Blasphemy Before God: the Darkness of Racism in Muslim Culture

Blasphemy Before God: the Darkness of Racism in Muslim Culture

by Adam Misbah al-Haqq

Islam is often spoken of as a universal faith that transcends culture and ethnicity. Imams will often sermonize on how Islam dispelled the darkness of racism and created a pluralistic and just society. However, beneath this carefully constructed cosmetic, beneath the layers of rhetoric, the Muslim community includes just as much bigotry and racism against people of African descent as in Western society itself.

It is the duty of all conscientious Muslims to speak out against the hypocrisies and contradictions that exist, especially when the integrity of one’s religious tradition is at stake. Legions of Muslims attack the contradictions of Western society with no mind to looking in their own backyard to realize that it is probably even more disorderly and messy. Needless to say, there are no sacred cows here; we must be honest and sincere with ourselves about our very real problems.

The roots of racism supported by religious doctrine in Islam can be found in a crucial feature of classic Muslim thought and the ideologies which resulted from it. Slavery in classic Muslim thought maintained that blacks became legitimate slaves by virtue of the color of their skin.

The justification of the early Muslim equation of blackness with servitude was found in the Genesis story so popularly called “the curse of Ham,” in reference to one of Noah’s sons. The biblical version depicts Noah getting drunk and lying uncovered in his tent. His younger son, Ham, saw his father’s nakedness and informed his other two brothers Shem and Japheth. These two walked backwards into their father’s tent, as to not see his nakedness and covered him with a garment. Noah awoke and upon hearing what had happened he cursed the descendants of Ham beginning with Ham’s son Canaan to be the slaves of the descendants of Shem and Japheth.

In this version of the myth, the curse fell upon Canaan, not any of Ham’s other sons. It is also important to note that Kush, one of Ham’s other sons, is projected by Jewish sources as being the ancestor of blacks. This story found its way into Arab-Muslim historiography and ethnology in a somewhat distorted manner that reflected the rise of racism in the new empire. All Arab-Muslim versions of the story portray Arabs as the descendants of Shem, the blacks (sometimes including the Copts, Berbers and the Sindh of India, or basically anyone they didn’t like) as the descendants of Ham, with most assigning the Turks and Slavs to Noah’s other son Japheth. In the Arab-Muslim version, blacks are cursed to be slaves and menials, Arabs are blessed to be prophets and nobles, while Turks and Slavs are destined to be kings and tyrants.

Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah al-Kisa’i’s book ‘Tales of the Prophets’ (Qisas al-anbiyâ), written in the 6th century AH, is a collection of mythological narratives based on prophetic reports (hadîth) of various levels of authenticity and on Arabian and Hebrew folklore which sought to elaborate on the stories of the Prophets mentioned in passing in the Qur’an. Al-Kisa’i was not the first to write a book about the stories of the Prophets. In fact there were many which preceded him, but al-Kisa’i’s work is the most known and most cited of this genre, and his entire manuscript is intact, whereas only copies or fragments remain of other. Al-Kisa’i’s book is a collection of mythologies based largely upon the narrations of two individuals who were converts from Judaism, ‘Abdullah ibn Salâm (d. 663 AH) and Ka’b al-Ahbâr (d. 652 AH). They provide the link to the biblical tale of Noah, his sons and the curse of Ham entering into the collectivity of Muslim thought and doctrine.

Al-Kisa’i writes in his chapter on Noah:

It is said that one day Noah came to his son and said, “My son, I have not slept since I boarded the ark, and now I desire to sleep my fill.” So saying, he put his head on Shem’s lap and went to sleep. Suddenly a gust of wind uncovered Noah’s genitals; Ham laughed, but Shem jumped up and covered him. When Noah awoke he said, “What was that laughter?” Shem told him what had happened, and Noah grew angry with Ham. “Do you laugh at your father’s genitals?” he said. “May God change your complexion and may your face turn black!” And that very instant his face did turn black. Turning to Shem, he said, “You covered your father: may God shield you from harm in this world and have mercy upon you in the next! May He make prophets and nobles of your progeny! May He make bondswomen and slaves of Ham’s progeny until the Day of Resurrection! May He make tyrants, kings and emperors of Japheth’s progeny!” And God knows best.

This provides the theological justification for racism in early Muslim society. It is commonly assumed that the genre of “stories of the prophets” didn’t have much of an effect on scholars and jurists. However, the famous Al-Tabari, for example, cites no less than six Prophetic traditions which seek to support this story. One tradition reads:

Ham begat all those who are black and curly-haired, while Japheth begat those who are full faced with small eyes, and Shem begat everyone who is handsome of face [Arabs of course] with beautiful hair. Noah prayed that the hair of Ham’s descendants would not grow past their ears, and wherever his descendants met the children of Shem, the latter would enslave them.

