Skin color and physical features, especially of the prophets, were a part of early Islamic teachings, so they are still important today. Much is known about the ethnicity of Prophet Muhammad’s ancestors, and the inmarriage practiced by his clan means we can reliably guess what his was as well.
“Race Doesn’t Matter In Islam.”
This is a popular mantra in the Muslim community. But is it Islamically sound?
No, for Prophet Muhammad taught his followers extensively about what we use to define ‘race’ today, such as skin color, hair texture, and genealogy. And, as with all his teachings, he commanded them to convey them to others:
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr: The Prophet said, “Convey (my teachings) to the people even if it were a single sentence, and tell others the stories of People of Israel (which have been taught to you), for it is not sinful to do so. And whoever tells a lie on me intentionally, will surely take his place in the (Hell) Fire.” (Sahih Bukhari. Hadith 3202)
In particular, he taught about the appearance of the prophets:
Moses was of brown complexion, straight hair and tall stature as if he was from the people of Az-Zutt.” (Bukhaari Volume 4, Book 55, Number 648)
This is a reference to a specific ethnic type with which the listeners would obviously have been familiar. The same happens in the next narration:
The Prophet (Muhammad) said “The prophet Moses was brown, a tall person as if from the people of the tribe of Shanu’a. Jesus was a curly-haired man of moderate height…” (Bukhaari Volume 4, Book 55, Number 608)
At times, he even praised the skin color of the person in question:
“I saw in my dream a man of brown color the best one can see amongst brown color and his hair was long that it fell between his shoulders. His hair was lank and water was dribbling from his head and he was placing his hands on the shoulders of two men while circumambulating the Kaba. I asked, ‘Who is this?’ They replied, ‘This is Jesus, son of Mary.’” (Prophet Muhammad) Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 649
His companions faithfully recorded and related these teachings, as commanded, and even corrected each other about them:
No, By Allah, the Prophet did not tell that Jesus was of red complexion but said, “While I was asleep circumambulating the Ka’ba (in my dream), suddenly I saw a man of brown complexion and lank hair walking between two men, and water was dropping from his head. I asked, ‘Who is this?’ The people said, ‘He is the son of Mary.’ Then I looked behind and I saw a red-complexioned, fat, curly-haired man, blind in the right eye which looked like a bulging out grape. I asked, ‘Who is this?’ They replied, ‘He is Ad-Dajjal.’ (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 650)
In Islamic eschatology (end times theology) both Jesus and the Dajjal (Anti-Christ) will appear, so it could be said that skin color was only discussed to allow believers to be able to distinguish the two. However, this does not explain descriptions of Jesus’ skin color where mention of the Dajjal is absent, nor those of Moses, who does not figure in Islamic eschatology.
If skin color and ethnicity were not important in Islam, then the Messenger would not have spoken about them.
That is, unless one wants to claim that Prophet Muhammad spoke idly and vainly to his followers. But that would be saying that he adopted a type of speech forbidden in the same Quran which he recited to them, which praises him as the best example. This, would be tantamount to blasphemy.
It has to be accepted, then, that race, specifically the race of the prophets, is a valid and necessary topic. Claiming otherwise is slanderous and self-contradictory. Non-Muslim readers can rest assured that studying the ‘race’, ethnicity and appearance of Prophet Muhammad is neither an offense to Muslims, nor Islam.
The ethnic make-up and appearance of the prophets is a valid and important topic, and those of the greatest and final prophet all the more so.
Muhammad was a member of the tribe of Quraysh. The progenitors of this tribe were Ibrahim (Abraham) and Hajr’s (Hagar’s) son Ismail (Ishmael) and his wife from the Arab tribe Jurhum.
This paper will alternate between narrative of the amalgamation of these individuals and peoples and exposition of their ethnic types according to contemporary and modern historians and geneticists. To illustrate, self-depictions of the relevant groups as well as illustrations consistent with the given descriptions will be included as well.
Ibrahim’s Ethnic Type: Akkadian = Sumerian + Semitic
Ibrahim was born in a house of idolaters in the ancient city of Ur, in the Mesopotamian plains of Babylonia (present-day Iraq). The language that was spoken at the time was Akkadian (wikipedia). The empire united all the indigenous Akkadian-speaking Semites and the Sumerian speakers for the first time under one rule.
