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Oct 26, 2021

“The Diversity of Your Languages and Complexions”

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Juan Cole

University of Michigan

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

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“The Diversity of Your Languages and Complexions”

Forms of Equality in the Qur’an

Asiatiska Folk Nordisk Familjebok

This image was first published in the Nordisk familjebok in 1904: Wikimedia Commons

The long struggle in the United States for racial equality, which has thrown up memorable and impassioned phrases, such as “We shall overcome,” “I have a dream,” and “Black lives matter,” has sought procedural equality for minorities, who systematically have been treated differently from the white majority by police. In this light, it has struck me that the Qur’an is remarkably uninterested in any distinction between the self and the barbarian, or between white and black. 

The world of late antiquity, to which the Qur’an was preached, was on the whole hostile to the idea of equality. The rise from the fourth century of a Christian Roman Empire under the successors of Constantine did nothing to change the old Greek and Roman discourse about civilized citizens and “barbarians.”1 In Iran’s Sasanian Empire, Zoroastrian thinkers and officials made a firm distinction between “Iran” and “not-Iran” (anīrān), and there was no doubt for Sasanian authors that being Iranian was superior in every way.

Podcast: Equality in the Ancient World with Juan Cole and Ubaydullah Evans

Still, these civilizations at the same time transmitted wisdom about human unity. Socrates cheekily pointed out that pretenders to the robes of Greek nobility had countless ancestors, including the indigent, slaves, and barbarians as well as Greeks and royalty (Theaetetus 175a). Zoroastrian myth asserted that all mankind had a single origin in the primal man, Gayomart. 

The Qur’an was recited by the Prophet Muĥammad in the early seventh century, on the West Arabian frontier of both the Eastern Roman Empire and Sasanian Iran. In Arabian society of that period, one sort of inequality was based on appearance and on a heritage of slavery. Children of Arab men and slave women from Axum (in what is now Ethiopia) remained slaves and were not acknowledged by their fathers. Those who became poets were called the “crows of the Arabs.”2

Some sorts of hierarchy are recognized in the Qur’an, but they are not social or ethnic. Rather, they are spiritual. In late antiquity, those who argued for equality did not necessarily challenge concrete social hierarchies but rather concentrated on principle and on the next life.3 For Islam, as for Christianity, it is ethical and moral acts of the will that establish the better and worse (though the Qur’an does urge manumission of slaves as a good deed and promulgates a generally egalitarian ethos). The Qur’anic chapter of Prostration (32:18) says, “Is the believer like one who is debauched? They are not equal.” The two are not on the same plane, not because of the estate into which they were born or because one is from a civilized people and the other a barbarian but because of the choices they have made in life. In short, this kind of inequality is actually an argument for equality. The Chambers (49:13) observes, “The noblest of you in the sight of God is the most pious of you.” This is a theme to which we will return.

Reading the Qur’an requires attention to what scholars of literature call “voice.” It switches among speakers with no punctuation or transition. Sometimes the omniscient voice of God speaks, but sometimes the Prophet does, and sometimes angels do or even the damned in hell. In chapter 80 (He Frowned), the voice of God addresses the Prophet Muĥammad personally, using the second-person singular. The passage is a rare rebuke of the Messenger of God by the one who dispatched him. In my translation, I have used small caps for the pronouns referring to Muĥammad. Initially, the divine narrates Muĥammad’s actions in the third person, but then God speaks directly to His envoy about delivering the scripture, here called “the reminder”:

  1 HE frowned and turned away,
  2 because the blind man came to HIM.
  3 How could YOU know? Perhaps he would purify himself,
  4 or is able to take a lesson, and so would benefit from the reminder.
  5 As for those who think themselves self-sufficient,
  6 YOU are attentive to them;
  7 but YOU are not responsible if they will not purify themselves.
  8 As for those who come to YOU, full of earnest striving 
  9 and devout,
10 YOU ignore them.

