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Arabic Terms Used for Skin Complexions
There are many terms that describe complexions in the Arabic language that have different meanings from the same term today or that are no longer used. This is why many people who read descriptions using these terms don’t understand the true meaning of the descriptions.
One of these misunderstood terms is the term “white” . Most people think that when the Arabs of the past described a person’s complexion as “white”, they meant the same light complexion that is meant today. This isn’t true at all. When the Arabs described a person as “white”, they actually meant a dark complexion. Ibn Mandour, the well-known Arab linguist who was born in the 13th century AD and the author of the famous book on the Arabic language Lisan Al Arab, quotes from another famous book on the Arabic language called Al Tahdheeb the following:
“When the Arabs say that a person is white, they mean that he has a pure, clean, faultless integrity…They don’t mean that he has white skin, but they mean to speak well of his honor and the purity of his integrity. When they say that a person has a white face, they mean that his complexion is free from blotches and a blackness that is unattractive”.
The author of Al Tahdheeb is Mas’ud ibn Umar Sa’ad Al Deen Al Taftaazaani, the well-known Arab linguist who lived during the same time as Ibn Mandour.
Shams Al Deen Mohamed ibn Ahmed ibn Othman Al Dhahabi, a well-known historian also of the 13th century, says in his famous book Siyar A’alaam Al Nubalaa, “When the Arabs say that a person is white, they mean that he is black with a light-brownish undertone”. The Arabic definition of a white complexion is “al lown al hinti bi hilya sawdaa” . “Al lown” means complexion, “al hinti” means light brown, and “bi hilya sawdaa” means with a black appearance. It’s a black complexion with a light-brownish undertone.
The “hilya” of a person is what’s apparent in his/her color or appearance. So a person with a “hilya” (appearance) “sawdaa” (black) has a black appearance. So a person called “white” by the Arabs of the past had a blackish complexion with a light-brown undertone.
So anyone who reads someone being described as “white” in an Arabic book of the past should understand that “white” means a dark complexion. It’s very important that people bear this in mind.
Since in the past the term “white” was used for a person whose complexion was like a “black” person today, one must wonder what it is that the Arabs of the past called people who were “white” in the sense that the word is used today. In the past, those who had complexions like those who are considered “white” today were called red. Tha’alab, the Arabic language scholar of the 9th century AD says, “The Arabs don’t say that a man is white because of a white complexion. ‘White’ to the Arabs means that a person is pure, without any faults. If they meant that his complexion was ‘white’, they said ‘red'”.
Ibn Mandour says that the expression The Red People applies to the non-Arabs because of their whiteness and because of the fact that most of them are fair-skinned. He says that the Arabs used to call the non-Arabs such as the Romans and the Persians and their neighbors, The Red People. He also says that when the Arabs say that someone is white, they mean that he has a noble character–they don’t mean that he is white. He says that the Arabs call the slaves The Red People. This is because most of the slaves of the Arabs were white (red).
Al Dhahabi says “Red, in the speech of the people from the Hijaz, means fair-complexioned and this color is rare amongst the Arabs. This is the meaning of the saying ‘…(He was) a red man as if he is one of the slaves’. The speaker meant that his color is like that of the slaves who were captured from the Christians of Syria, Rome, and Persia”. So it must be understood that what people call “white” today was called “red” by the Arabs of the past. Click below for original in Arabic.
Another term that the Arabs used in the past to describe a complexion and that is misunderstood today is the term “adam”. This term was used by the Arabs very often in the past. However, people today, both Arab and non-Arab, have no idea what this word means. Therefore, when they read about someone being described as “adam”, they have no idea what is meant. The term “adam” means very dark-skinned.
Ibn Athir, the famous scholar of the 12th century says concerning the term “adam”, “When used to describe the complexion of a human, it means very dark-skinned…It is said that the term comes from the expression the ‘face’ or ‘surface of the earth’ which means the color of the earth. From this term Adam, the father of mankind, received his name”.
Ibn Mandour says, “There is disagreement concerning the origin of the name of Adam, the father of mankind. Some people say that he was named Adam because he was created from the face (udma) of the earth. Other people say that he was named Adam because of the adam (very dark) complexion that Allah created him”. Ibn Mandour also says, “The scholars of the Arabic language say that the origin of our father Adam’s name is from the fact that he was created from dirt and also the color “adam” resembles the color of dirt”.
What these scholars say about the origin of our father Adam’s name is consistent with what Allah says in the Quran about the creation of Adam. Allah says that He created Adam from black mud. Since Adam was created from black mud, it’s only natural for his complexion to be like that of black mud, which is very “adam”. Click below for original in Arabic.
It appears that the word adam was also used in Hebrew. The word in Hebrew is admonee. The prophet David was described in the Old Testament as admonee. Esau was also described as admonee. Unfortunately many Jewish “scholars” translate the word incorrectly. They translate it as red. However, it’s very clear that the word in Arabic means black-skinned and the Arabic language and Hebrew language are similar. I doubt very seriously that the word could mean black in Arabic and red in Hebrew. Whoever makes such a contention should bring forth proof.
Another misunderstood term used by the Arabs of the past to described a person’s complexion is the term “black”. It must be understood that when the Arabs of the past used the term “black” to describe a complexion, they meant that the person’s complexion was actually black–much darker than the complexion of people who are called “black” today. The Arabs used the term “black” or they used the term “shadeed al udma (very adam)”. The two terms were used interchangeably to describe a very, very dark complexion. Most people who are called “black” today are actually not black. Many people mistakenly believe that an Arab that the Arabs described as “black” was from a different race or origin from the other Arabs.
This isn’t the case at all. When the Arabs described another Arab as black-skinned, they were only expressing the fact that the person was so dark-skinned that he/she was black, a color much darker than the color of most so-called African Americans and also a color much darker than the color of most so-called Africans. They didn’t mean that he/she wasn’t an Arab. The term “black” is used today for people who are not black at all. There are some peoples and tribes in Arabia and in so-called Africa who are black-skinned, but black-skinned is a specific complexion– a very, very dark complexion. This is an important point that must be kept in mind. See
Another misunderstood term used by the Arabs of the past to describe a person’s complexion is the term “yellow”. When people read that a person was described as having a “yellow” complexion, they believe that what is meant is the light complexion that the term is used for today. However, when the Arabs of the past described a person’s complexion as yellow, they didn’t mean a light complexion at all. In fact, they meant that the person was black-skinned. The terms black and yellow were used interchangeably by the Arabs of the past.
Ibn Mandour says, “Yellow also means black… Al Faraa says concerning the words of Allah in the Quran, ‘Like they are yellow camels’, ‘Yellow (camels) here means black camels'”. You will find many Arabs who were known to be black-skinned described as both black-skinned and as yellow. For example in the book Kitab Al Aghani by Abu Al Faraj Al Asbahaani of the 10th century AD, Saeed Ibn Misjah, the well-known Arab singer of the 9th century AD, was described as both black-skinned and yellow in the same chapter. It is a known fact that Saeed Ibn Misjah was black-skinned. Both terms (black and yellow) were used to describe him in Kitab Al Aghani because the terms were used interchangeably by the Arabs of the past.
Most people are unaware of the fact that the Arabs of the past used the term “green” for black. Black and green were used interchangeably. This is why black-skinned Al Fadl Ibn Al Abbas Ibn ‘Utba Ibn Abi Lahab said:
“I am the green (black) one. I am well-known. My skin is green (black). I am from the noble house of the Arabs. Whoever crosses swords with me, will cross swords with one who is noble and strong.”