Sr. Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

 

(The details of the story of the eunuch Omar were adapted from ‘Desert Roral’ by Jean Sasson)

 

Omar was a very old, wizened little black man who served as a eunuch looking after a harem of Philippino girls kept by one of the Saudi princes. In the 1980s Cory Aquino, then President of the Philippines, had made a diplomatic issue out of young Philippino girls being hired to go to Saudi Arabia as housemaids, but when they arrived being obliged to serve as sex slaves. President Aquino banned single Philippino women from travelling there. King Fahd felt insulted by the suggested restriction, and reacted by stating that all Philippinos, whether male or female, would be forbidden from working in Saudi Arabia if this ban was enforced. As the Philippines depended on their people working in the oil-rich lands of the Middle East and sending their money back to support their families, her attempt to help the girls failed.

 

Omar worked for one unpleasant Saudi prince. The women he guarded were not locked in, for if they left without passports and the appropriate papers signed by a Saudi man they could be picked up and brought back, to certain punishment. Also, many of such women had actually been sold by their parents who lived in desperate poverty.

 

In the not-so-distant past there were many eunuchs on Arabia, for although Islam forbade Muslims to castrate young boys, they were not forbidden from owning them as slaves. They were considered prized possessions, and huge sums were paid for them. They supervised women’s quarters, and helped at mosques where they were assigned to separate women from men.

 

In 1962 the American President John F. Kennedy personally appealed to Prince Faisal, who was then Prime Minister, to abolish slavery in Saudi Arabia. The government then purchased freedom for every slave in the country for a price of nearly 5,000 Saudi riyals per head, but many chose to stay in the households they were familiar with.

 

The eunuch Omar was rescued from one unpleasant household by a Saudi prince at the request of his wife, who felt sorrow for man’s plight. The prince would have let him go his way, but Omar requested to say, for he could see he had been brought to a kind household. What follows is his story.

 

‘I remember little of bilad as-Sudan, known as the ‘land of black peoples’, but I do know that my family’s tribe, the Humr, were nomadic cattlemen. We followed the rains and the tall grasses.

 

Those were dangerous days. Many African chiefs worked closely with Muslim slave traders, capturing and selling their own people. Every Humr mother was burdened with the worry that her children would be stolen from her. Even now, I remember the soft brown eyes of my mother as she looked at me, and her stern warning that I was not to stray far from members of my tribe. I was young and foolish, and failed to obey my mother.

 

It was the aim of every young Humr male to be praised as a hunter. Small boys were always gathering stones to toss at birds or small animals. I was no different, and one day while gathering smooth stones, I foolishly wandered some distance from the tribe. Just as I was about to toss a stone at a bustard, I was suddenly grabbed from behind and taken away from that place. I never saw my mother again. I was only eight years old.

 

But that was a long, long time ago,’ he said, even after all those years brushing away his tears. He was now eighty-eight years old.

 

‘I was not alone in my misery,’ he went on. ‘Many men, women and children had been taken from their villages or tribes. We were tied together and led across the land towards the Red Sea. We spent many days and nights travelling. When we finally arrived at the Red Sea, an Egyptian Christian met with our leader. There was low talk concerning the young male captives. Panic ran down the line when the man was overheard saying that a certain number of the youngest boys were to be relieved of their three precious gifts. Unsure of what those precious gifts were, I did not protest too loudly when I was pulled from the line and taken a short distance away from the other captives.

 

The man was well-prepared for his duty. His razor was sharp, and without knowing what was about to happen, I was suddenly relieved of my three manly items.’

 

The princess gasped loudly. ‘Allah’s word was mocked by those people and their cruel actions!’ she cried.

 

‘Allah was nowhere to be found on that day,’ Omar said wistfully, ‘although His name was invoked more than once by every boy subjected to this cruel treatment.’

 

He remembered every detail of his ordeal.

 

‘A tube was inserted into the opening that was left of the place of my penis so that the hole would not close. I was bleeding badly, but the bleeding stopped when that man’s assistant poured boiling oil on my wounds. He presented me with my genitals in a jar, even as I lay writhing in pain! I kept that jar and its contents for many years, until fifteen years ago when it was stolen by a cruel prankster.

 

I survived, as you see. A total of ten boys were castrated that day. One died immediately, the rest of us were buried up to our necks in the sand. Who knows what cruel fool decided that hot sand was a remedy for survival? For three days and nights we were given no food or water. At the end, only three of the nine were still among the living.’

 

The princess shuddered. Although she had known that in the past eunuchs had been prized in many countries, she had never considered the terrible agony those poor men had undergone. She sincerely hoped that Allah had reserved the hottest places in Hell for the vile men who committed such acts.

 

‘Congratulations went all around when the Christian pulled the tube away from my small passageway that remained for water, and liquid spurted out. Those men knew that whoever passed water would survive. Only two of the three still living were able to urinate, myself and one other boy. The third boy’s hapless body was poisoned by his own urine, and he soon died a tortured, screaming death.

 

After the fourth day, we were packed into a ship that set sail for a slave emporium in Constantinople (Istanbul now). I had survived castration, and the slave trader knew that I would bring a large sum of money. In those days, eunuchs were prized as trustworthy guards for Muslim women – only impotent men were allowed into their quarters.

 

Therefore, the slave trader treated us two castrated boys much more kindly than the other slaves. We were housed on the top deck and fed good food, while those other poor souls kept below were stacked on top of one another during the sea journey. As far as I could tell, they received no food or water. Many were dead by the time we arrived at the harbour of Constantinople.

 

I was purchased by a wealthy Turkish man. He owned a number of slaves, but only two eunuchs, and both were growing old. I was told that when I grew tall and strong, I would be the one to guard his womenfolk.

 

That same year my master travelled to Makkah for the Hajj. He was a fat fool who ate too much grease and sugar, and dropped dead while circling the Ka’bah. I was taken away by the authorities. They gave me to the grandfather of the man from whom you rescued me, to whom a favour was owed.

 

My time with that family was not unhappy. My food was the family’s food. At fourteen years of age I was entrusted to guard the family’s womenfolk. Time flowed smoothly until the deaths of the grandfather and father. I had nowhere else to live, so I remained with that man. He was nothing like his father or grandfather. If the master of the house beats a tambourine, do not condemn those there for dancing.

 

But today, I am more happy than I have ever been.’

 

For this eunuch’s safety, the prince decided that he should not live in Arabia but was sent to his villa in Egypt, as a free man. In Egypt a small black man with a high-pitched voice would not be so conspicuous, and the prince sent him a monthly allowance which provided him with a personal financial freedom he had never known.

 

 

Slavery and the Teachings of Islam

 

As background to this sad case history, it is worth knowing that although slavery existed long before the coming of Islam, the coming of that faith brought a fresh look at the morality of it. The rules of Islam are briefly given here, although throughout history to their shame many who claimed/claim to be Muslims have not lived up to the high standards laid down by Allah’s revelation.

 

Slavery as such was not prohibited, for it had traditionally been a way that persons in dire need had been able to find a home and security when unable to cope without such protection, and many who fell into debt could arrange set lengths of servitude in order to pay off those debts. No Muslim should ever acknowledge any master but God – whether King or road-sweeper.   However, under the new revelation of Islam, persons were not to be regarded as objects that were ‘owned’, and were granted many new rights. It was regarded as one of the most noble acts of charity to grant freedom to a slave, or buy the freedom for slaves in other households if they wished to leave.

 

Muslims were ordered not to abuse their servants, and could be taken to court if they did. They were not to force sex upon any servant, and in fact were forbidden sexual relationships outside the marriage contract. A free woman expected a dowry or mahr if she married; if a man took a wife from among his servants (the phrase frequently used was ‘those his right hand possesseed’), she should be granted her freedom in lieu of mahr. This was automatic for those who bore children.

 

It was forbidden for Muslims to capture and keep any person against their will. The crime of hirabah bil jabr (forcibly taking a person – which includes enforced slavery and kidnapping) can carry the death penalty in Shari’ah law.

 

There were stringent rules for the treatment of people taken as prisoners-of-war, and guidance towards arranging their ransom. They were to be treated, fed and clothed to the same standard as family members, and if ransom was not forthcoming, could be released for token sums or even a good act, like teaching someone to read.

 

(Please refer to the separate article Slavery – the Teachings of Islam for fuller details).