Deconstructing Africanism: The Image of Black People in the Arab Imaginary

Thursday, June 3, 2021

event poster

On Sunday, May 30th, the Studies in Islamic and Arab Cultures hosted a public lecture, "Deconstructing Africanism: The Image of Black People in the Arab Imaginary". The event featured Dr. Nader Kadhim from the University of Bahrain and was facilitated by Dr. Amir Al-Azraki. The lecture explores the problematic representation of black people in the Arab imaginary including language, literature, art, religion, philosophy, geography, and history. 

The lecture was hosted in Arabic and English. Below is a transcript of the public lecture. 

Dr. Amir Al-Azraki:

Good afternoon and thank you for attending the lecture

The first half will be a lecture and the second half will be a Q&A session

We hope that this lecture "Deconstructing Africanism: The Problematic Representation of Black People in the Arab Imaginary" will reorient and re-invigorate the dialogue about racism, discover new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other, take an action and make a difference in our communities. This lecture will be recorded and posted by Renison University College.

For those who do not know me, I am an Iraqi-Canadian playwright, literary translator and an Assistant Professor of Arabic language, literature, and culture at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. I am originally from Basra, Iraq where the majority of the population is white-Arabs like myself. There is a black community in Basra and in recent years I started to notice how racist my community is towards black Arabs. In Iraq, some people are not even aware of black Iraqis who have been living there for centuries. To respond to the racism I was seeing, I embarked on exploring the roots of anti-black racism in my Arab culture, and found that it has been around even before Islam. Since there is very little awareness of anti-black racism in the Arab world, I started translating Arabic literature that is racist and anti-racist into English, and working on documenting and preserving Afro-Iraqi heritage. Raising awareness may be the first step towards greater advocacy and allyship with black communities in the Arab world.

In examining the problematic representation of black people in the Arab Imaginary, we will be quoting from original text that is extremely racist and offensive and it may make you feel uncomfortable. These quotes have influenced and continue to influence the image of Black people in the Arab imaginary. This lecture will be followed by a second lecture on anti-racist work, celebrating and defending black people in the Arab world.

In essence, racism is a powerful system that generates false pyramids of human value; its twisted dynamics extends beyond race. Martin Luther King Jr. considers it to be one of the three major evils in the world: the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war. For Angela Y. Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” -

Traced back to Jean-Paul Sartre's The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, the concept of Imaginary has been investigated in various fields of knowledge including philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology etc. The imaginary, to put it simply, is a collectively shared set of creative and symbolic ideas, beliefs and values that each society creates to think about itself and the other.

Today, we have the pleasure to be with Professor Nader Kadhim who will speak about the problematic representation of black people in the Arab imaginary. Dr. Nader Kadhim is an established Arab writer and critic. He holds a B.A. in Arabic language and literature, master’s degree in Modern Criticism, and PhD in Arabic literature from The Institute of Arab Research and Studies (IARS). He is currently a professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Bahrain. He is a co-editor of Information and Communication Journal, issued by the International Centre for Media and Communication Studies in London. Among his books are: Representations of the Other (2004), Identity and Narrative (2006), Unbridled Hatred (2010), Saving Hope (2013), Why War?

Professor Nader will speak in Arabic and I will translate into English. In a moment, a button will pop up on your screen with the option to listen in Arabic or English.

Below is a rough translation of Dr. Nader Kadhim’s lecture, provided by Dr. Amir Al-Azraki.

Thank you, Dr. Amir, and thank you all for attending the lecture. Before I begin, I’d like to speak freely about this subject. In the beginning of my career, until 2000, I was interested in modern theories of literature and literary criticism. In that year, when I was reading A Thousand and One Nights, I was struck by the stereotypical representation of black people in those stories. I realized that black characters are recurrent in the tales, and every time they mention a black character in the stories, their image is depicted negatively.

Then it became clear to me that One Thousand and One Nights was not an exception in the Arab heritage narratives, but rather it was an exemplary text that collected negative stereotypes scattered here and there about black people in one fantasy narrative text. What One Thousand and One Nights portrayed is repeatedly in Arabic narratives such as travel literature, books on geography, astronomy, astrology, history, theology, hadith, jurisprudence, marine science, philosophy, naturals, and ancient medicine. Those texts have formed enormous negative representations of Africans, which has led me to coin a new term to express this active process of pejorative representation of Africans in Arab heritage. The term “Africanism” has emerged to study Arab representation of African /black people, and to analyze the strong interest in identifying their races, tribes, cultures, languages, and manners, just as Orientalism was in its relation to the Orient.

When my book (Representation of the Other: The Image of Black People in the Arab Imaginary) was published in its first Arabic edition in 2004, a Bahraini feminist stopped me and showed me her great admiration for the book, then suddenly she said: “But if it happened and a black man proposed to marry my daughter, it would be impossible for me to agree ?!” I told her: “In principle, I do not interfere in anyone’s personal convictions and attitudes, nor in this contradiction between a feminist like you who demands women’s empowerment and equality with men, and at the same time interferes in her daughter’s life to decide whom she can marry. However, I just want to draw your attention to the fact that what you are misconceiving as a personal opinion (with all respect to that) is not the case.” She replied: “I can’t help it. I just can’t accept it emotionally.” I responded: “This confirms that it is not a personal opinion, because you’ve not formed this opinion in the first place, but rather it was developed before you, and you are a victim like others who are controlled by those stereotypes that were created about black people in certain historical contexts.”

