Abû Ûthmân al-Jâhiz:
From The Essays, c. 860 CE
On the Zanj [ "Black
Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is
as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing
to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers
anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to
insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical
toughness. One of them will lift huge blocks and carry heavy loads that would be beyond
the strength of most Bedouins or members of other races. They are courageous, energetic,
and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little
propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a
sign of noble character.
The Zanj say to the Arabs: You are so ignorant that during the jahiliyya you
regarded us as your equals when it came to marrying Arab women, but with the advent of the
justice of Islam you decided this practice was bad. Yet the desert is full of Zanj married
to Arab wives, and they have been princes and kings and have safeguarded your rights and
sheltered you against your enemies.
The Zanj say that God did not make them black in order to disfigure them; rather it is
their environment that made them so. The best evidence of this is that there are black
tribes among the Arabs, such as the Banu Sulaim bin Mansur, and that all the peoples
settled in the Harra, besides the Banu Sulaim are black. These tribes take slaves from
among the Ashban to mind their flocks and for irrigation work, manual labor, and domestic
service, and their wives from among the Byzantines; and yet it takes less than three
generations for the Harra to give them all the complexion of the Banu Sulaim. This Harra
is such that the gazelles, ostriches, insects, wolves, foxes, sheep, asses, horses and
birds that live there are all black. White and black are the results of environment, the
natural properties of water and soil, distance from the sun, and intensity of heat. There
is no question of metamorphosis, or of punishment, disfigurement or favor meted out by
Allah. Besides, the land of the Banu Sulaim has much in common with the land of the Turks,
where the camels, beasts of burden, and everything belonging to these people is similar in
appearance: everything of theirs has a Turkish look.
Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg
has modernized the text.
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998