Snapshots From A Muslim Photographer: Islam Rejects Racism? (Part 2)

A convert to Islam and his curious plan to photograph young American Muslims.

When last we looked at the plans of a convert to Islam, Carlos Khalil Guzman, to publish a book of photographs of young American Muslims, with each being asked to choose a single favorite verse from the Qur’an, or a single saying of the Prophet, and explain why he/she chose it, we were left with his remarkable assertion that “Islam is against all types of oppression…It’s against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism.”

Sounds good. But is it true? Let’s take those claims one by one. Islam is against ‘“racism”? But what of the many Hadith that tell us otherwise, such as this: “Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet said to Abu-Dhar, “Listen and obey (your chief) even if he is an Ethiopian with a head like a raisin.” And this: Ahmad ibn Abi Sulayman, the companion of Sahnun said, “Anyone who says that the Prophet was black should be killed.” (Ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, Qadi ‘Iyad, p. 375)

And there is this from the celebrated historian Al-Tabari: “Noah prayed that the hair of Ham’s descendants [Africans] would not grow beyond their ears, and that whenever his [Ham’s] descendants met Shem’s, the latter would enslave them.” (Al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 21, p. 21)

Why was it so terrible for the Prophet to be called “black”? Because for the Arabs, blacks were unquestionably inferior. And therefore Prophet Muhammad could not possibly have been black. Such misidentification, according to Ahmad ibn Abi Sulayman, was an insult to the Prophet, and deserved death. And blacks, as descendants of Ham, are fit to be slaves (Shem’s descendants “would enslave them”).

Many of the most famous Arab writers and Islamic scholars were certainly “racists” in the full meaning of that word.

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was, among other things, an Islamic jurist, Islamic lawyer, Islamic scholar, Islamic theologian, and hafiz (one who has memorized the entire Qur’an). He is one of the most important figures in Islamic history. Here are two (among many) remarks he makes about black Africans in his Muqaddimah:

“Therefore, the Negro nation are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.”

“Beyond [known peoples of black West Africa] to the south there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves, and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings.”

Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037), was another celebrated figure in Islamic history: a Hafiz, an Islamic psychologist, scholar, and theologian and, by our lights, a racist: “[Blacks are] people who are by their very nature slaves.”

Ibn Qutaybah (828-889), was a renowned Islamic scholar from Kufa, Iraq: “[Blacks] are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country.”

Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī (1201-1274), was a Shia Muslim Scholar and Grand Ayatollah:

“If (all types of men) are taken, from the first, and one placed after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the Southern-most countries, the Negro does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth –In no other peculiarity or property – except for what God wished. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more intelligent.”

“[The Zanj (African) differ from animals only in that] their two hands are lifted above the ground,… Many have observed that the ape is more teachable and more intelligent than the Zanj.”

Al-Muqaddasi (945/946-1000) was a medieval Muslim geographer:

Of the neighbors of the Bujja, Maqdisi had heard that “there is no marriage among them; the child does not know his father, and they eat people — but God knows best. As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.” [Kitab al-Bad’ wah-tarikh, vol.4]

Al-Masudi (896-956), was a Muslim historian and geographer, known as the “Herodotus of the Arabs”:

“Galen says that merriment dominates the black man because of his defective brain, whence also the weakness of his intelligence.” (Al-Masudi, Muruj al-dhahab)

Ibn al-Faqih was a Muslim historian and geographer:

“A man of discernment said: The people of Iraq … do not come out with something between blonde, buff and blanched coloring, such as the infants dropped from the wombs of the women of the Slavs and others of similar light complexion; nor are they overdone in the womb until they are burned, so that the child comes out something between black, murky, malodorous, stinking, and crinkly-haired, with uneven limbs, deficient minds, and depraved passions, such as the Zanj, the Somali, and other blacks who resemble them. The Iraqis are neither half-baked dough nor burned crust but between the two.” (from his Mukhtasar Kitab al-Buldan, 903 AD)

These are just a small sample of the racist remarks made by outstanding figures in Islamic intellectual history. All of them have apparently escaped the notice of Carlos Khalil Guzman. And I have the feeling that even if he were made aware of them, he would prefer not to bring them to the notice of Unbelievers, lest they think ill of his beloved Islam. Perhaps I underestimate him. Perhaps — should we allow ourselves to believe? — that if he became aware of the racism that all the most important figures in Muslim Arab culture exhibited, he might even begin to question Islam.

Carlos Khalil Guzman takes no notice of the Arab Slave Trade, where Arab cruelty toward black Africans was so obviously in evidence. What does he know about this traffic that involved, over 1300 years, 100 million black Africans? That trade began earlier, and ended later (and only under Western pressure), and claimed many more victims, than the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Arab trade consisted mainly of capturing black boys in the bush and castrating them on site, then herding them to the slave markets of Islam. Only about 10% survived both the castration and the difficult journey, according to Jan Hogedoorn in his study “The Hideous Trade.” Estimates of the numbers involved are that 17 million Africans made it alive to be sold as slaves; if we take the estimate of Jan Hogedoorn that that represented 10% of those originally seized, that would mean, if only black boys were taken, 170 million black Africans were captured by African slavers. But while the boys made up the greatest number of slaves, some women and girls were also among those seized. They would not have undergone castration, and thus a greater percentage of them would have survived. It is likely, then, that fewer Africans — say 100-120 million — might have been involved in the Arab slave trade. The latest estimate of the number of slaves who died en route to the Islamic slave markets was made by John Alembellah Azumah in his 2001 book, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa; he estimates that over 80 million black people died en route to the Islamic slave markets, with about 20 million surviving, for a total of 100 million. In the Atlantic Slave Trade, the scholarly consensus is that about 12.5 million slaves were taken, and of those, 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage. In other words, the Arab Slave Trade involved at least eight times as many slaves as did the Atlantic Slave Trade. Are we to conclude that this largest and cruelest of slave trades had nothing to do with how the Arabs thought of blacks (see the many quotes above)? Nothing to do with “race”? Don’t you think that Guzman is most likely unaware of the dimensions of that Arab Slave Trade, and with the rampant anti-black racism among Muslim Arabs that both justified and promoted it?