The great historian and Qur’an commentator Muĥammad b. Jarīr al-Ţabarī (d. 923) quoted the Prophet’s third wife, ¢Ā’ishah, on the significance of this passage. She said, “‘He Frowned’ was revealed concerning Ibn Umm Maktūm. He came to the Messenger of God and began to say, ‘Guide me.’ The Messenger of God was with pagan notables. The Prophet began to turn away from him, addressing someone else. The man asked [plaintively], ‘Do you see any harm in what I say?’ He replied, ‘No.’” Despite his being blind, ¢Abd Allāh b. Umm Maktūm was later made a caller to prayer in the Medina period, according to another saying of ¢Ā’ishah. The man’s name underlines his marginality in Arabian society of that time. He is the son (Ibn) of “the mother (Umm) of Maktūm (his older brother).” Arabian names were patriarchal like those of the Norse, for instance “Erik Thorsson.” It was an embarrassment to lack a patronymic, to be defined only by one’s mother’s name. The blind ¢Abd Allāh b. Umm Maktūm would have been named with regard to his father if anyone had known who the latter was. Thus, he was a person of no social consequence in the small shrine city of Mecca.

The plain sense of these verses is clear, whether this anecdote is historical or not. The Prophet is scolded by the voice of the divine for having turned his back, annoyed, when the blind nobody dared make a demand on his time and attention. What is worse, ¢Abd Allāh did so while Muĥammad was giving his attention instead to a gathering of the wealthy Meccan elite—those who thought they were “self-sufficient” and did not need God’s grace. The voice of the divine points out that Ibn Umm Maktūm’s soul was just as valuable as the souls of the pagan magnates, and it was possible that, with some pastoral care, he might accept the truth. The Prophet Muĥammad preached, according to the later Muslim tradition, from 610 to 632, and this incident is thought to have occurred early in his ministry. Was it 613? It is implied in the Qur’an that God intervened right at the beginning of Muĥammad’s career to underscore that the mission work had to proceed on the basis of the spiritual equality of all potential hearers.

Skin color was used in many ways by authors in the ancient world and not always as a sign of inferiority or superiority, but there were undeniably forms where discrimination played a part. When the widely read Greek medical thinker Galen at one point described “Ethiopians,” he mentioned their outward attributes, such as frizzy hair and broad noses, but then went on to describe them also as mentally deficient.4 Solomon’s bride in the “Song of Songs” describes herself as black: “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.” This description caused late antique Christian authors some puzzlement, since they did not associate blackness with beauty or other positive attributes.5 The ancient world did not have a conception of race, a modern idea that emerged in its contemporary sense in the nineteenth century; it only had a set of aesthetic preferences around appearances. But some authors clearly did invest blackness with negative connotations.

The story of ¢Antarah b. Shaddād illustrates inequalities based on skin color in pre-Islamic Arabia. Arabic speakers and the Sabaic speakers of Yemen along the Tihamah, the western coast of Arabia, had thick social relations with Africans across the Red Sea. These included commerce but also slave taking. ¢Antarah’s father, Shaddād of the ¢Abs tribe, had his son with an enslaved Ethiopian woman, Zabībah, but did not manumit him in his youth and did not initially consider him his son. The legends say that ¢Antarah was in love with a girl named ¢Ablah, but his low estate made that match impossible. The story goes that when the ¢Abs tribe was attacked by an enemy tribe, Shaddād realized they needed the martial skills of ¢Antarah and offered to free him if he would lead them to victory. He did so, but even after becoming free, he is said to have faced prejudice from his kinsmen because of his mixed heritage and darkness. Poetry attributed to him contains this verse: “My color bothers not me nor Zabībah’s name / Since my enemies are short of my ambition / If I survive I will do wonders and I will / Silence the rhetoric of the eloquent.”6

In the Qur’an, in contrast, differences of outward appearance between human beings are seen as positive, and indeed as a sign of God. The chapter of Rome (30:22) says, “Among his signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and complexions. In that are signs for those who know.” Why should the varying skin colors of human beings be thought a sign of God and therefore be endowed with a positive valuation? 

