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Dossier – Le corps dans l’espace islamique médiéval
Beauté et laideur : normes physico-sociales

Blue and Green Eyes in the Islamicate Middle Ages

Kristina Richardson
p. 13-29


Dans l’Arabie préislamique les yeux scintillants et clairs indiquaient un caractère négatif. Dans cet article, je m’interroge sur les mots issus de la racine Z R Q, qui peuvent signifier « maudit », « fourbe », et « aveugle », afin de comprendre leurs usages dans le Coran, les commentaires coraniques, les hadiths et les œuvres médicales et littéraires. En outre, je montre comment ces définitions ont structuré et reproduit les rivalités entre groupes tribaux (Omayyades et Abbassides), entre les musulmans et ceux qui étaient perçus comme autres (par exemple, musulmans et chrétiens), et entre musulmans (partisans de Muʿāwiya et de ʿAlī ; sunnites et chiites).

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1William Shakespeare composed his drama The Tempest around 1610, and in this play Sycorax figures as a minor character. She has no spoken lines and she never even appears onstage. We know her through the vitriolic words of Prospero, a stranded inhabitant of the island that serves as the play’s setting. He introduces her early in the play:

  • 1 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene II.

This damn’d witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Argier,
Thou know’st, was banish’d:
This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child
And here was left by the sailors.1

2Pregnant and in exile from her native Algiers, Sycorax gives birth on this small island to a son, named Caliban, who possesses congenital deformities. He is, according to Prospero, “a freckled whelp hag-born—not honour’d with a human shape”.

  • 2 Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance, p. 6.
  • 3 Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance, p. 11.
  • 4 Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance, p. 8.

3Scholars of The Tempest have debated the significance of Sycorax’ blue eyes, which are mentioned only once in the entire play. Leah S. Marcus has investigated 19th and 20th-century critical responses to Sycorax’ eye color, exposing anxieties about the collusion of blue eyes, North African ethnicity and witchcraft. “Modern editions overwhelmingly reject the possibility that ‘blue-eyed’ in this instance can possibly mean blue eyed.”2 Of course not. The association of a North African witch with blue eyes, which have mostly positive associations for modern western readers, destabilizes the white normative body as, if not good, then at least neutral. As Marcus also stated, “The witch cannot have blue eyes, because the cultural image of blue eyes is overwhelmingly positive and Sycorax has to be understood as negative.”3 Rather, arguments have been made that “blue-eyed” refers to a (presumably pigmentless) pregnant woman’s blue eyelids, or to under-eye bags, or even to blue streaks that native women painted under their eyes. One scholar has argued that in the First Folio, Shakespeare rendered the term “blew-ey’d”, and his handwriting is indistinct enough that the word could be read “bler-ey’d,” meaning bleary-eyed.4

  • 5 This story seems to have been based on a living person. In a list he compiled of blue-eyed Arabs, a (...)
  • 6 Al-Badrī, al-Durr 1, p. 59. On Zarqā’ al-Yamāma, see Amer, “Medieval Arab Lesbians,” pp. 218-219, a (...)
  • 7 Nicholson, “Some Notes,” pp. 346-347.

4The figure of the blue-eyed witch has deep roots in Arabic folklore. The story of Zarqā’ al-Yamāma, a blue-eyed woman from the central Arabian region of al-Yamāma, dates back to 7th-century Arabia.5 She possessed vision so acute that she could spot a white hair in milk and thus was able to see into distances that would take three days to reach in person. Her ability is constructed as an extraordinary physical capability, not as supernatural foresight. One day, she told her fellow tribe members that she saw trees marching towards their settlement to attack, but the people of al-Yamāma denounced her as insane. She was also accused of lying, then was seized and had her eyes gouged out. In fact, the enemy horsemen had covered themselves and their riding animals with leaves to disguise their advance and, as a result, successfully ambushed the settlement and defeated the settlers.6 To imagine that Shakespeare drew inspiration for Sycorax from Zarqā’ al-Yamāma becomes easier upon realizing that elements of the story also reappear in Macbeth. Nicholson has noted the similarities between the prophecies of Zarqā’ al-Yamāma and the witches in Macbeth. Both predicted that marching armies obscured by tall leafy branches would attack and overpower the warned parties.7

  • 8 According to one biographer, Wallace Fard Muhammad (disappeared in 1934), the founder of the Nation (...)

5Unfortunately, there is no positive evidence that Shakespeare had access to translations of such stories, but if he did indeed intend to describe Sycorax as blue-eyed, then he understood well Arab notions about blue eyes in the medieval era. Negative representations of blue (and green) eyes in Arabic literature and art were ubiquitous in pre-Islamic Arabia, and even continue to appear today in such popular symbols as the blue-eyed devil, a key figure in the Nation of Islam’s theology, and the evil eye, which is always rendered blue.8 In this article, I will trace historical shifts in references to eye color in classical Arabic literary, theological and medical works to understand how Arab writers understood such traits in various contexts.

Color Terminology

  • 9 Morabia, “Recherches,” pp. 70-71.

6The classical Arabic language has five basic color terms that also refer to hue and brightness: abyaḍ (white, brightly hued), aswad (black, darkly hued, pitch dark), aḥmar (red, brown), aḫḍar (dark-colored, blue, green), aṣfar (color tones from bright yellow and beige to orange and yellowish-dark brown). Beginning in the 19th century, Arabic dictionaries contained entries for rainbows that described them as purple, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red, perhaps marking a moment of colonial contact that dramatically shaped color perception and language.9

  • 10 Berlin and Kay, Basic Color Terms, pp. 14-34.

