Trigger Warning: Victims of child sexual abuse may find parts of this article triggering.
“There will circulate among them young boys made eternal. When you see them, you would think them [as beautiful as] scattered pearls.”
-al-Quran al-Karim, 76:19 (translation Sahih International) tweet
“Round about them will serve, (devoted) to them, young male servants (handsome) as Pearls well-guarded.”
-al-Quran al-Karim, 52:24 (translation Yusuf-Ali) tweet
The modern English translations of these verses from the Quran seem to present the physical beauty of young males as one of the attractions of paradise. As Professor Khaled El Rouayheb explains, scholars of tafsīr (Quranic exegesis) across the Ottoman world in the 16th – 19th centuries did not shy away from this interpretation.
These scholars also debated whether (implicitly male) believers, upon reaching paradise, would be engaging in sexual acts with these beautiful male youths.
Muhammad al-Ḥafnī, the prominent Sheikh (rector) of al-Azhar University from 1758 until his death, said “liwāṭ (anal penetration) is not permissible in paradise because of its filthiness; and it has been said: it is permissible, and the mentioned reason has been countered by pointing out that there is no filth or reproduction in paradise.”
One contextual detail taken for granted in these discussions, and without which they don’t make sense, is that men find boys handsome.
This includes the men writing these texts of tafsīr (Quranic exegesis). And that these youths (wildān) could potentially evoke sexual desire in the (male) believer.
This may be a lot to take in the first time around.
I found the concept difficult to grasp for two reasons. First, because it meant that male, homoerotic desire was commonplace, even among religious scholars, despite the fact that prohibitions of liwāṭ (anal penetration) were found in every school of Islamic law, historically and into the present.
The only thing that various schools disagreed about was the severity of the crime, and its appropriate punishment (if it was ever brought to public light).
The concept of the homosexual didn’t exist in its modern sense…But a number of other concepts did, including categories for those who actively desired penetration and those who desired to be penetrated. tweet
Second, it took me a while to understand that prepubescent males and grown men were considered categorically different. I had to understand, in other words, that a man’s “gender” changed as he aged.
Since I was raised in a world full of forms asking everyone the gender they were assigned at birth, forms administered throughout life and into death, it took me a while to wrap my head around this distinctive approach to changing gender.
Youths (referenced in terms such as: shābb, amrad, ghulām, etc.) were beautiful, until and as their beards started to grow. Once they were bearded — they were men. The prohibitions around cutting the beard had to do with enforcing gender — as dependent on age and puberty — rather than only with piety and “keeping the sunnāh (teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)).”
This does not mean that these desirous men (including these pious scholars) were “homosexuals,” as Professor El Rouayheb is at pains to explain in his book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World: 1500-1800.
The concept of the homosexual didn’t exist in its modern sense — even its modern senses are multiple, equivocal, and contingent — but a number of other concepts did, including different categories for those who actively desired penetration and those who desired to be penetrated. These categories were treated as separate groups in fiqh (Islamic law), in medicine, and in adab (belles-lettres, or “beautiful” or “fine” writing).
People were aware of the tensions these (supposedly chaste) homoerotic desires and sexual prohibitions created. These tensions are a clue to the historian; why would legal writers debate a prohibition on something that they did not think was happening? tweet
As Dror Ze’evi points out in his book, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900, one would find different attitudes about these desires and acts in different contexts: From pious injunctions to satiric shadow-puppet performances.
And a person living in the Ottoman world would encounter all of them. Many of the scholars writing books of Islamic law also read and wrote poetry, in which various ideals of beauty existed.
One of these ideals was the male youth, perhaps with fuzzy hair just beginning to grow on his face.
This was the ideal of beauty assimilated into the verses from the Quran cited above.
People were aware of the tensions these (supposedly chaste) homoerotic desires and sexual prohibitions created. These tensions are a clue to the historian; why would legal writers debate a prohibition on something that they did not think was happening?
Legal writers debated whether gazing at youths was a sin for men, and many decided that it was, depending on one’s intentions.
Multiple Shāfi‘ī (school of Islamic law in Sunni Islam founded by Al-Shafi‘i) scholars quoted the following opinion of a 14th-century scholar in their school: “Many people look at the beautiful beardless boy while delighting in his beauty and loving him, and think that they are free from sin since they confine themselves to looking without desiring fornication (al-fāḥishah), and they are not free [from sin]” (El Rouayheb, 117).
In a similar vein, Ḥanbalī (school of Islamic law in Sunni Islam named after Ahmad ibn Hanbal) scholar al-Karmī quotes Ibn Taymiyyah, saying, “‘He who repeatedly looks or gazes at the beardless boy and says ‘I am not looking with lust’ is lying’” (El Rouayheb, 117).
Europeans traveling to the Ottoman world remarked (with disgust) on men’s inclination towards boys and the poetry they composed for them — and travelers from the Islamic world to Europe remarked on the absence of any such inclination.
Was it the critical European gaze that changed the way Ottoman society viewed men’s desire for handsome youths? tweet
El Rouayheb relies on these travelogues from the 17th-19th centuries to show that men’s desire for youths was a widespread phenomenon, visible to outsiders. Was it the critical European gaze that changed the way Ottoman society viewed men’s desire for handsome youths?
Afsaneh Najmabadi’s book, Women With Mustaches, Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, shows that it was much more complicated than that — in Iran, at least. The modern nation, the expectations of its new citizens, and their expectations of each other all played a much more integral and intimate role in the disappearance of the amrad (youth) than a singular notion of Westernization.
Let me be clear: I am not highlighting this kind of male homoerotic desire — as depicted in recent historical scholarship on the Islamic world — in order to praise it or to advocate a return to a more “sexually liberated” society.
The very concepts of adult and child have shifted greatly since the period under discussion, and the relationships between them should evoke different ethical responses.
Nor does the literature above display evidence for the widespread “tolerance” of alternative sexualities in Islam; some of the very men writing love poetry for youths were also labeling liwāṭ (anal penetration) as an aberration, or comparing it to zinā (adultery), as writers of Islamic law. But understanding desire historically is necessary to understanding the Islamic tradition.
This is true even if one defines Islam as its normative texts (e.g. hadith, fiqh) rather than more broadly as the study of Islamic civilization. This question (What is Islam?), which has been taken up repeatedly in the academy, has generated debate among academics and non-academics, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Let me be clear: I am not highlighting this kind of male homoerotic desire in order to praise it or to advocate a return to a more “sexually liberated” society. tweet
But unlike the field of Islamic Studies, in which many established academics are also openly Muslim, other academic disciplines do not always prompt scholars to think about the impact of their writing on practicing Muslims.
For those exclusively focused on Arabic and Persian literature, however, this degree of critical consciousness regarding the impact of their research outside the academy may not be part of their disciplinary training.
For example, in an otherwise engaging recent conference I attended on the language of eroticism in Arabic, not a single paper focused on Islamic legal sources.
The revered scholar of theology and law, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505), was cited in a number of papers for his treatises on sex and erotology, but his sizeable contribution to to traditional Islamic sciences was left unexplored.
Most presentations did not address piety as one of the motivations of authors and readers of treatises of erotology in the Muslim world. But if we take seriously the possibility that piety was as much a motivation for authors and readers of erotology as sensuality, we reveal the outlines of a world in which love poetry and traditional Islamic sciences went hand in hand.
So how should Muslims acknowledge the parts of their past that they do not necessarily want to recover?
It’s less straightforward than a list of “10 Badass Muslim Women in History,” or a list of technological innovations by Muslim thinkers. The subtext in articles like that is that we’ve done well, and we can do it again.
Perhaps we need not look to the past exclusively in order to confirm its (and thus, our) glory. But one of the problems with focusing on a glorious past (or a backwards past, for that matter) is that it makes it more difficult than it already is to understand people far-removed from us in time.
We should not take for granted that just being Muslim now will give us all the understanding we need for what being Muslim then was like — although there are of course continuities.
If we could be so different in the past, and if we had alternative ways of being that now seem completely alien to us, perhaps we can also imagine that what seems alien and unnatural to the Muslim world now will become “normal” to Muslims in the future.
Beyond the desire to fully understand Islamic traditions, perhaps this radical potential of history is why we should study all parts of our Muslim pasts — not just the ones that are easy to celebrate.
Written by guest blogger Shireen Hamza.