Tuesday, September 20, 2011

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


  1. Wow, seriously, who cares. First or second. Islam isn't a forum post where "FIRST" is the meaning of life.

    "There is NO superiority of an Arab over an non Arab, nor a red man over a black man, except in Taqwa (fear of Allah)."

    Stop focusing on black issues, and start focusing on ISLAMIC issues. This is as ignorant and racist as starting a page called "whitearabia." We are Muslim, and color means nothing.

    1. This post isn't about superiority. Its about the true history. Islam IS truth, and truth IS Islam. If there is error in the facts presented, that's one thing, but if not, then what gives you the right, and the audacity to exalt your opinion over and above what this man has presented as fact? That, my friend is oppressive.

    2. Black is not a color. Fact.
      Yellow, Red, and White are colors.Fact.
      We have to respect ourselves enough to respect historians!
      Because they are very important, they Reveal information that enables Man to Have Knowledge.
      Musa(Moses) He in the Torah gives history.
      Muhammad in the Qur'an gives history.
      Whenever you bring information of the past or of things that people may know you are bringing a revelation, a revealed word, because you are unveiling that dark cloud of ignorance, Which can be of two types not knowing, and doing that which you know you shouldn't.

    3. The koran contains irrefutable blunders when it comes to history. It is also not written in chronological order, so there is no context.

  2. Peace be up on you. In the name of Allah the most merciful the most compassionate. As a Muslim I am sad with the theme, as it is distorted , these efforts would be better invested disseminating the sun nah of the messenger and worshiper of The ONE lord ALLAH

    1. You may find the theme sad, but I find it uplifting, inspiring, and it actually encourages me to want to learn more. Especially, now that I see where my people really fit in the great spectrum of things. Makes me wonder, why the true history was hidden from us, and why it took a man to come 9,000 miles to raise our consciousness to even realize we had been lied to in the first place.

    2. Some say that Mahomet was light skinned.

      White skin is seen as a reward in the Muslim paradise.

      Islam is cult that arose from one particular Arab tribe.
      The Koreish, Mahomet's tribe whom subsumed all other tribes into Islam.

      But the tribalism, and sectarianism of the Arabs persists to this day.

      Islam is an arab supremacist political ideology.
      Islam arabises as it islamises.

      Islam wants to make you a muslim (slave)
      Jesus Christ wants to set you free.

  3. I care... If it doesnt matter why does quran say teach truth... Truth does matter... Now we got that correct you could start correctly building on Islam...

  4. Amazing how we correct Arab history that been falsified for centuries and people are upset about it.

  5. Would those who object here voice the same objections if it was asserted that Muhammad was white? No, they would stand silent while lies were propagated against a Prophet they claim to love. It is not Him that they love, but it is their own deeply embedded false sense of superiority... the same sense of superiority that is now threatened when the light of truth shows it up... Would they have wed their daughters to Muhammad, the real Muhammad? No. This is because they are false to themselves, because they are Racist.

  6. I find this information uplifting too. In my opinion, other races treat religion as though it was and is theirs. Which makes me and many others want to reject it not God, but it. This information shows me and others that Black People had a past and a great one that is better than what we have today.

  7. Abu Dharr refers to bilal as son of a black woman, why would he state this if he is the son of a black woman himself. You state on your website that he was insulting his mother and thus the black conatation means nothing, other sites such as save the arabs when this is mentioned, state abu dhar never mentioned bilal was the son of a black woman. So it seems that the evidence is changed depending on the reply.

    There are many instances where a child is born of a black and fair skinned parent and still posses the black skin of one of the parents. To say this is not possible and bilal could only be black due to both parents being black is ludicrous.

    A commonly overlooked fact is that "black" and "white" are culturally dependent terms which, in earlier times, sometimes meant "dark-complexioned" or "light-complexioned" rather than the strict racial definition in common use today. According to the anthropologist Peter Frost:
    This older, more relative sense has been noted in other culture areas. The Japanese once used the terms shiroi (white) and kuroi (black) to describe their skin and its gradations of color. The Ibos of Nigeria employed ocha (white) and ojii (black) in the same way, so that nwoko ocha (white man) simply meant an Ibo with a lighter complexion. In French Canada, the older generation still refers to a swarthy Canadien as noir (black). Vestiges of this older usage persist in family names. Mr. White, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Black were individuals within the normal color spectrum of English people. Ditto for Leblanc, Lebrun, and Lenoir among the French or Weiss and Schwartz among the Germans.1
    Another example of this usage comes from Joseph ben Nathan of 13th century Europe who quoted his father as saying "we Jews come from a pure, white source, and so our faces are black."2 Of course Jews weren't black African, as medieval manuscripts show them looking little different from Europeans.
    Old Arab descriptions of "blacks" also reveal that what they meant by "black" is not necessarily what we understand it to mean today. Some medieval Arab writers such as al-Jahiz applied the term "blacks" to practically all peoples darker than the average Arab, and "whites" to peoples lighter than the norm:

