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date: 30 September 2023

Race and Blackness in Premodern Arabic Literaturefree

Race and Blackness in Premodern Arabic Literaturefree

  • Rachel SchineRachel SchineCenter for Asian Studies, University of Colorado Boulder


The signal works of poetry that prominently feature racialized Blackness in early Arabic literature (c. ad 500–1250) include works composed by authors of Afro-Arab heritage as well as by Arab authors who satirized and panegyrized Black subjects. These poets include the pre-Islamic author ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād and the ʿAbbasid-era figures al-Mutanabbī and Ibn al-Rūmī, and thus reflect the shift, across an extensive timeline, from a local, Bedouin poetics to a self-styled cosmopolitan, courtly aesthetic characterized as muḥdath, or modernist. The works are situated not only within the changing conventions of genre, but also within an arc that traces the emergence of new race concepts and racialized social institutions in the transition from the pre-Islamic era to Islam and from the early conquests to ʿAbbasid imperialization. Critical instances of these works’ intertextual movements demonstrate how racial logic accretes in various Arab-Muslim textual traditions, showing how poetry intersects with popular epic as well as high literary geographical, ethnological, and commentarial corpuses. As verse moves across a myriad of later literary forms, its context-specific representations of racial difference are recontextualized and received in ways that contribute to a broader transregional and transtemporal discourse of racialized Blackness.


  • African Literatures
  • West Asian Literatures, including Middle East
  • Middle Ages and Renaissance (500-1600)
  • Poetry

Racialized Blackness, Islam, and Arabic’s Literary Beginnings

On the Day when some faces whiten and others blacken, it will be said to those with blackened faces, ‘How could you reject your faith after believing? Taste the torment for doing so,’ but those with whitened faces will be in God’s grace, there to remain.1

(Qurʾān 3:106)

Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. There truly are signs in this for those who know.

(Qurʾān 30:22)

By ‘the [diversity of] your colors’ (Qurʾān 30:22), it is meant the blacks and the whites and otherwise, and the forms and fashions of crafting the body. Were it not for these differences, there would be much confusion, and the benefits accrued through social transactions [al-muʿāmalāt] and other such ventures would be hindered. In this there is a clear sign [of God’s creative power], for all of mankind developed from one origin, yet became many distinct forms.2

It is a story many know. When the Prophet Muḥammad conquered Mecca and cleared the Kaʿbah of its idols, he dispatched one of his close followers and friends give the call to prayer from atop the building. The man he chose for the honor was Bilāl, a manumitted former slave from the Kingdom of Aksum, known primarily in Arabic as al-Ḥabash, or Abyssinia, in the Horn of Africa. This choice was not uncontroversial, as this account of the scene by Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 767) reveals:

The Prophet, peace be upon him, issued a command to Bilāl [ibn Rabaḥ al‑Ḥabashī] upon the conquest of Mecca, so he ascended the rear portion of the Kaʿbah and recited the call to prayer (adhān). [The Prophet] had wished to debase the polytheists by doing this. When Bilāl went up and gave the call, ʿAttāb ibn Usayd said, ‘Praise be to God, who seized [my father] Usayd before this day.’ Al-Ḥārith ibn Hishām said, ‘I’m shocked by this Abyssinian slave, could the Messenger, peace be upon him, find no one save this black crow?’ Suhayl ibn ʿAmr said, ‘If God detests a thing, he changes it,’ and Abū Sufyān said, ‘As for me, I shall not speak, for if I said anything the sky would bear witness against me and the earth would inform on me.’

Then Jibrīl [the archangel Gabriel] went down to the Prophet, peace be upon him, informing him of [their] words. Thus, the Prophet, peace be upon him, summoned them and said, ‘What did you say, O ʿAttāb?’ He said, ‘I said, praise be to God, who seized Usayd before this day.’ Then he said, ‘You’ve spoken truthfully.’ Then he said to al-Ḥārith ibn Hishām, ‘What did you say?’ He replied, ‘I was shocked by this Ethiopian slave, could the Messenger, peace be upon him, find no one save this black crow?’ He responded, ‘You’ve spoken truthfully.’ Then he said to Suhayl ibn ʿAmr, ‘What did you say?’ He said, ‘I said, if God detests a thing, he changes it.’ He responded, ‘You’ve spoken truthfully.’ Then he said to Abū Sufyān, ‘What did you say?’ He replied, ‘I said, as for me, I shall not speak, for if I said anything the sky would bear witness against me and the earth would inform on me.’ He said, ‘You have spoken truthfully.’3

Bilāl is one exceptional figure among a number of Black people, and particularly East Africans, to have dwelt in the Arabian Peninsula prior to Islam. Although this population grew and diversified over time, Blackness and its metaphors and associations—especially with histories of enslavement—endure in Arabic literature as some of its most defining features. As he ascends the Kaʿbah, Bilāl is derided as a slave by his peers despite his status as a freedman; his slavery is coupled in one breath with his Abyssinian origin, and he is labeled a “crow,” a common epithet for individuals with dark skin in early Arabic writings. The way that Bilāl is stamped by others in this scene—with his notional, racialized past—operates similarly to the 20th-century Martinican theorist of decolonization Frantz Fanon’s description of the Black self as always already existing in triplicate, carrying responsibility simultaneously for “[one’s] body, [one’s] race, and [one’s] ancestors.”4 In Fanon’s view, the Black body acts as the inadvertent aide-mémoire for multifarious facets of a “history” as envisioned by non-Black actors (“cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders”), and these significances cleave to articulations of the contemporary Black self.5

What, in early Arabic writing, is this racialized history? How does it emerge in various genres of poetry—a prestige literary form? How is this poetry subsequently appropriated through citing and anthologizing practices that promulgate intellectual legacies and generate new racial meanings? The considered poems stake out some of the major topoi through which racialized Blackness was portrayed in Arabic writing. In a variety of early Arabic-Islamic sources, Blackness and Arabness are co-constitutive, and Blackness moreover fulfills a similar role in identity formation across transregional and interreligious medieval literatures.6 Poetry is a primary means for staging identity and the signal mode of expression throughout much of premodern Arabic history. According to Adam Talib, poetic traditions also instituted a premium on innovative conservation, meaning that “Poets, critics, and anthologists documented, parodied, celebrated, repurposed, and recast these tropes constantly over more than a millennium and every literary sophisticate was expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of these tropes.”7 The reuse and resituation of pieces of poetry—particularly when organized under new prose superstructures from later times—therefore indicate calcifications of race talk in the Arabic written record.

Reception studies approaches deepen thinking on the history of racialized Blackness in Arabic texts. The Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall demonstrates that the messages a communicator encodes are inevitably nonidentical with those that the audience decodes when receiving them. Further, he states that ideas of race are continuously “media-mediated.”8 Tracing how later authors appropriated prior works and participated in their legacies provides insight into how writers and audiences process individual pieces of media to make authoritative social meanings. Viewing race thinking and racialization as discursive, and therefore as propelled through processes of textual exchange, moves beyond essentializing questions of what Islam wants of its believers to instead probe what various Arabophone Muslim actors across an array of social positions and periods have said and done with regard to racialized Blackness.

As is evident in the initial epigraphs from the Qurʾān and exegesis (tafsīr), the color “black” is often found paired with “white.” From its outset as a corpus, Classical Arabic literature—the formal beginning of which is typically identified with the Qurʾān itself—made use of the symbolic duality of black and white to create productive contrasts, descriptively encompassing the vibrancy of the natural world, and paying homage to the creative genius of God in making these things so. The duality of black and white did not merely signify through metaphor. Rather, the language of Blackness and whiteness was used in an organizing scheme of human kinds and was mapped onto populations that fluctuated over time in the literary register. The concept of “Blacks” (al-sūdān) and their domains, the “lands of the Blacks” (bilād al-sūdān), is a striking example of this, and moreover is an instance in which “Black” has no counterpart; despite the norm of designating people as “white,” there is no commensurate usage of a “land of the whites” in Arabic geographies. Though the territories of the bilād al-sūdān typically corresponded to the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa in literary contexts, various geographers used the Greek logic of climes (aqālīm, sg. iqlīm) to extend the domain of “the Blacks” in a latitudinal sweep to span the southerly portions of the Indian Ocean world, encompassing places like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and at times even Arabia’s far south, depending on the place and perspective from which a given geographer was writing.9 These “Black” groups of people constituted around one half of the hazy global racial structure that Abū Ḥayyān (1256–1344) sketches in his interpretation of Qurʾān 30:22, when he describes all of humankind as “the blacks and the whites and otherwise.”

In a parallel endeavor to taxonomize humanity, though with different methods and aims, collectors of apocryphal isrāʾīlīyāt (narratives from Jews and Christians) traced the descendants of Noah’s allegedly blackened son, Ham, across the earth, finding his offspring in such far-flung places as the Maghreb, or modern Morocco, named for being in the world’s far west (gharb), and in the unspecified lands of the “south” (al-janūb), as well as in the more proximal environs of the Levant—a curlicue necessitated by the biblical genealogy of Ham, who begat Canaan as well as Kush, Mitzraim, and Phut, with the latter three being eponyms for African kingdoms.10 Alongside these etic typologies, some littérateurs debated delimitations of the “color line” among themselves, with the famed figure, ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ (c. 776– 868) satirically noting that the Arabs mistakenly designate themselves “white” when their complexions tend toward the darkness they so often malign.11

Race is not purely a matter of color in the premodern world (nor in our own), but is a complex and flexible power structure that modifies social classes and roles.12 In the Islamic world, which for much of its history spanned from roughly Morocco to Tajikistan and incorporated vast diversity, language and religious affiliation were also features around which race was produced, and many premodern authors accommodated the prospect of racial change in their theories of human difference, either through movement from one clime to another or through assimilatory structures of conversion, fosterage, tutelage, marriage, and concubinage.13

Race is also relative. Across time, place, and genre, there was no initial consensus about who outside of the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa—and even within it—was to be classified as Black in Arabic writings, but thinkers agreed that a large proportion of Black people existed in distant parts of the earth.14 From around the Umayyad period (661–750) onward, however, due to the workings of intercultural contact and conquest, trade, and slaving, “Black” became commonly used to refer to Sahelian and sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants who—unlike the myriad other peoples with whom the expanding Arabophone Islamic world was coming into contact—were denominated primarily through their color and only secondarily through narrower ethnonyms. At times, parts of territory of the bilād al-sūdān, or so-called “lands of the Blacks,” were carved out with more specific ethnic demarcations, such as ḥabashī (Abyssinian) or zanj (which, when used in a territorially specific way, suggests coastal East African), sketching the “Blacks” (sūdān) in relatively more precise contours.

As a shorthand for all these groups in both technical and artistic contexts, the category formation “Blacks” endured for centuries, distending in various ways. Arabic literary sources (and popular literature especially) attest that the conflation between Blackness and slavery became entrenched during the ʿAbbasid period (750–1258); by the early modern period, people described as Black were sometimes considered categorically non-Muslim and were enslaved despite their professed faith, which, according to Islamic law, ought to have exempted them from enslavement.15 That is, “Black” was imputed a racial valence, “stalk[ing] and merg[ing] with other hierarchical systems” like social rank, which in Arabia was reproduced as a function of one’s lineage and was often coextensive with one’s class and degree of legal freedom.16 In other words, Blackness became viewed as biobehavioral, originating in specific world regions and genealogies but transmitting culture as well as color across time and space.