Ahmad Ibn Hanbal reported a saying attributed to the Prophet which in effect states that God created the white race (dhurriyyah baydâ) from the right shoulder of Adam and created the black race (dhurriyyah sawdâ) from Adam’s left shoulder. Those of Adam’s right shoulder would enter Paradise and those of the left, Perdition. Other equally racist sayings have been attributed to the Prophet in the traditions. Contradicintg this spirit, there are the sayings of the Prophet which equate the value of a person to his God-consciousness (taqwa), and to their piety without any regard to the tribal or ethnocentric concerns of a racist purport.

The content of such reports, like similar reports degrading women, must be examined and exposed for what they are, but these reports indicate to the mentality which sought to overthrow the seemingly egalitarian nature of the early Muslim community in exchange for the more deeply rooted tradition of tribal affinities, patriarchy and racial bigotry.

The Story of Ham as a Basis for a New Empire’s Racism

The fabled curse of Ham emerged at an opportune moment for the new empire, for it facilitated cheap labor and the famous Arab raiding parties who tore through the African country with fierceness and terror that would cause even the hardest of stomachs to turn. We have in various historical reports instances of villages being attacked at night, the “non-believing” blacks being rounded up and enslaved, forced marches which claimed millions of lives due to malnourishment and the abuses of the captors. Slaves were forced to carry heavy ivory, and women were saddled with children and other goods, all of which belonged to their Muslim captors. We will return to the slave trade itself, but we must put a historical context on why the “curse of Ham” was so important to the early ethnology and religious doctrine of the Arab-Muslims and their imperial power grab.

In 889 AH, Ibn Qutaybah wrote that “Ham, son of Noah, was light-skinned and handsome. Then God Most High changed his complexion and that of his progeny [into black] because of the curse [invoked by] his father.” Elsewhere, he states, “They are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country. The heat overcooks them in the womb, and curls their hair.” Thus the biblical curse that originally fell on Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, in the Arab-Muslim version of the myth, falls on Ham himself, whose descendants are not only cursed with servitude but also with the change of their color from light-skinned to black. We find many similar comments and statements in early and medieval Muslim sources which link the curse of Ham and the servile condition. It didn’t take long for the African to be reduced to a simile for slave labor, decreed by God, due to the anger of Noah and the curse he invoked.

As the empire grew so did the resentment for those of African descent in Arab society. Before and during the life of the Prophet, the Habashi or Abyssinians were looked upon favorably, and the Prophet even sent a caravan of his followers to Abyssinia for refuge from persecution. This favorable light didn’t last long after Abyssinia fell to the Muslims and the roles of empire and subject were reversed. Within 100 years of empire, the Muslim elite became increasingly arrogant and exclusivist toward non-Muslims and the ‘other’ in general. From racist Arab poetry and proverbs to spurious sayings attributed to the Prophet himself, racist tendencies became more and more common and eventually made their way into the social doctrines of Muslim societies to justify and legitimize religiously the idea that blacks and slaves were interchangeable words.

African Muslim jurists dealt with racist traditions and the attitudes which created and were supported by them by questioning their authenticity and insisting that they do not represent the teachings of the Prophet. The famous jurist Al-Jahiz, in his book, The Boast of the Blacks over the Whites, employs the same ethnocentric premises employed by the very racists he was addressing. Most African Muslims however rejected their black heritage altogether and adopted the seemingly superior Arab customs and attitudes characterized in Arab-Islamic tradition. In so doing, they also neglected their own wisdom traditions, deeming their history to be that of a cursed people. African Muslims sought to distance themselves from their pre-Islamic heritage by drawing sharp distinctions between themselves and their non-Muslim fellow Africans. The African jurist Ahmed Baba, for example, defends the chattel slavery by stating, “The Sudanese non-believers are like other non-believers whether they are Christians, Jews, Persians, Berbers, or any others who stick to non-belief and do not embrace Islam… there is no difference between all the non-believers in this respect. Whoever is captured in the condition of non-belief, it is legal to enslave him, whoever he might be, but not he who has converted to Islam voluntarily, from the beginning.”

Some of this can be attributed to Muslim geographers and travelers who ventured into Africa for various reasons and wrote about what they experienced. They emphasized nudity, paganism, cannibalism, and the primitive life of the black peoples in their writings to the extent that those who read them could not be blamed for fearing and loathing them. As Maqdisi wrote, “There is no marriage among them [genealogy or nasab being an issue of incredible importance to Arab-Muslims in particular]; the child does not know his father, and they eat human flesh—but God knows best. As for the Zanji, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.”

