Every time I pass by Chowk Mahal my gaze invariably falls on the grave of Mahmud’s favourite slave, Malik Ayaz. He was buried on the 8th of August, 1041, having died in mysterious circumstances, outside the old city. It was Akbar’s expansion that brought the grave smack in the middle of the new walled city.
The role of slaves in our history has never been studied seriously. A lot of the rulers of India were originally Turkish slaves trained and used for military purposes. Even Qutabuddin Aibak, whose grave is just off Anarkali Bazaar, on what is now called Aibak Road, was originally a slave. He was born in Turkistan and sold as a slave and raised in Nishapur, Iran. Ultimately Muhammad of Ghor purchased him. Where he fell to his death playing polo in 1210 the polo ground was called ‘Bagh-e-Chogan.’ If anything historians still classify him as a ‘Slave Dynasty’ ruler. Turkish rulers captured slaves during their expansionist wars, and after training enlisted them in their military. A lot of the major battles in the sub-continent were mostly fought by Turkish slaves.
But back to Malik Ayaz. He was a Georgian of Russian descent and was captured by a Turkish warrior in the earlier period of the Ottoman expansion towards the Caucasus, Ukraine and Balkans. Thousands of Russian and Slavic prisoners were transported to Istanbul, where mostly Arab slave merchants operated. As Ayaz was “handsome and strong” and stood out among Russian, Tartaric, Central Asian and Indian slaves passed on by Persian and Turkish slave traders, he ended up with Mahmud of Ghazni.
My interest in slaves comes more from empathy for their original condition. The very few who made it to the top are mostly remembered. What about the hundreds and thousands who were sold to perpetual serfdom? Slavery can be a touchy subject when it comes to our religion, but then I am an ardent admirer of Hazrat Bilal ibn Rabah, also known as Bilal Habashi. His autobiography is one book that every time I read gives me goose pimples. It was translated by the Trinity College Dublin scholar H.A.L Craig when he found the manuscript in the Vatican Library. My friend Hasnain Almakky was kind enough to present me with this book.
Bilal’s father was an Arab slave of the captured Banu Jumah clan, while his mother was an Ethiopian (Abyssinian) royal princess, both captured during the events of ‘Amul Feel’. Bilal was born in Mecca and initially was a slave of the cruel Umayyah ibn Khalaf. Once he converted to Islam his story, as told by himself, is an amazing feat of strength in belief and steadfastness in suffering. It is an accepted fact that because he was a black slave he could not reach the lofty heights he truly deserved in a tribal Arab society in the days of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Quraish nobility taunted him for being ‘ibn Sauda’, son of a black woman. He died a free man in Damascus, moving there after refusing to accept Abu Bakr as his leader. His plight is reason enough to reconsider our ‘racial’ mindset.
But this grandest of slaves would have shuddered at the fate of virtually millions of Indian who ended up being slaves of Mahmud, of Taimurlane, of Babar and other invaders. They invariably ended up in the slave markets of Central Asia. We have written documentary proof of three major invasions where collectively over a million people from Lahore and its surrounding areas ended up in slave markets of Ghazni, Bukhara, Samarkand and even as far away as Istanbul.
Considerable research has been done on the gypsy slaves taken from Punjab by Taimur and how they looked after his horses. This is said to be a major reason a lot of them became blacksmiths, a racial word for these dark Punjabi ‘changars’ who ended up in Europe. Research done by the UNO’s WHO using DNA have confirmed that even the gypsies roaming around in South America have Punjabi genes. The Spanish dumped them there to rid Christian Spain of these ‘criminals’ as a Portuguese document calls them.
We also know of slaves taken on ships and ending up in Shakespearean England. One such slave was Salman Noor, a Punjabi who changed his name to Solomon Nurr and was buried in St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster on March 22, 1550. This is where the idea of this story originated.
After a visit to the church in Westminster, and then reading about the slaves captured from Lahore over the ages, it is painful that we in Lahore just have no time for the poor modern-day slaves that work in our own houses. That is why the decision on Thursday of the Lahore High Court to ban employing children under the age of 15 is such a welcome step. We have a long way to go implementing this order. Probably 18 years would have been more reasonable with a minimum salary and working hours specified.
In our feudal-run villages the poor are worse than slave labour, for they just get enough food to survive and are often referred to as ‘kami’ (the lesser). It is interesting how people from our river banks were all picked up as slaves and sold in markets as far away as Dublin in Ireland, which to my surprise once had the largest ‘Slave Market’ in western Europe. There is ample evidence that in the 8th century Italian merchants moved up in the opposite direction capturing Slavic slaves for the lucrative North African markets. Amazingly in Genoa a major slave trade existed for Asian slaves for the European markets and white slaves to Egypt and even to parts of Iran and Indian Sindh.
But it were the Mongols, and then later Babar, who supplied Jewish traders with Indians from Punjab for onward sale to Europe. There is a DNA-backed research of Welsh people having an over 20 per cent South Asian origin. Given that nearby Dublin supplied them with slaves from Punjab, and surely from Lahore, that even today they resemble fairer South Asians considerably. Even the way they speak English, or even Welsh, has a sort of ‘desi’ twang. This is a most interesting area of research.
We mentioned Bilal, the slave in Islamic history, but then Christian history tells us of Hagar, the slave girl of the prophet Abraham. Using this medieval myth the Crusaders conjured up the right to enslave Muslims. But then to balance things all we have to do is read the ‘Fatwa-e-Alamgiri’ of Aurangzeb which legalised slavery. The details of his institutions show him setting up a mechanism to export slaves from the lands that he had conquered. But it was the skills that slaves had in textiles, woodwork and other sectors that determined their price. The MB Ahmed’s classic ‘Justice in Medieval India’ has amazing details, especially of slave labour working for the emperor. But then Badshahi Mosque was constructed primarily with slave labour.
But then even the British exported Punjabi slaves to central Africa to build the railways, and to assist them run South Africa. But as my interest is primarily about the people and places of Lahore, it was of immense interest when in my student days while hitch-hiking through Europe, I stumbled across a mysterious tomb of Porus’ ambassador sent with Alexander. History tells us that ‘Zarmanochegas’ was a Rajput Khokhar from Lahore and reached Athens along with his 85 slaves. He was honoured with a tomb in Athens. What happened to his 85 slaves? No wonder 12.5 per cent of Greek DNA is of northern Pakistani genes. Makes you think all this irrefutable data.
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2018