The Muslim Slave Trade Today

By Dwight Longenecker Published on September 30, 2019

Last week Catholics celebrated the memorial day of one of our greatest Christian leaders: Vincent de Paul. Saint Vincent de Paul was born into a peasant family in Southwestern France in 1581. He planned to be a pastor partly as a way to support his poor family. They managed to get him through seminary. Then the Lord threw him a curveball.

In 1605 while traveling across the Mediterranean, twenty-four-year-old Vincent was captured by Muslim pirates and wound up in a slave market in Tunisia. Eventually he was sold to a former priest who had renounced his faith to escape from Muslim slavery. Vincent brought him back to the Lord and together they escaped back to France. Back home he gave his life in service to the poor and the support of former slaves.

The Barbary Pirates

From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century Europeans referred to the territory of North Africa — present day Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco — as “the Barbary Coast. The people who inhabited that area were called “Berbers.” The word comes from the Greek “barbarian.” Not only were they barbarians, though. They were Muslims and they were pirates.

The pirates were called “barbary corsairs” or “Ottoman corsairs.” They not only seized merchant ships in the Western Mediterranean, but they also raided coastal towns in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and as far North as the British Isles. Their attacks were to abduct their victims to be sold in the Arabian and North African slave markets.

Some moderate Muslim thinkers and theologians have done their best to distance themselves from the horrible history of abduction, enslavement and sex trafficking. But a recent report from Pakistan says the tradition is going strong.

It is impossible to know exactly how many Christians were kidnapped and sold into slavery. But Robert Davis in his book, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800 reckons the number could be as high as 1.25 million between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Koran and Slavery

The Muslim scriptures include a good number of restrictions on slavery. The underlying principle, though, is that it is legitimate to enslave non-Muslims. Shariah law regards as legal slaves only those non-Muslims who were imprisoned or bought beyond the borders of Islamic rule, or the sons and daughters of slaves already in captivity.

In recent decades Western powers put pressure on Islamic states like Saudi Arabia to outlaw slavery. Still, though, the ugly practice has not been stamped out. In Nigeria, the radical Muslim group Boko Haram have been kidnapping Christian girls and selling them as sex slaves. In reports from ISIS, the Islamic State also claim thousands of Yazidi women and girls were sold into sex slavery.

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The slave trade has been part of Islamic culture from antiquity. Historian John Ralph Willis suggests as many as 17 million souls have been sold into servitude by Muslim slave traders over the centuries.

Some moderate Muslim thinkers and theologians have done their best to distance themselves from the horrible history of abduction, enslavement and sex trafficking. But a recent report from Pakistan says the tradition is going strong.

Christian Girls Kidnapped and Converted

The Catholic News Agency reports on the rising numbers of kidnappings and forced conversions in Pakistan. According to the charity Aid to the Church in Need, there may have been as many as 700 girls kidnapped in one year alone.

Sebastian Shaw, the Archbishop of Lahore said, “There have been many kidnappings recently. The girls are usually fourteen or fifteen years old. The men often already have one wife. They can be 25 or older.”

The archbishop believes the kidnappings are motivated by lust. Yet there is also a religious dimension, as the victims are usually Christian or Hindu. Once captured the girls are forced to convert to Islam.

Religious Freedom for All

The Pakistani government is working with international agencies to improve their record on religious freedom. CNA reports that in February 2019, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback met with Pakistani officials.

Brownback said there was a new willingness to improve the country’s record on religious freedom. Pakistan’s foreign minister voiced an intention to designate an official to address concerns raised by the U.S.

In August of this year Catholic and other religious leaders signed a joint resolution asking the Pakistani government to adopt safeguards protecting religious minorities. It’s a move they said is much needed in the 97% Muslim nation.

They asked for protections against religious discrimination in education and employment, designated minority worship areas in hospitals and jails, protection of houses of worship, the creation of a federal ministry for religious minorities. They also asked that the minimum age for marriage be raised from 16 to 18 for women.

Pakistan’s record on religious freedom is horrible, but there seems to be progress. A Pakistani Catholic named Asia Bibi was recently released after spending nearly ten years on death row for blasphemy charges.

In 2009 she was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Her crime? She was accused of making disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad after an argument about a cup of water.

In 2018 her conviction was overturned, but because of continued protests by Islamic radicals her life is still in danger. This year she and her family were finally expatriated to Canada where they live in a secret location.

Conversion or Conquest

The clash between Christians and Muslims will never be resolved by force. The only hope for a final resolution will be for Muslims to turn away from the Prophet of Power and turn to the Prince of Peace.

There are signs across the Islamic world that the followers of Islam are finding the fulfillment of their faith, in commitment to Jesus Christ. Not only is kidnapping and slavery still part of some Muslim’s culture, but multitudes of Muslims are also locked in spiritual bondage.

Eventually a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit must come that turns hearts and minds from slavery and bondage to true freedom.


Follow Dwight Longenecker’s blog, listen to his podcasts, browse his books and be in touch at

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