The treatment of Blackness in early Arab-Muslim writings was fundamentally racial rather than ethnic. Per Michael Omi and Howard Winant, ethnicity in the contemporary academy implies an “insurgent” renaming of social entities we used to think of as “races,” intended to lay bare these units’ social and cultural origins—often forged and assigned prominence, to be sure, in racist environments and encounters.17 Ethnicity tries to orient us away from the biologized powermongering and boundary policing endemic to race. However, as the sources explored make clear, there is much about premodern Arab-Muslim concepts of human groups that resists insurgent rereadings; empowered groups applied concepts such as Blackness and whiteness in literature and in life as biologized mechanisms of social control. Moreover, the use of sūdān flattens a myriad of African and, at times, other Indian Ocean ethnicities—some known to Arab Muslims as such, others not—into one “Black” unit.

As more Sahelian and sub-Saharan Africans arrived in the central lands of the Islamic world for study, diplomacy, and commerce, or were forcibly transported there through the trans-Saharan slave trade, the expansion of the Muslim world’s “Black” populations was often expressed in ways that were simultaneously cosmopolitan and atavistic. Their presence both signaled a growing umma and highlighted its non-Black believers’ firm grasp on hierarchies that disfavored these new members. This tension is already pronounced in early interpretations of a Qurʾānic verse that has become synonymous with egalitarianism in Islam, Qurʾān 49:13. The verse states,

People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you should get to know one another.18 In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.

The cause given for this verse’s revelation (sabab al-nuzūl) in several exegetical works is the companions’ mistreatment of Bilāl, as in the excerpt from Muqātil ibn Sulaymān’s commentary. Others, though, saw in this verse a justification for the maintenance and careful classification of human differences, with the ultimate effect of intellectualizing hierarchies of those differences; this verse’s exhortation to mutual knowledge (taʿāruf) among different peoples is cited in numerous prosopographies as legitimating the science of genealogies (ʿilm al-ansāb), which inherently privileges Arabian origins.19 In contrast to this reading, the mystic al-Qushayrī (d. 1074) interprets taʿāruf as follows in his Qurʾān commentary, written some three centuries after Muqātil’s lifetime:

We made you . . . to know each other, not to gang up on each other or to compete with each other (lā li-takātharū wa-lā li-tanāfasū). Indeed, if we are all made from clay and semen and blood clots, what basis is there for vaunting yourselves over one another (tafākharū)? Fetid clay? Or semen in a firm resting place?20 Or what your external form superficially seems to contain? It is said, “our legacies (āthār) show who we are, so look to our legacies after us.” [Shall you boast over] your acts, which are laden with hypocrisy? Or your bearings, which are beset by self-importance? Or your dealings, which are filled with deception?21

Though he does not include the Bilāl anecdote in his interpretation of the verse, al-Qushayrī’s interpretation of Qurʾān 49:13 implies the anecdote’s fundamental lessons in egalitarianism across raced and classed divides, among others, still had not taken hold in the society of his day. The cautionary story of Bilāl and its inclusion, omission, or—in the case of al-Qushayrī—elusive yet likely relevance in interpretations of the Qurʾān’s message about human difference is but one example of the ways that texts with racial potentials mutually resonate and compound through the commentarial and anthological approaches common to Arabic textual traditions.

Racially conscious reading practices can be double-edged, and Qurʾān interpretation does contain strains that developed into racialized invective. Qurʾān 3:106, which suggests that believers’ faces will be lightened in heaven while unbelievers’ faces will be darkened in hell, was read as figurative (majāz) by a number of interpreters, but by others it was thought to show quite literally how God would give punishment and reward through visual cues that also have earthly, cultural significance. Al-Rāzī (d. 1210) cites a debate over how best to interpret this verse. Where some adhere to its possible figurative meanings, for others the verse’s plainest sense is most plausible (lā dalīl yūjib tarak al-ḥaqīqah), under the following logic:

The appearance of whiteness on the face of a dutiful one causes him increased happiness in the hereafter, and in the same fashion the appearance of blackness on the face of an unbeliever causes him increased grief in the hereafter. This is a facet of the wisdom of [the organization of] the hereafter. Meanwhile, in this world, if the observer (mukallaf) is aware that he might attain this state in the hereafter, it will be desirable to him to obey [God’s laws] and abjure forbidden things, so that he will become one of the sort (qabīl) whose faces are whitened and not blackened.22

Christian Lange has argued persuasively that most authorities understood the state of one’s face to be a stand in for their entire body in this passage, and in the Qurʾān more generally.23 And, in conjunction with Qurʾān 3:106, verses like Qurʾān 74:29, which refers to hell’s flames as the “scorchers of skin” (lawwāḥah lil-bashar) led some to state that those who dwelt in hell all looked Black (or charred). Though speaking about the next life, these readings are ineluctably linked with authors’ environments; one may wonder how someone raced as Black in this world may have read the interpretation al-Rāzī offers for how he might aspire to appear in the next. Perceptions of hell’s members as blackened are counterbalanced not only by the whitened believers in heaven, but also the whiteness of their heavenly rewards in the form of houris, whose physicality in the words of amina wadud “meant something specific to the Jahili Arab,” though they caution against interpreting this as a universal ideal.24

Realist views of bodies as depicted in eschatological passages emerge in literary works, too, including in popular storytelling: a white woman tells a Black woman in the Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa-Laylah) that those with faces like hers “crowd into hell (ḥashw jahannam).”25 As this jump from exegetical polyphony to literary assertion shows, what look like racist clichés or racially uplifting hagiographies were once discourses in formation, though we rarely treat them as such. The jump from object of scriptural interpretation to trope in popular poetry also shows that racial discourses crisscrossed social strata and compositional forms, multiplying significances along the way.

Each of three well-known, clearly raced primary texts—the collected poetry of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād (d. 608), the satire (hijāʾ) of Kāfūr by al-Mutanabbī (d. 965), and the panegyric (madīḥ) to a Black courtesan by Ibn al-Rūmī (d. 896)—likewise acquired different meanings in its transregional and transtemporal itinerary through other bodies of text. A microhistorical and literary analytical contextualization of these works foregrounds their itineraries and illuminates patterns that have structured received, scholarly knowledge about race in the Arab-Muslim world.

Black Heroes in Their Own Words? The Legacies of Pre- and Early Islamic Poets

In the quest for literary materials that emically and self-consciously grapple with the status of Black people dwelling in Arab-majority spaces, many scholars have homed in on the works of a coterie of poets known as the aghribat al-ʿarab, or “Crows of the Arabs,” with “crow” being an epithet indicating their Blackness. Different authors group these male poets, who are unified only by their parentage—having been born to East African mothers and Arabian fathers—in different arrangements; early citations of the aghribat al-ʿarab focus on only three pre-Islamic poets, while later ones feature five. Modern studies of the aghribat al-ʿarab tellingly tend to look beyond the scant poetry of these three to five core figures and draw together a loose network of poets who were raced as Black and who were active through the Umayyad period.26 The reasons for extending analyses of aghribat al-ʿarab to embrace these other figures appears to be twofold: first, it follows al-Jāḥiẓ’s pathbreaking approach in anthologizing facets of the diachronic output of all the Black poets that he knew of through his lifetime, and second, without this larger net scholars would have hardly any poetry by Black people that actually addresses their Blackness.

In the 9th century, al-Jāḥiẓ, the famed Basra- and Baghdad-based polymath of much-debated possible African ancestry, wrote a treatise titled Fakhr al-Sūdān ʿalá al-Bīḍān, or “The Boasts of the Blacks over the Whites,” in which he outlined the frustrations and appeals of Black people (alternately rendered sūdān or zanj) toward their self-proclaimed “white” Arab peers.27 He did so by ventriloquizing an imagined group of Black people, making them speak of both their own community and their white counterparts with an acerbity that has caused many to question who, exactly, the project was designed to satirize.28 His recurrent use of zanj gestures toward the Black people to whom he was most exposed: a year after al-Jāḥiẓ’s death, ʿAbbasid elites were rocked by the onset of a thirteen-year rebellion that brought together zanj slaves and servants—people from Africa’s coastal eastern regions—who were forced to labor in the salt marshes in Basra’s environs, as well as others inspired by the dissidence of the rebellion’s leader, ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad.29 At the same time, Ghada Talhami notes that across his works, al-Jāḥiẓ sometimes uses zanj to indicate Black people as a whole, which reflects the fact that throughout Islamic lands and their lexica, zanj carried varying degrees of specificity according to context; the word for a Black person in Classical Persian, for example, was zangī, or in Middle Persian, zangīg.30

Despite the prose’s emphasis on the zanj, Fakhr al-Sūdān gathers together a preponderance of verse composed by Arabia’s Abyssinian inhabitants, many counted among the aghribat al-ʿarab and their figurative heirs, and in this respect is in keeping with the more overtly apologetic writings that aimed at redeeming Blackness which followed—most famously by Ibn al-Jawzī in the 12th century, al-Suyūṭī in the 15th century, and Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Bāqī in the 16th century, as well as a lost work by Ibn al-Marzubān from the 10th century on which these later authors base some of their discourse. Many of these sources vaunt not only Black poets who discuss their own Blackness in verse, but also non-Black authors who took Black lovers (primarily female), and Black sages and scholars of note.

Earlier studies of the aghribat al-ʿarab by Bernard Lewis and Xavier Luffin ascribe the development of self-consciously racial poetry by Black authors primarily to their visible otherness and tentative integration in the Muslim empire, but there are further possible reasons for a shift toward emphasizing one’s Blackness in verse in apologetic contexts.31 Presenting oneself as a highly learned Black Muslim poet (for, as Xavier Luffin notes, these authors “follow the same rules” and “use the same images,” as their non-Black peers) in a period when Black presences were increasingly commonplace, particularly in the form of a steadily growing underclass of the enslaved, slave-born, and recently manumitted, could serve important functions in troubling stereotypes in a performance similar to “counterstorytelling,” while also separating oneself by class and literary achievement from one’s racialized peers.32 Some of the themes these poets use reflect the real-world urgency of speaking high-class Black identities into being: several authors recall an illustrious past of Abyssinian kingship and triumphant warfare. These references in turn recall the interwoven nature of East Africa’s and Arabia’s pasts and destinies. Abyssinian kings ruled in Yemen not long before Muḥammad’s lifetime and nearly laid siege to Mecca; however, upon the coming of Islam, the Abyssinian Negus (king) sheltered Muḥammad’s early community of followers and is even said by some to have converted to Islam himself. And yet, as narrations of the Negus’s experience demonstrate, even a Black African king was not insulated from the tendency among Muḥammad’s early followers to conflate Blackness with slavery and social dispossession. In several variant narrations of how Muḥammad reacted to the Negus’s passing, the Prophet urges his community to pray for the Negus and forgive him upon his death, but across the different tellings detractors respond with “Messenger of God, are we to pray over an Abyssinian slave?” or “He is commanding us to forgive an infidel (ʿilj) who died in Abyssinia,” which suggests the profound entanglement of certain African peoples with particular religious dispositions and, simultaneously, with racialized enslavability.33

The Negus’s purported treatment puts poetic expressions by Umayyad-era poets such as Ḥayquṭān the Abyssinian in a new light when he declaims,

While al-Julandá, Ibn Kisrá, and Ḥārith, Hawdhah and al-Qibṭī and the august Caesar all disdained [the faith], Out of all the kings, [the Negus] attained prosperity through it, His rule lengthened before him, impregnable and enriched And Luqmān was among [the Abyssinians], and his son, and his half-brother And Abrahah, the ruler who is not to be denied.34