Similarly, studies on the image of blacks in medieval Persian literature reveal that in both Arab and Persian writings, blacks are depicted as stupid, untruthful, vicious, sexually unbridled, ugly and distorted, excessively merry, and easily affected by music or drink. Nasir al-Din Tusi (d.1274 CE), a famous Iranian philosopher, wrote: “If various kinds of men are taken and one placed after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the South-most countries, the Negro does not differ from the animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth, except for what God wishes. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more intelligent.”

Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406CE) added that blacks are “only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings.” The reason for their characteristic “levity, excitability, and great emotionalism,” according to Ibn Khaldun, is “due to the expansion and diffusion of the animal spirit” in them. Ibn Khaldun disagrees with the mythological curse of Ham and attributes their “deficiencies” to the climate of Africa and their being “overcooked in the womb.” Other renowned Muslim thinkers, such as Sa’id al-Andalusi (d. 1070CE) wrote that blacks are “More like animals than men,” and that “the rule of virtue and stability in judgment” is lacking amongst them, such noble qualities being replaced by “foolishness and ignorance.” Even such luminaries as Ibn Sina considered blacks to be “people who are by their very nature slaves.”

In time, certain conventional descriptions emerged which became general stereotypes for all of the various ethnic groups that Muslims encountered. For instance, the Arabs had generosity and courage; Persians, statecraft and civility; Greeks, philosophers and artists; Indians, magicians and conjurers; while the Chinese were the makers of furniture and gadgets. Blacks were hardworking and somewhat simple but gifted with exuberance and a sense of rhythm. Turks were impetuous fighting men. With only minor changes to these categorizations these became standard in the discussions of the various ethnic groups both within and without the polity of Islam.

The African Slave Trade in the Muslim World

To further understand how racist philosophy made its way into the thinking of Muslims right up to today, we need to examine the African slave trade as it took place in the Muslim world. It is important to note that in classic Sunni thought, kufr was, according to the doctrine of jihad as it was codified and crystallized under the expanding empire of Islam, synonymous with servitude. After all the traditional Muslim ideology of slavery is closely linked to the doctrine of military jihad. The creation or resurgence of the mythology of Ham also made dark-skinned people synonymous with servitude in light-skinned Muslim thinking. This went so far that eventually the term abd (slave) went through a semantic development and came to specifically refer to “black slave” while light-skinned slaves were referred to as mamluks. And further on in later usage, the Arabic word abd came to mean ‘black man’ of whatever status.

The African slave trade in the Muslim world may be compared with that of the West only to the extent that Muslims gave it scriptural legitimacy. The comparison fades when measured against the brutality of Western, particularly American, slavery.

Yet, even the scriptural legitimacy is limited. In classic Islamic interpretations, it is common for the interpreter to divorce the Qur’an from its social-historical context and to interpret it according to contemporary social and linguistic developments.

It is important to distinguish between two forms of slavery: the one mentioned in the Qur’an, defined as domestic or economic slavery, and chattel slavery. The distinction is critical since slavery takes on many guises depending upon the extent of the development, infrastructure and the political clout of a particular nation has.

Whether it be sweatshops in China, or wage slavery in Mexico or elsewhere, slavery is something that human beings have never been able to avoid. Even the United States, which held one of the most abusive slave institutions in recent history, continues to profit heavily from slave labor in various countries. The Qur’an deals with its own form of slavery—a form based upon the system of guardianship whereby an individual who has no tribe to protect them and provide for them will enter into a contract of slavery to a particular master in exchange for upkeep and provisions.

Although the Qur’an doesn’t prohibit slavery, it does make it clear that slavery is not the ideal relationship between people of higher and lower economic standing and that the moral trajectory would ultimately result in its abolition.

Many of the Muslims who followed the first generation, however, did not see it this way, and before long the institution was transformed to what can be termed as pure chattel slavery, where the slave was owned without any concern for their own autonomy or rights. The emergence of the four ‘orthodox’ schools of law in Islam further crystallized this relationship between slave and master by giving the master certain rights which would even allow them to circumvent limitations imposed upon them by the Prophet himself. Having transformed the very definition of slavery, and backed by the shari’a which permitted the taking of free men as slaves, provided they were non-Muslims, allowed for some of the most brutal conquests of Africa that land has ever known. Because Muslims were unable to see any qualitative value in African culture, expression and society and because they couldn’t contend with alternative forms of religion and their own superficial claims to having exclusive possession of the truth (a claim which the Qur’an itself quite astonishingly refutes), the pillaging and exploitation of African people continued for centuries.

