Prophet Mohammed and the Black Arabs: The Witness of Pre-Modern Chinese Sources By Wesley Muhammed, PHD

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Prophet Muhammad and the Black Arabs:
The Witness of Pre-Modern Chinese Sources

Wesley Muhammad, PhD

1. Introduction

China has a remarkable Sinophone Muslim community, the Hui, which is at least 1300 years old and may actually go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) who, according to Chinese Muslim tradition, is supposed to have sent ambassadors to China to teach Islam [Lipman 1997; EI2 s.v. al-Sin].

Numbering around nine million today, this Chinese Muslim community began as Arab (and later Persian and Central Asian) migrants (diplomats, traders, soldiers) during the T’ang dynasty (618-907) who settled, married local women and, through a long and gradual process of assimilation and acculturation, became nearly totally sinicized [Leslie, 1998; idem, 187; Israeli, 1979; Lipman, 1997].

This community of Islam is remarkable on a number of accounts: (1) While Islam arrived in China around the same time Judaism and Christianity did, these latter along with other non-indigenous religious traditions like Manichaeism failed to survive the purge of all things foreign by and during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Islam not only survived this purge, but prospers, a fact that continues to raises questions for researchers. (2) Chinese Islam survived and prospers despite its near-total isolation from the centers of Islamic spirituality and learning in the Middle East [Chuah, 2004]. It was not until the 18th-19th centuries that Chinese Muslim scholars had access to enough Arabic and Persian literature to develop a Muslim apologetic literature of their own and a Chinese translation of the complete Qur’an did not appear until the 19th century [Peterson, 2006]. What has sustained Islam in this sometimes hostile environment for so long?

Despite this geographical and intellectual isolation, but also because of it, Chinese annals and Hui traditions prove to be an important alternative source of information for a reconstruction of early Arabian Islam.

In particular, the relevant pre-Modern Chinese sources – Muslim religious literature as well as official dynastic histories – confirm what we learn from the Western Christian (Crusader) sources and the Late Antique and Medieval Jewish sources: that the Arabs that erupted out of Arabia in the seventh century and established probably the greatest empire in the last six thousand years were black-skinned Arabs, descendents of the African Arabian (Afrabian) inhabitants of ancient Arabia [on which see Muhammad, 2011; idem, 2009]. These non-Arabic sources – non-Muslim and Muslim – challenge popular conceptions about Arabs and Islam that are mainly based on late Arabic and Persian Muslim literature and iconography. On the other hand, these sources agree with an earlier Arabic tradition wherein Arabs self-identify as black (Muhammad, 2010; Berry, 2002).

2. Muhammad: Chinese Islam’s Black Prophet

The Hui have a foundation myth that both recounts the origin of Islam in Zhong Guo, ‘the Middle Kingdom (i.e. China),’ and also seeks to provide meaning to Chinese Muslim existence as both Chinese and Muslim – heirs to a dual legacy of civilizational greatness. This popular myth, called Huihui yuanlai (‘Origins of the Hui’) circulated in several oral versions among different Chinese Muslim communities before being committed to writing sometime during the Ming. It was no doubt revised during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

In the Third Year of Zen Guan [Tai Zong] of the Tang Dynasty (r. 629-649), in the evening of the 18th of the third month, the Emperor in his sleep dreamed that a turbaned man came running into the palace grounds, chasing after a demon. He woke up and was puzzled by the dream, for he knew not what it foretold. On the following day he assembled all the officials of the court to discuss the matter.

The Imperial Astronomer respectfully reported to the Emperor, saying: “In the night, as I observed the appearance of the heaven, I saw a strange and evil appearance which impinged on the Tzu wei star, and I feared this might portend trouble for the Empire; I also saw in the West a felicitous light brightly manifested and encircling the Tzu wei star as a wall of protection. I opine that in the west there must be a sage who can control the threatened evil; would it not be well for your Majesty to send a messenger to enquire, in obedience to the heavenly portents?”

