Perceptions of Race and Color in Medieval and Classical Islamic Texts

The way that Arab and Persian scholars percieved race and color (including their own) in history was often very different than the way they do today…

(References to Zanj means specifically Black people from South of Ethiopia, including modern day Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and even the Andaman Islands and possibly Southeast Asia (Orang Asli/”Negritos”, etc.)  The photos provided are of people from these areas.)


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Al Mubarrad: Al-Kamil (The Perfect One) (d898) Baghdad
Taken from:

Also called Mobarrad, full name Abu Al-‘Abbas Muhammad Ibn Yazid, is a book on grammar

What he (Fadl ibn al Abas) meant by: I am the green one; is the dark one, the black one. The Arabs used to take pride in their darkness and blackness and they had a distaste for a light complexion and they used to say that a light complexion was the complexion of the non-Arabs.

Sirat Delhemma (Story of Lady Delhemma)
(about 900 and later additions) Egypt
Taken from: Byzanthion revue internationale des études byzantines By Société belge d’études byzantines, 1935

Delhemma means officially Dhat al Himma meaning the women with the great hart. She is the hero in this story.

During an important battle between the Caliph of Baghdad and the Emperor of Constantinople a black called Ghilan from the army of Delhemma joins with his whole army the emperor, they win and Ghilan becomes in-charge of the Byzantine army because the emperor is wounded.
Later on totally unexpected Abd el Wahhab and Battal -who were thought to be dead- arrive with their army of Zendj, after having traversed the whole of Iraq. The Byzantines are defeated.

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Bundahishn (Creation of the Origins) (additions till 9th century)
a compilation, no author known. From Iran, Zoratostrian religion.
Taken from: Dan Shapira; Zoroastrian Sources on Black People in Arabica nr 49
Friedrich Max Miller; The Sacred Books of the East. Volume 5. Pahlavi Texts. Part 1

When Fredon (mythical hero) came, they (the black people) fled from the lands of Iran and settled on the coast of the sea. Now, through the invasion of the Arabs, they (the Zing-i-Siak posht (i.e. the black skinned negroes)) are again diffused through the country of Iran.

Note: in these last sentences allusion is made to the Blackness of both the original inhabitants of Iran, and of the Arabs.


Al Hajari: Kitab Ta’liqat wa al Nawadir: (book of rarities) ( 901)
Taken from: The Northern Hijaz in the writings of the Arab geographers, 800-1150; Abdullah Wohaibi

Al-Hajari records a debate in which al-Fur (Northern Hijaz [location of Islam’s holy cities]) figures as the habitat of al-Zunuj [Blacks]

Ibn al-Fakih al Hamadhani (903) Kitab al Buldan (Book of Countries) from Hamadan Iran’s ancient capital.
Taken from :
Neville Chittick: East Africa and the Orient
N. Levtzion and J.F.P.Hopkins; Corpus of early Arabic Sources for West
African History.
Friedrich Storbeck; (1914) Mitteilungen des Seminars fur orientalische
Al Hamadani : Abrege du livre des pays
Serjeant; Society and Trade in South Arabia
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 the ones who are done to a turn in the womb. They do not come out with something between blonde, buff, blanched, and leprous coloring, such as the infants dropped from the wombs of the women of the Slavs and others of similar light complexion;…

…The people of the Magrib have the mules of Barbarie; the slave girls from Spain…

…According to Plato (Aflatun), there is no good faith with the Turks (waja). Neither is there in existence munificence (sakha) amongst the Byzantines (Rum); bashfulness (haya) amongst the Khazar; worry (and sadness) (ghamm) amongst the blacks (Zanj); valor (shaja’a) amongst the Saqaliba, and chastity (iffa) amongst the Sind…


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Al-Mas’udi (916) Muruj al-Dhahab wa-Manadin al-Jawhar (Meadows of gold and mines of gems)
Born in Baghdad and died in Cairo.
The text is compiled from :
– Freeman-Grenville; Selected documents
– Ingrams; Zanzibar, its history and its people
– James de Verre Allen; Swahili origin,
– Basil Davidson; The African past
– Neville Chittick; East Africa and the Orient
– M. Guillain; Documents sur l’histoire, la geographie….
– Al-Mas’udi; Les Prairies d’or
…Amr, son of Bahr el Djahiz wrote a book : On the superiority of the Blacks, and their battle with the Whites.  That author could bring in the authority of Homer who called the Ethiopians without blame, and putted at their table Jupiter and the Gods of the Olympus….

…To come back to the Zanj of Sofala and their kings, the name of the king of the country is Waklimi which means supreme lord; they give this title to their sovereign because he has been chosen to govern them justly. If he becomes tyrannical or strayed from the truth he is killed and his seed excluded from the throne for ever, for they claim that in thus conducting himself he ceases to be the son of the Master, that is to say of the king of heaven and earth. They call God by the name of Maklandjalu, which means supreme Master (er-rabb el-kebir)…

The Zanj speak elegantly, and they have orators in their own language. Often a ascetic (zahid) man of the country, will get up and address a large crowd exhorting them to draw near to their god and render him obedience; frightening them with his punishment and authority, recalling them to the example of their former kings and ancestors. They have no revealed law to turn to but the customs of their kings.


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Buzurg ibn Shahriyar Persian sea captain (Kitab aja’ib al-Hind) (955) (The book of the wonders of india)
This is a book of sailors tales collected by Buzurg at Siraf (Persia) and Sohar (Oman), with little historical value. Every now and then the land of the Zanj gets mentioned. Here the list.

Sailors tale 31:
Ismailawaih told me, and several sailors who were with him, that in the year A.H. 310 (A.D.922) he left Oman in his ship to go to Quanbalu. A storm drove him towards Sofala and the Zanj coast. Seeing the coast we had reached, the captain said, and realizing that we were falling among cannibal Negroes we were certain what our faith would be, we made the ritual ablutions and turned our hearts towards God, saying for each other the prayers for the dead. The canoes of the Negroes surrounded us and brought us into the harbor. There we cast anchor and went ashore. They led us to their king. He was a young Negro, handsome and well set-up. He asked us who we were, and were we were going. We answered that we had come to his land.

You lie, he said. It was by no means here you meant to land. It is only that the winds have driven you here in spite of yourselves. When we had admitted that he spoke the truth, he said: Bring ashore your goods. Sell and buy, you have nothing to fear.

We brought all our bales ashore and began to trade, a trade which was excellent for us, without any restrictions or customs dues. We made the king a number of presents to which he replied with gifts of equal worth or ones even more valuable. There we staid several months. When the time to depart came, we asked his permission to go, and he agreed immediately. The goods we had bought were loaded and business was wound up. When everything was in order, and the king hearing of our intention to set sail, accompanied us to the shore with several of his people, got into one of the boats and came out to the ship with us. He even came on board with seven of his companions.

When I saw them there, I said to myself: In the Oman market this young king would certainly fetch thirty dinars, and his seven companions a hundred and sixty dinars the lot. Their clothes are worth twenty dinars at the lowest. One way or the other this would give us a profit of at least 3,000 dirhams, and without any trouble. Reflecting thus, I gave the crew their orders. They raised the sails and weighed anchor.

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In the meantime the king was most agreeable to us, making us promise to come back again and promising us a good welcome when we did. When he saw the sails full with the wind and the ship began to move, his face changed. You are off he said. Well, I must say good-bye. And he wished to embark in the canoes which were tied up to the side. But we cut the ropes, and said to him: You will remain with us, we shall take you to our own land. There we shall reward you for all the kindness you have shown to us.

Strangers he said, When you fell upon our shores, my people wished to eat you and pillage your goods, as they have already done to others like you. But I protected you, and asked nothing from you. As a token of my goodwill I even came down to bid you farewell in your own ship. Treat me then as justice demands, and let me return to my own land.
But we paid no attention to his words. As the wind got up, the coastline disappeared from sight. Then night wrapped us in her veils, and we reached the open sea.

When the day came, the king and his companions were put with the other slaves whose number reached 200 head. He was not treated differently from his companions in captivity. The king said not a word and did not even open his mouth. He behaved as if we were strangers to him and as if we did not know him. When he got to Oman, the slaves were sold, and the king with them.

Now, several years after, sailing from Oman towards Quanbalu, the wind again drove us towards the coast of Sofala on the Zanj coast, and we arrived precisely at the same place. The Negroes saw us, and their canoes surrounded us, and we recognized each other. Fully certain we should perish this time, terror stuck us dumb. We made the ritual ablutions is silence, repeated the prayer of death, and said farewell to each other. The Negroes seized us, and took us to the king’s dwelling and made us go in. Imagine our surprise, it was the same king that we had known, seated on his throne, just as we had left him there. We prostrated ourselves before him, overcome, and had not the strength to raise ourselves up.
Ah he said, here are my old friends. Not one of us was capable of replying. He went on: Come, raise your heads, I give you the aman (save conduct) for yourself and for your goods. Some raised their heads, others had not the strength, and were overcome with shame. But he showed himself gentle and gracious until we had all raised our heads, but without daring to look him in the face, so strongly did remorse and fear affect us. But when we had been reassured by his save conduct, we finally came to our senses, and he said: Ah traitors. How have you treated me after all I did for you! And each one of us called out: Mercy, oh King! be merciful to us!

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I will be merciful to you, he said. Go on, as you did last time, with your business of selling and buying. You may trade in full liberty. We could not believe our ears, we feared it was nothing but a trick to make us bring our goods to shore. None the less we disembarked them, and came and brought him a present of enormous value. But he refused it and said: You are not worthy for me to accept a present from you. I will not soil my property with anything that comes from your hands.

After that we did our business in peace. When the time to go came, we asked permission to embark. He gave it. At the moment of departure, I went to inform him. Go, he said, and may God protect you! Oh king, I replied, you have showered your bounty upon us, and we have been ungrateful and traitorous to you. But how did you escape and return to your country?
He answered: After you had sold me in Oman, my purchaser took me to a town called Basrah,- (and he described it). There I learned to pray and to fast, and certain parts of the Koran. My master sold me to another man who took me to the country of the king of the Arabs, called Baghdad-( and he described Baghdad). In this town I learnt to speak correctly. I completed my knowledge of the Koran and prayed with the men in the mosques. I saw the Caliph, who is called al-Muqtadir (908-32). I was in Baghdad for a year and more, when there came a party of men from Khorasan mounted on camels. Seeing a large crowd, I asked where all these people were going. I was told: To Mecca. What is Mecca? I asked. There, I was answered, is the house of god to which Muslims make the pilgrimage. And I was told the history of the temple. I said to myself that I should do well to follow the caravan. My, master, to whom I told all this, did not whish to go with them or to let me go. But I found a way to escape his watchfulness and to mix in the crowd of pilgrims. On the road I became a servant of them. They gave me food to eat and got for me the two cloths needed for the ihram (the ritual garments used for the pilgrimage). Finally, under their guidance, I performed all the ceremonies of the pilgrimage.

Not daring to go back to Baghdad, for fear that my master would kill me, I joined up with another caravan which was going to Cairo. I offered my services to the travelers, who carried me on their camels and shared their food with me. When I got to Cairo I saw a great river which is called the Nile. I asked: Where does it come from? They answered: Its source is in the land of the Zanj. And where? Near a large town called Aswan, which is on the frontier of the land of the blacks.

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With this information, I followed the banks of the Nile, going from one town to another, asking alms, which was not refused to me. I fell, however, among a company of blacks who grabbed me. They seized on me, and put me among the servants with a load which was to heavy for me to carry. I fled and fell into the hands of another company which seized me and sold me. I escaped again, and went on in this manner, until, after a series of similar adventures, I found myself in the country which adjoins the land of the zanj. There I put on a disguise. Of all the terrors I had experienced since I left Cairo, there was none equal to that which I felt as I approached my own land. For, I said to myself, a new king has no doubt taken my place on the throne and commands the army. To regain power is not an easy thing. If I make myself known or if anyone recognizes me, I shall be taken to the new king and killed at once. Or perhaps one of his favorites will cut of my head to get in his favor.

So, in prey of mortal terror, I went on my way at night, and stayed hid during the day. When I reached the sea, I embarked on a ship; and after stopping at various places, I disembarked at night on the shore of my country. I asked an old women: Is the king who rules here a just king? She answered: My son, we have no king but god. And the good women told me how the king had been carried off. I pretended the greatest astonishment at her story, as if it had not concerned me and events which I knew very well. The people of the kingdom, she said, have agreed not to have another king until they have certain news of the former one. For the diviners have told them that he is alive and in health, and safe in the land of the Arabs.
When the day came, I went into the town and walked towards my palace. I found my family just as I had left them, but plunged into grief. My people listened to the account of my story with surprise and joy. Like myself, they embraced the religion of Islam. Thus I returned into possession of my sovereignty, a month before you came. And here I am, happy and satisfied with the grace God has given me and mine, of knowing the precepts of Islam, the true faith, prayers, fasting, the pilgrimage, and what is permitted and what is forbidden: for no one else in the land of the Zanj has obtained a similar favor. And if I have forgiven you, it is because you were the first cause of the purity of my faith. But there is still one sin on my conscience which I pray god to take away from me.

What is this thing, oh king? I asked. It is, he said, That I left my master, when I left Baghdad, without asking him his permission, and that I did not return to him. If I were to meet an honest man, I would ask him to take the price of my purchase to my master. If there were among you a really good man, if you were truly upright men, I would give you a sum of money to give him, a sum ten times what he paid as damages for the delay. But you are nothing but traitors and tricksters.

We said farewell to him. Go, he said, and if you return, I shall not treat you otherwise than I have done. You will receive the best welcome. And the Muslims may know that they may come here to us, as to brothers, Muslims like themselves. As for accompanying you to your ship, I have reasons for not doing so. And on that we parted.


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Az-Zubaidi; (d989) Spain
Tabaqat an-nahwiyin wa-l-lugawiyin li-Abi. (The Grammarians on the Order of the Language)
Taken from: Fuat Sezgin; Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums
Complete name: Bakr Muhammad b. al-Hasan az-Zubaidi

When quoting Abu Muslim the teacher of Caliph Abdalmalik b. Marwan (d705)
Grammarians keep themselves mostly busy with the language of the Zanj and the Rum (Byzantine Romans)


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al-Sahib ibn Abbad: Al Tadhkira fi ‘l-Usul al-Khamsa (d995) (Iran; Wazir from the Buyids)
Taken from : Charles Lindholm : The middle east: Tradition and Change.
His full name is Ismail ibn Abbad ibn al­Abbas al­Taleqani (Abul­Qasim), or Sahib al-Talqani, Abu al-Qasim Ismail ibn Abbad better known as al­Sahib ibn Abbad / Diwan al-sahib ibn `Abbad

Since God created tallness and shortness and the blackness of the Zanj and the whiteness of the Greek, it is not right that men should be blamed or punished for these qualities, since God neither enjoyed nor forbade them.


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Muhammad Bal’ami: Tarjami i Tarikh Tabari (Translation of Tabari’s History) (10th cent) from Persia
Taken from :

Ham is identified as the father of the Blacks, Ethiopians, Zanj, Hindus, unbelievers, as well as kings and tyrants. From Japhet came Turks, Slavs Gog and Magog and various others.
In one of the versions of the manuscript there is no curse of Ham at all, in the other both Ham and Japhet are cursed.


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Akhbar al-zaman (1000) (History of the Ages and Those Whom Events have Annihilated) writer unknown. (sometimes attributed to Al-Masudi)
Taken from : the French translation: L’Abrege des merveilles (1898)

The Zendj have eloquent orators. Those who are man of God dress in tiger skins, and they hold in hand a stick with which they assemble the people, and they preach morning to evening, standing, calling to God, telling about the present king and the former ones.


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Abu Hilal al Askari: Jamharat al-Amthal (Collection of Proverbs) (d1005 CE)
Taken from:

The people with the best breath are the Zinj who also have the most white teeth.



Al Baghdadi; Al-Fark Bain al-Firak (Moslem Schisms and Sects) (d1037) (northeast Persia)
Taken from: Shorter encyclopaedia of Islam by Sir Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, Johannes Hendrik Kramers,

The followers of Babak (Iranian-Zoroastrian freedom fighter against the Arabs) make the founder of their religion a prince of theirs who lived in pre- Islamic times, called Sharwin Whose father was of the Zandj whereas his mother was the daughter of a Persian king.

Usul al-Din (Basics of Religion)
Taken from: Shaykh Ahmad ibn Muhammad, A History of the People of Hadeeth
Full name: Abd al-Kahir b. Tahir, Abu Mansur al-Shafi`I al-Baghdadi

(All the people the companions of the Prophet conquered were called: Ahl ul-Hadeeth, )
It is clear that the people of the lands of ar-Room, al-Jazeerah, ash-Shaam, Adharbayjaan (Azerbaijan), Baabul-Abwaab and others which were conquered were all upon the madhhab of the Ahl ul-Hadeeth. Also the inhabitants of the lands of Ifreeqiyyah, Andalus and all the countries behind the Western Sea, were from the Ahl ul-Hadeeth. Also the people of the lands of al-Yaman upon the Zanj coastline (Zanzibar) were all from the Ahl ul-Hadeeth.


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R. Hai Gaon (d1038) Shetaroth(Formulary or Book of legal Deeds) (Hebrew mss) from Babylonia
Taken from: J.R.S.A.S 1935 by A. Marmorstein.

