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Jan 14, 2022

Early Islam and the Modern Discourse on Race

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Jonathan Brown

Jonathan A. C. Brown

Jonathan Brown is the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He has studied and conducted research in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and Iran.

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Early Islam and the Modern Discourse on Race

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Detail of mural on a wall in Dakar, Senegal, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba

Jonathan Brown is a hadith scholar whose curiosity has led him to examine many contemporary issues and controversies that find their origin and resolution in hadith literature. Following his recent book, “Slavery and Islam,” he found himself confronted with the fact that Islam’s relationship with race is widely misunderstood, by both the learned and the lay. We asked Ubaydullah Evans to speak with him about how his research unfolded, perceptions of blackness in Prophet Muhammad’s time and whether they map to perceptions today, and how identity and status were constructed in Muslim civilizations across epochs. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Ubaydullah Evans: You’ve been working on a new book on anti-blackness and Islam. As I read through a couple of chapters in the book, my assessment was that it’s not polemical. You look at historical references that might suggest anti-blackness and place them in the larger context of Late Antiquity or the premodern world or revelation, and we’re able to see them through different lenses. Is that what you were attempting to do in this book?

Jonathan Brown: This is funny because after I wrote my book on slavery and Islam, I said, “Okay, I wrote a book on slavery in Islam, but I’m never going to write anything on race or even talk about it. I’d rather die than talk about this topic.” Now I’m finishing a book on it, but I’ll tell you why it happened. There was this discussion on an academic listserv where a professor was saying Islam is anti-black, and he wrote an academic article about how Islam is inherently, scripturally, anti-black.

I wasn’t involved in the debate, but people kept asking me questions, specifically, about this hadith, that hadith. I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll try and answer these questions.” I started researching them, and I arrived at the question, “What does it mean when someone in the time of the Prophet ﷺ says someone is aswad (black)?” I thought, “Wait a second. Is black African or not?” In the tradition, you have people who will insult Bilāl by saying he’s black, but then ¢Umar and ¢Amr b. al-¢Āś are are also black. No one goes up to ¢Umar or ¢Amr using a racial pejorative.

I realized we can’t just talk about these hadiths without figuring out what black means in the time of the Prophet ﷺ. What are people really saying? What is going on behind these accusations or non-accusations? And there were big changes in Islamic history: a very different perspective on blackness and Africanness emerged in the early Abbasid period. How’d that happen? Why?

And then there are linguistic elements. Why, in the Levant, for instance, is the word for black people slaves? In Islamic history, Europeans—everyone from Western Europe to Eastern Europe to Slavic peoples—were enslaved in probably greater numbers than Africans. The English word slave comes from the word slav because so many Slavs were enslaved after the ninth and tenth centuries that the word Slavic was used to refer to slaves. Why don’t Arabs say slave for Europeans?

So why was there this association in Islamic civilization between blackness and slavery? You mentioned talking about it in historical context, in the Late Antique period. We have to think about how slavery and blackness and Africanness were understood then in the pre-Islamic Middle East and afterward, at the time of the Prophet ﷺ, in the Christian discourse of the Mediterranean in Arabia and in the Muslim Middle East.

What really controls this discussion is the modern discourse on race. We are in a weird time when we have to realize how we think about race and Islam and how we think about Africa and Islam today; then we have to step outside of that and do the same thing for the Late Antique and early Islamic period; and finally we bring those together into a conversation about Islam and blackness. It’s a lot of heavy lifting.

UE: One of your most fascinating points is that pre-Islamic mentions of black indicate that blackness was something completely neutral. This runs contrary to the commonly held idea that in Arabian society blackness is seen as inherently bad, which the Prophet ﷺ has to correct.

Another insightful connection you make is that blackness became a signifier of outsider status, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula. Being black meant that you existed outside of the tribal superstructure of the Arabian Peninsula and early Arabian society.