Sumerian Ethnic Type
The earliest civilization of Mesopotamia was that of the Sumerians. They are designated in the Assyrio-Babylonian inscriptions as the black-heads or black-faced people, and they are shown on the monuments as beardless and with shaven heads. This easily distinguishes them from the Semitic Babylonians, who are shown with beards and long hair. From the myths and traditions of the Babylonians we learn that their culture came originally from the south. Sir Henry Rawlinson concluded from this and other evidence that the first civilized inhabitants of Sumer and Akkad were immigrants from the African Ethiopia. John D. Baldwin, the American Orientalist, on the other hand, claims that since ancient Arabia was also known as Ethiopia, they could have just as well come from that country. (Jackson 1939)
Semitic Ethnic Type
Image of Israelites from the time of the Assyrian Empire
Semitic Genetic Marker: The Cohen Haplotype-
Discovered in 1997 by Jewish scientists, this paternal genetic marker (it is found on the Y-chromosome) has a high frequency among the Jewish (Askenazi and Sephardic) priesthood (Cohanim) and is thought to be a signature of ancient Hebrew ancestry. The haplotype (CMH) is indeed part of a haplogroup (Hg J) that originated in Black Arabia or Afrabia ca 30 kya (thousand years ago) and in high frequencies is believed to indicate “Semitism.”
There was a further “discovery” that the “purest” surviving remnant of the Children of Israel identified by CMH tests is the tribe of Black Jews in India, the Bene Israel and the Black Jews of Cochin, who show a genetic affinity not only to Ethiopians and Yemenis, but also to the tribe of Black Jews in South Africa, the Lemba, whose relation to the ancient Hebrews has also been confirmed by the presence of high frequencies of the CMH. (Muhammad 2010)
Ibraheem’s Migration to Egypt & Marriage to Hajr
Ibrahim’s father or uncle was an idol-maker. Rejecting this religion, he called him and all their people to Islam, they violently rejected him. After a miraculous rescue from a bonfire meant to kill him, he fled to Egypt.
It should not be a surprise that he went there, because Sumer had historic ties to ancient Egypt (Kemet), so it was a likely place of refuge, because he wouldn’t have been a complete outsider in a place where he had cultural and linguistic ties:
“…from their beginnings the Sumerians seem to have been in touch with Egypt. Some of their early texts mention Dilmun, Magan and Meluhha. … Dilmun was the first settlement that was made by the god Enki, who was the founder of Sumerian civilization. … Magan was famous among the Sumerians as a place whence they got diorite and copper, Meluhha as a place whence they got gold. Dilmun has been identified with some place or other in the Persian Gulf, perhaps the Bahrein Islands, perhaps a land on the eastern shore of the Gulf. … In a late inscription of the Assyrians it is said that Magan and Meluhha were the archaic names for Egypt and Ethiopia, the latter being the south-western part of Somaliand that lay opposite.” (The Growth of Civilization, pp. 60–61, 2nd Edition, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1937, Published by Penguin Books, Ltd.)
It was there that he married Hajr, and they soon had a son, Ismail (Ishmael), who was Semitic/Sumerian on his father’s side, and Egyptian on his mother’s.
Hajr’s Ethnic Type
Hajr was the daughter of Egyptian king and second wife of Abraham she was gifted to prophet Abraham from the king of Egypt. (wikipedia)
“It seems certain,” declares Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, “that classical historians and geographers called the whole region from India to Egypt, both countries inclusive, by the name of Ethiopia, and in consequence they regarded all the dark-skinned and black peoples who inhabited it as Ethiopians. Mention is made of Eastern and Western Ethiopians and it is probable that the Easterners were Asiatics and the Westerners Africans.” (History of Ethiopia, Vol. I., Preface, by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge.)
“Not a few writers,” says he, “like the traveler Volney in the 18th century, have expressed the belief that the ancient Egyptians were Negroes, or at any rate strongly Negroid. In recent times even a writer so discriminating as Ripley usually is has given his adhesion to this view.” (The writers referred to here, are Count Volney, the French Orientalist and Professor William Z. Ripley, of Harvard University, an eminent American Anthropologist.)
