Few people concern themselves with the race of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad Ibn Abdullah as they do with Jesus, a Hebrew who many regard as a God or a prophet. In fact, many African-centered people have no problem acquiescing that not only was Jesus Black, but the Hebrews of his day were also Black. Though many see Prophet Muhammad and the Arabs of his day as “Caucasians” who used their religion to enslave Africans and forcefully convert them to Islam.
Although this view is the predominant narrative, it is not in accord with the facts as presented by classical sources and academic research findings, which reveal that not only were the Prophet Muhammad and the Arabs Black, but there was also a deliberate attempt, as in the case of Jesus, to “Whiten” up the color of The Prophet of Islam and the Arabs of his day.
The Curious Case of Bilal
Many pedestrian readers of Islamic history see Bilal Ibn Rabah as an African slave who was mistreated by his Arab master Ummayah Ibn Khalaf. Bilal, they say, was the first Black convert to Islam. But Bilal was born in Arabia to an Ethiopian mother, Hamamah, and an Arab father, Rabah. Within Arabian society slave status was determined by the class of the mother, and since Hamamah was a slave, Bilal by default inherited that status even though his father was an Arab.
Indeed, every source describes Bilal as a Jet Black man who had “African” features. Baladhuri Ansab Al-asharef described Bilal as “Kana Adam shadid al-udma,” meaning, “He was black, excessively Black.” This is in line with all of the descriptions of Bilal in the classical Arabic sources.
How could a man who was the product of a union between a Black mother and a White Arab come out as “excessively Black?” Was Bilal’s father truly a White Arab, and was Bilal the first Black convert to Islam? Zayed Ibn Al-Haritha (d.629) accepted the call to Islam before Bilal and Tabari, Baladhuri Ansab Al-asharef, and Ibn Sad described Zayed Ibn Al-Haritha as “Shadid al-udma”—“Excessively Black.” Then there are those who argue that Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was the first convert to Islam.
Well, what do the classical sources say of Prophet’s cousin Ali? 1) In his Tarikh al-Khulafa, Al-Suyuti describes Ali Ibn Abi Talib as “husky, bald…..pot-bellied, large bearded and jet Black.” 2) Abu Jafar Muhammad says of Ali: “He was a Black skinned man with big heavy eyes, pot-bellied, bald and kind of short.” 3) Al-Jahiz, Fakhr al-sudan ala al-bidan says: “Those of Abu Talib’s family, who are the most noble of men, are more or less Black (sud).”
Even further, Bilal’s slave-master, Ummaya Ibn Khalaf, was a member of the Qurayshi tribe (which is the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad) and the clan Banu Jumah, a sub-lineage of the Qurayshi tribe. The popular narrative paints the picture of Bilal, the dark-skinned African, being mistreated by a White-skinned Arab master, and that this was a typical feature of classical Arab society.
However, Al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) described the Banu Jumah clan as also being “Shadid al-udma,” meaning “excessively Black.” Contrary to popular misconception, Bilal was enslaved by a fellow Black Arab, and this complexion of his master was typical of Arabs of that day.
The Prophet According To Classical Sources
In his book The Remedy Concerning the Determination of the Just Merits of the Chosen, the famous Andalusian scholar al-Qadi Iyad (d. 1149) wrote that: “Whoever says that the Prophet is black should be killed. The Prophet was not black.” These words reveal as much as they hide. For one, his words reveal his belief that the Prophet of Islam was not Black and also that quite a number of people disagreed with him. Al Qadi issued a “Fatwa” against such people.
Why did some people believe that the Prophet was Black and why did Al-Qadi exhibit such strong emotions against such a belief? The classical pre-modern Islamic sources are littered with statements from scholars and from the companions of the Prophet himself, declaring the color of the Arabs and the Prophet.
For instance, Al-Hasan b. Ahmad (d.1045), the great linguist and genealogist, was well known to be a pure Arab who took great pride in his Black complexion. In fact he was so proud of his color that he would often apply tar to his skin to justify his Arab heritage. He would also apply the same to his young son and have him sit outside in the sun to darken his complexion further. Some accounts suggest this is what eventually killed his son.
Further evidence comes from the great grandson of the Prophet himself, Muhammad b. Abd Allah (d. 762). He was related to the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and cousin Ali. Al-Tabari the famous 10th century historian and exegete wrote about Muhammad b. Adb Allah: “Muhammad (Al-Nafs al-Zakiyya) was black, exceedingly black, jet black (ādam shadīdal-udma adlam) and huge. He was nicknamed ‘Tar Face’ (al-qārī ) because of his dark complexion (udmatihi), such that Abu Ja’far used to call him ‘Charcoal Face’ (al-muhammam).”
