In poetry, traditionally considered the supreme art among the Arabs, love lyrics by male poets about males were almost as popular as those about females, and in certain times and places even more popular. But in prose literature as well, including such varied genres as anecdotal collections, vignettes in rhymed prose known as maqamat, shadowplays, and explicit erotica, homoerotic themes, mostly male but also female, are anything but rare.Even though homosexual behavior is condemned in the strongest terms by Islamic law, a position reiterated by numerous legal and pietistic works devoted to the subject, homoerotic love generally appears in poetry and belles lettres as a phenomenon every bit as natural as heteroerotic love and subject to the same range of treatments, from humorous to passionate.
This striking affirmation of homosexuality does not, however, go back to the earliest period of Arabic literature. In the extant poetry from the sixth, seventh, and early eighth centuries–from a generation or two before the advent of Islam through its first century–there are virtually no references to homosexuality at all.
It was during this period that love poetry developed into an independent genre, or rather two, one playful and teasing, the other, known as udhri verse, passionate and even despairing; but both were initially uniformly heteroerotic.
Abu Nuwas and Pederastic Love
Then, quite abruptly in the late eighth century, in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the newly founded capital at Baghdad, a generation of poets began to celebrate the illicit joys of wine and boys, in verses whose sparkle and charm have made the most famous of them, Abu Nuwas (died ca 815), one of the glories of Arabic literature.
The <!– document.write(“pederastic“);//–>pederasticpederastic love celebrated by Abu Nuwas is of a type familiar from ancient Greece. The objects of his affection are adolescent boys, whose charms are conventionally described in terms virtually identical to those for women: wide hips, a narrow waist, languid eyes, and so forth.
The sexual goal, implicitly understood in his chaster poems but graphically described in the more licentious ones, is anal intercourse, with the poet taking the active role. The boy is presumed to submit, if he does, out of mercenary rather than sexual motives, while the poet, as penetrator in the sexual act, retains his masculinity intact.
An interest in boys was fully compatible with an interest in women, and even Abu Nuwas wrote a number of love poems directed at the latter. Besides their physical attractions, boys and women also shared a subordinate status in society; in poetry about boys this subordination is often further emphasized by making the boy a member of the lower classes, or a slave, or a Christian.
Since drinking wine is forbidden by Islam, taverns were normally run by Christians, and one of Abu Nuwas’s favorite themes is the seduction of a Christian boy serving as cupbearer during a night of revelry in one of these taverns.
Convention stated that a boy lost his allure once he became adult, the transition being marked by the growth of his beard. The first down on the cheeks was universally considered an enhancement of the boy’s beauty, but also heralded its imminent termination.
This crucial transition became an extremely popular topos for poetry and soon enough generated a response defending the unspoilt beauty of a fully bearded young man. Both points of view continued to find advocates for centuries, resulting eventually in anthologies of “beard poetry” devoted exclusively to this debate.
Nevertheless, the age differential between active and passive partners in a male homosexual relation remained crucial since the sexual submission of one adult male to another was considered a repugnant idea in this society and assumed to be the result of a pathological desire to be penetrated.
The adult passive homosexual was an object of derision, and not normally a subject for poetry, an exception proving the rule being the licentious poet Jahshawayh (ninth century) who flaunted his passive homosexuality and wrote panegyrics on the penis.
The Two Genres of Erotic Verse
Explicitly sexual poetry such as Jahshawayh’s fell under the generic rubric “licentious” (mujun) and was distinguished from the chaster love lyric (ghazal). From the time of Abu Nuwas, both of these genres were cultivated in both heteroerotic and homoerotic varieties, and the speed with which the homoerotic love lyric, in particular, became established in the normal poetic repertoire is astonishing.
Such famous ninth-century poets as Abu Tammam, al-Buhturi, and Ibn al-Mu`tazz composed both homoerotic and heteroerotic love poems, but far more of the former. Homoerotic poetry was certainly not unwelcome at the caliphal court, and some caliphs actively encouraged it.
The libertine caliph al-Amin (reigned 809-813), in particular, who patronized Abu Nuwas, was notorious for his fondness for the court eunuchs, and in particular the black eunuch Kawthar. According to a famous story, his mother attempted to lure him away from the eunuchs by dressing up the court slave girls in boys’ clothing, bobbing their hair, and painting artificial mustaches on their faces.
