Ghilman (singular Arabic: غُلاَم ghulām,[note 1] plural غِلْمَان ghilmān)[note 2] were slave-soldiers and/or mercenaries in armies throughout the Islamic world. Islamic states from the early 9th century to the early 19th century consistently deployed slaves as soldiers, a phenomenon that was very rare outside of the Islamic world.[1]

The Quran mentions ghilman (غِلْمَان) as serving boys who are one of the delights of Jannah or paradise/heaven of Islam, in verse 52:24 (Verse 56:17 is also thought to refer to ghilman).[2][3]



The words ghilman (غِلْمَان) and its singular variant ghulam (غلام) are of Arabic origin, meaning boys or servants. It derives from the Arabic root ḡ-l-m (غ ل م).[4][5]



The ghilman were slave-soldiers taken as prisoners of war from conquered regions or frontier zones, especially from among the Turkic people of Central Asia and the Caucasian peoples (Turkish: Kölemen). They fought in bands, and demanded high pay for their services.[6]

The use of slave soldiers in the Islamic world stretches back to 625, when African slave soldiers were mentioned serving under Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphate. Slavs and Berbers were also used under the Umayyad Caliphs. However, large-scale use became prevalent only in the mid-9th century.[7] The first Muslim ruler to form an army of slave soldiers, before the Abbasid Caliphs, seems to have been Ibrahim I ibn al-Aghlab (800–812), founder of the Aghlabids of Ifriqiya, where there was already a large population of agricultural slaves and access to extensive slave trading networks across the Sahara Desert.[8]

Ghilman were introduced to the Abbasid Caliphate during the reign of al-Mu'tasim (r. 833–842), who showed them great favor and relied upon them for his personal guard. Accounts cite that their numbers increased in the caliphal household as Mu'tasim tried to address the court factionalism.[9] These slave-soldiers were opposed by the native Arab population, and riots against them in Baghdad in 836 forced Mu'tasim to relocate his capital to Samarra.

The use of ghilman reached its maturity under al-Mu'tadid and their training was conceived and inspired through the noble furusiyya.[10] From a slave, a ghulam attained his freedom after completing the formative training period and joined the elite corps as a mounted warrior.[10] The ghilman rose rapidly in power and influence, and under the weak rulers that followed Mu'tasim, they became kingmakers: they revolted several times during the so-called "Anarchy at Samarra" in the 860s and killed four caliphs. Eventually, starting with Ahmad ibn Tulun in Egypt, some of them became autonomous rulers and established dynasties of their own, leading to the dissolution of the Abbasid Caliphate by the mid-10th century.

In Umayyad Spain, slave soldiers of "saqaliba" (Slavs) were used from the time of Al-Hakam I, but only became a large professional force in the tenth century, when the slave soldier recruitment shifted to Christian Spain, particularly the Kingdom of Leon.[11]

A ghulam was trained and educated at his master's expense and could earn his freedom through his dedicated service. Ghilman were required to marry Turkic slave-women, who were chosen for them by their masters.[12] Some ghilman seem to have lived celibate lives. The absence of family life and offspring was possibly one of the reasons that ghilman, even when they attained power, generally failed to start dynasties or to proclaim their independence. There are, however, a few exceptions to that rule, such the Ghaznavid dynasty of Afghanistan and the Anushtegin dynasty, which succeeded it.

Slave soldiers became the core of Islamic armies as the Bedouin, Ghazi holy warriors and Hashariyan conscripts were not as reliable, while Ghilman were expected to be loyal as they had no personal connections to the rest of society. However, the Ghilman often did not remain as loyal as expected.[7]

From the 10th century, masters would distribute tax farming land grants (Iqta) to the ghilman to support their slave armies.[7]

The Buyids and likely the Tahirids also built armies of Turkish slave soldiers. The Saffarids drew slave soldiers from Turks, Indians and Africans. The Ghaznavid dynasty, which originated from a slave soldier of the Samanids, also built their military around slave soldiers, first Turks and later Indians.

Fath-Ali Shah Qajar seated on the Sun Throne flanked by a prince, probably Abbas Mirza, and two gholams with his shield and mace, giving audience to two ministers. Folio from the Shahanshahnameh of Fath-Ali Khan Saba, dated 1810

The Turkish Seljuks and their successors the Ghurids and the Turkic Khwarazmian dynasty also continued with an army of mainly Turkish slave soldiers. Seljuk regional princes were each placed under the tutelage of slave soldier guardians (atābak) who formed their own dynasties. After a brief interruption under the Mongols, the institution returned under the Qara Qoyunlu and Aq Qoyunlu Turkmens. The various Iranian dynasties (Safavid, Afsharid, Qajar) drew slave soldiers from the Caucasus such as Georgians, Circassians and Armenians.[13] (Unlike the Seljuks, who quickly abandoned their tribal warriors for an increase in slave-soldier forces, the Mongols did not adopt the institution of slave-soldiers).[14]

The Delhi Sultanate also made extensive use of Turkish cavalry ghilman as their core shock troops. After Central Asia fell to the Mongols they switched to capturing Hindu boys to convert into Islamic slave soldiers.[15]

