Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

"On That Day When Faces Will Be White or Black" (Q3:106): Towards a Semiology of the Face in the Arabo-Islamic Tradition

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

"On That Day When Faces Will Be White or Black" (Q3:106): Towards a Semiology of the Face in the Arabo-Islamic Tradition

Article excerpt

Your face is covered with a veil of beauty.--Abu Nuwas (1)

My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain.--W. H. Auden (2)


One of the most striking eschatological images employed in the Qur'an is that of the black faces of sinners in Hell and, conversely, the white faces of the inhabitants of Paradise: "On that day when faces will be white or black" (yawma tabyaddu wujuhun wa-taswaddu wujuhun, 3:106, cf. 39:60). The Qur'an suggests that faces will be black because they are scorched by hellfire (14:50, 21:39, 23:104, 27:90, 33:66). (3) Other passages indicate that faces will be covered with earth (qatar, 10:26) and dust (ghabra, 80:40). The ignomy (dhilla) resulting from this stigmatization is so great that it appears "as if their faces had been veiled (ughshiyat) with a cloak of darkest night" (10:27). (4)

Commenting on Qur'an 3:106, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209) argued against a metaphorical understanding of the verse, stating that "there is nothing to indicate that one should abandon the literal meaning (haqiqa)." (5) Razi reasoned that there is a divine purpose (hikma) in the whiteness and blackness of faces, since it helps people to find their way around on the Day of Judgment, identifying those in whose company they belong. (6) According to Abu 1-Muzaffar al-Sam'ani (d. 489/1096), faces are signs by which "the secret things are revealed on the Day of Judgment" (yawma tubld al-sarair, Quran 86:9). (7) All in all, there seems to have been little disagreement that on the Day of Judgment the faces of sinners would literally be black. In fact, according to Ghazall (d. 505/1111), they are "blacker than charcoal." (8)

Opinions differed, however, as to who exactly the black-faced people of sura 3:106 were. Abu Abd Allah al-Qurtubi (d. 671/1272) lists a number of candidates: (1) unbelievers (kuffar), a view attributed to Ubayy b. Ka'b (d. before 35/656); (2) apostates (murtaddun) (from Qatada, d. 117/735); (3) the "people of innovation" (ahl al-bid'a) (from Malik b. Anas, d. 179/795); (4) people of sectarian or heretical inclinations (ahl al-ahwa') (also from Malik); (5) hypocrites (munafiqun) (from al-Hasan al-Basri, d. 110/728); (6) the Haruriyya (i.e., the Kharijites) or the Qadariyya (from Abu Umama al-Bahili, d. ca. 100/718). Qurtubi himself adds (7) the Rawafida (i.e., the Shi'a), (8) the Mu'tazila, (9) tyrannical rulers, and (10) all "those who make public grave sins" (al-mu'linuna bi-l-kabair). (9)

Qurtubi, by adding categories (7) through (10), extends the threat of punishment in the hereafter from unbelievers, apostates, and heretics to encompass rather well-established (if heterodox) schools within Islam (the Mu'tazilites and the Shi'ites), as well as to sinning believers (the unrighteous, and all those who transgress against the ethos of keeping sins hidden). In fact, in the Islamic religious imagination, black faces as markers of doom are by no means restricted to unbelievers. Instead, the notion had a remarkable career as it applied within the community of Muslim believers.

In Ghazali's Ihya' 'ulum al-din, a pilgrim recounts:

  [W]hen I set out for Mecca for the first time in the company of my
  father, I went to sleep at a way-station. While I was asleep someone
  called to me and said, "Arise, for God has caused your father to die
  and has blackened his face." Terrified, I arose, and removed the
  garment from his face, and behold, he was indeed dead, and his face
  had turned black. (10)

The pilgrim's father's face is later restored to its salvific white by the Prophet Muhammad, who makes a miraculous appearance and intercedes on the dead man's behalf. The story shows how black faces inspired the imagination of the pious, who were ever anxious that belief (iman) might not be enough to ensure salvation, and that there would be retribution for sins. The early Sufi Sari al-Saqati (d. …

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