Document No. VII, contains a formulary for the acquisition of a slave, not a rare event among Jews. This document throws light on the origin and race of these slaves bought by Jews and kept in their households. Five nationalities are enumerated, namely Hindus, Slavs, Byzantines or Romans, Lybians, and Zaagaah (from Zanzibar)


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Al Marvazi: Kitab Taba’i al Hayawan (1120) (Book on Animals) from Persia.
Taken from: Marvazi on China, the Turks and India 1942

Complete name: Sharaf al-Zaman Tahir MarvaziAlso called: Al Marwazi
He took his information from a missing geographical work from Al-Jayhani

On the Habasha:
The Habasha (Ethiopians) are a category under which come different classes of people such as the Nubians, Zanj, etc.. Their territories consist of extensive countries with a wide-stretching periphery the extremity of which ends where habitation ends and cultivation and procreation ceases…..

As for the heat in the lands of Habasha and Zanj, it reaches the extreme limit in scorching. They find beauty in the intensity of blackness and abhor whiteness and hold that a white man cannot be healthy. There are some among them who eat the whites. Some people prefer the blacks to the whites. What led them to this assumption was the fact that they had seen many Arabs and Indians who possessed an abundant share of spiritual and physical gifts and whose complexion was blackish, as they also had seen that, if some whites had black moles, it added to their beauty and pleasantness….

It is said in the Tawarikh (Histories) that one of the kings of Khorasan crossed the Oxus in order to fight the Turks. In his troops there were some Zanj. When the Turks sallied forth to meet them, they saw the Zanj, whose appearance frightened them, for they imagined that they were demons or some other kind of supernatural beings. So they put to flight and retreated without fighting. When the kings of Khorasan were informed of this they increased the numbers of Zanj and Habasha and put them forward in fighting the Turks. But finally the Turks got accustomed to seeing the Zanj, and killing one of them saw that his blood was red. So they said; His blood is like human blood and so are his limbs, and their fear ceased.
In the Tarikh Muluk al-Turk (History of Turkish Kings) it is related that one of them called B.K.J. became related by marriage to the king called Jabbuya. Among the dowry and numerous gifts which he dispatched to him was a Zanj porter who was a wonder among the white. They used to bring him to their assemblies and express their astonishment in looking at his appearance and color. He possessed (great) sagacity, power of thought and valor, and he succeeded in performing many great deeds. The king attached him to his person and his station continuously grew in elevation and solidity. Finally he attacked the king, killed him, occupied his place and seized most of their provinces. He assumed the title of Qara-Khan, which no one had held before him, for it means Black Khaqan. His dignity was great, so whenever the Turks after him wished to honor a king they addressed him as Qara-khan, in Turkish qara being black and khaqan Supreme lord. So Qara-khan means Black Khaqan.


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Al Idrisi (1150) (Kitab Ruyar) (Book of Roger) written in Sicily

Close to the above island of Zanedj ( Jazirat min az Zanj )one finds another, with the town of Kahua (Kua on Juani Island) on which the people are black. They are called Nerhin. They wear the dress called Azar and the Fouta. They are fierce people, brave, and always walking armed. Sometimes they get into their boats and attack merchant ships, of which they take all merchandise. Only their own countrymen they leave to go home, they do not fear any enemies.


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Al Garnati: al mu’rid an Ba’d Ayaib Al Magrib (In praise of some wonders of the Maghrib) (d1169) from Andalusia
Taken from: the original translation

And they are saved from the redness of the Rum, the Slaves and the Russians, and the blackness of the al-Habas and Al Zang and al-Hind; and the cruelty of the Turcs and the ugliness of Sind as well as their shortness. …

…Physical and moral peculiarities of some countries:
One says that the Byzantines are blond; the Zany, black; the Turks, robust; Chinese, the ugly ones; those of Gog and Magog, short, and the Ethiopians crazy.


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Ibn al Jawzi: Tanwir al-Ghabash fi fadl al-Sudan wa al-Habash (d1200) (The Illumination of the darkness on the Merits of the Blacks and Ethiopians). from Baghdad
Taken from: Imran Hamza Alawiye, Ibn Jawzi’s Apologia on Behalf of the Black People and Their Status in Islam

In his introduction:
I saw a group of the best Ethiopians broken-hearted and sad because of the darkness of their color. So I informed them that deference is based upon the doing of good, not upon physical beauty. This book, which is concerned with many of the Ethiopians and the Sudan, I dedicated to them.

Chapter 2
The cause of the darkness of their color
The author said, as far as color is concerned, it would appear that there is no obvious cause for it. Nevertheless we have already reported that after the death of Nuh, his sons divided the earth. The person who divided the earth among them was Falagh b. Abir. Sam’s sons settled in the centre of the earth, so blackness and whiteness existed among them. Yafit’s sons’ settled in the (direction of) northerly and easterly winds, thus a red and ruddy complexion existed among them. Ham’s sons however, settled in the (direction of) southerly and westerly winds, and so their color changed.
However it is neither true nor authentic that when Nuh’s body appeared naked and Ham did not cover it, Nuh cursed him and consequently Ham became black……

Chapter 4
The kingdoms of the black people and their extent.
Abd’l Rahman b. Muhammad al Qazaz informs us on the authority of al-Nanur b. Hilal that he said; The earth is 24,000 farsakhs and of these 12,000 belong to the blacks, 8,000 to the people of al-Rum, 3,000 to the Persians and 1,000 to the Arabs……

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Chapter 5
The virtues combined in black peoples temperaments.
Among these virtues are strength and willpower, and that produces bravery. We remember the Abyssinians for their generosity, excellent manners, inoffensiveness, cheerfulness, eloquence and being well-spoken, ease of expression and pleasantness of diction……

Chapter 19
The most brilliant in knowledge among the black people
Among those from Mecca was Ato b. Rabah, also called Abu Rabah. He embraced islam….He destingwished himself by his knowledge and by his piety…..
His name was Abu Thabit b. Dinar Abu Yahya, and he was a freedman of the tribe of Asad Kufi. He was an eminent scholar. He learned under Ibn Abbas and Ibn Umar…. He was a very religious man, and he once spend a 100,000 dirhams on the poor. He was a black man.
Yazid b. Abu Habid: He was an eminent scholar….
Makhul al-Shami: Abu abd Allah was an eminent jurist. He belonged to Amr b. Sa’id b. al Asi, who gave him to a man from the tribe of Hudhayl in Egypt. He was set free there. Makhul said: I did not leave Egypt until I was certain that I had learned all that there was to be learned. Then I traveled to Medina, and I did not leave Medina until I was certain that I had learned all that there was to be learned there….
Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi b. al-Mansur
He was known as Abu Ishaq. He was a very black man, very learned and eloquent, and an excellent poet. He was acknowledged as caliph. (by the tribe of al-Abbas only)….He died in the year 741AD and the caliph al Mu-tasin led the funeral prayer.
Abd Allah b. Hatim ‘l-Sulami
He was a great emir of Khurasan. He was a very knowledgeable man. Many wars happened during his period.

Chapter 20
The (black) poets and those among them who imitated poetry.
Among the (black people’s) great poets is Antara b. al-Shadad. His mother was a black Zanj. He composed many outstanding poems….
Among their poets was Suhaym, a slave from the tribe of al-Hashas….
Among(the black poets) was Nasib Abu Mihjan Abu Mihjan the poet was the freedman of Abd al Aziz b. Marwan and he was a blackman….Muhammad b. Abu Mansur informs us:….A Zanj women came out of one of the camel litters and set down on the prepared carpets. Then a Zanj man came out and sat down. Then a man leading a camel passed by us, singing the following line: Would like that I could be reunited with Zaynab before the caravan departs. Tell her, even if you are bored with me, my hart will never tire of you. Suddenly the Zanji women jumped on the Zanji man, hit him, beat him and said; You have revealed my identity to people. God will expose you similarly. I said ; Who is this? They said to me: That is the poet Nasib and this is Zaynab…..

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Abu Dulana the poet: (d777AD) His name was Zand b. al-Jun. He was a freedman of the tribe of Asad…..Muhammad b. Abd al Baqi informed us on the authority of Ibn Jabir that he said: I entered a Zanj town and I saw a Zanj women grinding rice and crying. She was saying something which I did not understand. I asked a learned man and he said that she was saying:
I cast my eyes right and left
But I did not see anyone who my heart could love except God.
I came to you in humility, with deeds you already knew of,
And by your generosity you will forgive my sins.
Your hands are not hidden even if the (list of) sins is long,
And your generosity spreads East and West….

