Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Brief Note on Arabic and Hebrew as African Languages

By Wesley Muhammad, PhD
© 2011 Wesley Muhammad

(Excerpt form Black Arabia and the African Origin of Islam)

Al-Tabari (d. 923), the famed Muslim historian and Qur’anic exegete, recorded in his Ta’rikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk (“The History of the Messengers and Kings”) the following on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad of Arabia:

The Children of Sam (Shem) settled in the center of the Earth, which is between Satidma and the sea and between Yemen and Syria. Allah made the prophets from them, revealed the Books to them, made them beautiful, gave them a black complexion, luminous and free of blemish…The children of Ham settled in the south..Allah gave them a black complexion and gave some of them a black complexion, luminous and blemish-free…The children of Japheth settled in Safoun toward the north…They are light-skinned and very fair-skinned.

A tradition according to which both the Semites and the descendents of Ham were black, Japheth being the only white son of Noah, is found in Rabbinic Hebrew tradition as well, e.g. the 8th centuryPirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 23):

Noah brought his sons and his grandsons, and he blessed them with their (several) settlements, and he gave them as an inheritance all the earth. He especially blessed Shem and his sons, black but comely, and he gave them the inhabitable earth. He blessed Ham and his sons, black like a raven, and he gave them as an inheritance the coast of the sea. He blessed Japheth and his sons, they entirely white, and he gave them for an inheritance the desert and its fields; these (are the inheritances with) which he endowed them.[1]

That the Semites, along with the so-called ‘Hamites,’ were originally a Black people is confirmed by linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidences. “Semitic” is properly a linguistic designation, not racial, and describes native speakers of one of the several living or dead Semitic languages. But Danna Reynolds observation here is critical:

“the indigenous or ‘black’ tribes of Arabia were those who in ancient times migrated from Africa…and were the earliest purveyers and dispersers of the Semitic dialects.”[2]

The Semitic family of languages, the most widespread of which is Arabic, is a branch of a larger language phylum called Afroasiatic which consists of the Semitic, Ancient Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, Omotic and Chadic families. While some scholars maintain that Afroasiatic originated in Asia, most linguists now accept that it originated in Africa where five of the six generally recognized branches still reside,[3] likely in the Darfur-Kordofan region along the present-day border between Chad and Sudan.[4]  Regarding the Semitic branch in particular, a number of scholars postulate an African origin of the linguistic family and its speakers.[5] According to Nicholas Faraclas, several lines of evidence converge to suggest that the Proto-Semites separated from the Proto-Afroasiatic in Middle Africa and followed the Blue Nile to the Ethiopian Highlands (where most of the Semitic languages are found to this day), crossing over into Arabia from the Bab el Manded[6]; others probably continued north down the Nile eventually entering Syria-Palestine from the Isthmus of Suez. As Gregorio del Olmo Lete, Semitist from the University of Barcelona, noted most recently:

[Proto-Semites] formed part of a mass of peoples  who, moving out from the heart of Africa, spread north and reached the Mediterranean coast and beyond…The Semitic family [was] the spearhead of one of the expansive movements of peoples toward Asia  (from Africa)…[7]

Other scholars postulate a Levantine origin of Proto-Semitic. Peter Bellwood from the Australian National University affirmed: “Proto-Semitic is undoubtedly of Levant origin”.[8] That is to say, a group of African Afroasiatic speakers migrated northeast into the Levant and there evolved the Proto-Semitic language, maybe as early as the 8th millennium BCE. Renowned Russian linguist Igor M. Diankonoff initially argued that the origin of the Afroasiatic family, including the Semitic languages, was in the north-western part of the modern Republic of the Sudan.[9] The Semites were said to have been a group of East Africans who branched off from the Proto-Afroasiatic stock in Africa and migrated to Syria-Palestine in 9th-8th millennium BCE.  Later Diankonoff modified his position: still maintaining that North Africa is the origin of the Afroasiatic family in general, he moved the origin of the Proto-Semitic language to the area between the Nile Delta and Palestine, to where a group branched off from the parent Afroasiatic stock, migrated to the Levant area, and then became ‘Semitized,’ if you will.[10] Diankonoff points to the archaeological and architectural remains of the Jericho culture of 8th-7th millennium BCE Palestine as part of this early ‘Common Semitic’ culture. Whether the ‘Semitization’ of this ‘Proto-AA’ branch took place in the Sudan or the Levant, we are talking about a group of migrating Africans evolving African languages.

Arabic has preserved a large majority of the original Proto-Semitic phonological, morphological and syntactic characteristics, such that many linguists consider Arabic the most representative of Proto-Semitic. De Goeje’s opinion that “of all Semitic languages the Arabic approaches nearest to the original mother tongue,”[11] has much to recommend it.  Nineteenth and early twentieth-century Semitists pretty much identified Arabic with Proto-Semitic. This is due to Arabic’s extremely conservative evolution. Thus, Hitti (Arabs, 8) suggested:

 “(The Arab’s) language, though the youngest among the Semitic group from the point of view of literature, has, nevertheless, conserved more of the peculiarities of the mother Semitic tongue-including the inflection-than the Hebrew and its other sister languages. It therefore affords us the best key for the study of the Semitic languages.”

Arabic is indeed most conservative in terms of phonetics and derived models: it is said to preserve almost the complete original phonetic set of South Arabian and Ugatitic. Thus, for the most complete catalogue possible of the Proto-Semitic lexicon one should still start with the Arabic dictionary.

It is the Black Arabs, descendents of the original Kushite Afrabians, who are the original speakers of the Arabic language. University of Michigan Professor Emeritus George Mendenhall, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Near East and Near Eastern languages, notes that “Arabic could not be a gift of the prophet Muhammad, as many Islamic clerics claim, since its origins are in the early Bronze Age," over 3,000 years before Muhammad.[12] Mendenhall has identified the “earliest identifiable Arabic-speaking social group” as the Midianites, an important political entity that came into existence suddenly in the 13th century BCE in northwest Arabia. This highly sophisticated culture spoke a language which is an archaic ancestor of modern Arabic.[13] This is significant because, as David Goldenberg affirms: “Kush is the ancient name of Midian.”[14] These Midianites, the earliest identifiable Arabic-speaking social group, are documented as a Kushite or Black Arabian tribe.[15]

 Observing that the earliest segments of biblical Hebrew as a rule exhibit the highest percentage of Arabic cognates, Mendenhall affirms that the further back we go the closer Hebrew is to Arabic.[16] Indeed, Canaanite/Ugaritic, Hebrew’s predecessor and source, was very similar to Arabic as well. Documents excavated in Ras Shamra by the Lattakia Department of Archeology show that Ugaritic is very close to Arabic in grammar and vocabulary, with around 1000 cognate terms.[17] This fact of the closeness of the oldest biblical Hebrew layer and Ugaritic to Arabic comports well with Kamal Salibi’s conclusions, based on toponymic analysis, that the original Hebrews were a group of West Arabians who later migrated north to the Levant.[18] According to Salibi, the Hebrew Bible is from West Arabia and principally a record of ancient Israel’s historical experience there. Most place-names in the Bible, he argues, identify West Arabian locals, not Levantine. In other words, the original ‘Hebrews’ were in fact ‘Arabs’, in a sense.  


[1] Chapter 23 [28a] (Friedlander edition).

[2] Reynolds, “African Heritage,” 105.