The Emperor then said: “At midnight I dreamed of a turbaned man and a demon which had a black face, red hair, large and prominent teeth, and was of very evil appearance generally. The man in the turban, with his hands clasped and murmuring prayers, pursued the demon closely. To look on, he (the turbaned man) indeed had a strange countenance, totally unlike ordinary men; his face was the color of black gold, his ear lobes reached his shoulders, his whiskers stood outward, his moustache and beard were cut off, short and even; he had phoenix eyebrows, a high nose and black eyes. His clothes were white and powdered, a jeweled girdle of jade encircled his loins, on his head was a plain hat, and around it a cloth turban like a coiled dragon. His presence was awe-inspiring and dreadful to behold, as might be that of a sage descending to the palace. When he entered he knelt towards the West, reading the book he held in his hand. When the demons saw him they were at once changed into their proper forms, and in distressful voices pleaded for forgiveness. But the turbaned man read on for a little, till the demons turned to blood and at last to dust, and at the sound of a voice the turbaned man disappeared. Now,” the Emperor continued, “whether this be a good or an ill omen I’m sure I don’t know.”

Thereupon the diviner of dreams reported: “The turbaned man is a Huihui (i.e. Muslim) from the Western Region, out beyond the Jiayu Pass. The kingdom of Arabia is ruled by a Muslim king of great knowledge and virtue. His land is rich and powerful. The demon entering the palace grounds surely means that there is evil lurking, which you will only be able to dispel with the help of a Huihui”…

The general reported: “The Huihui are impeccably honest in their dealings. If you meet with them peacefully, they will serve you loyally and with no care for reward. You may send an emissary to the Western Region to see the Muslim king, and request the services of an enlightened one (zhenren) to keep the portended evil at bay.”

The Emperor did as was advised, and sent the senior official Shi Mingtang on a mission to present a letter to the Muslim king. [He travelled to Mecca and saw the Prophet Muhammad]. The Muslim king was delighted upon receiving the letter, and sent with the official his senior disciples (Thabit b. Qays), Uways and (Sa’d b. Ab? Waqq?s) to China to offer their services. Muhammad said to the official: “When you return to China take with you my portrait to give to the king of T’ang, who when he sees it, will naturally understand (about the dream)…” He then charged the official that when the portrait was given to the king of T’ang, it was clearly to be told him that no one was to worship the picture…
The Emperor received them with full honors, and asked what were the ritual and scriptural differences between his land and China. The turbaned man (Sa’d or Qays) replied that the revealed scripture of the Western Region was called the Quran, which could be likened to the Five Classics of China. He then expounded the difference between Eastern and Western ritual and teachings.
The Emperor was delighted, and so selected 3,000 T’ang soldiers to move to the Western Region, in exchange for 3,000 Muslim soldiers to accompany the turbaned elder in China. These 3,000 Muslims had countless descendants, and are the ancestors of the followers of Islam in China today. [Broomhall, 1966 [1910]: 64-67; Mason, 1929: 46-53; Lunde, 1985: 12]

