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Did Homosexuality Exist Among Islamic Scholars?

Did Homosexuality Exist Among Islamic Scholars?

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)

“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)

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.

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?

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.

See Also

Was it the critical European gaze that changed the way Ottoman society viewed men’s desire for handsome youths?

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.

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.

View Comments (11)
  • I’m not sure I understand the point of posting this after today’s tragedy in Orlando. As I am interpreting it, you are saying that concepts of homosexual desire and gender besides those biologically assigned have existed in Muslim countries since ancient times, and attitudes have changed about people who practice these alternative lifestyles. While I have many questions about your interpretations of these texts and their cohesiveness in the article, I only want to comment that saying that being a homosexual is “unnatural and alien to the muslim world” is in pretty bad taste. Plenty of practicing Muslims are LGBT and proud while keeping the faith, and they are just as sad and angry about the shooting as non-Muslims are. I don’t think anyone cares whether or not historical texts say that homosexuality existed in the Ottoman Empire, it’s kind of a given that homosexuality has existed as long as humans have. I do appreciate your hope for changing attitudes in the future of Islam. At the same time, why should Muslims have to wait for said attitudes to change? No matter what religion you are, I would hope that everyone can agree that killing large groups of defenseless civilians, for any reason, is wrong. The mass shooting today did not happen because the shooter did not study his scripture well enough or because he felt wronged and wanted justice. It happened because he was full of hate for people different than him, and some really bad people fed into it and told him that his hate was just and deserved. The shooter made a 911 call right before the attack to pledge his allegiance to ISIS/Daesh. I can say with full certainty that whatever the attitude change that will happen in the future, people need for there to be a clear and present shift in attitude concerning religious extremism right now.

    • I doubt this article finished just in one day considering the amount of quotation and all of that.
      The point of this article for is to raises an excellent point on how sexual attitude can be just different, outside the usual dichotomy between libertinism and prudishness. It’s not that homosexuality was accepted, but it was no less normal then simple heterosexual adultery and objectification of women. It’s already pointed out that the scholars can lust over young boys while condemning anal sex at the same time.
      There are more to homosexuality than just the western one, and that is what we all should acknowledge.

      • The author is a liar and is misinterpreting the Quran’s verses. The Arabs were disgusted by the Roman practice of homosexuality and they opposed pedestry and so did the Muslims throughout the ages.
        The Quran clearly forbids homosexuality with all males.
        (Translation of 26:165-166) – “Of all the creatures in the world, will
        ye approach males, “And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be
        your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing”
        The Quran is describing the beauty of Allah manifest in his creation. Young boys, represent the beauty of Allah, since Allah’s greatest creation is man and Allah manifests his glory through pure men and boys.
        You know nothing of Wahdat ul Wujhood, so stop your perverse Western way
        of thinking. I think its best if you delete this article. Such
        vulgarity is so vile. As a person from a background of loves of Sufis, I
        find this highly offensive.

  • If you are going to quote the Quran, please put the actual quote along with context. Don’t pick parts of the Quran that will directly support your claim. The actual quote + more from Surat Al-Tur is “22. And We provide them with fruit and meat such as they desire. 23. There they pass from hand to hand a cup wherein is neither vanity nor cause of sin. 24. And there go round, waiting on them menservants of their own, as they were hidden pearls.” In that little excerpt, Allah (swt) was describing what Jannah would be like to the believers. It wasn’t about homosexuality or anything of that sort. Please, for the sake of Allah, give the whole information not just little bits and pieces. Allahu ‘Alam, He knows best.

    • I’m with you. Ever since I heard this ayah, it was interpreted in my class as the children (male and female) who died when they were younger and join us in paradise. They will serve both men AND women. Jannah is not only for men, and I’m not sure why this verse is interpreter in this way. I feel really sick to hear it being misinterpreted. Children are pure and everything in Paradise is pure. They bring us joy. That is all. Not some sick fantasy 🙁

    • (Translation of 26:165-166) – “Of all the creatures in the world, will
      ye approach males, “And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be
      your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing”
      The love expressed by these men for boys is not sexual or lustful. Rather it was a love for the creator, a love for the beauty of Allah that is displayed in his creation. Clearly you do not know about Wahdat ul Wujhood. You are looking at these people through the lens of Western civilization, which is immoral. By looking through this lens you are misunderstanding Muslim civilization and the fact that Muslims valued chastity far more and that Muslims probably did not have much conceptions about sex until marriage. The love a man has for a boy, therefore is not sexual, but a love for divine beauty. Also, quoting some random so called “scholar” is not indicative of the thousands upon thousands of dynamic scholars of the past. Not to mention the horrible translations of works done by Orientalists are a hindrance to understanding of these matters. Western Orientalists love lying about figures such as Hazrat Rumi (Rah) and Hazrat Shams (Rah), but the love they had was a spiritual love, a love of a father and son, a love of a teacher and student, a love for Allah, NOT a lustful love (nauzubillah). Just thinking of the misunderstanding makes me disgusted. If you look at the poetry and arts during this time, it was a celebration of purity, a celebration of the beauty of Allah that is shown in his creation and throughout the cosmos. As a person who has a background amongst lovers of sufis, I find this highly offensive and a gross misunderstanding of our love. We love Allah. Just like the West celebrates booty shaking, private parts and dancing, we on the other hand value the beauty of Allah that is displayed in his creations, naturally speaking. To look at our civilization through the lens of the West is to misunderstand it. Shameful.
      Homosexuality was far more common amongst Europeans, not Muslims, which is why during the time of Leonardo Di Vinci, religious priests were raping boys!!!!