    "The blacks are more numerous than the whites. The whites at most consist of the people of Persia, Jibal, and Khurasan, the Greeks, Slavs, Franks, and Avars, and some few others, not very numerous; the blacks include the Zanj, Ethiopians, the people of Fazzan, the Berbers, the Copts, and Nubians, the people of Zaghawa, Marw, Sind and India, Qamar and Dabila, China, and Masin... the islands in the seas between China and Africa are full of blacks, such as Ceylon, Kalah, Amal, Zabij, and their islands, as far as India, China, Kabul, and those shores."3
    Jahiz's inclusion of Indians, Sindhi, and Chinese as "blacks" reinforces the point that color terms taken out of their cultural contexts are too ambiguous to determine the physical characteristics of peoples with much accuracy. One Afrocentric web page offered an opinion that Jahiz was only referring to minority Negroid tribes in India or China, not to the population at large.

    It bears mention that the term Sudan ("Black") in classical Arabic usage did not usually encompass such a broad range of peoples. In fact the Arabic term Bilad al-Sudan ("lands of the Blacks") denoted the whole area of Africa south of the Sahara desert -- from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the East -- but did not normally include Egypt or the Maghrib (Northwest Africa).4

  8. http://www.letmeturnthetables.com/2012/01/refuting-wesleytariq-complexion-prophet.html


  9. Very Jobless of you brother/sister. We are talking of UNITY, trying our best to follow the Sunnah of Rasullulah(SAW) and this is the best one could bring?. Shame on US!!!. Traces of Jahiliyya on Us all over again. May Allah(SWT) purify our Hearts and Minds from unbeneficial thoughts. May HE protect us from Shaitan's Wisphers.

  10. Game set and matched to Anonymous i believe. We are all muslims. Make dua 4 the ummah but truth is truth man.

  11. what you wrote is the very truth. i think it should matter. because now days the light skin arab dont. really accept the black man as being an equal muslim. and they abuse the black man. like the white man. instead of uniting with the black man. to free the black man. and when you mention about a darkskin arab being a slave. that raises the question why was it only the black arab who had to do slavery. when the Catholics said that all muslim were so post to be slaves. and also by you showwing that the prophets of god were black. and that Muhammad was black. that would show us that the black man is due to his right to royalty's. that the white man and the white arab stole from the black man . but im not saying dark skin arabs and light skin arabs should be at war. nope what im saying is light skin and dark skin muslim should come together. and fight the real oppresser the white man. who is the jinn. and share the riches of Allah mother nature. together. and unite with each other . and start judging each other by actions and not color. that's what i believe. and act like family again. plus besides the black man has to colors anyway dark skin and light skin. so bilal could of been dark skin. and had a light skin brother. but still they will be equal. cause they come from the same parents. so what im really trying to say is Arabs are black peoples rather they like it or not. and need a reality check. cause at the end of the day. we all will have to answer to Allah. and when that day come all will wish they was black. cause Allah is black. and we want to be like Allah. and black peoples are god's chosen peoples. this article is from your boy almahdi. check me out on facebook. isasaleemjr. its time that muslims unite

    1. Wtf? are u talking about? Astragfullah, Allah has NO mother or spouse, he is a spirt and is not black either! Allah promised people who associated partners with him would be sent to hellfire on the day of judgement! This has to be the most gut-wrenching comment i have read on here, it just shows how courrupt people are and will do anything to make Islam look bad, people like you are agents of Shaytian. May Allah guide all Muslims the wrong way and show them truth from wrong.

      And may people like you also suffer greatly in hell!