This set of lines cites various Arabian leaders, as well as those in Persia, Egypt, and Byzantium, all of whom were proselytized to in Muḥammad’s lifetime but who, unlike the Negus, rejected Islam. They also toggle between two sources of prestige that bridge the pre-Islamic past and the present, namely, prophecy—Luqmān is an ancient sage mentioned in the Qur’ān who was said to be of East African heritage—and dauntless leadership. As a figure, Abrahah at first conjures images of the general Abrahah al-Ashram who attempted a siege on Mecca, which required divine intervention in order for the Meccans to repel him. However, commentators write that the Abrahah indicated by Ḥayquṭān was instead an able and wise ruler whose term extended over seventy-three years in Yemen.35 Though Abrahah al-Ashram is often painted in Islamic historiography as a villain, this other Abrahah is rendered here as a symbol of tenacity who is more deserving of attention than his infamous namesake, who meanwhile is discussed later in the poem under his kunyah, or sobriquet, Abū Yaksūm.36 Ḥayquṭān also writes himself into the Arabian value system by claiming, at the top of the poem, “though I am coily-haired with coal-black skin, I am open-handed and generous,” with munificence being a prized virtue in Arabian raiding culture as well as in idealizations of Islamic sovereignty.37

With great economy of language, Ḥayquṭān places East Africans who were raced as Black at the moral center and highest geopolitical echelons of his world, tapping into an ethnic mythology of pre-Islamic prominence centered on Abyssinian lineage. As a result, ʿAbduh Badawī refers to the early Black poets who wrote in this style as the forerunners of shuʿūbīyah, or ethnically motivated prideful writing, typified by upper-crust Iranian poets jostling for status by writing themselves simultaneously into Persian pre-Islamic and Arabized Islamic lexica of nobility, similar to Ḥayquṭān’s constellation of prominent brethren.38 As with the aghribat al-ʿarab, Roy Mottahedeh describes Persian shuʿūbīyah as being at least as much about the boundaries of class internal to the Iranian community—whose affinities were split by region as well—as it was about a wholesale vaunting of Persianness against Arabness.39

A second reason that Black poets of the Umayyad period meditate more openly on their racialization may be that under the demographic and epistemic changes that Arabians experienced during the early stages of Islam’s expansion, the social import of Blackness itself changed. The pre- and early Islamic period are marked in the literary register for their ambiguity about the workings of lineage (nasab), which seem to have at first had both matrilineal and patrilineal components, evoked through slurs such as hajīn (often translated as “mongrel” or “half breed”), which indicated an individual of Arabian paternal and foreign maternal parentage. Often, the relationships that produced hajīn children were between men with Arabian tribal standing and their slaves, which in the pre-Islamic period resulted in the child being born into slavery unless his or her father decided to claim them as family—a process typically referred to as istilḥāq, to which most pre-Islamic children of mixed parentage were not privileged because it was not legally obligated.40

Under elaboration of Islamic jurisprudence in Islam’s first centuries, the conditions of concubinage were altered and formalized. Enslaved women who gave birth to their owners’ children obtained the status of umm walad (mother of a child), which meant that they could not be sold or given as gifts and that their children were considered free-born and took their father’s name and the status it conferred. If an enslaved individual converted to Islam and was manumitted in a Muslim household, they retained a link to that household by becoming mawālī (dependents), contracted into walāʾ—a mandatory condition that is said in one hadith to be “like the relation of nasab” (ka-luḥmat al-nasab)—which conferred the benefits of fosterage but did not result in them taking the male head of the household’s name, and therefore did not result in a legal change to their ethnic status.41 This is similar to a series of other kinship processes, and particularly nursing, which rendered non-womb family as relatives with the legal responsibility this entailed, but did not confer lineage; adoption, in the strictest sense, was not practiced in Islamic premodernity, but a plurality of modes of fosterage were.42 For the formerly enslaved, though, it created a unique double bind in which they continued to carry their “othering” names and legal ethnicity while being permanently bound, though no longer in bondage, to their former owner’s more advantaged family. As Elizabeth Urban has noted, this peripheral condition meant one was still unfree (whereas claimed, adult, male hajīns were free and carried their fathers’ nasabs), though this unfreedom obtained only in certain spheres of life: it was most visible in the day-to-day of private households, but was largely rendered invisible in civic treatments.43

This system constructed patrilineality as the sole determiner of ethnic identity, even if one was raced to the contrary. This tension between legal ethnicity and social racing spurred a literary trend, and stories became increasingly peopled by characters who are not identified as hajīns, but who instead were fully one ethnicity or another. A recurrent trope in popular Arabic works is the unexpectedly Black-skinned hero who is legally fully Arab and vies to be publicly regarded as such.44 Conversely, a recurrent threat in popular works, and most infamously in the Thousand and One Nights, is embodied in the Black African man who chases dalliances with high-born (Arab) women; any resultant progeny would not be on equal footing with their mother’s nasab, the sustained parity of which rose to being a criterion in matchmaking in some legal schools.45 The legal institutions of nasab, and concomitantly of umm walad and walāʾ, promoted the growth of Islam through the creation of new modes of kinship. However, they also had the effect of reifying belonging to the then-dominant ethnicity as the ideal. Being attached to an Arab-Muslim family secured the passage of one’s posterity into free society, but this security was conditioned on enslaved or dependent status. Arab Muslims were conscious of the advantages and obligations that these kinship structures entailed. In traditional historiography, empowered Arabs abusing their paternalistic charge over their mawālī were said to have ushered in the downfall of the Umayyad dynasty. Even in parts of the Muslim world that are not often thought of as Arab, claims to Arab genealogy burnish the legitimacy of the ruling classes.46 As societies Islamized, the idea of Arabness and its role in social organization crystallized. Representations of Blackness as something in tension with but not exclusive of Arabness developed in kind.

An aspect of the receptions of these materials that merits further exploration is the extent to which these later significances of racialized Blackness have been retrojected onto texts and figures from deeper in the past whose accounts were not fully committed to writing at least until the paper arts boom of the ʿAbbasid period. Scholarship on premodern race often comes under fire due to anxieties about anachronism and visiting postcolonial notions of race and hierarchy on the past and/or on the non-West. But what of anachronisms that have become entrenched in our sources themselves? A microcosmic example of the problem of anachronism occurs in the reception of the life and works of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād. ʿAntarah is one of the core three aghribat al-ʿarab, a pre-Islamic warrior-poet with an enslaved Abyssinian mother and a father who was a leader of the Arabian tribe of ʿAbs. He is most prominently credited with writing one of the muʿallaqāt, or “hanging odes” that so epitomized eloquence in pre-Islamic Arabia that they merited being cast in gold and hung in the Kaʿbah, taking pride of place amid idols to local deities. He also appears to morph over time in Arab-Muslim consciousness from a history-making, ethnoracially hybrid warrior-poet into a Black hero, largely through the visiting of his later selves upon his original works.

Authoritative recensions of ʿAntarah’s dīwān, or anthologized poetry, typically contain either twenty-seven or forty poems in total, though some versions of ʿAntarah’s collected works contain many, many more.47 This disparity results from ʿAntarah’s literary afterlife as the epic hero of Sīrat ʿAntar, or The Tale of ʿAntar, which has added to his original works a flexible corpus of poetry by an unnamed quantity of pseudo-ʿAntarahs, including very persuasive pastiches. Some of the poems for which the historical ʿAntarah is most known—poems that specifically center on his Black identity—are in fact the creations of his epic persona, penned by nameless authors who may well have written in racial drag and themselves have owned Black slaves. The combination of the epical ʿAntarah’s works, often undetectably, with those of ʿAntarah’s core collection, transforms ʿAntarah’s poetics: he moves from being a hajīn hero to a Black icon.

In his translation and critical edition of ʿAntarah’s dīwān, James Montgomery includes only one short, liminal poem that is not part of most major recensions in which the historical ʿAntarah overtly references his own race, saying, “I am the Half-Blood (hajīn) ʿAntarah!/Every man guards his woman’s cunt/black or white/By the bushy hair/the thick fuzzy lips—This I swear.”48 In this short prebattle poem, ʿAntarah identifies himself as a hajīn but identifies others through the raced category, “Black” (aswad), typically indicating someone from the bilād al-sūdān. In conjunction, he references the raced category, translated here as “white” (aḥmar, lit. “red”), whose usage is attested in early Arabic alongside with and in synonymous ways to another word, abyaḑ, also typically rendered as white, perhaps because it connoted a ruddy undertone of the skin; a widespread ḥadīth in which Muḥammad says “I was sent to the white/red (aḥmar) and the black (aswad)” to indicate that his message is for all of humanity, exemplifies this.49 Here, aswad and aḥmar are seemingly used in a fifty-fifty scheme similar to this ḥadīth and to Abū Ḥayyān’s “blacks and whites and otherwise,” though aḥmar was also often used in early writings more specifically to connote light-skinned non-Arab groups such as Byzantines, Slavs, Iranians, and Khorasanis. The moniker abyaḍ became the predominant way that Arabs refer to their own complexions over time, and suggests not individuals who were particularly pale but who are simply Arab society’s default of light-to-olive, Arab-passing people. As a hajīn, the historical ʿAntarah presents himself as someone who sits between extremes—which we may even venture are being deliberately constructed as non-Arab categories—and this hybridity is powerful, because, as he implies, it renders ʿAntarah a proprietor over all women and a threat to all men.

Montgomery also features eight poems from ʿAntarah’s epic tradition. In one, ʿAntarah declares, “Fools may mock my blackness but without night there’s no day!/Black as night, so be it! But what a night generous and bright!/All the paltry ʿAmrs and Zayds my name has eclipsed. I am the lord of war!”50 Here, ʿAntarah’s black skin looms large. Though he reproduces the common refrain that his racialized Blackness is balanced by good, “white” or bright inner qualities (fa-khaṣāʾilī bayāḍ), he also positions himself and his Blackness apologetically at the center of Arab norms in a similar fashion to Ḥayquṭān. He vaunts his generosity and the importance of his legacy vis-à-vis a given ʿAmr or Zayd, two generic Arabic names that are often used in rhetorical examples, not unlike John and Jane in English. In another poem that Montgomery does not include but that is perhaps the most disseminated of (pseudo-)ʿAntarah’s songs, known by its first hemistich “Let your swords hold sway over censurers’ necks (ḥakkim suyūfak fī riqāb al-ʿudhdhal),” ʿAntarah makes a much more forceful claim on Arabness by caricaturing his Black mother and distancing himself from slavery while promising to violently defend his claim to tribal standing:

Though I’ve been in the ranks of slaves, My ambition is higher than the Pleiades and Spica And though knights of ʿAbs may deny my ancestral name (nisbatī), My sword and the point of my lance will confirm it I am the son of a black-browed woman Like a hyena, reveling in campsite traces Her legs are like that of an ostrich, Her hair like peppercorns (ḥabb al-fulful) From beneath a veil her front teeth glint Like lightning, flashed across the draped darkness (al-ẓalām al-musdal).51

One poem by ʿAntarah that made it into an early recension, by al-Aṣmaʿī—who is also credited as the alleged creator of his epic—similarly features the image of his mother’s “black brow,” but there is otherwise little direct overlap between the imagery in al-Aṣmaʿī’s version and in the verses above; in the poem al-Aṣmaʿī records, ʿAntarah likens his mother’s brow to the Kaʿbah’s Black Stone (ḥajar al-maqām), a far more affirming analogy than those presented in the quoted verses, which render her Blackness animalistically. Moreover, likening Black skin positively to the Black Stone is a trope that recurs in the apologias that catalogue positive aspects of Blackness.52 Gone in the epical ʿAntarah’s poem about his mother is the subversive in-betweenness of being a hajīn, which ʿAntarah pridefully owns in his battle cry when posing himself ably against both Black and white foes. The epical ʿAntarah instead describes himself as a full member of the tribe of ʿAbs, entitled to his father’s nisbah, while rendering his mother’s appearance in clichéd, unflattering terms that overtly echo how ʿAntarah himself is described when we first encounter him as a newborn in his epic. There, ʿAntarah is “frown-faced, kinky-haired (mufalfal al-shaʿr), large-mouthed, with mud-colored nostrils, broad-backed, solid of limb and bone, and had a large head and legs like chunks of cloud, with big ears and pupils that emitted sparks of fire,” a list of exaggerated Black African features that correlates with representations in numerous ʿAbbasid-era ethnological sources.53 In other words, ʿAntarah’s epic persona is asserting here that he is visibly, even taxonomically Black—with all the stigma that entails—while also being rightfully Arab.

