Conceiving the Pre-Modern Black-Arab Hero: On the Gendered Production of Racial Difference in Sīrat al-amīrah dhāt al-himmah

In: Journal of Arabic Literature
Rachel Schine University of Chicago

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ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s character in Sīrat al-amīrah dhāt al-himmah is but one example of a black hero who figures prominently in a sīrah shaʿbiyyah, or popular heroic cycle, the earliest references to which appear in the twelfth century and several of which remain in circulation today. Like several of his counterparts, not only is he black, but he is also alone among his relatives in being so. The explanation supplied in the text of his mother Fāṭimah’s eponymous sīrah for his “spontaneous” phenotypic deviation makes use of rhetoric also found in various antecedent and near-contemporary belles-lettres sources. Placing ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s case within the context of this literary network illuminates a series of questions concerning the semiotics of race in pre-twelfth-century Arabo-Muslim literature, racially inflected anxieties about control of feminine sexuality, and pre-genetic syntheses of racial and reproductive “sciences.” This paper concludes that ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness is produced through a set of scientific and speculative discourses that go beyond the prominent theories of climate influences and Hamitic genealogy, and that posit instead a racial determinacy that occurs spontaneously, regardless of geography or lineage, through a variety of interventions from and against the maternal body. These include the contamination of seminal fluid, “image-imprinting,” and divine fiat. The concentration of these theories within a single text makes ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s conception narrative a uniquely apt ground for discussing the broader complex of issues of gender and race in pre-modern Arabic literature.

The sīrah shaʿbiyyah (pl. siyar) texts make up a corpus of heroic cycles that magnify the lives of great warriors in the Arabo-Islamic tradition. Originally performed orally for a popular audience,1 they bear similarities to early Islamic “chivalric” works such as chronicles of conquests and military raids; likewise, the sīrahs memorialize superhuman martial triumphs while maintaining a historicizing and often didactic tone.2 Several early sīrah shaʿbiyyah cycles include black-Arab heroes as significant agonists,3 a number of whom are born to self-identified “white” Arab parents. Among the black heroes in the early sīrahs are ʿAntar (based on the pre-Islamic poet ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād) and his daughter ʿUnaytirah in Sīrat ʿAntar, chronologically the first of the sīrahs; Abū Zayd al-Hilālī (né Barakāt) of Sīrat Banī Hilāl; and ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, son of Fāṭimah Dhāt al-Himmah in her eponymous sīrah, Sīrat al-amīrah dhāt al-himmah. These latter two heroes—Abū Zayd al-Hilālī and ʿAbd al-Wahhāb—exhibit the phenomenon of “spontaneous” blackness. This study focuses on ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s conception, birth, and subsequent paternity trial (henceforth his “conception narrative”).4

According to the sīrah, after being forcibly wed to her cousin al-Ḥārith, the heroic, chaste military general (amīrah) Fāṭimah Dhāt al-Himmah, who had risen in the ranks after coming of age and studying martial arts while in the captivity of another tribe, is drugged and the marriage is consummated by rape.5 She then bears a black son, her first and only child, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. His blackness is met with horror and confusion by all, compelling Fāṭimah to hide the child away until it is no longer possible to do so, at which point both ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s legal proceedings and heroic legacy begin simultaneously to unfold. Ultimately, it is found that ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s coloration is the result of al-Ḥārith having copulated with Fāṭimah during her menses: the “black” color of her menstrual discharge mixed with the embryogenic nuṭfah (sperm-drop), dyeing it.6 Within the narrative, this ruling is delivered by none other than the sixth Shīʿī imam, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.7

Non-hereditary black births like that of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb are attested not only in these sīrahs but also in a variety of earlier belletristic (adab) sources spanning jurisprudential, medical-scientific, and exegetical genres. Within the broader ambit of “world literature,” ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness may seem a mere exponent of the heroic literary genre; every hero from Achilles to Wonder Woman is beset by a handicap that must be overcome in the course of his or her superhuman feats. However, I argue that the medical aberration that constructs ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness transcends genre and folkloric typologies. Instead, it indicates the development of a multifarious set of racialist theories—that is, theories that seek to itemize and hierarchize types of racial diversity—in Arabic scholarship and literature of the early medieval period that had evolved in addition to the prevalent climatological explanation of race, which adduced humoristic factors such as heat and wetness in a given location as giving rise to racial differentiation (sub-Saharan Africa, being hot and dry, blackens its inhabitants and curls their hair).8 These theories also diverge in their epistemic preoccupations from occult explanations for racial differentiation found in popular prophetology, which in the Islamic tradition typically traces the etiology of race to a curse on Noah’s son, Ham.9 These scientific and speculative formulations filtered into popular literature and, transitively, into popular discourse, becoming widespread and well entrenched by the mid-eleventh century across a vast geography—the belletrists cited in this paper span al-Andalūs to Baghdad—at least half a century before the earliest sīrahs come into evidence.10

As such, I argue, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s character cannot be read as a straightforward avatar of ʿAntar, a hereditarily black sīrah protagonist with pre-Islamic roots.11 Nor does ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness act as an ambivalent placeholder for any number of social handicaps in the heroic literary stockpile.12 Rather, having come into existence through an obscure process that is puzzled out before the readers’ eyes, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s initial moment of “construction” as a character, namely his conception, is particularly useful for parsing perceptions of how race—or more specifically, blackness—is physiologically and societally situated in pre-modern Arabic literature.

With respect to studies of race in the pre-modern era, Geraldine Heng offers a critique that such research has focused overmuch on representing race as a set of “biological or somatic features […] selectively moralized” to effect social control, rather than envisioning race as itself a “structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences.”13 In view of this critique, this article presents two correctives for reading race in pre-modern Arabic texts. First, it analyzes a kinetic moment of racing, wherein ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness is being created and actively incorporated into the power structures of the text. Second, this study aims to widen the scope of our understanding of the biological features and processes that were of utility to medieval Arab thinkers and popular narrators alike with respect to constructing race, thus displacing the scientific aspect of racial thought from its perceived high cultural purview. Indeed, even if we are to accept Malcolm Lyon’s hypothesis that some large portion of audiences for the sīrahs must have been black in order to propel characters such as ʿAbd al-Wahhāb to eminence, we must also acknowledge that the ways in which black heroes are introduced into the sīrahs are not accidental; their existence is strategically conjured and justified.14

The racialist theories applied to ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s condition in the text of Sīrat dhāt al-himmah fit within a broader, comprehensive hermeneutic for evaluating racial difference. Two main assumptions underpin this hermeneutic: first, that whiteness (inasmuch as the Arabs regarded themselves as white) is unadulterated and ideal, whereas blackness is a product of miscegenation, contamination, or acclimatization; and second, that female sexuality forms the domain in which these racially determining events occur. This article therefore analyzes this confluence of racially determining elements in ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s narrative, and ultimately asserts that the racialist theories applied in affirming ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s legitimacy all express a common anxiety less about the black body proper than about the female body as a locus in which blackness can be—often against one’s will—implanted and incubated. Although these methods of implantation are all scientifically rationalized, they bolster an irrational premise—namely, the possibility of offspring that is neither illegitimate nor, ostensibly, hereditarily related to his parents; one precarious body produces another.

ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s conception narrative may thus be seen as an allegory of what sociologist Orlando Patterson has termed “natal alienation,” by means of which an individual born into slavery is dissociated from all “ ‘rights’ and claims of birth” and outcast from legitimate social and political arrangements.15 Whereas ʿAbd al-Wahhāb is not born into slavery, but rather into blackness (although the two are frequently conflated by his peers), his version of natal alienation leaves him dispossessed of a different kind of social legitimacy and birthright: a normative and readily intelligible lineage.16 The dislocation of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s race from its “rightful” heritage is brought into effect by a literal bodily intervention from his mother, whose body and its uniquely female vulnerabilities constitute the domain in which racial expression is manifested and manipulated.

The explicit connection forged between the black body of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and that of his mother is supported not only by the association drawn between Fāṭimah’s menstruation and ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s coloration, but also by biological discourses concerning mother-child bonds and by moralizing discourses that marshal a woman’s bodily functions to circumscribe male behavior.17 Nonetheless, these interrelated forms of alterity—femaleness and blackness—have seldom been brought together in a single study of pre-modern Arabic sources. And yet, the imbrication of race and gender is a societal inevitability. This phenomenon is described by Heng as an inbuilt capacity of “racial logic,” whereby race “stalk[s] and merge[s] with other hierarchical systems—such as class, gender, or sexuality.”18 This study sketches the terms in which a discussion of these commingling aspects of identity may take place: What is the relationship of blackness to gender in the sīrah? What does it mean that this relationship is drawn through a scientific aberration rather than an organic arrangement? What types of affinity are being permitted and denied, and to what end?

