Racism, or the belief that race is a primary determinant of human abilities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race over others, is foreign to Islam as a proselytizing religion that spread to all corners of the world with an essentially egalitarian and meritocratic spirit: “We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him” (Q. 49:13).
Historically, however, there is ample evidence of prejudices directed by Muslims against particular groups of people, such as in the environmental explanations of human traits in the work of Sa’id al-Andalusi, who asserted in 1068 with regard to sub-Saharan Africans that “because the sun remains close to their heads for long periods, their air and their climate have become hot: they are of hot temperament and fiery behavior. Their color turned black, and their hair turned kinky. As a result, they lost the value of patience and firmness of perception. They were overcome by foolishness and ignorance. These are the people of Sudan who inhabited the far reaches of Ethiopia, Nubia, the Zanj, and others.”
Another way of justifying prejudices directed against Africans was by reference to the “curse of Ham.” In the Book of Genesis (9:20–27), Noah gets drunk one day after the flood and falls asleep naked in his tent. Ham, the son of Noah and father of Canaan, sees his father naked and tells his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth take a cloak, lay it on their shoulders, walk backward, making sure that they would not see Noah naked, and cover his body. When Noah wakes up and learns what Ham has done to him, he says, “Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” This curse, which is apparently a product of the Hebrews’ conquest of the “land of Canaan” around 1200 bce and the subsequent enslavement of the Canaanites, evolved into new forms as Middle Eastern societies started to use African slaves. By the sixth century, both Christian and Jewish traditions in the Middle East had added blackness to Noah’s curse. In the Muslim adaptation of the story, the curse fell on Ham, Canaan’s father, who was regarded as the ancestor of all Africans in Muslim sources. Blackness was added to servitude in some Islamic versions of the story as well.
A vocal response to these environmental and Biblico-exegetical attempts to justify racial prejudices came from, among others, an African-Ottoman jurist Mullah ‘Ali (d. 1622–23). According to ‘Ali, the diversity of human skin colors is not a matter of accident; thus it is neither environmental nor punishment for a deed but stems rather from the beginning of the creation: “Among [other] signs of [God] is the creation of the heavens and the Earth, and the variety of your languages and of your colors” (Q. 30:22). Blackness was inherent in the essence of Adam, not unlike the blackness that is inherent in white sugar, as suggested by the Persian Sufi Najm al-Din Razi (d. 1256): “From the first state of raw sugar to that of treacle, lucency and whiteness gradually decrease until only darkness and blackness remain. He who is unaware of the art of the sugar merchant will not know that he obtains these several and different products from the same sugar; he will deny the fact and say that black treacle could never have emerged from the white, translucent sugar. He will not know that blackness and darkness were inherent in the particle of the sugar.”
While these discussions suggest the existence of racial prejudices and an intellectual discourse both in support of and in opposition to them, it is much harder to decide whether it was race and racism—as contemporary readers understand them—that were at stake. Although there are studies that attempt to make a case for an ancient origin for racism (such as Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity), there is a major qualitative difference between ethnocentrism and xenophobia, which have existed in many societies since ancient times, on the one hand, and modern racism, which crystallized in the “scientific racism” of physical anthropology in the late 19th century, on the other.
Broadly speaking, while there is overwhelming evidence for the existence of racial prejudices in the medieval and early modern Islamic world, the continuing access of Africans to major leadership roles in what one would today call “majority white” Muslim societies (as in the case of the aforementioned Mullah ‘Ali, who became chief justice of the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire in 1621–22) suggests that race was not understood as a rigid biological category that would disqualify one from equal membership in society.
See also East Africa; genealogy; North Africa; Ottomans (1299– 1924); slavery; South Africa
Sa’id al-Andalusi, Science in the Medieval World: Book of the Categories of Nations, edited and translated by Sema’an I. Salem and Alok Kumar, 1991; Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, 1990; ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad Najm al-Din Razi, Path of God’s Bondsmen from Origin to Return,