Despite wholly privileging his father’s identity—in large part because being claimed under his father’s nasab renders him eligible to wed his beloved cousin, ʿAblah—ʿAntarah’s quest for recognition is bolstered in the epic by a disclosure of the true nature of ʿAntarah’s matrilineal descent: his mother, Zabībah, is in fact the princess Shāmah, born to a line of Abyssinian kings.54 Royal stock on one side supplements ʿAntarah’s argument for his chiefly, tribal stock on the other, suggesting an erstwhile world in which prestigious matrilineal ties still matter, even if only to enhance patrilineal bona fides. In contrast, to emphasize the eclipsing racializing effect their foreign mothers had on their Arab fathers’ patriliny, the aghribat al-ʿarab other than ʿAntarah—Khufāf ibn Nadbah (also attested as Ibn Nudbah) and Sulayk ibn al-Sulakah—are known by their mothers’ names. As embellished in his epic, though, ʿAntarah’s father claimed him in a formal recognition of paternity.

If texts are to be understood, as Roland Barthes opines, as “multi-dimensional space[s] in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” and thus in which the author’s subjectivity is tenuous and unauthoritative, with audiences inevitably bringing their own perceptions of the work’s origins to bear, what might this mean for ʿAntarah and his fellow aghribat al-ʿarab?55 Since his lifetime, the legendary ʿAntarah has been placed in a league of self-consciously Black popular heroes who model ideals of motivated, bellicose hypermasculinity—a set of qualities for which African military slaves were especially prized in the early Islamic period. The effects of interpolating pseudo-ʿAntarah’s poetry on Blackness are still pronounced in interpretations of his and other Black poets’ works. In one modern edition of the dīwān of Khufāf ibn Nadbah, the editor writes,

Though [Khufāf] was counted among the aghribat al-ʿarab, and though his color was dark black (aswad ḥālik), that did not leave an imprint on his psyche, or as psychologists call it, a “complex,” like that left on ʿAntarah’s psyche (ka-mā tarak fī nafs ʿAntarah). Rather, it seems that Khufāf and others besides him of the aghribah, who did not speak of this phenomenon, were ashamed to speak of it because it was a source of derision in the jāhilīyah society of their eras.56

Rather than preserving the jāhilīyah’s, or pre-Islamic era’s, understandings of race and the status of hajīns, the mushrooming significance of the epical ʿAntarah and his cohort, styled as Black Arabs, highlights the enduring project of constructing Black male heroes who idealized normative Arabness while setting new scripts for dealing with a diversifying Arab-Muslim community. It also therefore highlights the ways in which the production of a larger-than-life Black hero in the Islamic era has modified what we can say about the historical ʿAntarah’s own self-image as articulated in the language of his pre-Islamic era. As this language changed and ʿAntarah’s epic tradition was passed hand to hand, alongside and often unwittingly supplemental to his dīwān, ʿAntarah’s legacy and its implications changed in kind.

Arab Conceptions of Blackness, Gender, and Power in ʿAbbasid-Era Courtly Poetry and Its Afterlives

The aghribat al-ʿarab and their later counterparts, both imagined and real, constitute examples of culturally accomplished men who were judged by history to be Black but who sought after and were able to benefit from having recognized, ethnically Arab paternity. The stories of women, eunuchs, and others in the medieval Arab-Muslim world who were raced as Black and those who had Black African lineage on their father’s side contrast sharply with the narratives of these relatively advantaged men who had maternal Black ancestry. The ways that Blackness is coded differently for differently gendered and pedigreed persons in Arabic poetry illustrate that race is not a fixed category, but rather ramifies depending on the numerous other identity features with which the racial imbricates.

Perhaps the most notorious example of simultaneous gender and race prejudice to be put to verse is the relationship between the poetic giant al-Mutanabbī and one of his patrons, a Black, formerly enslaved eunuch turned Ikhshidid potentate, Abū al-Misk Kāfūr. Like ʿAntar, Kāfūr stands out as a lionized Black Muslim celebrity whose biography has been written and rewritten across multiple sources, both premodern and modern. However, whereas ʿAntar’s dramatic rise from slave-born menial to one of the most politically and culturally exceptional figures of his time is heralded with great admiration across his many avatars and interpretations, Kāfūr enjoyed a much cooler reception in his own lifetime, despite a similar trajectory, due to divergences of history, identity, and representation.

First, a word about poetic transformations between the time of the aghribat al-ʿarab and al‑Mutanabbī, who was active in the 10th century. In the span of time between the pre- and early Islamic figures who wrote in the tradition of the “crows” and al-Mutanabbī, Islamic polities grew, imperialized, and technologized. Concurrently, thanks largely to the introduction of paper to the region and a court-poetic aesthetic that dwelt on more urbanized trappings of status than did its Bedouin forerunner—taking the time-worn muses of wine, women, and war to their logical extremes—a blend of Arabic-speaking authors (many newly so) established a written culture of letters and literary criticism and was sustained by the elite patronage of rulers with likeminded tastes. Much of this evolution occurred under the centralized auspices of the Baghdad-based ʿAbbasid caliphate (750–1258); however, beginning in the 10th century, dynasties at the ʿAbbasid territory’s edges, in places like Egypt, Syria, and Iran, that were more or less affiliated with the caliphate also maintained their own courts, with all the entertainments and functionaries that standalone palaces imply. It was in a few of these satellites that al‑Mutanabbī made his name. Al-Mutanabbī and poets of his ilk were particularly known for innovating with rhetorical forms, fitting new modes of expression onto the new contents of poetry. Such authors were known as “modernizers” (muḥdathūn) in their own lifetimes, and Huda Fakhreddine characterizes their output as part of a self-conscious practice of metapoetics in which poets worked within their craft to critique, comment on, and change it, and to ultimately shape society’s perceptions of poets themselves.57 It is perhaps little wonder, then, that one mark of al-Mutanabbī’s newness is the way that he takes up the topic of his patron’s race.58

It is also worth remarking on the uniqueness of having a patron such as Abū al-Misk Kāfūr and what his political ascent signals about slavery in the 10th-century Muslim world. From early on in popular consciousness, enslavement and low status were conflated with Blackness. Most slavery in Islamic societies was domestic and heavily female. However, one of the defining elements of slavery in Islamic systems is a much chronicled, if small, highly trained slave elite that served directly under the powerful in militaries, bureaucracies, and harems, with the former two institutions mostly incorporating men and the latter women. Viewed from the Islamic world’s centers—in places like ʿAbbasid Baghdad, which is extensively represented in both literary sources and scholarship—elite slaves with upwardly mobile positioning were often non-Black people. Assignations of specific roles to specific “kinds” of slaves was partly due to Islamic race sciences that allocated differing aptitudes to different groups, and partly due to markets.

All slaving systems in the Muslim world were predicated on religious and ethnic difference—enslavable populations were typically restricted to foreign non-Muslims, though some groups like the Mamluk dynasty famously enslaved members of their own ethnicity amongst the enslaved people they imported from the environs of the Black Sea, impressing them into military training, and priming them to assume power.59 ʿAbbasid heartlands sat at the confluence of two major thresholds with non-Muslim lands, and concomitantly with many ethnically different people, in the form of Indian Ocean and Eurasian spheres of trade, both of which entail a combination of land and water routes. However, as the contours of ʿAbbasid control ebbed and changed in the 10th century, whoever was in control of North Africa’s provinces and various coastal peripheries ended up periodically having more access to the trade in Sahelian and sub-Saharan people than the governors of Baghdad themselves, who meanwhile continued to have fairly consistent access to routes from the Central Asian steppe and Caspian Sea; as such, the prominent role of enslaved Turks in ʿAbbasid politics has rightly received much attention.60 A number of scholars notice a downturn in discussions of enslaved Africans in ʿAbbasid heartlands, attributed by some to the aftermath of the zanj revolt and others to the trade chokepoints established by fringe dynasties. This could also be a matter of when and where the least visible enslaved people, among who are domestics, manual laborers, and less trained soldiers, earn mention. There is important evidence for enslaved Africans being forced to work in mines, fields, and marshes in Arabia and across the Red Sea in Nubia in the 10th and 11th centuries, and that their use in armies only increased due to competition with and in the ʿAbbasid polity.61 During and after the ʿAbbasids’ demise, though, Black Africans like Kāfūr who were enslaved or manumitted and promoted into prominent, public-facing roles emerge more frequently in the historical record in places like North Africa and India, as attested in the potentates of, for example, the Fatimids and the Deccan sultanates.62

Kāfūr was primed for highly trained service under the Ikhshidid dynasty in Egypt (935–969), who were intermittently a rival to the ʿAbbasids. Some posit that they had a hand in the decline in the caliphate’s use of Black African military slaves in the late 10th century by monopolizing their overland trade.63 Eunuchs like Kāfūr were often used in positions that entailed closeness to the women’s quarters of a royal household, and true to this, Kāfūr became the tutor of the dynastic founder al-Ikhshīd’s children. He then, through “his reason, intelligence, and good fortune,” took over the governorship as a regent, and a famously competent one at that; to secure his status further, he sought official ʿAbbasid recognition for his rule.64 In an emulation of his predecessor, Kāfūr established his own military force comprising primarily Central Asian and Black African slaves, designated the kāfūrīyah, who later erupted into fatal conflict with the preexisting Ikhshidid military.65 Overall, Kāfūr led by patterning his rule on his neighbors and forebears, rather than breaking the mold. He hired poets to sing his praises apace with the leaders of his era.

Al-Mutanabbī’s tenure with Kāfūr was mercurial and short lived, and he festooned his withering parting salvo to his patron with hateful remarks on just how poorly Kāfūr fit Arab-Muslim ideals of a ruler, emphasizing Kāfūr’s enslaved past, his castration, and his Blackness. None of these qualities are mutually exclusive. Muslims could not participate in castration or be castrated, and so eunuchs in Muslim societies were almost always slaves and former slaves of foreign origin. Significant proportions of enslaved people in al-Mutanabbī’s episteme were Black, such that their lowest rungs—those most visible in everyday life in households and on the street, yet largely absent from written sources—were stereotyped as Black. Often in the case of Black men, their perceived servitude was further entangled with portrayals of excessive priapism and domestic peril, located in concerns about free women’s sexual availability to enslaved members of their household; for women, these associations mutate in accordance with the gendered social structures in which they were embedded, and Black femininity implies sexual and domestic solicitousness. Al-Mutanabbī makes full, ironic use of Kāfūr’s raced and gendered identity, at once emasculating him and describing him as disproportionately appetitive, though for power and lucre rather than sex.