In the course of analyzing the text of the sīrah itself, I incorporate various companion sources from the Prophet Muḥammad’s sayings (ḥadīth), the works of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765) (both those that are traditionally considered to be authentic and those that are questionably attributed), Jewish scripture and lore (isrāʾīliyyāt) as featured in the works of Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064), stories of the prophets (qiṣaṣ al-anbīyāʾ), and medical theories used by Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Bakr al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868) and others. I have chosen these sources for their geographic and temporal distribution, and because of the popularity that their authors achieved in their own lifetimes, leading their intellectual enterprises to be widely promulgated and emulated. From these works, three predominating theories explaining non-hereditary black birth may be deduced: image-imprinting, chemical contamination of the nuṭfah (sperm-drop),19 and divine providence. The Classical theory of atavism (a notion developed by Aristotle explaining the sudden re-expression of long-dormant ancestral traits) appears as well.20 Each of these etiological theories is tested in the sīrah, and so these sources will be used to frame corresponding movements within the sīrah itself.

Dangerous Conception: Fāṭimah’s Impregnation and ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s Birth

The staging of Fāṭimah’s forced consummation prefigures the scientific scrutiny that the sīrah will later apply to ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s conception. This is evident in the depiction of the drug used to entrap Fāṭimah, administered by her companion Marzūq, who received it from another man named ʿUqbah,

هذا الدواء الذي أعطاه له عقبة بنج طيار اقر بطشي مصحونبالكبريت الأزرق لو طعم منه حبة لجمل لغاب عن الوجود جمعة وكان عقبة يعمله ويخبيه معه لأنه فاسق يهوى النسوان وكان إذا مرت به امرأة جميلة لزيارته لما تسمع عنه من الديانة والصلاح فيبنجها ويفسق بها‫.‬

[T]his was the drug which ʿUqbah gave to him: a volatile, overpowering soporific, ground up with a blue-hued sulfur. Should a camel taste but a grain of it, it would lose consciousness through all of Friday. And so ʿUqbah would make [such a drug] and would conceal it on his person, because he was a corrupt one, impassioned by women. And when a beautiful woman happened his way for a visit, that she might hear from him talk of piety and righteousness, he then would drug her and do wrong by her. (vii: 9)21

This vividly detailed pharmacological description is delivered in a mode of scientific and pseudo-scientific speech that will echo throughout the portions of the text in question. After Marzūq slips the drug into Fāṭimah’s drinking goblet, she falls as unconscious and inert “as a plank of wood.” Al-Ḥārith then moves in to have his way with her:

حل سرويلها ثم لقي تحته سروال من الحلل الأديم الطائفي محبوك الساق لأنها كانت عليها صيغتها فتحير الحارث وهو يتعجب من تحرزها على نفسها ولم يدر ما يفعل فأخذ سكين وقور مكان الحاجة من سراويلها وواقعها إلى أن نزل دمها وبعد فراغه من قضاء حاجته تركها على حالها وخرج‫.‬

[H]e undid her trousers, then he encountered drawers beneath them of well-worked, paneled leather, with well-knit legs, for they were close-fitted upon her form. Al-Ḥārith grew bewildered, and he was astonished by her safeguarding of herself, and he did not know what to do. He took a knife and gouged out a place from her trousers as needed, and he copulated with her until her blood issued out. After he had finished satisfying his need, he left her as she was and departed. (vii: 10)

The language used here adumbrates a causal relationship between the rape and Fāṭimah’s bloodshed. The use of the third form of w-q-ʿ, which can mean, depending on the gender of the subject and the context, either “to attack” or “to have intercourse with,” here seems to carry both meanings simultaneously, particularly in light of Fāṭimah’s predominant identity as a warrior, which is often set over and against her femininity. We may therefore read this as a double entendre; al-Ḥārith is attacking Fāṭimah by means of coition.22

The language in this instance does not explicitly indicate the fact of Fāṭimah’s menstruation that later surfaces, nor does it indicate that al-Ḥārith takes notice of the blood. Rather, the audience is left believing that, being as this is Fāṭimah’s first sexual encounter, the blood is a natural result of her hymen tearing. Nonetheless, the violent language used foments discomfort for the reader. This is not a consummation, but rather a violation, and one that is ambiguous in terms of the degree of physical injury inflicted upon the victim because the source of the ensuing emission of blood is left unnamed. Al-Ḥārith departs, unrepentant, and is subsequently compelled to flee from a remorseful Marzūq’s wrath. He does not see Fāṭimah again until after ʿAbd al-Wahhāb is born and his parentage is cast into doubt.

The description of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s birth bears further analysis not because of its exceptional nature, but rather because of its normalcy. It is couched in references to divine will and creative power, which serve to reinforce the notion that bearing a child, regardless of its kind, is a divinely sanctioned experience:

وجاءها الطلق بإذن خالق الخلق وقد آن ظهور الولد كما يشاء الفرد الصمد وسبقت الشيئة والإرادة في علم غيبه المكنون الذي يقول للشيء كن فيكون بأن يكون هذا المولود سيف اللّٰه المسلول وترس قبر النبي محمد بن عبد اللّٰه صلى اللّٰه عليه وسلم فعندها أخفت ذات الهمة الوجع وتجلدت وأعانها على الولادة صاحب الإرادة فولدت غلام عند السحر ولونه مثل الليل المعتكر أسود أغبر مفتول الزراعين أسود العينين أزج الحاجبين‫.‬

Labor came upon her, by the allowance of the Creator of Creation, and so there appeared a son, as the singular eternal one wills, and volition and will is preceded by his hidden, esoteric knowledge, with which he says “be,” and so it is. Thus he did bring into being this birth of the unsheathed sword of God and shield of the grave of the Prophet Muḥammad b. ʿAbdullāh, peace be upon him. Though at the time the pain frightened Dhāt al-Himmah, she held fast, and the Master of Will helped her. She then gave birth to a boy at the approach of dawn, and his color was like the turbid night, black and dunn-like, taut of limbs, black of eyes, and with beautifully arched brows. (vii: 11)

Particularly striking here is the use of the title “eternal one,” or ṣamad, for God. This epithet occurs once in the Qurʾān, in the sūrah of “The Sincerity” (al-Ikhlāṣ), which also features a monotheistic catechism refuting the existence of divine ancestors or descendants by affirming that God “neither begets nor is born” (Q 112:3). It is interesting that this reference should figure in a birth narrative. The allusion reminds the audience that although God has no descendants—which is to say, he does not reproduce—he nonetheless retains supreme creative power. This cleaves the process of creation from that of reproduction and obviates Fāṭimah’s responsibility for the nature of her child. Indeed, when her attendants beg Fāṭimah to confide her in them and confirm their suspicions that she has committed adultery, Fāṭimah herself says simply, “seek refuge in God […] lo this child is a craft [ṣināʿah] of the most able king [al-malik al-qādir],” who alone can raise the dead among the living and draw black beings from white ones. That is, Fāṭimah herself elevates the trope of woman as mere vessel into a sublime alibi for her child’s condition, which is represented as a testament to God’s unique ability to not only create, but to embellish and transform, reanimating inert, dead flesh and rendering black into white. This is further supported by her referring to her son not simply as a “creation,” but instead uses a term that connotes a fabricated object (ṣinaʿah) made by a master craftsman. In keeping with this division between birthing and bringing into being, the passage also features a recurrent Qurʾānic formulation for God’s capacity for creation through speech. He merely says, “be,” and it is (kun fayakūn).23 In this sense, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s birth is expressed as being both as common and as miraculous as any other act of creation.

Blood—a substance that proves particularly relevant to ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s etiology—is part of the natural-supernatural matrix of elements necessary for reproduction, intrinsic to humans yet used by God to wondrous and sometimes unexpected ends. Many litterateurs, including the prolific al-Jāḥiẓ, his near-contemporary Ibn Qutaybah, and Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, developed theories pertaining to blood’s reproductive functions. All share the common belief that the blood that a woman would otherwise lose through menstruation is diverted to the womb to encase and nourish the child. Other fluids, such as the male and/or female nuṭfah, mingle prior to the embryonic ingress into the blood-sac of the woman’s womb. Medieval Arab physicians and theologians were divided on whether this nuṭfah was indeed a mixture of ejaculates contributed by both male and female, or whether it was exclusively male; this debate roughly follows the divide between the Hippocratic and Aristotelian theories of reproduction that reigned throughout Antiquity.24 Whereas for Hippocrates, both male and female could produce a seminal discharge, Aristotle averred not only that women could not emit semen, but that their menstrual blood was moreover a result of the same physiological process through which males generate semen, namely drawing nourishment from one’s organs to then concoct and nourish another body. Undergirding this is the notion that women’s humors are less balanced, rendering them reproductively deficient and dependent.25 With respect to the Qurʾān, Kathryn Kueny names the Hippocratic model—wherein the fetus “comes into being” at the very time that its flesh, blood, and bone come into existence (the stage at which another “creation” is twinned with the fetal matter)—as according most closely with the scripture’s seven-stage process, outlined in Sūrat al-muʾminīn (Q 23:12-14):26

ولقد خلقنا الانسان من سلالة من طين ثم جعلناه في قرار مكين ثم خلقنا النطفة علقة فخلقنا العلقة مضغة فخلقنا المضغة عظاما فكسونا العظام لحما ثم أنشأناه خلقاء آخر فتبارك اللّٰه أحسن الخالقين‫.‬

We created man of an extraction of clay, then We set him, a drop, in a receptacle secure, then We created of the drop [al-nuṭfah] a clot then We created of the clot a tissue then We created of the tissue bones then We garmented the bones in flesh; thereafter We produced him as another creature. So blessed be God, the fairest of creators!27

Blood first becomes reproductively relevant after the seminal entity is formed, though before the fetus itself becomes a mass of blood, flesh, and bone. Theoretically, blood should not interact with other sexual fluids until the stage at which the ʿalaqah (“clot,” or embryo) lodges itself in the uterus. According to most medieval Arabic medical-scientific texts, blood diverted for gestational uses is not evaluated as impure or disgusting in the way menstrual blood generally is. This is notably untrue, however, in the case of the Nusayrī Ismāʿīlī text al-Haft al-sharīf, attributed to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, the same Shīʿī imam who appears within the text of Sīrat al-amīrah dhāt al-himmah.28 This text claims that God instrumentalizes the bloody environment of the womb against infidels (kāfirūn) by “ensouling” their bodies much earlier than their believing counterparts:29

فإذا ما صارت علقة أخذت الملائكة روح من أرواح الكافرين فتودع تلك العلقة وحينئذ تعذب روح الكافر في الأرحام وفي الدم والحيض والغباء والظلام حتى تصير بدنا للعذاب. وأما روح المؤمن في الجنة فتتنعم. وأما روح الكافر المستضعفة فتتعذب حتى تصير مضغة. حينئذ تأخذ روح من أرواح المنكوسين في الكفر فتودع في رحم ذلك البدن فيجعل أسفلها أعلاها […] وهي روح الكافر المعذب المنكوس في الدم والحيض وغير ذلك مما يكون في البطن حتى يبلغ البدن مدته‫.‬

Then, when [the embryo] becomes an attached thing, the angels take a spirit from amongst the spirits of the infidels, then they put it into that attached mass and the spirit of the infidel is tortured in the [layers of the] womb, in the blood and the menstrual secretion and the darkness and the obscurity until it becomes a body, for [the purpose of] castigation. As to the spirit of the believer, it is luxuriating in the Garden. As to the enfeebled spirit of the infidel, it is tortured until it becomes a small lump of flesh. Thereupon, a spirit from among the spirits of those who have lapsed into infidelity is taken. And that body is lodged in the womb, then it is turned upside down […] and it is the spirit of the tortured infidel, inverted in the blood and menstrual secretion and other things that are within the belly, until the body has reached its term.30

Although the author imagines the womb’s menstrual blood as an ordeal for the unbeliever, he does not imply that the blood in any way taints the infidel or permeates his body. Rather, the infidel is already ipso facto tainted. And yet, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq is unique in his preoccupation with menstrual blood as an affecting substance that disturbs the fetus, whereas for other scholars it was typically an unremarkable natural condition of the womb. Jaʿfar moreover offers an instance of the blood’s instrumentality; it is a means to the end of afflicting the unbeliever much in the way that it will come to cause ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s problematic coloration.

The intermixing of corrupting or colorful fluids at conception is posited elsewhere as exerting a permeating effect, coloring the child. Such is the case in both Thaʿlabī’s (d. circa 1036) and al-Kisāʾī’s (d. circa 805) recountings of the story of Noah and his sons, recorded in their respective collections of stories about the prophets, or qiṣaṣ al-anbīyāʾ.31 In each case, a different admixture of substances transforms Ham and his offspring into the first black people ever to exist. These etiologies of race, a narrative subgenre typical to anthologies of stories of the prophets, provide one of the closest points of comparison to the etiological stories of black heroes in the sīrah shaʿbiyyah texts.32

For Thaʿlabī, the possibility of racial differentiation was latent in Adam, who was made from clay of all colors, pulled from all parts of the earth; racial differentiation merely required a catalyst.33 This comes during the flood, when Noah prohibits his family members from sexual intercourse while they are in the ark. Ham defies this ban, and Noah then curses him; thus God alters his nuṭfah so that he bears black offspring.34

Rather than imagining Adam as racially prismatic, Kisāʾī pictures him as transcending race entirely. His skin is described as almost translucent, with the light of the spirit that God breathed into him shining through it.35 Ham’s curse in Kisāʾī’s account more closely mirrors the Biblical narrative, wherein Ham “sees” his father’s nakedness and is then censured (Gen. 9:21-27). Ham, according to Kisāʾī, laughs when Noah’s robe slips in his sleep and his genitals are exposed, causing Noah to stir and utter, “What is this laughter? Do you laugh at your father’s genitals? May God change your created form [khalqaka] and blacken your face!” Immediately, Ham’s visage turns black. Noah then adds, “may slave women and slaves come from Ham’s line, until the Day of Judgment.” This command is fulfilled when, while Ham is having intercourse with his wife, God splits open his gall bladder and that of his spouse, such that the black bile produced in the gland mixes with their nuṭfahs, resulting in a “black slave boy and slave girl [ghulām wa-jāriyyah aswadayn]” being born.36

Meanwhile, in al-Jāḥiẓ’s creation treatise, al-ʿIbar wa-al-ʿitibār, blood has a tincturing effect, albeit temporarily. Unlike in al-Haft al-sharīf, blood is rendered here as benign sustenance for the fetus. In a rather bizarre forerunner of the “you are what you eat” adage, al-Jāḥiẓ proposes that different types of nourishment have distinct skin-dyeing effects:

فإنه يجري إليه من دم أمه ما يغذوه كما يغزو الماء النبات ولا يزل غذاؤه حتى إذا أكمل خلقه […] ومتى ولد صرف ذلك الذي كان يغذوه من دم أمه إلى ثديها ورقق وصفى وحسن لونه وطيب طعمه‫.‬

Indeed there runs unto [the fetus] from the blood of his mother that which nourishes him, like water irrigating plants, and his food supply does not abate until once his creation has been completed […] and when he has been born, that which had nourished him shifts from the blood of his mother to her breasts, and his coloring becomes fair and pure and beautiful when his taste is sweetened.37

Implicitly, al-Jāḥiẓ observes that children emerge pink, or “blood-colored,” from the womb. Whereas al-Jāḥiẓ attributes the subsequent change in a child’s coloration to an improvement in the type of nourishment, ḥadīths collected by his near-contemporary Ibn Qutaybah instead claim that breast milk creates a conduit between mother and child (or wet-nurse and child) that results in the child’s skin tone coming to resemble her own.38

The description of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s dark color and features does not conform with these theories. Rather, he emerges from the womb not only with his permanent complexion but also with other mature physiognomic markers. In the passage describing his birth, the child’s eyes and brows are described as, respectively, black and beautifully arched; each of these qualities is indicative of quintessentially Arab handsomeness. Indeed, a description exactly identical to that of the newborn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s brows appears in Bayhaqī’s (d. 1066) Dalāʾil al-nubūwah describing the brow line of the Prophet.39 This is an initial intimation of what is later confirmed by the first panel of judges to which the child is brought—although his skin is black, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb shares his father’s physiognomy.

From the outset, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s skin color puts him in harm’s way, compelling Fāṭimah to hide him with one of her servants until, at the age of four, he is brought under her tutelage in Qurʾān study and martial skills. On the day of his birth, one of the women in Fāṭimah’s retinue notes his complexion and suggests severing his umbilical cord and killing him immediately to “hide the affair, in order that you not remain dishonored until the Day of Reckoning,” and advising, lest Fāṭimah be accused of adultery, that “the proper thing to do is to kill him, and not to perish because of him.” The other women agree, and are bemused and aggrieved, having thought Fāṭimah incapable of such a flagrant transgression. It takes a poetic overture from Fāṭimah to convince the women to abandon their murder plot:

أوقعني بالبنج حتى تغيرت خواطر عقلي مع رشيد مذاهبي
وكان الذي قد خط في اللوح كائن وإن قضاء اللّٰه غير مغالب
ليأت لنا هذا الذي قد رزقته يحاكي الدجا في لونه والغياهب
لقد عظمت هذى لرزية إذ غدت تفوق على آفاقها بالصائب
[al-Ḥārith] dosed me with a drug
Such that my mind’s thoughts were altered,
Along with my rightly-guided precepts
And that which was inscribed upon the Tablet shall come into being,
Indeed the judgment of God is immutable
For he visited upon us that with which I am endowed
He imitates the starless night in his color, and the jet-black darkness
And indeed my bitterness would only be made greater in this misfortune
If I were angry, surpassing the horizons with misery (vii: 12)

Fāṭimah emphasizes not only that God has granted her this child according to his will but that she is a woman of superior intellect and morality. She uses three terms to describe her rational faculties—khawāṭir, desires or opinions; ʿaql, reason or logic; and madhāhib, modes of thought often related to various intellectual pursuits—along with the weighty modifier “rightly-guided” (rashīd). When deprived of these faculties, she was placed entirely at the mercy of God and her assailant. Here, though, Fāṭimah upholds a narrative of submission to divine will rather than one of victimhood. Moreover, she semiotically repositions her child’s blackness using a poetic medium and the elegiac convention of comparing the poem’s celebrated subject with natural imagery. Fāṭimah represents ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness as a quality so innate to a constellation of other cosmic phenomena as to be semantically inextricable from their identities. Both the words used for “starless night” and for “jet-black darkness” are derived from roots that signify blackness itself, and that also have more earthly resonances with creatures designated by their dark color through homophony or homography, with the night (dujā) calling to mind a dark-feathered thrush (dujjā) and the word for a jet-blackness (ghayāhib) a deep black stallion (also ghayāhib).40

The double resonance of this line is made all the more distinct through its response to common poetic tropes. Fāṭimah evokes a thrush over the most common avian analogue for black-skinned people—the crow. The specter of the stallion in the poem draws Fāṭimah herself into association with the archetypical warrior-poet persona that many heroes in the sīrahs channel, as well as offering a premonitory indication of her son’s future exploits. Elsewhere, Fāṭimah refers to her son’s blackness as lustrous (baṣṣāṣ) and even likens it to the Bayt al-Ḥaram’s Black Stone, a trope also found in al-Jāḥiẓ’s epistle in defense of blackness, Fakhr al-sūdān ʿalā al-bayḍān. Therein, it is noted successively that the Black Stone is from the heavenly garden, and that copper burnished to blackness is the most expensive and prized kind, likewise pairing an image of superficial luster with one of holiness.41

It does not take long before, as a youth, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb perceives that his color causes his mother social anguish. Tearfully, the boy recites a few lines of poetry, beginning with the declaration “Although I am black, my heart has white upon it, from the shining light of day,” and concluding that one’s color does not matter, but rather one’s deeds (vii: 20). If there were indeed a case to be made for conceptualizing each black hero in the sīrahs as a fresh embodiment of ʿAntar, this passage would offer singular support. The racially apologetic content of this line typifies sentiments expressed by a collection of black Arab poets from the Classical period, the “Crows of the Arabs” (aghribat al-ʿarab). More specifically, its wording and meter (wāfir) overtly mimic a brief poem by ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād (d. 608):

لئن أك أسودا فالمسك لوني
وما لسواد جلدي من دواء
ولكن تبعد الفحشاء عني
كبعد الأرض عن جو السماء
Although I am black, my color is that of musk
And there is no curative for the blackness of my skin
And yet, boorishness distances itself from me,
Like the land is distanced from the air of the sky42

ʿAntarah conveys his goodness in a rather different fashion than ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. He likens himself and his black color to musk perfume, the fragrance of which is far more important than its coloration, and which is borne skyward, held aloft from the earthly and profane. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, meanwhile, actively encourages an interpersonal engagement in his poem, seeking to set a performative script that others may imitate by encouraging them to look beyond his surface. Unlike ʿAntarah, he does not associate his color with any benign natural image, choosing instead to dismiss it as utterly irrelevant vis-à-vis the valor of his illumined heart, which has the light of day cast upon it, lending it the verisimilitude of whiteness. Whereas it was a common trope among the Crows of the Arabs to claim that although their skin was black, their souls were white, the daylight shining upon ʿAbd al-Wahhāb performs a different function. Rather than suggesting that he is intrinsically white in spite of his black skin, the white light of day penetrates through ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s exterior and reaches his heart.

By the time his son makes this poetic declamation, al-Ḥārith has been informed about his son and his coloring. He convenes elders from the tribe to wrest a confession of adultery from Fāṭimah. In advance of their arrival, al-Ḥārith’s first encounter with ʿAbd al-Wahhāb is prefigured by a perspectival reorientation. The narrator of the sīrah thrusts the reader back into the oral framework of the tale by interrupting with a moralizing aside. In it, he reminds the audience that though ʿAbd al-Wahhāb looks like a “Nubian” child, he has a humble heart, and such humility is an adornment that bejewels a “black heart” (“qalb aswad”) with redeeming white pearls.43 Then, after the repetition of “the narrator said” (“qāla al-rāwī”), doubly jolting the reader back into the role of “listener,” the narrator adds, “thus there would be unto this black boy [ghulām] wondrous events and strange affairs, which we shall mention in due time, if God Almighty wills” (vii: 15). ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s heroic cycle thereby begins with a reminder that a hero is presented from birth with challenges that test his innate virtue.

The word ghulām here is ambivalent, complicating the narrator’s statement: it can indicate a slave-boy, as it almost assuredly does in al-Kisāʾī’s description of Ham’s progeny, or it may simply mean “boy.” Moreover, ghulām is favored over synonyms such as ibn (son) to describe the miraculous children John and Jesus in the Qurʾān’s Sūrat Maryam.44 Fāṭimah is associated not infrequently with Marian symbolism. Their stories share several features. Both women were impregnated unwittingly by forces beyond their control, and both gave birth to miraculous children who would become defenders of God despite aspersions cast on each woman’s chastity and virulent campaigns against their offspring. In light of this relationship and its overall laudatory context in the sīrah, ghulām could connote positive, scripturally inflected associations as easily as negative, racialized ones.

That this testament to ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s future glory is displaced from the characters within the text and voiced instead by the narrator gives it a more generalized, and perhaps apologetic, force in that it interrupts the narrative with the views of a temporally and socially external figure, who speaks up to redeem the black child. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s struggles as a black person are thus framed conspicuously as a retrospective. Though the role of the narrator in textualized sīrahs is beyond the scope of this paper, it bears remembering that these texts have experienced centuries of redaction and re-narration. While the narrator’s voiceover may be a nod to the sīrah’s first-hand, recorded quality, its position in the text also renders the figure of the narrator himself as a mediating character who intervenes to instruct the reader in accepting the black hero.

Finding the Father: ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s Paternity Trial

Once al-Ḥārith and the elders have confirmed ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s rumored coloration, legal proceedings ensue. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb cycles through several appellate “courts,” represented by a provincial judge, a set of Meccan physiognomists (qāʾif, pl. qāfah), and finally Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq. The literary function of the physiognomists—the second tier of judges—is essentially to present narratively an otherwise disconnected mélange of ḥadīths, theories, and anecdotes that bear common associations with the adjudication of paternity in an Arabo-Muslim context.

The primary physiognomist begins by citing the words of the Prophet, stating, “the son is for the [marriage] bed [firāsh].” This may be interpreted as meaning “that any child born to the mother (from any intercourse) should be considered the offspring of her husband or master.”45 The second half of this ḥadīth, unmentioned in the sīrah, is recorded in Bukhārī’s Saḥīḥ as “and for the whore is the stone.”46 Joseph Schacht has noted that this ḥadīth, were it taken seriously, would have decisively nullified the role of physiognomists in paternity disputes, although this seems not to have been the case in actuality.47 Although Bukhārī critiques the use of physiognomists as inciting violence and being useful only in disputes involving harlots and rapists, physiognomists were nonetheless employed in prominent positions well into the Ottoman period, occupying varying roles over time as legal and political advisors. The content of this particular ḥadīth developed into an actionable legal citation; according to Uri Rubin, claims of firāsh were indeed believed by some jurists to abrogate the role of physiognomists when used to formally contest a diʿwah, or extra-marital paternity claim.48

As such, in opening with this ḥadīth, the physiognomists acknowledge an apposite legal method. A final possibility is that this ḥadīth recitation evokes a theme that recurs throughout the sīrah: the text acknowledges that the sciences are superficially useful tools, yet maintains that they cannot ultimately contravene what was believed to be the word of God or his messenger.

The head physiognomist proceeds with his work after this ambivalent introduction, saying,

وباللّٰه العظيم أن هذا الصبي ولد الحارث لأن عيناه وأنه دخل عليه الأفكار لأجل سواده وتغير لونه كمثل عيناه وكذلك المعاصم والشمائل والكفوف والأطراف والانامل وإني أقول مقالة صدق غير جاهل‫.‬

By God the Great, indeed this youth is the son of al-Ḥārith, for his eyes—although he allowed thoughts to impinge upon him, causing his son’s blackness and the change in his color—are like unto his eyes, and likewise with the bone structure and the [other] traits, and the palms of the hands, and the extremities, and the fingertips, and indeed I deliver a truthful report, not an ignorant one […] (vii: 34)

In alluding to the offending thoughts (afkār) that al-Ḥārith failed to keep at bay during intercourse, the physiognomist asserts that al-Ḥārith is not only the father of the child, but moreover that he is responsible for the alteration to his son’s color due to some kind of conscious or unconscious ideation. Al-Ḥārith roundly refutes having had fantasies that “imprinted” his son during intercourse, though in so doing he and the physiognomist touch upon a pseudo-scientific discourse found in several sources, both Classical and medieval. Cases of “image-imprinting,” or impressing a birthmark or defect on a child through acts of sexual fantasy or psycho-emotional fixation, are attested in many cultures.49 One prominent instance in adab sources is found in Ibn Ḥazm’s Ṭawq al-ḥamāmah (The Dove’s Neck-Ring). Ibn Ḥazm relates the Biblical account of Jacob’s stripping poplar branches and setting the wood before his flock’s trough (Gen. 30:37-39). After seeing the mottled bark whenever they feed, the sheep mimetically calve spotted offspring. To this, Ibn Ḥazm adds, “also, one physiognomist gives an account of a black child brought forth from white parents.” Then he recalls the tale of a white man and woman who give birth to a black child because of a portrait of a black man hung on the wall, upon which the woman fixed her eyes during sex.50 This story, for Ibn Ḥazm, constitutes an example of how images stimulate lust, the cautionary aspect of which is evident. Implicitly, curating a woman’s environment and limiting objects for her potential stimulation also limits reproductive risk, represented by the black child, who is a physically hyper-marked proxy for a bastard. The sīrah, in grappling with a similar set of concerns over ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s legitimate paternity, raises a similar theory, which shifts the blame for the child’s condition from a question of physical infidelity to a question of emotional infidelity. In this fashion, blackness is represented as the physical symptom (albeit displaced onto one’s offspring) of an ailment of the mind, whereas the majority of the theories raised throughout the sīrah and its companion sources meditate mostly on bodily defects.

After pronouncing on al-Ḥārith’s thoughts during coitus, the physiognomists invite all of the men in the room to walk alongside ʿAbd al-Wahhāb across sand strewn on the floor. They then judge from the similarity between his footprints and those of al-Ḥārith, in conjunction with their other common physical features, that al-Ḥārith is indeed the father. Unsatisfied, al-Ḥārith mocks the physiognomists’ approach and threatens to kill his wife and son. Al-Ḥārith’s father recites some palliative verses assuring him that ʿAbd al-Wahhāb is a bastard, likening his origins to those of dogs—an insinuation of Fāṭimah’s promiscuity—and his appearance to a crow. These verses are reminiscent of a poem recited earlier by al-Ḥārith when he accused Fāṭimah of adultery:

أتت بابن الزناء وليس مني وقالت إنه ولدي كذوب
ولوني أبيض حسن جميل وهذا لونه حلك مريب
يحاكي رزق قطران للعرب ولوني أبيض هذا عجيب
رأيتم نخل تحمل قط قتى ونيران لها رطب رطيب
دعوا هذا المحال فلست أرضى مقالكمو ولا أبدى المعيب
She bore a bastard son, and he is not from me
Though she said that he is my son—liar!
For my color is white, beautiful, and good
And this color of his is suspiciously dark
The “boon” [of a child] strikes a semblance with tar for the Arabs
And my color is white—this is strange
Have you ever before seen date-palms bearing cucumbers?
Or flames with moist, fresh dates?
Leave off with this absurdity, I do not accept your words
And I won’t countenance [such] disgrace (vii: 16)

The deep brown dates simmering in flame evoke not only the paradoxical marriage of water and fire, but perhaps also Fāṭimah’s non-normative passions for the imagined brown-skinned man that al-Hārith interpolates as his adulterous wife’s lover. The bizarre and priapic image of the cucumbers hung from date palms further accentuates this theme of sexual deviance. Insulting ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s complexion as resembling “tar” draws on a common racial cliché. And yet, the word for young dates (ruṭab) recalls the Qurʾānic image of when Mary, while in labor, is given a date palm by God and instructed to sustain herself with its fruits (Q 19:25). These fruits and the desert palms that bear them echo Fāṭimah’s remarkable fecundity, posed against the adverse environment of flame. Similarly, in Sūrat Maryam, the miraculous appearance of a palm in full fruit reflects Mary’s own miraculous pregnancy, and moreover is sent to shade and comfort her as she gives birth in isolation. Fittingly, the “palms” (nakhīl) are the subject of the verb taḥmal, “to bear,” conjugated in the feminine. This links the fructification of the palms even more explicitly to childbearing. Even when impugning her, al-Ḥārith selects images that ironically reinforce Fāṭimah’s chastity and forbearance.

Not all agree with al-Ḥārith’s view of his own white complexion. In the midst of the argument, one of Fāṭimah’s defenders says, “do you not see regarding the child that his mother is radiantly white, and his father though fair is speckled, bringing about his color—a leathery black?” In using causal language to adduce al-Ḥārith’s complexional defect as that which “brings about” the black skin of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, the anonymous commenter implies that Al-Ḥārith’s allegedly “speckled” skin carries with it a hereditary potential that is expressed in exaggerated fashion in his child’s complexion. Though al-Ḥārith’s ancestors are not likewise described, the implication may even be that ʿAbd al-Wahhāb presents in full force the trait of blackness that al-Ḥārith carried forward, and even presented, albeit in an atrophied way. This passage seems to subtly reference the theory of atavism, an Aristotelian view in which individuals may present reversionary characteristics that have not manifested for generations.51 This rationalization does not resurface elsewhere, but its use indicates at least tangential familiarity with a principal Classical theory explaining how blackness can derive from whiteness.

At the suggestion of the physiognomists, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq is sought to offer the final word. From the outset, the imam is described in a manner indicating that his judgment will be incontrovertible. First, his kinship with the Prophet is referenced. He is then described as a “trove of virtue [futuwwah],” who dispels anxieties and showers generosity upon the downtrodden. When the assembled crowd sees him, they remark on his “ʿAlid aspect and patent Hashemite roots,” further underscoring the significance of physiognomy within the text.