No people have bequeathed to us so many memorials of its form complexion and physiognomy as the Egyptians. … If we were left to form an opinion on the subject by the description of the Egyptians left by the Greek writers we should conclude that they were, if not Negroes, at least closely akin to the Negro race. That they were much darker in coloring than the neighboring Asiatics; that they had their frizzled either by nature or art; that their lips were thick and projecting, and their limbs slender, rests upon the authority of eye-witnesses who had traveled in the country and who could have had no motive to deceive. … The fullness of the lips seen in the Sphinx of the Pyramids and in the portraits of the kings is characteristic of the Negro. (The Ancient History of the East, pp. 25-26, London, 1881.)
In the Biblical genealogies, Cush (Ethiopia) and Mizraim (Egypt) are brothers, while from the former sprang Nimrod (Babylonia.)
Bust of an Egyptian princess (Akhenaten: Prophet of Monotheism? )
He left with her and their son Ismaa’eel, and they journeyed and journeyed and journeyed on their riding animal through the desert, all the way south to Makka. You have to drive to Makka to appreciate this. It’s in the middle of a desert, not a sand desert, a volcanic field. There’s nothing there but cooled lava, i.e. a bunch of rocks. It is absolutely barren. Then, when they reached where Allaah had told them to reach, Ibraheem dismounted, left his wife and son- can you imagine how hard this would be?- remounted and started to ride away.
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
He says nothing.
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
Silence. He doesn’t look back. His horse keeps walking.
“Did Allaah tell you to leave me here?”
“Then we will be fine.”
Hajr, may Allaah have mercy on her, had nothing. She saw nothing. She heard nothing. There was nothing. Just a couple of rocky hills, in the middle of a lava field. But this woman had faith. She put her baby down and ran to the top of a hill to look around.
Nothing. Nothing but faith. She ran down that one, and up the other one. Nothing. Hungry (not that I-skipped-lunch-‘cause-I-was-busy feeling, REAL hunger). Thirst. And nothing. She ran back down and up again. Then back down and up again. Until she had run up those hills seven times.
Then she saw something. The angel Jibreel (a/k/a Gabriel), Allaah’s strong one. He dug with his heel in the ground, and water began to well out. In other narrations it was the writhing of the baby Ismaa’eel which opened this water source.
“Zam! Zam! (Stop! Stop!)” she commanded, fearing the spring of water would run itself onto the ground. She then dug a hole around it, so it would become a well. Had she left it, according to a narration attributed to Muhammad, it would be a river right now.
Soon, the Hud-hud (hoopoe) a bird that flies around a source of water, started circling over their two heads. A tribe of Arabs- Jurhum- took note and followed. They were a noble people, so even thought they could have done away with Hajr and her son, they asked for permission to camp near the miraculous water source. Hajr, a young woman, mother of a suckling child, alone in a wasteland, was fearless. She gave them permission, but denied them any rights to ownership of the well.
Creation of Quraish, Muhammad’s Tribe
The tribe stayed and taught Ismail Arabic (Arabized him). Soon he married one of them. Thus began the tribe of Quraish, started by a Semitic-Sumerian prophet, an Egyptian princess, and the noblest of the Arabs.
Arab Ethnic Type
Medieval Arab genealogists divided Arabs into three groups, including the “Pure Arabs” of South Arabia, descending from Qahtan. The Qahtanites (Qahtanis) are said to have migrated from the land of Yemen following the destruction of the Ma’rib Dam (sadd Ma’rib).
Jurhum (also Banu Jurhum) was a Qahtani tribe in the Arabian peninsula. An old Arab tribe, their historical abode was Yemen before they emigrated to Mecca (wikipedia).
Discussion of the Arab ethnic type as it concerns Prophet Muhammad, therefore, should focus on this branch of pure, originally southern Arabs.
