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West Asian views on black Africans during the medieval era

"In both Arab and Iranian Islamic writings, blacks are accused of being stupid, untruthful, vicious, cowardly, sexually unbridled, ugly and distorted, excessively merry, and easily affected by food and drink."

Minoo Southgate, 1984, Negative Images of Blacks in Some Medieval Iranian Writings

Arabs called African Blacks (typically East Africans) the 'Zanj'. Most Arab writers who spoke disparagingly of black Africans had never traveled to subSaharan Africa. Many of their tales were based on hearsay. In the Arab world, as in Europe, there was a necessity to justify the enslavement of black Africans by portraying them as subhuman.

At least part of the negative fiction was fabricated by black Africans themselves. Coastal East Africans such as the Swahili formed the trade link between Arabs from Asia and the African interior. To defend their trading zone, they told fantastic stories of the dangers of the interior.1 Asian merchants were thus discouraged from venturing into the interior and making direct trade links with the wealthy kingdoms there. Thus the Swahili preserved their trade monopoly and prospered.

Although the Arab writers featured below described blacks in demeaning language, Ibn Battuta, the most well-travelled man in pre-modern times, wrote of sub-Saharan Africans in a vastly different light. Ibn Battuta was a native of Morocco, culturally Arab and ethnically Berber.2 Of all medieval travel writers, he was the only one who actually traveled to both East Africa and West Africa.3

In the following table, the observations of Ibn Battuta and other Arab writers are laid out side by side. These are not meant to be direct comparisons as Ibn Battuta was writing of specific black African cultures, while most of the other writers were writing of the generic Zanj. One of the writers mentioned below, Al-Jahiz, is believed by many scholars to be of African descent.4 He once wrote the essay On the Zanj in praise of black Africans, but turned bitter against blacks later in life probably because of the violence of the Zanj slave revolt in Iraq.

Other Arab/Indian/Iranian writersIbn Battuta

"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."

Maqdisi, also known as Al-Muqaddasi (fl. 966 AD), Kitab al-Bad' wah-tarikh, vol.4

"We ... traveled by sea to the city of Kulwa [Kilwa in East Africa]...Most of its people are Zunuj, extremely black...The city of Kulwa is amongst the most beautiful of cities and most elegantly built... Their uppermost virtue is religion and righteousness and they are Shafi'i in rite."5

Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1331

"The geographer al-Idrisi ascribes 'lack of knowledge and defective minds' to the black peoples. Their ignorance, he says, is notorious; men of learning and distinction are almost unknown among them, and their kings only acquire what they know about government and justice from the instruction of learned visitors from farther north."6

"Another of [the Malli blacks'] good qualities is their concern for learning the sublime Qur'an by heart. They make fetters for their children when they appear on their part to be falling short in their learning of it by heart, and they are not taken off them till they do learn by heart."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"Like the crow among mankind are the Zanj for they are the worst of men and the most vicious of creatures in character and temperament."7

Al Jahiz, Kitab al-Hayawan, vol. 2

"Among [the Mali blacks'] good qualities is the small amount of injustice amongst them, for of all people they are the furthest from it..."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"[inhabitants of sub-Saharan African countries] are people distant from the standards of humanity" "Their nature is that of wild animals..."

Persian geography Hudud al-`alam, 982 AD8

"For [the people of Takadda in West Africa] ease of life and ample conditions are supreme; they vie with one another in the number of slaves and servants they have - as likewise do the people of Malli and Iwalatan. They do not sell educated woman-slaves, except very rarely and at a great price."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"We know that the Zanj (blacks) are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of actions."

Jahiz (d. 868 AD), Kitab al-Bukhala (The Book of Misers)9

"[The people of Mombasa in East Africa] are a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built."

Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1331

"They [the Shu`ubiyya] maintain that eloquence is prized by all people at all times - even the Zanj, despite their dimness, their boundless stupidity, their obtuseness, their crude perceptions and their evil dispositions, make long speeches."

Jahiz, Al-Bayan wa`l-tabyin, vol. 3

"I met the qadi of Malli... he is a black, has been on a pilgrimage, and is a noble person with good qualities of character... I met the interpreter Dugha, a noble black and a leader of theirs... They performed their duty towards me [as a guest] most perfectly; may God bless and reward them for their good deeds!"

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"Galen says that merriment dominates the black man because of his defective brain, whence also the weakness of his intelligence."

Al-Masudi (d. 956 AD), Muruj al-dhahab10

"Another of the good habits among [the people of Malli] is the way they meticulously observe the times of the prayers and attendance at them, so also it is with regard to their congregational services and the beating of their children to instill these things in them."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"As regards southern countries, all their inhabitants are black on account of the heat of their climate... Most of them go naked... In all their lands and provinces, gold is found.... They are people distant from the standards of humanity."

Hudud al-`Alam, Persian geography, 982 AD

"[The sultan of Malli] holds sessions during the days associated with the 2 festivals...The men-at-arms come with wonderful weaponry, quivers of silver and gold, swords covered with gold, their sheaths of the same, spears of silver and gold and wands of crystal.. On [the women] are fine clothes and on their heads they have bands of silver and gold apples as pendants... then come...young men who... have a wonderful gracefulness and lightness...they juggle with swords beautifully."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"The Zanj are so uncivilized that they have no notion of a natural death. If a man dies a natural death, they think he was poisoned. Every death is suspicious with them, if a man has not been killed by a weapon."

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, India, 1030 AD

"... there is also the prevalence of peace in their country, the traveler is not afraid in it nor is he who lives there in fear of the thief or the robber by violence...there are no thieves in their country"

Ibn Battuta, 14th century, writing about Mali

About the Zanj: "Their nature is that of wild animals. They are extremely black." About the Sudan: "Among themselves there are people who steal each other's children and sell them to the merchants when the latter arrive."

Hudud al-`Alam, 982 AD

"[The sultan of Kilwa, East Africa] ... was Father of Gifts because of his many gifts and deeds of generosity... This sultan is a very humble man. He sits with the poor people and eats with them... The gratitude of the people to the sultan increased at the evidence of his humility and graciousness."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"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."

Philosopher-theologian Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-74), Tasawwurat (Rawdat al-taslim)

[Mogadishu (in East Africa)] is a town endless in its size... Its people are powerful merchants. In it are manufactured the cloths named after it which have no rival, and are transported as far as Egypt and elsewhere.

Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1331

"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."

Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 14th century AD11

"Then I reached [a West African town]. This town had as its governor an excellent man, a pilgrim called Farba Sulaiman, well known for his bravery and tenacity...An Arab slave girl of his from Damascus came in to us. She was an Arab and spoke to me in Arabic."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

Note that in this case, a black man owned an Arab slave

"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."

Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, Mukhtasar Kitab al-Buldan, 903 AD

"Another of [the Malli blacks'] good qualities is their concern for learning the sublime Qur'an by heart...One day I passed a handsome youth from them dressed in fine clothes and on his feet was a heavy chain. I said to the man who was with me, 'What has this youth done -- has he killed someone?' The youth heard my remark and laughed. It was told me, 'He has been chained so that he will learn the Qu'ran by heart.'"

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"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 Khaldun, Muqaddimah

"There came to sultan Mansa Sulaiman (of the Mali empire) a group of these blacks who eat human beings accompanied by one of their amirs... They cover themselves in silk mantles... The sultan was gracious to them...They...came to the sultan to return thanks."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"[Blacks] are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country."

Baghdadi geographer Ibn Qutayba (828-89 A.D.)

"[the people of Iwalatan in West Africa] were generous to me and entertained me...and as for their women -- they are extremely beautiful and are more important than the men..."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

"The Zanj are slight-witted (kam 'aql), and God, most high, has created them stupid, ignorant, and foul (palid)."

anonymous, Iskandarnamah, 1343 AD

"[The sultan of Kilwa, East Africa] ... was Father of Gifts because of his many gifts and deeds of generosity... This sultan is a very humble man. He sits with the poor people and eats with them... The gratitude of the people to the sultan increased at the evidence of his humility and graciousness."

Ibn Battuta, 14th century

D.


Notes
  1. James de V. Allen, Swahili Origins, p. p71
  2. Ibn Battuta in Wikipedia
  3. Said Hamdun and Noel King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa
  4. Alexandre Popovic, The Revolt of the African Slaves in the 3rd/9th Century (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Press, 1999), pp. 9, 14
  5. Said Hamdun and Noel King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa
  6. Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A Historical Enquiry
  7. Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A Historical Enquiry
  8. Hudud al-'Alam - the Translator's Preface
  9. The Book of Misers
  10. Muruj al-dhahab wa-ma┬░adin al-jawhar
  11. The Muqaddimah