During his judgment, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq compels al-Ḥārith to confess that he copulated with Fāṭimah while she was menstruating. In light of this, Jaʿfar blames the coloration of the fetus on the mixing of menstrual blood with the embryogenic nuṭfah. In so doing, though, he must explain how it is that such a mixture would tint the fetus black and not red. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq’s character finds recourse in a distinction that is highly debated in early exegesis and jurisprudence, namely, the difference between a woman who is a ḥāʾiḍ (menstruant) and one who is a mustaḥāḍah (metrorrhagic, or “spotting”):

أقبل الإمام جعفر بوجهه عليهم وقال معاشر من حضر أما نزل حكم اللّٰه أن الأبيض من الأسود والأسود من الأبيض ليس يصعب على اللّٰه ولا ينفد من قدرة اللّٰه كل أحد […] خلق عيسى بن مريم من غير أب ومع ذلك أخبركم أن الرجل إذا جامع زوجته وهي حائض جاء الولد أسود لأن اللّٰه تبارك وتعالى خلق الأنفس على جلالتها من النطفة كما بدأ الأشجار على منابتها والتحف وركب هذا الجسم الأبيض الوسيم الكريم من هذه النطفة الحقيرة في ظلمات الأحشاء و هو يديرها كيف يشاء‫.‬

[T]he imam Jaʿfar turned his face to them and said, “People who are in attendance, has not the judgment of God been revealed, that white may come from black and black from white? This poses no difficulty for God, nor does anything exhaust the power of God—not one thing! […] He created Jesus son of Mary without a father, and moreover I inform you that if a man copulates with his wife and she is menstruating, the child will emerge black because God, blessed and glorious, created the souls, in their sublimity, from a sperm-droplet just as he initiated the trees upon [the process of] their germinating. And he enwrapped and assembled this white, handsome, noble body from this vulgar droplet in the darkness of the womb and he conducts it however he wills.” (vii: 39)

Jaʿfar then questions al-Ḥārith, who admits that Fāṭimah was menstruating at the time of their sexual encounter. To this, Jaʿfar responds using an analogous case that was brought before his forefather, the Prophet Muḥammad:

وقال إن الرجل إذا واقع زوجته والدم أسود مختنق في أول الحيض جاء الولد أحمر اللون وإن واقعها عند انتهاء الحيض وصفاء الدم جاء الولد شبيها لأبيه وهذا حكم جدي وأنت يا حارث واقعت زوجتك وقد لحقها ما يلحق النساء من الحيض والمستحاضة دمها أحمر والحيض أسود والنطفة بيضاء ودم المرأة أغبر فاجتمع أحمر وأبيض وأسود وأغبر وخلق الخالق ودبر‫.‬

And [Muḥammad] said that the man, should he copulate with his wife while the blood is black and stopped-up at the beginning portion of the menses, the boy will become red in color, and if he has intercourse with her at the end of the menses, when the blood is pure, the child comes to resemble his father, and this is my ancestor’s judgment. And you, oh Ḥārith, had sex with your wife while there clung to her whatever adheres to women of the menses—and [as for] the metrorrhagic woman, her blood is red, and the menses is black and the sperm droplet is white and the blood of woman is dust-colored, so the red and white and black and dust-color melded and the Creator created and arranged [him]. (vii: 39)

Several early comprehensive tafsīr works grapple with this distinction between ḥāʾiḍ and mustaḥāḍah in exegeses of a verse of Sūrat al-baqarah that states, “And should they ask you about menstruation, say, ‘it is harm [adhā], so withdraw from women during menstruation’ ” (Q 2:222). Many of these debates are preoccupied mainly with the question of timing. Some attest that istiḥāḍah represents spotting, while others define it as the condition when menstruation extends beyond a certain point, often ten or fifteen days.52 Qurṭubī (d. 1273), writing later, adds a distinction with respect to the type of blood, claiming that dam al-ḥayḍ is initially black and thick, but is later overwhelmed by red blood.53 That is, Qurṭubī, like the fictional Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, offers a color- and consistency-based timetable of menstrual blood types.

Fāṭimah is not asked to confirm whether she was menstruating or which stage of menstruation she was in; rather, the evidence is clearly inscribed on her son’s flesh. Nor does Fāṭimah’s rape become a feature of legal consideration; she does not disclose it, and who else would on her behalf? Instead, the seeming violence of her assault is diminished by Jaʿfar’s judgment: Fāṭimah having been left bleeding by her husband no longer connotes possible battery or her hymen tearing open, but simply an instance of lust prevailing over perspicuity. Al-Ḥārith must not have noticed her bleeding prior to his attack.

There is a critical disconnect, however, between the emission of this black blood from the feminine subject and the resemblance that it forges between the child and the masculine agent. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq enigmatically mentions that the “purity” of the blood causes the child to “resemble his father.” The notion of purity here may refer to the chromatic saturation of the substance, meaning that it is a very pure, consistent black. Nonetheless, the blood’s causal link to paternal resemblance is not immediately intelligible. It is for this reason that the double entendre through which the word for “purity” (ṣafāʾ) may alternatively mean “pleasure” or “contentment” is suggestive. As expressed in a ḥadīth recorded by the “real” Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq about the color, viscosity, and potency of male and female nuṭfah, the first individual to ejaculate during copulation was thought to bear primary responsibility for the child’s appearance: if “the water of the man precedes the water of the woman,” then the child will resemble the paternal line, and vice versa.54

By extension, if menstruation is a harm or pain for a woman, and her blood meanwhile offers enjoyment to her male partner, he necessarily will be the first to orgasm. As such, the mother’s black blood counterintuitively leads the child to resemble his father, and therefore maintains a mutual culpability for the child’s coloring: his father contributes the initial “motive force” (his ejaculate) and his mother, unwittingly and unwillingly, provides the impetus to that motive force as well as the material upon which it acts (her blood).

In light of the speculative association between menstrual blood and moral depravity in al-Haft al-sharīf, allegedly compiled from Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq’s sayings, we may moreover read the process by which a man is enticed to copulate with a menstruant and the ensuing effect of his child bearing an uncanny resemblance to him as a mechanism for moral refraction. The father who sired a child while his partner was menstruating, upon meeting that child, is met with a tainted image of himself. In rejecting this image by claiming that it is a product of sin—in this case, of adultery—the father ironically repudiates his own behavior. This is not to say that the composers of Sīrat dhāt al-himmah were necessarily acquainted with Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq’s views on menstrual blood and ensoulment, but rather that they may be cuing into the more basic trope of inventive and often ironic reprisals for sin, as with Ibn Ḥazm’s woman with the wayward fantasies, who gazed desiringly on a black man’s portrait during intercourse, resulting in a black child.

Added to the malefaction of menstrual sex is al-Ḥārith’s unwillingness to claim his resultant child. His act of paternal rejection is not a unique one; a similar event precipitated Fāṭimah’s own heroic ascent. Mortified at having had a daughter instead of a son, Fāṭimah’s father nearly committed infanticide. He was narrowly coaxed out of doing so by a slave woman, who then took Fāṭimah into her care, only to be captured by a rival tribe.55 It was in this environment of estrangement, fatherlessness, and male duress that Fāṭimah began to show her martial prowess. Both instances of rejection buttress the sīrah’s refrain that one’s actions can eclipse deficiencies of pedigree or social esteem.

The formative challenges faced by both mother and son stem from their naturally (or unnaturally) constituted marginality, that is, their gender and race. This is thrown into sharp relief by the results of the trial. Fāṭimah’s exoneration comes at the price of having aspects of her bodily functions put on public display, after having already had her body violated and impregnated against her will. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness is rendered not only as socially downgrading, but also chemically grotesque through its association with the denaturalizing taboo of menstrual sex. This grotesqueness directly undermines attempts, such as Fāṭimah’s praise-poem for her child, to naturalize blackness through its association with benign images. Although the alternative taboo of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s potential black father is disproven, this is only achieved through the exposure of a mystifying, contemptible act that thwarts conventional biological formulae.