[3]John Huehnergard, “Afro-Asiatic,” in Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 225; Christopher Ehret, S.O.Y Keita and Paul Newman, “The Origins of Afroasiatic,” Science 306 (2004) 1680-1681; Carleton T. Hodge, “Afroasiatic: The Horizon and Beyond,” in Scott Noegel and Alan S. Kaye (edd.),Afroasiatic Linguistics, Semitics, and Egyptology: Selected Writings of Carleton T. Hodge(Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2004) 64; ML Bender Upside Down Afrasian, Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 50 (1997): 19-34; Christopher Ehret, Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): vowels, tone, consonants, and vocabulary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 487; Joseph H. Greenberg, "African linguistic classification," in Joseph Ki-Zerbo (ed.), General History of Africa, Volume 1: Methodology and African Prehistory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1981) 292–308. On the Africa vs. Asia AA Origin dispute see Daniel P. Mc Call, “The Afroasiatic Language Phylum: African in Origin, or Asian?” Current Anthropology 39 (1998): 139-143.

[4] Nicholas Faraclas, “They Came Before the Egyptians: Linguistic Evidence for the African Roots of Semitic Languages,” in Silvia Federici (ed.), Enduring Western Civilization: The Construction of the Concept of Western Civilization and Its “Others” (Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger, 1995) 175-96.

[5] See e.g. Gregorio del Olmo Lete, Questions of Semitic Linguistics. Root and Lexeme: The History of Research (Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2008) 115; Edward Lipiński, Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters and Departement Oosterse Studies, 1997) 42-43; A. Murtonen, Early Semitic (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967), 74.

[6] Faraclas, “They Came Before the Egyptians” 190.

[7] del Olmo Lete, Questions of Semitic Linguistics, 115. Earlier George A. Barton already spoke of the “African origin and Arabian cradle-land of the Semites,” suggesting that the Afroasiatic (or to use the old term ‘Hamito- Semitic’) proto-language originated in Africa, from which a group migrated to Arabia forming the Semitic languages. George Aaron Barton, Semitic and Hamitic Origins: Social and Religious (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934) 8; idem, “The Origins of Civilization in Africa and Mesopotamia, Their Relative Antiquity and Interplay,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 68 (1929) 303-312: “As many of the linguistic phenomena which Hamites and Semites possess in common appear in the Hamitic languages in a more primitive form than in the Semitic, the one theory which satisfies the facts is that the Hamito- Semitic race originated in North Africa and the Sahara region, and that at a very early time-say 10,000 to 8000 B.C. or earlier-some of this stock migrated to Arabia-probably South Arabia via the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb-where they spread over the peninsula in the course of subsequent millennia. As Arabia suffered desiccation, in common with North Africa, they were gradually forced to migrate in various directions in search of subsistence. It was under this pressure that, by migration and mingling with other races, the various Semitic nations of history, other than the Arabs, were formed.”

[8] Peter Bellwood, First Farmers: The Origin of Agricultural Societies (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 209.

[9] “Earliest Semites in Asia,” Altorientalische Forschungen 8 (1981)23-70.

[10] Igor M. Diankonoff, “The Earliest Semitic Society,” Journal of Semitic Studies 43 (1998): 209-219.

[11] Quoted in Samuel Marinus Zwemer, Arabia: The cradle of Islam: studies in the geography, people, and politics of the peninsula, with an account of Islam and mission-work (Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1912 [ Revised edition]) 240. See also Satkari Mukhopadhyaya, “Preface to Reprint Edition,” in Mortimer Sloper Howell, A Grammar of the Classical Arabic Language 4 vols. (Delhi: Gian Publishing House, 1986) I: 3-4.        

[12] Quoted in interview by Jeff Mortimer, “Language of the Desert,” Michigan Today, Spring 1997 online version: http://www.ns.umich.edu/MT/97/Spr97/mta8s97.html accessed July 30, 2009.

[13] The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman et al, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 4:815 s.v. Midian by George E. Mendenhall.

[14]Curse of Ham, 28. See also Restö, Arabs in Antiquity, 139.

[15] “the people of Northwest Arabia (Midian) were called Kushites.” Goldenberg, Curse of Ham, 54.

[16] George Mendenhall, “Arabic in Semitic Linguistic History,” JAOS 126 (2006): 22-3.

[17] “Archaeologists: Ancient Texts Show Similarities between Arabic and Ugaritic Languages,”Archaeology Daily News, April 16, 2010 at http://www.archaeologydaily.com/news/201004163825/Archaeologists-Ancient-Texts-Show-Similarities-between-Arabic-and-Ugaritic-Languages.html. See also Gary A. Rendsburg, “Modern South Arabian as a Source for Ugaritic Etymologies,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (1987): 623-628.

[18] Kamal Salibi, The Bible Came From Arabia (n.p.: Naufal, 2007).

Were the Pre-Islamic Arabs Racist? The Evidence of Bilal ibn Rabah

By Wesley Muhammad, PhD
© 2011 Wesley Muhammad, PhD

It is popularly believed that Bilal, the Companion of the Prophet Muhammad and first mu’adhin or Caller to Prayer, was an Abyssinian and, thus, the first “black Muslim” or Black man to accept Islam. The latter claim is certainly false, and the former claim is no doubt wrong as well. That is to say, Bilal certainly was NOT the first Black man to accept Islam, and he was likely not an Abyssinian in the strict sense of that description, viz. he likely was not from Abyssinia. This means that the whole question of ‘racism’ in early Islam must be reconsidered.  

1.] Bilal the Ethiopian?

The important Syrian Muslim scholar and historian of Islam, al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), in his entry on Bilal in his encyclopedic Siyar a’lam al-nubala’, reports the following tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:

“There are four Forerunners (in Islam, al-Subbaq): I am the sabiq (forerunner) of the Arabs; Salman [al-Farsi] is the sabiq of the Persians; Bilal is the sabiq of the Ethiopians; and Suhayb [al-Rumi] is the sabiq of the Romans.”  

This hadith would seem to suggest that Bilal was an Ethiopian. However, interestingly al-Dhahabi goes on to affirm that Bilal was in fact born, not in Ethiopian on the African side of the Red Sea, but in Sirah in Yemen (I:351). It was Bilal’s mother, Hamam, who was actually an Abyssinian. He therefore inherited not only her slave-status but also here “Abyssinian-ness”. On the other hand Bilal’s father, Ribah, was an Arab. The Egyptian writer Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad (d. 1964) thus notes:

“There is a consensus of opinion among historians that Hadrat Bilal (ra) was not a pure Abyssinian. He was, however, born of [an] Abyssinian mother. His father was an Arab. Bilal’s complexion was dark brown. His body was slim and tall, with a prominent chest. His hair was thick and his cheeks were thin.

“These features are found in races of the Saud and the Samis. These races mostly lived between Abyssinia and Yemen from ancient times. His features are not identical with those of the Zanj or the sons of Sam (Shem, i.e. the Semites). His complexion was black and his hair was thick; but his nose was not snub, nor was his hair curly. This betrayed that he came of parents of two different races…

“There is a difference of opinion about his birthplace. Some historians claim that he was born at Mecca, whereas the others were of the opinion that he was born in Sarat (=Sirah). The latter view seems to be more plausible for Sarat is a town near Yemen and Abyssinia, where there can be found a mixed race. It is also stated that he went to that place once to get married.”[1]   

2.] Not The First Black Muslim

Even though Bilal was of “mixed race,” one should not think of him as a mulatto in the popular sense, a black and white crossbreed, as one is tempted to do on the false assumption that Arabs are white. Such mulattos in Arabia, like in America, tended to be swarthy in complexion, not intensely black as Bilal was.  The Arabic description of him is more telling than the English ones above: he was ādam shadīd al-udma, black, exceedingly black.[2] How could Bilal, as an Arab/Ethiopian hajin or mixed race, be so black-skinned? It is because both of his parents – his Arab father no less than his Ethiopian mother – were black-skinned. As the famous grammarian Muhammad b. Barri al-‘Adawi (d. 1193) noted: an akhdar or black-skinned Arab was “a pure Arab (‘arabi mahd)” with a pure genealogy, “because Arabs describe their color as black (al-aswad).”[3] And pure Arabs whose blackness was equal to that of Bilal’s preceded him in Islam.  

