Race and Blackness in Early Islamic Thought

The concept of “race” in the early Islamic world is bounded not by a single word, but emerges from a matrix of terms such as ‘irq (one’s root), nasab (one’s lineage) ‘unṣur (one’s stock or tribe), and shu‘ūb (one’s people), all of which indicate what scholars of race refer to as a “lineage-essentialist” understanding of how human heredity and groupings work. In pre-Islamic Arabia, it was commonly believed that people carry their ancestors’ core biobehavioral material from generation to generation in the form of both lineage and legacy (ḥasab); various sayings of Muhammad, meanwhile, aver that one makes one’s legacy through pious acts and belief. However, Muhammad also expressed doubt that his community would be able to set aside their atavistic understandings of genealogical prestige, saying, “my community has four things from the age of ignorance that it will not relinquish: boasting of inherited merit (aḥsāb), insulting one another’s lineages (ansāb), praying for rain from the stars, and [public] mourning.” Muhammad’s concerns for his community’s break with its myopic past are in keeping with the Qur’an’s affirmation of human diversity as part of the work of God’s creative genius. For example, believers are told, “And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. Surely in this are signs for those of sound knowledge.”

True to Muhammad’s concern that ideas of genealogical prestige would outlive him, throughout the period of Islam’s early expansion into Persia and Byzantium, writings generalized ideas of lineage to all of humankind apace with these accelerated interethnic encounters, constructing what Zoltan Szombathy has referred to as a “universal genealogical chart.” The core of this chart was Noah’s three sons—Sam, Ham, and Yafet. Each son was said to have inherited a portion of the earth and become a progenitor of people with distinct qualities from their brothers’ brethren in those spaces; these qualities were, in turn, hierarchized. As Islam developed into a lettered world-system, acquiring paper-making technology in the early 8th century and, concomitantly, prioritizing translation and bookmaking at unprecedented levels, a separate understanding of the origins human difference also came to prominence in the writings of scholars. Their model was inherited from Hellenistic thinkers whose ideas shared early Islam’s late Antique environment and stated that the world was divided into multiple, roughly latitudinal “climes,” or environmental aggregates that influence the body’s humors in common ways, making people look alike and producing similar ecosystems and organisms. Far northern climes were associated with extreme whiteness, and far southern climes with extreme blackness, while central climes were associated with an ideal humoral balance and considered most conducive to civilization. In popular imagination, Noah’s genealogy was mapped onto this geographical scheme: collectors of apocryphal isrā’īliyāt (tales told by Jews and Christians that were imported into Muslim texts) traced the descendants of Noah’s allegedly blackened son, Ham, across the earth, finding his offspring in such far-flung places as the Maghrib, or modern Morocco, eponymous for being the world’s farthest western point, and the unspecified lands of the “south” (al-janūb), as well as in places more in keeping with Biblical narrative, such as Canaan and Nabatea. Yafet, meanwhile, was said to people the north with his children, including in parts of Europe and Central Asia, but also fabled and vilified places like Gog and Magog. Sam occupied the world’s temperate zones and gave rise to, among others, the Arabs.

It is important to note that these divides in bodily constitution and family roots were not constituted purely by “blood,” the way we often speak of race in the modern period. Instead, the four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) and different bodily fluids (breast milk, blood, seminal issue) all were part of a nuanced understanding of how one’s physical and psycho-emotional self were constituted and could be reproduced or changed across generations. The ramifications of bringing in a new tributary to one’s family line sometimes looked different in life than they did in law: through and the institution of umm walad (literally, mother of the son), children born of relations between slave-concubines and their male owners were born free and carried their father’s family name and ethnicity, even if they did not “look the part.” Genealogy also flows patrilineally in wedlock. A number of the literary works below explore the tensions that incongruities between one’s apparent race and one’s legal status engender, particularly in the case of freed or freeborn black-Arab people, who were often mistaken for slaves.

Many popular Arabic works subscribe to a narrative of intractable divides between the three forks in humanity’s family tree, and style those portions of humanity at the Islamic world’s edges—especially in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and the southeastern Indian Ocean—as filled with hybrid humanoids and outré phenomena. By contrast, mannered works that subscribe fully to the theory of climes admit some capacity for change: a person who moves from the south to the north and has several generations of family there may find that their family’s appearance, cultural attitudes, and intellects change with time. And so, racialization and the hardness or softness of color lines differ in the early Islamic context across genre and social class, as well as across time and space. The following sources piece together a broad range of such genres, from popular epics to elite treatises, and from visual arts to documentary sources. To facilitate their use, I have annotated each source. Because the literary and social construction of a culture’s core (i.e. a default, often invisible “us”) is central to the making of race, below you will find sources not only on the Arab-Muslim world’s “others,” but on the formulation of Arab identity itself. Race is also inherently gendered, and as such, sources on marriage, concubinage, and other gender-based assimilatory legal structures in the early Arab-Muslim community are also featured here.

Harry T. Norris, The Adventures of Antar (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1980).