No one knows how many Africans were sold into slavery throughout the Middle East, but it is fair to put it at a level higher than that of the Americas because of the length of time during which it was practiced. Islam is certainly tainted with over a millennium of illegal slave trade. Illegal because it was made “legal” only by the redefining of slavery as it existed and was tolerated during the life of the Prophet, and because the doctrine which serviced the ideology of slavery in Muslim thought is a blasphemy before God, who defines Himself as the Just.

One of the most tragic facts is that Mecca, the geographic heart of the Muslim community, was one of the largest slave markets in the Muslim world all the way up until the Twentieth Century when the standards of the international community, championed by the West, came to inform Muslims that chattel slavery is a violation against dignity, humanity and their own standing in global affairs. We find in historical sources that slaves were being captured in East Africa and being taken to Mecca for sale during the pilgrimage. From there they were distributed all over the world. It was a custom for pilgrims to buy, sell and trade slaves while fulfilling their fifth pillar and this went on to the extent that the term “slave market” and the name of the city of Mecca became synonymous. Many unsuspecting free people were taken on the pilgrimage by high-ranking Muslims and sold or arrested on trumped up charges, ultimately ending up as victims of the notorious Meccan slave trade. In fact, slaves have been reported as being sold as late as 1960 in Saudi Arabia, and many more cases are reported in Sudan.

Sudan is of particular interest because the Muslim North and the non-Muslim South have been engaged in civil war for 20 years as a direct result of the dark-skinned Arabs of Northern Sudan and their long history of enslaving and displacing their non-Muslim brothers to the South and selling them in the Middle Eastern slave markets. Here Arabs don’t deserve all the blame, since there are plenty of studies which prove that African themselves were also engaging is slave raids and that after the conversion of some powerful African tribes to Islam they carried out ‘jihads’ against their former tribal enemies, this time backed by religious legitimacy.

Breaking the Curse of Ham

Racism remains a powerful force in both the East, Mid-East and the West, and this history is intended to shed light on the origins of racist philosophy as it is hard-wired in the psychology of those who inherit this evil from their parents and society. I have personally been in gatherings where immigrant Muslims glowing with supposed piety and reserve feel that they can relate to me by slandering blacks, either because I myself am white or because it distances them from the immigrant experience of inferiority. It is best not to be the lowest man on the totem pole.

After the events of 9/11 and the Islamophobia which is now taking the West by storm, many formerly racist Arabs or Indo-Pakistanis have gotten a good dose of what it is like to be persecuted because of one’s ethnicity. In today’s America, as defined by the corporate media and popular culture, people of African descent are even more trusted than those of Middle Eastern descent.

It is tragic that Muslims entertain these racist and ethnocentric ideas to begin with. The cultural barriers between Africans, Arabs, Europeans, Indians, Chinese, whatever are real, and we sometimes have conflicting needs and goals in life. The problem here is that we are not taking Islam seriously enough to break with clearly evil traditions of regarding each other.

Do we really want an “Islam” which is divided into inferior and superior races based upon the irrelevancy of where the Prophet came from? Granted, the Prophet was an Arab, but an argument could be constructed, if ethnocentrism was our goal, to say that God sent the Prophet amongst the Arabs because they were the most barbarous and ignorant of people. Anyway we construct the discourse, when we allow ethnocentric tones to dilute it we do violence to the message and we neglect our dignity and humanity as God’s vicegerents.

To break traditions which contradict a normative reading of the Qur’an is certainly meritorious if not obligatory. To break this supposed Curse of Ham is a jihad worth engaging because Islam, in its global sense, needs to regain some moral high ground in an era of suicide bombings, terrorism, authoritarianism, despotism, and retrogression.

If this embattled and fractured global community we call the umma is to command any moral or ethical standard at all, then it must begin with the essentials of equality. Unity is essential to a worldview based on the Qur’anic doctrine of Divine Unity (tawhîd), and unity must begin with the recognition of equality and the emphasis on similarities as opposed to differences. We must not allow our different guises, needs and expressions to become differences between each other. The failure of our community to lead the world in moral standards can be linked to the decree of God that we, as Muslims, have failed to maintain egalitarian standards of equality. This may be the reason why we are reviled and hated, attacked and scorned, all over the world.

If some Muslims think this means we are on the right track and that our religion requires us to be fought and hated, they are following a different religion than that taught by our Prophet and that which is mentioned in the Qur’an. It is true that the wicked will fight against Truth, but what happens when we become the wicked, still believing that we carry Truth? Or does the fact that we carry Truth remove from us the liabilities of our actions?

The Qur’an maintains that humans bring upon themselves their own suffering. Nothing has brought on the suffering of the umma more than our lack of unity, which is a result of our inequality and our lack of appreciation for our differences.

As the Qur’an maintains: “O People! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” (Qur’an 49:13)

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Originally published at and reprinted in The American Muslim with permission.