In this lecture, I will present a general outline of this legacy that was constructed before us, and we became its victims without questioning the magnitude of its racism towards black people. Before I begin, I will remind you of the most racist philosophical texts towards Africans, which is Georg Hegel’s Philosophy of History, where he speaks about the African as the ultimate other, as the human animal with all their barbarism and deviation from the human law. To understand that, we need to be stripped of all moral respect or sentiments towards black people. Hegel says:

The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality — all that we call feeling — if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character (p.111).

Another characteristic fact in reference to the Negroes is Slavery. Negroes are enslaved by Europeans and sold to America. Bad as this may be, their lot in their own land is even worse, since there a slavery quite as absolute exists; for it is the essential principle of slavery, that man has not yet attained a consciousness of his freedom, and consequently sinks down to a mere Thing — an object of no value. Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, more strictly speaking, non-existent. Parents sell their children, and conversely children their parents, as either has the
opportunity. Through the pervading influence of slavery all those bonds of moral regard which we cherish towards each other disappear, and it does not occur to the Negro mind to expect from others what we are enabled to claim (p.114).

Let us compare between this racist and colonial text par excellence, and a text in a book titled The Elite of Time in the Wonders of Land and Sea, which was written by an Arab-Muslim writer from the fourteenth century, nearly five centuries before Hegel, and the writer’s name is Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi. He says that:

"The equator is inhabited by the sects of Sudan, among the monsters and cattle, their  colors and their hair are burnt, their morals and physical appearances are aberrant ... they are ignorant, very dark skinned, burnt hair, stiff of creation, stinking race, perverted temperament, their manners are similar to beasts and cattle.... and the minds of these Sudan are preposterous, their ideas are immature, and their minds are rigid. They don’t have dualisms such as trust vs. betrayal, loyalty and disloyalty. There have no laws and no prophets were sent to them, because they are unable to formulate dualism, and Sharia is a matter and demand and prevention, and reward and punishment.

This is a racist text par excellence, and it is an exemplary text on what I call here the Arab "Africanism", that is, the Arab representation of black people, and the fervent interest in getting to know the Sudanese, Negroes, Africans and their diverse cultures (or noncultures), just like Orientalism and its relationship with the East. In the medieval Arab heritage, an enormous written archive has been formed that has turned Africa into a subject of knowledge (and non-knowledge), and a huge reservoir of stereotypes about black people from the eighth century AD until today. Both Orientalism and "Africanism" have shaped a coherent and extremely rich discourse about the other, but it is an imagined discourse formed from images, representations and prejudices that acquired their self-evident nature due to the dysfunctional power relations in favor of the West (in Orientalism) and in the interest of the Arabs (in Africanism). Because of this power relationship, conquerors and colonialists became able to draw lines separating them as "pure" from those other "polluted" races and cultures.

Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi's text is based on the animalization of black people, which has formed the mother image from which all the negative stereotypes of black people were born. Blacks, according to Dimashqi, are among the animals (monsters or savages and beasts), and the natural ugliness, mood perversion, mental weakness, moral impotence, and lack of religion apply to them because animals do not need religion by virtue of being incapable of understanding dualisms such as Good and Evil.

The text of Dimashqi is not an exception in the Arab heritage; rather, it’s the rule. Thus, one could find such examples that stereotype black people and view them as wild animals or wandering beasts, spread throughout the entire heritage which addressed black people. It is very rare to find an Arabic text from the Middle Ages mentioning anything related to black without negatively stereotyping black people. 

Black people were not the only ones who were converted by the Arab imaginary into subjects for prejudiced description and derogatory view. The Arab imaginary has preserved contrasting images of Chinese, Indians, Persians, Romans, Europeans, Bulgarians, Slavs etc., but none of those representations was similar in volume to the representations of black people that span a vast scope in this culture, nor did they have an exceptional frequency. It goes without saying that  the progress of history could change  the stereotypes formed by the Arab imaginary about black people; however, it appears that those firm and coherent "non-historical" representations resist time and rise above the progress of history and changing contexts.

There is little distinction between the representation of black people by Arab writers in the third century AH and writers in the fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth century until the beginning of the twentieth century. These representations have become a fixed tradition imposed on those who want to talk about black people or write about them, and this tradition has its own language and distinctive metaphors. Thus, whoever intends to write differently from this accepted collective discourse, would be faced with rejection, confrontation and ridicule, and this is what happened with Abu al-Abbas al-Nashi al-Akbar (293 AH) and Abu al-Abbas Muhammad bin Khalaf bin al-Marzaban (309 AH). When he wrote the book, The Blacks and Their Superiority Over the White, he met with nothing but mockery and sarcasm. Jalal al-Din al-Suuty says in it: “I do not find this surprising from this writer, because he wrote another book called “Superiority of dogs over many who wear clothes [humans]”. As for Abu al-Abbas al-Nashi, he composed a treatise on “Superiority of blacks over whites,” and the consequence was that he was accused of insanity and mania, and al-Suuty described this superiority as “making comparison between gold and glass.”

