Now this is going to be interesting…
As I mentioned before, the term Arab (عرب) is confusing because it’s changed meaning over time. Arabs have rarely been a unified monolithic ethnicity. Etymologically the word means eloquent, ie. skillful or beautiful speech, while non-Arabs (Ajami) are therefore not eloquent of speech. This is eerily similar to how ancient Greeks called all non-Greeks barbarians (because to them all non-Greek languages sounded like the bleating of sheep, bar-bar-bar).
According to people on the Save the True Arabs forum, the original Arabs were east Africans. Some even accept certain modern-day African groups as close relatives/ descendants of Arab tribes, like the Fulani, Hausa, Afar and others. That I can’t comment on so I’ll leave it at that.
|Afar women in Djibouti doing raks al-sayf, traditional sword dance,
just as the ancient Sabaeans are believed to have done
However, the evidence does show that the east African origin bit is true. Back in pre-Islamic times Arab men, to counteract their infanticide-induced dearth of women, would often take east African women as (unwilling) wives. Also, apparently there are artifacts in the Arabian peninsula dating back to 125,000 years. This would mean that humans migrated out of Africa much earlier than is nowadays conventionally recognised, which means I should probably revise my South Asians & Aborigines posts. They’d have had to go up from east Africa into what’s now Yemen & Saudi Arabia, then to the rest of the peninsula.
|Mahri man with ādam skin|
The Arabian peninsula is the west/ southwest part of conventionally-defined Asia*, with only an inlet separating it from north & east Africa. Confusingly this inlet is called the Red Sea.
In classical Arabic writings they had different terms to refer to various skin tones. When talking about themselves they usually used terms that are usually in what I’d call the medium to dark-skinned range. These terms include:
ādam – آدم: see picture left. Yes, this is the same as the Arabic & Hebrew name Adam, the 1st man. It was originally accepted that because he was made from mud/ clay/ earth, he must therefore have been the same colour as it.
akhḍar – أخضر/ khiḍr – خضر: literally translates as green, used to refer to someone who was extremely dark. This probably alludes to how really dark people’s skin looks bluish in strong sunlight, but that’s just my guess. There is a character in the Qur’an called Al-khiḍr (the green one), which is nowadays taken to refer to his clothing. However, classical literature definitions seem to contradict this interpretation.
aswad – أسود: synonymous with what I call darkest-skinned. This is the origin of the country name Sudan, originally called bilād as-suwdān (land of the ‘blacks’) by Arabs. It’s also synonymous with shadiyd al-udmah – شديد الأدمة, which translates as ‘strongly/ intensely ādam’.
asmar – أسمر: basically means a reddish-brown, not quite as dark as ādam but definitely dark.
abyaḍ – ابيض: literally translates as white. However, this is not the same as we understand ‘white’ people today. The ancient Arabs referred to white as ‘near-fair/ light-brown tint with a black mark’ (my translation of
اللون الحنطي بحلية سوداء), which roughly equates with what I’d call light-skinned possibly extending to medium. Abyaḍ was also used for someone with strong moral values & purity.
Pale skin (what ancient Arabs called red or aḥmar – أحمر) was rare. It was so rare a pale-skinned Arab was sometimes called “red like the slaves“, in reference to when Arabs used to take Europeans as slaves. That’s right, ‘black’ people once had ‘white’ people as slaves (especially Turkish women, they seemed to have a particular preference for them). They also referred to the Romans & Persians as aḥmar. I assume that referred to their blood being more visible due to lack of melanin or sunburn.
However, the complexion of the Arabs changed over the centuries as foreigners came to the region en masse. I don’t know exactly when that began but it seems to have been very soon after prophet Muhammad died, as did disgust for dark skin. However, non-Arabs were in the area since before then; some of prophet Muhammad’s followers (ṣaḥābah) were foreign – Bilal was Ethiopian, Salman was Persian & Suhayb was Roman with blond hair. What we consider Arabs today are mostly either Arabised Persians/ Turks or their descendants, most of whom mixed with proper Arabs to a considerable degree. These descendants are known to some as Ziyuwd. However, they went a step further and dubbed themselves Arabs. By adopting Arabic language, culture, religion (Islam, which ironically used to be seen as an Ajami religion!) and land, they convinced themselves and the rest of the world they were Arabs. Then in the centuries after these Ziyuwd migrated to/ invaded north Africa, more foreigners invaded and mixed with them – Greeks, Romans, Turks, Brits, French and others.
