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Black Africans in West Asia

It is not easy to present a contiguous story of the African presence in pre-modern Asia. Many medieval sources refer to Africans in West Asia, but much of this literature is in Arabic. Details such as the number of subSaharan Africans who were in Asia, which countries they came from, when the migration started/stopped, their distribution in various occupations, and intermarriage rates were not subjected to rigorous study by medieval Arab writers. In this article, we present glimpses into the ancient and medieval Asia which African emigres lived in. It is our hope that readers can refer us to more sources and help us present a more complete picture of the history of Africans in Asia.

The pre-Islamic and early-Islamic era

Black Africans had been coming to West Asia as slaves since the pre-Islamic era. Slaves served as household servants, soldiers and concubines. Three famous pre-Islamic Arab poets - Antar, Khufaf, and Sulayk - were born of Arab fathers and African mothers.

Besides coming to Asia as slaves, black Africans also arrived as conquerors. In the 2nd century, and again in the 4th, Ethiopian armies entered Southern Arabia. The 4th century occupation lasted from 335 AD to 370 AD. Ethiopia invaded Yemen again in 524 AD. In 532, Abraha, one of the Ethiopian generals who led the invasion, seized the South Arabian throne with support from Ethiopian soldiers who wanted to settle in Yemen. Abraha's reign passed to his sons by a Yemeni woman.

At the time of the prophet Mohammed, Mecca relied on a mercenary army of Ethiopians, other sub-Saharan Africans and Arab nomads to protect its caravan routes and provide escort for the city's prominent families.1

Among Mohammed's companions were many sub-Saharan Africans. Umm (mother) Ayman Baraka, a freed black slave, nursed the Prophet in his childhood. He was later accompanied by Bilal b. Rabah, an Ethiopian slave who became the first Muslim mu'adhdhin (one who calls to prayer). Another early Muslim convert, 'Ammar ibn Yassir, son of an black slave woman Sumayya, accompanied the prophet on all his military campaigns. The title of Faris-al-Islam (knight of Islam) was given to a black convert al- Mikdad b Amr al-Aswad, the only Muslim who fought on horseback during the battle of Badr. Many other African men and women who accompanied Mohammed's family supported the prophet's work and transmitted his teachings.2

Islamic Era

Africans continued to arrive as slaves in Muslim Asia during the medieval era. Since Islamic law prohibited the enslavement of Muslims, and children born to a Muslim master and his female slave were considered free, Arab Muslims sought slaves from non-Muslim regions of Europe, Asia and Africa. Slaves worked as musicians, household servants, palace eunuchs, skilled workers and soldiers. Some African eunuchs and soldiers were able to acquire considerable political influence in the Arab world.

Many descendants of African immigrants acquired influence in Arab society. Prince Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi and Caliph Al-Muktafi of the Abbassids were the sons of Arab rulers and black women. See for list of famous Arab-Black descendants and couples.

Other Africans and African descendants achieved prominence as literati, artistes and religious authorities. 'Amr Bahd al-Jahiz of Basra (Iraq) was one of the greatest Arabic prose writers. The grandson of a black camel-driver, he became a prolific writer who authored books on animals, religion, and numerous other topics. Irar b. Amr, son of a black slave-woman, wrote an anthology of poems and served the governor of an Iraqi province. A famous 8th century musician from Mecca, Abu Abbad Mabad ibn Wahb was of mixed Arab and African descent. 3

Between the 8th and 9th centuries, many Bantu-speaking Africans, whom the Arabs called the Zanj, were traded to Iraq where they worked in salt marshes. Iraq had the highest concentration of black slaves at that time, and work conditions were appalling compared to those of slaves in the rest of the Arab world. This led to a serious of revolts, the longest of which lasted from 867 to 883. This was the famous Zanj rebellion in which Bantu, Sudanese, Nubian and local slaves organized themselves into a large army and occupied Iraqi cities.4

The Zanj rebellion had a number of effects on the perception of blacks in the Arab world. It was during and after this period that negative stereotypes of blacks began to proliferate in the Muslim world (see Arab and other Asian views on black Africans). The military skills shown by the Africans during the Zanj rebellion also caused an increased interest among Arab rulers for recruiting black soldiers. Abbassid Caliph al-Amin (d 813) formed "the Crows" - a special corps of Ethiopian bodyguards. Caliph al-Muktadir (d 932) also employed 7000 black soldiers in battle.5 In the early 10th century, Ali ibn Muhammad, founder of the Sulayhi dynasty of Yemen, had in his employ 5000 Ethiopian soldiers.6

The Banu Najah of Yemen

The Banu Najah were the royal family of Zubayd, a principality in Yemen.7 Descended from former Ethiopian slaves, the Banu Najah were contemporaries of the Sulayhis. Zubayd, guarded by 20,000 Ethiopian soldiers, was the only principality that resisted the Sulayhi dynasty. In 1066, the Zubayd prince Sa'id ibn Najah assassinated Ali, founder of the Sulayhi dynasty, in revenge for the political murder of his father by the Sulayhis.8

African Palestinians

The presence of people in African descent in Palestine has been documented by Dr Susan Beckerleg in her article HIDDEN HISTORY, SECRET PRESENT: THE ORIGINS AND STATUS OF AFRICAN PALESTINIANS. Some were descended from Africans who arrived in West Asia in the pre-modern era, while others are relatively recent immigrants.

  1. Talib Y and F. Samir, "The African Diaspora in Asia", UNESCO General History of Africa Vol 3, ed. M. El Fasi, p.708
  2. Talib Y and F. Samir, pp. 709-710
  3. Talib Y and F. Samir, pp. 729-731
  4. Talib Y and F. Samir, pp. 726-728
  5. Al-Sabi', 1958, p.16
  6. Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, p.137
  7. 7
    S. Lane-Poole, The Mohammadan Dynasties, Chronological and Geneaological Tables with Historical Introductions, p.89ff
  8. Mernissi, pp. 136-146