            This book offers a translation and analysis of portions of the most famed epic in the Arabic language, the story of the half-Abyssinian and half-Arab pre-Islamic hero, ‘Antarah b. Shaddād. The text’s existence is first attested in the twelfth century, but such epics often circulated orally for significant amounts of time prior. It is based on the life of ‘Antarah, a warrior-poet who was born enslaved in the tribe of ‘Abs and grew to massive historical and legendary renown. Norris offers only the sections of the text in which ‘Antarah is traveling in Yemen and East Africa, traversing Egypt and Abyssinia. Sub-Saharan portions of Africa are referred to in Classical Arabic as the Bilād al-Sūdān, or “lands of the blacks,” and so the black-skinned ‘Antarah’s journeys there offer fodder for discussions of the intersection of race and culture.

‘Antarah ibn Shaddad, War Songs, trans. James Montgomery (New York: NYU Press, 2018).

            As a half-black poet working in Arabic, the historical ‘Antarah has often been grouped with a collection of pre- and early Islamic poets known as the aghribat al-‘arab, or “crows of the Arabs:” men born to East African mothers and Arab fathers and raced as black who wrote about their sense of marginalization in Arabia (“crow” is a common epithet for black-skinned people in Classical Arabic). These poets’ status and works are now considered emblematic of Arabian racial dynamics in their era. ‘Antarah is often quiet about his race in the collection (dīwān) of his poems, beautifully translated by James Montgomery, but one sees flashes of it here and there amidst ‘Antara’s more central meditations on the already mercurial life of a warrior. Montgomery also has translated a handful of poems by “pseudo-‘Antarah” from his aforementioned epic, allowing the reader to compare between ‘Antarah’s historical self and his afterlife as a literary figure.

The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic, translated by Lena Jayussi (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).

            The story of the Yemeni king Sayf b. Dhī Yazan is, like that of ‘Antara, a popular epic of some renown. Its existence as a text can be traced only to the Mamluk period in Egypt, sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries, and the story overall is much more magical than ‘Antara’s. Sayf himself is a half-Abyssinian hero who passes as Arab and who is fated to bring the “prophecy” of the people of Sam’s subjugation of the people of Ham to fruition. The action in the text follows a historical moment of aggressions between the Abyssinian kingdom of Axum and the Yemeni kingdom of Himyar, which in history resulted in the decades-long occupation of Yemen by Abyssinian ruling powers in the middle of the sixth century.

Ibn Qutaybah, Excellence of the Arabs, trans. Sarah Bowen Savant (New York: NYU Press, 2017).

            This treatise was written in response to the fulminations of a largely Persian upper-middle class against the privileging of Arab-identified people in the Muslim society of Baghdad and its environs in a literary movement known as shu‘ūbiyya, sometimes rendered as “Persian nationalism.” In it, Ibn Qutaybah staunchly defends Arabs’ elite standing, basing his arguments on the purported civilizational advancement of pre-Islamic Arabians, the centrality of Arabia and its denizens to Islam, and so on. The work offers a study in identity construction and counter-construction.

Al-Jāḥiẓ, “The Boasts of the Blacks Over the Whites” (Fakhr al-Sūdān ‘alā-l-Bīḍān), translated by Tarif Khalidi. Islamic Quarterly 25 (1981): 3–51.

            The 9th-century literatteur al-Jāḥiẓ is one of the most prolific early-‘Abbasid authors and is known especially for pioneering various epistolary genres, including the munāẓara, or disputation, which conventionally pitted two entities (i.e. the sword and the pen) against one another in a contest of rhetoric. In this text, al-Jāḥiẓ elects to vaunt the “Blacks,” often expressed literally as sūdān or as Zanj, a term later used to indicate Bantu-speaking peoples but that connoted black people in general in early sources. Throughout this work, much of which is tongue-in-cheek, al-Jāḥiẓ takes commonplace negative stereotypes, such as the Zanjs’ love of dance and revelry, and argues for their positive aspects. He also lists the well-known and admired figures of Sub-Saharan African heritage in his era. The work is therefore useful for guiding discussions of stereotyping and “counter-storytelling,” or the practice of giving anecdotes to help change peoples’ minds about a racialized group, much of which echoes with modern conversations about race in the West.

Paul Hardy, “Medieval Muslim Philosophers on Race,” in Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays, ed. Julie K. Ward and Tommy L. Scott (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002).

            This essay offers an account of how later medieval Muslim Arabophone thinkers, and particularly the North African political historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), thought about the relationship between environment, fitness, and natural slavery. This is done with emphasis on Sub-Saharan Africans’ perceived natural slavery and developing through-lines between Aristotelian writings and Muslim authors.

Rachel Schine, “Conceiving the Pre-Modern Black-Arab Hero: On the Gendered Production of Racial Difference in Sīrat al-amīrah dhāt al-himmah, Journal of Arabic Literature 48 (2017): 298-326.

            This essay explores the relationship between premodern Arab-Muslim understandings of female biology and reproductive sciences and the making of race. The article works across the Arabic epic tradition and various near-contemporary commentarial, belletristic, and medical texts.