This tradition of writing about black people or talking about them, and the stereotypes recurring in every speech or writing about black people, is what we call here Arab "Africanism", that is, the way of perceiving, imagining and writing about black people as a subject of study. If we use Foucault’s concepts, we can say that Arab “Africanism” is a form of adherence to the rules of producing, preserving, representing and prorogating of Arab discourse on black people in the Arab-Islamic culture. It is therefore a discourse about black people that has its own rules and regulations, and it is disseminated in many fields of knowledge, so that the doctor is exposed to it as well as the linguist, the theologian, the orator, the geographer, the navigator, the astrologer, the historian, the poet, the storyteller etc. That’s why Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi does not differ in this from Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, Sulayman al-Tajer, al-Tabari, Ibn Rastah, al-Masudi, Ibn Hawqal, al-Maqdisi, Ibn Jubayr, Zakaria al-Qazwini, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, Ibn al-Muqaffa, al-Jahiz, Ibn al-Nadim, Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, al-Bayhaqi, al-Nuwayri, al-Abashi, and al-Qalqhandi. They differ in style and field of specialization, but they share the same view of black people. None of these criticized the inferior view of black people, nor did they evade speaking of the common representations and recurrent stereotypes about black people. None of them objected to describing black people as animals, savages, debauched, bestial, backward, stupid, immoral, malformed and obsessed with music.

The question is where did this mother stereotype (animalization of black people) come from? The question here is not about the purposes behind this stereotype, but rather, about the underpinnings that allowed such inhuman depiction. The three established sources are: the cultural meaning of the human being, the old scriptures (a divine curse that befell the black Hamites), and the ancient Greek theory of the seven climes that portrayed the sun as a colossal cosmic stove and humans as cooked subjects (undercooked/raw, well-cooked and burnt/overcooked).

As for the first underpinning, Arab culture has established an understanding of culture that is close to the modern anthropological understanding, that is, culture as a separating boundary between humans and animals, between what is natural and what is learned and acquired. On this basis, religion, language, writing, dress, laws, systems of government etc. are viewed as separating boundaries between nature and culture, between wildness and civilization, between animals and humans. For Nasir al-Din Al-Tusi, those naked black people who lack religion, laws, systems of government are not humans except for the body as a living being and walking on two legs; they “do not differ from monkeys except with straight stature, and some even saw that monkeys are more receptive to learning and training than negroes”.

As for what came from the Torah, or what is called in Arabic “al-Israeliyat/Israelites”, meaning the Torahic narratives that were leaked into Arab culture, as a source for the interpretation of the prophets’ stories in the Qur’an. Blackness, in those narratives, is a divine curse that befell the seed of Ham, the son of Noah, following Noah’s call to his son into slavery and blackness in a well-known Torahic/ biblical story.

As for the theory of the seven climes, it is an ancient geographical theory that goes back to the Ptolemaic legacy, which divided the land into lengths and widths, and divided the widths into seven climes. The first region starts from the south, where the blacks and Negroes are, and the seventh ends in the north, where the Slavs and the barbarians of the north. This invokes Levi- Strauss's "culinary triangle" in a metaphorical way. If the passage from nature to culture takes place through the "culinary triangle" so that the "raw" is either culturally "cooked", or naturally it becomes "rotten". With the help of the Ptolemaic conception of the earth and its clime, the earth was depicted as food and the sun as a burning fire. Given that these seven climes are not exposed to this stove in an equal degree, the result is to obtain different and varied foods, some of which were not sufficiently touched by the fire (raw), and some were exposed to intense heat and came out burned (overcooked), and some were exposed to moderate heat (well-cooked). Based on this metaphor, the seven climes were distributed: the first is burnt (negroes), the seventh is raw (Gog and Magog), the fourth is moderate and well-cooked (most Islamic countries), and the rest of the climes (the second, third, fifth and sixth) are distributed in terms of moderation or deviation, in terms of rawness or combustion, according to its proximity to or distance from the massive solar stove.

Was Africanism an attempt to learn about black people or an affirmation of our ignorance about them? Was it an innocent attempt or a complicit one with power, authority, and a tendency to develop at the expense of other people's lands and justify their slavery? Do racists feel remorse for being at odds with Islam's universal view of humanity as the best creatures of God in creation and manners? Is it worth learning about a person without first appreciating their value as a human being? Did the Arab civilization build up its supremacy during the Middle Ages by excluding others to the realm of animalism, savagery and barbarism? In Walter Benjamin’s words, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” as if barbarism is a fellow of civilization, and the instinct of evil and destruction is a fellow of knowledge that feeds on wrong, injustice, cruelty and “violence of prejudices” against the other.

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