Bertram Thomas, historian and former Prime Minister of Muscat and Oman, reported in his work ‘The Arabs’:
“The original inhabitants of Arabia…were not the familiar Arabs of our time but a very much darker people. A proto-negroid belt of mankind stretched across the ancient world from Africa to Malaya. This belt…(gave) rise to the Hamitic peoples of Africa, to the Dravidian peoples of India, and to an intermediate dark people inhabiting the Arabian peninsula. (Muhammad 2011)
Modern dark-skinned descendants of ancient Arabians like the Qarra and Mahra of Oman told colonial observers they originated in Africa.
Al-Mubarrad (d. 898), the leading figure in the Basran grammatical tradition, claimed: “The Arabs used to take pride in their brown and black complexion (al-sumra wa al-sawād) and they had a distaste for a white and fair complexion (al-ḥumra wa al-shaqra), and they used to say that such was the complexion of the non-Arabs.” (Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, Sharḥ nahj al-balāghah, V:56) (Muhammad 2013)
Ibn Mandhor (1232-1311 A.D.) says in his book Lisan El-Arab:
سبوطة الشعر هي الغالبة علـى شعور العجم من الروم والفرس. و جُعودة الشعر هي الغالبة علـى شعور العرب
“Non-kinky hair is the kind of hair that most non-Arabs like the Romans and Persians have while kinky hair is the kind of hair that most Arabs have.”
(l) Yemenite Bronze, Kingdom of Sheba, 715 CE?; (r) modern Arab youth
Now we know that the Quraish were a tribe founded by a Sumerian/Semitic/Egytian man and an Arab woman. Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and Blessings be upon him, was a member of Banu Hashim, a sub-tribe of Quraish known for their strict endogamy (intramarriage within one’s group). While this practice was prevalent amongst all the Quraysh- Al-Azmeh relates an instance of Qurayshi women marrying outsiders as being “unusual” (Azmeh 160)- the Banu Hashim were particularly known for it.
In his 2009 work “Black Arabia and The African Origin of Islam” Dr. Wesley Muhammad quotes Robert F. Spencer as saying: “It is said that the Quraish explained their short stature and dark skin by the fact that they always carefully adhered to endogamy.” (Muhamad 2013)
Therefore, in the ethnic makeup of Prophet Muhammad, the Sumerian, Semitic, Kemetic and pure Arab strains would have been predominate, with outer admixture making up a negligible proportion.
Not an Arab?
According to the millenia-old Arab concept of patrilineality, Muhammad was not an Arab.
Patrilineality, also known as the male line or agnatic kinship, is a common kinship system in which an individual’s family membership derives from and is traced through his or her father’s lineage. (wikipedia)
Besides the Arabic language, patrilineality is what defines one as an Arab.
Although the Arab world is geographically vast and features considerable sociocultural diversity, its peoples have in common patrilineal kinship, away of organizing kin relations that places emphasis on agnatic descent groups. (King 2005)
Muhammad’s patriline leads to Ismail and Abraham, neither of whom were Arab or even part Arab, so the only way to call him an Arab is to negate what defines an Arab. Expanding the definition of Arab to include anyone who speaks Arabic is dubious, because anyone today can learn Arabic in a matter of months, but that does not suddenly transform their ethnicity. Arabic is the language of the Arabs, but speaking Arabic doesn’t make someone an Arab:
By way of illustration, it may be pointed out in this connection that English is spoken at the present day by, among others, the Hong Kong Chinamen, the American Red Indians and negroes, by the natives of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Scottish Highlands, besides the descendants of the ancient Britons, the Jutes, the Angles, the Saxons, the Norsemen, the Danes, and the Normans in England, but all these peoples cannot be classified in the racial sense simply as Englishmen. (MacKenzie 2013)
Similarly, the varied types of humanity who are Arabic in speech cannot all be regarded as representatives of the original, true and native Arabs.
Therefore, by the typical definitions of Arab-ness, Prophet Muhammad, was musta’rab (Arabized), but he was not an Arab.
However, in an authentic narration he did make the unequivocal statement “I am an Arab,” (Jami at-Tirmidhi) so there is a way of defining Arab than the andro-centric concept of today’s self-styled Arabs.