The apocryphal nature of this story is fairly obvious to those familiar with Chinese history and religious literature [Israeli, 2001: 191; Garnaut, 2006; Mason, 1929: 53]. The literary use of the motif of “the Emperor’s Dream” to justify a faith newly introduced to China also appears in legendary accounts of the origin of Buddhism in China, according to which emperor Han Mingi (57-75) in 64 C.E. had a dream of a person from the West identified by an interpreter as Buddha. The Emperor thus sent envoys to the Indus region to find out all about the new religion [Israeli, 2001: 192, 204; Broomhall, 1966 (1910): 68; Parker, 1907: 64]. It is also the case that references to events that occurred much later can be discerned in this story, such as the eighth century rebellion of An Lushan against the Chinese emperor Xuan Zong (712-756) which brought, by his request, 3000 Muslim soldiers to China who settled there and whose descendants became a part of the nucleus of the developing Hui community. This myth is a ‘community biography,’ aimed at legitimizing Arabian Islam within a Chinese cultural and political environment [Benite, 2004: 85; Israeli, 2002: 62]. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a ‘grain of truth’ underneath all of the apologetic accretions [Hongxun, 1985; Sushalo, 1971: 42-43 (Dyer, 1981-1983: 563); Stratanovich, 1954: 52-66 (Dyer, 1981-1983: 563)].
One quite fascinating piece of this grain of truth is no doubt the remarkable description of the turbaned Muslim who appears in the Emperor’s dream and who turns out to be the Prophet Muhammad himself (See Endnote 1). Singularly arresting is the description of his color: black gold. What could this possibly mean and what is the source of this very eccentric Chinese description of Islam’s prophet? Black gold, one of several ‘colored golds’ used for jewelry, is gold with a black oxidide layer resulting from a cobalt component and heat treatment. As eccentric as such a description may seem vis-à-vis the popular, though late, Arabic/Persian description found in the more central Muslim lands according to which Muhammad is ruddy white, this Chinese description actually is curiously consistent with an earlier Arabic description, a description, we should add, that is more in agreement with the ethno-cultural context of Jahili and early Islamic Arabia [on which see Reynolds, 1992; Berry, 2002].
The most common description of the Prophet in Arabic sources of the ninth century, the date of the earliest extant Arabic Islamic literature, is abyad [Muhammad, 2011: 2 n. 9]. This term usually means ‘white’ in contexts not related to human complexion. In the latter context, however, by antiphrasis abyad frequently means black [Stewart, 1999: 119; Shivtiel, 1991:336]. But in Classical Arabic there are several distinct ‘blacknessess’ or ‘shades of blackness’ [al-Asyuti, 1992, II: 574; al-Tha‘lab?, 2006: 81-82]. Abyad is a particular shade or ‘type’ of blackness. According to the important Syrian hadith scholar and historian of Islam, Sh?ms al-D?n Ab? `Abd All?h al-Dhahab? (d. 1348),

When Arabs say, ‘so-and-so is white (abyad),’ they mean a golden brown complexion with a black appearance (al-hint? al-lawn bi-hilya sud?’). Like the complexion of the people of India, brown and black (asmar wa ?dam), i.e. a clear, refined blackness (sawad al-takr?r). [al-Dhahab?, 1981, II: 168]

Abyad, the most common descriptor of Muhammad, is, like this black gold, a black complexion with a golden-brown undertone and it is a complexion free of blemish or dark patches [al-Asyuti, 1992, II: 574; Ibn Manzur, 1955-1956, IV: 209; al-Zab?d?, 1965, XVIII: 251-253]. Abyad, like the black gold analogy, also suggests a ‘black luminosity,’ viz. a black complexion that is imbued with a luminosity or glow [Muhammad, 2010a: 23-25]. This is the ideal of beauty in early Arab society [al-Zab?d?, 1965, XVIII: 251; Ibn Manzur, 1955-1956, VII: 124; Muhammad, 2011: 245; contra Badaw?, 1973], and gave rise to the metaphoric use of coal (another ‘black gold’) to describe Ethiopian blackness. See e.g. the words of the epigrammatist Ascelepiades (fl. 300-270 B.C.E.) who wrote concerning a certain Didyme:

Gazing at her beauty I melt like wax before fire. If she is black, what is that to me? So are coals, but when we burn them, they shine like fire [Anth. Pal. 5.210].

This association of ethnic blackness with coals alit is relevant here, not only because ‘black gold’ is a common metaphor for coal, but also because in Arabic coal is euphemistically called abyad [EI2 s.v. Lawn]. It should be noted here that in early Arabic society a beautiful, clear and luminous blackness was distinguished from an ‘ugly’ blackness, blemished by excessiveness due to scorching [Ibn al-Faq?h al-Hamad?n?, 1996: 199; al-Dimashq?, 1923:274]. It is thus unsurprising that we find in this Hui myth the black gold complexion of the Prophet in implied contrast to the black and generally evil appearance of the demon.
There is an alternative version of this myth of the Chinese Emperor’s dream that is relevant also:

One night the Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang dynasty dreamt that a roof beam of his golden palace was collapsing. The roof beam nearly smashed his head, but it was intercepted and pushed back by the right hand of a man. The man wore a green robe, and a white turban was around his head. He had a towel draped over his should and a water kettle in his left hand. He had deep eye sockets, a high nose bridge, and a brown face. [Li and Luckert, 1994: 237; Benite, 2004: 83]

While this version of the myth continues in a way similar to the above, our attention is drawn to the description of the turbaned Muslim, Muhammad: here he is brown complexioned. This too is consistent with what we find in the Classical Arabic tradition. In two reports on the authority of the famous Companions Anas b. M?lik and ‘Abd All?h b. ‘Abb?s the Prophet is described as having a “beautiful brown-complexioned (asmar) body” [See sources in Muhammad, 2011: 20]. Asmar is a color term denoting a dark brown, short of black [Borg, 1999: 129; Stewart, 1999: 111-112; Vollers, 1910: 88]. Thus, the two descriptions of the Arabian prophet that feature in the central and most wide-spread myth of Chinese Islam – indeed the defining myth – precisely correspond to the two descriptions we meet with in the early Arabic literature. But this general description of Muhammad as a very dark-skinned Arab more or less completely disappears from the Arabic literature of a later period and is replaced by what will become the orthodox and popular description of Muhammad: abyad musrab bi-humra, ruddy white-skinned [see Muhammad 2011:25-28]. Being that the black-skinned Muhammad completely disappears from the Arabic Islamic tradition and is almost totally forgotten, and that the ruddy-white Muhammad becomes universally recognized throughout Muslim and non-Muslim literature and iconography, how is it that Chinese Islam clung to this black Arab Muhammad for so long?
The Chinese myth is difficult to date, but a printed version of it was probably in circulation in the late Ming period (ca. 1622), certainly by the early Qing [Leslie, Daye and Youssef, 2006: 144; Leslie, 1981: 55; Garnaut, 2006; Benite, 2004: 84]. However, as Anthony Garnaut reminds us, legends such as this are the material of oral literature, and the earliest written accounts represent only the endpoint of a long process of oral narrative development [Garnaut, 2006]. Therefore, though the narrative as we currently find it is apocryphal and its historical context is late [Ma, 2006], it certainly incorporates ancient Muslim tradition. This Old Arabic description of Muhammad as a dark-skinned Arab is no doubt a part of the ancient Muslim tradition that was brought to China early. Because Chinese Islam was, despite some sporadic intercourse, intellectually isolated from the main centers of Islam, it seems to have been minimally impacted by the major intellectual, culturally, and demographic shifts that occurred in the Muslim heartlands following the misnomered ‘Abassid Revolution of the eighth century. These shifts I have generally called the Aryanizing of Islam, because Persian (Aryan) converts were the main shapers of Islamic tradition following the Revolution. Newly introduced into Islam, among other things, was a virulent anti-black, anti-Arab sentiment which ultimately ‘de-Arabized’ Muhammad by transfiguring him into a ruddy-white Persian [Muhammad, 2011; idem, 2010]. This Aryanizing process seems to have had minimal impact on Chinese Islam at the time this myth of the Emperor’s Dream was canonized and popularized.

3. Sa’d b. Ab? Waqq?s: Chinese Islam’s Black Saint

On the Dingzhou Mosque, the oldest mosque in China located in Dingzhou city, Hebei Province (in eastern China), there is a stele commemorating the rebuilding of the mosque in 1348 during the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368). The stele mentions briefly: “In the Kaihuang reign (581-600) of the Sui, our Companion Sa’d Waqqas (Sa Ha Bo Sa Ha Di Wo Ge Si) first brought the teaching to China.” The is the oldest documented reference to the canonical Hui legend according to which the maternal uncle of the prophet Muhammad, Sa’d b. Ab? Waqq?s (d. 664), the conqueror of Persia and founder of Kufa, came to China on instructions from the Prophet and introduced Islam there [See Ma, 2006]. There is a tomb built in his honor in Guangzhou in southeastern China, where Arab and Persian maritime merchants formed communities as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907). This account of Chinese Islam’s origin is also found in official records, such as the Ming dynasty’s official history Ming Shi, which was commenced in 1370 and published in 1461. There it is stated: “Sahib Sa’d Waqqas came to China in the years of K’ai Huang of the Sui Dynasty (i.e. between 581-600).”
Nevertheless, most scholars reject this claim as completely legendary [e.g. Broomhall, 1966 (1910): 77-79; Mason, 1922: 3; EI2 s.v. al-Sin; Jun-yan, 1980: 95]. The main reasons, other than the relatively late documentation, are two: (1) the impossible dates offered in the various versions of the narrative (e.g. Muhammad sending Islamic ambassadors ten years before he had his Prophetic call) and (2) the lack of Arabic documentation of a trip by Sa’d to China, coupled with the standard Muslim tradition that he died in al-Aq?q and was buried in Medina [EI2 s.v. Sa’d b. Ab? Wakk?s]. The latter argument is unpersuasive. The assumption by Western scholars that Sa’d “never came to China” is baseless. While such an embassy is not mentioned in the extent Arabic historical sources, these have lacunae as it relates to Sa’d. His activities between 648 and 653 are unrecorded, and it is precisely during this period (i.e. 650) that this embassy likely happened (see below), though obviously not on the instruction of Muhammad who had been dead for several years by then [Pickens, 1942: 203].
Nor is the chronological problem insurmountable. Errors, chronological and otherwise, as it relates to the rise of Islam are certainly found in the dynastic annals and should not surprise us [Wakeman, 1990: 409-411, n. 176]. In addition, the date most commonly offered in the Hui sources for this embassy, 628, is likely wrong on the surface, but it also probably has an accurate date underneath it. Scholars now know that the conversion of Muslim lunar dates to the Chinese luni-solar calendar introduced a twenty-one/two year error into the Chinese retelling of Islamic history. When corrected for this error, the Chinese Muslim date of the embassy, 628, becomes 649-650 and agrees precisely with the date we get from the official annals for such an embassy (Leslie, 1998: 11 and below). Hui tradition and Chinese official records thus agree, suggesting that they “have a foundation in fact” [Pickens, 1942: 208; Drake, 1943: 23; Hongxun, 1985]. Even though the Hui tradition undoubtedly has legendary accretions, the basic claim that Islam first came to China in the seventh century with an Arab embassy (that included Sa’d) has nothing militating against it [Lipman, 1997: 25; Leslie, 1998: 3].
According to Hui tradition, Sa’d and another Arab ambassador, Thabit b. al-Qays, are among the forefathers of the Hui. Their alleged tombs in Guangzhou and Hami, Xinjiang are holy centers to which distressed Believers travel seeking blessings and praying for protection [Garnaut, 2006; Hongxun, 1985; Gladney, 1987: 497-500]. These saints of Chinese Islam are black Arabs. Sa’d b. Ab? Waqq?s, cousin of the prophet’s mother, Am?na bt. Wahb and uncle of Muhammad, was from the Ban? Zuhra and was thus described as black-skinned (?dam), flat-nosed and tall [al-Dhahab?, 1981, I:97; Berry, 2002:71-72]. Thabit b. al-Qays was chieftain of Ban? Khazraj, a tribe notorious for having black skin [see Muhammad, 2011: 16-17; idem, 2009: 178-180; Berry, 2002: 68-69]. He was the first of Yathrib to swear allegiance to Muhammad. These two famous black-skinned Arabs are considered the forefathers of Islam in China and are among Chinese Islam’s most holy figures, Sa’d certainly the holiest, second only to Muhammad.

4. The Black Arabs in Official Chinese Records

China had contacts with Western Asia as early as the pre-Imperial Period, before the second century B.C.E. Envoys of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) with caravan reached Arabia ca. 206 B.C.E. As late as the fifth century C.E. during the Liu-Sung dynasty (420-479 C.E.) Chinese trading ships had anchored in the Gulf and traded with Arabs. Formal relations with Arabia, however, began only with the T’ang dynasty (618 -907 C.E.), which was contemporary with the rise and zenith of Arabian/Islamic power [Baojun, 2001: 80; Jun-yan, 1980: 91; Bretschneider, 1929; idem, 1871].
In 638 Yazdigird III, grandson of Chosroes and Sas?nian ruler of Persia, sent an embassy to China appealing to the T’ang emperor, T’ai-tsung, for assistance against the Arabs who had invaded his realm. Yazdigird’s son and the last Sas?nian ruler, F?r?z, made a similar appeal in 650. This is not surprising. Chinese-Persian relations were quite intimate before the rise of the Muslim Arabs. Over thirty Persian embassies from 455 to 651 are noted in Chinese sources and trade and diplomacy flourished between the two countries. Persian (Mazdean) temples were established in China and the relatively accurate accounts in official Chinese sources of pre-Islamic Persian customs and religion suggest that real communication was taking place [Leslie, 1998: 3-4]. F?r?z’s appeal for assistance was made while he, his son, and thousands of his followers were given asylum in China. The T’ang emperor declined to offer military assistance, however, but did send an embassy to the Caliph Uthman to plead the case of his Persian ally. In return, Uthman sent an embassy to China in 650 bearing tribute. This was the beginning of formal relations between the Islamic and the T’ang dynasty.
Between 650 and 798 the Muslims will send thirty-nine formal embassies to China [Jun-yan, 1980: 93]. Official Chinese records document these embassies, though the Arabic historical tradition makes little mention of them. This latter circumstance, no doubt a consequence of the above mentioned lacunae which characterizes the Arabic tradition, makes the Chinese sources that much more valuable [Gibb, 1923]. While the Chinese records possess gaps of their own and are prone to the occasional error, some of them are contemporary with the events they record and in general show a good awareness of the major events in the Muslim world through the reign of the ‘Abb?sid caliph H?r?n al-Rash?d (786-809). These sources show Chinese awareness of: the rise of Muhammad (though the account is garbled); the Arab/Muslim conquests and the rise of the caliphate; some caliphal ceremonial; Mu’aw?ya, the first Umayyad caliph, and his unsuccessful siege of Constantinople; the Quraysh tribe and its political division between the Ban? Marw?n (i.e. the Umayyads) and the Ban? H?shim (i.e. the ‘Abb?sids), and the latter’s overthrow of the former. These sources also demonstrate accurate Chinese awareness of Arab Muslim ethnicity.
The oldest relevant T’ang source at our disposal is the T’ung Tien, an encyclopedic administrative tract written by the T’ang official Tu yu (d. 812). After 36 years Tu yu completed the work and presented it to the throne in 801. As a high official Tu yu would have had access to governmental archives. He also used as a source the first-hand account of his nephew, Tu Huan. Tu Huan was taken prisoner after Arab and Chinese forces clashed at the Battle of Talas in 751. He was incarcerated in Iraq until 762, when he was allowed to return to China. Tu Huan made a record of his observations of the Muslims during his incarceration, and this record was utilized by Tu yu. One portion of the T’ung Tien is a section dealing with the ‘western barbarians (His jung),’ a history of China’s relations with the peoples on its western frontier: Central Asia, Northern India, Sass?nian Iran, Tibet, the Roman Orient, Arabia [Wakeman, 1990]. Arabia, called Ta-shi, is described in the last section, which reads in part:

During the Yung-Hui period (650-651) of the Great T’ang dynasty, the Arabs (Ta-shi) dispatched missions to China. Their country is said to be located to the west of Persia or alternatively, it was said that they were originally Persian Hu who, apparently with [a spirit’s aid], obtained swords and killed…the men of the country have large noses. They are slender in shape and dark brown in color. They have heavy beards and whiskers, like the Indians. Their women are graceful and pretty [trans. Behbehani, 1989: 99, modified with Wakeman, 1990: 892-904].

This is likely the earliest extent reference to the embassy of 650. Some comment on this text is in order. Prior to the rise of the caliphate the Chinese considered Arabia a part of Persia. This is no doubt the context of the “alternative” account that the Arabians were originally Persian (clients), before their rise to independent power and their extinguishing of Sass?nian Persia [Broomhall, 1910: 8; Drake, 1943: 23]. But the Chinese sources distinguished between ethnic Arabs, called Ta-shi, and ethnic Persians, called Bosi [Leslie, 1998: 11]. This nomenclature is significant. As is frequently noted, the Chinese double-character term for the Arabs, Ta-shi, doubtlessly derives from the Persian T?-z?. The latter is the Persianized form of the Syriac tayy?y?, which properly means “Arab of the tribe of Tayyi’”[EI2 s.v. al-Sin; Behbehani, 1989: 93]. The Ban? Tayyi’ were a southern Arabian tribe that migrated north and who became one of the most prominent tribes in pre-Islamic Arabian history [EI2 s.v. Tayyi’]. It had important relations with Persia and its clients, the Lakhmids of Iraq. They were so prominent in Pre-Islamic Arabia, in fact, that their specific name became the general term for ‘Arab.’ Sogdian Persians regarded the Tayyi’ as representative of the Arabs in general and thus designated the latter T?-z?. The significance of this point can be fully appreciated only when we consider the following observation by scholar of Arabian ethnography Dana Marniche: “These Yemenite tribes of Tayyi and his brother Madhj were notoriously black and the early Arabic writings make clear that they also held fair-skin in derision or low regard [Marniche, n.d.].” It is thus unsurprising that Ta-shi or Arabs encountered by and known to the Chinese are described as “dark brown in color.”
This embassy of dark brown Arabs that visited the Chinese court in 650 likely included Sa’d b. Ab? Waqq?s, the dark-brown or black-skinned uncle of the prophet Muhammad [Pickens, 1942: 210-211]. Note also that this description of the Arab as dark brown in color with an high nose and whiskers agrees with the description of Muhammad himself as recorded in Chinese Muslim tradition [above].
The second Chinese source treating the Arabs as encountered during the T’ang is the official T’ang History (T’ang Shu). In 941 the Chin emperor Kao-tsu ordered the production of a full-scale dynastic history of the T’ang. This work, the Chiu T’ang shu (Old T’ang History), was completed by the chief minister and director of National History, Liu Hsü, in 945 and presented to the new emperor Shao-ti. A century later an imperial decree went out for a revised version: the Hsin T’ang shu (New T’ang History) was presented to the throne in 1060. The description of Ta-shi (Arabia) and its inhabitants is not much different from what we encounter in the T’ung Tien. The Hsin T’ang shu records:

Ta-shi was originally part of Persia. The men have high noses, are black, and bearded. The woman are very fair and when they go out they veil the face. Five times daily they worship God. They wear silver girdles, with silver knives suspended. They do not drink wine, nor use music [trans. Mason, 1929: 68-69; cf. Behbehani, 1989: 93].

Here again we find the Arabs described as black-skinned with high noses. This consistent presentation in official Chinese sources of ethnic Arabs as black-skinned is not unexpected, as Chinese contact with black Arabs continued after the beginning of the Aryanization of the Islamic world, including Arab ethnicity [on which see Muhammad, 2010: 22-27]. After the misnomered ‘Abbasid revolution of 749-750 ended Islam’s ‘Black Dynasty,’ the Umayyad dynasty [see Muhammad, 2009: 202-204], and catalyzed the Aryanization process which would result in the establishment of the de-Arabized ‘Abbasid caliphate, some surviving Umayyad’s (the Umayyads were slaughtered after the success of the revolution) showed up in 760 at the court of the Chinese emperor Su Zong, who entertained them [Jun-yan, 1980: 93]. There is also a report that earlier some descendents of Ali (ahl al-bayt) had fled Umayyad persecution to China [Broomhall, 1910: 20]. Ahl al-Bayt, the descendents of Ali, were in the main black-skinned [Berry, 2002: 62-65; Muhammad, 2011: 11-14]. A Qurayshi Arab and descendant of Muhammad, Ibn Wahhab, reportedly travelled to China in 870 and sought an audience with the emperor. He let it be known at the Chinese court that he was ahl al-bayt, ‘family of the [Prophet’s] house’. Only after the emperor ordered an inquiry into Ibn Wahhab’s familial claims and these were confirmed did he meet with the Arab visitor [Israeli, 2000: 317-318; Mason, 1929: 70-75].

5. Conclusion

The pre-modern Chinese records on the Arab Muslims as well as the religious traditions and memory of China’s peculiar Sino-Muslim community confirm what researchers like myself, Marniche, Berry and a few others have been documenting: the Arabs who spread Islam from the East to the West were black-skinned Arabs. The Prophet Muhammad was no exception. This black-skinned Arab Muhammad all but disappears in the Arabic/Persian Muslim literature, replaced there with a ruddy-white Persian Muhammad. Not only do hostile Christian sources preserve the black Muhammad, however [see Muhammad, 2011: 1-2; idem, 2010:1-6]; the Chinese Muslims sources do as well. These pre-modern Chinese sources therefore make an immeasurable contribution to our efforts to reconstruct the ‘Old’ Arab Islam, the Islam of the ummah prior to the Aryanization processes that resulted in the very racist, misogynist, white supremacist Islam of most of the modern Muslim world.


1. In one version of the Huihui yuan lai it is explicitly stated: “…the T’ang Emperor was greatly pleased to see the portrait of Muhammad, who was the very man he had seen in his dream. He said, ‘This is the very person I saw in my dream…” [Li and Luckert, 1994: 247]. In the Dungan version, it says also: “The Great Sovereign of the Middle Kingdon (i.e. the T’ang Emperor) saw in his dream his worst enemy, the monster, and his friend, the turban-wearer, who is the Prophet of the West, the Ma hui-hui [Muhammad].” [Dyer, 1981-1983: 555].

Abbreviations and References

Al-Asy?t?, Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Minh?j?. (1992) Jaw?hir al-‘uqud wa-mu’?n al-qud?t wal-muwaqqi’?n wal-shuh?d, 2 vols. (Cairo).

Badaw?, ‘Abduh. (1971) al-Shu’ar?’ al-S?d wa Khas?’isuhum f? l-Shi’r al-‘Arab? (Cairo).

Baojun, Haji Yusuf Liu. (2001) “The Arrival of Islam in China,” Hamdard Islamicaus 24: 80-81.

Behbehani, Hashim H. (1989) “Arab-Chinese Military Encounters: Two Case Studies 715-751 A.D.,” ARAM 1: 65-112.

Benite, Zvi Ben-Dor. (2004) “From ‘Literati’ to ‘Ulama’: The Origins of Chinese Muslim Nationalist Historiography,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 9: 83-109.

Berry, Tariq. (2002) The Unknown Arabs: Clear, Definitive Proof of the Dark Complexion of the Original Arabs and the Arab Origin of the So-Called African Americans (n.p., n.p.).

Borg, Alexander. (1999) “Linguistic and ethnographic observations on the color categories of the Negev Bedouin,” The Language of Color in the Mediterranean, ed. Alexander Borg (Stockholm, Almgvist and Wiksell International): 121-147.

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