Wednesday, April 10, 2013

“His Daddy was Black. His Momma was Black. So…” A Look at Prophet Muhammad’s Lineage

By Wesley Muhammad, PhD © 2013

The Prophet Muhammad of Arabia was a pure Arab from the Banū Hāshim clan of the Quraysh tribe. Not only were the original and true Arabs black (aswad, akhar, udma), but the Prophet’s particular tribe and clan were famously black. As Robert F. Spencer remarks: “It is said that the Quraysh explained their short stature and dark skin by the fact that they always carefully adhered to endogamy,”[1] and Henry Lammens took notice of “les Hāśimites, famille où dominait le sang nègre” (“the Hashimites, the family where Black blood dominated”), remarking further that the Banū Hāshim are “généralement qualifies de ﺁﺪﻢ = couleur foncée” (“generally described as ādam = dark colored”).[2]

These Western observations are in complete accord with the confessions found in Classical Arabic/Islamic literature. Ibn Manūr (d. 1311), author of the most authoritative classical Arabic lexicon, Lisān al-‘arab, notes the opinion that the phrase aswad al-jilda, ‘black-skinned,’ idiomatically meant khāli al-‘arab, “the pure Arabs,” “because the color of most of the Arabs is dark (al-udma).”[3] In other words, blackness of skin among the Arabs indicated purity of Arab ethnicity. Likewise, the famous grammarian from the century prior, Muhammad b. Barrī al-‘Adawī (d. 1193) noted that an Akhar or black-skinned Arab was “a pure Arab (‘arabī maḥḍ)” with a pure genealogy, “because Arabs describe their color as black (al-aswad)”[4] Al-Jai (d. 869), in his Fakhr al-sūdān ‘alā l-bidan, declared: “The Arabs pride themselves in (their) black color, تفخر بسواد اللون العرب (al-‘arab tafkhar bi-sawād al-lawn)”[5] Finally Al-Mubarrad (d. 898), the leading figure in the Basran grammatical tradition, took this a step further when he claimed:

“The Arabs used to take pride in their brown and black complexion (al-sumra wa al-sawād) and they had a distaste for a white and fair complexion (al-umra wa al-shaqra), and they used to say that such was the complexion of the non-Arabs.”[6]

If Muhammad was in fact a pure Arab, how could he have been Caucasian or pale complexioned, the characteristic trait of non-Arabs within the Hejaz? This question is the more urgent when we consider that, not only was his Arab tribe and clan notably black-skinned, but so too was his immediate and extended family.

I.                    Paternal Blackness

‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib (d. 578) was the Prophet’s paternal grandfather and, as an Hāshimī Arab, he was (as expected) black-skinned. Muhammad b. ‘Umar Bahriq al-Hadramī, in his book al-Anwār wa matāli’i al-asrār fī sīrat al-Nabī al-Mukhtar, reports: “Concerning ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib…he was [dark] brown (asmar) complexioned.” This dark brown Arab fathered sons with Arab women from clans who were even blacker than his own clan and these sons will be even blacker than he. Al-Jāi noted:

“The ten lordly sons of ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib were deep black (dalham) in color and big/tall (ukhm). When Amir b. al-ufayl saw them circumambulating (the Ka’ba) like dark camels, he said, ‘With such men as these is the custody of the Ka’ba preserved.”  ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abbās was very black and tall. Those of Abū ālib’s family, who are the most noble of men, are black (sūd).”[7]
 Dalham is a very deep black or ‘jet black.’ ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib’s ten dalham sons were: ārith, ‘Abd al-‘Uzzā (Abū Lahab), Abū ālib, al-Zubayr, ‘Abd Allah, amza, Muqūm, al-‘Abbās, Hijl, and Zarrar. All ten were black Arabs of the Banū Hāshim, including ‘Abd Allah, the Prophet’s father.  Yes, the Holy Prophet’s father was a jet black Arab! So too were the Prophet’s uncles and cousins.

Uncles and Cousins

1. Hamza b. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib. The Prophet’s famous paternal uncle, Hamza (d. 625), famously called “The Lion of God,” was black-skinned. Abū Dā’ūd (d. 819), in his text Musnad al-Tayālisī, reports: “(The Ethiopian slave) Wahsi (b. Harb) said: ‘…I saw Hamza as if he were an awraq (colored) camel…” According to Ibn Manūr (s.v.) awraq, from wurqa, means an asmar or (dark) brown complexion.      