7In 1969 researchers Brent Berlin and Paul Kay advanced an evolutionary theory of color terminology that fundamentally changed linguistic anthropology. All languages have at least two color terms, which are always white and black. A language with only these two color terms is known as a Stage I language. If a language has three color terms, then the third term will always be red, and three color terms make a language a Stage II language. In Stage III languages, terms for either yellow or green emerge. If yellow comes first, then in Stage IV, green would follow, and conversely, if green comes first, then in Stage IV, yellow would follow. Some languages, like classical Arabic, had a single term for green and blue, making it a Stage IV language. For instance, in classical Arabic poetry, the color of the sky is typically referred to as aḫḍar. Linguists refer to these as ‘grue’ languages. Stage V languages differentiate green from blue.10 Modern standard Arabic has distinct terms for green (aḫḍar) and blue (azraq).

  • 11 Fischer, Farb- und Formbezeichnungen, pp. 53 ff.

8So, if azraq did not signify blue in classical Arabic, what did it mean? Wolfdietrich Fischer has shown that in ancient Arabic, the root Z R Q meant ‘luster’ or ‘shine’ and was used to describe the tips of swords, stars, eyes and bubbling water, and that the meaning ‘blue’, which eventually superseded the earlier meaning, came later. Pre-Islamic Arabs considered twinkling eyes, be they dark or pale in color, a flaw indicating inferior moral character.11 This characterization explains the mistrust of Zarqā’ al-Yamāma (whose name should probably be translated as The Shiny-Eyed, Blue-Green-Eyed Woman from al-Yamāma), as well as the suggestion in Qur’ān 20:102 that on the Day of Resurrection “the day when the trumpet is blown, and on that day We will gather the guilty, shiny-eyed [zurqan]”. (This is the lone mention of zurq, a collective noun, in the Qur’ān.) Because of the many commentaries that this verse spawned, this verse is a rich place to investigate the meaning and significance of zurq and azraq in the early Islamic period.

Zurq in Qur’ān, Qur’ānic Commentaries, and Hadith


  • 12 Juliane Müller has also found “blind” to be the prevailing interpretation of zurq. See Müller, “Die (...)

9ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAbbās (d. 61/687), the Prophet’s paternal cousin, interpreted the zurq of Qur’ān 20:102 to mean simply blind, and Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767) noted that the zurq refers to eyes. Muqātil aimed to clear up some ambiguity about the object modified. Based on ancient Arab poetry, we know that the adjective azraq can be applied both to eyes and to other body parts, but when describing a person, tends to focus on his eyes. With the exception of al-Hawārī, who only gave blackened faces as an interpretation, every Qur’ānic commentary I consulted offered blind as a possible interpretation of zurq.12

10Although the most commonly proposed interpretation, commentators reported that many sought clarification of this interpretation.

  • 13 Al-Ṣamʿānī, Tafsīr 2, p. 354.

“Al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728)], Qatāda (d. 117/735) and a group said: ‘blind.’ Someone asked, ‘How is this possible, for Allah said: ‘And you have certainly come to Us alone as We created you the first time.’ (Q 6:94) Allah created them sighted.’ The answer was: ‘It was related from Ibn ʿAbbās that during the resurrection there will be [different] times and conditions, so they will be gathered sighted, then they will go blind.”13

11This interpretation is particularly striking because al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī was azraq, and Qatāda was born blind. Another commentator reported:

  • 14 Ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzī, Tafsīr 7, p. 2434.

“According to Ibn ʿAbbās, a man approached him and asked, ‘Have you seen this verse: ‘We shall gather the guilty, zurq,’ or in other words, blind?’ He said: ‘Verily, on the day of resurrection, there will be two conditions: zurq and blindness.”14

12Zurq is a condition distinct from, but perhaps arising from, blindness. For the majority of commentators, zurq represented a change of the colors of the pupil and iris. Al-Ṣamʿānī and al-Baġawī claimed that it was a ḫuḍra in the eye; al-Samarqandī, citing al-Qutabī, wrote that zurq meant that the eyes had turned white from blindness or that the pupil and the black (iris?) had disappeared. Other commentators, such as al-Zamaḫšarī (d. 538/1144), agreed that zurq was an eye color, but stopped short of defining it as a pathology. Rather, to them, it was an eye color offensive to Arabs and constituted a disfigurement of the face. He wrote: “There are two main thoughts about al-zurq. The first is that al-zurqa is the ugliest eye color for Arabs, because the people of Rūm are their enemies, and they have zurq eyes. For that reason they describe the enemy as black-livered, red-mustachioed and blue-eyed. Secondly, the meaning is blind, because a pupil that has lost its sight is blue.” Al-Wāḥidī, too, found it a naturally occurring, though ugly, eye color. He described zurq as “similar to the cat’s eye. Arabs despise zurq and curse it”. Al-Wāḥidī’s comparison of zurq mirrors al-Ǧāḥiẓ’s language when he discussed the term azraq, as it related to the eyes of non-human animals:

  • 15 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-ḥayawān 5, p. 330.

“When people say, ‘a garment is azraq,’ they hold the view that it refers to a single color. When they use the same term to describe the eye, it refers to two colors (lawnayn). The falcon is described as azraq, as are the eagle and the black-winged kite (zurrāq), all of which have golden eyes. So when people say, ‘the cat is azraq,’ they do not know whether they are referring to the colors of robes or to the shimmer of falcon’s eyes.”15

13Al-Ǧāḥiẓ used a single word, the Arabic term lawn, to signify both color and hue. Even in the absence of specific terminology for these properties, we see that when describing eyes, azraq could indicate hue (shiny), color (blue-green) or both (shiny, blue-green).

14Al-Baṣā’ir wa-l-ḏaḫā’ir (Visions and Treasures), an anthology on literary topics by the Buyid writer Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī (d. 414/1023), defined a number of physical traits, some of which were considered blights, with incredible precision.

  • 16 Al-Tawḥīdī, al-Baṣā’ir 6, p. 146.

“If his eye protrudes visibly, then he is ǧāḥiẓ. If his eye is small and narrow, then he is aḥwaṣ. If his eye wanders towards his ear, he is aḫzar… If his nose is short and narrow, then he is aḏlaf. If his eye is green, then he is called azraq. If it [the eye] is between white and green, he is called ašhal. If  they are veiny, he is aškal.”16

Severely Thirsty

  • 17 Homerin, “Echoes,” p. 177.
  • 18 Al-Wāḥidī, al-Tafsīr al-basīṭ 14, pp. 518-519.

15Al-Farrā’ (d. 207/822) summarized the two main interpretations of this term as either blind (ʿumyā) or intensely thirsty (ʿiṭāš). Qur’ānic verses support both of these readings. Qur’ān 17:97 reads: “We will gather them on the Day of Resurrection on their faces—blind, dumb and deaf,” and 19:86 reads: “And we will drive the guilty to hell in thirst.” In pre-Islamic and Islamic poetry, the dead and dying are frequently portrayed as suffering intense thirst. “Man’s conceptions of the afterlife are invariably influenced by his physical environment, and for those who live in climates where heat and drought are a constant threat, an even more unquenchable thirst may await the dead… [T]he thirst of the dead signifies a state in need of rectification as well as their suffering and agitation in the underworld.”17 Later Qur’ānic commentators advanced theories that linked severe dehydration to a change in eye color. ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣamʿānī (d. 211/827) claimed that the eyes would change from the body’s lack of moisture. Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) stated that the thirst would afflict people during the gathering, and al-Zaǧǧāǧ (d. 311/923) seems to have been the first to propose that the intensity of the thirst would turn the black pupil of the eyes zurq. Al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1076) repeated al-Zaǧǧāǧ’s claims and confirmed, “What he has said is correct. Thirst (ʿaṭaš) affects the eye. This can be seen in the eyes of someone who has died of thirst. The following Qur’ānic verse bears witness to this interpretation: ‘And we will drive the guilty to hell in thirst.’ ”18

  • 19 Meyerhof and Prüfer, “Die Augenheilkunde,” p. 239.
  • 20 Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq, Livre, pp. 38-39 (Arabic text), pp. 98-99 (French translation). Note that these c (...)

16The notion of lack of moisture or dehydration affecting eye color finds further corroboration in the earliest Arabic ophthalmological treatises. Yūḥannā b. Māsawayh (d. 243/857), a Nestorian Christian physician, penned the earliest Arabic ophthalmologial treatise Daġal al-ʿayn (The Eye Disorder). Chapter 40 describes the causes and condition of the disease al-zurqa, which is translated as cataracts or glaucoma. This disease arises from changes in quantity (increase or decrease) or quality (cloudy or clear) of the albuminoid or crystalline humors. The name suggests that it turns the eye blueish. Ibn Māsawayh remarks that a confluence of causes could lead to the eye turning black or blue-black19. Ibn Māsawayh’s student Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (d. 260/873) wrote Kitāb al-ʿašr maqālāt fī al-ʿayn (The Book of the Ten Treatises of the Eye), one of the earliest Arabic treatises on eye diseases, and Kitāb al-masā’il fī al-ʿayn (The Book of Questions About the Eye), a companion piece organized as a question-and-response physician’s manual. In these two works based on Galenic principles and humoral pathology, Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq explained that the four known iris colors—kohl black (akḥal), blue-green (azraq), blue-black (ašhal) and brown (ašʿal)—result from specific humoral and environmental conditions.20 Blue-eyed people have lower levels of the albuminoid humor (al-ruṭūba al-bayḍiyya), higher levels of crystalline fluid, a clear visual spirit, and cold, dry temperament. A black-eyed person has the polar opposite make-up: more albuminoid humor, less crystalline fluid, a cloudy visual spirit and a warm, moist temperament. A decrease in the albuminoid humor could cause the eye color to become blue.

  • 21 Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq, Book, p. 70 (English translation), p. 141 (Arabic text).

“Therefore certain physicians call some (forms of) cataract zurqa; but not every zurqa that occurs is cataract, for there exists two kinds of al-zurqa: one is a kind of cataract of particular solidity (šadīd al-ǧumūd). The other is a dryness attacking the lens (glaucoma).”21

  • 22 Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq, Livre, p. 123 (French translation).
  • 23 Al-Baġdādī, Memorandum, p. 206.

17The first type of cataract was thought to result from a thickening and hardening of a humor between the crystalline humor and the pupil. Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq expanded on the second type to note that “l’autre est un desséchement excessif qui atteint le cristallin. Cette forme n’est visible que si l’albuminoïde est transparente et subtile, car la transparence et la subtilité de l’albuminoïde permettent de voir la couleur du cristallin.”22 The 4th/10th-century ophthalmologist ʿAlī b. ʿĪsā al-Baġdādī (d. after 400/1010) wrote in his Taḏkirat al-kāḥḥalīn (The Ophthalmologists’ Commonplace Book) that “when the nature of the eye is corrupted, and its color altered, the sight is restricted”.23 This could refer to this drying of the cystalline humor or even the solid cataracts, which restricted sight and could turn pupils blue. When left untreated, both conditions could lead to blindness.

18Though these passages are rather technical and likely inaccessible to most medieval audiences, certain ideas about the causes of blue-green eyes must have been circulating among lay people, because Qur’ān commentators echoed some of this medical language in their interpretations of Qur’ān 20:102.

Black Faces

  • 24 Lange, “On That Day,” p. 429.
  • 25 Smith and Haddad, Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection, pp. 41-42; Wensinck, “Munkar,” p (...)