Zayd b. Haritha (d. 629) was the Prophet’s adopted son and likely the first male to accept Islam after the Prophet. He was, like Bilal, intensely black-skinned, ādam shadīd al-udma.[4] He therefore would have looked like Bilal in complexion. Zayd even had a flat nose, something Bilal didn’t even have. Because of his short stature, black skin and flat nose Zayd has occasionally been mistaken as “a negro,”[5] i.e., an African black. Dr John Henrik Clark even claimed that both Bilal and Zayd were Ethiopians. However, Zayd was a true Arab Bedouin (a’rabi) from the Arab tribe Banu Kalb.[6] Nevertheless, he was a Black man who preceded Bilal in Islam.

Scene from the 1977 film, "The Message". Johnny Sekka (center right) as Bilal and Damien Thomas (center left) as Zayd. Yet in Classical Arabic literature both Zayd and Bilal were described thusly:“Kāna ādam shadīd al-udma,” “He was black-skinned, excessively black-skinned”

‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 661) was the first-cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. Many claim that it was he, not Zayd, who was the first male convert to Islam after Prophet Muhammad. Whether the first or the second convert, these two both preceded Bilal. And like Zayd, Ali was intensely black, ādam shadīd al-udma. [7]  He too is described with precisely the same complexion as Bilal. ‘Alī’s own son, Abu Ja’far Muhammad, according to Ibn Sa’d (d. 845), described ‘Alī thusly: “He was a black-skinned man with big, heavy eyes, pot-bellied, bald, and kind of short.”[8] ‘Alī’s descendents, the sharifs/sayyids, were similarly described as black-skinned.[9]  Zayd and Ali were thus ‘Black Muslims’ before Bilal.

3.] Bilal and Arabian Racism?     

Bilal is also the centerpiece of another misconception: that his situation and treatment in Mecca illustrates that the Arabs at that time were white and racist. In fact, details of his biography clearly indicate the opposite.

Bilal inherited his Ethiopian mother’s slave status. The fact that this Black man was an abused slave to an Arab family is often taken as proof of the anti-black racism that allegedly characterized pre-Islamic and even Islamic Arabia. This conclusion is falsified not only by the fact that most slaves in Arabia at time were actually white slaves, but also by a more telling fact:

Bilal and his mother Hamam were slaves to the notorious Qurayshi tribe, Banu Jumah. Their owner, Umayya b. Khalaf b. Safwan, a Meccan Arab, was a leading Qurayshi and head of the Banu Jumah. Umayya is the Qurayshi Arab who so abused and tortured Bilal to make him recant his monotheistic proclamation: Ahad (“One God”). And it is Umayya whom Bilal sought out and killed at the Battle of Badr in 624. This is important here because the Banu Jumah were a famously black-skinned Arab tribe. According to al-Dhahabi, they were, like Bilal, “exceedingly black-skinned, shadīd al-udma.” (I: 359). Thus the scene in Moustapha Akkad’s 1977 movie The Message depicting a white-skinned Umayya (played by Bruno Barnabe) torturing in the hot sun the black-skinned Bilal (played by Johnny Sekka) is all wrong. A more accurate depiction would have an intensely black-skinned Bilal tortured by an equally black-skinned Umayya. Now, while this correction doesn’t make the enslavement and torture right, it does make it about something totally different from the putative “white Arab racism.”  

Lastly, another good illustration of this point and the fallacy of the “white Arab racism” theme is the case of Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (d. 652), a famous Companion of Muhammad, and his insulting Bilal.  It is reported that Abu Dharr, from the Arab tribe Ghafar, insulted Bilal by calling him ‘son of a black woman’. While this is frequently cited as an example of an early (white) Arab anti-black sentiment, several factors invalidate this:

(1) Abu Dharr was himself a black-skinned Arab. According to al-Dhahabi, it was said that Abu Dharr was “black-skinned (ādam), huge, with a thick beard.” A-Dhahabi goes on to quote Ibn Burayda who claimed: “Abu Dharr was a black man (rajul aswad).” Siyar, II: 47, 50, 74.

(2) The insult is social, not racial, expressing the contempt of the highborn for the baseborn. The slave status of Bilal’s mother was the point of the insult, not her dark-complexion.

(3) The insult comments on the fact that Bilal’s mother was a non-Arab, and Bilal was thus a hajin or half-breed. Such persons across the board were looked down upon by purebred Arabs. “Son of a Persian woman (ibn al-farisiyya)” and “Son of a Frankish woman (ibn al-ifranjiyya)” were insults hurled around equally.[10]

(4) Abu Dharr later explained the insult, and made it clear that race was not the factor: Al-Dhahabi,Siyar, II:72-73 reports Abu Dharr as saying:

“Once there were heated words between a friend (Bilal) and I. His mother was a non-Arab and I insulted her. Then the Prophet (s) asked me, ‘Did you insult so-and-so?’ I said yes. He (the Prophet) asked, ‘Did you mention his mother?’ I said, when a person insults another he usually mentions his mother or father. The Prophet then said: ‘Surely you are one with the Days of Ignorance in him.”[11]

From this report it is clear that Bilal’s or his mother’s blackness had nothing to do with the insult, but non-Arabness and slave-status did.

4.] Conclusion

Bilal b. Ribah was a tremendous Muslim and his history (thanks to his mother) has much to teach us about the African experience in Islam. However, he was not the first Black man in  Islam, as is often claimed. At least three preceded him in this distinction: Ali b. Abi Talib, Zayd b. Haritha and, indeed, Muhammad b. Abd Allah.

Nor do Bilal’s experiences in pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia give evidence for the popular narrative of white Arab racism. They more so give evidence of Black-on-Black abuse, something we in America and in Africa can certainly relate too.      


[1] Hazrat Bilal (English Adaptation; New Delhi: Islamic Books Service, 2001) 5-6.  

[2] Baladhuri, Ansab al-ashraf, ed. Muhammad Hamid Allah (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, 1987) I:193.

[3] Ibn ManzurLisan al-‘arab, s.v. اخضر IV:245.  

[4] Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqat al-kubr§, III/i, 30; Baladhuri, Ansab al-ashraf, I:470; Al-Tabari,Ta’rikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk, XIII: 2301; Ibn ‘Asakir, Ta’rikh madinat Dimashq, ed. Umar Gharamah ‘Amrawi (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1995) XIV:351. See also Ibn al-Jawzī, Kitāb tanwīr al-ghabash fī fa∙l ‘l-sūdān wa’l-Èabash, ed. and trns. by Imran Hamza Alawiye, “Ibn al-Jawzī’s Apologia on Behalf of the Black People and their status in Islam: A Critical Editon and Translation ofKitāb tanwīr al-ghabash fī fa∙l ‘l-sūdān wa’l-Èabash,”  (PhD. Dissertation, University of London, 1985) 298 [Ar.]; 132 [Eng.]; Khalid Muhammad Khalid, Men Around the Messenger (New Revised Edition; Kuala Lumpur, 2005) 232.

[5] E.g. J.A. Rogers, World’s Great Men of Color 2 vols. (New York: Collier Books, 1996 [1973]) II: 539-40; idem, Sex and Race: Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and All Lands (St. Petersburg, Fl: Helga M. Rogers, 1967; 9th edition) 96; Vasudeo B. Mehto, “If Europe had been Muslimised,” Islamic Review 2 (1932): 220.

