“The myth of Islamic racial innocence was a Western creation and served a Western purpose”

The title of this post is a quotation from the prominent scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis. When discussing Lewis’s position on “the myth of Islamic racial innocence” (1990:101) or the “myth of Muslim freedom from racial prejudice” (1971:102 cf. Lange, 2007:9)[1], it is necessary to clarify that his purpose is not “to try and set up a moral competition […with the West, but] rather to refute the claims both of exclusive virtue and exclusive vice, and to point to certain common failings of our common humanity” (1971:102). Following in Lewis’s stead, this post is merely intended as an attempt to assess Lewis’s conclusion on the basis of available evidence. A brief exposition on the crucial terms “race”, “Islam”, and the related issue of slavery is followed by discussion on specific instances in the Qur’an, the Hadith and Islamic traditions, Islamic legal thought, and wider practice in the Islamic world. Although a major part of Lewis’s thesis is the Western construct and purpose notion[2], it would be impossible, in a simple blog post, to do justice to the umpteen issues involved in the history of race and the West. Therefore, this issue shall be considered only in passing, with the bulk of discussion focussing on the supposed construction of Islamic “racial innocence”. Whilst in many, if not all cases discussed, the issues involved grew out of multifarious circumstances (Prentiss, 2003b:2), I am concerned solely with the interaction of Islam with racial prejudice – positive or negative, intentional or unintentional – and it is not within my purview to assign ultimate responsibility or blame.

Due to various events throughout recent history, it is unsurprising that “race” should be a controversial topic within academia. In fact, the term has virtually been abandoned in academic discourse over the past forty years, in favour of the term “ethnicity” (Prentiss, 2003b:6; Jones, 1997:40). Prentiss traces the first usage of “ethnicity” to “a 1941 sociological study” where it served “as an alternative to “race” in [the] attempt to describe social groups that came from different national backgrounds but shared cultural similarities” (2003b:6). In principle, the usage of this term has since fulfilled a similar function, referring to various distinctive cultural identifiers – “lingual, ancestral, regional, religious, and so on” (Tamimi, 2003:168 cf. Malik, 1997:172; Jones, 1997:45). The main reason for the abandonment of “race” was the realisation that generalised characteristics of specific groups are not the result of genetic or physical transmission, but the influence of surrounding society and culture (Jones, 1997:45 cf. Prentiss, 2003b:7; Sundiata, 1978:2). However, physical characteristics, including skin colour (Tamimi, 2003:168), inevitably play a part in the emic and etic (insider and outsider) application of ethnic labels. Thus, the concept of ethnicity, whilst seeking to avoid reducing social groupings to physical (“racial”) differences, inevitably incorporates biology into its wider cultural typologies. Bernard Lewis acknowledges this difficulty and explains that his discussion will focus on “Muslim attitudes on ethnicity, race, and colour” (1990:20), clearly indicating that this wide ranging interpretation of “race” should be employed in this analysis.

The term “Islamic” is also more multi-faceted than would first appear, and raises two key issues. Firstly, and quite simply, a Muslim “race” does not exist. Whiethe Arab peoples are often associated with Islam, with “many non-Arab Muslims […assuming that] an Arab is […] a Muslim by definition” (Tamimi, 2003:169), the key point here is the very existence of non-Arab Muslims. Arabs predate Islam; and there is nothing contradictory in the designation of Arab Christians or Arab Jews (ibid:169, 171). Thus, a discussion on Islamic racial innocence is not the same as a discussion on Arab racial innocence, although the two often became practically synonymous (see below).

Secondly, a frequently encountered issue is that “Islamic” can be understood in many different senses (cf. Masood, 2009:ix-x). Even if a “monolithic Islam” existed (Sundiata, 1978:2), the term “Islamic” could relate to one of four distinct things: the religion taught by Muhammad and embodied in the Qur’an (Lewis, 1990:20); “the subsequent development of this religion through tradition”[3] (ibid); the related area of the Shari’a[4]; and the practice of “Islamic civilisation as known to us in history” (ibid). Therefore, discussion shall consider each of these four areas, reflecting on the racial and ethnic relationships portrayed within a multi-ethnic Islam.

A final slight digression on the issue of slavery is necessary before the main discussion can get underway. Even though Muslim societies utilised slaves from many different ethnic and geographical backgrounds (Lewis, 1990:11; Toledano, 2002:65; Hunwick, 1992:7), and engagement in the slave trade was not unusual for the time (Lewis, 1990:5), it is unfortunate that “in most Muslim societies […] slavery was closely associated with […] darkness of skin” (Toledano, 2002:64 cf. Hourani, 1991:117; Lewis, 1990:41). Thus, at each stage in this discussion, additional race-related issues surrounding slavery merit consideration.

