the Zanj episode, and al Mas'udi, an Arab historian and geographer born not long after the crushing of the Zanj, speak at length about the role of black slaves in the revolution.[49] Both scholars regularly asserted their disdain for what are variously described as Zanj, Sudan, 'abid, ghulam, or khawal.[50] As early as 1892, Theodore Nöldeke described the uprising as a "negro insurrection."[51] Much of the contemporary mid-20th century scholarship in Arabic confirms this thesis.[52] Marshall Hodgson, writing in the 1950s in his monumental magnum opus The Venture of Islam, describes the Zanj revolt as such: "the Negro slaves, called 'Zanj,' many of whom were used for labour in the marshy areas at the mouth of the Tigris, had risen in 869 under a Khariji leader and set up their own state, which tried to turn the tables on the former masters, enslaving the former slave-owners." [53] Zakariyau Oseni, in his more recent work "The Revolt of Black Slaves in Iraq Under the 'Abbasid Administration 869-883 CE," explicitly situates himself as a modern writer sympathetic to the Zanj. He writes that the primary agents were "Black slaves whose race, more than any other, had suffered the atrocities and humiliation inherent in that ancient institution throughout the course of known history."[54] More recently, Alexandre Popovic has asserted a "neo-traditionalist" analysis in his The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9 th Century , an English translation of the work he carried out mostly in the 1970s. This approach stands in stark juxtaposition to a more recent wave of scholarship that has attempted to obfuscate the role of race in the Zanj revolution.

One of the earliest revisionist accounts of the Zanj revolt appeared in 1977. Ghada Talhami's "The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered" does not strictly discount the role of race or black slaves in the revolt, but attempts to complicate the narrative by including the role of other social classes. Her account is fairly nuanced, moreso than other revisionist scholars like M. A. Shaban for instance, when she asserts that: "The slaves were merely one among several oppressed classes who participated in the rebellion, which was not an attack on the institution of slavery but on social inequality… If one group contributed more than others to the success of this drawn-out revolt, it was not the black slaves but the Bedouins from the surrounding region, who provisioned the fighters throughout the insurrection."[55] Her sub-thesis is that no major slave trade existed with the East African coast of Zanzibar during the ninth century (or else scholars would have noted it) and thus, it is unlikely that this was primarily a black slave revolt. [56] Although there are legitimate critiques of Talhami's approach, a rather absurd revisionist narrative is constructed by M. A. Shaban, who denies that the Zanj revolt was a slave revolt at all, and instead proclaims that it was a revolt primarily of Arabs and some East Africans. Slaves, he asserts, would have lacked the resources to challenge the Abbasid government for such an extended period of time. [57] Although they do so in distinct ways, in general these arguments tend to conceal the role that racially-based slavery played in fomenting the Zanj revolt.

One of the most prominent revisionist historians is M.A. Shaban, who counterpoises his analysis with Noldeke by asserting that the Zanj rebellion is "one of the most misunderstood episodes in Islamic history." [58] The notion that the Zanj episode represented a "slave revolt" has been "slavishly regurgitated by modern scholars" who were tempted by the "romantic idea of a slave revolt in a slave-ridden society" and could not be bothered with the "cumbersome task" of "wading through the considerable amount of valuable material" which would suggest a different narrative. [59] Shaban begins by noting correctly that the Zanj revolt occurred in conjunction with other serious forms of dissension in the Abbasid Empire. It was one of many revolts against the central government, including the prominent Saffarid rebellion as well as the Shia of Tabaristan, amongst others.

