This text is taken from the ḥisba manual of al-Saqaṭī, a jurist in 13th-century Málaga. A ḥisba manual was a reference work for the muḥtasib, the officially designated market inspector. Generally speaking, the role of the market inspector was to promote good and forbid evil in urban public spaces. In this chapter, al-Saqaṭī advises the market inspector on how to detect fraud and misbehavior among sellers and brokers in the slave market. Slave dealers in the medieval Islamic world had a reputation similar to that of used car salesmen today: they were considered untrustworthy and required careful regulation. The chapter includes nineteen sections, of which nine have been translated here to represent the range of topics covered.

Translated from the Spanish by Maria Olsen and Hannah Barker. Original Arabic text and Spanish translation in Muhammad ibn Abi Muhammad al-Saqati al-Malaqi, El buen gobierno del zoco, ed. and trans. Pedro Chalmeta and Federico Corriente (Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2014), 135-155. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Chapter 7: Concerning Sellers of Male and Female Slaves

They form a very important group and the issues that refer to them are not summarizable or few. This is because they are involved [with questions] of lineage and money. The fraudsters [of this group] reach [extremes] that Islamic Law disapproves of, that no believer would ratify, nor are they satisfactory in any way. In this profession they have ruses and tricks [which they resort to] in their dealings with people, cheating them.

Section 108: The Shame of the Alamina

One of their tricks is when they appoint, in their market, a woman they call alamina [al-amīna][1], complicit in their dishonesty, to certify, when they wish, that the slaves have completed the istibrāʿ.[2] In accordance with what their buyers give, their pleas to speed up [the moment when they can] join themselves with the slave women, attending to the desire they feel for them. [The alamina] also covers up defects and does not mention them in detail until they can be deceived or disguised. Thanks to their complicity, the fraudsters reach extremes unrealizable without their [help].

This one brings, under the pretext that they want to buy them and desire to examine them and verify their artistic knowledge, the high-class slave women, dressed and perfumed, especially those endowed with peculiar talents, to the home of the one asking. [The alamina makes the most of] spending the day with them [at the home of the future buyer], eating very well and drinking until full, [under the guise of] checking her talent. In gratitude, [the supposed buyer] gives a gift to the [alamina] according to the favor received and as remuneration for her diligence – this is apart from the salary she gets from the sale – gives her a generous gift, in accordance with his fortune and yearning to satisfy his desire. She prepares food and drink for 4 or 5 [slaves], as well as what is needed for the practice of the art ordered, and so they remain.

A certain person, to whom this same thing happened, clarified to me an extreme I would be embarrassed to repeat.

[1] Literally the reliable one, a term used for trusted agents and assistants.

[2] Istibrāʿ was a period of time, usually one month or one menstrual cycle, during which the male buyer of a female slave was legally required to abstain from sexual intercourse with her. The purpose of this requirement was to ensure that the enslaved woman had not been pregnant at the time of sale and thereby avoid disputes about the paternity of her children.

Section 109: Non-Compliance with the Istibrā’

A man of the world called me one day to take charge of the writing, at his home, of the act of sale for a high-class slave he had acquired. I asked him for the certificate of istibrāʿ for the [slave, a document] which did not materialize, nor did the seller know what it was about. I said to them: “The slave will have no choice but to stay in the custody of a dignified woman worthy of confidence, on which you agree, or a good, religious and believing man, who lives with his wife, until he or she can certify [effective compliance with] istibrāʿ.” Before that the buyer exclaimed: “For God’s sake! You’re telling me about a requirement that I have never heard, nor has it ever been demanded of me, because I have a habit of buying slaves in the market where they are exposed and passing that night with them.” [In view of that], I left them and I walked away.

Section 111: Qualities and Vices of the Various Races

Frauds and tricks of these [traders] are to sell the slaves of a [particular] race [nawʿ] as if they were of another and those from one profession for another.

