By Wesley Muhammad, PhD
Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Minhājī al-Asyūtī (d. 1475) in his Jawāhir al-‘uqud wa-mu’īn al-qudāt wal-muwaqqi’īn wal-shuhūd [II:574], which is a two volume composition of principles and models to be followed by judges, notaries and witnesses in drafting legal decisions, has a section on human complexions in which he reports about the many shades of blackness (and whiteness) and their technical legal descriptions:
“If a person’s complexion is intensely black (shadīd al-sawād), he is described as hālik. If his/her blackness has a red hue, he/she is daghmān. If his complexion is lighter than that, he is asḥam. If the blackness has a yellow hue, he is aṣḥum. If his complexion in dark (kudra), it is described as arbad. If the complexion is lighter than that (i.e. arbad), it is abyaḍ. If there is less of a yellow hue and the complexion inclines toward black (al-sawād), it is ādam. If it is lighter than arbad and darker than ādam, it is shadīd al-udma. If it is lighter than ādam, it is shadīd al-sumra (“intensely dark brown”). If lighter than that, it is asmar (dark brown).”
In Classical Arabic Tradition several shades and hues of blackness, several shades of brownness, and several shades of whiteness were distinguished. There are very black complexions with red hues (e.g. daghmān) and very black complexions with yellow hues (e.g. aṣḥam). Both of these complexion-types exist in Africa today, as elsewhere. The most extreme degree of blackness is hālik, ‘pitch-black’. The last stage of blackness is asmar, which is actually a brown.
The question is thus not whether or not the ancient Arabs, and thus the Arab Prophet, were black or not. The clearly self-identified as black. The question is: which shade of black were they?
The Arabs generally self-identified as akhdar, ādam, and asmar which range from very dark brown to normal brown (which is a much darker color than tan). They tended to disparage and distance themselves from the extreme pitch-blackness like hālik and attributed this to certain African groups.
Regarding the prophet Muhammad, 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."
Al-Tirmidhi reports in his al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyyah (#1), also 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 dark brown (ādam). 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 ādam. According to classifications of the Arabic linguists such al-Tha’labi, ādam is a more excessive blackness than asmar. What is therefore denied here is that Muhammad was one of the more excessively black Arabs, like the Banu Sulaym maybe.
An Asmar Arab (right) as depicted in Michel Ocelot’s animated feature film Azur and Asmar, telling the story of an Arab boy named Asmar, representing the Arab World, and a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy named Azur, representing the West.