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,”