19In addition to blind and dehydrated, al-Ṣamʿānī gave a third possible interpretation of zurq, which was that a green color would appear in the eyes and black would be their faces. Later, al-Hawārī (d. 3rd/9th c.), al-Mawardī (d. 450/1058), al-Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067), al-Baġawī (d. 516/1122), Ibn al-Ǧawzī (d. 597/1201), al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1272) and others repeated this claim. Qur’ān 3:106 describes the Day of Judgment as one “when faces will be white or black”. Those bound for heaven will have white faces, and those condemned to hell will have black faces. As Christian Lange has shown, most commentators of this verse have understood the blackening of faces as a literal, physical change, not a suggestion that the damned are disgraced or shame-faced.24 This image of the dark-skinned, green-eyed sinner echoes the descriptions of the two angels Munkar and Nakīr, who interrogate and punish the dead in their graves.25


  • 26 Al-Mawardī, al-Nukat 3, p. 424; al-Ṣamʿānī, Tafsīr 2, p. 354.

20Less-common interpretations of zurq were that terror-stricken sinners saw their eyes change or had their gazes fixed in terror.26 Qur’ān 12:84 suggests that Jacob’s eyes turned white (ibyaḍḍat ʿaynāhu) from sorrow, so certain commentators read that verse as confirming that one’s emotional state, be it fear or sorrow, can cause one’s eye color to change. Though reading zurq as terror-stricken was a minority opinion, it is in line with the previous three interpretations discussed here, as they all suggest an unnatural physiological change of pupil color. The ambiguity of the precise color, which is a type of green or blue, is essentially irrelevant, as whatever zurq signifies has unambiguously negative connotations.


  • 27 Ibn Ḥibbān (d. 354/965) related a weak hadith on the authority of ʿĀ’iša that the Prophet declared (...)

21Zurq is a rare subject in hadith, but when it does appear, it is understood to be a naturally occurring eye color or hue, and is associated with undesirable characters.27 Ibn ʿAbbās narrated the following:

  • 28 Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad 1, p. 267. Variations of this hadith can also be found at 1, p. 240 and 350.

“The Messenger of God was in the shadow of one of his rooms. With him were a number of Muslims. The shadow was starting to disappear around them. He said to them: ‘A man will come to you who will gaze upon you with the eyes of Satan. When he comes to you, do not speak to him.’ Then an azraq came and the Messenger of God called for him. Then the man spoke these words, ‘O, knowledgeable one, you revile me—you and so-and-so,’ calling a number of them by their names.”28

  • 29 Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad 1, p. 257. In Qur’ān 49:12, the phrase “Those who eat the flesh of their brother (...)

22A second hadith about an azraq man further demonstrates the association of blue-eyed people with immorality. In this tale, Muhammad tours the afterlife with the angel Gabriel. He sees Moses, Bilāl, Adam, “those who eat the flesh of men,” and finally a red-haired, azraq, unkempt man, whom he does not recognize. Gabriel identifies the last man as ʿāqir al-nāqa, meaning someone who kills and sections she-camels for sport.29 Such a person was despised for his disrespectful treatment of an animal prized by Arabians for the milk and meat they provided.

Lists, Prose and Poetry

  • 30 Al-Bayhaqī, Manāqib 2, p. 134.
  • 31 Monroe, “Arabic Literary Elements,” p. 320, fn. 103.

23This distrust of zurq individuals is mirrored in the period’s physiognomic literature, which confirmed prevailing negative attitudes toward people with light-colored eyes. As in hadith, literary depictions of zurq present them as naturally occurring physical traits. Imām al-Šāfiʿī (d. 204/820), the founder of an eponymous Sunni legal school, deemed an azraq man with no facial hair and a protruding brow to possess “the most evil physiognomic characteristics possible”.30 These pronouncements do not seem to have affected al-Šāfiʿī’s jurisprudence, but are consonant with declarations in hadith and in other physiognomic texts. The anonymous 4th/10th-century Arabic encyclopedia Kitāb sirr al-asrār warned readers to “beware of every blond and blue-eyed person and, if he also has a very broad forehead, a small chin, large cheeks, a red body, and much hair on his head, beware of him as you would beware of a deadly viper”.31

24The undesirability of blue eyes is reflected in the following auto-narration that 7th/13th-century Arab writers attributed to the 3rd/9th-century Christian physician Ibn Māsawayh:

  • 32 Translated in Savage-Smith, “Attitudes Toward Dissection in Medieval Islam,” p. 83.

“I have a long face, a high cranium, a broad forehead, and blue eyes, and I was endowed with intelligence and a memory for everything that takes place within my hearing. The daughter of al-Ṭayfūrī was my wife, the mother of my son, and the most beautiful woman whom I had seen or heard of, although she was stupid and simple-minded, not comprehending what she said and not understanding what was said to her. So her son received all of our bad qualities and was not endowed with any of our handsome qualities, and if it had not been for the great meddling of the sultan and his entering into what did not concern him, I would have dissected this son of mine while living, just as Galen dissected humans and apes, so that I might learn by means of his dissection the causes of his stupidity, and he would have been released from his condition in this world.”32

  • 33 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-burṣān, p. 570.
  • 34 Ibn al-Qiftī, Inbāh 3, p. 365.