  12. Karriem Abdullah MuhammadJuly 23, 2014 at 7:38 AM

    Asa, (peace be unto you)! What is important to me is that truth is present. This is an important matter to me because of Qur'an. Qur'an say;" Allah created the heavens and earth in truth". In this ayat (sign, proof, evidence) it's stating that truth is important, because Qur'an also says ;"Everything in the heavens and earth glorify Allah". Truth is thus that which glorifies Allah. In the Torah or Old Testament as well as the Gospel or New Testament it speaks of a covenant (agreement) between Allah (God ) Abraham, this covenant takes place year's later in an entirely different land. The both Testaments speak of it like this;" God says to Abraham that his people will bebin a strange land serving a strange people for 400 years and that God will come to that land and judge that people who are making people to serve them and that those people who are doing the serving shall become those whom God chooses to lift up and make into his people." There historically is no other people who fits the description of these two types of people other then the American white man and American black man. Further more God stating he's coming is just as important as the identification of these two people because since Qur'an stated that truth is what he created the heavens and earth with and that everything in the heavens and earth glorifies God then I'd be expecting truth to be not only a indication that god is present in America, but I'd also expect all things that were false prior to God's presence in America to slowly began to disappear as well as began to express extreme dissatisfaction as to the presence of truths that are now being revealed, because again;"glorification will be taking place", due to everything in the heavens and earth glorifying God. How falsehood glorifies God's presence and truth is it strives to attack the truth, however to end on this note; Qur'an says in regards to this;"Allah hurls truth at falsehood and it knocks it's brains out"... Asa...and truth is vital.

    1. As salaamu alaykum, Brother. What do you make of this article? How does your comment relate to it? I'd like to connect the dots; as a British Sister, I'm feeling a little confused about the God's presence in America part. Also, which messenger of God was from within sub-Saharan Africa? Please excuse my ignorance.

    2. To anonymous Dec 9, Allah's mercy on you. If you could empathize with Blacks and their mistreatment in the last century worldwide but particularly in the Americas you would no doubt highly appreciate the truth and research effort of this article and its author. And all praise is for Allah.

  13. Karriem Abdullah MuhammadJuly 23, 2014 at 7:41 AM

    Typo..A covenant (agreement) between Allah (God) and Abraham. .

  14. Nobody say he was the first Muslim but he was Muazin.
    And nobody say he was born in Ethiopia.

    Have you ever seen any Ethiopian man ? You will find him exactly same with Billal's description.

    Let me continue ; there was and is racism in Islam (i didn't say in the Qura'n).

  15. The logic here is abit void. I have no idea how you can deduce that Arab Muslims weren't racist when they had white slaves? Why were white slaves twice as valuable then African slaves then?

    Just because they owned a variety of slaves doesn't prove they weren't racist. It also doesn't disprove the attitude of Arabic Muslim supremacy enshrined in Islam, and casting all non believers as unworthy subhumans according to the literal interpretation of the Qur'an.

  16. GREAT Work Brother! This work exposes how people think about Black People in their responses. We need to stop arguing with these genetically watered down squares and mathematically rhythm-less scrubs. They are only equal to themselves. We don't need them or ANY of their expressions of religion. We have our own traditions just like the Native Americans, Chinese and Japanese do. What has Arabia done for Afrika? Nothing but INVADE it. What do these foreigners do for Black People in the West? Nothing but exploit us in services we are overqualified to provide for ourselves. We should provide all of our own needs. We are entitled to see a God in our own manner and if others want to follow a white "J"esus Christ (No J's in Hebrew so where are they getting that name from plus why do they depict this ancient Hebrew as white when he was neither a Greek nor Roman?) or a generic spook God, that is THEIR business. Black People follow your God, learn the story of your people's great empires and kingdoms, build your community and leave these intruders and their theiving, square, generic and white and Arab supremacist belief practices to themselves. WE DON'T NEED THEM. If it's not a Black centered Hebrew teaching, Christ or Islam then we as people of Afrikan descent don't have any use for it. The only question I have for Dr. Muhammad is why did the honourable Elijah Muhammad say that Muhammad was a "white man" in his a Theology of Time lecture series in the 1970s?

  17. Government agencies also have people posing as African centered and some posing as Muslims to keep a historical and theological pettiness going back and forth to frustrate people to keep people out of both movements. Also Black People can read Dr. Ivan Van Sertima's Golden Age of The Moor and Elijah Muhammad's books for another viewpoint from Black authors. Also Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushitic Empire by Drusilla Houston. See also Dr. John Henrik Clarke's A Critical Analysis of Islam by the following link. This seems to be the most sober approach to this for Black People in Afrika or abroad. https://youtu.be/fSVJd9rtEY8