Turning first to the Qur’an, Lewis believes it clear “that the Qur’an expresses no racial or colour prejudice” (1971:7) – a position which, on surveying the Qur’an and secondary literature, appears sound. “The Qur’an considers all peoples as “one nation”” (Rubin, 2004:337) – God created all humanity “from a single person” (Q4:1 cf. Tamimi, 2003:176), Muhammad’s mission was not confined to one ethnic group (Rubin, 2004:337 cf. Q34:28) and God’s glory is demonstrated by the diversity of languages and colours (Q30:22 cf. Lewis, 1971:7; Rubin, 2004:336). Although racial prejudice may lurk in eschatological images of the black faces of sinners in Hell (Lange, 2007:1,9 cf. Q3:106; 39:60), no explicit connection is made between blackness in this world and punishment in the next[5]. In fact, Lewis suggests that these references simply reflect a common linguistic idiom, shared with many black African societies, “associating whiteness with joy and goodness, blackness with suffering and evil” (1971:101). However, Lewis additionally makes the sweeping statement that the “Qur’an does not even reveal any awareness of [racial or colour] prejudice” (1971:7), based upon only two cited verses (Q30:22, 49:13). Azzam Tamimi adopts a contrasting position, declaring that verses such as Q7:28-29 and 43:22-24 seek to discredit ancestral pride and that “until this [injunction…], the Arabs had been discriminating against non-Arabs […and] the coloured” (2003:174-176). Although Tamimi’s position is confessional (Prentiss, 2003a:238), and although Lewis would dismiss this argument as evidence of an awareness of social rather than racial discrimination (cf. 1971:7), his failure to engage more fully with this opposing position indicates that whist it is appropriate to conclude that the Qur’an expresses no racial prejudice, its dearth of opposing material is called into question by indications of an awareness of such prejudice.

On the related issue of slaves, the Qur’an appears silent regarding their ethnicity or the reasons for their enslavement, “but assumes the existence of the institution of slavery and enunciates precepts aimed at mitigating the condition and encourages manumission” (Hunwick, 1992:6 cf. Lewis, 1990:6; Brockopp). As the  Arabs of Qur’anic times would have utilised non-Arab slaves, the positive references to their humanity and feelings (Q2:221; 4:25; 39:29; 92 cf. Brockopp) at least indicate an improvement in the treatment of people of different ethnicities (cf. Lewis, 1990:6).

It is upon examination of issues concerning race in the traditions attributed to the Prophet, his Companions, and important religious figures that evidence of racial prejudice begins to come to the fore. “When [the Ethiopian] is hungry he steals, when he is sated he fornicates”[6] (ibid:34); “God has decreed that the most devout is the noblest, even if he be a Negress’s bastard” (ibid:35)[7]; or “[the Zanj] are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country” (1971:33)[8] are but a few examples.. Whilst Lewis labels some of these as undoubtedly spurious (1990:34), the same could equally be said about the unreferenced “Prophetic Tradition”, “an Arab is no better than a non-Arab, a white is no better than a black and a red is no better than a yellow” (Tamimi, 2003:176). Lewis acknowledges that the “general purport” of accepted traditions on race “deplore[s] racial prejudice and […insists] on the primacy of piety” (1990:34), however the very existence of traditions which contradict this overriding thrust “leaves them as important evidence on the development of [contemporaneous…] attitudes”, widespread or not (ibid:34).

Whilst these traditions present varying degrees of racial prejudice, and received varying acceptance, a pervasive traditional classification of ethnicities derives from the biblical account of Noah and his three sons in Genesis 9:18-27 (Lewis, 1990:44-45, 55; Schroeter, 1992:202; Sundiata, 1978:4; Lange, 2007:9). Following an incident where Ham dishonoured his father, he and his descendents were cursed with blackness: “May God change your complexion and may your face turn black!”[9] (Lange, 2007:9 cf. Brinner). In an alternative version, Ham is cursed for disobeying “the prohibition of intercourse while on the ark” (ibid). Regardless of which version of the tradition is correct, and the fact that it was “transmitted to the Muslims by Jews and Christians” (Lewis, 1990:44) and by no means universally accepted (Lewis, 1971:67), Lewis asserts that much early Arabic historical literature agrees on the Hamitic origins of black Africans (1990:44-45). The true import of this tradition shall be seen below, though it is obvious that a prophetic curse of blackness of skin has the potential to foster racial prejudice. That such prejudice should be justified in the “Christian” West until comparatively recently (cf. Ter Haar, 1998:155; Prentiss, 2003b:9) gives credence to the suggestion that Islamic tradition may not always have kept to the spirit of the Qur’an.

