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Zanj (Arabic and Persian زنج, "Land of the Blacks") was a name used by medieval Arab geographers to refer to both a certain portion of the East African coast and its inhabitants, and is the origin of the place name Zanzibarmarker.

Location and inhabitants

The geographers divided the coast of East Africa at large into several regions based on each region's respective inhabitants: in northern Somaliamarker was Barbara (around modern-day Berberamarker), which was the land of the Eastern Baribah or Barbaroi (Berbers), as Somalis were referred to by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively (see Periplus of the Erythraean Sea).


Beyond the Berber coast and to the south lay Zanj (also transliterated as Zenj or Zinj), a land inhabited by Negroid Bantu-speaking peoples called the Zanj, which stretched from the area far south of present-day Mogadishumarker, to Pembamarker Island in Tanzania. South of Zanj lay the Land of Sofalamarker in Mozambiquemarker, the northern limit of which may have been Panganimarker, opposite Pemba Island. And beyond Sofala was the obscure realm of Waq-Waq, also in Mozambique. The tenth century Arab historian and geographer Abu al-Hasan 'Alī al-Mas'ūdī describes Sofala as the furthest limit of the Zanj settlement and mentions its king's title as Mfalme (a Bantu word).


Arab writers used the term Zanj to refer to "Bantu-speaking Negroes" on the coast of East Africa and south of Barbara. The Zanj traded extensively with Arabs, Persians and Indians, but only locally since they possessed no ocean-going ships. Through this trade, some Arabs intermarried with local Bantu women, which eventually gave rise to the Swahili culture and language -- both Bantu in origin but significantly influenced by foreign elements (e.g. clothing, loan word, etc.).

Prominent settlements of the Zanj coast included Shungwaya (Bur Gao), as well as Malindimarker, Gedimarker, and Mombasamarker. By the late medieval period, the area included at least 37 substantial Swahili trading towns, many of them quite wealthy. However, these communities never consolidated into a single political entity (the "Zanj Empire" being a late nineteenth century fiction).

The urban ruling and commercial classes of these Swahili settlements was occupied by Arab and Persian immigrants. The Bantu peoples inhabited the coastal regions, and were organized only as family groups. The term 'shenzi' used on the East African coast and derived from Swahili 'zanji' referred in a derogatory way to anything associated with rural blacks. An example of this would be the colonial term a 'shenzi' dog, referring to a native dog.

The Zanj were for centuries shipped as slaves by Arab traders to all the countries bordering the Indian Oceanmarker. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs recruited many Zanj slaves as soldiers and, as early as 696 AD, we learn of slave revolts of the Zanj against their Arab masters in Iraqmarker (see Zanj Rebellion). Ancient Chinese texts also mention ambassadors from Java presenting the Chinese emperor with two Seng Chi (Zanji) slaves as gifts, and Seng Chi slaves reaching China from the Hindu kingdom of Sri Vijaya in Javamarker.

The term "Zanj" apparently fell out of use in the tenth century. However, after 1861, when the area controlled by the Arab Sultan of Zanzibarmarker was forced by the British to split with the parent country of Omanmarker, it was often referred to as Zanj. . The sea off the south-eastern coast of Africa we known as the 'sea of Zanj' and included the Mascarenemarker islands and Madagascarmarker. During the anti-apartheid struggle it was proposed that South Africa should assume the name 'Azania' to reflect ancient Zanj.

Arab and Chinese views

Arab and Chinese historians looked down upon the Zanj as an inferior race, and came to associate the most degrading forms of labor with them. This sentiment was exemplified in the following passage from Kitab al-Bad' wah-tarikh, vol.4 by the medieval Arab writer Al-Muqaddasi:

"As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence."

However, the 9th century Muslim author Al-Jahiz, an Afro-Arab and the grandson of a Zanj (Bantu) slave, disagreed.

"They say; If a Zanji and a Zanji women marry and their children remain after puberty in Iraq, they come to rule the roost thanks to their numbers, endurance, intelligence, and efficiency."

Al-Jahiz also wrote a book entitled Risalat mufakharat al-Sudan 'ala al-bidan ("Treatise on the Superiority of Blacks over Whites"), in which he stated that Blacks:

Zanj Rebellion

The Zanj rebellion refers to a series of uprisings which took place over a period of fifteen years (869-883 AD) near the city of Basramarker (also known as Basara) in modern day Iraqmarker.

The Zanj who were taken as slaves to the Middle East were often used in hard agriculture-related outdoor work. In particular, Zanj slaves were used in labor-intensive plantations, harvesting crops like sugarcane in the lower Mesopotamia basin of southern modern-day Iraq, a relatively unusual development in the Islamic world, which generally reserved slave labor for household chores and as soldiers. Harsh circumstances apparently motivated, between the seventh and ninth centuries, three rebellions, the largest of which occurred between 868 and 883.

Others have taken a different interpretation of the Zanj rebellion believing that it was not a slave rebellion but that the revolt was mostly Arabs supported by East African immigrants in Iraq. This view was taken by M. A. Shaban who argued:

"It was not a slave revolt.
It was a zanj, i.e. a Negro, revolt.
To equate Negro with slave is a reflection of nineteenth-century racial theories; it could only apply to the American South before the Civil War."

"All the talk about slaves rising against the wretched conditions of work in the salt marshes of Basra is a figment of the imagination and has no support in the sources.
On the contrary, some of the people who were working in the salt marshes were among the first to fight against the revolt.
Of course there were a few runaway slaves who joined the rebels, but this still does not make it a slave revolt.
The vast majority of the rebels were Arabs of the Persian Gulf supported by free East Africans who had made their homes in the region."


  1. F.R.C. Bagley et al., The Last Great Muslim Empires, (Brill: 1997), p.174
  2. Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, Culture and Customs of Somalia, (Greenwood Press: 2001), p.13
  3. James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 12: V. 12, (Kessinger Publishing, LLC: 2003), p.490
  4. Bethwell A. Ogot, Zamani: A Survey of East African History, (East African Publishing House: 1974), p.104
  5. Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, (Cambridge University Press: 2003), p.61
  6. Stefan Goodwin, Africa's Legacies of Urbanization: Unfolding Saga of a Continent, (Lexington Books: 2006), p.301
  7. David Westerlund, Ingvar Svanberg, Islam Outside the Arab World, (Palgrave Macmillan: 1999), p.11
  8. David Brion Davis, Challenging the boundaries of slavery, (Harvard University Press: 2006), p.12
  9. Roland Oliver, Africa in the Iron Age: c.500 BC-1400 AD, (Cambridge University Press: 1975), p.192
  10. Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, Culture and Customs of Somalia, (Greenwood Press: 2001), p.13
  11. Bethwell A. Ogot, Zamani: A Survey of East African History, (East African Publishing House: 1974), p.104
  12. Islam, From Arab To Islamic Empire: The Early Abbasid Era
  13. "Islamic History" By M. A. Shaban

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