[6] Ibn ‘Asakir, Ta’rikh madinat Dimashq, XIV:349-50.

[7] Al-Suyuti, Tārikh al-khulafā, 134.

[8] Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqāt al-kubrā (Beirut: Dar Sadir) 8:25.

[9] Ibn al-SabbAgh, Al-Fusul al-muhimmah fi ma’rifat ahwa l-a’ummah (Najaf: Dar al-Kutub al-Tijariyah, 1950); Tariq Berry, Unknown Arabs and Tariq Berry, “A True Description of the Prophet Mohamed's Family (SAWS),” http://savethetruearabs.blogspot.com/2009/08/true-description-of-prophet-mohameds_26.html.

[10] See Lewis, “Crows,” 89; Goldziher, Muslim Studies, I:120.

[11] See also Tariq Berry, Unknown Arabs

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Birth of the Religion of the Black God (No ‘Goddess Religion’ in the Ancient World)

Wesley Muhammad, PhD © 2011 Wesley Muhammad

(Excerpt from Black Arabia and the African Origin of Islam)

I. The Neolithic and the Birth of a New Religion   

 In 1994 French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin published what I consider to be a profoundly important monograph, Naissance des divinités, Naissance de l’agriculture: La Révolution des Symboles au Néolithique (“Birth of the Gods, Birth of Agriculture: The Symbolic Revolution in the Neolithic”).[1] In it Cauvin cogently argued that the Neolithic revolution ca 10,000 BCE was preceded by a ‘revolution of symbols.’ That is to say, even before the change in subsistence strategies that defined the neolithisation of the Near East, there occurred an equally dramatic and consequential change in the collective ‘psycho-culture’ of the still hunter-gatherers of the Epipaleolithic, a change evidenced most clearly in a new symbolism as reflected in the art forms. The former symbolic art of the Epipaleolithic was primarily zoomorphic, with animals represented ‘democratically,’ if you will: no hierarchical organization is evident and no animal personality is made prominent. Thus, while selection of animals depicted may reflect a sense of ‘religious awe’ on the part of our primitive artists, no animal species stands out as an ‘animal god’ or a theriomorphic representation of ‘God’.[2]  This all changed on the eve of the Neolithic.[3] For some reason a new and rather coherent symbolic system, or as Cauvin calls it ‘a new religion’, emerged wherein the divine is represented through two primary symbols: a bull and a woman. Originating in the Levant – the area where some say Semitism originated – this new religion and its two symbols will dominate theological expression in the Near East throughout the whole Neolithic and Bronze Age periods:

The Woman and the Bull of the Neolithic appeared in the Levant as divinities whose emergence in the tenth millennium (BCE) is followed by their diffusion throughout the ancient Near East. The Goddess, flanked by her male partner assimilated by the bull, will be the keystone of a whole religious system…[4]     

 This symbolic/theological revolution was accompanied by a geometrical/architectural change: the change from circular (or oval) semi-subterranean houses (pits) to above-surface rectangular homes. Speaking on the ‘language of geomorphic shapes,’ Cauvin observes:

In the universal language of simple forms, the circle (or the sphere) signifies both that which transcends man and remains beyond his reach (the sun, the cosmic totality, ‘God’)…On the contrary, the rectangle, examples of which are rare in our everyday observations of nature, requires human initiative for its existence: the stone is not cubic or rectangular unless so fashioned. The square and the rectangle denote then the manifest, the concrete, that which has been realized…the ‘square house,’ generally built on the surface, is witness to a different mental attitude (emphasis mine-WM).[5] 

The work of classical scholar and antiquarian Richard Payne Knight further illuminates this ‘geometrical revolution.’ In his important work, The Symbolic Language of Ancient Art and Mythology, Knight points out that in the traditions of antiquity fire and water are the primary symbols of the active and passive productive powers of the universe. Fire, the active power, was masculine and represented by a circle, while water was the feminine passive power represented by the square or rectangle.[6]  The ancients understood that productivity resulted from the interaction of the two, the solar and the aquatic, and this interaction was hieroglyphically represented as a circle (or asterisk) within a square. This is the origin of the designation for the goddess as ‘the Place of the Gods’ or the House of God[7]: the solar has indwelled within the aquatic. This ‘geometrical revolution’ of the Neolithic therefore, in as much as it is related to the symbolic/theological revolution, seems to have signaled a theological refocusing: from the transcendent to the immanent aspects of deity. The anthropomorphic (woman) and theriomorphic (bull) symbolism signaled the same. It is not at all clear what social, economic or cultural changes might have stimulated this psychological and, indeed, paradigm shift, but it was of profound and lasting consequence for the history of religion from that point till today.  How does the Bull and the Woman of this Epipaleolithic/Neolithic ‘new religion’ signal divine immanence?

I.A. The Goddess

In the History of Religions water, that amorphous cosmic material from which life emerges, often assumes a feminine character.[8] Thus, as Marjia Gimbutas amply demonstrates, the primary symbolism of the goddess is aquatic – water, zig-zags, M’s, aquatic birds, ect. – associating her with the cosmic waters which are her element and her sphere.[9] As the cosmic womb of life she is depicted as a cow and black.[10] This black goddess represents divine imminence. As Gimbutas states: “The goddess is immanent rather than transcendent and therefore physically manifest.”[11] The role of the Woman in this ancient mythic scheme was eloquently elaborated by François Lenormant in 1874 in hisMagie chez les Chaldéens et les origines accadiennes (“The Chaldean Magi and Akkadian Origins”). Discussing the Mesopotamian and Levantine religious tradition, or “Kushito-Semitic” tradition, Lenormant affirms that these religions “show the same fundamental ideas, and have the names of the great majority of the gods in common”.[12]

The idea of the Divine Being one, and universal, who mingles himself with the material world, which has emanated from his substance and not been created by him, is met with everywhere at the basis of belief…Cause and proto-type of the visible world, a nature-god has necessarily a double essence; he possesses the two principles of all terrestrial generation, the active principle and the passive principle, male and female; it is a duality in unity, a concept which, in accordance with the doubling of the symbols, has given birth to the idea of female divinities. The goddess, in the religions of the Euphratico-Syrian [Kushito-Semitic] group is entitled the ‘manifestation’ [‘reflection’ rather] of the male god to whom she corresponds. She does not differ from him essentially…Thus is Chaldea and Babylonia, as in Syria and Phoenicia, every god is necessarily accompanied by a goddess who corresponds to him. These divine personages are not imagined separately, but in couples; and each of these couples forms a complete unity, a reflection of the unity. When the god has a solar character, the goddess has a lunar nature; if the one presides over the day, the other presides over the night; if one personifies the elements regarded as active, fire, and air, the other personifies the passive elements, water and earth (emphasis mine-WM).[13]

I.B. The Bull

As the “fecundator par excellence, indeed the proto-type of male fertility,”[14] the Bull is the paramount ‘attribute animal’ of the Creator God in the ancient world.[15] This Divine Bull, that is to say the bull used to represent the all-powerful male creator-god, was a black bull, in particular the now extinct (sic) Bos primigenius or aurochs bull.[16] Standing two meters to the shoulders, weighing upwards of a ton, with a meter-wide spread of horns, the Bos primigenius was an immense beast, a contemporary of the other megaforms: the mammoth and huge Irish elk. This bull had powerfully developed and coordinated flesh, muscle and bone, making him the paragon of power and nobility. As Michael Rice writes in his study of the ancient and wide-spread bull-cult:

The essential and distinctive elements in the bull’s status in antiquity are the recognition of his nobility as a lordly beast…and his concentrated, highly coordinated power…the bull is the epitome of cheiftaincy, hence of kingship…The bull is always portrayed in all his vigour, potency and beauty.[17]

The beauty of the aurochs bull has much to do with its distinctive dense black coat with a white stripe running down its spine and white curly tuft between its horns. In the ancient bull-cult this black bull-hide is associated with the black primordial waters and signals the black skin of the creator-god who emerged out of those waters and produced therefrom an earthly body.[18] According to this ‘Myth of the Black God’ the creator-deity emerged from these waters as a so-called ‘sun-god,’ initially possessing a body of brilliant white or golden light, but later chose to cloak this fiery, transcendentbody with a more accessible, tolerable (for his creatures) black body, made out of the matter of the primordial waters.[19] It is this aquatic black body that is represented by the black bull. In geometrical terms, the ‘sun-god’ with his transcendent luminous body is analogous to the circle,[20] while the immanence of the rectangle is analogous to the aquatic black body, theriomorphically represented by the black bull and anthropomorphically represented by the Black Goddess. In other words, both the black bull and the black goddess represent the physical immanence of the creator-god in the world. What then is the relation between these two symbols?

