The general term الاسود is a term used to describe groups of people who have dark skin. In other words, people who have higher levels of melanin in their skin. This term covers the original Arabs, most places in what we call ‘Africa today and those that have descended from them, and Asians with dark skin such as those from India, Bangladesh, Tamal etc.
Abu Ubaid Al Qaasim Ibn Salaam May Allah have mercy upon him breaks this down nicely in his book, Ghareeb Al Hadeeth, Chapter 4 page 388.
And his saying Al Hamraa( The reds which means the whites) – It means the non Arabs and the clients (the red slaves and the red people that embraced Islam ) they were named that because the most predominant colours of the Arabs are Al Sumurah and Al Udmah and the most predominant colours of the non Arab is white and red and this is like the saying of the people : If you wanted to mention mankind then you’d say the reds and the blacks. So the reds are all of those that are overwhelmed with whiteness and the blacks are those who are overwhelmed with Al Udmah (blackness) .
غريب الحديث لابن سلام رحمه الله الجزء ج ٤ ص ٣٨٨
قوله: الحمراء – يعني العجم والموالي، سموا بذلك لأن الغالب على ألوان العرب السمرة والأدمة، والغالب على ألوان العجم البياض والحمرة وهذا كقول الناس: إن أردت أن تذكر بني آدم فقلت: أحمرهم وأسودهم، فأحمرهم كل من غلب عليه البياض، وأسودهم من غلبت عليه الأدمة.
As I’ve already mentioned the Arabs themselves were as black as ‘black people’ today which ranged from light skinned to very dark skinned complexions, and therefore, were only described as being black people by the Arabs themselves and the scholars of the past.
Ibn Yaeesh mention in his book Sharh Al Mufassal page 48
”The meaning of Al Aswad is because the majority of ( the Arabs ) are brown and jet black in colour.”
و ذكر ابن يعيش في كتابه شرح المفصل ص ٤٨
المراد الاسود لان غالب عليم السمرة والسواد
Read more about the general term ”the blacks” here:
Now for a specific description اسود this would only apply to a person who has a very very dark complexion, jet black, blue black etc.
We have to understand that when a SPECIFIC description was given, SPECIFIC words were used. When we use the word black in English, it usually gives the impression that a person is light skinned or dark skinned or very dark skinned e.g Will Smith, Mandela and Loui Deng and even darker combined with kinky hair (Just like the Arabs of the past). In fact, this is what we do in English too, so it isn’t exclusive to Arabic alone. The issue is that when we read and translate the word اسود Aswad in Arabic we tend to understand this as to mean black as a ”race” even though there is no such thing!
Specific descriptions need accuracy. It’d be a lie to SPECIFICALLY describe Will Smith as being black in complexion because he isn’t, even though he is clearly a ‘black man’. A more SPECIFIC description for Will Smith in Arabic would be ابيض/ white.
In Seera A’laam Al Nubalaa, Imaam Al Dhahabi , said,
”If the Arabs said someone is white, they mean that he is a wheatish colour with a blackness that can be seen’’.
“إن العرب إذا قالت: فلان أبيض ، فإنهم يريدون الحنطي اللون بحلية سوداء’
This is the same reason why It’d be incorrect to SPECIFICALLY describe Nelson Mandela as being اسود / ‘black in complexion’ because he wasn’t even though he was clearly a ‘black man’.A more SPECIFIC description for Nelson Mandella would be اسمر/ a dark brown or dark reddish brown. . (Asmar can also be quite a flexible word and is sometimes used to mean jet black too.)
The word اسود/ or jet black is not a flexible word when it comes to describing a complexion. It always means jet black when describing the complexion of something. It has a few other synonyms: اخضر Green , ادم شديد الادمة Shadeed Al Udmah. Asham and Adlam these words also always mean jet black. It would be totally inaccurate if I used any of these terms to give SPECIFIC descriptions to Nelson Mandella or Will Smith using these terms.
They are blacks الاسود but not specifically jet black اسود .
Imaam Al Alaamah Al Dhahabi says in his book Seera A’laam Al Nubalaa Chapter 2 page 168
‘They said Aswad (jet black) and this means whoever is covered in blackness. They said (jet )black or Shadeed Al Udmah.”
سير أعلام النبلاء ج٢ ص ١٦٨
قالوا اسود و كذا كل من غلب عليه السواد قالوا اسود او شديد الادمة
In conclusion, it is imperative to use the terms accurately when translating otherwise the true meanings get lost.