Ultimately the church declined in north Africa, however. It was torn by internal strife between professing Christians (the Donatist controversy; quarrels with the Byzantines) and later crushed by Christian heresies (Arian invaders, barbarians from northern Europe that had been converted to a very defective form of Christianity, oppressed the orthodox Christians of Africa). Likewise, in Nubia, a gradual loss of clergy because of a lack of adequate biblical training centers led to Nubia’s weakness and decline. In both cases, the Arabs conquered lands where the churches had already weakened themselves. But what much of the world forgot until modern revivals of the gospel in Africa, except concerning Christian Ethiopia, both the Bible and early church history remind us: Christianity was an ancient faith of Africa long before it was a faith of northern Europe.
Slavery and Bible Interpretation
People have taken various religious texts out of their original historical contexts to justify their own behavior. Rarely has this practice been so blatant as when religious texts have been used to justify slavery. Sometimes these texts (like Ephesians 6, treated above) actually were meant to limit the horrors of slavery in cultures that practiced slavery, but such texts were later abused to justify slavery itself. This is one reason why it is so important to understand what a text originally meant, not just any given tradition of interpreting that text. But as we will briefly observe, some slaves did resonate with the correct meaning of Scripture in ways that were inaccessible to slaveholders because sin had blinded the minds of the slaveholders.
People sought religious justifications for slavery both in the Arab and western worlds. Arab tradition claims that Muhammad held slaves, but there is no basis for supposing that Muhammad made slavery worse than what already existed in his day, and in fact he may have limited it. After the Arabs conquered the Sassanian empire in 642, however, they took over the east African slave trade. By the ninth century, many Arabic texts (cited by Bernard Lewis in Race and Slavery in the Middle East [Oxford, 1990]) reveal a racial prejudice against Africans as stinky, lazy, and suited for slavery. The mighty empire of Songhay was eventually toppled in part by pressure from northern Arabs and Berbers for more slaves. By the nineteenth century the terrible march across the Sahara, Tippu Tib’s near depopulation of the upper forest region of the Congo, and other horrors had reached their peak, but they had continued for over one thousand years. The Arabian peninsula made slavery illegal only in 1962, and outside observers still claimed a quarter of a million slaves there afterward; it continues today in Mauritania, the Sudan, and elsewhere.
Those who practiced this abuse of others naturally sought justification for the practice. Building from an earlier Jewish tradition not in the Bible, Arab slave traders argued that all descendants of Ham (not simply Canaan as in Gen 9:25, fulfilled in Joshua’s day), hence Africans in general, were meant for slavery. Slavery was engrained in Arab culture; in the nineteenth century the sultan of Morocco resisted outside forces to abolish slavery, claiming that it was part of their religion as well as their culture. In 1855, when the Turks tried to outlaw the slave trade in their empire, under British pressure, Shaykh Jamal issued a fatwa from Mecca declaring the Turks now apostate from true Islam. He announced that it was therefore acceptable to kill them and to enslave their children.