The ploy succeeded in deflecting al-Amin’s attention but also initiated an extraordinary vogue among the aristocracy for these “boy-girls” (ghulamiyat) that was to persist for several generations.
There is no evidence that these ghulamiyat were identified in any way with lesbianism–they were, after all, meant to appeal to men. A few of them, however, were said to have had lesbian affairs, as were some of the slave girls in general, particularly some of those who were trained in poetry and song and commanded high prices–and considerable prestige–among the upper classes.
Lesbian Love Poetry
A certain amount of lesbian love poetry is preserved, but though the anthologists, uniformly male, evince little bias against lesbianism, they also display strikingly little interest in it, and most of the female poets we know of are represented as fully heterosexual in both their lives and their art.
Ninth-Century Court Wits
Some years after al-Amin, under the caliph al-Mutawakkil (reigned 847-861), homoerotic poetry again found favor at court, amid an atmosphere of general hedonism and libertinism. Al-Mutawakkil also offered encouragement to the mukhannaths, passive homosexual male transvestites who served as musicians and court jesters, and particularly the celebrated Abbada, whose witticisms were faithfully reported by anthologists for centuries.
Other court wits devoted their talents to composing scandalous essays with titles such as Lesbians and Passive Male Homosexuals, The Superiority of the Rectum over the Mouth, and Rare Anecdotes about Eunuchs. All these works are unfortunately lost, but we find extensive quotations from them in later Arabic works of erotica, the earliest surviving of which dates from the late tenth century.
Al-Jahiz’s Prose Discussions of Homosexuality
Extant prose discussions of homosexuality are in any case not lacking for the ninth century, most notably in the works of al-Jahiz (died 868), one of the greatest prose writers in the history of Arabic literature.
In his role of objective observer of the human scene, al-Jahiz broaches the topic frequently, remarking, for example, that “you will find among women some who prefer women, others who prefer men, others who prefer eunuchs, and yet others who like them all without distinction, and the same holds true with men’s preferences for men, women, or eunuchs.”
Elsewhere, however, he shows himself quite hostile to homosexuality in either sex, declaring it unnatural and shameful. He also remarks on the abruptness with which male homoeroticism has become a public, and literary, phenomenon, and offers an interesting, if not entirely convincing, explanation.
The revolutionary troops from eastern Iran who installed the Abbasid dynasty of caliphs in 750, he tells us, were forbidden to take their wives with them on campaign and resorted for sexual satisfaction to their pages; they then brought this newly acquired taste to Baghdad, where it has since flourished.
Besides its inherent implausibility, this explanation fails to account for an obvious continuity with both sexual and literary patterns known from the pre-Islamic eastern Mediterranean, and one that is deducible, although evidence is largely lacking, for the pre-Islamic Iranian world as well.
Al-Jahiz would not have known much about these earlier traditions, but, ironically, his own work reflects them. Certainly his most extended discussion of male homosexuality is to be found in his well-known Maids and Youths, a debate between proponents of the love of boys and the love of women (won by the latter, which is not surprising, given al-Jahiz’s own views).
The advocate of boys lists such advantages as their not menstruating or getting pregnant and their generally greater availability, whereas the advocate of women points out that boys are attractive for only a very short period–until their beards grow–but women can retain their allure into their forties.
What is striking is that the form of this debate, as well as many of its arguments, parallels similar debates in the Greek literature of late antiquity. Similarly, poems on the beard topos look almost like–but are not–translations of Greek poems preserved in the sixth-century Greek Anthology.
How these apparent continuities are to be reconciled with the discontinuity we find in Arabic literature is a puzzle that remains unexplained.
Anal Intercourse and Islamic Law
One of the arguments put forth by the advocate of women in al-Jahiz’s debate is that sex with boys is forbidden by Islamic law, whereas sex with women is licit under conditions of marriage or concubinage.
In fact, Islamic sanctions against anal intercourse, considered the male homosexual act, are extremely harsh. In contrast to the societal attitudes that are reflected in literature, both the active and passive partners are in law considered equally culpable.