25Lists in Arabic of people with physical defects first appear from the aḫbārī (relater of histories and reports) al-Hayṯam b. ‘Adī (d. between 206/821 and 209/824) who organized a mostly unnarrativized list of sixty-one Muslim men into five categories: the blind, one-eyed, cross-eyed, zurq and those who had protruding teeth. Al-Ǧāḥiẓ preserved the only extant version of al-Hayṯam b. ʿAdī’s list in his own Kitāb al-burṣān wa-l-ʿurǧān wa-l-ʿumyān wa-l-ḥūlān (The Book of the Leprous, the Lame, the Blind, and the Cross-Eyed). The three zurq people Ibn ʿAdī named were (1) ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAttāb b. [Asīd], (2) al-ʿAbbās b. al-Walīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik, and (3) Marwān b. Muḥammad b. Marwān.33 All three men were of the Bani Umayya. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān was born towards the end of the Prophet’s life, and his father was governor of Mecca immediately after the death of the Prophet. Al-ʿAbbās was the son of an Umayyad caliph and was eventually imprisoned by the third man on this list, Marwān b. Muḥammad b. Marwān, the last Umayyad caliph to rule from Damascus. They both died in 750—al-ʿAbbās in prison and Marwān in Egypt. Ibn ʿAdī himself was closely aligned with the Abbasid ruling family and likely produced this list to discredit the Umayyad clan. Blue eyes present a challenge for a family positioning itself as representing Arabs. This list is in keeping with the reputation he had earned for exposing the faults of his contemporaries.34

  • 35 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-burṣān, p. 570.

26The three men that Ibn ʿAdī named as having protruding teeth—ʿAmr b. Saʿīd b. al-ʿĀṣ, Yazīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik, and ʿAmr b. al-Zubayr—were, respectively, a supporter of Muʿāwiya after the murder of ʿUṯmān, an Umayyad caliph who died in 724, and an Umayyad supporter.35 The eight cross-eyed men were all from Bani Umayya. As a juxtaposition, the men named as blind and one-eyed were all men who either lost their sight or an eye fighting a battle alongside the Prophet or who were among the Companions. Fighting in the cause of Islam was a noble pursuit, and injuries sustained there conveyed honor. Being born with cross eyes, protruding teeth and shiny, zurq eyes were simply ugly physical features that many found ignoble for caliphs.

  • 36 For more on Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s Kitāb al-ḍabṭ, see Richardson, Difference and Disability, pp. 96-109

27Such a subtly polemical use of lists is also evidenced in later periods, as with Yūsuf b. ʿAbd al-Hādī’s (d. 909/1503) Kitāb al-ḍabṭ wa-l-tabyīn li-ḏawī al-ʿilal wa-l-ʿāhāt min al-muḥaddiṯīn (The Book of Correctness and Clarity of Hadith Transmitters Who had Defects and Physical Blights). This brief list named forty-five weak transmitters who suffered from such physical disabilities as lameness, blindness or hemiplegia.36 Instead of describing the men as unreliable transmitters, Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī emphasized their physical defects, which metonymically represented their professional defects.

28In a separate work, al-Ǧāḥiẓ expanded on Ibn ʿAdī’s list, naming several blue-eyed men and women from pre-Islamic and caliphal periods:

  • 37 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-ḥayawān 5, pp. 331.

“Among the zurq are Ṣuḥār al-ʿAbdī and his son ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ṣuḥār, al-ʿAbbās b. al-Walīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik, Dāwud b. Mutammim b. Nuwayra, Marwān b. Muḥammad b. Marwān, Saʿīd b. Qays al-Hamdānī, and Zarqā’ al-Yamāma. She is ʿAnz, one of the daughters of Luqmān b. ʿĀdiyā.
Among the zurq who were considered an evil omen was Qays b. Zuhayr. He was the eldest child, and his parents were eldest children. Al-Basūs was a blue-eyed woman, who was also the eldest child born of two first-borns. Things happened to her that I do not believe. Al-Zabbā’ was a blue-eyed woman. Among the blue-eyed members of the Qays b. Ṯaʿlaba clan are two men named al-Muraqqiš [the Elder and the Younger], as well as others.”37

  • 38 Pellat, “Le culte,” pp. 59-65.

29Al-Ǧāḥiẓ’ list is divided into blue-eyed persons who were neutral or good and those who were bad omens. Of the unlucky blue-eyed persons he named, none are Umayyad figures. In fact, they all lived in pre-Islamic Arabia or Syria. The two Muraqqišes were 6th-century Arabian poets; al-Zabbā’, also known as Zenobia in English, was a 3rd-century queen of Palmyra in Syria; al-Basūs lived in 5th-century Arabia; and Qays b. Zuhayr was a 5th-century Arab king. Conversely, the neutral/good category includes only one pre-Islamic figure, Zarqā’ al-Yamāma. The rest lived during or after the Prophet’s time. Most telling of al-Ǧāḥiẓ’ intentions is that he placed the two dynastic Umayyads from Ibn ʿAdī’s list (the caliph Marwān and the prince al-ʿAbbās) among the neutral and good. Al-Ǧāḥiẓ apparently wrote a pro-Umayyad treatise that defended the accession of Muʿāwiya to the caliphate, so his list could also be read as polemically as Ibn ʿAdī’s.38 Here, al-Ǧāḥiẓ historicizes the vilification of blue eyes as a pre-Islamic superstition. In pre-Islamic poetry, zurq is largely identified with enemies. The poet Suwayd b. Abī Kāhil (d. 65/684) wrote:

“O, Ibn Mukaʿbar [al-Ḍabī], your eyes have turned azraq / Just as with every other azraq member of the vile Ḍabī clan.”

30ʿAbdallāh b. Hammām al-Sulūlī (d. after 715 AD), reviled Hamdānī people and noted that:

“Every azraq man of Hamdān applies kohl to his eyes.”

31Ḏū al-Rumma (d. 117/735):

“If you choose to live among the zurq al-ʿuyūn, they will steal [from you].”

32Ru’ba b. al-Ḥaǧǧāǧ (d. 145/762):

  • 39 Bar-Asher, Scripture and Exegesis, p. 116, fn. 111.

