By Faatimah Knight
A few months ago I posted the following on Facebook: “If you think that an Arab man who lived over a thousand years ago in the middle of the desert had white skin, I invite you to reconsider that.”
I somewhat regret writing that post because the Prophet of Islam is not any Arab man, and even though I did not say that he was, no doubt there was a better way to pose the “challenge.” It is so important for us to shed our preconceived notions and drop some of our racial baggage when talking about anyone who lived in an era so different from our own- especially the person of the Prophet. That was, in large part, the point of that post and point for this article.
However, not all that racial baggage is useless, in fact, some of it may provide a useful lens without which we would be lost in the weeds. That’s because racism, or more particularly colorism is nothing new in the umma. The society in which the Blessed Prophet was born into had its own kind of color caste, that was not only restricted to color, but also ethnicity, language and wealth. Like most caste systems it prejudiced people in many ways, both socially and economically. But none of this was an issue because it was the norm, it was custom, it was not on the lips of people in the public square, or in the gathering of Mecca’s chiefs. Rather, the Prophet recognized colorism and its evil partner classism as the poisons they were and so, radically, he addressed it and redressed the wrongs it had produced. So this is what I mean by saying that our baggage, can also be our lens, because it helps us see- though less perfectly- the kinds of wrongs that the Prophet himself saw.
There is no moral value attached to the color of someone’s skin. The Prophet made this clear. There was, however, something to be said for the quality of someone’s complexion- whether it was bright or dull; there was also something to be said of the character of someone’s face- whether it was pleasant or surly. All of these attributes, bright, dull, pleasant or surly can be applied to any skin color, from pale white to blue-black and all of them could possibly hint at an aspect of a person’s spirit manifesting on their face.
I won’t seek to answer the question: What was the Prophet’s skin color? For one, I don’t know. Second, this question is only interesting to me out of a sense of love for the Prophet and a need to visualize him and contemplate his countenance in order to feel more connected to him. Not for one second should any one of us think we are out of bounds for talking about this. If it didn’t matter, scholar after scholar would not have devoted book after book to detailing every attribute of the Prophet (physical and nonphysical) that they could acquire. They would not have written about it if it was not important, and sure enough when we describe the Prophet to our children, or our students, or neighbors we often lean on the description of his physical self that we’ve learned about to carry the meaning of the message. For most of us, it is a matter of devotion and love that we care to contemplate the face of the Prophet and make him more real in our lives.
So what was the Prophet’s skin color?
Rather than answering this question, I’d like to lift up the varied reports found in books of hadith that describe the Prophet’s skin color in seemingly contradictory ways. Moreover, I want to talk about the challenges that might arise from describing the Prophet in our modern American context, a context in which his describers were not writing. I also want to highlight that this is not the only complication because the contexts in which these reports were written also suffered from a pasts that may have been equally troubled by racism and colorism. It’s probably more realistic to say that just as racism still exists in America after the abolishment of our most racist institution- slavery- it likely still existed in these pre-modern contexts as well.
I have often read and heard scholar, teachers and ordinary believers describe the Prophet’s complexion as white or light-skinned. Today, to refer to the Prophet as white connotes all kinds of images and concepts that the Prophet is unencumbered by and free from. Calling him white does not take into account that whiteness, in an American context at least, takes on a very particular meaning, associated almost exclusively with white people of European ancestry with a particular historical markers vis a vis others in American society. People will draw on their experience of whiteness in their own context and as they’ve come to understand it to determine what that may have looked like on the Prophet and how he may have carried himself among others.
Conducting some research I came across a fascinating article on this very topic called “The De-Arabization of Islam and the Transfiguration of Muhammad in Islamic Tradition” by Wesley Muhammad. Although I do not support his definitive conclusion that Prophet Muhammad was a dark-skinned Arab because I do not feel comfortable making such a final designation, Muhammad does provide some evidence for his conclusion. For the purposes of translation, many of the hadith quoted here will be taken from Muhammad’s own translation, which at a cursory glance seem correct, and are in fact found in the collections of hadith that he attributes them to. However, I make no comment as to the strength of the various hadith.
First, we should state the obvious, Prophet Muhammad’s complexion is characterized as “white” or “abyad” in some hadith. The Shamail of Tirmidhi has the following report:
“The Messenger of God had a white complexion, which was slightly reddish, and had a medium sized body.”
In the Sunan of Tirmidhi he reports a hadith from Anas b. Malik that puts the Prophet’s complexion as a mean:
The Messenger of Allah (s) was neither tall, such that he would stand out, nor was he short. He was not albino-white (al-abyad al-amhaq), nor was he deep black (adam). His hair was neither very curly nor completely straight. Allah commissioned him towards the end of his fortieth year. He remained in Mecca for ten years and in Medina for ten years. Allah caused him to pass away at the turn of his sixtieth year and there was not found on his head and beard [as much as] twenty white hairs.
Wesley Muhammad complicates what might be the literal understanding of white-skinned by lifting up an entry by Lisan al-Arab, the well-known Arabic dictionary by Ibn Manzur.
The Arabs don’t say a man is white
[or: “white man,” rajul abya∙]
due to a white complexion. Rather, whiteness [al-abyad] with them means an external appearance that is free from blemish [al-zahir al-naqi min al-uyub]; when they mean a white complexion they say ‘red’ (ahmar)… when the Arabs say, ‘so-and-so is white (abyad – bayda), they [only] mean a noble character (al-karam fi l-akhlaq), not skin color. It is when they say ‘so-and-so is red’ (ahmar- hamra) that they mean white skin. And the Arabs attribute white skin to the slaves.
The reports that say he was “white” (bayd/abyad) can have the meaning of unblemished or bright, and not be a reference to skin color at all according to this. Moreover, in other contexts colors are utilized in a strictly symbolic sense. For instance, most of us will be familiar with the hadith which teaches us that sin shows up as a black spot on our heart that grows the more we continue to sin. This is not taken literally, neither today nor in the past, because it is understood that blackness is being employed in a strictly symbolic manner.
It is possible that white, red, brown and black are used on a spectrum that is particular to the range of shades that were commonly found among Arabs at the time. Color may seems like a universal form of demarcation, but colors do not always translate exactly and in tact across cultures. Even among different cultures in the same country confusion can arise. For example, the phrase tall, dark and handsome does not imply that the man is dark-skinned i.e. of a deep brown complexion, rather it means that the man has dark brown hair and possibly (but not necessarily) an olive complexion, which for white Americans would be about as dark as a white person could be. On the other hand, for black Americans to say that a man is dark implies that he is of a deep brown skin tone because that is in the range of possibilities for blacks. In fact, every subgroup is going to have a different understanding of what it means to be dark-skinned or light-skinned depending on the range of complexions that are found within each group. To further illustrate the point, if the phrase tall, dark, and handsome as it is used among white was to be translated into Arabic, one would have to explicitly translate it as tall, dark haired and handsome. Otherwise, the meaning would be lost.
There are multiple reports (hadith) that describe the Prophet’s skin color as brown (asmar) like the following from the Jami of Tirmidhi
Anas narrated: “The Messenger of Allah was of average height, neither tall nor very short, he had a good build, brown in complexion (asmar al-lawn), his hair was neither curly nor straight, and when he walked he swayed slightly.”
Although many Muslims are familiar with this kind of characterization of the Prophet which puts his most identifiable physical features in the middle of a range, many do not hear the hadith(s) which describe his skin color as being in the middle of two extremes as well. The following hadith states explicitly that the Prophet’s complexion also followed a means:
Also from Anas b. Malik: The Messenger of Allah (s) was neither tall, such that he would stand out, nor was he short. He was not albino-white (al-abyad al-amhaq), nor was he deep black (adam). His hair was neither very curly nor completely straight. Allah commissioned him towards the end of his fortieth year. He remained in Mecca for ten years and in Medina for ten years. Allah caused him to pass away at the turn of his sixtieth year and there was not found on his head and beard [as much as] twenty white hairs.
