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Blue Eyes in the Islamicate Middle Ages
By Kristina Richardson
Paper given at Princeton University on November 21, 2011
Abstract: Negative representations of blue eyes in Islamicate literature and art have been ubiquitous since the advent of Islam in the seventh century CE, and continue to appear 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. By the tenth century the Arabic term azraq, which denotes a blue or green iris color, had, for reasons very clear, acquired the meanings of ‘ill-omened’ and ‘deceitful.’ (In modern standard Arabic, azraq means simply ‘blue-eyed.’) Less clear is how in the same period, azraq also came to signify ‘blind’ and imply ‘unnatural’ or ‘supernatural’ ability? To what extent can historians read the merging of blue eyes with disability as an instance of disability being associated with a despised group to justify discrimination against that group, and how did these definitions and representations structure and reproduce rivalries between Muslims and perceived Others? My proposed project will take an integrative approach to these questions by examining the theological, political and social work performed by the concept of physical deviance in medieval Dar al-Islam. My preliminary archival research suggests that medieval Muslim male writers overwhelmingly accepted the characterization of blue and green eyes as unattractive and deviant. Predictably, as certain community members—like blind people or Christians—became identified with blue and green eyes, anxieties flared at such moments as the Crusades, spurring increased literary production about blue- and green-eyed people. Examining these multiple subject positions will allow me to analyze this category of difference as physical and abstract together, while accounting for the historical specificities and local particularities of the central Islamic lands and for the power differentials that structured the relationship between Muslims and physically different Others within and without Dar al-Islam.
See also this presentation on Blue and Green Eyes