SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Race and Slavery in the Middle East and Africa

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Taught in:
Term 2

What are divergent approaches to questions of race and slavery in the Middle East? Is race a technology of colonial governmentality, the product of colonial science that emerged in a particular historical moment, and which therefore cannot be projected backward into earlier periods? Or should we conceive of race as a perennial anti-blackness, manifesting itself in a range of societies over time, including in those of the Middle East? How do we tell histories of slavery in the Middle East while avoiding the pitfalls of both Orientalism and imposing categories derived from the trans-Atlantic experience? What about histories of African slavery—the enslavement of Africans by Africans? This modules puts into conversation conflicting approaches to the question of race and slavery in the Middle East, while situating these discussions within more long-standing debates around ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arab’ slavery within the field of African history. The focal point of discussion will be Sudan—a historically interstitial space, later becoming a province of the Ottoman empire. Looking at the case of Sudan allows us to ask not only how forms of enslavement have changed over time, but also how the easy binaries of African versus Arab/Muslim have come to be historically produced, with a complex relationship to the question of enslavement. It offers nuanced understandings of racial formation and its interconnections with changing political economies in the region in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • demonstrate familiarity with central questions on histories of enslavement beyond the familiar European colonialist framework;
  • engage critically with the relevant scholarship;
  • formulate a historical argument, both orally and in writing;
  • to assemble the material necessary to support this argument, and to organize and present it in a coherent and persuasive way.


2 hours of teaching per week for 20 weeks

Method of assessment

  • Response paper, 1000 words (25%)
  • Essay, 3000 words (75%)

Suggested reading

  • Eve Troutt Powell, Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (2012)
  • Mahmood Mamdani, ‘Introduction: Trans-African Slaveries Thinking Historically’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 2 (2018): 185–210
  • John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (second edition) (1998)
  • Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar (1987)
  • Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (1982)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules