In this blog post, Rachel Schine (postdoctoral associate and instructor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder) offers guidance on how to teach about race and racialization using texts published by the Library of Arabic Literature.
In a recent article discussing the biases of job ads—and therefore of support, credentialing, and platforming—in the field of Islamic studies, Ilyse R. Morgenstein-Fuerst explains that, from the outside, most view “Islam” as meaning “Middle East + Arabic + texts.” Morgenstein-Fuerst makes clear that this perception has racist roots. Rudolph Ware speaks to how similar distortions reverberate within the field when he notes that scholarship on sub-Saharan African Muslims often treats them as heterodox latecomers to a foreign religion, saying, “Many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century colonial authorities and ‘Orientalists’ (often one and the same) thought of Islam as the property and proper expression of Arab genius,” a trend situated in “colonial racial assumptions” (Ware, The Walking Qur’an, 2014, 19). Morgenstein-Fuerst’s and Ware’s focus is on the contemporary academy, but the disturbing paradigms they identify would have been perfectly agreeable to the ninth-century polymath Ibn Qutaybah. One sees shadows of these biases in his remarks in The Excellence of the Arabs:
God subsequently brought Islam, and from the Arabs elevated the Prophet (God bless and cherish him), chief of all prophets […]. God caused the Arabs to multiply, put an end to dissension among them, supported them with His angels, and strengthened them with His power. He established them in the land and enabled them to tread upon other nations’ necks. He endowed them with the caliphate, with succession to prophethood, and then with the imamate […] It was then, when there were no Easterners present, that God addressed the Arabs, saying: “You are indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for mankind.”
The similarities between Ibn Qutaybah’s articulation of Arabness and those of Morgenstein-Fuerst’s and Ware’s academicians are not coincidental; many field-making Orientalists imbibed traditionist Arabic histories. But was this conception of Arab superiority—couched in being Islam’s social and spiritual core—racialized when Ibn Qutaybah wrote it? How might we use primary sources like this one to teach the historical contexts and modern implications of racial thinking? The Library of Arabic Literature has a trove of volumes that facilitate conversations on premodern race and identity construction. Here I focus on three: Ibn Qutaybah’s Excellence of the Arabs, the dīwān of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād translated as War Songs, and Two Arabic Travel Books featuring the writings of Ibn Faḍlān and Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī. I also include some reflections on using these items in my own classroom.
But first, in order to cultivate pedagogies around race for our students, we need some purchase on race in premodern Arabo-Muslim understandings ourselves. Race has no scientific basis; it is a social construction, but one that is covert because the social entities that make race view it as a way of classifying natural, essential features in order to distinguish human types. Some scholars hold that “race” and its scientific idioms are an invention of the modern West. However, there is growing recognition that a plurality of global cultures across times have had techniques of racializing people, including in the Arabic-speaking world.
Racializing is simultaneously reductive (it flattens differences between many, often mutually distinguishing groups) and expansive (it aggregates all these groups together based on perceived biobehavioral sameness), and the language in which it occurs in premodern Arabic is familiar but not identical to our own. It is articulated as a byproduct of reproductive histories (referenced through terms such as nasab, ʿirq, ʿunṣur, or aṣl) that trace their arcane beginnings to Noah’s children. It is also affixed to an evolving world-picture: primordial peoples settled in different climate zones, each of which affects the body’s constitution and therefore alters appearances as well as dispositions. Generations progressed, and these differences of local nature solidified into different human types. However, because race is a social construct, the lines between such category formations are rarely unmoving. Islam’s formative period—an era of especially frenzied intercultural encounter and assimilation—witnessed a shift in racializing rhetoric and in the peoples at whom it was directed, particularly in line with populations’ changing roles in central Arab-Muslim polities. Indeed, the above theories accommodate and scientize the prospect of racial change through different reproductive choices, the “rediscovery” of ancestral ties, or movement and long-term settlement in new climes.
The geographic organization of human kinds—arranged by schematic proximity or distance from authors’ own domains—is vividly displayed in Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī’s synthetic tenth-century work, Accounts of China and India. Unlike other authors, he does not taxonomize the climes. He does, however, echo the late antique conception that those at the known globe’s farthest reaches are the least normative, speaking of islands where men go naked and practice cannibalism in the southern Indian Ocean, as opposed to the urbane precincts of China and India. These differences are paired with physiognomic indicators that are ascribed aesthetic value. And so, the island-dwelling cannibals are “black and have frizzy hair, hideous faces, and long feet,” where China, which is described as yet healthier terrain than India, is populated by the “pale-skinned” and “good looking,” and its people are the most similar to Arabs. It is no coincidence that this also maps onto perceived dominion, with China’s ruler said to rank just below the rulers of Arabia and Byzantium. One could use this text in the classroom to discuss how race is, at base, an expression of power that defines self, allies, and others. Writing primarily from merchants’ accounts, Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī applies this reasoning in recounting the myriad prospects and perils of a booming Indian Ocean trade that, at the time, was securing the Abbasids’ status as rulers of a preeminent empire and typifying their cosmopolitan reach. I taught Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī’s text in a class on travel writing in Arabic literatures, following a unit on hajj and ṭalab al-ʿilm accounts, and the text provided an evocative contrast by showcasing an Arab Muslim author representing non-Muslims in more or less intimate ways across significant spatial and cultural divides.
In his representation of humanity’s far, southerly edges, Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī demonstrates how racialization distances and excludes. But what happens when the people who are made to seem most different from you are in fact your neighbors? This is famously the plight of the pre-Islamic warrior-poet, ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād, who was of matrilineal Abyssinian descent and patrilineal Arab descent and purportedly took after his mother. Racing people like ʿAntarah as “black” has a long history in Arab writings, which imagined the bilād al-sūdān (lands of the blacks) as spanning sub-Saharan Africa to—as we saw above—roughly Indonesia. Early on, the term “black” was especially applied to various East Africans who were geopolitically enmeshed with Arabia from pre-Islamic times. In this era, heritages such as ʿAntarah’s also made him “mixed” (hajīn). In his own poetry, ʿAntarah does not refer to himself as black, but in one short, “obscure” poem ʿAntarah tells us he is a “half-blood” and that men guard their women from him, “black or white.” Here, ʿAntarah strategically invokes his in-betweenness. As Islamic institutions of kinship crystallized in the early period, though, mixed lineages were decreasingly expressed as such because of the premium placed on patrilineal descent, which determined one’s legal name and ethnicity regardless of how one was raced in daily life; in his lifetime ʿAntarah was born enslaved, but under Islam he would have been born a free, Arab child. Meanwhile, blackness becomes closely associated with slavery in literature, due in part to the growing Trans-Saharan slave trade. In this same transitional period, ʿAntarah’s legacy undergoes a renovation through his epic, Sīrat ʿAntar, in which he is frequently characterized by himself and others as “black” but also lays claim to his Arab nisba; he is no longer “mixed,” but a Black Arab. Some poems from the epic that articulate this are featured in War Songs (as in poem 48, which proclaims, “fools may mock my blackness but without night there’s no day!”). We can use ʿAntarah’s multiple texts and contexts to explore how race’s significance shifts. In my popular literature class, I paired War Songs with Harry Norris’s translations of ʿAntarah’s African adventures, The Adventures of Antar. We considered the construction of ʿAntarah’s heroic persona: his poetic ambivalence toward war becomes dramatized enthusiasm, his love of ʿAblah moves from being mercurial to unwavering, and his in-between identity gets forcefully, defiantly resolved.
This resolution brings us back to Ibn Qutaybah, who, as the introduction to The Excellence of the Arabs relates, evinces demographic anxiety. In the early Islamic period it was advantageous to possess an Arabian lineage, that is, to claim the cultural inheritance for which ʿAntarah vigorously contends. But as the Islamic world grew and embraced numerous peoples, it became difficult to “maintain pure tribal/racial lineages for long,” even with institutions like patrilineal nasab that preserved local pedigrees despite men taking foreign wives and slaves. More disturbingly (for Ibn Qutaybah), competing claims of racialized prestige—particularly from Persianate “Bigots”—were coming increasingly to the fore at the very time when, in his view, Arab superiority could not be more patently divinely consecrated. And so, Ibn Qutaybah probes global genealogies and rebuffs the Persians’ polemical claim to descend from Isaac and their assertion that this makes them superior to the Arabs, descended from Ishmael and his enslaved mother. Ibn Qutaybah avers, instead, that Hagar was purified by God and so valued by the Egyptians that she was given to Sarah as a gift. Overall, proximity to Abraham takes priority, and Ibn Qutaybah elevates descent through elite foreign concubinage—also a norm among Arab potentates of his day—by arguing for its divine favorability.
Ibn Qutaybah complicates these broad lineages with finer-grain distinctions of social class, with which race of course intersects. He ties respectability both to one’s birth station and to subscribing, by dint of upper-class decorum (sharaf), to a system in which one is obligated to Arab rulers who are inevitably yet more advantaged (as Ibn Qutaybah did). He states that some “lower-class Easterners” have tried to fabricate prestige out of jealousy of the Arabs by claiming descent from “[the Easterners’] kings and cavalry,” which they can do because their “genealogical system is extensive and unmonitored.” In other words, their heredity lacks probative rigor. Ibn Qutaybah enables us to talk with students about how racial logic works, circularly, to reify a fragile status quo by demonizing any counterclaim as scientifically weak or in defiance of the God-given natural order.
Calls to diversify our syllabi—which sometimes fall on deaf ears in fields that already view themselves as addressing marginalized subjects—demand not just new readings but new reading methods. These texts from the Library of Arabic Literature help us tease apart the myths I mentioned above—that Arabness and Islam are mutually constitutive, essential, and un-diverse—from the inside, by showing how Arabic-language authors working prior to and within Islam practiced identity construction at local and global scales. They expose why certain constructions become entrenched, and how emergent, biologized discourses about lineage and geography hide the social premises for human categorization in plain sight. I have offered a few ways of doing this, particularly by reading literary racialization against contemporaneous systems and institutions. But these texts are so rich that there are virtually endless conversations to be had. I eagerly await more.
Rachel Schine holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. She is presently a postdoctoral associate and instructor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations. Her current book project explores the literary and social histories of black protagonists in Arabic popular literature. She has published on topics relating to racialization and kinship in Arabic storytelling in, among others, the Journal of Arabic Literature and al-‘Usūr al-Wustā: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists.