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  • Idealism and Pragmatism:The Related Muslim West African Discourses on Identity, Captivity and Ransoming
  • Jennifer Lofkrantz (bio)


As has been demonstrated in recent scholarship, the ransoming of captives has been a widespread practice throughout West Africa.1 Underpinning ransoming practices, including who and how a person should be ransomed and the conduct of ransom negotiations, is intellectual thought and debate on ransoming. As I have stated elsewhere, ransoming is defined as the paying for the release of a captive, with cash or kind, at the time of capture or soon afterwards. Moreover, the ransoming of a captive is differentiated from the redemption of a slave in that a redeemed slave usually remains in their former master’s society in a subservient position.2 This article is primarily concerned with intellectual discourse on ransoming rather than ransoming practices. In sixteenth to nineteenth century Muslim West Africa, the issue of ransoming was intimately linked to the question of captivity and enslavement. Captivity could result in both the ransoming of the captive and the enslavement of the captive as well the execution, free release, and prisoner exchange of the captive. Therefore, the discourse on ransoming was strongly affiliated with the debate on who could and could not be legally enslaved and particularly with discussion on remedies for illegal captivity. Moreover, the discourse on ransoming highlights the tension, for intellectuals, between the ideal and the pragmatic in seeking the release of illegally taken captives.

Considering the role of slavery and the slave trade in West Africa it is not surprising that enslavement, and particularly the enslavement of freeborn Muslims, provoked a response by Muslim intellectuals. Scholars based their arguments within accepted interpretations of the Mālikī madh’hab, the school of Islamic law preponderant in West Africa and the [End Page 87] Maghrib, and within the context of the scholarly debate on the issue. Not only were West African jurists reacting to the enslavement of freeborn Muslims but they were also reacting to a North African argument that defined individuals identified as “black” as being enslaveable which informed their discourse on enslaveability. West African jurists argued that freeborn Muslims, regardless of racial categorization, should never be enslaved and that Muslims who came into possession of captive or enslaved Muslims should release them. Yet, many jurists acknowledged that ransoming was a useful tool in obviating enslavement and encouraged the ransoming of Muslims. The discussion of the issues of race, religious identity, captivity, enslavement, and ransoming were therefore entwined. Ransoming was a tactic against captivity and enslavement. Jurists who viewed ransoming as a pragmatic response to the problem of enslavement perceived ransoming as a means of re-attaining the freedom of captives, in particular freeborn Muslims, whose enslavement they viewed as illegal. Ransoming as a remedy for illegal captivity and enslavement became especially important in the nineteenth century, an era where enslavement, including that of freeborn Muslims, was pervasive. Therefore, in order to discuss scholarly opinion on ransoming which was perceived by many Muslim scholars primarily as a means to protect freeborn Muslim from enslavement, one must first delve into intellectual thought concerning legal and illegal enslavement.

Scholars and the Issue of Legal and Illegal Enslavement and its Remedy

In studying the historical West African scholarly discourse on slavery and ransoming, the concept of a “discursive tradition” is applicable. Talal Asad views Islamic discourse as a continuous engagement and reflection on the past and on previous scholarship in order to develop meaningful solutions to the problems of a particular time and place. For Asad, Islam is “neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs and morals” but a set of discourses “that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice.”3 Similarly, Scott Reese views the Islamic cannon as a “living body of knowledge continuously employed and interpreted.”4 The concept of a “discursive tradition” has been used by anthropologists such as Adeline Masquelier, Roman Loimeier and Abdulkader Tayob, among others, to address how Muslim scholars and laypeople across Africa have navigated between “tradition,” religious reform, and the modern world.5 [End Page 88]

Informing the debate on legal and illegal enslavement in Islamic...


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