The various legal schools differ on the appropriate punishment, some of them making <!– document.write(“sodomy“);//–>sodomysodomy a capital crime, others reducing the sentence to one hundred lashes for the unmarried offender, in analogy with the penalty for heterosexual fornication, and even the most lenient prescribing a discretionary punishment by the judge for which a reduced number of lashes and imprisonment are suggested.
As with heterosexual fornication, however, the rules of evidence are made almost impossibly stringent: Conviction is permitted only on the basis of repeated confession or the eyewitnessing of the act of penetration by four (in some schools two) male witnesses of established probity.
In general, the jurists treat (active) homosexuality in a manner strictly analogous to heterosexual fornication–as a natural temptation but a grievous (if apparently seldom prosecuted) offense.
This conception is echoed not only in al-Jahiz’s debate (in which the advocate of boys retorts to the advocate of women that heterosexual fornication is more harshly and explicitly condemned by the law than homosexual sodomy), but also in the numerous later debates composed in the same spirit over the following centuries (one of which turns up in the Arabian Nights).
Dying for Love
Another argument advanced by the advocate of girls in al-Jahiz’s debate is that no one is known ever to have died of love for a boy, whereas the famous lovers who have perished from unfulfilled passion for their unobtainable female beloveds are legion.
The reference here is to the udhri tradition of poet-lovers, whose equally devoted beloveds were married off to another man or otherwise separated from them, and who either went mad or died from their frustrated, chaste passion.
In al-Jahiz’s day, there was indeed no homoerotic poetry that took itself this seriously; but this deficiency was soon to be remedied. Already in al-Jahiz’s own old age, a bureaucrat named Khalid al-Katib was producing a long series of plaintive laments on an unobtainable boy, and in the following generation a prominent jurist was to codify a form of chaste homoerotic passion just as intense as that of the heteroerotic udhri tradition.
Ibn Dawud and The Book of the Flower
Muhammad ibn Dawud al-Zahiri, the son and successor of the founder of a conservative Islamic law school which has not survived, is best known for his anthology of poetry, The Book of the Flower, whose first half deals with love poetry and is considered the prototype of the “theory of love” genre in Arabic literature, of which we have dozens of exemplars extending into at least the eighteenth century.
Ibn Dawud’s book tracks the progress of the stereotypical love affair, illustrating each stage with both heteroerotic and homoerotic verses, the latter mostly from his own pen. Central to his idealizing view is a statement transmitted from the Prophet Muhammad that “He who loves passionately, remains chaste, hides his love, and then dies, dies a martyr,” and thus enters Paradise directly, without awaiting the Last Judgment.
According to several accounts of dubious historicity, Ibn Dawud cited this tradition on his deathbed, explaining that he was dying from his chaste passion for a younger man named Ibn Jami`.
The transmitter of these anecdotes, Ibn Dawud’s friend and colleague Niftawayh, himself composed chaste homoerotic love lyrics, and numerous later poets also pursued this genre.
The “Permitted Gaze”
Also particularly associated with the name of Ibn Dawud, although not explicitly attested in his book, was the doctrine of the “permitted gaze,” according to which looking on a boy’s beauty, without physical relations, was allowed under Islamic law.
The primary advocates of this doctrine, however, were not legal experts such as Ibn Dawud, but Sufi mystics, who began sometime in the ninth century to practice such “gazing” as a religious exercise, seeing in the beautiful boy a “witness” to God’s beauty and creative power.
Such exercises were often associated with spiritual “concerts,” and songs and verses celebrating the beauty of and love for a boy as a metaphor for God’s beauty became a significant subgenre of mystical Arabic poetry, though it was to achieve far greater popularity in Persian. Religious conservatives, however, continued for centuries to attack both the “permitted gaze” and the martyr tradition.
Al-Khubza’aruzzi and Ibn Waki’
In the century following Ibn Dawud, two poets stand out for their particular contributions to the homoerotic lyric.
The first, al-Khubza’aruzzi (died ca 938), was an illiterate baker of rice-bread in Basra, in lower Iraq, whose delicate lyrics on the beautiful young men of the city attracted the admiring attention of the aristocratic court poets, who would visit his bakery in order to hear him declaim his verses.
Two generations later, in the city of Tinnis in Egypt, Ibn Waki` al-Tinnisi (died 1003) charmed his contemporaries with his poetic evocations of gardens, wine, and boys, recalling both the waggishness of Abu Nuwas and the elegance of Ibn al-Mu`tazz.
