Race Stereotypes in Medieval Islam (and some lines on cousin marriage)

This is just a short note from Irfan Muzammil. I hope to have Irfan writing blog posts directly on Brownpundits, but he is a busy man (and a real scholar), so this may take a while. Until then, I will be copying and pasting some of his musings..


Medieval Muslim scholars and courts seem to have been obsessed with the question of superiority of races: Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Indians, Franks, etc. (a debate that still rages). Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdi’s al-Imtāʿ wal-muʾānasah (Enjoyment and Geniality), a classic of Arab literature, presents discussions conducted in Baghdad at the court of the vizier Ibn Saʿdān al-ʿĀriḍ, who was executed in 984 AD after a short period in office. It illustrates the debates regarding a movement called Shuʿūbiyyah, which claimed cultural equality or superiority for the Persians over the Arabs. But the most surprising part, at least for me, is at the end.

First he quotes Ibn al-Muqaffa’, a prominent 8th century Persian philosopher, and seemingly a massive racist:

We said, ‘The Byzantines!’
“But he replied, ‘Not them either. They have strong bodies, they are good at building and at geometry but know nothing besides these two things and are good at nothing else.’
“we said, ‘The Chinese then!’
“He said, ‘They are good at handicraft and making artefacts; they have no deep thought or reflection.’
“we said, ‘well then, the Turks!’
“He said, ‘They are wild animals that can be made to fight.’
“we said, ‘The Indians?’
“He said, ‘People of delusion, humbug, and conjurer’s tricks.’
“we said, ‘The Africans!’
“He said, ‘Dumb beasts to be left alone.’
“Then we left the matter to him, and he said, ‘The Arabs!’

Then, al-Tawḥīdī’s own view (which is the most sensible, but still racist at least in regards to Africans):

“Good qualities and virtues, as well as bad qualities and shortcomings, are distributed among all people and scattered among them all. Thus, the Persians have statecraft, good manners, rules, and protocols; the Byzantines have science and philosophy; the Indians have thought, reflection, sprightliness, magic, and circumspection; the Turks have courage and intrepidness; the Africans have stamina, capacity for labor, and merriment; and the Arabs have bravery, hospitality, loyalty, heroism, generosity, a sense of honor, oratory, and eloquence.”

Then Abu Abdallah al-Jayhānī, a Persian vizier, scholar, and member of the Shuʿūbiyyah movement, is quoted who mocks and ridicules Arabs:

“Arabs eat jerboas, lizards, rats, and snakes. They raid and attack each other; they use obscenities to lampoon one another. It is as if they have been stripped of human virtues and have donned the hides of swine. This is why Kisrā called the king of the Arabs sagānshāh,’ i.e. king of dogs. This is because they strongly resemble dogs and young whelps, or wolves and their brood.”

Abū Ḥāmid al-Marwarrūdhī, the head qadi at the palace, replied:

“Suppose that all virtues, like pearls strung as a necklace or unstrung, were combined in the Persians, hanging round their necks, dangling from their ears, or showing on their foreheads, it would still be more befitting to them not to mention these and to keep silent about all virtues, small and great, what with their fucking their mothers, sisters, and daughters! These people have lied: Zoroaster was no prophet. How could God ever have sent a prophet who would preach belief in two gods? This is rationally absurd.”

Abū l-Ḥasan al-Anṣārī brings Indians into the discussion:

“The Indians would have a better excuse in this matter, for they practice incest as a pious act in their temples. In any event, Indians are mentally disturbed, few among them are intelligent, they are inclined toward lying, delusion, and magic, all things in which they are proficient.”

Incest was indeed allowed in Zoroastrianism and practiced among ancient Persians. But finally, for me, the most surprising part: It seems to have been common knowledge among medieval Muslims that marriage among cousins results in stunted children. Why didn’t they just end it?

Abū l-Ḥasan al-Anṣārī continued:

“Consider Zoroaster’s ignorance in this matter, and the feeble minds of the Persians who adopted this practice from him! Now compare this with the intelligence of the Arabs, who said, ‘Marry strangers and you will not produce stunted offspring.’ Al-Aṣmaʿī quotes a line by an unknown Arab, praising a patron:

A young man not born from a close cousin, father’s brother’s daughter,
and thus not stunted (the issue of close relatives is often stunted).

The Arabs also say, ‘No one is more stunted than a child from close relatives, nobody gives birth to better children than strange women.’ A poet has said,

I warn everyone with far-reaching ambition:
Do not let children marry their paternal cousins,
For one will not escape stuntedness and sickliness;
If you feed them they will not grow.”

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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6 years ago

Even Europeans complain about Indians being liers and trickster. Something to be proud of.??

Xerxes the Magian
6 years ago
Reply to  Jay

What an amusing post..

6 years ago

Terrific content. Mr Irfan should write for BP.

Loved the bit about Chinese being good at nothing other than making handicraft and Indians being little more than conjurers 😀

6 years ago

Such observations by those at the heart of empire often strike me as revelatory mostly of the subject elite’s view of themselves, secondly of what part of the object cultures is revealed to them, and least about the objects themselves.

Related question- Imperial Muslims in Baghdad were aware of Indians to the west of the Indus, but also in contact with “Indians” across the sea on the Malabar coast. Would the latter have been seen as Indians at all, or as a different people? I wonder what characteristics they would have been attributed.

Razib Khan
6 years ago
Reply to  Rahul

they called indians of the indus black crows. so doubt much diff.

that being said the arabs in contact with malabar more south arabian, which is somewhat marginal to the islamic empires

6 years ago

Incest was allowed for Persian royalty , not commoners , like the Pharaohs.

Deep Bhatnagar
Deep Bhatnagar
6 years ago

Similar Justifications by few Islamic empire’s “Caste conscious” elites – {Original source completely blames the Hinduism for caste but forget’s to compare the earlier caste literature to the period of Islamic empires}.



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