A similar spread of attitudes can be seen in traditions relating to slavery and race. Ibn Khaldun (twelfth century) states “The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity” (Lewis, 1971:38). This correlates with the common expansion upon the ethnology of Ham – that blacks were also condemned to slavery (Schroeter, 1992:202; Lange, 2007:9; Lewis, 1971:66-67; 1990:45). However, as mentioned above, these arguments were not exclusively applied to black Africans – Avicenna (980-1037) was of the opinion that God had provided many peoples who “were by their very nature slaves” (Lewis, 1971:29); and Lewis reports that whilst slaves were undoubtedly “inferior”, “the black slave was no worse than the white” (1990:25). Therefore, it can be concluded that Islamic traditions do display an attitude equating race (whether general or particular) with slave status, although this may simply be a combination of the “need” for a supply of slaves and the human tendency to classify the “other”.

It is a commonly held view that Islam is a religion of dichotomies – Male/Female, Heaven/Hell, Muslim/non-Muslim – but on the question of race such a dichotomy does not exist, and legal discussion on matters of race generally occurs merely as a side-issue to discussion on marriage and slavery. Concerning marriage – “the only issue on which questions of race and colour became the concern of the law” (Lewis, 1971:90) – the key issue is miscegenation. “The voice of Islamic piety on miscegenation is clear and unequivocal – there are no superior and inferior races and therefore no bar to racial intermarriage” (Lewis, 1990:85). Although this utopian image finds backing at certain points in history (Sundiata, 1978:8), and although “the condemnation of racial discrimination in marriage predominates in religious and legal discussions (Lewis, 1990:88), Lewis contends that the pre-Islamic notion of Kafa’a – “roughly translated as equality of birth and social status in marriage” (ibid:85) – “survived into Islamic times and became part of the holy law of Islam” (ibid). Although Lewis is able to provide some examples of sayings attributed to the Prophet appearingto oppose miscegenation (cf. ibid:88), his acknowledgement of the “unequivocal” voice of piety indicates that this accommodation of un-Qur’anic notions was not universal and cannot be generalised to the position of “Islamic law”.

The Islamic legal position on slavery is much clearer in that “the law made distinctions only between slave and free and between Muslim and non-Muslim” (Hunwick, 1992:7 cf. Schroeter, 1992:202; Hourani, 1991:116; Lewis, 1971:67). The enslavement of Muslims was categorically forbidden, although the adoption of Islam after enslavement does not offer similar exemption (ibid). Paul Lovejoy acknowledges that “at times there was disagreement over whether [black] status in itself constituted unbelief” (2004b:6), however discussions on practice summarised below indicate that the law remained firm on this point – thus loyalty to a fellow believer transcended kinship and ethnicity (Moosa, 2004:242) and offered some protection from slavery.

Historical data on prevalent practices in Islamic civilisations is clearly where Lewis believes most of the material to support his thesis lies. However, this brief summary should indicate that there is plenty of material to support both sides of the argument. Lewis cites poetry written by black Muslims indicating their “suffering from insult and discrimination” and inferior status (1971:11 cf. 11-13), as well as books defending black peoples from insults and charges levelled against them (1990:32-33). He acknowledges, most tellingly, that even though non-Arab Muslims were considered legally and ‘religiously’ equal to their Arab counterparts, as the Islamic Empire expanded “non-Arab Muslims were regarded as inferior and subjected to a whole series of […] disabilities” (1971:23). This is evinced through insults (1971:25-26), texts such as The Thousand and One Nights (1990:19-20) and other literature (ibid:95), and generally “in the literature, the arts, and the folklore of the Muslim peoples” (ibid:20). But on the other hand, there are accounts “depicting a radically egalitarian society free from prejudice or discrimination” (1971:5), telling of the good reputation of the Ethiopians during the time of the Prophet (ibid:27), a Nubian eunuch who became regent of Egypt (ibid:78), and of the black eunuch custodians of the Prophet’s tomb at Mecca (1990:75). Geographical and chronological variations make generalisation impossible, but Lewis accurately summaries the situation when he states that “there is a sharp contrast between what Islam says and what Muslims – or at least some Muslims – do” (1990:20).