2. ‘Abd al-‘Uzzā b. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib and Descendants. More popularly known as Abū Lahab or “Father of the Flame” (d. 624), this was the uncle infamously hostile to the Prophet. He too was dalham “jet black” according to al-Jai and others. According to a report found in the Musnad of Imam Amad b. anbal (d. 855), Abū Lahab’s appearance was “luminous, with two braids; the most abya and the most handsome of the people (#16020).” Abya used here to describe Abū Lahab’s complexion does not mean white or fair-skinned. According to the Classical Arabic linguistic phenomenon called al-addad (“Opposites”), it means “black (aswad) but free of blemish (al-kalaf) and giving off a luminous glow (a-hintī al-lawn).”[8]

This is demonstrated further by the example of Abū Lahab’s great grandson, the seventh century CE Qurayshī poet, al-Fal b. al-‘Abbās (d. 714). Al-Fal himself and his mother, Amīna, were cousins of the Prophet.  Called al-Akhar al-Lahabī “The Flaming Black,” Al-Fal is well-known for both his blackness and his genealogical purity. He recited these famous words:

I am the black-skinned one (al-Akhar). I am well-known.
My complexion is black. I am from the noble house of the Arabs.[9]

This black-skinnedness of al-Fal is due to his Arab genealogy, not to some ‘negro admixture’ as some deniers would have us think. Ibn Manūr notes the opinion that al-Fal is al-Akhar or aswad al-jilda, ‘Black-skinned’, because he is from khāli al-‘arab, the pure Arabs, “because the color of most of the Arabs is dark (al-udma).”[10] Similarly Ibn Barrī (d. 1193) said: “He (al- Fal) means by this that his genealogy is pure and that he is a pure Arab (‘arabī maḥḍ) because Arabs describe their color as black (al-aswad).”[11] Thus, according to these Classical Arabic/Islamic scholars, al-Fal’s blackness (akhar) is the visual mark of his pure, Qurayshī background. This is the cousin to the Qurayshī prophet, Muhammad.

3. Al-‘Abbās b. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib and Descendants.  Al-‘Abbās (d. 652) is the patronym and root of the Banū ‘Abbās, after which the ‘Abbāsid dynasty was named. He was a dalham uncle of the Prophet and fathered an important first cousin of the Prophet also noted for his deep blackness: ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās (d. 687), famed for being Tarjuman al-Qur’an, “THE Interpreter of the Qur’an.” Al-Jāi describes him as “very black and tall.” The Syrian scholar and historian al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) too reported that ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās and his son, ‘Alī b. ‘Abd Allāh, were “very dark-skinned.”[12] When al-Dhahabī reports also that ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās “was abya, imbued with sufra (yellowish black), tall and bulky, handsome,”[13] we know there is no contradiction here. Abya as a human complexion means “black (aswad) but free of blemish (al-kalaf) and giving off a luminous glow (a-hintī al-lawn).”

4. Abū ālib b. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib and Descendants. Abū ālib (d. 619), brother of the Prophet’s father ‘Abd Allāh and stalwart of the Prophet until his death in 619, was dalham or jet black like his brother.  Al-Jāi confirms further that “those of Abū ālib’s family, who are the most noble (genealogically pure) of men, are black (sūd).” This fact is further confirmed for Abū ālib’s famous son, ‘Alī b. Abū ālib (d. 661), the first cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and also the father of the Prophet’s only grandsons al-Hasan and al-Husayn.  ‘Alī, the fourth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (Khulafā’ Rāshidūn) is the central figure of Shiite Islam. For the latter, ‘Alī is considered the first Imam and he and his descendants are considered the legitimate successors of the Prophet. That ‘Alī b. Abū ālib was a black-skinned Arab is pointed out by al-Suyūī, who describes him as “husky, bald…pot-bellied, large-bearded…and jet-black (ādam shadīd al-udma).”[14] ‘Alī’s own son, Abū 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.”[15] ‘Alī’s descendents, the sharīfs/sayyids, were similarly described as black-skinned.[16] This ‘family blackness’ of Abū ālib is very significant for our discussion of the appearance of the Prophet because Abū ālib’s son Ja‘far, who is the elder brother of ‘Alī and is known as al-Hāshimī, “The Hāshimite.” Ja’far is “one of Muhammad’s kinsmen who most closely resembled him.”[17] Indeed, Muhammad himself is reported to have said to his black-skinned cousin: “You resemble me both in appearance and character (ashbahta khalqī wa khuluqī).”[18]      


Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allāh (d. 762), known also as al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (“The Pure Soul”), was a pure descendant of the Prophet himself through the latter’s daughter Fāimah, wife of ‘Alī b. Abū ālib.  Al-Nafs al-Zakiyya “prided himself on being a Qurayshi of pure lineage…[with] a pure descent from the Prophet,”[19]and could boast: “I am at the very center of the Banū Hāshim’s (genealogical) lines. My paternity is purest among them, undiluted with non-Arab blood, and no concubines dispute over me.”[20] What did this pure Arab descendent of the pure Arab Prophet look like? “Muhammad (Al-Nafs al-Zakiyya) is described as tall and strong with very dark skin”.[21]  Indeed, al-Dhahabī describes him as “black-skinned and huge.”[22] But it is al-abarī’s description that is most informative:

“Muhammad (Al-Nafs al-Zakiyya) was black, exceedingly black, jet black (ādam shadīd al-udma adlam) and huge. He was nicknamed “Tar Face” (al-qārī) because of his black complexion (udmatihi), such that Abū Ja’far used to call him “Charcoal Face” (al-muammam).”[23]

Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya was a Qurayshī Arab whose pure lineage on both his father’s and his mother’s side put him “at the center” of the genealogical lines of the Banū Hāshim, the Prophet’s kinsfolk; indeed he was famously of pure descent from the Prophet himself. The fact that he was so black he was called ‘Tar face’ and ‘Charcoal face’ is of significance for our discussion of the ethnicity of the Prophet himself.

II.                 Maternal Blackness

Amīna bt. Wahb, the mother of the Prophet Muhammad, hailed from the Banū Zuhra, a black sub-clan of the black Quraysh tribe.[24]  Amīna is the daughter of Wahb b. ‘Abd Manāf b. Zuhra whose mother (Amīna’s grandmother) is said to be ‘Ātika bt. al-Awqa from the exceptionally black Banū Sulaym.[25] The black Sulaym are thus considered the maternal uncles of the prophet and he is therefore reported to have said: “I am the son of the many ‘Ātikas of Sulaym.”[26] In other words, Amīna’s paternal grandmother is from the black Sulaym tribe, and her grandfather ‘Abd Manāf was from the Zuhra tribe. Banū Zuhra tribesmen were frequently noted for their blackness, especially the maternal relatives of the Prophet Muhammad. See for example the famous Sa’d b. Abī Waqqās (d. 646), cousin of Amīna and uncle of the prophet Muhammad. He is described as very dark or black (ādam), tall and flat-nosed.[27] Muhammad, it should be noted, was quite proud of his uncle Sa’d. We are told that once Muhammad was sitting with some of his companions and Sa’d walked by. The prophet stopped and taunted: “That’s my uncle. Let any man show me his uncle.”[28] Relevant too is al-Aswad b. ‘Abd Yaghūth of the Banū Zuhra, Amīna’s nephew and thus the Prophet’s maternal cousin. He is called in later literature al-Aswad, “The Black,” because he was black-skinned (aswad al-lawn).[29]  

III.               Pan-Arab Blackness

Muhammad had more than just Qurayshī blackness running through his paternal veins as well. His great, great grandfather was ‘Abd Manāf who bore with ‘Ātika bt. Murra al-Sulaymī the prophet’s great grandfather āshim. That is to say that the prophet’s great, great grandmother was from the jet-black Banū Sulaym. āshim, the great grandfather, bore with Salmā bt. ‘Amrū ’l-Khazrajī the prophet’s grandfather, ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib. This means that his paternal great grandmother was from the black Medinese tribe Banū Khazraj.[30]

I will leave it to persons much smarter than I to tell us how a black-skinned Arab clan from a black-skinned Arab tribe can produce a family of black-skinned Arab uncles, cousins, father and mother, who in turn gave birth to a Caucasian or white skinned non-albino boy. 