Rice noted “the curious combination of the Goddess cult…with the cult of the bull,” for which he could find no explanation. [21]  But I believe he hit on the explanation of this relationship when he points out that, according to the myth associated with the ancient bull-cult “The bull…is a creature of the Mother,”[22] i.e. the black body is the product of the primordial aquatic matter, symbolically personified in the Woman. In a very real sense, the ‘new religion’ was about Corpus dei, the Body of God. The Goddess is the matrix. The aquatic black body of the creator-deity derives from the primordial black waters, personified in and symbolized by the black Mother Goddess. This is why the Mother Goddess is usually depicted with the youthful male god on her lap or emerging from her womb (Figures 18 and 20).[23] To fully comprehend this theme, we must disentangle the motif of the Cosmic Mother as both wife (primarily) and mother (secondarily) of the creator-god. Jack Randolph Conrad notes:

In Egyptian theology, Ra, the sun, the Bull of Heaven, reproduced himself…by copulating with his mother. He is described as the “bull of his mother, who rejoices in the cow, the husband impregnating with his phallus”…Such gods were called Kamutef, or “bull of his mother”.[24]  

The mythic motif behind these expressions is as follows: in the form of a luminous divine man (sun-god) the creator-god emerges out of the primordial waters, the latter personified as a cow and described as his ‘mother’.[25] Because the sun-god ‘went back into’ his mother, the primordial waters, to produce a new body – the black body – he is said to have ‘copulated’ with her, who is now also described as his ‘wife’. This copulation, however, produced him all over again, reborn through her but now as the immanent Black God, with a black body from the primordial black mater. Edmund Leach, in his essay “The Mother’s Brother in Ancient Egypt,” explains this theological concept:

Total deity is conceived as a bisexual triad – God the Father, God the Son, and God the ‘Mother of God’ – but the theology insists that God is consubstantial-coeternal from the beginning, (so) the system by which God the Father ‘begets’ God the Son through the body of the Mother of God replicates itself indefinitely, so that the Mother of God is also the Spouse of God, the Sister of God, and even the Daughter of God.[26]

II. No ‘Goddess’ Religion    

The ‘new religion’ is not a “female monotheism”[27] or a “Goddess-centered religion,” as has been claimed.[28] As archaeologist and feminist Lynn Meskell has demonstrated, this claim of Gimbutas and others of a ‘Goddess cult’ is simply wishful thinking, “hopeful and idealistic creations reflecting the contemporary search for a social utopia” which is not supported by the archaeological evidence.[29] Cynthia Eller, Associate Professor of Religion and Women’s Studies at Montclair State University, demonstrated the same in her important work, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future:

matriarchal myth fails completely on historical grounds. Evidence from prehistoric times is comparatively sparse, and hard to interpret conclusively. However, even taking these difficulties into account, what evidence we do have does not support the thesis that prehistory was matriarchal and goddess-worshipping…The myth of matriarchal history is an impressive…house of cards. The cards of which it is built are not totally flimsy. Some are plausible interpretations of historical and artefactual data. But others are patently absurd. They are either bad interpretations of the available data, or assertions based on no data at all. Taken together, the entire structure is unstable, and if there were not things stronger than archaeological or historical evidence holding them up-things like passionate hope and religious faith-it would be in imminent danger of collapse.[30]    

The problem is Gimbutas and other advocates of a pan-Goddess religion and civilization over-interpret, finding ‘symbols of the feminine’ in every and strange places, and they overlook and thus fail to integrate the ‘symbols of the masculine’ into their scheme.[31] Renowned English archaeologist Peter J. Ucko, in his “Review of the Mother Goddess Interpretation of the Anthropomorphic Figurines,” observes:

It is…necessary to both isolate the assumptions on which the Mother Goddess interpretation is based and to consider how the evidence of the figurines themselves…correspond to the observations of those who favour the Mother Goddess interpretation. First, those who have supported the Mother Goddess interpretation have either treated the male figurines as exceptions, directly ignored them or postulated a male associate of the Mother Goddess…But…if the female figures were taken as the representation of the Great Mother Goddess, the male figures logically represented the Great Father God. In no case has the accepted Mother Goddess interpretation recognized the logical consequences of its own assumptions…In short…the generally accepted Mother Goddess interpretation of the prehistoric anthropomorphic figurines leaves several features of the figurines themselves wholly unexplained and, in addition, poses several theoretical problems of interpretation which it fails to solve.[32]

An example of relevant but overlooked data is the case of Nevalı Çori, an important early Neolithic village in the middle Euphrates area of eastern Turkey. Radio-carbon dated to 8400-8100 BC, this site revealed some of the world’s most ancient known temples and monumental sculptures. Life-size anthropomorphic stelae as well as clay figurines, human and bovid, have been unearthed.[33] While sitting and pregnant female figures were found, the majority are male, completely contradicting the expectations of the Goddess-cult paradigm whose logic would make this important site a patriarchal cult of the Father God.   

The Goddess’s role in the myth of the ‘new religion’ is not as singular ‘life-creating power’ nor is the male bull-god ‘ephemeral and mortal’ in relation to her.[34]  As Conrad documents, “for millennia the bull-god, the father-god of strength and fertility, stood unchallenged as the supreme god of the ancient Near East.”[35] The Goddess in this myth is a matrix, that prima material out of which life emerged, but the role of Creator of the cosmos is reserved for the male god, the Bull God. The goddess appears as the god’s complement and, symbolically, as the personification of the aquatic substance of the god’s earthly body. This mystery of the union of the masculine Sun God and the aquatic primordial matter, personified as the Mother Goddess, is at the heart of the ‘new religion’, as evidenced by the later mystery systems that will evolve out of it.[36] This is the alchemical coniunctio oppositorum or “synthesis of opposites,” the synthesis of the male element (fire, sun, right) and female element (water, moon, left).[37] As Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty informs us:

The image of fire in water is the ultimate resolution of opposites; held in suspended union, each retains its full power and nothing is lost in the compromise, but there is complete balance.[38]      

This is why the mythological family of Egypt was always a tri-unit consisting of father, mother, andboy-child.[39] The mother and father represented differentiation, the young boy the unity of the two, the coniunctio oppositorum. The child is a boy because this child is the creator of the material world reborn. The ‘new religion,’ through its symbolism of Bull and Woman, is focused on the male god in his imminent black body rather than in his transcendent, fiery aspect.


[1] (CNRS Publications, Paris. Second, revised edition, 1997). English translation, The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[2] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 68. See further Jacques Cauvin, “The Symbolic Foundations of the Neolithic Revolution in the Near East,” in Ian Kuijt (ed.), Life in Neolithic Farming Communities: Social Organization, Identity, and Differentiation (Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000) 235-251. For responses see “Review Feature: The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11 (2001): 105-21.