Chapter 22
The pious and ascetic people from among (the blacks)
Among those whose names are known, apart from the aformented companions (of the Prophet) are:
Abu Mu’awiya al-Aswad who is also called al-Yaman Turk Tursus….the freedman of the Abu Ja’far, was the commander of the faithful, and he used to say to the people; Make use of me, for I’m your servant. I was purchased with the spoils of war….
Dhu’l-Nun b. Ibrahim Abu al-Fayd al Masri. He was of Nubian origin….
Abu al-Khayr al-Tinati: He lived in al-Taynat which was a village in Antioch….
Muqbil al-Aswad….
Hamid al Aswad (in Mecca)….
Suhayb al Aswad (a black slave in Mecca)….
Those religious black people and ascetics whose names were not known……
A black religious man from Abadan…. There was a Zanj in Abadan with peppery hair and he was living in a rough abode. Taking some things with me, I asked as to his whereabouts. When he saw me he smiled and pointed to the ground with his hand. I saw some shining dirhams and dinars around me. Then he said to me, Give me what you have with you. I gave him and fled, frightened by his behavior.

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Chapter 23
The religious and virtuous women from among the black people.
Maymuna ‘l-Sawda. (from Kufa)….
Sha’wana from the tribe of al-Alba…..
Tuhiyya ‘l-Nubiyya…..
(many of whom the name is unknown)
Chapter 24
Those who preferred black slave girls to white ones and those who loved them, and those who died for their love of them.
….. My father said to me: There was a man in Basra from al-Mahalaba who was in love with a black Zanj women who belonged to his neighbor. He kept putting pressure on her master until (he allowed) him to buy her. She greatly occupied his mind at the expense of his family. A group of them including his brothers, criticized him for that but he ignored what they said…..
(this is a chapter filled with love poems)
Ibn al-Marzuban reported on the authority of al-Harith that he said, Al-Farazdaq took a Zanji slave girl to be his concubine, and she bore him a girl. He loved her and he would praise the Zangi race. ….


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Abu al-Makarim: Tarikh al-Kana’is wa al-Adyirah‎, Full name: Al-Mu’taman Abu al-Makarim Sa’d Allah Jirjis ibn Mas’ud

(History of Churches and Monasteries) (1200) an Egyptian of Armenian descent
Taken from the translation by Evetts, Alfred Joshua Butler: Abu Salih: The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighboring Countries

Mahomet [Prophet Muhammad sA’aws] also said emphatically : God is among the protected people, the people of the desert, the blacks, the men with curly hair. They are related (to the Arabs) and akin to them, in distinction from all the other protected peoples.


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Ibn Manzur: Lisan al-Arab (1290) (about the Arab language) from Tunis died in Cairo
Taken from: Arabic English Lexicon By Edward William Lane

It is said that he (Fadl ibn al Abas) meant that he is from the purest of the Arabs because most Arabs are black-skinned.

…kinky hair was the hair Arabs had and that lank hair was the hair of the Persian.

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Suyuti (1445-d1505) From Cairo
Full name: Abd al-Rahman ibn Kamal al-Din Abi Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn Sabiq al-Din, Jalal al-Din al-Misri al-Suyuti al-Shafi`i al-Ash`ari, also known as Ibn al-Asyuti
He was the mujtahid imam and renewer of the tenth Islamic century, foremost hadith master, jurist, Sufi, philologist, and historian, he authored works in virtually every Islamic science.

His name is spelled in at least 10 different ways on the Internet. He wrote 560 books, 723 according to others.
Raf’ Sha’n al-Hubshan (The raising of the status of the Ethiopians; to defend the blacks against the accusations made against them).
Taken from: Akbar Muhammad; The image of Africans in Arabic Literature.

Praise be to Allah Who preferred some people to others…..I composed this treatise on the virtues of the Ethiopians …..and I did not exclude from it the important instruction (fawa’id) and gems (which) the eager enquirer needs…..I read a treatise on this subject by …. Ibn al-Jawzi entitled Tanwir al Ghabash. But I found It lacking and incomplete. Indeed, there is scope for more (information) and the addition of the beautiful (details) that eluded him. This is an abridgement of and a supplement to his treatise. Due to its completeness it shines like a full moon compared with that (of Ibn al-Jawzi which is like) a crescent.

The contents of the work (in 110 chapters):

1. On the Traditions Concerning Them (Ethiopians) E.g.: A hadith on the authority of Abu Hurayra in which the Prophet defines the descendants of Shem as the Arabs, the Persians, and the Byzantines, the descendants of Japheth as the Turks, the Slavs, and Gog and Magog, and the descendants of Ham as the Copts, the Berbers and the Sudan.

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2. On the revealed (Quranic) Verses about Them.

3. On Quranic Terms of Ethiopian (Geez) Origin.

4. On the Emigration to Ethiopia, the Emigrants, the Conversion of Amr b. al-As and the Negus Betrothal of Umm Habiba to the Prophet….

5. On some (35) prominent (good, pious) Ethiopian Personages. (important here are the najashi = Ethiopian emperor and Bilal) The najashi section begins with a long discussion on his road to power in his father’s court, continues with quotations from his correspondence with the Prophet, and ends with his recognition of Muhammad as the messenger of God and the latter’s prayers for him as for a departed, distinguished Muslim.

6. On the Peculiarities and Good Qualities Which They Possess

7. Some previously considered Matters.(examples; the reason of the rising of the Nile in Egypt is heavy rain in the land of al-habasha and also Egypt will be destroyed due to drying up of the Nile and also Mecca will be destroyed by the Ethiopians)

8. Epilogue: concerning the Desirability of marrying Concubines and the fear of Abandoning (i.e., not marrying) virtuous slaves.

Taken from: The African diaspora in the Mediterranean lands of Islam By John O. Hunwick, Eve Troutt Powell

As for the blackness of their skin, Ibn al-Jawzi said: It is evident that they were created as they are without any apparent reason. However, we narrate (the following account): The children of Noah divided up the earth and the children of Shem settled at the centre of the earth and they had amongst them both darkness of skin and whiteness The sons of Japheth settled in a northerly and in an easterly direction, and they had amongst them both redness and blondness. The sons of Ham settled in the south and in the west, and their colors changed.

zanj 22

Ibn al-Jawzi said: As for what is related about Noah’s nakedness being exposed and ham not covering it and being cursed this is something not proven and it is not correct.

Al-Jalal al-Suyuti said:

I say: This is supported by what Umm al-Fadl informed me of through (my) study (with her, saying) Abu Ishaq al-Shasi told us (saying) Awf b. Qasama told us on the authority of Zuhayr who said:

I heard al-Ash’ari say:

The Messenger of God – may God bless him and grant him peace – said: Adam was created from a handful (of earth) which (God) took from all parts of the world. Hence his offspring
turned out according to the earth (they were made form); some came out red, others white, others black, some where easy-going, others downcaste, some were evil and others good. This is a sound hadith published by al-Hakim in al-Mustadrak, and it is to be relied upon in
(the matter of) the blackness of their colour, for it is a reversion to the clay from which they were created.

One of his works is called:
al-Mutawakkili fima warada fi al-Qur’an bi al-lugha al-Habashiyya wa al-Farisiyya wa al-Rumiyya wa al-Hindiyya wa al-Siryaniyya wa al-`Ibraniyya wa al-Nabatiyya wa al-Qibtiyya wa al-Turkiyya wa al-Zanjiyya wa al-Barbariyya
(My reliance concerning what has been mentioned in the Qur’an in Ethiopian, Farsi, Greek, Hindi, Syriac, Hebrew, Nabatean, Coptic, Turkic, Zanj-language, and Berber)

Mutawakkili is the Caliph who commanded that he compiled a list of Quranic words that are to be found in the speech of the Ethiopians, Persians, or any people other then the Arab. In it he lists 108 words from 11 languages. It is organized according to language and for each language in textual order of the Quran. He made also a similar list in an other book of his with 124 foreign words, and a third is in his al-Itqan fi ‘ulum al-Quran which for different reasons is mentioned here too.

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Suyuti did not get into linguistic research himself, he copied what was written on the subject in former centuries.
Taken from: Bell, William, Yancy;The Mutawakkili of as-Suyuti

The report of what appears (in the Quran) in the language of the Blacks (Zanj)
(Hasb Jahannam): Ibn Abi Hatim, on the authority of Abdallah Ibn Abbas, concerning God’s expression, hasab jahannam it means fuel for Gehenna in the language of the Blacks (Zanj).

(Al Minsaa):  Ibn al-Jauzi related that al-minsaa means staff in the language of the Blacks (Zanj).

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2 thoughts on “Perceptions of Race and Color in Medieval and Classical Islamic Texts

  1. Pingback: Black Sheep, White Sheep: How Slavery Changed the Arab Appearance | knowledge of self

  2. Pingback: Muslim Personalities Who Were Black In Early Islamic History | qãhırıï

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