[1] Robert F. Spencer, “The Arabian Matriarchate: An Old Controversy,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 8 (Winter, 1952) 488. See further Muhammad, Black Arabia, 173-178.
[2] Études sur le siècle des Omayyades (Beirut: Imprimerie Calholique, 1930) 44.
[3] Ibn Manūr, Lisān al-‘arab (Beirut: Dar al-Sadir - Dar al-Bayrut, 1955-1956) s.v. اخضر IV:245f; See also Edward William Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Williams & Norgate 1863) I: 756 s.v. خضر .
[4] Ibn Manūr, Lisān al-‘arab, s.v. اخضر IV:245.
[5] Al-Jāi, Fakhr al-sūdān ‘alā l-bidan, in Risa’il Al-Jahiz, 4 vols. (Cairo, 1964)  I:207. See also the English translation by T. Khalidi, “The Boast of the Blacks Over the Whites,” Islamic Quarterly 25 (1981): 3-26 (17). See further Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies (Muhammedanische Studien) 2 vols. (London, Allen & Unwin, 1967-), 1:268 who notes that, in contrast to the Persians who are described as red or light-skinned (ahmar) the Arabs call themselves black. 
[6] Apud Ibn Abī al-adīd, Shar nahj al-balāghah, V:56.
[7] Al-Jāi, Fakhr al-sūdān ‘alā l-bidan, I:209. 
[8] See Wesley Muhammad, “Abyad and the Black Arabs: Some Clarifications” @
[9] Ibn Manūr, Lisān al-‘arab, s.v. اخضر IV:245f.
[10] Ibn Manūr, Lisān al-‘arab,, s.v. اخضر IV:245; Lane, Arabic-English, I: 756 s.v. خضر .
[11] Ibn Manūr, Lisān al-‘arab, s.v. اخضر IV:245.
[12] Al-Dhahabī, Siyar a’lām al-nubalā (Beirut, 1992),V:253
[13] Al-Dhahabī, Siyar, III:336.
[14] Al-Suyūī, Tārikh al-khulafā, 134.
[15] Ibn Sa’d, al-abaqāt al-kubrā (Beirut: Dar Sādir) 8:25. On ‘Alī as short and dark brown see I.M.N. al-Jubouri, History of Islamic Philosophy – With View of Greek Philosophy and Early History of Islam (2004), 155; Philip K Hitti, History of the Arabs, 10th edition (London: Macmillan Education Ltd, 1970) 183.  
[16]Tariq Berry, Unknown Arabs; idem, Tariq Berry, “A True Description of the Prophet Mohamed's Family (SAWS),”
[17] EI2 2: 372 s.v. Dja’far b. Abī ālib by L. Veccia Vaglieri. 
[18] The Translation of the Meanings of aī Bukharī, Arabic-English, trans. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Medina: Islamic University, 1985) V:47.
[19] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “The Nature of Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya’s Mahdiship: A Study of Some Reports in Ibahānī’s Maqātil,” Hamdard Islamicus 13 (1990): 60-61.
[20] Quoted from al-abarī, The History of al-abarī, Vol. XXVIII: ‘Abbāsid Authority Affirmed, trans. annot. Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 167-68.
[21] EI2 7:389 s.v. Muammad b. ‘Abd Allāh by F. Buhl.
[22] Al-‘Ibar fī khabar man ghabar (Kuwait: Turath al-Arabi) 4:198.
[23] Al-abarī, Ta’rīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk, 10:203.
[24] See above. On the other hand, Caesar E. Farah suggests that Amīna’s tribal background is the Najjār clan of the Banū Khazraj, a tribe in Medina also noted for its blackness. See Caesar E. Farah, Islam 7th Edition (Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 2003) 37; Muhammad, Black Arabia, 178-179; Berry, Unknown, 68.
[25] Michael Lecker, The Banå Sulaym: A Contribution to the Study of Early Islam (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1989), 114. On the Banū Sulaym see further Muhammad, Black Arabia, 180-181.   
[26] Muhammad b. Yūsuf al-āliī al-Shāmī, Subul al-hudā wa-‘l-rashād fī sīrat khayr al-‘bād (Cairo, 1392/1972) I:384-85; Lecker, Banū Sulaym, 114-115.
[27] Al-Dhahabī, Siyar a’lām al-nubalā (Beirut, 1992), 1:97.
[28] On Sa’d b. Abī Waqqās see ‘Abd al-Ramān Rāfat al-Bāshā, uwar min ayāt al-aābah (Karachi: al-Maktabah al-Ghafūrīya al-‘Āimīyah, 1996 ) 285-292 (287); Berry, Unknown Arabs, 71-72.   
[29] Al-Dhahabī, Siyar, I:385-86.
[30] On the significance of these matrilateral listings in Muhammad’s genealogy see Daniel Martin Varisco, “Metaphors and Sacred History: The Genealogy of Muhammad and the Arab ‘Tribe’,” Anthropological Quarterly 68 (1995): 139-156, esp. 148-150.