That’s why today’s Arabs, at least the ones we see most often in the media, look like this…
|Saudi clothes designer
|Lebanese singer, model
& actress Haifa Wehbe
|Saudi men in thawbs|
|Saudi presenter Heba Jamal|
(Update: However, there’s a lot of hidden history in the Arab world. Contrary to what I originally understood, the enslavement of Europeans was by far the single biggest cause for Arabs looking so ‘white’ today! They took and interbred with MILLIONS of them, from all different parts of Europe! That’s in addition to the influx of Persians, who themselves were ‘whitened’ ages ago! Source: https://selfuni.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/black-sheep-white-sheep/. For this reason I’ve taken to calling fair/ pale Arabs Euro-Arabs)
This explains why the American government classifies Arabs as ‘white’ or (even worse) Caucasian. Worse, the remaining original Arabs in places like Tihama, Yemen are made to live in squalor, very similar to the Adivasis of the Indian subcontinent. Also, it’s often the case that when we see dark-skinned Arabs (rare as that is) they are called descendants of African slaves. No explanation of how they got there or their history (because as far as they’re concerned everyone knows Africans have no proper history), no reference to their status as originals, and especially no desire to let them gain status or recognition. The label ‘abd or ‘ābid (slave) is often put on such people, as if to make their complexion a badge of dishonour. Which is highly ironic because the Qur’an refers to all people as Allah’s ‘ibād (slaves), and those who accept it are honoured.
|*Asia as defined by the UN, just in case anyone else was confused.
dark blue = north, pink = central, yellow = east,
red = south, orange = southeast, green = west,
pale blue = east Europe
The original Arabs were typically a chocolate brown-skinned curly-haired people. However they were far from monolithic; they were classically divided into 3 overarching groups:
- Perishing Arabs (eg. ‘Ad & Thamuwd mentioned in the Qur’an, as well as Jadis, Tasm, ‘Amaliyq & others) about whom little is known because they were either extinct or on the verge of extinction by the time the Qur’an was written,
- Pure/ Qaḥṭāni Arabs who originally dwelt in Yemen, further divided into Ḥimyaris & Kahlanis which subdivide further again,
- Arabised/’Adnāni Arabs, descended from prophet Abraham’s son Ishmael & his Jurhum wife, Jurhum being a Qaḥṭāni tribe.
It used to be the case that an Arab was just anyone who spoke Arabic, at least as a first language. Presumably this was because only ethnic Arabs would speak Arabic, as was the case with most other natives throughout most of history. Because of this weird situation we live with, though, Arabs are now anyone with cultural/ linguistic ties to Arabs or Arabised people. This includes what’s called the Arab League, all countries/ regions with significant numbers of Arabised people or mixed descendants, including most of west Asia (aka. the so-called “Middle East”) and all of north Africa, Somalia & Sudan (which have almost no relation to Arabs), and some even include parts of south Asia like Pakistan & Afghanistan (even less relation)! Their overall unifying feature is that MOST of them speak Arabic, a Semitic language in the Afroasiatic family (which means it’s related to Hebrew, Aramaic – Jesus’s language, Amharic – spoken in Ethiopia, Tigrinya – spoken in Eritrea, and Ge’ez – spoken in Ethiopia but only for religious ceremonial purposes otherwise extinct). And they’re all Muslim-majority countries.
So there we have it. Arabs. Or Ziyuwd, or Caucasians or whatever else one might want to call them.
|Assortment of native people of Tihama, Yemen|
Update: see my post here on LSA for an article which describes the ‘black’-to-‘white’ transition better.