There were violent ethnic conflicts between the different groups of ghilman, the Turks, Slavs, Nubians and Berbers in particular.[7]

Tactics and equipment


Islamic caliphs often recruited slave-soldiers from the Turkic peoples of Central Asia due to their hardiness in desert conditions and expertise with horseback riding. Ghilman in the Abbasid Caliphate fought primarily as a mounted strike force whose purpose was to weaken the enemy with swift and rapid attacks before allied infantry were sent into battle. They carried a lance that could be used to impale enemy infantry easily and a round wooden shield that had been reinforced with either animal skin or thin metal plates. These ghilman also carried a sword on their belt, where it was easier to draw as opposed to the back or the chest.[16]



The Quran mentions ghilman in verse 52:24: "There will circulate among them ghilman for them, as if they were pearls well-protected." Ghilman are traditionally described as servant boys provided especially for believers in heaven. In verse 56:17: "There will circulate among them [the faithful in heaven] young boys made eternal" -- "them" refer to the faithful in heaven and "young boys made eternal" to ghilman.[2][3] Descriptions of the ghilman by tenth and sixteenth-century theologians were focused on their beauty. Their commentaries also hold that the extratemporal parameters of the Paradise, which the young servants inhabit, are also extended to them so that they do not age or die.[17]

Some have suggested that homosexuality might apply in heaven where there is no need for procreation, and that the ghilman might be the male equivalent of the famously beautiful female houris that the faithful marry in heaven.[3]

See also





  1. ^ Other standardized transliterations: ġulām / ḡulām. IPA: [æʊˈlæːm, ɣoˈlæːm].
  2. ^ Other standardized transliterations: ġilmān / ḡilmān. IPA: [ɣelˈmæːn].


  1. ^ Daniel Pipes (1981). Slave Soldiers and Islam: The Genesis of a Military System. Daniel Pipes. pp. 35, 45. ISBN 0300024479.
  2. ^ a b El-Rouayheb, Khaled (2005). Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500–1800. University of Chicago Press. pp. 131–136.
  3. ^ a b c Afary, Janet (9 April 2009). "The Quran and Homosexuality in the Muslim World". Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107394353. Retrieved 6 August 2020.
  4. ^ "Gulam". Etimoloji Türkçe (in Turkish). Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  5. ^ "Gılman". Etimoloji Türkçe (in Turkish). Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  6. ^ "Ghulam - Oxford Islamic Studies Online". 2008-05-06. Archived from the original on August 19, 2014.
  7. ^ a b c d Heath, Ian (2015). Armies of the Dark Ages. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-1326233327.
  8. ^ Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Lucian Reinfandt, and Yannis Stouraitis (2020). Migration Histories of the Medieval Afroeurasian Transition Zone Aspects of mobility between Africa, Asia and Europe, 300-1500 C.E. BRILL. pp. 419–422. ISBN 9789004425613.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Shome, Ayan (2014). Dialogue & Daggers: Notion of Authority and Legitimacy in the Early Delhi Sultanate (1192 C.E. – 1316 C.E.). Quills Ink Pvt Ltd. p. 101. ISBN 978-93-84318-44-4.
  10. ^ a b Coetzee, Daniel; Eysturlid, Lee W. (2013). Philosophers of War: The Evolution of History's Greatest Military Thinkers [2 Volumes]: The Evolution of History's Greatest Military Thinkers. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. pp. 63–64. ISBN 9780275989774.
  11. ^ Hugh Kennedy (2014). Muslim Spain and Portugal A Political History of Al-Andalus. Taylor & Francis. p. 117. ISBN 9781317870418.
  12. ^ Cosman, Madeleine Pelner; Jones, Linda Gale (2009). Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, 3-Volume Set - Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Linda Gale Jones - Google Books. Infobase. ISBN 9781438109077. Retrieved 2016-02-12.
  13. ^ "BARDA and BARDA-DĀRI v. Military slavery in Islamic Iran". Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  14. ^ Bruno De Nicola, Charles Melville (2016). The Mongols' Middle East Continuity and Transformation in Ilkhanid Iran. BRILL. p. 47. ISBN 9789004314726.
  15. ^ Roy, Kaushik (2015). "3". Military Manpower, Armies and Warfare in South Asia. Routledge. pp. 48–49. ISBN 978-1317321279.
  16. ^ "Kalifit olivat orjasoturiensa armoilla" [Caliphs were at the mercy of their slave-soldiers]. Tieteen Kuvalehti - Historia (in Finnish). No. 15/2018. Oslo, Norway: Bonnier Publications International. October 11, 2018. p. 40.
  17. ^ Günther, Sebastian; Lawson, Todd (2016). Roads to Paradise: Eschatology and Concepts of the Hereafter in Islam (2 vols): Volume 1: Foundations and the Formation of a Tradition. Reflections on the Hereafter in the Quran and Islamic Religious Thought / Volume 2: Continuity and Change. The Plurality of Eschatological Representations in the Islamicate World Thought (SET). Leiden: BRILL. p. 301. ISBN 978-90-04-33095-5.