For him, however, the Zanj was not a slave revolt. It was a "Zanj, i.e. a Negro, revolt."[60] Shaban argues that equating Negro with Zanj is a nineteenth-century racial trope not applicable to ninth century Arabia. Salves rising against the wretched conditions of work in the salt marshes of Basra is a "figment of the imagination." For Shaban, a "few runaway slaves who joined the rebels" does not make a slave revolt. [61] Instead, the Zanj was an "Arab-Negro alliance" that represented Free East Africans who had made their home in the region alongside Arabs of the Persian Gulf. For Shaban, the fact that even "Jews were among the supports of the revolt" is proof that it was not slave revolt. [62] In a passage that perhaps most betrays his highly elitist conception of the incapacity of slaves to act as historical agents of change, Shaban argues:

If more proof is needed that it was not a slave revolt, it is to be found in the fact that it had a highly organized army and navy which vigorously resisted the whole weight of the central government for almost fifteen years. Moreover, it must have had huge resources that allowed it to build no less than six impregnable towns in which there were arsenals for the manufacture of weapons and battleships… Significantly the revolt had the backing of a certain group of merchants who persevered with their support on the very end. [63]

For Shaban the "bone of contention" was African trade with the Persian Gulf, not slavery.[64] The expansion of trade and the demand for African goods "stimulated the setting-up and growth of East African colonies in all the trade centers of the Gulf."[65] A high rate of taxation, as high as 20%, on imported goods imposed by the central government under Muwaffiq encouraged revolt by these East African merchants.[66] It was this combination of wealth and manpower that allowed the Zanj revolt to occur.

Whereas Shaban argues that in "the Islamic world slaves were mostly employed in domestic housework and of course as concubines," Alexandre Popovic acknowledges this fact but explains this is precisely the importance of the Zanj episode. [67] Popovic's thesis is that the Zanj revolt is significant because it "suppressed the unique attempt to transform domestic slavery into colonial slavery." [68] For him, it is clear that "the conditions of the Zanj slaves in Iraq were wretched, and there were two uprisings before the great revolt." [69] Yet, Popovic also sees in Ali ibn Muhammad nothing more than an "ambitious, totally unprincipled man."[70] As for his ideology, Popovic asserts that he had a "tendency to embrace difference doctrines" as a "powerful political tool." This allowed him to borrow variously from Shiite, Kharijite, and Azrakite tendencies. [71] Thus, in Popovic's final analysis, the Zanj revolt was "in part a social revolt, but it was not, as some have said, a true (modern) social revolution with a definite plan."[72] The revolt's most important consequence, other than its geopolitical assistance to other movements,[73] is that it forced the abandonment of Lower Iraq's barren lands, leading to a disappearance of the large slave work sites and their concomitant misery.


To conclude, the Zanj revolution was a slave rebellion led Ali ibn Muhammad, who rallied black slaves for the purpose of revolution. The etymological lineage of the word "Zanj," even if it does not denote black slaves of specifically East African origin, was used as a catchall for blacks more generally. Furthermore, the rulers of Abbasid Iraq did indeed utilize black slave labor. In particular, the ruling classes of Basra utilized them for transforming the "dead" lands of the marshes into agricultural land. Traditionalist and revisionist scholars differ over whether or not they view the revolt as racialized, and in particular whether the Zanj revolution was actually driven by black slaves. However, upon review of the evidence, the Zanj rebellion was certainly a racialized slave revolt, in which the Arab slave masters were subjugated by former slaves. In this sense it was not a modern social revolution, where the social structure was abolished and replaced with something totally new. Instead, the social order was inversed. The Zanj revolt, despite failing, was successful in warning Arab rulers against transitioning slavery from primarily domestic servitude to chattel slavery (in the way that Philip Cutin's "plantation complex" did first in the Mediterranean, then in the Canary Islands and finally the Caribbean and South America). [74] Slavery was not abolished, but the Zanj were no longer the ones who would be enslaved at the hands of Arab overlords.


Bacharach, Jere. "African Military Slaves in the Medieval Middle East: The Cases of Iraq (869-955) and Egypt (868- 1171)." International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 13 (1981).

Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Furlonge, Nigel D. "Revisiting the Zanj and Re-Visioning Revolt: Complexities of the Zanj Conflict (868-883 AD)," Negro History Bulletin (Vol 62, No. 4, 1999), 9-10.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam, Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1: The Classical Age of Islam. University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Nöldeke, Theodor. "A Servile War in the East," in Sketches from Eastern History, (Beirut: Khayats, 1963, originally printed in 1892).

Oseni, Zakariyau I. "The Revolt of Black Slaves in Iraq under the Abbasid Administration in 869-883 C.E.," Hamdard Islamicus (1989).

Popovic, Alexandre. T he Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd / 9th Century. Markus Weiner Publishers, 2011.

Shaban, M.A. Islamic History: A New Interpretation, Vol 2: A.D. 750-1055 (A.H. 132-448) . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Silkaitis, Emily Martha. "Modern Takes on Motivations Behind the Zanj Rebellion," Lights: The Messa Journal (Spring 2012, Issue 3, Vol. 1).

Talhami, Ghada Hashem. "The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered," The International Journal of African Historical Studies (Vol. 10, No. 3, 1977).

Trimingham, Spencer. "The Arab Geographers and the East African Coast," H.N. Chittick and Robert I. Rotberg, eds., East Africa and the Orient (New York, 1975), 116-117, n. 4.

Tolmacheva, Marina. "Toward a Definition of the Term Zanj," Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, 21:1 (1986).


[1] The first period, from 869-79, was characterized by the Abbasid Caliphate's inability to crush the revolt, partially because its attention was diverted to other pressing challenges. The second period, from 879-83, when the empire could address the revolt with its full coercive powers, was one of slow decline but terminal defeat for the Zanj. As Popovic argues, "In spite of Ya'qub b. Layth's rejection of Ali b. Muhammad's proposal for an alliance, there is no question about the Saffarid contribution to the Zanj cause… it was only when the Saffarid question was settled that al-Muwaffiq was able to undertake the large-scale operations that would eventually crush the revolt," See Alexandre Popovic, The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd / 9th Century (Markus Wiener Publishers, 2011), 1. Furthermore, the Tulunid issue forced the Abbasid's to remove one of their best generals, Musa b. Buga, from the Zanj front and place him in Syria.

[2] Charles Pellat, quoted in Popovic, 2.

[3] C. Brockelmann, quoted in Ibid., 3.

[4] Bernard Lewis, quoted in Ibid., 3.

[5] G. Marcais, quoted in Ibid., 3.

[6] There is considering divergence on this question. M.A. Shaban laments that it "is a sad comment on research in Islamic history that, in spite of the proximity of the territories where these two movements took place, no attempt has been made to examine their relationship… It is a curious fact that the two movements never made any attempts to ally themselves against their common enemy, the central government, and instead actually fought each other." M.A Shaban, Islamic History: A New Interpretation, Vol 2: A.D. 750-1055 (A.H. 132-448) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 99.

[7] There is an entire intellectual lineage that attempts to surreptitiously avoid racialization in the Islamic world, particularly in the pre-colonial era. When racialization, and anti-black racism in particular, is addressed, it is usually done so as a colonial legacy, one that the British or French or some imperial power imposed upon the Muslim world. Although it is certainly true that colonial administrators and imperial powers augmented and exacerbated racial hierarchies, especially given the rigid racial categories in European society, it is hardly honest to dismiss claims of racialization in the Islamic world with a host of rhetorical tropes ("one of the sahaba, Bilal, was black," "Islam does not recognize race," etc.).

[8] Popovic, 15.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 16.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Ibid., 18.

[14] Ibid., 18.

[15] Other terms, like Nubian, Habasha (Abyssinians), and Beja were also in use. Shaban, 110.

[16] It is important to note that Ibn Tulun sent this contingent of black soldiers to suppress the Zanj not on the orders of Muwaffiq, with whom Tulun was in competition over resources, but in order to augment Egypt's treasury. The leader of the expedition, who Shaban identifies as one Lu'lu, eventually switched sides and began working for Muwaffiq against the interests of Ibn Tulun. See Shaban, 133.

[17] Shaban, 130.

[18] Ibid., 130.

[19] See Tolmacheva, 105. "This paper addresses itself to the use of the word Zanj in relation to black people of East Africa in their domicile. The Zanj slaves of the Caliphate and the so-called Zanj of the Western Sudan! remain therefore outside its scope. This approach implies a basic distinction in cognitive perspective, to be repeatedly referred to later: specifically, that in the Caliphate the wordZanjusually refers to slaves and consequently sets the people called Zanj in a separate socioeconomic category, entailing connotations of dependence and inferiority." Marina Tolmacheva, "Toward a Definition of the Term Zanj," Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, (Vol. 21, No. 1, 1986), 105.

[20] Ghada Hashem Talhami, "The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered," The International Journal of African Historical Studies (Vol. 10, No. 3, 1977), 461.

[21] Tolmacheva, 112. Emphasis added.

[22] The Batiha Marshlands extend roughly from Kufa to Basra. Al-Mukhtarah, Ali ibn Muhammad's established fortress-city for the Zanj, was located east of Basra. At one point, the Zanj reached as far north as Jarjaraya, just southeast of Baghdad.

[23] Popovic, 10.

[24] Ibn Battuta mentions this region as a "forest of reeds surrounded by water" where "bandits of the sect of Ali" often "fortify themselves in these swamps and defend themselves against pursuers." Quoted in Popovic, 11.

[25] Popovic, 12.

[26] Ibid., 11.

[27] Ibid., 12-3. The first three contentions are generally accepted. On the fourth, the idea that a large slave market existed in East Africa where Arabs could purchase black slaves, is contested. This will be addressed later.

[28] Ibid., 20.1

[29] Jere L. Bacharach, "African Military Slaves in the Medieval Middle East: The Cases of Iraq (869-955) and Egypt (868-1171)," International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 13 (1981), 473. One of the reasons African slavers were "deemed unimportant" was due to the fact that they were not "directly involved in the power struggles consuming the Baghdad court," 474.

[30] Bacharach, 489.

[31] Likely an exaggerated figure.

[32] Popovic, 24.

[33] Louis Massignon, quoted in Popovic, 24-5.

[34] Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Sahl (known as Shaylama), was one of Ali ibn Muhammad's supporters that had been pardoned after the crushing of the revolt. As such, in an effort to exonerate himself, his work is full of invective against his former leader and accuses him of the worst transgressions, which Tabari regularly exploits. Shaylama himself is eventually arrested for conspiring against the Caliph while in Baghdad. The stories of his execution differ. One explains he was "skewered on a long iron rod which penetrated him from his anus to his mouth; he was kept like this over a huge fire until he died." Another claims he was tied between three spears, placed above a fire and "turned and roasted like a chicken" before being tied to the gallows between the "two bridges in the eastern quarter of Baghdad." Popovic, 124. Tabari, Masudi, Ibn al-Nadim, and Ibn al-Jawzi all rely upon his work.

[35] Popovic argues that his birth place is what leads many authors to mistake him for Persian, 33, 41.

[36] Popovic, 34. Based on Tabari's telling.

[37] Ali ibn Muhammad was, according to Tabari, "eloquent, a superior mind, and a natural poet." One of his pieces that received significant attention read as follows:

It is a humiliating situation (to be forced) to live in frugality, accepting it all the while…

If the fire becomes lessened because of too many logs,

its progress will depend on their separation

If a saber remains in its sheath, another

Saber will be victorious on the day of combat

[38] Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-Fadl ibn al-Hasan ibn Ubayd Allah ibn al-Abbas ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib.

[39] Popovic, 39-40.

[40] Ibid., 41. Tabari's figures are certainly inflated, but the general idea remains the same.

[41] Ibid., 137.

[42] Ibid., 45.

[43] Ibid., 48.