“Say to the enemy: May I see you with your eyes zurqa.”39

  • 40 Ibn Qutayba, Kitāb al-maʿārif, p. 585. This author also includes a line of verse about blue-eyes an (...)

33Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889), a contemporary of al-Ǧāḥiẓ, and like him, a Baghdadi, named four blue-eyed men in his list: 1) al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī; 2) ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAbbās b. Ṣuḥār, whom he also described as red-haired; 3) al-ʿAbbās b. al-Walīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān, and according to some sources 4) al-Zubayr b. al-ʿAwwām40. Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, the son of two slaves, may have been identified with the Umayyads, because his student founded the Muʿtazilī sect that the Abbasids championed, but he also challenged the Umayyad caliphs on many theological issues. As such, it is hard to read his inclusion on this list as part of an anti-Umayyad campaign. Furthermore, the second man was a son of a Companion of the Prophet. The third was an Umayyad prince, and the fourth was a revered Companion of the Prophet. Like al-Ǧāḥiẓ’, this list is rather mixed, and when one reads the surrounding material, which are lists of people with various disabilities, like leprosy, lameness, deafness, cross eyes and baldness (ṣulʿ), one finds a smattering of pre-Islamic figures, Companions of the Prophet, Followers, the Rightly Guided caliphs and also Umayyad caliphs.

34Ibn Rustāh (d. 4th/10th century) named the same four men, except he rendered the second name: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ṣuḥār b. ʿAyyāsh. The last name could have been the editor’s misreading of or a scribe’s incorrect transcription of ʿAbbās. This distancing from the pre-Islamic superstition about shiny, blue-green eyes is also evidenced in contemporary Abbasid poetry. In the following poem by al-Wa’wā’ al-Dimašqī (d. 370/980), the speaker praises his azraq male beloved:

  • 41 Al-Ṯaʿālibī, Ḏikra, p. 53.

“O you who are water shaping his nature
O you wine in the deeds of his eyes
O blue in the sword flash to shed blood
A sword has no honor but in its blue
You teach my eye’s pupil how to swim
His motion excells in his tears’ sea.”41

35Echoing the image of the beautiful, cutting blue eyes, al-Sarī al-Raffā’ of Mosul (d. c.362/972) wrote:

  • 42 Al-Ṯaʿālibī, Ḏikra, p. 53.

“They said in his eyes was blue
To harm so he turned them away
Can sword cut on the battle day
If its blade has no blue? ”42

36Ismā’il b. Ḥammād al-Ǧawharī (d. c.393/1003) turned this praise on its head with this couplet:

  • 43 Al-Ṯaʿālibī, Yatīmat 4, p. 469. I thank Nefeli Papoutsakis of Universität Münster for this referenc (...)

“I saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, who was small-brained and overly curious. / In his stupidity, he always preferred Yazīd, the son of Hind, to the son of the Virgin.”43

37Hind is the mother of the first Umayyad caliph Muʿāwiya, and Fāṭima’s epithet is the Virgin. Her son al-Ḥusayn is meant in this verse. The thrust of the couplet is that the silly blue-green-eyed, blonde Sunni boy legitimizes Yazīd’s claim to the caliphate, but not that of the Prophet’s grandson al-Ḥusayn. The Sunni recognition of Yazīd, who was notoriously drawn to alcohol, sex, and music, as a leader of the Muslim community was especially sickening to Shiis, because Yazīd’s troops killed al-Ḥusayn at Karbala in Iraq in 61/680. The blue-green eyes and blond hair in this verse align the boy phenotypically with the Umayyad family, and a reader would have immediately understood the poet’s reference as an attack on groups, like blondes, pale-eyed people, and Umayyads, whom they felt were not authentically Arab and could not represent Arab, Muslim interests.

  • 44 Ibn al-Ǧawzī, Talqīḥ fuhūm, pp. 446-450.

38By the time Ibn al-Ǧawzī (d. 597/1201) compiled his own list of three azraq men—al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿIyāḍ b. Ṣuḥār, and al-ʿAbbās b. ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān—the Abbasid caliphate existed in name only.44 Much power had been ceded to new satellite empires springing up on the edges of the empire, and the Umayyads of Damascus and Cordoba were no longer in power. With no political need to discredit the Umayyads, it is unsurprising that this is the last list of blue-eyed people that I could locate. After the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, rhetoric about blue eyes shifted from the antagonistic, superstitious tone of the pre-Islamic period, the delegitimizing campaign against the Umayyads during the Umayyad period and into the early Abbasid period.

  • 45 Fairchild Ruggles, “Mothers of a Hybrid Dynasty,” p. 69.

39The identification of the Umayyad family, particularly the women, with blue and green eyes was strong in chronicles and highlighted by anti-Umayyads. The cultural identity of the Umayyads of Cordoba, who reigned from 138/756 to 428/1036, was also suspected of not being sufficiently Arab. The first Umayyad caliph in Andalus was ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, who fled Syria in 750 when the Abbasids seized power and wandered through North Africa and into al-Andalus. He established an emirate there in 138/756. Perhaps like their ancestors in Damascus, the Andalusian dynasty sought an “uncomplicated Arab patriarchal genealogy”, and hoped the geographical distance between al-Andalus and Damascus would allow an uncontested claim to Arab ancestry. However Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064) stated that all but one Umayyad caliph and, indeed, all of their children were blond, and most of these were blue-eyed.45 Many of the caliphs’ mothers were blue-eyed, blond Christian slaves from the north. The same crisis of legitimacy that afflicted the Umayyads of Damascus dogged them in Cordoba. The dark-haired, dark-eyed Andalusian subjects distrusted their rulers and cast aspersions on the Umayyad house for that reason.