[3] For Epipalaeolithic, maybe (Africoid) Natufian roots of this Neolithic symbolism see further A. Nigel Goring-Morris and Anna Belfer-Cohen, “Symbolic Behaviour from the Epipalaeolithic and Early Neolithic of the Near East: Preliminary Observations on Continuity and Change,” in H.G.K. Gebel, B. Dahl Hermansen and C. Hoffmann Jensen (edd.), Magic Practices and Ritual in the Near Eastern Neolithic (Berlin: Ex Oriente, 2002) 67-79.

[4] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 69.

[5] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 132.

[6] Richard Payne Knight, The Symbolic Language of Ancient Art and Mythology. An Inquiry(New York: J.W. Houton, 1876) 25-28, 60-64.

[7] Knight,  Symbolic Language, 64.

[8] Encyclopedia of Religion, New Edition 14: 9702 s.v. Water by Jean Rudhart.

[9] Marjia Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001) xxii, 3, 25, 29.

[10] Ibid., xix. In the Œg Veda the cosmic waters are cows (e.g. 4.3.11; 3.31.3; 4.1.11) and inPañcaviÒśa-Brāmana 21.3.7 the spotted cow Śabalā is addressed: “Thou art the [primeval ocean].” On water and cows in Indic tradition see further Anne Feldhaus, Water and Womanhood. Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) 46-47.

[11] Ibid., 316.

[12] François LenormantMagie chez les Chaldéens et les origines accadiennes (Paris: Maissonneuvee, 1874) 106

[13] Ibid., 117, 129. 

[14] Jack Randolph Conrad, The Horn and the Sword. From the Stone Age to modern times – the worship of the Bull, God of power and fertility. (New York: E P Dutton and Company Inc., 1957) 85.

[15] The bull represented potency, fecundity, and primordial materiality, all essential characteristics of the creator-deity. On the creator deity and the bull v. René L. Vos, “Varius Coloribus Apis: Some Remarks of the Colours of Apis and Other Sacred Animals,” in Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors and Harco Willems (edd.), Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years, Part 1. Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Jan Quaegebeur (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies, 1998) 709-18; Harold Bayley, The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Inquiry into the Origin of Certain Letters, Words, Names, Fairy-Tales, Folklore, and Mythologies2 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1912) I:323-4. On the symbolism of the bull see further Michael Rice, The Power of the Bull (London and New York: Routledge, 1998); Conrad, The Horn and the Sword; Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, trns. Rosemary Sheed (1958; Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996) 82-93; DDD s.v. “Calf,” by N. Wyatt, 180-182. ‘Attribute Animals’ were fauna that symbolically represented particular attributes or characteristics of the anthropomorphic gods. See True Islam, The Truth of God: The Bible, The Qur’an, and The Secret of the Black God (Atlanta: All-In-All Publishing, 207) 23-28. On the ‘attribute animal’ in ancient Near Eastern (hereafter ANE) religion see Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982)109-25; P. Amiet, Corpus des cylinders de Ras Shamra-Ougarit II: Sceaux-cylinres en hematite et pierres diverses (Ras Shamra-Ougarit IX; Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1992) 68. 

[16] Rice, Power of the Bull, 23-24.

[17] Ibid., 274.

[18] See e.g. the black skin of the Egyptian deity Min, the ‘creator god par excellence.” Robert A. Armour, Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt (Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 1986, 2001) 157; Veronica Ions, Egyptian Mythology Middlesex: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1968) 110. While Min was associated with a white bull in New Kingdom Panopolis and Coptos at an earlier period in Heliopolis he was associated with the black bull Mnevis. See G.D. Hornblower, “Min and His Functions,” Man 46 (1946): 116 [art.=113-121). On Min and black bovines see also H. Gauthier, Les personnel du dieu Min (Le Caire, 1931; IFAO. Recherches d’Archéologie 2) 55-57. On the mythological significance of the black bovine skin see especially Vos, “Varius Coloribus Apis.” On the black bovine, Creator-god, and primordial waters see Asko Parpola, “New correspondences between Harappan and Near Eastern glyptic art,” South Asian Archaeology1981, 181 who suggests that ‘the dark buffalo bathing in muddy water was conceived as the personification of the cosmic waters of chaos”. See also W.F. Albright who noted that “the conception of the river as mighty bull is common”: “The Mouth of the Rivers,” AJSL 35 (1991): 167 n.3 [art.=161-195]. The black bull (k" km) of Egypt, Apis, personified the waters of the Nile which was regarded as a type of Nu, the dark, primeval watery mass out of which creation sprang (See Émile Chassinat, “La Mise a Mort Rituelle D’Apis,” Recueil de travaux relatifs a la philology et a l’archeologie egyptiennes et assyriennes 38 [1916] 33-60; E.A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Papyrus of Ani). Egyptian Text Transliterated and Translated [New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1967] cxxiii). See also the Babylonian Enki, called am-gig-abzu, ‘black bull of the Apsû (primordial waters).” See Albright, “Mouth of the Rivers,” 167.  On the black bull and the black waters of creation see also Vos, “Varius Coloribus Apis,” 715, 718.

[19] On this ‘Myth of the Black God’ in ancient tradition see Appendix.

[20] On this ‘transcendent’ luminous body in ancient tradition and the Semitic religions see Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Dim Body, Dazzling Body,” in Michel Feher, Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi (edd.),Fragments for a History of the Human Body: Part One (New York: Zone, 1989): 19-47; A. Leo Oppenheim, “Akadian pul(u)É(t)and melammû,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 63 (1943): 31-34.  Wesley Williams, “A Body Unlike Bodies: Transcendent Anthropomorphism in Ancient Semitic Tradition and Early Islam,” forthcoming in the Journal of the American Oriental Society128 (2009).

[21] Rice, Power of the Bull, 82-83.

[22] Rice, Power of the Bull, 102.

[23] See below.

[24] Horn and the Sword, 86.

[25] See for example the Egyptian image of a mighty cow rising up out of the waters bearing the sun-disk between her horns. The cow is the “mother of the sun god”; Erik Hornung, Idea into Images: Essays in Ancient Egyptian Thought (Timken Publishers, 1992) 41.

[26] Edmund Leach, “The Mother’s Brother in Ancient Egypt,” Royal Anthropological Institute News 15 (1976): 19.

[27] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 32.

[28] Gimbutas, Language, xvii; idem, Civilizationpassim. See also John D Brinson, When God Was Black (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2007) who claims Neolithic religion was Goddess-centered and Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers (San Jose: Authors Choice Press, 2001).

[29] Lynn Meskell, “Goddesses, Gimbutas and ‘New Age’ archaeology,” Antiquity 69 (1995): 74-86.

[30] Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000) 81, 180.

[31] See Peter G. Bahn, “No Sex, Please, We’re Aurignacians (And Responses),” Rock Art Research 3 (1986): 99-120; Meskell, “Goddesses,” 76,80-81.

[32] Peter J. Ucko, Anthropomorphic figurines of predynastic Egypt and neolithic Crete with comparative material from the prehistoric Near East and mainland Greece (London: A. Szmidla, 1968) 417-418.

[33] H. Hauptmann, “Ein Kultgebäude in Nevali Çori,” in M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthiae & M. Mellink (edd.) Between the Rivers and Over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamia Alba Palmieri Dedicata (Rome: Universita Degli Studi Di Roma 'La Sapienza', 1993) 37-69; idem, “The Urfa region,” in M. Özdoğan and A. Özdoğan (edd.), Neolithic in Turkey: the Cradle of Civilization. New Discoveries (Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayinlari, 1999) 65-86; idem, “Ein frühneolitisches Kultbild aus Kommagene,” in J. Wagner (ed.) Gottkönige am Euphrat: Neue Aus- grabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 2000) 5-9. 

