Race in Andalusia

Heres another bit of history:
Hafsah and Abu Jaffar were celebrated poets in medieval Muslim Spain. Unfortunately, Abu Jaffar’s family worked for the previous Almoravid dynasty which was ousted by the Almohad dynasty in the 11th century. A dangerous love triangle developed when the Caliph’s son who came into town as governor of Granada, Hafsah and Abu Jaffar. Eventually the governor executed his rival Abu Jaffar and Hafsah went into mourning. She gave up poetry and retired in North Africa as a teacher to the Almohad princesses.

Here is a poem she wrote:

O you who used to be the most sensitive of men
Before fate lifted you up to let you fall
In love with a black woman
Who is altogether like the night, which hides beauty
And with darkness obscures the radiance of a face,
Nor in that night can any blond thing be seen,
Tell me, you being so well acquainted
With the connoisseurs of extrinsic beauty,
By God, would anyone ever fall in love with a garden
Where no roses are, nor blossoms of the orange tree?

Hafsah Rukaniya 12th century

So, it appears Hafsah was making fun of Abu Jaffar for being in love with a black woman. Fairness is a standard of beauty in Middle Eastern culture. And in Hafsahs conception of the world as an Arab elite, a dusky, bronze, golden, red, chocolate, or black woman could not compete with a blonde. On the flip side Abu Jaffar told Hafsah, “Do not love that black man. I engage to buy ten better than he in the black slave-market.” The 17th century historian, Makkari wrote that the man competing for Hafsahs attention (the Caliph’s son) “was so dark of complexion as almost to resemble a Negro.”

This little exchange has gone unnoticed by most historians. I find it interesting. It indicates that because the Caliphs son was a powerful man, his skin color or ethnic identity as a non-Arab and [likely multi-racial] Berber didnt matter so much for Hafsah. However she believed her whiteness made her superior to her black rival. Abu Jaffars obvious affection for this black woman, did not stop him from comparing his darker complexioned rival to a slave. By looking at this story this way, we can explore all sorts of issues on identity, power, and sexual politics.

Although in Islam, we have Quranic verses, prophetic traditions, and even a final sermon of Muhammad where he stated an Arab was not better than a black, nor a black better than an Arab. Afro-Arabs experience discrimination in the Middle East and American Muslim communities have a long way to go to integrate immigrant and the predominantly African American indigenous communities. I remember having a conversation with some Muslims sisters about race. She had noted that the preference towards lighter skin was universal. She evidenced Mauritania as an example. I doubt that she studied the society to understand the complex history of a slave raiding frontier, the role of caste in Mauritanian society, and the development of Bidan (White) and Sudan (Black) identities. Often people blame colonialism, but they havent read too much about the ways medieval Arabs picked up racialist and racist conceptions about Africans from the Greeks and Biblical scholars. They also had their own traditions from pre-Islamic days. But Muhammad’s message about breaking down tribalism and chauvinistic attitudes. More sophisticated analysis said that we resided in really hot places that fried our brains and curled up our hair. And we liked to dance a lot. This is what Ibn Khaldun said in the 14th century. Medieval Arabs thought we were shuffling and jiving even back then.

Still to this day, nobody has written about the fate of African slaves in Andalusia. Heres a reply to Hafsah:

Daylight exposes the beauty of extrinsic things.
Darkness does not conceal this woman’s loveliness
Whose beauty is intrinsic in her devotion
And countenance
As the evening approaches the sky celebrates
Throwing on its best attire
Changing dresses from rosy warm shades
To ocean blues of twilight
At night the Moon glows radiant
The sky draped in velvet robes adorned
With diamonds and pearls.
What are gardens? When you have the heavens?

Aziza 21st century

One thought on “Race in Andalusia

  1. Subhan Allah… i just read your poem out loud to myself twice because it was that beautiful.

    A scholar and a poet mashallah…

    Sincerely, a student and a sister


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