Even so, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq interprets Fāṭimah’s case through analogy with biologically non-normative acts of divine providence, rather than those of earthly accident. Again, the image of Mary is cited, associating Fāṭimah with the divine providence by which maternity is administered. Nevertheless, Mary’s narrative holds only a tentative analogy with Fāṭimah’s case, for unlike Jesus—the only human after Adam and Eve created without the nuṭfah’s “disdained water” (māʾ mahīn)—it is the vulnerability of the nuṭfah itself that enables the alteration of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s form.56


Despite Fāṭimah’s chastity, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s virtue, and their mutual attempts to affirm their humanity, ultimately Jaʿfar, the story’s final and most authoritative judge, concludes that ʿAbd al-Wahhāb diverges etiologically from virtually every other being. The fault for this lies with his mother’s menstrual emission. The medical oddity of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s birth at once engenders his identity as a black male and precludes the full realization of his membership within a broader community or group of black people. Although his blackness is not ancestral, his experiences are inevitably premised upon a historical narrative out of which black identity is hewn. That is, throughout his adventures, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s compatriots and critics alike assume that he is of sub-Saharan African heritage, and therefore that he is a slave or slave-born. This ostensibly reasonable assumption re-poses, with each new encounter, the question of legitimacy that is originally foisted upon ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s character. To this issue of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s legitimacy, several heuristic tools are applied, each of which expresses a different theory of how racial differentiation can occur seemingly ex nihilo: image-imprinting, contamination of the nuṭfah, and sheer divine providence. As distinct from late Antique racialist ideas of climatology and atavism and Abrahamic notions of Hamitic genealogy, none of these theories adduces even the most distant African heritage as a contributing factor in ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s appearance.

This article has argued that all of these racialist heuristics share an overarching theme of anxiety over the female body’s sexual and biological vulnerability, which is cautionarily represented through the construction of a black body. This black (male) body becomes the instrument through which the instabilities of the female body are scientifically reified again and again throughout the text. Such a thesis contains a certain risk, in that in focusing on a particularly passive moment for ʿAbd al-Wahhāb in the text—a moment in which his black body is literally being produced—it is complicit in the erasure of a black character’s agency, rendering him as ontologically contingent on a white woman. The problem of such erasures is an enduring one, and this article aims to add to it the question of how scholars of Arabic literature might engage such erasures. In a similar fashion, historian Chouki El Hamel has recently sought to account for the social expurgation of “Africanicity”—which he defines as “black consciousness”—in the Maghreb, which effectively results in the rhetorical disempowerment of collective memories of black slavery in the region. To this point, he quotes a Mauritanian scholar as saying, “the culture of the Haratin [former black slaves] has been erased.”57 The dislocation of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness from any kind of African heritage in Sīrat dhāt al-himmah may indicate that such erasures have been occurring for far longer than supposed. Indeed, in reading ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s unique plight against Boulou Ebanda de B’Béri’s definition of Africanicity as, in part, “an articulation of re-enactment, which uses affective cords of racial belonging to create a sense of communality, or the commentary of recognition,” we find that the “affective cords” entwining ʿAbd al-Wahhāb weave him not into a common set of experiences, but rather dangle him as a stray thread disowned from a greater cultural fabric—be it African or Arab.58

In many ways, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s blackness is complicated for the very reason that it does not have the weight of history behind it. Instead, it situates itself within a network of scientific and speculative discourses such as those in the companion texts introduced in this article. Through these discourses, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb becomes radically isolated as a character type; the effect of applying these putatively naturalist theories to explain his blackness is, in fact, to render him as the product of deviant intercourse and aberrant biology. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and his other non-hereditarily black peers in the sīrahs share not only in their defining supernatural heroism, but also in this more esoteric form of difference.


Though this article will focus on a textualized sīrah, significant work has been done on the sīrahs’ oral transmission, with particular focus on the extant Hilāliyyah tradition. See Dwight F. Reynolds, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes: The Ethnography of Performance in an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995); Susan Slyomovics, The Merchant of Art: An Egyptian Hilali Oral Epic Poet in Performance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).


For a comparison across these genres, see H. T. Norris. “The Futūḥ al-Bahnasā: And its Relation to pseudo-‘Maġāzī’ and ‘Futūḥ’ literature, Arabic ‘Siyar,’ and Western Chanson de Geste in the Middle Ages,” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi 4 (1986). On the historicity of the sīrahs, see T. Herzog, “ ‘What they Saw with their Own Eyes …’: Fictionalization and ‘Narrativization’ of History in Arab Popular Epics and Learned Historiography,” in Fictionalizing the Past: Historical Characters in Arabic Popular Epic, ed. Sabine Dorpmueller (Leuven: Peeters Publishers and Department of Oriental Studies, 2012); Peter Heath, “Other sīras and Popular Narratives,” in Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period, vol. 6, ed. Roger Allen and D. S. Richards (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); M. Canard, “Dhū’l-Himma,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. P. Bearman et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2016).


I reference Madeyska’s category of early sīrahs (those composed prior to the twelfth century). See Danuta Madeyska, “The Language and Structure of the ‘Sīra,’ ” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi 9 (1991). On the dating of Sīrat dhāt al-himmah, see Remke Kruk, Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 39.


The text of Sīrat dhāt al-himmah that has been used throughout is the 1909 Cairo edition: ʿAlī b. Mūsā al-Maqānibī b. Bakr al-Māzinī and Ṣāliḥ al-Jaʿfarī, Sīrat al-amīrah dhāt al-himmah, vol. 1 (Cairo: Maktabat al-Maṭbaʿah al-Ḥusayniyyah, 1909). This edition has been used both as a function of its being one of the earlier, most readily accessible print editions of the sīrah, and in order to accord with the findings of other scholars such as Canard and Kruk, who have worked with this edition of the sīrah specifically.


The language of rape and sexual violence is fraught with respect to pre-modern sources. Most recently, Hina Azam has treated the issue of “translating” sexual violation across language, space, and time in her book Sexual Violation in Islamic Law: Substance, Evidence, and Procedure. Azam rightly states that due to the incommensurability between modern presumptions of female volition and autonomy and pre-modern conceptions of women as property, we must “seek out disparate discursive and legal categories” for classifying sexual violation in late Antique and medieval texts. With this in mind, I have elected to refer to Fāṭimah’s sexual encounter with al-Ḥārith as rape for two reasons. First, Fāṭimah was wed unwillingly, a contract that is contestable according to multiple Islamic legal paradigms. Second, within a modern reading practice, I affirm that not calling Fāṭimah’s sexual violation a rape is to perpetuate the very rhetoric that has historically precluded the recognition of women as agentive, autonomous, and deserving of having their experiences of physical and psychological violation acknowledged. See Hina Azam, Sexual Violation in Islamic Law: Substance, Evidence, and Procedure (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 17.


A comparable case occurs in Sīrat ʿAntar, wherein ʿAntar is pitted against an Indian child, the son of King ʿAbd Hayyāf, who was born black due to his mother having been raped while menstruating, although the child is cast as an anti-hero. See Malcolm Lyons, The Arabian Oral Epic: Heroic and Oral Storytelling, vol. 3 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 60.


The text of Sīrat dhāt al-himmah is, to say the least, palimpsestic, and its composition, as well as its narrative, are diachronic and difficult to place. As will be seen, in its early twentieth-century Cairo edition, the sīrah incorporates a number of ostensibly shīʿī-leaning pietistic themes and references, and indeed many of the heroic features in the sīrah are shared by figures such as Husayn b. ʿAlī in Shī’ī martyrdom narratives, or maqātil, which developed into an independent genre around the tenth century. A fruitful comparison could, in the future, be made between these two literatures. See Sebastian Günther, “ ‘Maqâtil’ Literature in Medieval Islam,” Journal of Arabic Literature 25 (1994), 209-210; Khalid Sindawi, “The Image of Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī in ‘Maqātil’ Literature,” Quaderni di Studi Arabi 20/21 (2002-2003).


I shall use the term “racialism” throughout to signify the theoretically supported assumption of a hierarchic system of races, predicated mostly on ethno- or cultural-centrism rather than on its negative counterpart, xenophobia (with this being a defining quality of racism). I have selected this term also out of a desire to differentiate modern racist sciences, which actively sought to dehumanize “lower races,” from pre-modern racialist sciences, which typically averred the “common descent of all human beings” from Adam, but nonetheless maintained their hierarchic ordering. See Robert Bartlett, “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001), 44; Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 8/5 (2011). On climatological race theory in the pre-modern Middle East, see Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).


On the centrality of the Hamitic legend to the portrayal of Africans and blacks in Arabic literature, see Xavier Luffin, Les fils d’Antara: representations des Africains dans la fiction arabe contemporaine (1914-2011) (Brussels: Éditions Safran, 2012), 10-12. (See also notes 27-32.)


Kruk, 3.