In his thirty-line satire (hijāʾ), the final poem al-Mutanabbī composed before leaving Kāfūr’s court permanently, Kāfūr is described as the direct contrast to the ideal of a generous sovereign, and is said to hungrily consume al-Mutanabbī’s earnings (jawʿān yaʾkul min zādī); he is said to have overturned the natural order of society and thus of setting a poisonous precedent, with Kāfūr becoming the leader of all Egypt’s fugitives (imām al-ābiqīn) by making his subjects slaves, while he, a slave, is revered (fa-al-ḥurr mustaʿabad wa-al-ʿabd maʿbūd). The line draws on the cosmic implications of servitude and worship as well, with ʿabd a common term for a devotee and maʿbūd a worshipped entity, and so the reversal that al-Mutanabbī describes here verges on idolatry with Kāfūr playing God.

Despite Kāfūr’s ascent, al-Mutanabbī assures us that slavery and its social dispositions—Islamic legal institutions that militate against intergenerational slavery notwithstanding—are indeed hereditary, saying, “the slave is not the rightful brother of a free man, even if he is born with a free man’s clothes.” The regent’s congenital inferiority is borne out in descriptions of Kāfūr’s character that are often literally dehumanizing, rendering him unfavorably as a variety of animals. In one instance, he is a dog (“In all my life I did not expect to be mistreated by a dog, while the dog is praised”). Elsewhere, dehumanization occurs more subtly: Kāfūr is one of the foxes who has stolen through Egypt, eating the ceaseless supply of her grapes to the point of sickness (nāmat nawāṭīr Miṣr ʿan thaʿālibihā fa-qad bashimna wa-mā tafná al-ʿanāqīd). The greedy eagerness of the foxes that this line describes, glutting themselves on grapes that have yet to be refined into wine while the vineyards’ minders (nawāṭīr) are asleep, indicates a feral and uncivilized immoderation with the province’s copious resources, whereas the vineyard keeper, like a good ruler, curates and protects his wares. For his part, al-Mutanabbī describes himself as inclining toward an “unmixed” red vintage (kumayt al-lawn ṣāfīyah), in an idiom that is common to the discourse on luxury goods in Arabic-speaking regions, as well as to other Mediterranean cultures, and links value and purity of pedigree. But al-Mutanabbī proclaims that such a drink is nowhere to be found in Kāfūr’s court—Kāfūr, himself a “mix” of masculine and feminine, of slave and free, and of Black and Arabized, adulterates the space.66 Al-Mutanabbī’s anxieties about categorization are not only manifest in his concern over the regnant Kāfūr’s biologized slavery, but also his liminal gender; in one line, he refers to his subject as “a soft-fleshed, corpulent one, counted neither among men nor women.”

Above all, al-Mutanabbī asserts that the only way to bring Kāfūr to heel is through violence, which is particularly trenchant in light of the hard power that Kāfūr commands—including over al-Mutanabbī himself, who was compelled to conceal his final exit from Kāfūr’s domain under pain of retribution. The fear of Kāfūr’s power is also enhanced by the material history of al‑Mutanabbī’s screed: al-Mutanabbī is said to have left his final poem for Kāfūr, in writing, before his escape, only for Kāfūr to burn it without reading.67 Derisively, al-Mutanabbī queries in his verses whether Kāfūr, the castrated Black man (al-aswad al-makhṣī), learned his manners from his white peers (qawmuh al-bīḍ) or his princely forefathers, or whether it was instead abused into him while his ear bled in the hand of his slaver as he was told that he was only valued at two coppers (falsayn). Perhaps the most quoted aphorism advising violence as a means of controlling Kāfūr is al-Mutanabbī’s statement, “do not buy a slave unless you get the stick with him” (lā tashtar al-ʿabd illā wa-al-ʿaṣā maʿahu)—one of many pieces of standalone ḥikmah (wisdom) for which al-Mutanabbī’s entire oeuvre has long been mined.68

Al-Mutanabbī’s racist screed appears unique in its time for its fame and level of vitriol, but many of the sentiments it expresses surface in contemporaneous works; the excesses of eunuchs’ bodily appetites are a trope not only in Arabic, but across various Mediterranean cultures, though often in the literatures of northern Mediterranean polities that were less engaged in African slavery, eunuchs were stereotyped as pale due to their plush, indolent lifestyles, which also further associated them with effeminacy.69 In the Islamic world, eunuchs of myriad origins and appearances were enduring features of courtly life until Ottoman imperial dissolution. As with the historical ʿAntarah merging with the epical ʿAntarah to generate new meanings over time, al-Mutanabbī’s satire of Kāfūr acquires further significance in its reception—though notably while its original racial dimensions persist and are embellished, its gender implications are obviated as it moves and is dissected. The aforementioned aphoristic hemistich in particular—“do not buy the slave unless you get the stick with him” —becomes generalized as it moves across texts and genres. This is a possibility that the line’s calculated impersonality elicits, though it also has a primary initial effect of rendering Kāfūr himself nonspecific, as part of a faceless and nameless enslaved monolith. Through Kāfūr’s individual Blackness, the conflation of Blackness with slavery, or some mix of the two, the verse comes to relate to Black Africans as a whole and is reproduced in contexts specific to racialized slavery, practices of which were heavily informed by ethnographic writing and its suppositions, used across a range of genres, and so the fact that al-Mutanabbī’s initial subject was a eunuch and figure of particular prominence diminishes in import.

A stark example of this occurs in the Mamluk-era slave-purchasing manual, al-Qawl al-Sadīd fī Ikhtiyār al-Imāʾ wa-al-ʿAbīd (“The Correct Pronouncement on Selecting Slave Women and Slave Men”), written by a physician named Maḥmūd ibn Aḥmad al-ʿAyntābī. Amid discourses on judging the health and fitness of enslaved people physiognomically, he also offers a taxonomy of different ethnicities and their uses.70 In an introductory section on selecting slaves, he has this to say of the zanj:

It is said that the best of slaves is one for whom you break a stick, and the vilest of them is the one for whom you purchase a stick, and if a slave requires a stick then there is no object and no good in him. As for some saying that you “should not buy a slave unless you get the stick with him,” by this they intend the Zanj, for they are the worst of slaves. Some say it intends slaves used for menial service (mihnah), for indeed they are not put aright except by the stick.71

Because, like others, al-ʿAyntābī sets aside space for discussing the specific roles of enslaved women in keeping with the gender differentiation of enslaved people’s perceived utility, presumably this description principally refers to zanj men, who are in turn rendered as a particularly unfavorable type of slave, a notion that was found also in prior slaving manuals but is given new substance through reading it against al-Mutanabbī’s words, which become both an invitation to and tool of abuse.72

Even in the 21st century, al-Mutanabbī’s line continues to be used, strategically, in anti-Black contexts. A cursory search online reveals as much, in crude comments on social media and in think pieces. Another feature of the satire’s Internet meanderings is the frequent interpolation of humiliating images of enslavement, including decontextualized representations of Atlantic world slavery as well as ethnographic Orientalist drawings and paintings, into discussions of the poem and its history even in more thoughtful articles, videos, and posts. Though anachronistic, these compounding resonances showcase uncomfortable moments of mutual identification of racism and practices of racialized slavery across cultures. These uncanny consonances become particularly significant in light of the persistent strain in Islamic historiography that speaks of slavery and racism in the Muslim world as relatively “better” than in the West. On this point, Hannah Barker writes,

As for slavery in the past, arguments about good and bad treatment [in Islamic and Christian polities] have not been productive for several reasons. First, an individual slave’s experience of slavery depended on the behavior of his or her individual master and on the overarching legal and social structures that governed slavery. Second, because of the common culture of slavery in the late medieval Mediterranean, the overarching legal and social structures were remarkably similar across Christian and Muslim societies.73

What al-Mutanabbī’s poem further shows is that the question of good or bad treatment is also unproductive to understanding the lives of individuals who have exited slavery. Despite legal institutions and authoritative pronouncements toward the contrary, people with slave heritages still attracted targeted hatred from individual agents. Kāfūr’s case demonstrates that such abuse was especially liable to happen when a minoritized person with enslaved heritage was put in a position of power over others. The appropriation of al-Mutanabbī’s satire of Kāfūr, denuded of its original gender and class implications, into a discourse on the purchase of enslaved Black men demonstrates that a racialized text’s intersectional features can become uncoupled. It sketches a disturbing and familiar arc in which an exhortation to violently police society’s underclass—ironically directed against a noble who did not fit the author’s preconceptions—came to specifically target Black men. This potential is already present in the line from its outset, and the trajectory of its reception showcases the agency with which poetry was not merely passed down, but also put to conscious use in enforcing norms.

We need not look far for a study in contrast between Kāfūr, represented in poetry as very openly overturning society’s natural order, and a poetic description of an enslaved Black person who is given the dubious honor of being panegyrized for keeping within her station. This ode of praise is delivered by Ibn al-Rūmī, a close precursor of al-Mutanabbī—he died roughly twenty years before al-Mutanabbī was born—and fellow muḥdath poet installed in the ʿAbbasid court. In a profanely sexual poem, Ibn al-Rūmī graphically recalls meeting an anonymous Black courtesan at a party held by one petty dynast. Like Kāfūr, this woman was at once enslaved and elite. And, in her role, she was simultaneously exoticized and able to ensconce herself within a male-dominated, closed society more readily than free women; in the words of Kristina Richardson, such women had more access than most to “a public forum of expression” that allowed them to bend the ears of the powerful. Yet in the poem itself, the woman does not speak.74 Unlike Kāfūr, rather than standing as a brazen symbol of changing political winds, she is confined within the acceptable domains of her influence—encountered serving a mixed gender salon and set, in the poet’s mind’s eye, in a figurative bedroom. She also does not have retaliatory power over her representer. This is instead vested with her owner, to whom Ibn al-Rūmī defers throughout his verses.

In the poem, Ibn al-Rūmī refers to the woman as a prettily girdled ebony branch (ghuṣn min al-ābnūs uliff min muʾtazar), her contours like fruits and dark foliage.75 He also likens her to “musk” and other expensive things, the word for which is homophonic with a perfume of musk and ambergris (ghawālī), and her teeth stand out from her Blackness like well-strung pearls (yaftarr dhāk al-sawād ʿan yaquq min thaghrihā ka-al-lālāʾ al-nasaq). This renders the enslaved concubine in mutually resonant idioms of material luxury that were clichéd already in Ibn al-Rūmī’s time, if we go by al-Jāḥiẓ’s list of black things of value in his 9th-century treatise. He, too, includes musk and ambergris as black items that showcase the color’s lucrative appeal.

Ibn al-Rūmī also pruriently discusses the purchased sexuality of his subject’s body, calling her vagina (han) so hot that it is like a flame to her partner’s “wood”—a stereotype about the arousing nature of East African women also found in slaving manuals that intersects with the climatological theory of race, which avers that the extreme heat of southern regions is what blackens the skin, curls the hair, and so on.76 After detailing the pleasures of such a woman, Ibn al-Rūmī closes this portion of the poem by reminding his listeners that “most sword sheaths are black, there’s truth in that,” the quantitatively plural aspect of which perhaps echoes his other experiences with other tacitly Black courtesans. In a final nod to the proprietary dynamics into which he has inserted himself, Ibn al-Rūmī assures his host that this entire scene has taken place in his imagination “without testing or tasting her.” Nonetheless, the ample liberties that Ibn al-Rūmī takes in his imaginings, albeit while maintaining the anonymity of the courtesan, starkly contrast with the chaste reverence free female lovers often enjoy in amorous verse. Ibn al-Rūmī reifies his subject, turning her into a thing because of her class and fetishizing her because of her Blackness; she is an elite slave owned by a courtier, but she is so because she offers the promise of specialized entertainments.

