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Islamic Views of Ethnicity and Race


The Koran makes only passing reference to racial or ethnic categories. One verse refers to "the variety of your tongues and hues" as one of the many signs of God's divine power (30:22). Another proclaims the primacy of piety over racial or tribal distinction: "O mankind, we have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most godfearing of you" (49:13). Revealed to a largely homogeneous Arab ethnic community, explicit ethnic or racial stratification and prejudice are absent from the Koran. The most fundamental category of differentiation and identification in Islam's sacred scripture is that of religion, of the new community of Muslims as "the best community [ umma ] ever brought forth to men" (3:106), and hence as the central focus of loyalty and affiliation for a believer.

As the Muslim community expanded beyond the confines of the Arabian peninsula and over time incorporated numerous ethnic and racial groups, both an awareness of ethnic distinctions and a sense of racial hierarchies developed. The sunna, the voluminous body of normative sayings and practices (hadith) collected by pious Muslims in the early Islamic centuries and attributed (sometimes erroneously) to the Prophet Muhammad, contain sayings both asserting Arab ethnic supremacy within Islam ("If the Arabs are humbled, Islam is humbled") and challenging Arab precedence within the umma ("The people with the greatest share in Islam are the Persians"). Other hadith of the early centuries alternatively give voice to a sentiment of the superiority of white over black ("beware of the Zanji [black], for he is a distorted creature"), and declare the irrelevance of color in the eyes of God ("in Paradise the whiteness of the Ethiopian will be seen over a stretch of a thousand years"). Still others insist on the universality of Islam, as in the Prophet's saying "I was sent to the red and the black," a hadith interpreted to mean that the message of Islam was intended to encompass all humanity.

The heterogeneity of the sunna notwithstanding, in religious writings the dominant normative view echoed the Koran's insistence that religiosity took precedence over ethnic or racial background. As the thirteenth-century commentator Abd Allah Baydawi (d. 1292 or 1293) stated the prevailing theological position, "we have created every one of you by means of a father and mother. All are equal in this and there is no reason therefore for boasting of one's lineage.… [L]et him who desires honour seek it in piety" (Levy, p. 55). The most important practical implication of this assertion of the primacy of religious affiliation lay in the central discipline of Islamic law, which made no legal distinctions based on ethnicity or race. This was particularly relevant in regard to slavery, where the law made no presumption of slavery being linked to race and forbade the enslavement of free Muslims regardless of ethnic origin. Slavery was never indelibly associated with color in the Muslim world, as came to be the case in the Western world.

If Islamic theology and law were color-blind, Muslims were not. There is a considerable body of what can be termed ethnographic literature written by Muslims, in which Muslim geographers and others describe the physical characteristics and the moral qualities of different ethnic and racial populations. Reflecting the increasing diversity of Muslim society as time progressed, ethnic and racial hierarchies were a contested issue in this literature. Where one author would assert the supremacy of Arab over Persian or black over white, another would defend the virtues of the group in question. A common ethnographic schema was one privileging neither black nor white, but the "brown" people of the Middle East. For the tenth-century author Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Hamadhani ibn al-Faqih (writing in 902/903), the "pale brown color" of the people of Iraq was "the most apt and proper color." Unlike the Slavs of the north, with their "blond, buff, blanched and leprous coloring," or the Zanj and Ethiopians of the south, "black, murky, malodorous, stinking, and crinkly-haired," "the Iraqis are neither half-baked dough nor burned crust, but between the two" (Lewis, 1974, vol. 2, p. 209). For many medieval Muslims, brown was beautiful.

Within the umma itself, ethnic stereotyping, ranking, and snobbery sometimes undercut the theoretical equality of all believers. The fact that Islam had originally been revealed to the Arabs and the preeminence of Arabs in the early centuries of Muslim history initially fostered a sense of Arab superiority to other ethnic groups that expressed itself in literature, in an initial reluctance to accept non-Arab converts as the equals of Arab Muslims, and in a lingering prejudice against Arab marriage with non-Arabs justified on the basis of the saying "marry like with like."

Arab ethnocentrism in time produced a backlash. A social and literary movement of importance in the ninth and tenth centuries was the Shu'ubiyya, a school of Iranian Muslim writers who challenged the presumption of Arab superiority over other Muslims by extolling the more refined and civilized social customs practiced by Iranians, emphasizing the rich historical heritage of pre-Islamic Iran, and asserting the richness and beauty of the Persian language in comparison to Arabic. A similar if more muted sense of ethnic distinctiveness has been identified in medieval Egypt, where Egyptian Muslim authors praised the legendary fertility of Egypt, the country's historical role as a source of science and wisdom, and later Egypt's prominence in serving as a bulwark of Islam against the Crusader and Mongol onslaughts.

The biblical story of the curse of Ham made its way into Muslim legend, and formed part of the basis for the negative stereotypes of black Africans as physically unattractive and morally deficient that comprise a sinister undercurrent in medieval Muslim literature. The images attached to particular ethnic groups could also evolve as social and political conditions shifted. Thus the Turkic peoples, originally outside the Muslim world and known primarily as military slaves, were initially stereotyped as uncouth barbarians. As Turkic groups converted to Sunni Islam, entered the Muslim world en masse, and eventually became politically dominant, the prevailing image shifted first to the Turks as opponents of Shii heresy, later as champions of Islam against the pagan Mongols, and eventually as ruthless alien overlords tyrannizing other Muslims.

The increasing salience of ethnic identity and the corresponding growth of nationalist movements based on language across much of the Muslim world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was by and large a new phenomenon only tangentially connected to preexisting attitudes regarding ethnicity and race. It was specific social and political conjunctures of the modern era, as well as the impact of nationalist concepts from the West, that produced Arab, Turkish, Iranian, and other modern nationalisms among Muslim peoples. Arab pride in their historical role as the founders of Islam; Turkish awareness of their political prominence as the ruling elite of a later period; Iranian glorification of the achievements of ancient Iran: these echoes of previously expressed attitudes regarding ethnic groups reinforced and served as ammunition for modern ethnic nationalism, but were not the fundamental cause of the same.

Similarly, modern ethnic nationalism has been only incidentally influenced by the racist theory that developed in and disseminated outwards from Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most modern nationalisms among Muslim peoples antedate Muslim awareness of modern racist theory and were produced by other causes. The one Middle Eastern area where racist thought had a temporary impact was Iran (that is, Aryan), where the world prominence of the fellow-Aryans of Germany in the early twentieth century influenced both Iranian constructs of self and more briefly the foreign policy of the Iranian state. Modern Arab animosity toward Jews ("Arab anti-Semitism" in its literal sense is an oxymoron, since Arabic is a Semitic language) originated in the political circumstances of the national conflict over Israel/Palestine rather than in racist theory. It has found convenient fodder in the occasional negative references to Jews found in the Koran as well as in a growing familiarity with European anti-Semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but at base is rooted in and driven by national conflict.

In the later decades of the twentieth century and beyond, the ethnic nationalisms so prominent earlier in the century began to be superseded by a religiously-based sense of identity and by activism defined in terms of religion rather than of ethnicity. Islamism—the reassertion of the primacy of the religious bond over that of language, "race," or territory, and the emergence of transnational movements of Muslims working to cleanse the entire umma of foreign influence—was an old/new phenomenon of increasing prominence at the start of the twenty-first century. Its ultimate trajectory, as well as that of the ethnic nationalisms that it denounces as alien to Islam, is yet to be determined.

James Jankowski

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to Kabbalah