Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

20
The Crows of
the Arabs 20

Aghribat al-Arab, “crows or ravens of the Arabs,” was the name given to a group of early Arabic poets who were of African or partly African parentage. Of very early origin, the term was commonly used by classical Arabic writers on poetics and literary history. Its use is well attested in the ninth century and was probably current in the eighth century, if not earlier. The term was used with some variation. Originally, it apparently designated a small group of poets in pre-Islamic Arabia whose fathers were free and sometimes noble Arabs and whose mothers were African, probably Ethiopian, slaves. As the sons of slave women, they were, by Arab customary law, themselves slaves unless and until their fathers chose to recognize and liberate them. As the sons of African women, their complexions were darker than was normal among the Arabs of the peninsula.

Both themes—servitude and blackness—occur in some of the verses ascribed to these poets and, in a sense, define their identity as a group. Professor ‘Abduh Badawī of Khartoum begins his book on the black Arab poets—the first serious and extensive study devoted to the topic—with this definition:

This name [the crows of the Arabs] was applied to those [Arabic] poets to whom
blackness was transmitted by their slave mothers, and whom at the same time
their Arab fathers did not recognize, or recognized only under constraint from
them.1

The term commonly used by the ancient Arabs for the offspring of mixed unions was hajīn, a word which, like the English “mongrel” and “half-breed,” was used both of animals and of human beings. For

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