40The same hierarchy of beauty—dark eyes and hair over light eyes and hair—persisted in medieval Andalusian poetry, though some authors, like Ibn Ḥazm, praised fair features:

  • 46 Abu-Rub, Poésie, p. 200. See also Monroe, “Arabic Literary Elements,” pp. 320-321.

“D’après les poètes arabes, la brune avait un teint foncé, des yeux et des cheveux noirs, son opposée avait un teint clair, des cheveux blonds et des yeux bleus ou verts. Ces derniers ont été rarement chantés par les poètes andalous. En revanche, on trouve des poètes qui chantent la beauté des yeux verts chez les garçons.”46


41Much later, in Zangid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman Syria, local Sunni writers expressed their pride in Syria’s Islamic past by reviving literature that praised the Umayyad family, by composing faḍā’il literature of Bilād al-Šām and its major cities, and by embracing the characteristics once used to disgrace the Umayyad family. The Damascene historian Ibn ʿAsākir (d. 571/1176) incorporated biographies of Yazīd alongside those of Jesus and David in his voluminous history of Damascus. Furthermore, in this post-Abbasid period, we continue to find love poetry celebrating male, blue-eyed beloveds. The Aleppan poet Ibn al-Wardī (d. 749/1349) rhapsodized about a beauty that others found threatening:

  • 47 Al-Badrī (d. 894/1489), Ġurrat al-ṣabāḥ, fol. 135v°.

“His eye possesses a blueness, and my heart is absolutely weak. / How strange is it that I love him, the blue-eyed enemy? .”47

  • 48 Sayeed, Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam, p. 180.
  • 49 Princeton Garrett, MS 178B, fol. 20r°. This manuscript is Muḥammad ibn Ṭūlūn’s (d. 953/1546) draft (...)

42Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (d. 281/894), a descendant of the Banī Umayya, compiled reports on the merits of Muʿāwiya in his Kitāb ḥilm Muʿāwiya. Only one copy of this manuscript exists today in al-Asad Library, and it was copied in Mamluk Damascus. Women teachers in Mamluk Damascus frequently taught Ibn Abī al-Dunyā’s works.48 To wit, one of the few mentions of this work being taught shows that in Damascus in 782/1380, a woman named ʿĀ’iša bt. Abī Bakr b. ʿĪsā b. Qawālīḥ taught Kitāb ḥilm Muʿāwiya to Baraka bt. Abī Bakr b. Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Ṭaḥḥān al-Ṣāliḥiyya and her husband Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Bāsūfī. This detail was recorded in the scholarly biography of Baraka’s grand-nephew, a man who was incidentally known as Nāṣir al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn Zurayq (d. 900/1495), or “Son of the Little Shiny, Blue-Eyed Man”.49 And this same Nāṣir al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn Zurayq had a grandson named Aḥmad b. ʿUmar b. Mūsā b. al-Dabīs al-Ṣāliḥī, whom Ibn Ṭūlūn included in his biographical dictionary Ḏaḫā’ir al-qaṣr fī nubalā’ al-ʿaṣr. This entry is mostly devoted to discussions about depictions of eyes in Arabic poetry and hadith. Following a discussion of dark eyes, he writes:

  • 50 Ibn Ṭūlūn, Daḫā’ir al-qaṣr fī nubalā’ al-ʿaṣr, Gotha MS orient. A 1779, fol. 18v°.

“I know of no face [with dark eyes] that is beautiful. It is closer to defect than to beauty. Among the eye colors are [also] al-zurqa and al-zurq. In a hadith that Aisha related from the Prophet, peace be upon him, he said: ‘Blue eyes are auspicious.’ Muʿāwiya said to Ṣuḫāb [sic, Ṣuḥār] al-ʿAbdī: ‘You are blue-eyed.’ Ṣuḫāb responded: ‘Al-bādī [sic, al-bāzī, meaning ‘eagle’] is blue.’ The poet wrote of this: ‘They said that he was blue-eyed. I said to them, ‘In this, his qualities are a delight. Kohl-colored eyes are as similar to blue ones as jacinth is to obsidian.”50

43Jacinth is a deep blue gem, whereas obsidian is shiny, black volcanic glass. Though both were rare, in medieval Islamdom only jacinth was considered a precious stone. After citing this last verse, the biographee, Aḥmad b. al-Ṣāliḥī, continues by reproducing poems by al-Sarī al-Mawṣilī and al-Wa’wā’ al-Dimašqī, which were discussed earlier in this article. Al-Ṣāliḥī’s insistence on the beauty of blue-eyed individuals reflects the prevailing sense among Mamluk and Ottoman Damascenes that blue-eyed Umayyad leaders embodied the noble Syrian past.

44All of this evidence—from the Qur’ān to hadith, Qur’ānic commentaries to physiognomic treatises, poetry to prose—reveals the extent to which physical otherness lurks in our medieval Arabic sources and has a history. While the meaning of zurq shifted from shiny to blue-green to blue throughout the medieval period, the threat that this eye color posed never did. Certain writers, like the pro-Umayyad Abbasids al-Ǧāḥiẓ and Ibn Abī al-Dunyā, tried to downplay the stigma of blue eyes and to embrace this feature as authentically Arab. This rallying cry was resurrected by Damascus seeking to emphasize the continuously holy aspect of the city from biblical times into their contemporary reality. To do that, the Umayyads could not be represented as threatening Muslim piety or exerting illegitimate rule over Muslim subjects and their problematic characteristics had to be reclaimed for new political purposes and given new cultural significances.

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1 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene II.

2 Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance, p. 6.

3 Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance, p. 11.

4 Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance, p. 8.