Ibn al-Rūmī’s poem depicts his Black, female subject as subordinated to the social organization of the ʿAbbasid milieu, serving its men sexually and ensconced—albeit opulently—in enslavement. The reception of his poem and its incorporation into other sources point to the ways in which scholars naturalized this social arrangement by placing it in the context of geographic and ethnographic knowledges. This occurs in a 13th-century commentary to the maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī by the Andalusi littérateur Abū al-ʿAbbas al-Sharīshī (d. 1222), in which the commentator elaborates on al-Ḥarīrī’s use of the stock phrase “from Ferghana to Ghana,” which suggests “far and wide,” with Ferghana being in eastern Uzbekistan and Ghana in West Africa. He begins his discussion of Ghana by saying:

It is one of the lands of the Blacks (balad min bilād al-sūdān), to which traders arrive. It is reached via Sijilmasa, from which it is a three-month journey. From Ghana back to Sijilmasa is one and a half months, or less, and the reason for that is that escorts ready for the trip from Sijilmasa to there with [many] beasts of burden and heavy loads, which they sell in Ghana for gold dust (tibr). One who goes there with thirty loads returns with three, or perhaps two: one for himself and one for water because of the desert that is in the path . . . Ghana is one of the kingdoms of the Blacks, and Islam has spread among its people. There are schools for science (madāris lil-ʿilm) there. . .

All of these features bode well not simply for Ghana’s residents, but for the traders from further north who might wish to do both business and pleasure there, among an amenable populace:

There are many Maghrebi merchants there who enter into commerce and are met with abundance and safety and much transaction, so they purchase attendants there for concubinage, and they dwell there under the ruler with the utmost respect. God has given the slave women from there precious features (min al-khiṣāl al-karīmah), beyond what one might desire (fawq al-murād), in the form of smooth bodies, deep black [skin], pretty eyes, medium-sized noses, white teeth, and a pleasant odor.77

In support of this final observation about Ghana’s women, as the first of a series of poetic excerpts, the commentator cites the boastful portion of Ibn al-Rūmī’s poem praising the appearance of his would-be lover. In this, the mise en abyme process through which racializing literature reproduces and extends its effects as it is used to clarify other literature that is not intrinsically racial becomes clear. The ethnicity of Ibn al-Rūmī’s love interest is unknown, but this hardly seems to matter; the other poetic extracts collapse the Ghanaians with a host of women raced as “Black” in verse. At the same time, his ability to hold forth on Ghana likely speaks to al-Sharīshī’s particular perch in the southern Spanish city of Jerez, with access to the Muslim world’s far west and his inroads with Sijilmasa’s scholarly and mercantile classes, as well as to his access to ʿAbbasid-era universal geographies like that of al-Yaʿqūbī, whom he cites on Ferghana though not on Ghana itself.78 Even with a Ghana so specific and populated with rich detail, in al‑Sharīshī’s authorial imaginary, race—and especially racialized Blackness—still exerts a flattening effect on the land’s actual people. Al-Sharīshī is not alone in this tendency. Where al‑Sharīshī never saw Ghana himself and instead drew on secondhand reportage, a firsthand eyewitness account of the region—which by the mid-13th century had been absorbed into the Malian Empire—was first given by the illustrious traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭah when it was under the leadership of Mansa Sulaymān, brother of the prior, renowned ruler, Mansa Musa.79

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, too, speaks of the land simultaneously with intensive specificity with regards to its material wealth and a mercurial racial attitude toward its “Blacks,” that comes in and out of focus depending on the gendered and classed performances of the people he encounters. On the one hand, Mansa Sulaymān is enthroned in a high-ceilinged, domed hall bedecked with silver and gold leaf and flanked by a procession of hundreds of well-appointed slaves; he keeps a retinue of female attendants in his private quarters as well, who to our traveler’s emphatic dismay, go naked along with Sulaymān’s daughters despite the ruler’s piety. On the other, when presented with his offering as a new arrival—a meal of bread, yogurt, and meat fried in fat—having expected money and a robe of honor, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah exclaims, “I was astonished at their dim wits (ḍaʿf ʿuqūlihim), such that they could use this paltry stuff to pay [a guest] esteem.”80 Moreover, after his rendering of the courtly spectacle of Mansa Sulaymān’s reception hall (mishwar) in which he hears his people’s petitions, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah notes the “Blacks’” subordination, saying, “the Blacks are the most assiduous in humbling themselves to their king, and most intense in their debasement before him,” and discusses how those called to the hall doff their turbans, don rags, kneel in obeisance, and pour dirt on their heads.81 And so, juxtaposed with Mali’s imperial lavishness and investment in its people, and the king’s acceptance (though with less fanfare than hoped) of a Muslim judge’s services, we find subjects possessing limited intellect and boundless deference to authority, coupled in the women’s case with no sense of modesty. Ross Dunn detects in this a paternalistic conceit, premised on the geographic closeness but cultural distance of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s Moroccan home to the Malian Empire. He reads the traveler’s juxtapositions as indicating “embarrassment that a kingdom whose Islam was so profoundly influenced by his own homeland and its Maliki doctors was not doing a better job” upholding the customs Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s ilk had exported.82

Al-Sharīshī’s layered approach, like Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s later on, indicates the broader scheme into which his racializing discourse was fitted: a cosmopolitan worldview—by no means unique to the Islamic world—that itemized bordering regions and based their relative appeal on their perceived hospitability and economic prospects, which depended to a great extent on their enslavable populations. People who entered slavery in the premodern Arab-Muslim world and beyond were in turn assayed as a function of how they were gendered and raced, as al‑Sharīshī’s commentary on Ghana details. He gives no such account of the denizens of Ferghana.83

Evolving Racial Meanings in the 6th–13th Centuries

The poetry of ʿAntarah, al-Mutanabbī and Ibn al-Rūmī, and its pastiche, citation, and reception, span the formative era of Islam, from the 6th to 13th centuries, as well as genres ranging from the traditional to the popular to the muḥdath, or the ʿAbbasid avant-garde. A reception-based approach to these poems’ itineraries throughout the profoundly intertextual Arab-Islamic literary tradition illuminates not only instances of change and recontextualization, but also instances of stabilization in the literary record on race. From early on, the term “Black” is associated with a vast territory that corresponds to the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa and occasionally beyond, and it becomes a racial marker cutting across multiple ethnicities. In conjunction with superficially unraced gender-specific legal and social structures—some but not all of which predate the advent of Islam—Blackness recurrently became associated with pugnacity and dangerous sexuality in men, while it is associated with docility and solicitous sexuality in women; Kāfūr, as a eunuch, finds himself on the losing end of both of these sets of stereotypes in al-Mutanabbī’s screed. More generally, Blackness and slavery are almost always conflated in the literature at hand.

However, also present are the movement and change of discourses on Blackness between poetry and prose genres that emerged only in the ʿAbbasid period, such as maqāmāt and the commentarial tradition they spawn, universal geographies and the genealogical sciences on which they are staked, and slaving manuals that were inflected with the products of ʿAbbasid-era translation projects, especially of Greek sources that conveyed an antique corpus of ethnographic and physiognomic knowledge. Ultimately, literature’s racial meanings passed from the particular into the general and from the less overtly racialized into the more so as these texts circulated within an intergeneric system of premodern Arab-Muslim racial knowledge.

Discussion of the Literature

Since the early 2000s, the question of how to engage race in premodernity has been primarily pursued by authors working on medieval Western Europe, with the objective of historicizing the production of whiteness and white supremacy in the modern West. These studies, to be sure, offer valuable theoretical language and comparative potentials with non-Western milieus, and include the work of Cord Whitaker, Geraldine Heng, and M. Lindsay Kaplan.84 However, Arabic and Islamic studies have their own history of integrating hermeneutics of race—with extremely variable levels of criticality—into their labors, and continue to elicit their own sets of questions and methods.

Early Orientalist authors often unreflexively imbibed and even actively constructed the racially taxonomic, biologized thinking of the 18th through 20th centuries. As Elise Burton demonstrates, their scholarship had a hand in reifying the idea of the Middle East as a highly “admixed” crossroads.85 This crossroads was thought to incorporate a variety of Asian and African peoples and, at the same time, to contain isolated ethnic subgroups whose bodies could be probed for the “pure” origins of the earliest human civilizations, all of which was believed to be objectively quantifiable. In contrast, the late 20th century witnessed the emergence of new scholarship on the lives of racialized others in Arab-Islamic history that thought about race as a social and culturally specific construction, following social criticism pioneered primarily by Black thinkers. Significantly, Bernard Lewis’s controversial book, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry, indicates in its very title that the history of race and racialization in Arab-Islamic contexts has typically been addressed as and through histories of enslavement.86 Lewis primarily views “race” through Black-white polarities. Many scholars have similarly juxtaposed Black and white slavery in the Islamic world.

Jere Bacharach and Elizabeth Savage, among others, have written on the development of the trans-Saharan slave trade and its role in constructing Blackness—including persistent constructions of Black people as non-Muslim and therefore enslavable—as well as perceptions of Black people as primarily fit for specific roles as slaves, from infantry soldiers to domestic laborers.87 As scholars such as Adam Gaiser and John Wright note, the trades in enslaved people from many points of origin were often coterminous with one another at major centers across the Middle East and North Africa, with various North African cities becoming entrepots in Islam’s first centuries for slaves coming from Iberia as well as across the Sahara—drawing together these various groups in urban centers, even as they were categorized and differentiated through acts of sale.88 As work by scholars focusing on the late medieval through modern period like Hannah Barker and Eve Troutt Powell attests, some of the stereotypes about enslaved Black people persisted more strongly across time and space than others: though enslaved Black people at least through the Mamlūk period were generally lower-ranked and lower-priced than their lighter-skinned counterparts from Central Asia and the Northern Mediterranean, elite forms of enslavement in which Black people were installed, such as eunuch functionaries, became regularized fixtures of various imperial bureaucracies and wealthy families.89

As Craig Perry notes, the study of slavery—and, by extension, what we may conclude about the racialization of slaves in various places and times—is complicated by the typical invisibility of domestic slaves in the historical record.90 Domestics were also mostly women and constituted a large proportion of slaves in the Middle East and North Africa throughout history. For this reason, as well as numerous others, it is important to think beyond the enmeshments of race and slavery—though the two are of course mutually constitutive—and to think about race as an essential component of the study of identities and communities that incorporate a spectrum of modes of freedom and unfreedom, as in the discussion of mawālī above. Elizabeth Urban’s scholarship has much to offer for contemplating emergent gradations of freedom in early Islamic societies, as does Kecia Ali’s work on the correspondences—and in the case of concubinage, direct overlap—between the institutions of marriage and slavery.91

Several projects have engaged the question of race’s centrality in premodern identity formations across the Middle East and North Africa. In Imagining the Arabs, Peter Webb has queried the origins of Arabness as a widely used identity marker that unified various Arabian heritage groups through shared myths of genealogical and historical import; his preface to his and Sarah Savant’s new translation of Ibn Qutaybah’s The Excellence of the Arabs (Faḍl al-ʿarab wa-al-tanbīh ʿalá ʿulūmihā) characterizes the lineage-essentialist and exclusivist concept of Arabness as “tribal/racial,” a conception that was increasingly under question in Ibn Qutaybah’s world due to Persian Arabization and assimilation.92 Ramzi Rouighi similarly has written a new history of the Berbers that explores their “invention” as a simultaneously discrete and expansive nation in both Arabic sources and the European colonial discourses that relied on them, despite countervailing North African identity formations that construed “Berbers” as a panoply of mutually self-distinguishing tribes.93 Bruce Hall has written on how Arabic-language articulations of Blackness and whiteness became entangled with religious and occupational/class divisions in the early modern Niger Bend, and Chouki El Hamel has explored the long legacy of racialized understandings of Africanness, Arabness, enslavement, and enslavability in the lives of the harratin, or “freed/free people,” of modern-day Morocco.94 In her study on West African Muslims enslaved in the United States, Sylviane Diouf shows some of the ways that these figures resisted or were excepted by their enslavers from racialization into American formulations of Blackness through their Muslimness, education, and pedigree. Edward E. Curtis IV deftly draws connections between various “heirs” of Bilāl, whose importance for projects of community building and social justice endures today, by tracing a number of modern Muslim communities in the African diaspora who have claimed a share in this guiding figure’s legacy. Even if they do not take race as their central focus, all of these studies offer methods for historicizing race as a discourse formulated through collective practices, in plural and power-differentiated groups, of processing memories, imagining futures, and ordering their social and political presents. This discourse occurs in both documentary and literary sources, and across high and popular registers.


I would like to thank Craig Perry, Matthew Keegan, Philip Grant, Christopher Rose, Tom Abi Samra, Samantha Pellegrino, and Allison Kanner-Botan for reading early drafts of this essay, as well as Shaden Tageldin and the anonymous reviewer for their insights. I would also like to thank Michael Bonner for finding the mot juste for a translation, and S.J. Pearce and Kristina Richardson for valuable discussion.

Further Reading

  • Ali, Kecia. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Bacharach, Jere L. “African Military Slaves in the Medieval Middle East: The Cases of Iraq (869–955) and Egypt (868–1171).” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13, no. 4 (1981): 471–495.
  • Barker, Hannah. That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260–1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
  • Burton, Elise. Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021.
  • Curtis IV, Edward E. The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: American Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
  • El Hamel, Chouki. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Gaiser, Adam. “Slaves and Silver across the Strait of Gibraltar: Politics and Trade between Umayyad Iberia and Khārijite North Africa.” Medieval Encounters 19, no. 1–2 (2013): 41–70.
  • Gomez, Michael A. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.
  • Hall, Bruce S. A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • Ibn Qutaybah. The Excellence of the Arabs, trans. Sarah Bowen Savant and Peter Webb. New York: New York University Press, 2017.
  • Kaplan, M. Lindsay. Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Perry, Craig. “Historicizing Slavery in the Medieval Islamic World.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49, no. 1 (2017): 133–138.
  • Ramey, Lynn T. Black Legacies: Race in the European Middle Ages. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016.
  • Rouighi, Ramzi. Inventing the Berbers: History and Ideology in the Maghrib. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
  • Savage, Elizabeth. “Berbers and Blacks: Ibadi Slave Traffic in Eighth-Century North Africa.” Journal of African History 33, no. 3 (1992): 351–368.
  • Troutt Powell, Eve M. Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.
  • Urban, Elizabeth. Conquered Populations in Early Islam: Non-Arabs, Slaves, and the Sons of Slave Mothers. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019.
  • Webb, Peter. Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
  • Whitaker, Cord J. Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
  • Wright, John. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. New York: Routledge, 2017.


  • 1. All translations of the Qurʾān are from Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem, with minor clarifying edits. The Qurʾan, trans. Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

  • 2. Abū Ḥayyan al-Andalusī, Al-Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ fī al-Tafsīr, Vol. 8, ed. Ṣidqī Muḥammad Jamīl (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Fikr, 2010), 382.

  • 3. Muqātil ibn Sulaymān, Tafsīr Muqātil ibn Sulaymān, Vol. 4, ed. ʿAbdallāh Maḥmūd Shaḥāta (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth, 2002), 96–97.

  • 4. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 92.

  • 5. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.

  • 6. On the “contrariety” of Blackness and whiteness in medieval Western European works, see Cord J. Whitaker, Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

  • 7. Adam Talib, How Do You Say Epigram in Arabic? Literary History at the Limits of Comparison (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2018), 77.

  • 8. Stuart Hall, “Race, Culture, and Communications: Looking Backward and Forward at Cultural Studies,” Rethinking Marxism 5, no. 1 (1992): 14; and Stuart Hall, “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse [originally 1973; republished 2007]” in Essential Essays, Vol. 1, ed. David Morley (New York: Duke University Press, 20018), 257–276.

  • 9. For more information about the meaning use of schemes that divided the world into latitudinal climes, see Joshua T. Olsson, “The World in Arab Eyes: A Reassessment of the Climes in Medieval Islamic Scholarship,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 77, no. 3 (2014): 487–508; and Zayde Antrim, Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), passim.

  • 10. Al-Masʿūdī, Murūj al-Dhahab wa-Maʿādin al-Jawhar, Vol. 2, ed. Charles Pellat (Beirut, Lebanon: Al-Jāmiʿah al-Lubnānīyah, 1966), 276.

  • 11. Al-Jāḥiẓ, “Risālah Fakhr al-Sūdān ʿalá al-Bīḍān,” in Thalāth Rasāʾil, ed. Gerlof van Vloten (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1903), 75.

  • 12. Most recently, see Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018); and M. Lindsay Kaplan, Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

  • 13. This was the case not only in Arabic writings, but also in Persian. For an example of the relationship of geographic movement to ethnogenesis, changes to lineage, and modes of self-identification in Persianate spheres, see Mana Kia, Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020), 130–134.

  • 14. Various West African thinkers writing in Arabic into the early modern period differentiated “Blacks” from Tuareg, Arabs, and other groups, less on physical grounds than those of heritage and class. On this, see Bruce S. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1900 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • 15. On this, see Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 167–174; and Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 52–54.

  • 16. Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (2011): 262. On assaying social rank and class in the Late Antique and Early Islamic Near East, see Louise Marlow, Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), passim.

  • 17. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986), 15–16.

  • 18. Tellingly, several translators from various eras, including Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem, render this as “races” (shuʿūb, sg. shaʿb). This term’s ambiguity (most early commentators simply note that a qabīlah—the term used for “tribe”—is smaller and more intimate than a shaʿb, implying they are kinship aggregates that differ in degree, not kind) has led to expansive meditations on what it might mean to be a “people.” Compilers of The Study Quran, for example, while translating shuʿūb as peoples, gloss the verse thus: “That people have been divided into diverse peoples and tribes and that they may come to know one another indicates the manner in which differences in tribe, race, ethnicity, language, nationality, and religion can be sources through which human beings gain a deeper appreciation for the reality of the human condition.” See The Study Quran, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, et al. (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), 1262.

  • 19. To my knowledge, this trope originates with Ibn Ḥazm’s Jamharat Ansāb al-ʿArab, but continues for several centuries. For a modern example, see Abū al-Fawaz Muḥammad Amīn al-Baghdādī al-Suwaydī, Sabāʾik al-Dhahab fī Maʿrifat Qabāʾil al-ʿArab (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-ʾIlmīyah, 1986), 7.

  • 20. All of these are quotations from the Qurʾān’s various verses on the creation of humans. See Qurʾān 22:5, Qurʾān 15:26, Qurʾān 77:21.

  • 21. Al-Qushayrī, Laṭāʾif al-Ishārāt, Vol. 3, ed. ʿAbd al-Laṭīf Ḥasan ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah, 2015), 223.

  • 22. Al-Rāzī, Tafsīr al-Fakhr al-Rāzī, Vol. 8 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Fikr, 1981), 186.

  • 23. Christian Lange, “‘On That Day When Faces Will Be White or Black’ (Qurʾān 3:106): Towards a Semiology of the Face in the Arabo-Islamic Tradition,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 127, no. 4 (2007): 429–445.

  • 24. Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 54–55.

  • 25. Alf Laylah wa-Laylah, Vol. 2, ed. William H. McNaghten (Kolkata, India: W. Thacker, 1839), 273–274.

  • 26. Bernard Lewis, “The Crows of the Arabs,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 88–97; and Xavier Luffin, “Peaux noires, âmes blanches: les poètes arabes d’origine africaine face à leur négritude,” Quaderni di Studi Arabi 5, no. 6 (2010–2011): 199–215.

  • 27. On the question of al-Jāḥiẓ’s ancestry, as well as the extent of its impact on his writings, see Thomas Hefter, The Reader in al-Jāḥiẓ: The Epistolary Rhetoric of an Arabic Prose Master (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 122–129.

  • 28. On polyphony in al-Jāḥiẓ, see Abdelfattah Kilito, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, trans. Waïl S. Hassan (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 30–31; and ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Kīlīṭū, Lan Tatakallam Lughatī (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Ṭalīʿah lil-Ṭabāʿah wa-Nashr, 2002), 38.

  • 29. Ghada Hashem Talhami, “The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 10, no. 3 (1977): 451.

  • 30. Bruce Lincoln, “Human Unity and Diversity in Zoroastrian Mythology,” History of Religions 50, no. 1 (2010): 15.

  • 31. Bernard Lewis, “The Crows of the Arabs,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 88–97; and Xavier Luffin, “Peaux noires, âmes blanches: les poètes arabes d’origine africaine face à leur négritude,” Quaderni di Studi Arabi 5, no. 6 (2010–2011): 199–215.

  • 32. Luffin, “Peaux noires, âmes blanches,” 213. On counterstorytelling as a critical race practice, see Richard Delgado, “Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative,” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (1989): 2411–2441.

  • 33. Emphasis my own. Al-Suyūṭī cites these narrations as the reason for the revelation of Qurʾān 3:199, on who constitute the people of the book (ahl al-kitāb). Al-Suyūṭī, Rafʿ Shaʾn al-Ḥubshān, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb Faḍl (Cairo, Egypt: al-Azhar, 1991), 115–116.

  • 34. Al-Jāḥiẓ, Thalāth Rasāʾil, 60

  • 35. Al-Jāḥịz, Rasāʾil al-Jāḥiẓ vol. 1, ed. Muḥammad Bāsil ʿUyūn al-Sūd (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah), 129.

  • 36. Al-Jāḥịz, Rasāʾil al-Jāḥiẓ.

  • 37. Al-Jāḥịz, Rasāʾil al-Jāḥiẓ. On the meanings and importance of munificence between the pre-Islamic period and the rise of Islam, see Jamil Farooqui, “Islamization of Traditional Values,” Islamic Studies 44, no. 3 (2005): 400–403.

  • 38. ʿAbduh Badawī, Al-Sūd wa-al-Ḥaḍārah al-ʿArabīyah (Cairo, Egypt: al-Hayʾah al-Miṣrīyah al-ʿĀmmah lil-Kitāb, 1976), 225.

  • 39. Roy Mottahedeh, “The Shuʿûbîyah Controversy and the Social History of Early Islamic Iran,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 7, no. 2 (1976): 161–182. One internal Persian group that the shuʿūbīyah movement may have particularly jostled with—and that anti-shuʿūbīyah author Ibn Qutaybah was at pains to extol—was Khurasanian Persians, who gained special renown during the ʿAbbasid revolution. On this, see Ibn Qutaybah, The Excellence of the Arabs, trans. Sarah Savant and Peter Webb (New York: New York University Press, 2019), xx–xxi.

  • 40. On this institution’s history, see M. S. Sujimon, “Istilḥāq and Its Role in Islamic Law,” Arab Law Quarterly 18, no. 2 (2003): 117–143.

  • 41. On how the categories of hajīn, mawlá, and umm al-walad were mutually informed, constructed, and deconstructed in the early Islamic era, see Elizabeth Urban, Conquered Populations in Early Islam: Non-Arabs, Slaves, and the Sons of Slave Mothers (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), passim.

  • 42. On a variety of these kinship modes—though particularly milk kinship—and their role in prose literature and society, see Rachel Schine, “Nourishing the Noble: Breastfeeding and Hero-Making in Medieval Arabic Popular Literature,” Al-ʿUsūr al-Wusṭā 27, no. 1 (2019): 165–200. For early modern examples, see also Balkrishan Shivram, Kinship Structures and Foster Relations in Islamic Society: Milk Kinship Allegiance in the Mughal World (Shimla, India: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2014).

  • 43. Urban, Conquered Populations in Early Islam, passim. See also Patricia Crone, Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 36.

  • 44. Rachel Schine, “Conceiving the Pre-Modern Black-Arab Hero: On the Gendered Production of Racial Difference in Sīrat al-Amīrah Dhāt al-Himmah,” Journal of Arabic Literature 48, no. 3 (2017): 298–326.

  • 45. On lineage and parity in marriage law, see Farhat J. Ziadeh, “Equality (Kafāʾah) in the Muslim Law of Marriage,” American Journal of Comparative Law 6, no. 4 (1957): 503–517.

  • 46. On a variety of African dynasties and communities that have made similar claims, see Xavier Luffin, “‘Nos ancêtres les Arabes . . . ’: Généalogies d’Afrique musulmane,” Civilisations 53, no. 1–2 (2006): 177–209.

  • 47. James E. Montgomery, Dīwān ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād: A Literary-Historical Study (New York: New York University Press, 2018), xvi.

  • 48. In a few of the more mainstream of his poems, a similar refrain recurs with respect to ʿAntarah’s parents, in which he refers to his father alternatively as the “best of ʿAbs,” the “clan of ʿAbs,” or as a child of Qays, forefather of the Arabs, and he refers to his mother in all instances as descended from Ham. Notably, though, ʿAntarah does not declare what this combination of parents makes him in any of these poems. ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād, War Songs, trans. James Montgomery (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 217; 30–31; 137; 154–155.

  • 49. Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 34.

  • 50. ʿAntarah, War Songs, 249.

  • 51. Larger or smaller portions of this poem are quoted across different versions of ʿAntarah’s epic. A complete version appears in the following edition: Sīrat ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād, Vol. 3 (Beirut, Lebanon: Al-Maṭbaʿah al-Lubnānīyah, 1869), 139.

  • 52. Montgomery, War Songs, 154–155; al-Jāḥiẓ, Thalāth Rasāʾil, 81; Ibn al-Jawzī, Tanwīr al-Ghabash fī Faḍl al-Sūdān wa-al-Ḥabash, ed. Marzūq ʿAlī Ibrāhīm (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Dār al-Sharīf, 1998), 51.

  • 53. Sīrat ʿAntar ibn Shaddād, Vol. 1 (Cairo, Egypt: al-Maktabah al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʿArabīyah, 1980), 126.

  • 54. Sīrat ʿAntar ibn Shaddād, Vol. 5, 395.

  • 55. Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. S. Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), 146.

  • 56. Khufāf ibn Nudbah, Shiʿr Khufāf ibn Nudbah, ed. Nūrī Ḥamūdī al-Qaysī (Baghdad, Iraq: Maṭbaʿah al-Maʿārif, 1967), 8.

  • 57. Huda J. Fakhreddine, “Defining Metapoesis in the ʿAbbāsid Age,” Journal of Arabic Literature 42, no. 2–3 (2011): 205–235.

  • 58. Even in poems not directly related to his racist screed, al-Mutanabbī was infamously harsh toward Kāfūr in racialized and gendered ways, as in his eulogy to Abū Shujāʿ Fātik; see James E. Montgomery, “Al-Mutanabbī and the Psychology of Grief,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 2 (1995): 286–288. On the role of Kāfūr in al-Mutanabbī’s life and career, see Margaret Larkin, Al-Mutanabbi (London: Oneworld, 2008), 63–78.

  • 59. On Mamluk slaving practices, see Hannah Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260–1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

  • 60. Jere L. Bacharach attributes the disappearance of Black military slaves from ʿAbbasid sources in part to a significant shift to Daylamī infantry in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. See Jere L. Bacharach, “African Military Slaves in the Medieval Middle East: The Case of Iraq (869–955) and Egypt (868–1171),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13, no. 4 (1981): 474. On the role Turkic soldiers in modern historiographies, see Matthew S. Gordon, “Slavery in the Islamic Middle East (600–1000 CE),” in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol. 2, ed. Craig Perry, David Eltis, Stanley L. Engerman, and David Richardson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 354–357.

  • 61. Craig Perry, “Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Western Indian Ocean World,” in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol. 2, ed. Craig Perry, David Eltis, Stanley L. Engerman, and David Richardson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 131–135.

  • 62. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, “African Diasporas: Toward a Global History,” African Studies Review 1, no. 1 (2010): 14.

  • 63. Bacharach, “African Military Slaves,” 476.

  • 64. Al-Suyūṭī, Rafʿ Shaʾn al-Ḥubshān, 360; and Yaacov Lev, “Regime, Army, and Society in Medieval Egypt, 9th–12th Centuries,” in War and Society in the Eastern Mediterranean, 7th–15th Centuries, ed. Yaacov Lev (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1997), 119.

  • 65. Bacharach, “African Military Slaves,” 480.

  • 66. For a full translation of the poem, see Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in Classical Arabic Ode (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002), 225–228 (compare with original Arabic verses on pages 314–316). On the language of luxury, purity, and early articulations of race in Romance discourses, see Ana M. Gómez-Bravo, “The Origins of ‘Raza’: Racializing Difference in Early Spanish,” Interfaces: A Journal of Medieval European Literatures 7 (2020): 64–114.

  • 67. Larkin, Al-Mutanabbi, 77.

  • 68. Use of al-Mutanabbī’s poetic aphorisms as “wisdom literature” was sufficiently widespread that al‑Hātimī’s epistolary comparison, line-for-line, of his thought with that of Aristotle even made its way into the Cairo Geniza, copied in Judeo-Arabic: Yosef Tobi, “The Hebrew Transcription of Risālat al‑Hātimī: A Comparative Study between Sayings Attributed to Aristotle and Poetic Verses Attributed to Mutanabbī (Cambridge, T.S. Arabic, 45.2),” in Between Hebrew and Arabic Poetry: Studies in Spanish Medieval Hebrew Poetry (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 321–354.

  • 69. On the raced, sexed, and gendered portrayals of court eunuchs in Byzantine literature, see Roland Bettancourt, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 109.

  • 70. For a comparative treatment of al-ʿAyntābī’s treatise and its formulations of ethnicity and utility with others of its time, see Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise, 77–81.

  • 71. Muẓaffar al-Dīn Abū-l-Thanāʾ Maḥmūd ibn Aḥmad al-ʿAyntābī al-Amshāṭī al-Ḥanafī, Al-Qawl al-Sadīd fī Ikhtiyār al-Imāʾ wa-al-ʿAbīd (Erfurt, Germany: Ms. orient A 1237, Universitäts Erfurt/Gotha Research Library), 4v.

  • 72. See descriptions of zanj people, and particularly zanj women in comparison with other slave women in the following: Ibn Buṭlān, “Risālah Jāmiʿat al-Funūn al-Nāfiʿah fī Shirá al-Raqīq wa-Taqlīb al-ʿAbīd,” in Nawādir al-Makhṭūṭāt, Vol. 1, ed. ʿAbd al-Salām Hārūn (Cairo, Egypt: Muṣṭafá al-Ḥalabī, 1973), 374.

  • 73. Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise, 9.

  • 74. Kristina Richardson, “Singing Slave Girls (Qiyan) of the ʿAbbasid Court in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries,” in Children in Slavery Through the Ages, ed. Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C. Miller (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009), 112.

  • 75. For a complete translation of this poem, see Geert Jan van Gelder, Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 53–57. For the original Arabic, see Ibn al-Rūmī, Dīwān Ibn al-Rūmī, Vol. 1, ed. ʿAlī ibn ʿAbbās ibn Jarīj (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Raqm, 2001), 677–682.

  • 76. In al-ʿAyntābī’s treatise, for example, he follows Ibn Buṭlān in characterizing Abyssinian women as especially obedient toward men and describes them as pleasurable to their partners in marriage because of the “heat of their wombs.” Al-ʿAyntābī, Al-Qawl al-Sadīd, 12r.

  • 77. Al-Sharīshī, Sharḥ Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī, Vol. 1, ed. Ibrāhīm Shams al-Dīn (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyah, 1998), 233. For a discussion of this passage’s relationship to other accounts of the history of Islam in Ghana, see Michael Gomez, African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 40.

  • 78. I am greatly indebted to discussions with Matthew Keegan for information on al-Sharīshī’s sharḥ and his ties to Sijilmasa, as well as for providing me with his work on al-Panjdīhī. Al-Sharīshī, Sharḥ Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī, 232.

  • 79. On the context for Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s journey in the history of the Malian Empire, see Gomez, African Dominion, 144–147.

  • 80. Emphasis my own. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, Riḥlah, ed. Ṣafāʾ Binnānī (Tanta, Egypt: Dār Samāḥ lil-Ṭabāʿah wa-al-Nashr), 550.

  • 81. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, Riḥlah, 551–552.

  • 82. Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 304.

  • 83. Al-Sharīshī’s explanation of Ghana also contrasts with the maqāmāt commentary on which he based much of his own, namely, that of al-Panjdīhī. Al-Panjdīhī does mention that Ghana is in the far west and “her people are blacks” (ahluhā al-sūdān), but otherwise glosses the phrase “Ferghana to Ghana” very minimally. On al-Panjdīhī’s work and its meanings, see Matthew L. Keegan, “Digressions in the Islamic Archive: Al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt and the Forgotten Commentary of al-Panǧdīhī (d. 584/1188),” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World (2021); and Muradmolla MS 1548, f. 181r.

  • 84. Whitaker, Black Metaphors; Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages; and Kaplan, Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity.

  • 85. Elise Burton, Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021).

  • 86. Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East.

  • 87. Bacharach, “African Military Slaves”; and Elizabeth Savage, “Berbers and Blacks: Ibadi Slave Traffic in Eighth-Century North Africa,” Journal of African History 33, no. 3 (1992): 351–368.

  • 88. Adam Gaiser, “Slaves and Silver across the Strait of Gibraltar: Politics and Trade between Umayyad Iberia and Khārijite North Africa,” Medieval Encounters 19, no. 1–2 (2013): 41–70; and John Wright, The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade (New York: Routledge, 2017).

  • 89. Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise; and Eve M. Troutt Powell, Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

  • 90. Craig Perry, “Historicizing Slavery in the Medieval Islamic World,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49, no. 1 (2017): 133–138.

  • 91. Urban, Conquered Populations in Early Islam; and Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

  • 92. Peter Webb, Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016); and Ibn Qutaybah, The Excellence of the Arabs.

  • 93. Ramzi Rouighi, Inventing the Berbers: History and Ideology in the Maghrib (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

  • 94. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa; and El Hamel, Black Morocco.