JB: That’s the key to understanding the context of the Prophet’s life and the Qur’an and hadith and early Islamic law. In a lot of ways, the change happened when that world merged with the Roman and Persian worlds, where the discourse of the early Christian period featured the idea of blackness as sin, blackness as distant from God, blackness as bad. I say this not to criticize Christianity; the mindset was just a product of that period.

In Arabia, everything was about belonging to a tribe, and because tribal identity was through your father, it didn’t matter who your mother was. If your great-great-great-great-grandfather was a noble Arab, and every single mom down that chain was an Ethiopian woman or another Arab or whatever, it didn’t matter; it didn’t matter what you looked like; your identity was 100 percent noble Arab.

That’s why ¢Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb and ¢Amr b. al-¢Āś and Śafwān b. Umayyah weren’t insulted for the color of their skin—it was irrelevant. Skin color only became relevant when it was used to talk about outsider status. For Bilāl, when they made fun of him for being black, they were saying, “You’re not Arab. You’re an Ethiopian. You’re not part of our tribal structure.”

By the way, people don’t know this, but if you look in Islamic history and the biographies of the companions, Salmān al-Fārisī and Bilāl had similar experiences. They were constantly being insulted for not being part of that tribal system. They both had the same response, which was basically “I’m a Muslim.” They were both freed slaves. They were both non-Arabs. They were both outsiders who belonged to the community because they were early converts. As Muslims, they were royalty, in a way. But in the Arab society in the Hejaz, they were kind of marginal. If you look at the stories of who had a hard time getting married, the number of stories of Salmān not getting married are double the number of Bilāl not getting married.

UE: So the organizing principle of the Arabian societal milieu was something different from skin color.

JB: Exactly. Why does that not get talked about? Not only do we not talk about how Salmān and Bilāl compared, but Muslims in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries didn’t talk about it. In their world, in Isfahan or Baghdad or Nishapur or Cairo in the year 1000, Persians were the majority of Muslims. There was nothing outsider about a Persian person anymore, like there would have been in the Arabia that Salmān al-Farisi lived in. But there was still a lot of outsiderness about someone from south of the Sahara because until the 1200s or 1300s, Africans from that region didn’t have much of a presence in the Mediterranean Middle Eastern Muslim world unless they were slaves.

The idea of a merchant coming from Borno or Mali or Ethiopia to, say, Cairo or Mecca wasn’t common. When you look at Muslim history in biographical dictionaries, you don’t see them mentioning places like Takrur or Mali or Ghana or Zaila until the Mamluk period.

In the early Islamic period, the Abbasid period, the ninth through eleventh centuries, the black phenotype was just not common. There was a lot of what one scholar calls somatic distance—a difference between “that look” and what people were used to seeing. That doesn’t mean they didn’t see black people in Baghdad; they did. But black people were primarily associated with being slaves. Maybe elite slaves of the Caliph. They might have been powerful administrators.

UE: When I was reading that portion of the text, I thought about how much of our bias for or against any group of people is just a reflection of our limited experience.

JB: There’s a big difference between our values and premodern conventions. In Baghdad in 1000, certain ethnicities were commonly associated with certain jobs; certain people from certain regions were associated with certain professions. Options in life were not open to everybody, so the idea that certain people did certain things was not in itself offensive.

By the way, the area in which there is complete meritocracy is Islamic scholarship. You see this in the earliest texts. For example, in a chapter on equality and knowledge in Sunan al-Dārimī, written in the mid-800s, Tawus in Basra—who was himself Persian, descended from slaves taken in early Muslim conquests, a huge scholar of the generation of successors—is talking to someone, and the other students are jealous. But he says, “Even if this person is from Africa, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is equal in this affair.”

Yet another scholar from the Hijaz, who went back with Mansa Musa to Mali, says, “I was expecting everybody would be ignoramuses.” He was shocked: the Maliki jurists in Timbuktu were more knowledgeable than he was. Based on where he came from, his expectations were different.

In some books of Maliki law after the 1300s, it says that a man shouldn’t look at the face of an unrelated woman unless she’s old or black. This relates to people’s aesthetic environment. In Aĥmad Zarrūq’s commentary on one of those points, he adds “unless she’s attractive.” He’s saying, “Even if she’s an older woman or a black woman, if she’s attractive, you can’t look at her.” What’s interesting is that Maliki scholars from, say, the Sahel region, don’t address that point.

So I think it’s a mistake to look at a point made by a certain scholar in Algeria in 1300 or in Cairo in 1800 and say Maliki law is anti-black or Islamic law is anti-black. What those people were saying is that in their specific environment, some people were considered attractive and others were considered unattractive. In Mecca, in the 1700s or 1800s, society considered Ethiopian women to be the most beautiful, so things really differed. We must see certain texts as descriptive and not prescriptive.

Muslim scholars want to change people’s ethics, but they’re really limited in what they can do. They recognize that they have to deal with reality, that they can try to change people’s values, but if they pretend that society doesn’t have certain characteristics, they’re going to be dismissed as irrelevant. They have to interact with society as it is, even as they try to change things. You see this in issues of not only race or skin color but also, for example, the caste system in India, which many Muslim scholars say is wrong. Everybody is equal before God, defined by their taqwa. But at the same time, they say if you marry across castes, it’s going to be very difficult; it’s probably not going to work. So they advise people not to engage in these marriages—not because they buy into the inherent value of caste but because they understand that if he’s from one side of the tracks and she’s from the other side, they’re probably going to get divorced because their families will have problems with each other.

UE: In the context of American Islam, we recognize structural and systemic inequalities like class-based education and income. We can’t treat them as though they’re insignificant.

JB: It reminds me of when Bilāl tried to get married. He proposed marriage to an Arab family. They rejected him, and the Prophet ﷺ essentially forced them to accept Bilāl. In another instance the Prophet ﷺ married Usāma b. Zayd, who was phenotypically black, to Fātimah bint Qays, who was not only Arab but also from Quraysh, so a noble Arab. The Prophet ﷺ is breaking down the divide between Arab and non-Arab and between noble and non-noble Arab.

Muslim scholars continue to cite this as evidence that Islam doesn’t recognize race and class and caste and tribe as legitimate ways to judge people’s value. But at the same time, Muslim scholars don’t generally conflate the Prophet’s actions of dissolving boundaries with actions that every Muslim has to live by. Not every person’s life is meant to be a theater for reconciling all the things that are wrong in society. Muslim scholars have always tried to balance or navigate between these two poles: the ideal given to us by the Prophet ﷺ and the Qur’an, which anchors us and which we aim toward, and the reality, which the Prophet ﷺ acknowledges, that although the value of all human beings is determined by their moral worth and piety, not everybody is supposed to marry everybody.

UE: The contemporary reality of American race relations is a bad place to start an exploration of race in any theater of world history. It’s almost natural that an American reading premodern history would just see race everywhere, even in some places or situations where it is unwarranted. People are very sensitive about these topics, and their sensitivity is well founded. We want to respect that. At the same time, we don’t want to read those sensitivities into our tradition in ways that lead to inaccurate conclusions. How do we hold those two realities in a productive tension?

JB: As you say, we first recognize how pervasive the issue of race is in America. Then we recognize that Americans project that globally, to the point of absurdity.

UE: But part of our humility as humans is acknowledging that we all play roles in systems that disadvantage people who don’t have education or were not born in a certain zip code. This is the dunya. Is there no alternative to that? If the dunya is a place of injustice, then out of mutual respect, we try to make it more just. Nobody is comparing what took place in the Late Antique period or what is happening now with any utopian ideal. Our goal is to be as Muhammadan as we can and to abstain from active participation in those systems, to the extent possible.

JB: For every Maliki jurist who said something like “black women are not attractive,” there were two Maliki jurists, big ones, influential ones, who said that comment is wrong and inappropriate. Muslims are equal. We shouldn’t define ourselves by moments of descriptive impropriety. We should define ourselves by the voices that spoke from the place of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

UE: Beautiful. That’s a good place to end.