People have said much about slaves, their functions, figures and good dispositions, and in what way each race stands out, making all kinds of speeches about the matter. They say that the Berber slave woman [is ideal for providing] voluptuousness, the Greek[1] for the care of money and the cupboard, the Turk for engendering brave children, the Ethiopian to breastfeed, those from Mecca for singing, the Medinese for her elegance, and the Iraqi to [provoke] musical emotion and flirtation.

As for the men, the Indian and Nubian [are appreciated] as guardians of people and goods, the Ethiopian and Armenian for work and service, if they are incentivized, the Turk and the Slav for war and whatever requires courage.

The Berbers are naturally the most inclined to obey, active in work, suitable for procreation and enjoyment, and best for offspring. They are followed by the Yemenis who look like the Arabs.  The Nubians are the most obedient to their masters, as if they had been created for slavery, but they are thieves and little worthy of trust. The Indians do not withstand humiliation, they commit the greatest crimes and dying does not matter to them. The Ethiopians have the toughest nature that God created and are the most patient for fatigue, but their armpits stink, which generally prevents them from being taken. The Armenians are beautiful, greedy, and not docile to a man. A peculiarity of those from Kandahar[2] is that the deflowered become like virgins.

[1] Rūmiyya, in this case a reference to Greek-speaking women from the Byzantine sphere.

[2] In Afghanistan.

Section 113: Recipes and Beauty Treatments

Among the tricks of the mentioned [slave merchants] are the following:

To turn the face of the one with whitish color white, they cover it with a dressing whose composition is: broad beans soaked in watermelon water for six days and then another seven in milk, stirring it every day.

They put [the slave who has] a brown color in a bathtub in which caraway water has been put to color it, having to stay there for four hours in a row. When she leaves she will have turned golden.

They redden the cheeks with a soap whose recipe is: five parts flour of broad bean and bitter vetch; saffron root, borax and henna at a ratio of one quarter part each, smearing [the cheeks] with it.

They anoint the blacks’ face and extremities with violet oil and ointment to embellish them.

They blacken the hair with myrtle oil, fresh walnut shells, and coronaria poppy oil, washing it later with decoction of indian gooseberry.

They curl the hair with jujube, myrtle and chinaberry.  

They remove the body hair with live lime, then with ant eggs or oil in which green frogs or salamanders have been cooked or bile from rabbits, washing [after] with alum, borax and oak galls.

They fatten up skinny members by rubbing them with rough cloths, hot oil and by putting pellitory dressings on them

To perfume [the stench of] the armpits they use white litharge, kneaded in rose water, with which they make wafers that they place between rose [petals] until they dry, saving them until they are used. For the same result they also employ crushed atutía,[1] sifted and washed with water and salt, subsequently with rose water and camphor, making a dust that they use. For the identical purpose they make wafers of red rose, musk, water plantain, sedge and alum that they employ, when it is necessary, with rose water.

They soften the rough extremities [by smearing them] with oil, wax, bitter almonds, ointment [scented] with rose water, violet oil and other oils.

They daub freckles and tattoos with a soap made of cane root, bitter almonds, bitter vetch, broad beans and watermelon seeds kneaded with honey.

They puncture leprosy marks with needles [to disguise them], coloring them with a [preparation of] vitriol, oak galls and verdigris, taking one part from each one, and kneading with water and milk of figs that has been in the sun for four days. [The marks] remain dyeing [covered with this paste] for forty days, [after which] they wash this coloring with vinegar and boiled lye or with water of alkali.

They suppress the moles of the body with a concoction of nigella, wild cucumber roots, tree mallow leaves, arugula seeds, grapevine roots and honey

For fear of lice they wash the body with borax, lice-bane, chard water, wine dregs and soap.

They suppress the nasal stench with inhalations of oil of marjoram, violet, water lily and jasmine.

For the removal of hangnails that go to the root of the fingernails, they wash them with vinegar, honey and safflower, and also with oil of roses and bitter almonds.

They polish their teeth [by rubbing them] with toothpicks, lye and sugar.

They perfume the body with sandalwood, rose and safflower, making a gel with rose water and incense; for the clothing they use scented powders.

They perfume the mouth by chewing wood from green aloe, coriander, pepper and grapefruit rinds.