Still other statements corroborate the notion that the Arabs and the Prophet were Black. Al-Mubarrad (d. 898), the leading figure in the Basran grammatical tradition, wrote: “The Arabs used to take pride in their (dark) brown and black complexion (al-sumra wa al-sawad), and they had a distaste for a white and fair complexion, and they used to say such was the complexion of the non-Arabs.” Finally, a poem from Abu Al-Hassan Ali Ibn al-Abbas (known as Ibn al-rumi d. 896) stated: “You (Abbasids) insulted (the family of the Prophet) because of their blackness while there are still deep black, pure-blooded Arabs. However, you are white-skinned – the Romans (Byzantines) have embellished your faces with their color.”
Are we to believe that Prophet Muhammad, a pure Arab, looked different from how all these sources described the Arabs?
How Did Black Arabs Become White Arabs of the 21st Century?
Al-Suyuti records the following Hadith: [The Messenger of God] said, “I dreamed that I drove before me some black sheep then I drove after them some white sheep, so that the black could not be seen among them.” And Abu Bakr said, “O apostle of God, as for the black sheep, they signified the Arabs who shall embrace the faith and increase in numbers, and the white sheep are the non-Arabs (ajam) who shall be converted until the Arabs shall not be seen among them by reason of their numbers.” The apostle of God replied, “Likewise did the angel interpret it this morning.”
For various reasons, the above Hadith is significant. It refers to the Arabs as Black sheep and the non-Arabs as White sheep and states that the latter would outnumber the former eventually. The Hadith aptly describes the process that led to the current ethnography of Arabia. To understand the forces that produced the prevailing ethnography of Arabia, one has to look to history for clues and direction.
Prophet Muhammad died in 632 A.D and was succeeded by the Caliph Abu Bakr, which gave birth to the Islamic political system of the Caliphate. Much of the work of Abu Bakr centered on strengthening the Muslim community and preventing the united tribes from falling back into “paganism.” After the death of Abu Bakr in 634 A.D, the Islamic community selected Umar to serve as the 2nd Caliph. Umar directed the armies of Islam towards Byzantine Syria and, in 636 A.D, the Arabs defeated the Byzantines in Syria, which fell under the hands of the Muslims. In the same year, the Muslim army conquered the Persians in the battle of Qadisiyyah. The Persian King fled the capital, which the Arabs besieged and conquered. It wasn’t long before the entire Persian Sassanid Empire was conquered, the Persian King was robbed and killed and the royal family fled to China. Killed in 644 A.D, Caliph Umar was succeeded by Caliph Uthman, a member of the Umayyad clan of the wider Qurayshi tribe. Upon the death of Uthman, Ali ascended the “throne” as Caliph. This divided the Islamic community giving birth to the present Sunni-Shii’te divide.
With the murder of Ali in 661 A.D, Muawiya, a member of the Umayyad clan, subdued Iraq and then formally established himself as caliph. He would go on to establish the Umayyad dynasty, the first dynastic Islamic administration. Under the Umayyad dynasty only pure Arabs could hold high positions, and this led to great dissatisfaction among the non-Arab converts (Mawali) to Islam especially the Persians, Byzantines and Turks. In 750 A.D the Umayyad dynasty fell to the Abbasids, who established the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbasid revolution, which is better termed the Persian revolution, saw an increase in the influence of Persian converts to Islam. This presence of Persians under the Abbasid dynasty would later change the ethnography and theology of Islam. These Persians took on the language, culture, religion and dress of the original Black Arabs. They became “Arabized” Persians. And this is how the Black Arabs under a Black Prophet Muhammad transformed into “White” Arabs.
Within this context, the words of Al-Qadi—“Whoever says The Prophet was Black should be killed”—gain meaning. At stake in the silent race war between the Arabs and the Persian converts was the leadership of the Islamic Ummah.
Moreover, in with this background, the words of Al-Rumi find greater appreciation: “You (Abbasids) insulted (the family of the Prophet) because of their blackness while there are still deep black, pure-blooded Arabs. However, you are white-skinned – the Romans (Byzantines) have embellished your faces with their color.”
The misunderstanding of facts has led many Pan-Africanists to dismiss the Prophet and his community as White foreigners who came to enslave Africans. Though this rendering of history, as demonstrated here, is palpably false.
As the record shows, the Prophet of Islam and his early community were, indeed, Black.