As was acknowledged above, Islamic law prohibited the enslavement of Muslims by Muslims. However, there is evidence that this prohibition was frequently ignored: the black king of Bornu complained to the sultan of Egypt (794AH) that although his people were free Muslims, they were being subjected to raiding and enslavement (Lewis, 1990:53); similar complaints from black jurists have been recorded (ibid:57), and there is evidence that such practise was prevalent during the jihads of the nineteenth century (Schroeter, 1992:202). There is also evidence of legal casuistry to avoid this prohibition, with Islamic rulers in Sudan deciding it was not in their interest to disrupt the flow of slaves by converting everyone to Islam (Mahadi, 1992:115), and of newly captured slaves being converted in order to increase the chances of sale (Hunwick, 2004:149). Regardless of the legality of their capture, there is evidence that white slaves were more expensive than black slaves (Lewis, 1990:56), and that black slaves were less likely to be used in the military (ibid:65) where they could not advance as far as their white counterparts (Lewis, 1971:78). The very existence of these (potentially isolated) incidents suggests that Islam either encourages racial prejudice, can be interpreted to suit opposing positions, or simply did not exert a strong enough influence on the ‘common man’.

From this discussion it is clear that Islam is not a heterogeneous entity that can be easily summarised regarding issues of race. Although a gross simplification, Islam in its more ‘official’ forms – the Qur’an and the Shari’a – exemplifies a generally positive or indifferent attitude to racial diversity and harmony, whilst the traditions and the popular practice of ‘Islamic’ cultures exemplify a much broader spectrum of attitudes and actions. The key point here is that Lewis is attacking the myth of total racial harmony in the Islamic world (1990:101), a myth which is demonstrably spurious. Whilst his aim not to engage in a moral competition between Islam and the West is commendable, he seemingly downplays racial harmony inherent in the fundamentals of Islam in order to push his Western purpose idea. No doubt missionary failure, chastisement of apartheid regimes, and feelings of imperial guilt and responsibility (ibid:101-102) have played a part in the Orientalist overemphasis of Islamic racial tolerance, however this acknowledgement should not prevent Islam’s merits being extolled. The fact that the Qur’an contains a bare minimum of material that could be construed in a racist manner, that Islamic law unequivocally forbade the enslavement of Muslims regardless of race, and that the Islamic Empire incorporated ethnicities from Europe, Africa and Asia within just a few centuries, imbues Islam, as a religion, with an inherent pluralist emphasis, notably underrepresented throughout Western history. Although Lewis is right in rubbishing the fallacy of complete racial innocence, and in acknowledging the discontinuity between Islam as a religion and how it is practiced in the world, by emphasising these points he risks misunderstanding and misrepresentation – exactly the failings he sought to avoid.

Bibliography:

1.    Brinner, William M., 2004. “Noah” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 3, pp. 540-543.

2.     Brockopp, Jonathan E., 2004. “Slaves and Slavery” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 5, pp. 56-60.

3.    Hourani, Albert, 1991. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Warner Books.

4.    Hunwick, J. O., 1992. “Black Slaves in the Mediterranean World: Introduction to a Neglected Aspect of the African Diaspora” in Elizabeth Savage (ed.) … pp. 5-38.

5.    Hunwick, John, 2004. “The Religious Practices of Black Slaves in the Mediterranean Islamic World” in Paul E. Lovejoy (ed.), Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener, pp. 149-172.

6.    Jones, Siân, 1997. The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing identities in the past and present. London: Routledge.

7.    Lange, Christian, 2007. ““On That Day When Faces Will Be White Or Black” (Q3:106): Towards a Semiology of the Face in the Arabo-Islamic Tradition” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 127:4 (2007), pp. 1-17.

8.    Lewis, Bernard, 1971 [1970]. Race and Color in Islam. New York/London: Harper & Row.

9.    Lewis, Bernard, 1990. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

10. Lovejoy, Paul E. (ed.), 2004a. Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener.

11. Lovejoy, Paul E., 2004b. “Slavery, the Bilad al-Sudan and the Frontiers of the African Diaspora” in Paul E. Lovejoy (ed.), Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener, pp. 1-30.

12. Mahadi, Abdullah, 1992. “The Aftermath of the Jihad in the Central Sudan as a Major Factor in the Volume of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century” in Elizabeth Savage (ed.), The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Frank Cass, pp. 111-128.

13. Malik, Iftikhar H., 1997. State and Civil Society in Pakistan: Politics of Authority, Ideology and Ethnicity. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

14. Masood, Ehsan, 2009. Science & Islam: A History. London: Icon Books.

15. Moosa, Ebrahim, 2004. “Loyalty” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 3, pp. 237-242.

16. Prentiss, Craig R. (ed.), 2003a. Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction. New York/London: New York University Press.