They make deflowered women carry [a pessary composed of] sour pomegranate hearts and oak galls kneaded with cow bile. With this they remain like virgins, just like they were born.

They obscure pale blue eyes by instilling water from sweet pomegranate husks. They dye the white clouds that are in the pupil by instilling hot donkey’s milk.

[1] Zinc oxide mixed with other metallic salts.

Section 116: Qualities of Wet Nurses

The best wet nurses are Nubians [al-nūba] because they feel affection and tenderness towards the infants. The best nurse for a baby is the one with a healthy body, young, [with a] well-balanced temperament, white leaning towards red.[1]

The best [wet nurse’s milk] is the one that when she pours a drop on the fingernail it stays like a lentil, neither thick nor solid, but neither liquid nor fluid, good-smelling and white in color.

[1] Temperament and color are references to the balance of the four humoral fluids which were believed to determine a person’s state of health. White was associated with phlegm; red was associated with blood.

Section 117: Qualities of Cooks

The cook is put to the test with isfīdbāj,[1] because when [this dish contains] too many spices its broth darkens, so it has to be white; other requirements that the broth has to possess are to smell good and to be perfectly homogeneous. If this was joined by [a cook] who was industrious and diligent in her work, it would be the height of what one would be able to wish. It is very rare that one has such a good hand in cold, roasted, stewed and sweet dishes, since there are many [and very different] dishes.

[1] A soup of Persian origin. Recipes are given in the footnotes of Chalmeta and Corriente’s edition.

Section 119: Sale of a Pretended Slave

One of the most famous and well-known frauds [of slave sellers] is that they have crafty women, of beauty without par and admirable looks, teachers in speaking romance and [dressing] in the rūmī style.[1] When it befalls them [that] someone who is not from there asks for a beautiful slave, recently imported from Christian countries, [the dealer] promises to find one soon. But he makes him long for the achievement of his desires, delaying his completion to increase his longing. Finally, she is presented to him, [excusing her delay with the pretext that] she has just arrived and is exhausted by the trip. Meanwhile [the seller] has prepared an accomplice, from the same ilk as the slave, who pretends to be her master and who has to receive her price, by having acquired her on the upper frontier. [The said accomplice] raises the price as much as he wants because she is recently imported, emphasizing her uniqueness. As soon as the deal has been closed, both [accomplices] divide up their price with the slave.

The buyer takes her to his home. If he finds her to his liking and is satisfied with her position, he will ask to manumit her and marry her. On the contrary, she proclaims her status as a free woman, exhibiting in front of the local judge her reservation contracts[2] and the remaining [documents] that make her emancipation mandatory. The mentioned [buyer] returns with his act of purchase and it fails against its [validity, recognizing] the woman’s right to [demand] a refund from the seller. But the dealer emphatically denies knowing [where] the seller is, saying: “He was fed up being known as a dealer and importer of rūmī and other slaves.” Useless are all the efforts of the troubled one that loses his money.

[1] The literal translation of rūmī is Roman. In this context, it refers to the Christian population of the northern Iberian kingdoms.

[2] Testimonies recorded secretly to rescind a transaction (bayyina istirʿā’).

Section 120: Example of What Happened to a Granadan

This is what happened to a man from Elvira[1] who had sworn not to marry in al-Andalus, with an oath he could not undo. He went to Cordoba – in those days the capital of al-Andalus, headquarters of the government and metropolis of science – where he bought a slave of grace and beauty never seen. After covering a mule of his with a piece of brocade, he made the slave ride it covered with a silk tunic of tirāz,[2] like the ones worn by the women of Christian kings. Her aljamía[3] was incomprehensible without an interpreter to translate her wishes.

He got on the road with her, accompanied by his helper who urged on the mule. [During the journey] they did not climb a hill nor rough place, they did not cross a river nor a hollow without increasing the buyer’s joy and happiness because of the astonishment he observed in the slave, motivated by all that she saw on the road, [whether] it was high or low, long or wide, until they arrived at his place. Wary of introducing her in the daytime, he lodged her in a villa that he had outside of the city, until the veil of darkness fell, [the moment] in which he made her enter. Previously, he had spurred on his horse, to get ahead to his house and prepare it for her accommodation and residence.