[34] Gimbutas, Language, 316, 175.

[35] Conrad, Horn and the Sword, 112.

[36] On which see Appendix below.

[37] Willibald Kirfel, Die fünf Elemente unsbesondere Wasser und Feur: Ihre Bedeutung für den Ursprung altindischer und altmediterraner Heilkunde (Walldorf-Hessen, 1951) 17; Manley P. Hall, Melchizedek and the Mystery of Fire (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1996) 9; idem, The Hermitic Marriage (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1996) 42.  

[38] Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, “Submarine Mare in the Mythology of “iva,” JRAS (1971): 9.

[39] Françoise Dunand and Christiane Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004) 30-1.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Islam Does the Color of the Prophet(s) Matter?

By Wesley Muhammad, PhD © 2011 Wesley Muhammad, Phd

1.] Is it Un-Islamic to Discuss Muhammad’s Color?

Whenever I or a colleague such as Tariq Berry or Dana Marniche recites the clear evidence that the Prophet Muhammad of Arabia was a black-skinned Arab, inevitably someone – most often a Muslim – claims that such a discussion is useless at best or un-Islamic at worst. It is claimed that, because Allah is not a respecter of person and Islam is a religion for all peoples, there should be no discussion of the Prophet’s color. Islam, it is even alleged, does not sanction any interest in this matter of the Prophet’s skin color at all. Yet, the modern Iranian Shi’it shaykhs Maulana Muhammad Zakaria and Ahmed E. Bemat could claim in 2006 with all of the authority of their positions and having no reason to fear a backlash:

“the Holy Prophet’s (s) white complexion had a touch of redness and there was a luster in it…Hence the Imams have stated that ‘if someone says that the Holy Prophet’s (s) complexion was black, we will issue a fatwa of infidelity (kufr) for him because he insulted and disparaged the Holy Prophet (s) and the insulting and disparaging of a prophet amounts to infidelity…”  (inShamail-e-Tirmizi, trans. Prof. Murtaza Hussain F. Qurashi [New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 2006] 3).

Similarly, internationally renowned Syrian (Sunni) scholar, Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi who teaches today at the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Syria, in the following video matter-of-factly informs us of the Prophet Muhammad that,

“His skin color was white, but not jet white…there was some redness on his skin…he had a touch of pink color…”


There are thousands of images of this ruddy white Muhammad throughout the Muslim world today, mainly but not exclusively in Iran and India.

Religious Painting from Persia of White Muhammad

The irony is that modern Muslim scholars like the above routinely proclaimed the ruddy whiteness of the Prophet’s skin, without being hounded by the objection: “It does not matter in Islam!” This objection seems reserved only for those who proclaim, based on overwhelming evidence, that the Prophet was in fact a black-skinned Arab and that this popular white-skinned Muhammad is an ethnocentric fiction authored by non-Arab converts to Islam.

The fact of the matter is, however, the color of the prophets, including and especially Prophet Muhammad, absolutely DID matter in pre-modern Islam. Indeed, it was an orthodox issue in Classical Islam, at least according to the Classical Arabic textual tradition.  We find for example the following hadith report in Sahih Bukhari, # 648:

“Ibn Umar narrated: the Prophet (s) said: “[During my Ascension to Heaven] I saw Moses, Jesus, and Abraham. Jesus was white-skinned (ahmar), curly haired with a broad chest; Moses was black-skinned (adam), straight-haired and tall as if he was from the people of al-Zutt.”

On this account it is popularly accepted that, while Moses was black-skinned, Jesus was white-skinned. However, Bukhari follows this hadith with another report (# 649, 650) that insists that this color allocation (for Jesus) is erroneous:

“Salim narrated from his father: ‘No, By Allah, the Prophet (s) did not say that Jesus was white-skinned but said: ‘While I was asleep circumambulating the Ka’ba (in my dream), suddenly I saw a black-skinned man (rajul adam) with straight hair walking between two men, and water dripping from his head. I asked who he was, and the men said he is the Son of Mary (Jesus). Then I looked behind and saw a white-skinned man (rajul ahmar), fat, curly-haired and blind in the right eye which looked like a bulging grape. I asked whom he was and they said, ‘This is al-Dajjal’.”’”

In other words, the white-skinned man seen in Prophet Muhammad’s vision was not Jesus, who was seen as a black-skinned man, but al- Dajjal. There is even a variant of this hadith, reported for example by Ali Qawi al-Harawi (d. 1605) in his commentary on al-Tirmidhi’s famous al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyah, according to which Muhammad said regarding Jesus: “I saw a black-skinned man (rajul adam), the best one can see among black-skinned men.” Thus, Jesus and Moses would have been black-skinned men.

What is important here, however, is that in this most orthodox piece of Muslim literature besides the Qur’an, al-Bukhari’s Sahih, the skin color of the prophets Jesus and Moses are freely discussed and debated. One might ask: if it was perfectly Islamic for al-Bukhari to discuss the color of the Prophets – discussions, mind you, attributed to the Prophet and some of his key Companions - how did it become un-Islamic to discuss these matters today?

But Jesus and Moses are not Muhammad in Islamic tradition, despite the claim by this same tradition that all of the prophets are equal.  In Islamic tradition the Prophet Muhammad is enveloped in a robe of sacrality and holiness that no other Prophet shares. But this heightened sacredness of Muhammad did not make him less likely to be the topic of discussions about such mundane matters as skin color. On the contrary, detailed discussion of Muhammad’s physical appearance, including his skin color, is found in most of the most orthodox literatures – Sunni and Shi’ite alike. Ibn Sa’d (d. 845), for example, in his famous and important Kibab al-tabaqat al-kabir, devotes twelve pages to a chapter entitled, “[Reports] Mentioning the Description of the Physical Body of the Messenger of God (SAWS).” This chapter includes twelve hadiths reporting on the alleged complexion of the Prophet.

Ibn Sa’d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-kabir

Likewise, al-Bukhari in his Sahih devotes a chapter to “[Reports Detailing] The Description of the Prophet,” which includes discussion of his skin color.  

Page From Bukhari

Muslim’s Sahih, Abu Dawud’s Sunan, Tirmidhi’s Jama’, Nasa’i's Sunan, Ibn Hanbal’s Musnad, al-Bayhaqi’s Dala’il al-nubuwwah, al-Baladhuri’s Ansab, Ibn Kathir’s, al-Bidayah wa-l-nihayah, just to name a few orthodox texts, all include discussions of the skin-color of the Prophet Muhammad.

Not only that. A whole literature developed whose chief purpose was the extolling of the physical and non-physical qualities of the Prophet. The most famous text of this genre is the al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyyah (“The Noble Qualities of Muhammad”) by al-Tirmidhi (d. 892). This famous text opens with a discussion of the Prophet’s physical appearance, including his skin color. See for example the Table of Contents in the English translation of this text by Prof. Murtaza Hussain F. Qurashi: the opening section treats “The Physiognomy (i.e. physical appearance) of The Prophet.”

Table of Contents From  Shama’il

All of these literatures are within the orthodox Sunni tradition of the pre-modern period. They all make it abundantly clear that it was very “Islamic” to discuss the skin color and other physical traits of the prophets, especially the prophet Muhammad.  Thus, those who today argue that in Islam the color of the Prophet doesn’t matter can claim no authority from the Classical Islamic tradition for this position.    

