: Jan 10, 2018

“Why does the Quran say that people who will go to Jahannam will have ‘blackened faces’ and those going to Jannah will have ‘whitened’ faces? That sounds racist…

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“Why does the Quran say that people who will go to Jahannam will have ‘blackened faces’ and those going to Jannah will have ‘whitened’ faces? That sounds racist!”

This is a common question that I’ve been asked many times. It is true that the Quran mentions ‘dark’ and ‘bright’ faces, such as in 3:106 and 39:60. However, it is absolutely incorrect to assume that any racial issues are implied, and this error goes back to, firstly, a simple mistranslation, and secondly, a cultural unawareness of the nuances of the Arabic language.

The words that are used in the Quran (such as ‘tabyaḍu’ and ‘muswadda’) are not in the linguistic forms that are associated with the skin colors of humans. Hence any fluent Arabic speaker would never associate those verses with descriptions of skin color!

These Quranic verbs and nouns are in fact associated in the Arabic language with the brightness of the day, and the darkness of the night. Additionally, the cultural connotations of ‘day’ and ‘night’ in Arabic go beyond colors. The brightness of the day is associated with optimism, happiness and overall positive feelings (even in English we speak of a ‘new dawn’ or a ‘sunrise’ to indicate such feelings). And the darkness of the night is associated with fear, and uncertainty, and anxiety (and in English as well we have ‘dark storms’ as a metaphor for uncertainty). In Surah Yunus, verse 27, the ‘darkness’ is explicitly linked to the night, thus indicating that it has nothing to do with skin colors قطعاً من الليل مظلماً .

Hence, when the Quran describes the people of Paradise as being ‘bright’, the word used is in the context of the brightness of day, not the whiteness of skin color! And the same goes for ‘dark’: it is the darkness of the night, not a shade of melatonin! Therefore it is absolutely incorrect to translate such verses as ‘white’ and ‘black’; if anything, the closest words would be ‘brightened’ or ‘darkened’, but even then the English doesn’t do justice to the Arabic.

White, brown and black skin colors mean nothing for salvation, and this is an established principle of Islam. And of course, people of all skin colors will be ‘brightened’ with the news of Paradise, and ‘darkened’ with the news of the opposite.

May Allah make our faces, whatever skin colors they are, ‘bright’ with the good news of Jannah on the Day when some faces will be ‘brightened’ and others ‘darkened’! Ameen…

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