What accounts for the variance in reports? Well, in some cases it seems that certain descriptors were illustrating the luminosity of his skin, i.e. the quality, while at other times they were describing his color. In the former case, the quality of his blessed skin is always described as luminous, beautiful and clear, while in the latter case of his color there seems to be a variety of reports.
Why does it matter?
It matters because there is an ethic around skin color, not to mention a long history of colorism nationally and globally that still lives with us. It is important that we check that and not allow it to distort the truth in one way or another. My main goal here was to lift up distinct reports that give us different information about the Prophet’s skin color, if only to make the reader aware that they exist.
I think it is very easy for Muslims to get on the bandwagon to criticize Christians for two thousand years worth of portrayals of Jesus as a white man, but is it more difficult for us to talk about the skin color of the Prophet? Is it possible that some of us cannot imagine the Prophet as any other color but white because of our own baggage and the standards we carry for both beauty and holiness? If all of our literature pointed to the Prophet being brown would we celebrate that or would we ignore it?
My point in this article is to argue that notions of race, ethnicity, or skin color across cultures and centuries cannot and should not be talked about without honoring the particular and idiosyncratic ways in which each culture articulates those notions and lives them out. When religious figures- who are lives are profoundly impacted by- are the center of that discussion, we ought to be even more careful.
For more information on the description of Prophet Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace, see Shama’il of Imam Tirmidhi. For the article “De-Arabization of Islam and the Transfiguration of Muhammad in Islamic Tradition,” follow the link.
Muhammed Faris.K | April 21, 2016
I had eacently finished studying the Shamail and Jami’ by Turmudhi.
I too had the same doubts and often raised but remained unanswered.
Dr. Syed Musthafa Ali from Open University, UK, has the scholarly knowledge colour, race, ethnicity and Islam.
Salahudin Rahim | November 13, 2020
Thank you Fatimah for an arrival well and intelligently written. There were however many errors: Colorism in place of racism is not acceptable. It was not used during the.life of Rasoolilaah saaws, and should not be used now. History has taught us to call a thing what it is. And not to do that is caving in to pressure, usually from whites or Arabs. Secondly there was active racism during the time of the.Prophet, my how can an intelligent and educated person like yourself even make such a claim. There was racial hatred even during the time of.Musaa radi Allahu anhu. Nd what makes you think that Nabi Muhammad saws, was not an Arab? It seems that you have decided not to use the very sound evidence of Al-Jaheeze, the black, big eyed scholar from Iraq and Egypt who wrote around two-handed years after Rasoolilaah saaws. Was that because your white educators and Arabic friends disapproved of his work? Education is very good my sister, but you must the Qur’an and Sunnah guide your education. Not the other way around.
Fahmida Rahim | February 10, 2022
But colour help in identification and description and certainly is beautiful that there so many beautiful earth shades and colours amongst mankind. How would it be I wonder if we all looked the same in terms of colour, height, features etc.
Ingrid Carter | July 15, 2022
Hare Krishna, I am a black woman born in Trinidad and Tobago and lived in America for 50 years and I have researched racism and colonialism, I have practiced western Christianity and now I am practicing Hinduism Hare Krishna, I find it very peculiar that when the question of race is raised about a prophet, it seems to be a problem for the truth to be told, specially with white colonialism who translated the scriptures for their western civilization purposes always portrays any prophets as whites and it can never be a prophet of darker skinned complexion, now Africa is the first land and the people is of dark skinned, and Europeans came to Africa and conquered the land, enough of the blasphemy of Gods prophets is white skinned when it’s the whites who plundered Africa people and it’s been proven even the Bible prophets and Jesus wasn’t white, and it’s time we acknowledge the truth of the real skinned color of God and the prophets,
Abdullah | November 7, 2022
Great I Be Saying I’m From Muhammad Yemen Tribe Brought To Virginia With Irish Name
Robert Jr.Patton Old Colony on Birth certificate and Dad was Registered by St British Embassy 1903
Anwar | June 10, 2016
The quote in Lisanul-Arab says ‘an-naqiy min al- ‘uyoob’ not ‘uqoob. Respectfully.
