American and British travellers in the 1800s and 1900s, like Malcolm X, were surprised at the lack of racism among Arabs.
Ali Rattansi in “Racism: A Very Short Introduction” (2007) says of Arabs:
Disparaging conceptions of other peoples and a colour symbolism associating whiteness with goodness and blackness with negative qualities are evident in many Arab and Islamic texts and practices. But no consistent conflations of colour, culture, and physiology have been found to exist.
The Koran sees different skin colours as a good thing. Having a certain skin colour is not one of the duties of Islam.
- Libya: Mass violence against blacks in 2000 and 2011.
- Sudan: Genocide against blacks in South Sudan in the 1990s, Darfur in the 2000s.
- Saudi Arabia: Had black slaves – slaves! – till at least 1962.
As we are constantly reminded by white commenters on this blog, Arabs sold blacks as slaves for hundreds of years – and maybe still are.
And it is all too easy to find stuff like this written by Arabs:
Therefore the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.
That is from the great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun in 1377.
You can find support in Arab writings for most of the American Jim Crow stereotypes: blacks are ugly, smell bad, lack intelligence, like music and dance, have rhythm, are joyful, rob people, have sex on the brain, are good in bed, etc. (To be fair, there were more fact-based accounts of blacks too, like those of Ibn Batuta.)
What is going on?
The short answer: Arabs are racist, prejudiced at least – but less than American and British travellers of the 1800s and 1900s.
The longer answer:
Islam did not allow Muslims to make slaves of other Muslims. So Arabs mainly got slaves from lands beyond the Muslim world: Europe, Central Asia, West Africa, Nubia, Ethiopia, East Africa, etc.
That meant, by an accident of history, most slaves were either lighter-skinned or darker-skinned than most Arabs. Since whites and blacks appeared in Arab society mainly as slaves, Arabs came to look down on both (though less so as their home societies grew in military strength).
Yes, they looked down on whites too. Here is Said al-Andalusi in the 1000s:
For those who live furthest north … their humors [are] raw, their bellies gross, their color pale, their hair long and lank. Thus they lack keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence, and are overcome by ignorance and dullness, lack of discernment, and stupidity.
But racism never received the backing of law, religion or science like it did in the US after 1700. It pretty much remained at the level of prejudice and snobbery. So much so that Aristotle’s idea that some are born to be slaves never caught on. Because slavery was based not on differences of race but of religion.
Sources: Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East” (1990); Ali Rattansi, “Racism: A Very Short Introduction” (2007); Ibn Batuta, “Rihla” (1355).