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

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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.

Affiliations: 1: University of Chicago


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