Touria Khannous, “Race in Pre-Islamic Poetry: The Work of Antara Ibn Shaddad,” African and Black Diaspora, vol. 6, no. 1 (2013): 66-80.

            Khannous’ essay explores race and blackness in the writings of the pre-Islamic warrior poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad in view of pre-Islamic societies’ understandings of genealogy. She argues for the persistence of racialized genealogical thinking in the Islamic era.

Chouki el Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

            Beginning with a preliminary exploration of race and slavery in the Qur’an and early literature, Chouki el Hamel’s study focuses primarily on the ongoing question of the racial and social status of haratin, or “freed people” in Morocco and its southern neighbors, with a particular focus on the slaving practices and discourses around enslavability under the Moroccan ruler Moulay Isma’il. Though it is prohibited for Muslims to enslave fellow believers, this book richly explores the issues of ascribing unbelief to racial groups. It also offers accounts of how local people grapple with negative associations with blackness in North Africa.

Jere L. Bacharach, “African Military Slaves in the Medieval Middle East: The Cases of Iraq (869-955) and Egypt (868-1171),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13 (1981): 471-495

            Typically, Muslim military slavery is associated with Turkic peoples, who were often placed in relatively more prestigious cavalry positions. However, large numbers of Sub-Saharan African military slaves were also tasked with military duties, typically as infantry. Bacharach’s essay explores how different early Islamic regimes developed racially distinguished military units. He considers how various powers worked with Sub-Saharan African polities diplomatically and economically and made use of trans-Saharan slaving.

J.T. Olsson, “The world in Arab eyes: A reassessment of the climes in medieval Islamic scholarship,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 77 (2014): 487–508.

            Olsson’s essay sheds new light on how articulations of geographic race relate to the prevalent anti-blackness of medieval Arab-Muslim writings. He questions why—when the world, as divided into “climes,” is thought to have extreme environments that warp the intellect and body at both its farthest southern and northern points—one does not find a concomitant anti-white set of attitudes in these same works. By supplementing understandings of humors and the climate with other theories of civilization that are found in medieval Arabic encyclopedic and geographic sources, Olsson complicates the relationship between geography and race.

Robert Hillenbrand, “The Image of the Black in Islamic Art: The Case of Islamic Painting,” in The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art, David Bindman, Suzanne Preston Blier, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

            Hillenbrand’s essay is one of the few to tackle the question of blackness in Islamic artworks, and particularly in manuscript illuminations from the Persianate world. He offers a range of images depicting Africa and Africans, but also depicting magical creatures and jinn, and writes on the relationship between human physical blackness and certain aspects of Islamic demonology and cosmology as they appear in the visual arts.

Zoltán Szombathy, “Genealogy in Medieval Muslim Societies,” Studia Islamica no. 95 (2002): 5-35.

            Szombathy discusses the types of social prestige and meaning that were attached to genealogy (nasab, pl. ansāb) in medieval Muslim societies. He also sketches the “universal genealogical chart” through which Arab-Muslim thinkers extrapolated their ideas of descent and lineage construction to other parts of the globe, primarily through the lens of apocryphal writings on the offspring of Noah. These genealogies, in effect, produce global race.

Peter Webb, Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (Edinburgh UP: Edinburgh, 2016).

            Webb’s book explores the question of how Arabs became an ethnos, the origins of which have typically been identified with the pre-Islamic period. By reading scripture, exegeses, and other early prose works against the grain, Webb theorizes that Arab identity in fact crystallized due to the outward migration of Arabian peoples from the peninsula in the early Islamic period, with formulations of ethnic “Arabness” first detectable in the 8th century. Webb’s work is an important part of the conversation about identity construction in the premodern world.

Elizabeth Urban, Conquered Populations in Early Islam: Non-Arabs, Slaves, and the Sons of Slave Mothers (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

            Building on Webb’s work, Elizabeth Urban layers a rich gender analysis into the question of how Arab ethnicity was formulated in Islam’s earliest centuries, with particular consideration paid to how foreign concubinage features in the standardization of patrilineal descent. Her work also broadly explores the role of “unfree” populations in the construction of Muslim identities, be they enslaved men or women or non-Arab, Muslim affiliates known as mawālī.

Zayde Antrim, Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

            Antrim’s book explores pre-modern Arab-Muslim world concepts through literature, geographic works, and maps. She examines how thinkers divided the world in ways that were both local and universal, and in so doing examines the way in which a sense of self (and other) is attached to a sense of place.

David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

            Goldenberg dissects the development of one of history’s most pernicious myths, common to writings across the Abrahamic faiths: that Noah cursed the offspring of one of his sons, Ham, with being both black-skinned and eternally servile to his other children, who together constitute all of non-black humankind. Moving from the racially uninflected origins of this story in the Hebrew Bible through various commentarial traditions, Goldenberg traces this myth’s movement and change across time.

Rachel Schine holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. She is presently a postdoctoral associate and instructor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations. She has published on topics relating to blackness, racialization, and kinship structures in premodern Arabic storytelling in, among others, the Journal of Arabic Literature and al-‘Usūr al-Wustā: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists