Medieval Arab attitudes to Black people

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Medieval Arab attitudes to Black people varied over time and individual attitude, but tended to be negative. Though the Qur'an expresses no racial prejudice, ethnocentric prejudice towards black people is widely evident among medieval Arabs, for a variety of reasons: Arabs' extensive conquests and slave trade; the influence of Aristotelian ideas regarding slavery, which some Muslim philosophers directed towards Zanj; and the influence of Judeo-Christian ideas regarding divisions among humankind. On the other hand, the Afro-Arab author Al-Jahiz, himself having a Zanj grandfather, wrote a book entitled Superiority of the Blacks to the Whites, and explained why the Zanj were black in terms of environmental determinism in the "On the Zanj" chapter of The Essays.

Quotes[edit]

  • Colour was not only an issue for the Christian Europeans, but was also of importance in the Islamic world which, in the fifteenth century, came more often into contact with black people than the Christian Europeans did. Whereas the offspring of a black mother and white father was admitted to full equality, ‘the full-blooded Negro generally remained an outsider in Muslim society’, and prejudice was an issue although the barrier did not exclude black people from high office.
    • Jeremy Black, A Brief History of Slavery: A New Global History 2011
  • The attitude to black Africans remains on the whole negative. Some Muslim authors give balanced and factual accounts, based on personal knowledge, of the black kingdoms; a few even write pious treatises to defend the dark peoples against their detractors. Such defense was clearly felt to be necessary, because of the survival of old prejudices. Even the great geographer Idrisi, in concluding his account of the first climate (geographical zone) with some general remarks on its inhabitants, repeats the old cliches about furrowed feet and stinking sweat and ascribes "lack of knowledge and defective minds" to the black peoples. Their ignorance, he says, is notorious; men of learning and distinction are almost unknown among them, and their kings only acquire what they know about government and justice from the instruction of learned visitors from farther north. The thirteenth-century Persian writer Nasir al-Din Tusi remarks that the Zanj differ from animals only in that "their two hands are lifted above the ground" and continues, "Many have observed that the ape is more teachable and more intelligent than the Zanji."
    • Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 7.
  • There is no marriage among them; the child does not know his father, and they eat people-but God knows best. As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.
    • Mutahhar ibn Tahir-al-Maqdisi, Al-Muqaddasi (fl. 966), Kitab al-Bad' wah-tarikh, vol.4 (on the neighbors of the Bujja), quoted in Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 7.
  • The evidence for the growth of anti-black prejudice comes in the main from two groups of sources. The first of these is literary, especially poetry and anecdote. Several Arabic poets, of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods, are described as "black" and are known collectively, to the literary tradition, as aghribat al-'Arab-"the crows of the Arabs."' Some of them-mostly preIslamic-were Arabs of swarthy complexion; others were of mixed Arab and African parentage. For the latter, and still more for the pure Africans, blackness was an affliction. In many verses and narratives, they are quoted as suffering from insult and discrimination, as showing resentment at this, and yet in some way as accepting the inferior status resulting from their African ancestry. One such was the poet Suhaym (d. 660), born a slave and of African origin. His name, obviously a nickname, might be translated as "little black man." In one poem he laments: 'If my color were pink, women would love me. But the lord has marred me with blackness.'
    • Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 4
  • The whole question of blackness was discussed in a special essay by Jahiz of Basra (ca. 776-869), one of the greatest prose writers in classical Arabic literature and said by some of his biographers to be of partly African descent. Entitled "The Boast of the Blacks against the Whites,"" the essay purports to be a defense of the dark-skinned peoples-and especially of the Zanj, the blacks of East Africa-against their detractors, refuting the accusations commonly brought against them and setting forth their qualities and achievements, with a wealth of poetic illustration... To those who ask, "How is it that we have never seen a Zanji who had the intelligence even of a woman or of a child?" the answer, says Jahiz, is that the only Zanj they knew were slaves of low origin and from outlying and backward areas. If they judged by their experience of Indian slaves, would they have any notion of Indian science, philosophy, and art? Obviously not-and the same is true of the black lands. Jahiz also defends the equality of blacks as marriage partners and notes the paradox that discrimination against them first arose after the advent of Islam: At is part of your ignorance," he makes the blacks say, "that in the time of heathendom [i.e., in pre-Islamic Arabia] you regarded us as good enough to marry your women, yet when the justice of Islam came, you considered this wrong."
    • Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 4
  • In time, the multiracial character of slavery in the Arab world virtually ceased to exist and became almost exclusively black. In this respect, it differed little from slavery in the New World. ... As long as slavery maintained a multiracial cast, Arab and Turkish slave owner favored white slaves over blacks in so far as work assignments and what might be called career prospects were concerned. White slave girls were preferred as concubines over black girls; and among the latter, the fairer-complexioned Abyssinians were shown partiality over their darker-skinned African sisters.
    • Gordon, M. (1998). Slavery in the Arab World. Lanham: New Amsterdam Books. page 98 ff
  • It has long been considered a mark of ethnocentric ignorance to equate servitude in Islamic societies with the brutal racial slavery that seemed to curse the New World with unending guilt. Ironically, the very “orientalism” that enabled nineteenth-century Europeans to project their own fears and longings upon an unchanging, exotic, and antipodal “East” also led many anti-Western Westerners to romanticize or defend black slavery in the Islamic world. In 1887, for example, the Dutch orientalist C. Snouck Hurgronje ridiculed the “fantasies” that propelled what he concluded to be Britain’s wholly inappropriate efforts to stop the slave trade from Africa to the Middle East.
    • About black slavery in the Islamic world. Slaves in Islam, David Brion Davis, 1990, in New York Review of Books. [1]
  • Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah's Apostle said, "You should listen to and obey, your ruler even if he was an Ethiopian (black) slave whose head looks like a raisin."
    • Sahih Bukhari 9:89:256
  • Narrated Anas: The Prophet said, "Listen and obey (your chief) even if an Ethiopian whose head is like a raisin were made your chief."
    • Sahih Bukhari 1:11:662
  • Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet said to Abu-Dhar, "Listen and obey (your chief) even if he is an Ethiopian with a head like a raisin."
    • Sahih Bukhari 1:11:664
  • Shem, the son of Noah was the father of the Arabs, the Persians, and the Greeks; Ham was the father of the Black Africans; and Japheth was the father of the Turks and of Gog and Magog who were cousins of the Turks. Noah prayed that the prophets and apostles would be descended from Shem and kings would be from Japheth. He prayed that the African’s color would change so that their descendants would be slaves to the Arabs and Turks.
    • Al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 11, p. 11 The History of al-Tabari is an English translation of The History of the Prophets and Kings
  • Ham [Africans] begat all those who are black and curly-haired, while Japheth [Turks] begat all those who are full-faced with small eyes, and Shem [Arabs] begat everyone who is handsome of face with beautiful hair. Noah prayed that the hair of Ham’s descendants would not grow beyond their ears, and that whenever his descendants met Shem’s, the latter would enslave them.
    • Al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 21, p. 21 The History of al-Tabari is an English translation of The History of the Prophets and Kings
  • Ahmad ibn Abi Sulayman, the companion of Sahnun said, “Anyone who says that the Prophet was black should be killed.
    • Ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, Qadi ‘Iyad, p.375
    • (Muhammad Messenger of Allah (Ash-Shifa of Qadi 'Iyad), Qadi 'Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley [Madinah Press, Inverness, Scotland, U.K. 1991; third reprint, paperback], p. 375)
  • Ahmad ibn Abi Sulayman, Sahnun's companion, said that whoever says that the Prophet was black is killed. The Prophet was not black.
    • (Muhammad Messenger of Allah (Ash-Shifa of Qadi 'Iyad), Qadi 'Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley [Madinah Press, Inverness, Scotland, U.K. 1991; third reprint, paperback], p. 387)
  • Therefore, the Negro nation are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.
    • Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 14th century, quoted in Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 53
  • Beyond them [known peoples of black West Africa] to the south there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves, and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings.
    • Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, in **Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. p 122
  • [Blacks are] people who are by their very nature slaves.
    • Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037), was, among other things, a Hafiz, Islamic psychologist, Islamic scholar, and Islamic theologian Quoted in “Blasphemy Before God: The Darkness of Racism In Muslim Culture” by Adam Misbah aI-Haqq
  • "If (all types of men) are taken, from the first, and one placed after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the Southern-most countries, the Negro does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth -in no other peculiarity or property - except for what God wished. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more intelligent."
    • Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Tasawwurat (Rawdat al-taslim)
  • "Galen says that merriment dominates the black man because of his defective brain, whence also the weakness of his intelligence."
    • Al-Masudi, Muruj al-dhahab, in **Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. p 52
  • A man of discernment said: The people of Iraq have sound minds, commendable passions, balanced natures, and high proficiency in every art, together with well-proportioned limbs, well-compounded humors, and a pale brown color, which is the most apt and proper color. They are not the ones who are done to a turn in the womb. They do not come out with something between blonde, buff and blanched, and leprous coloring, such as the infants dropped from the wombs of the women of the Slavs and others of similar light complexion; nor are they overdone in the womb until they are burned, so that the child comes out something between black, murky, malodorous, stinking, and crinkly-haired, with uneven limbs, deficient minds, and depraved passions, such as the Zanj, the Somali, and other blacks who resemble them. The Iraqis are neither half-baked dough nor burned crust but between the two.
    • Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, Mukhtasar Kitab al-Buldan, 903 AD, quoted in Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 45-6
  • "Their [Zanj] nature is that of wild animals. They are extremely black." "Among themselves [the Sudan] there are people who steal each other's children and sell them to the merchants when the latter arrive."[4]
  • "[inhabitants of sub-Saharan African countries] are people distant from the standards of humanity" "Their nature is that of wild animals..."
  • "As regards southern countries, all their inhabitants are black on account of the heat of their climate... Most of them go naked... In all their lands and provinces, gold is found.... They are people distant from the standards of humanity."
    • Hudud al-`Alam, 982 AD Hudud al-`Alam is a book dedicated to Abu l-Ḥārith Muḥammad b. Aḥmad, a ruler of the local Farighunid dynasty.
  • "Like the crow among mankind are the Zanj [African Blacks] for they are the worst of men and the most vicious of creatures in character and temperament."
    • Jahiz, Kitab al-Hayawan, vol. 2 .Al Jahiz (781–869), was a famous Muslim scholar
  • "We know that the Zanj (blacks) are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of actions."
    • Jahiz, Kitab al-Bukhala (The Book of Misers) Al Jahiz (781–869), was a famous Muslim scholar
  • "They [the Shu`ubiyya] maintain that eloquence is prized by all people at all times - even the Zanj, despite their dimness, their boundless stupidity, their obtuseness, their crude perceptions and their evil dispositions, make long speeches."
    • Jahiz, Al-Bayan wa`l-tabyin, vol. 3 Al Jahiz (781–869), was a famous Muslim scholar
  • Narrated 'Abdullah: The Prophet said, "I saw (in a dream) a black woman with unkempt hair going out of Medina and settling at Mahai'a, i.e., Al-Juhfa. I interpreted that as a symbol of epidemic of Medina being transferred to that place (Al-Juhfa)."
    • Sahih Bukhari 9:87:161 [2]
  • They [blacks] are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country. The heat overcooks them in the womb, and curls their hair. The merit of the people of Babylon is due to their temperate climate.
    • Ibn Qutaybah (828-889), in Lewis, B. (1992). Race and slavery in the Middle East: An historical enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 46
  • It is disliked to trade in the land of the enemy or the land of the blacks. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, "Travel is a portion of punishment."
    • The Risala of 'Abdullah ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani/ 43.16 Trading abroad - A Treatise on Maliki Fiqh (Including commentary from ath-Thamr ad-Dani by al-Azhari)(310/922 - 386/996) [3] The land of blacks could perhaps also be the land of unbeliervers.
  • Throughout the Hadith blacks are also referred to as abeds, which means “black” in Arabic, and is also synonymous with the words “slave” or “filth.”
    • Brigitte Gabriel - They Must Be Stopped_ Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It-St. Martin's Press (2010)
  • A document from the twelfth century tells of the tricks used by sellers of slaves in the Muslim slave markets: merchants would put ointments on slave girls of a darker complexion to whiten their faces; brunettes were placed for four hours in a solution to make them blond (“golden”); ointments were placed on the face and body of black slaves to make them “prettier.”
    • Fernández-Morera, Darío - The myth of the Andalusian paradise muslims, christians, and jews under islamic rule in medieval Spain-Intercollegiate Studies Institute_ISI Books (2018)

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