The Anthologies of al-Tha’alibi
Extensive selections from the poetry of both al-Khubza’aruzzi and Ibn Waki` are preserved in several works by the indefatigable anthologist al-Tha`alibi (died 1038). Among al-Tha’alibi’s collections the one entitled The Book of Boys is unfortunately lost, but it was of considerable influence in later centuries, when a series of literary figures compiled similar “beauty” anthologies, beginning with al-`Adili’s (mid-thirteen century) A Thousand and One Boys and its heteroerotic companion A Thousand and One Girls.
The parallel popularity of heteroerotic and male homoerotic love poetry (with lesbian poetry a rare anomaly) was as true of Islamic Spain as of elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world.
Of particular interest in Andalusian literature is the best known of the “love theory” books, The Ring of the Dove by the jurist Ibn Hazm (died 1064), which eschews the anthology form, previously standard, for a mixture of the author’s own verse with prose anecdotes about his contemporaries and their affairs, both heterosexual and homosexual.
Aside from its final moralizing chapters condemning the evils of heterosexual fornication and sodomy, this work offers in its matter-of-fact way a valuable picture of love among the aristocracy and in the Andalusian courts.
Turkish Dominance: The Post-Classical Period
The classical period in Arabic literature closes with the twelfth century. The subsequent post-classical period is much less well known but remained at least as rich in homoerotic literature as the preceding centuries.
The increasing domination of Turks and Circassians in Arabic-speaking lands resulted in a perceptible shift in the canons of beauty, narrow “Turkish” eyes, for example, coming into fashion for both sexes.
The increasingly prevalent system of military slavery, which culminated in the Mamluk (slave) sultanate in late medieval Egypt, seems to have encouraged the cultivation of homosexual attachments in the barracks, and the young Turkish slave soldier, perhaps a bit older than his classical counterpart, became the ideal love object.
These developments are reflected in the encyclopedias and anthologies that this age of literary systematization produced in prodigious quantities, including regular series of “beard” books, “beauty” books, and general erotica, the best known example of the last of these being The Perfumed Garden by al-Nafzawi (fifteenth century).
Ibn Daniyal and al-Safadi
The range of homoerotic literature produced in the late medieval period, much of which remains to be discovered, is perhaps best illustrated by two works from fourteenth-century Egypt.
The Cairene eye physician and poet Ibn Daniyal (died 1310) exploited the popular art of the shadow play (in which translucent figures held against a backlighted screen served as characters for a kind of Punch and Judy show) to produce three extraordinary scripts virtuosic in style and licentious in genre.
The third of these plays, The Lovelorn (al-Mutayyam) mocks romantic convention by portraying an affair between the sex-obsessed title character and a standoffish Turkish slaveboy, which degenerates into an orgiastic banquet at which a series of characters representing a variety of sexual tastes declaim poetry before passing out from intoxication.
At the opposite extreme, al-Safadi (died 1363) composed a romantic maqama, comprising some seventy-five pages in elegant rhymed prose, in which a narrator tells of his falling in love with a young Turkish soldier whom he encountered hunting in a pleasure park, and of their subsequent tryst, whose physical consummation is left tantalizingly ambiguous.
Modern Attitudes toward Homoeroticism
The expression of homoerotic sentiment, in various forms, remained a constant of Arabic literature into the nineteenth century. In modern times, and in particular with the impact of the Victorian mores of colonizing Europeans, respectable society in the Arab world has on the whole become hostile to homosexuality and embarrassed by its prominence in the literary tradition. Recent conservative religious movements have only reinforced this negative stance.
Nevertheless, a few writers have broached the topic in their fiction, and though they tend to treat it more as a psychological and societal problem than as a cause for celebration, they do depict the survival of traditional attitudes alongside the more recent puritanism in their societies.
Particularly noteworthy are two novels with homosexual subplots by the Egyptian Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz, Midaq Alley and Sugar Street. Instances of homosexual themes in the extensive Arab Francophone literature include The Seven-Headed Serpent by Ali Ghanem and The Great Repudiation by Rachid Boudjedra, both Algerians, and Proud Beggars by the Egyptian Albert Cossery.