Reflections on Slavery and Human Rights in Timbuktu

How were human rights and slavery perceived in 17th-century West Africa as recorded in the Timbuktu manuscripts?

By SAVAMA-DCI

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According to the Timbuktu manuscripts, humans had rights because they alone were capable of receiving the personality and responsibility that God had entrusted only to them.

It was in the name of human rights that perhaps Timbuktu’s best-known theologian Ahmed Baba argued against Trans-Saharan slavery affecting people who might be Muslims.

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Understanding the verdict on the Sudanese captives

This book is a response to questions originating in Tuat about those captured in Sudanese countries. Ahmed Baba made an unequivocal decision on the issue of slavery in general in light of the rules set down in Islam and described according to the Malikite rite.

He established a number of principles intended to guide slavery practices, including: a captive from a Muslim country may not be reduced to slavery, all men are born free, slavery is a state that results from certain situations, etc.

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“When a question came to me three or more years ago from Tuat...

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what would you say about slaves from the Sudan, where the population’s adherence to Islam is confirmed, such as Borno, Afnu, Kano, Gao, Katsina etc. Is it permissible to own them [as slaves] or not?

[Response:]

It is important to remember that God guides our steps, as you say, and these states are Muslim, with the exception of Afnu, of which I know not the location nor have ever heard the name before.

However, all of these states are close to other states inhabited by non-believers who come under attack from Muslim states.

Some of these states inhabited by non-believers are under the protection of Muslim states through the collection of taxes, according to the information we have received and as is customary.

Conflicts have also been known to break out between the sultanates of these Muslim countries. They declare war on each other, attack each other and create many Muslim prisoners of war. These prisoners are then sold, despite being free men of the Muslim faith.

We belong to Allah and it is to Him that we return. This is common practice in Hausa countries: Katsina attacks Kanu, and so on. Although they share the same language and the same fate, they can only be distinguished from each other by their faith:

one is originally Muslim; the other is originally a non-believer, hence the confusion among those who receive prisoners that have been sold. They are unable to understand their actual situation.

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In 1613, Ahmed Baba’s considerable fame led scholars in Tuat to consult with him on the legal status of enslaved Sudanese. At that time, the scale of the slave trade from the Sudan (Borno, Katsina, Songhai) was sizable.

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Ahmed Baba believed these slaves had been captured by petty kings ignorant of the most basic rules of Islam. More often than not they would run into Muslims, but it was up to Muslim Tuatians like them to refuse to pay.

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In religious terms, Ahmed Baba answered, there was no difference between human races, no difference between blacks and whites.

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