Prophet Muhammad was not pale-skinned (“white”) or light-skinned (“wheatish”)
The endogamy which was strict among the Quraysh and even stricter among Banu Hashim makes it certain that Prophet Muhammad’s phenotype- ethnic appearance- was close to those of the Akkadians, Egyptians and Pure Arabs, as shown in their own self-depictions and historians’ descriptions, shown and illustrated above. He was undoubtedly a member of the Ethiopian race- dark brown skin, curly hair and a full nose and lips.
Historian Henry Lammens made clear the the endogamy of the Banu Hashim maintained their phenotype.
- “les Hāśimites, famille où dominait le sang nègre” (“the Hashimites, the family where Black blood dominated”)
- the Banū Hāshim are “généralement qualifies de ﻢﺪٲ= couleur foncée” (“generally described as ādam = dark colored”). (Muhammad 2013)
It is argued by many, including the famous biograper Martin Lings, that Prophet Muhammad was “white” but with the ability to tan, i.e. wheatish, in color. His ancestry makes this an impossibility when the endogamy described is taken into consideration. Dark-skinned people cannot acquire pale skin without considerable exogamy, and, again, this did not happen in the case of Prophet Muhammad’s ancestors.
Arguments to this rebuttal may include narrations (hadith, plural ahadith) which describe the prophet as light-skinned, but there are others which confirm an appearance consistent with the ethnicity of his forebears. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the authenticity and reconciliation of possibly conflicting narration, to which branches of Islamic science are devoted, so they will simply be posted here for any curious readers:
Al-Tirmidhī (d. 279/892) in his Jami’ al-Ṣāḥīḥ reports on the authority of the famous Companion of the Prophet, Anas b. Malik:
“The Messenger of Allah was of medium stature, neither tall nor short, [with] a beautiful, dark brown-complexioned body (ḥasan al-jism asmar al-lawn). His hair was neither curly nor completely straight and when he walked he leant forward.” (VI:69 no. 1754)
Ibn Manzur reports in his Lisān al-arab (s.v. سمر IV:376) that
“al-sumra [is] a degree between white (al-bayād) and black (al-aswad), and it is that in the context of human complexions, camels, etc.”
According to Ibn Athīr, al-sumra’s ‘blackness’ predominates over its ‘whiteness’ (al-sumra alladhī yaghlibu sawāduhu alā bayādihi), and al-Taftāzānī (d. 792/1390) reports in his al-Tahdhīd:
‘al-sumra…is a color inclining to a faint blackness (sawadin khafiyin), as in the description of the Prophet: he was brown complexioned (kāna asmar al-lawn)…” Muhammad 2012)
Al-Azmeh, Aziz. The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and his people. Cambridge University Press. 2014.
Jackson, John G. “Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization” (1939); Retrieved 17.12.2014 from http://2017blackart.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/ethiopia-and-the-origin-of-civilization-by-john-g-jackson/
King, Diane E. 2005 Kinship and State: Arab States. In Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, vol. II: Family, Law, and Politics. Suad Joseph, ed. Pp. 347-349. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.
Mackenzie, Donald Alexander. Indian Myth and Legend. London: Gresham Publishing Co., Ltd. 1913. Retrieved from Indian Myth and Legend: Introduction
Muhammad, Wesley. God’s Black Prophets: Deconstructing the Myth of the White Muhammad of Arabia and Jesus of Jerusalem. A-Team Publishing. 2010.
ibid. ““His Daddy was Black. His Momma was Black. So…” A Look at Prophet Muhammad’s Lineage”. 2013. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5260656/_His_Daddy_was_Black._His_Momma_was_Black._So_A_Look_at_Prophet_Muhammad_s_Lineage
ibid. “How Did Black Arabs Become White?”. Black Arabia. Retrieved from http://www.blackarabia.blogspot.com/2011/09/how-did-black-arabs-become-white.html
ibid. “Muhammad: The Black-skinned Prophet of Black Arabia”. Black Arabia. Retrieved from http://blackarabia.blogspot.com/2012/02/muhammad-black-skinned-prophet-of-black.html
“Arabs”. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabs
“Abraham in Islam”. Wikipedia. Abraham in Islam
“Banu Hashim”. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banu_Hashim
“Hagar in Islam”. Wikipedia. Hagar in Islam
“Jurhum”. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jurhum
“Patrilineality”. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrilineality