Posted on November 28, 2021

Arabs and Persians on the Characteristics of Blacks

Hippocrates, American Renaissance, May 2011

In the year 410 the German Visigoth Alaric and his army sacked Rome and destroyed the Roman Empire in the West. The Eastern Empire survived but its intellectual life came to an end in the sixth century AD, when Emperor Justinian closed the colleges in Athens and the scholars migrated to Baghdad. Europe entered the Dark Ages, which lasted some 600 years. During this time, Muslim civilizations flourished in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and in Iran. These civilizations had slaves of a variety of ethnic and racial groups, including blacks, who were mainly purchased in Zanzibar, off the coast of East Africa.

The Arabs and Persians were therefore familiar with blacks, and in some cases wrote about them at length. Their descriptions were almost always negative and many middle-Easterners continue to have a low opinion of blacks, who are not generally welcome as immigrants.

The American scholar Minoo Southgate has summarized, in her own words, the characteristics of blacks most commonly recorded by mid-Eastern writers: “In both Arab and Persian 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.” She also quotes a number of sources directly.

The first Arab scholar known to have commented on the low intelligence of blacks was Al Jahiz (d. 868 AD), who wrote, “We know that the Zanj [East Africans blacks] are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of actions.” Al Jahiz also claimed that “despite their dimness, their boundless stupidity, their obtuseness, their crude perceptions and their evil dispositions, they make long speeches.” He concluded that “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.”

A century later, Maqdisi (also known as Al-Muqaddasi, fl. 966 AD) wrote that “the Africans are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.” The 12th century Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi described blacks as having a “lack of knowledge and defective minds,” adding, “Their ignorance 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.”

Another Arabic scholar, Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, (c. 903 AD) wrote that “the people of Iraq . . . do not come out . . . 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 East Africans, the Somali, and other blacks who resemble them. The Iraqis are neither half-baked dough nor burned crust but between the two.”

In 1343 AD, an anonymous Arab published a romance about Alexander the Great entitled Iskandarnamah in which he wrote that “the East Africans are slight-witted, and God, most high, has created them stupid, ignorant, and foul.”

These observations were made of East African blacks with whom the Arabs were most familiar, but they knew something also of the blacks of southern Africa. The celebrated polymath Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406) wrote: “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 also wrote: “Therefore, the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because Negroes have little that is human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.” Khaldun could have been quoting Aristotle, who wrote that “it is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.” Aristotle also likened slaves to animals, calling the ox the poor man’s slave.

Persians who observed blacks reached similar conclusions. The geographer al-Qazwini (1203 – 1283) asserted that blacks are characterized by “weakness of intelligence,” and Hudud al-Alam (c. 982 AD) wrote that “as regards southern countries, all their inhabitants are black on account of the heat of their climate . . . Most of them go naked. . . . They are people distant from the standards of humanity . . . Their nature is that of wild animals.”

The Persian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni did not comment on the intelligence of blacks but wrote (c.1030 AD) of what he considered their primitive nature: “[T]he Zanj [blacks] 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.”

Maqdisi (fl. 966 AD) asserted of blacks that “there is no marriage among them; the child does not know his father, and they eat people.” Some three centuries later, the Persian scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274) concluded that the human races had different levels of intellectual development and that East African blacks were at the lowest level: “If all types of men are taken, and one placed after another, the Negro from Zanzibar does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth . . . Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and is more intelligent.”

In the 14th century, Several Arab and Persian scholars noted that blacks have strong sexual drives, large sex organs, a manic temperament (see “Galen on the Merriment of Blacks,” AR, Dec. 2010) and a strong sense of rhythm. Dr. Southgate observes that “the notion of the blacks’ unbridled sexuality occurs in many Arab and Persian Muslim sources, some of which reveal the white man’s fear of the black man’s superior sexual prowess.”

Similar accounts are found in the One Thousand and One Nights, the collection of stories of largely 9th century Persian origin told by the young bride Scheherazade. These stories were translated in the 19th century by the British Arabist Richard Burton, who noted that there are several stories about Persian wives who seek satisfaction with black slaves. These “debauched women,” he wrote, “prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts” and because “the deed takes a much longer time and this adds greatly to women’s enjoyment.”

Observations about black sexuality have been confirmed in contemporary times by Prof. Philippe Rushton, who has documented the large sex organs and strong sex drives of blacks, which he ascribes to high levels of testosterone.

The purpose of quoting these ancient authors is neither to belittle blacks nor, indeed, to accept the complete accuracy of their accounts. It was obviously wrong to describe blacks as animals or to claim that apes were more intelligent. Still, these accounts cannot be dismissed as mere prejudice or the desire to flatter one’s own group by insulting others. Arabs and Persians recognized the intelligence of the Greeks, for example.

Europeans who first entered those parts of Africa that had never been explored by Arabs brought back similar accounts of very low levels of cultural development. Entirely aside from whatever prejudices they might have brought with them, their factual observations cannot be dismissed. The Oxford scholar John Baker summarized the observations of such 19th-century explorers as John Speke, Samuel Baker, Henry Fynn, Paul du Chaillu, David Livingstone, and Georg Schweinfurth in his classic book Race. Throughout vast areas of sub-Saharan Africa, they did not find a written language, a calendar, a multi-story building, a mechanical device, a beast of burden, or use of the wheel.

Contemporary black-run societies, whether in Africa, Haiti, or in enclaves in the West are further evidence for race differences in intelligence and the ability to maintain civilization. There is no question that some blacks are capable of considerable achievement when they can avail themselves of opportunities in other societies, but even aside from the psychometric, genetic, and physiological data, it is difficult to see today’s insistence on the equivalence of all races as anything but wishful thinking and a deliberate refusal to consider the evidence.

J.P. Rushton Race, Evolution and Behavior. Port Huron, MI: Charles Darwin Research Institute, 2000.

Minoo Southgate: Negative images of Blacks in some Medieval Persian writings. Persian Studies, 1984, 17, 3-36.

John Baker Race. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.