Ahmed Muhammed Abdulrazaq | November 23, 2021
Well i agree with her on the basis that prophet Muhammad sallallahu alaihi wa sallam is an arabized arab but not a pure arab for if we are to trace his lineage to Ismael the son of Ibrahim we get to know that prophet Ibrahim wasn’t an Arab same ad prophet Ismael may the blessing of Allah be upon them all
essie craft | October 1, 2017
White meant wisdom. In society of ancestral worship, elders, ethopian motifs, and egyptain heritage. White can only mean wisdom. All elders have white hair or cosmetically white is attributed to age and wisdom. The application of these terms on the human body have never been found in the quran. Black is emphasized once as a reminder. The entire Qur’an see itself as reminder and revelation. Color did not dictate ecological stability. In fact Islam the emigrate always in every society maintain an higher social status. It was and is not neccessary for the depletion of resources before movement is made and it does not dictate unsuccessful or successful settlement. Descriptions of the prophet physical apperance is haraam. I will repost the haddith on drawings, statues, and cartoons. A mental description obtained in literature produces this result. It would be remiss in the strictiest sense of doctrine to continue debating the color of Muhammad. He was an Arab and entails all that is arabic. Wheter it is jewish or ethopian. The accusation monteray and political power through correcion and association makes this conversation a relevant peice of theological construction. In fact the form of Muhammad did not dictate his content. Although it is amusing to see why do know any thing about jesus and watch the same debates take its progressive grip on islam and watch the desecration of Muhammads work in building a society that constrains false notions of illusions exposing the truth into a society that is blanket by little political gods controlling, sustaining, and expanding the universe with the help of metal angels. In fact folding space and time amd correcting all disturbances of equilibrium these little gods crown by friends families institutions and gold attire mount more of reception than Allah. Amazing!!! So Muhammed was white man who lived in the sun no he was black man who lived in the sun as ethopian spy for the people of the elephants. He was an arab. If there is problem or misunderstanding of an arab than i suggest you locate your local Lord and he will provide you with more detail description. Salaam
Abdulrahman | January 11, 2021
i would normally agree with u but i saw this hadith and thats why i searched this. Sahih al bukhari 63
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
While we were sitting with the Prophet ﷺ in the mosque, a man came riding on a camel. He made his camel kneel down in the mosque, tied its foreleg and then said: “Who amongst you is Muhammad?” At that time the Prophet ﷺ was sitting amongst us (his companions) leaning on his arm. We replied, “This white man reclining on his arm.”
essie craft | October 1, 2017
The only distinction among people is language and religion. The product of this conversation emphasizes rebellion against Allah. You status while speaking and devoting to rebellion against Allah. If one had read carefully as i am often told. One would have seen that everyone was mentioned in the book. Everyone!! Than its dinstgushed among christains jews sabeans than into nonbelievers polytheists.
pablo | December 29, 2017
did the Vatican help to invent Islam? what are the similarities between this two religion?
Salahudin Rahim | November 13, 2020
Pablo, absolutely not. There are NO similarities between Catholicism and Al-Islaam. Catholics worship a man god that is part of a trinity; they have likenesses of their man-gods in the forms of statutes and pictures and rosaries; they have a priesthood that hears confessions; they believe that their God christ was killed and came back to life. Islam condemns all of the above. And any Muslim who believes any of these things will burn in hell because Allah is ONE, not three. He cannot be killed and is alive.forever. It is forbidden to even try to make an image or idol of Allah. He does not have a mother or father. Jesus had a mother, Fard Muhammad had a mother and father, Siddhartha Gautama had both parents. Nothing conceived of human or other parents can be THE True GOD. And nothing made by the hands of a man or machine can be Allah. There is NO religion like unto Al-Islaam. That is why the polytheists and atheists hate us.
Abdullah Wright | January 25, 2018
so in all reality what color is our beloved Prophet
Jaf | October 16, 2019
As she pointed pre Islam they were bound by customs that made sure everyone maintained their status by family and ethnicity.
So it helps to bring to the conclusion of certain probability.
What was the skin color do the Arab.
I think the author has a certain bias when she says Arabs consider white as the color of slaves.
Anyways, if we can assume that Arabs kept their lineage true, and they came from Abraham, then we are closer to assuming his over all appearance.
I would say he is as what is a basic assumption that even the author was alluding to but made some weird statements in doing so, in an effort to not give an answer since it’s probably the metaphorical meaning that is more important than a distinctive one.
Which means in this is not a proper discussion if it’s meant to paint the prophet in an ambiguous way so more people can believe in what ever he is.
Thae fact he is a person, people are worshipping god and not the person.
So back to the point, he would be most likely a white Arab and a white Arab from Iraq – off white looking.
That simple answer is not as interesting as being ambiguous and from a spiritual point of view it might seem uninspiring.
But May be the question is as well?
Kamrun Nahar | August 30, 2020
This so much informative, and providing a shifting paradigm for imposing “whiteness” on prophet!
Aizat | September 16, 2020
Exactly @JAF, this so called “author” is literally discrediting verified hadiths by those that were mentioned by those who lived close to the prophet, I really hate this notion of trying to paint everything “good” as black just because they suffered being colonised. They just have to face it, yes they were colonised but it was the ultimate permission of Allah S. W. T that it would happened. I mean prophet Noah after the flood asked God of what his three sons would be ; and for Ham he said “helpers” to Shem and Yafith (the ones that’ll be the descendants of Africans, Indians, and other dark-skinned (literally) color people)
At this point I’m not even surprised why blacks and other dark skinned people fates turned out to be just that. Is obvious she has bias with the phrase “whites is consider as the color of slaves” 🙄 and the hadiths that she pulled out from, are they even authentic?We aren’t trying to put “white” on a pedestal, it has been described to how it is and those people are respected and honoured by God. So who are you to say their words are contradictory and all that??
You had no problem when the hadiths mentioned Moses to be dark-skinned, right? When it comes to Muhammad and Jesus (pbut) suddenly everything is questioned, everything is unclear and blablabla. This author is literally the deceiving enemy of Islam even if she says in the end she has no “intention” of making it about race or anything like that.
Muhammad | October 16, 2020
Many hadiths speak directly on his skin colour. “ whiteness of his leg “ “ whiteness of his thy” “whiteness of his stomach”. Sahih Bukari a man asked where the prophet was, they replied the white man reclining on his arm. He was a white guy skin and all.
Turi | November 1, 2020
Good read, and well written. Thank you for sharing. I just returned to the United States after 2.5 years of living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; I, a woman, was working for the Ministry of Defense and would like to share my experience regarding what Arabs mean when they someone is white. Arab and North African people talk a great deal about skin color, and they are lovers of white skin. When they say someone is white, that’s exactly what they mean. Because I worked on a military base, I became friends with many of the Saudi soldiers; yes I know, a woman being friends men in Saudi? Well, thanks to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, The Kingdom is a totally different place in the more metro cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Jizan, Al Khobar, etc…so unrelated women and men can meet for tea/coffee/meal and socialize, but nothing that would violate Islamic principles and the Saudi culture. A Saudi man’s dream woman is a “white” woman with Moroccan qualities; Saudi men love them. Yes they do speak of white in terms of goodness and purity, as in a “White heart,” but when they are referring to people, they actually mean a light-complexioned person, perhaps who could pass for white. And it’s possible because skin bleaching and plastic surgery is HUGE there…and cheap…and both men and women get it. So there’s that. Again, thanks for sharing.
Mohammed Islam | December 12, 2020
It is interesting that you debunked yourself in your own article
You Said red is used to identify whitness in the arab world then you quote an Hadith that said he was reddish
Nouralhuda | February 23, 2021
I just wanted to point out that I am from the Middle East but am light skinned. I am not white, but I am a person of color, one who is light skinned even while being from the Middle East. So just because someone is from the Middle East doesn’t mean they’re always dark skinned which makes your first line a nonsupporting line.
James Ramsey | November 11, 2022
Ahsalamu Alaikum, thank’s for this knowledgeable information. If the prophet (SWS) was driven out of his country to the protection of the Christians , who was a black tribe wouldn’t that made him a man of color or brownish hue?