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CSI'S Monday Majlis: Elizabeth Urban

The Challenges of Studying Slavery in Early Islamic History

The CSI Monday Majlis is a Monday evening, online event, where invited speakers present on aspects of their current research.

Event details


We’d like to invite you to the next online Monday Majlis of the Centre for the Study of Islam, Exeter:

Monday the 13th of March, 17:00-18:30 (UK time)

Elizabeth Urban, The Challenges of Studying Slavery in Early Islamic History.

Registration is required. Register please on this link:



My first monograph, Conquered Populations in Early Islam (Edinburgh UP, 2020), showed how enslaved persons sparked debates about the political, social, and religious boundaries of the earliest Islamic community. However, it also became clear when writing the book that much remains to be studied about the workings of slavery and other forms of unfreedom in the first two centuries of Islamic history. My second book project will use the lens of unfreedom to further analyze the role of slavery and the experiences of enslaved people in early Islamic history. Unfreedom avoids centering overly formal, legalistic definitions of slavery, instead highlighting the personal, relational nature of slavery. The concept of unfreedom is also a fruitful lens for distinguishing between slavery and other forms of dependency, such as marriage, childhood, clientage, and serfdom. Slavery is an emotionally charged topic, but it is also incredibly relevant. Every pre-modern society had forms of slavery or servitude, and even our ostensibly post-slavery world still struggles with oppression and subjugation. I study enslaved persons not to portray medieval Islamic societies in a negative light, but because the experiences of enslaved people are worthy of analysis and because their contributions to early Islamic history must not be overlooked.



Elizabeth Urban received her Ph. D. from The University of Chicago in 2012 and held post-doctoral positions at Brandeis University and Williams College. She is currently Associate Professor of history at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she has worked since 2014. She teaches courses on the pre-modern and modern Middle East, medieval Muslim women, and global slavery. Her research focuses on enslaved and freed persons in early Islamic history (roughly 7th–9th centuries CE), and she is particularly interested in how enslavement intersects with gender and ethnicity. Dr. Urban is also currently the premodern book review editor for the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES).


In the spirit of the label ‘Majlis’ and also to make the talks even more interesting, we are experimenting with a new format presenting the topic discussed by our speaker as embedded in their own research journey. Please come and enjoy the talks and the discussions. If you’d like to be included in the CSI (Centre for the Study of Islam (Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter) mailing list, please contact the CSI Manager: Sarah Wood (’ll be happy to welcome you! Istvan T Kristó-Nagy