17. Prentiss, Craig R., 2003b. “Introduction” in Craig R. Prentiss (ed.), Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction. New York/London: New York University Press, pp. 1-12.

18. Rubin, Uri, 2004. “Races” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 4, pp. 336-7.

19. Savage, Elizabeth (ed.), 1992. The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Frank Cass.

20. Schroeter, Daniel J., 1992. “Slave Markets and Slavery in Moroccan Urban Society” in Elizabeth Savage (ed.), The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Frank Cass, pp. 185-213.

21. Sundiata, I. K., 1978. “Beyond Race and Color in Islam” in Journal of Ethnic Studies 6:1 (1978: Spring), pp. 1-23.

22. Tamimi, Azzam, 2003. “Islam, Arabs and Ethnicity” in Craig R. Prentiss (ed.), Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction. New York/London: New York University Press, pp. 167-180.

23. Ter Haar, Gerrie, 1998. “African Christians in the Netherlands”, in Gerrie Ter Haar (ed.) Strangers and Sojourners: Religious Communities in the Diaspora. Leuven: Peeters, 1998, pp. 153-171.

24. Toledano, Ehud R., 2002. “Representing the Slave’s Body in Ottoman Society” in Thomas Wiedemann & Jane Gardner (eds.), Representing the Body of the Slave. London: F. Cass, pp. 57-74.

25. Wiedemann, Thomas & Gardner, Jane (eds.), 2002. Representing the Body of the Slave. London: F. Cass.


[1] Where there is a clear reformulation of position, his later work is cited.

[2] Although in the context of his texts this is barely more than a footnote.

[3] “Tradition” in this context refers to non-Qur’anic written sayings and traditions, with the arbitrary chronological cut-off point of Napoleon’s entry to Egypt in 1798.

[4] Lewis includes Shari’a within “tradition” however, as shall be demonstrated, the Shari’a presents a distinct position meriting separate attention.

[5] See (Lange, 2007:2) for suggestions as to who these black-faced sinners were.

[6] Attributed to the Prophet.

[7] Ibn Hazm (994-1064), emphasis added.

[8] Ibn Qutayba (d. 889).

[9] Muhammad b. Abd Allah al-Kisa’i (11th century).

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

2 responses to ““The myth of Islamic racial innocence was a Western creation and served a Western purpose””

  1. obsidianfactory says :

    The Quran, Hadith and Our Prophet (P.B.U.H) always strive to establish harmony – Islam is a religion that loves diversity and thus none of Its Pillars will ever reflect racist thought.

    There are always misrepresentations concerning Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) in history and such so for a Man who is a Prophet with Such Love And Kindness it is ABSURD to think he would speak anything Vulgar and Useless about a particular race. He is considered the best of men thus allegations stating otherwise are obviously fabrications because in AUTHENTIC HISTORY HIS GREAT ATTRIBUTES ARE UNRIVALED AND JUST.

    When the first Muazzin Of Islam, Hazrat Bellal [Allah Almighty Bless Him] (The Man Who Calls Out The Azzan for Salah) was a Black Man and Was A Former Slave Freed By Our Prophet it is quite a contradiction that he would ever speak lowly of anyone of skin colour. In fact Our Prophet said himself that Hazrat Bellal had a good voice thus the honour of being a Muazzin was given to him. Thus Our Prophet WOULD NEVER SPEAK LOWLY ON ANY RACE, CASTE OR ANYTHING.

    The Islamic world have deviated a lot from many things because even if we look to other religions and Prophets it is hard for us regular humans to never do sin. Prophets and their followers all exhibit a great sense of struggle, discipline, love, perception, dexterity, talent and logic which is a great strain upon us.

    We must investigate more deeply to pluck out the weeds and make strong the roots so as Strength Knowledge And Wisdom will be Truthful and Just in its Right Place.

  2. religionandmore says :

    Thank you very much for your comments. Whilst there are obviously many of your confessional statements that I cannot comment on, I am glad that we seem in broad agreement, in essence at least. On all counts ‘Islam’ has a much better track record on issues of race than many other faiths (Christianity especially) and a lot of this strikes right back and the fundamentals and pillars of the faith. You will note that I keep ‘Islam’ in quotation marks, as we know that in all parts of the world and across all peoples there will always be those who believe themselves to be representative of a group, but who hold vastly different views, rightly or wrongly.

    Thank you so much for contributing to the discussion. C

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