5 This story seems to have been based on a living person. In a list he compiled of blue-eyed Arabs, al-Ǧāḥiẓ (d. 255/868) included Zarqā’ al-Yamāma, adding that “she is ʿAnz, one of the daughters of Luqmān b. ʿĀdiyyā”. See al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-ḥayawān 5, p. 331. Al-Ṭabarī claimed that the woman’s name was al-Yamāma (al-Ta’rīḫ 1, p. 630); Abū al-Faraǧ al-Iṣbahānī (d. c.972 AD) cites Ibn al-Kalbī’s (d. 204/819) identification of Zarqā’ al-Yamāma as a woman named Hind (Kitāb al-aġānī 2, pp. 31-32).

6 Al-Badrī, al-Durr 1, p. 59. On Zarqā’ al-Yamāma, see Amer, “Medieval Arab Lesbians,” pp. 218-219, and Khoury, “Zarqā’ al-Yamāma,” pp. 312-313.

7 Nicholson, “Some Notes,” pp. 346-347.

8 According to one biographer, Wallace Fard Muhammad (disappeared in 1934), the founder of the Nation of Islam, “likened Caucasians to Shakespeare’s Caliban. They were ‘human devils’, he said, the sons and daughters of Beelzebub”. Evanzz, The Messenger, p. 74. His disciple, Elijah Muhammad (d. 1975), warned his co-religionists of the blue-eyed devils: Muhammad, Message, pp. 16, 73.

9 Morabia, “Recherches,” pp. 70-71.

10 Berlin and Kay, Basic Color Terms, pp. 14-34.

11 Fischer, Farb- und Formbezeichnungen, pp. 53 ff.

12 Juliane Müller has also found “blind” to be the prevailing interpretation of zurq. See Müller, “Die Farben,” p. 132.

13 Al-Ṣamʿānī, Tafsīr 2, p. 354.

14 Ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzī, Tafsīr 7, p. 2434.

15 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-ḥayawān 5, p. 330.

16 Al-Tawḥīdī, al-Baṣā’ir 6, p. 146.

17 Homerin, “Echoes,” p. 177.

18 Al-Wāḥidī, al-Tafsīr al-basīṭ 14, pp. 518-519.

19 Meyerhof and Prüfer, “Die Augenheilkunde,” p. 239.

20 Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq, Livre, pp. 38-39 (Arabic text), pp. 98-99 (French translation). Note that these colors are specifically applied to eyes, and are distinct from the five general color terms: red, yellow, black, white, green.

21 Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq, Book, p. 70 (English translation), p. 141 (Arabic text).

22 Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq, Livre, p. 123 (French translation).

23 Al-Baġdādī, Memorandum, p. 206.

24 Lange, “On That Day,” p. 429.

25 Smith and Haddad, Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection, pp. 41-42; Wensinck, “Munkar,” pp. 576-577.

26 Al-Mawardī, al-Nukat 3, p. 424; al-Ṣamʿānī, Tafsīr 2, p. 354.

27 Ibn Ḥibbān (d. 354/965) related a weak hadith on the authority of ʿĀ’iša that the Prophet declared al-zurqa in the eye to be a sign of good luck. Ibn Ḥibbān, Kitāb al-maǧrūḥīn, pp. 164-165.

28 Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad 1, p. 267. Variations of this hadith can also be found at 1, p. 240 and 350.

29 Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad 1, p. 257. In Qur’ān 49:12, the phrase “Those who eat the flesh of their brothers” is a metaphor for gossipers.

30 Al-Bayhaqī, Manāqib 2, p. 134.

31 Monroe, “Arabic Literary Elements,” p. 320, fn. 103.

32 Translated in Savage-Smith, “Attitudes Toward Dissection in Medieval Islam,” p. 83.

33 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-burṣān, p. 570.

34 Ibn al-Qiftī, Inbāh 3, p. 365.

35 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-burṣān, p. 570.

36 For more on Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī’s Kitāb al-ḍabṭ, see Richardson, Difference and Disability, pp. 96-109.

37 Al-Ǧāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-ḥayawān 5, pp. 331.

38 Pellat, “Le culte,” pp. 59-65.

39 Bar-Asher, Scripture and Exegesis, p. 116, fn. 111.

40 Ibn Qutayba, Kitāb al-maʿārif, p. 585. This author also includes a line of verse about blue-eyes and zurqa in his section on eye blights in ʿUyūn al-aḫbār 4, p. 58.

41 Al-Ṯaʿālibī, Ḏikra, p. 53.

42 Al-Ṯaʿālibī, Ḏikra, p. 53.

43 Al-Ṯaʿālibī, Yatīmat 4, p. 469. I thank Nefeli Papoutsakis of Universität Münster for this reference.

44 Ibn al-Ǧawzī, Talqīḥ fuhūm, pp. 446-450.

45 Fairchild Ruggles, “Mothers of a Hybrid Dynasty,” p. 69.

46 Abu-Rub, Poésie, p. 200. See also Monroe, “Arabic Literary Elements,” pp. 320-321.

47 Al-Badrī (d. 894/1489), Ġurrat al-ṣabāḥ, fol. 135v°.

48 Sayeed, Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam, p. 180.

49 Princeton Garrett, MS 178B, fol. 20r°. This manuscript is Muḥammad ibn Ṭūlūn’s (d. 953/1546) draft of a ṯabat for his teacher Nāṣir al-Dīn b. Zurayq (d. 900/1495). Ibn Ṭūlūn based his reorganized version on the second volume of Ibn Zurayq’s autograph ṯabat, which is held as “Ṯabat Ibn Zurayq,” British Library, MS OR 9792.

50 Ibn Ṭūlūn, Daḫā’ir al-qaṣr fī nubalā’ al-ʿaṣr, Gotha MS orient. A 1779, fol. 18v°.

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Kristina Richardson

CUNY Queens College, kristina.richardson[at]

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