  • This is propaganda and lies. You are quoting from Western Orientalists who look through the lens of their own perverse desires. Sadly, this sexual perversity, in which you can’t compliment another man without thinking about it in a sexual way is a disease of Western civilization. It was not a disease amongst Muslims. The beauty of the young man, was the beauty of Allah. It was not lust or sexual attraction, rather it was the love of purity. Like the West today celebrates degeneracy, booty shaking and sexual diseases, back then they celebrated the purity of character, the purity of humanity and the purity of Allah. To look at these men through the lens of Western civilization is not to understand the civilization. Muslim men of those days were not sexually attracted to boys, rather they celebrated, in their poetry, in their works, in their art the divine beauty of Allah that is manifest in his creation. Sadly, with the rise of Wahhabism and Secularism, such Sufi ways of thinking are declining and the lens of the West’s perverse way of thinking is growing. This is why you misinterpret, like the Orientalists, the mindset of these men. They are not aroused by these boys, they are in awe of the beauty of Allah. You can find many such poems and words of praise for a man’s shaykh (pir saheb), however, it is NOT sexual (nauzubillah). Just the thought of misunderstanding these glorious poems and works praising the beauty of Allah’s creation for sexual disease is disgusting to me. Truly the West’s way of thinking should not be adopted by Muslims. This is truly evil. Let us return to our Sufi roots. The love Rumi (Rah) has for Shams (Rah) is a spiritual love, a love of Allah, and definitely has NOTHING to do with sexual perversion and lust. Somebody growing up in the West is probably going to have a hard time understanding what I am saying, but it is true.

  • Why did you delete my previous post? Can’t handle people with different views? I am saying that this article is propaganda and you are misunderstanding the verses. The Quran clearly forbids homosexuality with all males.
    (Translation of 26:165-166) – “Of all the creatures in the world, will
    ye approach males, “And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be
    your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing”
    The love expressed by these men for boys is not sexual or lustful. Rather it was a love for the creator, a love for the beauty of Allah that is displayed in his creation. Clearly you do not know about Wahdat ul Wujhood. You are looking at these people through the lens of Western civilization, which is immoral. By looking through this lens you are misunderstanding Muslim civilization and the fact that Muslims valued chastity far more and that Muslims probably did not have much conceptions about sex until marriage. The love a man has for a boy, therefore is not sexual, but a love for divine beauty. Also, quoting some random so called “scholar” is not indicative of the thousands upon thousands of dynamic scholars of the past. Western Orientalists love lying about figures such as Hazrat Rumi (Rah) and Hazrat Shams (Rah), but the love they had was a spiritual love, a love of a father and son, a love for Allah, NOT a lustful love (nauzubillah). Just thinking of the misunderstanding makes me disgusted.
    Homosexuality was common amongst Europeans, not Muslims, which is why during the time of Leonardo Di Vinci, popes were raping boys.

  • Late to the party but I was just reading some of El-Rouayheb’s book and this is a pretty neat article. I see it as a gateway to more nuanced discussions on sexuality within Islamic discourse. Since I don’t think this topic gets discussed with nearly the amount of depth as it should, particularly pertaining to alternative sexualities, I’m trying to wrap my head around all of it. I liked your point about how understanding how Muslims thought and felt back then requires more than an understanding of what it means to be Muslim now.

  • I think many are reading this article wrong. Homosexuality is a psychiatric label that covers a wide variety of behaviors, practices, desires and cultural identities, some of these are prohibited in classical Islamic law and some are not. Because this umbrella term, homosexuality, didn’t exist until the 1870s and LGBT culture didn’t take root until at least the late 1950s, homosexuality as a sense of selfhood did not exist in the classical Islamic world. Hence a pre-modern Muslim scholar would have seen no issue with amourous and romantic relationships between members of the same gender and at the same time could advocate harsh legal punishments for anal sodomy. In effect, you had a society in which everyone was thought to be basically bisexual and hence there was no need for sexual identity labels. If you even look at classical Muslim adab literature, you’ll find promotion of same-sex relationships side by side condmenation of same-sex intercourse. This changed under colonialism, but you’ll find that these attitudes often persist in isolated communities in the Islamic world, particularly in places like Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.

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