This claim has been suggested in various places—Malcolm Lyons attributes it to the entrenched archetype of the strong black warrior, which ʿAntar first embodies. Accordingly, the “genetic accident” common to Abū Zayd al-Hilālī and ʿAbd al-Wahhāb forces the issue of their “passing” as slave soldiers. Peter Heath notes that the nineteenth-century Orientalist Joseph Von Hammer-Purgstall, for his part, regarded ʿAntar himself as the sycophantic fabrication of the litterateur ʿAṣmaʾī (d. circa 828)—the text’s alleged author—because he wished to ingratiate himself with the half-black caliph Maʿmūn (d. 833). See M. C. Lyons, The Man of Wiles in Popular Arabic Literature: A Study of a Medieval Arab Hero (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 216; Peter Heath, The Thirsty Sword: Sīrat ʿAntar and the Arabic Popular Epic (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1996), 6.


Cf. Bridget Connelly, Arab Folk Epic and Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 149-154.


Heng, “The Invention of Race,” 262.


Lyons, Arabian Epic, vol. 1, 24.


Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1982), 5.


On uses of the term ʿabd and the conflation of slave status and blackness in the sīrahs, see Lyons, Arabian Epic, vol. 1, 25.


These discursive patterns inhere in the common practice of binding male sexual and behavioral norms to female biological processes such as menstruation or pregnancy. On this, see Y. Linant de Bellefonds, “ ‘Idda,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam.


Heng, 262.


Because of the technicality of its definition and frequency of its appearance, the word nuṭfah will be used in the original Arabic throughout.


Aristotle, Aristotle on the Generation of Animals: A Philosophical Study, trans. Johannes Morsink (Lanham, md: University Press of America, 1982), Book iv.


Section and page numbers for the sīrah translations will henceforth be produced as above (section, page number).


Muḥammad b. Mukarram b. Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿarab (Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1955), 4896.


Cf. Q 2:117, Q 3:47, Q 3:59, Q 6:73, Q 16:40, Q 19:35, Q 36:82, Q 40:68.


Etin Anwar, Gender and Self in Islam (London: Routledge, 2006), 75; Kathryn Kueny, Conceiving Identities: Maternity in Medieval Muslim Discourse and Practice (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013), 28-31.


Basim Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control Before the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 43-44.


Kueny, 28.


A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted: A Translation (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 353.


This work is also known by the title al-Haft wa-al-aẓillah; see Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and Mufaḍḍal b. ʿUmar al-Juʿfī, al-Haft al-sharīf, ed. Muṣṭafā Ghālib (Beirut: Dār al-Andalūs, 1964). See also Farhad Daftary, Ismaili Literature: A Bibliography of Sources and Studies (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004), 163; Mushegh Asatryan, “Mofaẓẓal Al-Jo‘fi,” in Encyclopedia Iranica (New York: Encyclopedia Iranica Foundation, 2012),


“Ensoulment,” as the term suggests, represents the time at which the soul of an unborn human enters its body. There is not a consensus in early tafsīr writings on when exactly this occurs, although several exegetes such as al-Ṭabarī do introduce the concept in exegeses of Q 22:5. See Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr b. Yazīd al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-bayān fī taʾwīl al-Qurʾān,


al-Ṣādiq and al-Juʿfī, 83.


The narrative of Ham’s curse is directly referenced in another sīrah, that of Sayf b. Dhī Yazan, wherein the white Arabs are pitted against the black Ethiopians and Noah’s curse foretells eventual Arab victory (Kruk, 189).


Cf. David Goldenberg’s description of the “etiology of race” story type, in David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).


Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Thaʿlabī and ʿAbd Allāh b. Asʿad Yāfiʿī, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ: al-musammā bil-arāʾis (Cairo: Maktabat al-Jumhūriyyah al-ʿArabiyyah, 1900), 22.


al-Thaʿlabī and Ibn Asʿad Yāfiʿī, 49.


Muḥammad b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Kisāʾī, Vita Prophetarum, Auctore Muhammed Ben Abdallah Al-Kisai: Ex Codicibus Qui in Monaco, Bonna, Lugduni-Batavorum, Lipsia et Gothana Asservantur, ed. Isaac Eisenberg (Leiden: Brill, 1922), 26.


al-Kisāʾī, 99-100.


Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ, al-ʿIbar wa-al-ʿitibār, ed. Ṣābr Idrīs (Cairo: Al-ʿArabī, 1994), 78. (Translations my own.).


ʿAbd Allāh b. Muslim b. Qutaybah, ʿUyūn al-Akhbār, vol. 2, ed. Abī Muḥammad ibn Qutayh al-Dīnwarī (Cairo: al-Muʾassasah al-Miṣriyyah al-ʿĀmmah lil-Taʾlīf wa-al-Tarjamah wa-al-Nashr, 1964), 68.


Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. Ḥusayn al-Bayhaqī, Dalāʾil al-nubūwah, vol. 1, ed. ʿAbd al-Muʿṭī Qalʿajī, ed. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub, 1985), 214-215.


Whether the word is dujjā or dujā, given the lack of diacritical marking in the text, cannot be entirely certain. However, if ghayāhib is indeed referring to a horse, then the parallel animal imagery of the thrush becomes the likely choice. As the line is open to either reading, I have incorporated both above.


Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Bakr al-Jāḥiẓ, Rasā’il al-Jāḥiẓ, vol. 1, ed. Muḥammad Bāsil ʿUyūn al-Sūd (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿAlamiyyah, 2000), 157.


ʿAntarah b. Shaddād, Dīwān ʿAntarah (Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1958), 88.


Given ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s Arab physiognomy (see below), it is unlikely that analogizing him with Nubians (kaʾannahu min awlād al-nūbah) is meant to suggest seeming ethnic affinity. Rather, the narrator likely uses “Nubian” as a byword signifying ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s darkness, as opposed to electing a term connoting a connection to Ethiopians or other East African peoples, who were generally thought to have fairer skin. See Lewis, 50-51.


Cf. Q 19:7-8, Q 19:19-20.


Uri Rubin, “ ‘Al-Walad li-l-Firāsh’ on the Islamic Campaign against ‘Zinā,’ ” Studia Islamica 78 (1993), 5.


Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Hujr al-ʿAsqalānī, “Bāb al-walad lil-firāsh ḥurrah kānat āw amah,” in Fatḥ al-barī: sharḥ ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (al-Maktabah al-Islāmiyyah, 1996),


Joseph Schacht, “Foreign Elements in Ancient Islamic Law,” Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law 32 (1950), 5.


Rubin, 11-12.


What is referred to here as “image-imprinting” is often designated “maternal impression,” attesting to the oddity of this outcome being the responsibility of the male partner, as with al-Ḥārith. Several literary works in the European tradition take maternal impression as a central element, and it features in Galenic medicine as well, though again with the mother empowered as the sole “impresser.” See Graham Anderson, “Two Notes on Heliodorus,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 99 (1979), 149; Cristina Mazzoni, Maternal Impressions: Pregnancy and Childbirth in Literature and Theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 16-17. On Middle Eastern folk beliefs about maternal impression during pregnancy, see Remke Kruk, “Pregnancy and Its Social Consequences in Mediaeval and Traditional Arab Society,” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi 5/6 (1987-1988), 426-428.


ʿAlī b. Aḥmad b. Ḥazm, Ṭawq al-ḥamāmah, ed. Muḥammad Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Laṭīf et al. (Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿah al-Madanī, 1975), 11.


Aristotle, 55.


Though his tafsīr postdates most of this article’s primary sources, al-Qurṭubī cites the views of earlier jurists on this debate, with al-Shāfʿī (d. 820), for example, asserting that a woman is metrorrhagic if she bleeds for less than one full day or exceeding fifteen days; Abī ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Anṣārī al-Qurṭubī, al-Jāmʿi li-iḥkām al-Qurʾān, vol. 3 (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub, 1967), 83; Marion Katz, “Scholarly versus Women’s Authority in the Islamic Law of Menstrual Purity,” in Gender in Judaism and Islam: Common Lives, Uncommon Heritage, ed. Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet and Beth S. Wenger (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 73-105.


al-Qurṭubī, 82.


Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and Muḥsin ʿAqīl, Ṭibb al-imām al-Ṣādiq (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Iʿlāmī, 1998), 520.


Lyons, Arabian Epic, 319.


Cf. Q 32:8, Q 77:20.


Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 2.


Boulou Ebanda de B’Béri, “Africanicity in Black Cinema: A conjunctural ground for new expressions of identity,” in Africa: Cultural Studies and Difference, ed. Keyan G. Tomaselli and Handel Kashope Wright (New York: Routledge, 2011), 25.

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