[44] Nigel D. Furlonge explains that on at least three separate occasions Ali ibn Muhammad refused to betray the Zanj. Nigel D. Furlonge, "Revisiting the Zanj and Re-Visioning Revolt: Complexities of the Zanj Conflict (868-883 AD)," Negro History Bulletin (Vol 62, No. 4, 1999), 7-14. Also see Popovic, 103.

[45] Popovic, 123.

[46] Ibid., 81-2.

[47] M. Gaudegroy-Demombyne writes, for instance, that the "principles that could best assure its authority over the black masses are those that we have seen repeated by all the Iranian agitators since Mazdak: wives and property in common." See Popovic, 129-30.

[48] Popovic, 132-3.

[49] For an explication of how various modern authors employ both al-Tabari and Mas'udi, see Emily Martha Silkaitis, "Modern Takes on Motivations Behind the Zanj Rebellion," Lights: The Messa Journal (Spring 2012, Issue 3, Vol. 1). Popovic notes that Ibn Al-Athir and Ibn Abd al-Hadid also provide some minor details about the Zanj revolt, but mostly drawn from al-Tabari and al-Masudi.

[50] For a delineation of these terms see Nigel D. Furlonge, "Revisiting the Zanj and Re-Visioning Revolt: Complexities of the Zanj Conflict (868-883 AD)," Negro History Bulletin (Vol 62, No. 4, 1999), 9-10. Furlonge describes each term as such: Zanj (denoting a slave from East Africa), Sudan (free African), 'abid (generic slave), ghulam (attendant or guard), khawal (generic slave).

[51] Theodor Nöldeke, "A Servile War in the East," in Sketches from Eastern History, (Beirut: Khayats, 1963, originally printed in 1892), 149-153.

[52] For a brief overview of the historiography in Arabic, see Popovic, 4. Abdul Karim Khalifa's unpublished thesis on the Zanj is dedicated to "all the oppressed in their struggles against their exploiters." Also see Faysal al-Samir's doctoral thesis, Thawrat al-Zanj (University of Cairo and published in Baghdad). Of interest here is also Ahmed S. Olabi's work, available in French, La revolte des Zanj et son chef Ali b. Muhammad (Beirut, 1961).

[53] Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1: The Classical Age of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1974), 487-8.

[54] Zakariyau I. Oseni, "The Revolt of Black Slaves in Iraq under the Abbasid Administration in 869-883

C.E.," Hamdard Islamicus (1989), 65.

[55] Ghada Hashem Talhami, "The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered," The International Journal of African Historical Studies (Vol. 10, No. 3, 1977), 455.

[56] This is a rather duplicitous and shortsighted claim that will be addressed later.

[57] Shaban, M.A. Islamic History: A New Interpretation, Vol 2: A.D. 750-1055 (A.H. 132-448) . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. This certainly must be news to the Haitian revolutionaries, or Spartacus.

[58] Shaban, 100.

[59] Shaban, 101.

[60] Shaban, 101.

[61] Ibid., 101.

[62] Ibid., 102.

[63] Ibid., 102.

[64] Ibid., 102.

[65] Ibid., 107.

[66] Shaban notes that this rate of taxation is not confirmed, but can be extrapolated from studying the taxation regimen imposed upon Egypt. It is questionable whether or not the same taxation rates were applied to the Arabian peninsula as to Egypt, where more a more formal and established administrative-extractive apparatus already existed. Shaban, 108.

[67] Shaban, 101.

[68] Popovic, 3.

[69] Ibid., 22.

[70] Ibid., 151.

[71] To claim to be an Alid was important for securing religious sympathy, while the egalitarian preaching of the Kharijites was a useful rally cry to organize black slaves.

[72] Popovic, 153.

[73] As Popovic notes, the Zanj certainly facilitated the rise of the Tulunids in Egypt, the Saffarid movement, and even some of Byzantium's military undertakings. Furthermore, some of the followers of the Qaramita appear to have made their debut amongst the Zanj. See 153.

[74] For more on this phenomenon see Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (Cambridge University Press, 1988).