2.] Muhammad’s Color According to the Classical Islamic Tradition

Al-Tirmidhi, in his Jami’ al-Sahih (VI:69 no. 1754), reports on the authority of the famous Companion of the Prophet, Anas b. Malik:

“The Messenger of Allah was of medium stature, neither tall nor short, [with] a beautiful, dark brown-complexioned body (hasan al-jism asmar al-lawn). His hair was neither curly nor completely straight and when he walked he leant forward.”

This or a related report is found as well in Ibn Sa’d, Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir, I/i, 123; Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad III: 969 no. 13854; al-Bayhaqi, Dala’il al-nubuwwah, I:203; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa-l-Nihayah, VI: 13. See also the following from Ibn Sa’d’s, Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir, on the authority of Abd Allah b. Abbas:

“Yazid al-Farisi said: I saw the Messenger of God (s) in a dream during the time Ibn Abbas [was governor] over Basra. I said to Ibn Abbas: “I saw the Messenger of Allah (s) in a dream.” Ibn Abbas said: “Verily, the Messenger used to say, ‘Satan cannot assume my form, so he who saw me in a dream, surely had a vision of me.’ Can you describe to me what you saw?” [Yazid] said: “Yes, I [will] describe [him]. He was a man between two men. His body and flesh were brown and blemish-free with a sheen (asmar ila al-bayad), smiling, eyes with collyrium, features of his face beautiful. His beard was thick from this end to that, and (the man) pointed to his two temples with his hands. It was so thick that it covered his neck….” Thereupon Ibn Abbas said: “Had you seen him while awake, you could not have described him better than this.”    

According to these reports, which freely discuss the Prophet’s skin-color, the Prophet’s complexion was dark-brown. Ibn Sa’d reports another very interesting report on the authority al-Zubayr who reported on the authority of Ibrahim:

“The Messenger of Allah (s) stretched his left foot, such that the blackness of its exposed part (zahiruha aswad) was visible.” (Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir, I/i,127)

Al-Tirmidhi reports in his al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyyah (#1), on the authority of Anas b. Malik,

“The Messenger of Allah (s) was neither tall, such that he would stand out, nor was he short. He was not albino-white (al-abyad al-amhaq), nor was he deep black (adam). His hair was neither very curly nor completely straight. Allah commissioned him towards the end of his fortieth year. He remained in Mecca for ten years and in Medina for ten years. Allah caused him to pass away at the turn of his sixtieth year and there was not found on his head and beard [as much as] twenty white hairs.”

This report does not stand in contradiction to the other reports according to which the Prophet was dark brown-skinned, because asmar is not adam. According to classifications of the Arabic linguists such al-Tha’labi, adam is a more excessive blackness than asmar. What is therefore denied here is that Muhammad was one of the excessively black Arabs, like the Banu Sulaym maybe.

Bukhari reports the following in his Sahih (Volume 4, Book 56, Number 744):

“Narrated Isma'il b. Abi Khalid: ‘I heard Abu Juhayfa saying, "I saw the Prophet, and Al-Hasan b. Ali resembled him." I said to Abu- Juhaifa, "Describe him for me." He said, "He was abyadand his beard was black with some white hair. He promised to give us 13 young she-camels, but he expired before we could get them."

This report and similar ones have caused no limit of trouble for moderns. The term used here to describe the Prophet’s complexion is abyad.  This term usually means ‘white’ in contexts not related to human complexion. It is the term normally used to denote the whiteness of such objects as milk, teeth, ect. However, Classical Arabic has a linguistic phenomenon called al-addad, which we call antiphrasis today, in which in certain contexts a word signifies its lexical opposite. Abyad is the classical example of this phenomenon. Thus A. Morabia, writing in the Encyclopedia of Islam (s.v. Lawn), notes:

"One of the most striking manifestations of the symbolic connotations of colours among the Arabs, is the phenomenon of opposites (al-addad). We have seen, in studying the semantic value of certain adjectives of colour, that they were sometimes capable of embracing two diametrically opposite meanings. This phenomenon is particularly to be noted in the case of white and black...To signify wine, the Arabs used a number of euphemisms of the type 'the fair drink', 'the golden one', etc...Even today, in certain parts of the Orient and the Maghrib, in order to avoid pronouncing the word 'black'...opposites are used. In Morrocco, al-abyadsometimes denotes tar or coal." 

In the context of human complexions, the term abyad assumes its didd sense and means ‘black’.  But in Classical Arabic there are several distinct ‘blacknessess’ or ‘shades of blackness’ as pointed out by both al-Tha‘labīb in his Fiqh al-lugha [82-82] as well as al-Asyuti in his Jawāhir al-‘uqud wa-mu’īn al-qudāt wal-muwaqqi’īn wal-shuhūd [II: 574]. Abyad/bayad is a particular shade or ‘type’ of blackness. According to the important Syrian hadith scholar and historian of Islam, Shāms al-Dīn Abū `Abd Allāh al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), in his Siyar a’lām al-nubalā’ [II:168]:

“When Arabs say, ‘so-and-so is white (abyad),’ they mean a golden brown complexion with a black appearance (al-hintī al-lawn bi-hilya sudā’). Like the complexion of the people of India, brown and black (asmar wa ādam), i.e. a clear, refined blackness (sawad al-takrūr).”

This means that when abyad is used to describe the human complexion, it means a refined black complexion [free of blemishes] with a golden-brown hue. This golden brown hue is no doubt due to the luminosity or glow that is also implied by the term abyad: the gloss and sheen (saqala wa safa’) that sits on and thus interacts with a refined black complexion. This most popular description of the Prophet as abyad is thus consistent with the above reports according to which the Prophet had a dark-brown complexion.

Abyad/bayad as a description of human complexion is to be distinguished from ahmar, red, which also has a didd – sense when used of human complexions. Though red is a dark color, when used of human complexion it means white-skinned or fair-skinned. Ibn Manzur [Lisan al-arab IV: 209, 210] notes:

“The Arabs don’t say a man is white [or: “white man,” rajul abyad] due to a white complexion. Rather, whiteness [al-abyad] with them means an external appearance that is free from blemish [al-zahir al-naqi min al-‘uqub]; when they mean a white complexion they say ‘red’ (ahmar)… when the Arabs say, ‘so-and-so is white (abyad – bayad), they [only] mean a noble character (al-karam fi l-akhlaq), not skin color. It is when they say ‘so-and-so is red’ (ahmar – hamra’) that they mean white skin. And the Arabs attribute white skin to the slaves.”
“Red (al-hamra’) refers to non-Arabs due to their fair complexion which predominates among them. And the Arabs used to say about the non-Arabs with whom white skin was characteristic, such as the Romans, Persians, and their neighbors: ‘They are red-skinned (al-hamra’)…” al-hamra’ means the Persians and Romans…And the Arabs attribute white skin to the slaves.

The vast majority of the reports in the Classical collections describe the Prophet Muhammad as black/brown-skinned (abyad/asmar). There are a few reports, however, generated no doubt by non-Arab converts to Islam like the Persians, which describe the Prophet as white-skinned, abyad al-lawn mushrab humra (Ibn Sa’d, Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir, I/i,120, 121,122, 124, 129 (Ar.); Baladhuri,Ansab, I: 391 § 836; 394 § 848). I have shown the secondary nature of these reports. This description is absent from al-Bukhari and many of the early Classical texts. It becomes popular only in the later, medieval period when non-Arabs dominated the intellectual life of the Muslims.  On this development see my article “ ’Anyone who says that the Prophet is black should be killed’ : The De-Arabization of Islam and the Transfiguration of Muhammad in Islamic Tradition,”
 @ http://drwesleywilliams.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Muhammad_Article.170121832.pdf