In the [city’s] slums lived a maker of bird cages, a known, famous, and dissolute womanizer, who, as he aged and stayed alone, repented and resided in his shop. Because he isolated himself in his dwelling, as well as because of his poverty and that of his land, he often stayed watching from inside his store, lit up with a candle, or outside, by the moonlight. As soon as the slave could discern him, driven by her habit of making fun of and provoking him, she exclaimed: “The old scoundrel still lives!” He lifted his head, replying: “But are you already here, Fulana?”[4]

When the helper heard it, he was amazed at the clarity of her pronunciation and the purity of her speech. And, when they arrived at the house, he informed his master of what happened. Remorseful, the man feared losing his money and having been swindled, so he sent a friend of his to interrogate the maker of bird cages. He answered him, “And who is she but Fulana, the friend of womanizers and companion of prominent libertines?” When he confirmed this, the man worried and started looking for how to get rid of and break free from her. The woman having noticed the decision made [by her master], to be persuaded of her habits and debauchery, said to him, “Don’t worry about what has happened to you, and if you fear for your money, [you will not have more than] by taking me to Almería where you can charge much more than what you paid.”

Almería was then a stop for ships, home of merchants and travelers. [The man] followed the opinion of [the woman], who maintained her dress and status until they reached Almería, where he sold her for a price greater than what he had paid. But had it not been for the wisdom of her advice, the splendor of her attire and extraordinary beauty, as much during the journey as during her stay, the unfortunate man would have left losing and changing his oaths for such a fate.  

[1] I.e. Granada.

[2] A type of luxurious silk brocade.

[3] The language spoken by Iberian Christians.

[4] Fulana is a generic name in Arabic, like John or Jane Doe.

Section 121: Tricks in the Sale of Slaves

They do the same with men with dark complexions with whom they divide up the amount from the sale. [They] escape from where their buyers reside to another region, together with sellers of equal ilk who return them to sell in another place, dividing their price in the same way.

Another of their tricks is to buy a slave from his owner, with the benefit of his real value being shared. Then the buyer resells him to a stranger for an even higher price, dividing the difference in the same way. He is exaggerated to the second buyer by describing [the first] seller as absolutely needing to get rid of him, because otherwise nothing would have made him get rid of his slave that he was satisfied with. This is all fraud and embellishment.

Section 123: No One Sells a Slave Who Lacks a Guarantor

Dealers will be ordered not to sell any male or female slave on behalf of anyone whose physical signs and name are not well-known, unless they present a local guarantor, and especially [concerning] foreigners who import slaves from other regions.

Dealers will have to investigate and subject slaves to interrogation when, for the reasons presented, they are afraid that it is [a matter of] a stolen slave; [a slave] that has family who facilitate her escape together with her; [a slave] that is a free man who they make pass for a slave and that they have prepared for the occasion; [a slave] that a woman has as husband or son; or that any slave has a hidden defect that they hide.

Unless he is with his mother, no boy or girl will be sold to any dhimmī,[1] being Jewish or Christian, for fear that it will make them Judaize [or Christianize].

[1] Protected non-Muslim communities living under Muslim rule.

Discussion Questions

  1. What types of slave-market fraud was the market inspector charged with preventing? Make a list. In each case, how was the market inspector supposed to recognize the fraud and stop it from taking place?
  2. What does this source reveal about the process of buying and selling slaves? Besides the buyer and the seller, who else might be involved? To what extent and in what ways were slaves made to participate in their own sale?
  3. Section 111 describes the stereotypes associated with slaves of various races. Sections 119-121 explain the techniques used by sellers to mislead buyers about the origin of particular slaves. What criteria did buyers use to decide the race or background of a slave? How did sellers manipulate those criteria to deceive buyers? What were the consequences of this type of fraud?

Related Primary Sources


Labor, Medicine, Race, Religion, Sexual Slavery, Trade, Women