Ancient Near Eastern cosmology had an equivalent of our contemporary notion of the Big Bang. In the beginning, the universe was undifferentiated. The divine not only created the cosmos but set in train the process whereby amorphous emptiness was given form and things were distinguished from one another. Genesis 1:2, echoing Mesopotamian creation myths, says that in the beginning, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” God then separated light from darkness and brought distinct creatures into being. Making things different from one another is thus a key component of God’s creative activity. 

In the Qur’an, as well, God is called the “splitter of the heavens” as a way of saying that He is the creator. To create is to make things multiple, to break up dull sameness. Likewise, He splits the primeval world of sea into saltwater oceans and sweet water lakes, a notion that goes back to ancient Mesopotamia. The chapter of the Ants (27:61) asks, “Is He not the one who made the ground stable and fixed in its midst rivers, and anchored it, and erected a barrier between the two seas?” The Creator (35:12) says of the result of this divine creation-through-differentiation, “The two seas are not equivalent. One is fresh and sweet, potable for drinking. The other is salt and bitter.” 

Inasmuch as God’s creativity inevitably bestows form on the formless and difference on primal uniformity, the Qur’an says, wherever in the world we see variety, we can be assured that God is behind it. Hence, that human beings come in a plethora of hues, being bronze, black, fair, and everything in between, is a sign that God has created them and differentiated them. The human rainbow bears witness to the existence of a providential creator, since the state of nature is monotony.

The chapter of the Creator (35:27) waxes eloquent on this principle: “Have you not seen how God sends down rains from the heavens? ‘Then We produced thereby multi-colored fruit. And in the mountains are veins of white and red of various hues, along with black basalt.’” This passage glories in the splash of color visible everywhere in the natural world, not merely for its beauty but because the strands of white quartz, red granite, and ebony basalt testify to the divine mind that spun them out from a primeval dull gray abyss. The French modernist Édouard Manet (d. 1883) observed that the “painter can say all he wants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds.” In the Qur’an, there is a similar sentiment about God.

Antarah Ibn Shaddad  Abla

Nineteenth-century tattooing pattern depicting pre-Islamic Arab hero and poet ʿAntarah b. Shaddād (left) and his lover ʿAblah (middle) riding horses: Wikimedia Commons.

The following verse (35:28) continues this theme: “And among the people and animals and livestock are also a range of colors. Only the learned among His servants stand in awe of God. God is almighty, forgiving.” Like the chapter of Rome, this verse in the chapter of the Creator celebrates the “range of colors” visible “among the people.” Mountains are colorful, fruits are colorful, animals and livestock are colorful, and people are colorful. The spectrum of complexions situates human beings in the kaleidoscopic world of nature. That the differences in skin color are theophanic and are signs of God, however, can only be perceived by the people with knowledge. It is not a commonsense insight but requires study.

That the learned can discern the handiwork of God in the diversity of human complexions is only one opportunity for learning. The chapter of the Chambers (49:13) famously says, “People, We have created you male and female and made you peoples and tribes so that you may come to know one another. The noblest of you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. God is knowing and aware.” Not only does ethnic diversity serve as a sign of God, demonstrating that His ramifying creativity has been at work, but it provides an opportunity for another level of learning. Knowing only the self is limiting. Acquaintance with the other enriches and provides new insights. Coming to know one another enlarges the self, the Qur’an says. The implication here is that Iranians of the Sasanian Empire had something to learn from other peoples, a notion that would not have gone down very well with the more stiff-necked Zoroastrian priests and nobles of Ctesiphon. Christians had something to learn from Jews, though they had come to look down on them from the heights of the Roman nobility in opulent Constantinople. The believers in Muĥammad’s new revelation, moreover, had something to learn from other peoples despite the dazzling new verses they had taken to heart. That differences of language are also celebrated as a sign of God which undermines the entire rationale for the category of “barbarian,” since the very word is onomatopoeic and derives from Greeks, and later Romans, ridiculing the sound of other languages.

These sentiments can be compared to those of Paul of Tarsus in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The Qur’anic sentiment in the Chambers 49:13 is even more universal. There, the Qur’an is not speaking only about the believers but about all the “peoples and tribes” as being worthy companions in an endeavor of mutual learning. The Roman playwright Terence (d. circa 195 BCE) may have deployed the sentence “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me” ironically, but it is still an admirable sentiment, eloquent of a sort of antique humanism.  The Qur’an, again, goes rather further, implicitly saying, “I am human, and I think there is no human from whom I cannot learn.” This is another form of equality in the Qur’an, since even the humble and the foreigner have something to teach the noble.

Not only can one learn from the ethnic other, one can learn from the opposite sex. The inclusion of male and female in this formula underlines the spiritual equality of women with men and shows that the Qur’an values women’s distinctive experiences and forms of knowledge. Further, the chapter of Rome (30:21) observes, “Among His signs are that He fashioned mates for you from yourselves so that you may find tranquility in them, and He created between you love and compassion. In that are signs for a people who reflect.” Here again, it is a sign of God that there are two sexes and not just one, a trace of his creative “splitting.” The expectation is not only that the two will come to learn from one another but that they will explore the full range of human emotion and intimacy with one another, engaging in other forms of self-enrichment thereby.

The final phrase in the Chambers (49:13) is the most striking comment on equality in the Qur’an: “The noblest of you in the sight of God is the most pious of you.” The Arabic for “noble” here evokes the image of someone wealthy and respected, able to bestow charity and largesse on his inferiors. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a society, as well, of boasting and feuds, embodied in its poetry. R. A. Nicholson observes, “The poets are full of boastings and revilings in which they loudly proclaim the nobility of their own ancestors, and try to blacken those of their enemy without any regard to decorum.”7 The great pre-Islamic knight ¢Antarah b. Shaddād, discussed above, assured us, “On one side nobly born and of the best / of ¢Abs am I; my sword makes good the rest!”8 That is, they rejected any notion of equality with their rivals, and where their genealogy was lacking in perceived glory, they made up for it with valor on the battlefield. The nobility of the nobles, however, is diminished and disregarded in the Qur’an. Their status and their hauteur are owed to their fortunes or bravery or reckless generosity. Piety, standing in awe of God, is the true wealth, reputation, and philanthropy. It is accessible to all, regardless of birth or chivalry, but not everyone has attained it. The leveling quality of this inner attribute of piety puts nobility in the grasp of the humblest in society. It further turns the world upside down by broaching the possibility of the ignoble noble, the haughty warrior, or the self-satisfied merchant whose status is undone by a lack of piety toward the one God. It provides equality of opportunity to become noble.

In the Qur’an, equality is spiritual equality. Ibn Umm Maktūm did not become rich or a celebrated warrior by virtue of embracing the new religion. He was still blind and challenged. He nevertheless became existentially the equal of the other believers and the superior of the pagan notables whose attention the Prophet had so earnestly, and fruitlessly, sought. Blind lives matter, the Qur’an says. 

Qur’anic law improved the legal position of women, ensuring that they owned and controlled their own property, but let us agree that feminist equality was found nowhere in late antiquity. On the plane of the spiritual life, however, their knowledge was seen to be as valuable as that of men. The deeply pious among them outstripped great Arab knights in nobility. Women’s lives matter in the Qur’an. 

Moreover, Qur’anic notions of spiritual equality had implications for concrete social relations in the realm of skin color. That varying hues should be celebrated as positive signs of God and evidence of His differentiating creativity ought to create a society in which black lives matter. It has not always been the case, but the ideal lives in the pages of a seventh-century holy book.


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