Review: Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800

Review: Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800

In religion, the issue of sexuality becomes very sensitive when we focus on sexual relationships between people from the same sex. Europeans scholars and travellers were shocked at what they perceived to be the tolerant attitudes in Muslim societies towards homosexuality, which they interpreted to be the norm of such societies. This book addresses the prejudices and paucity of research in this area by focusing on how homosexual behaviour was perceived and presented in the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire between 1500 and 1800 – just before modernisation took hold in the nineteenth century.

Modern historians glossing over the distinction between committing sodomy and expressing love for youth to describe them as “homosexuality” is unhelpful. Using an interdisciplinary approach, the author shows how Islamic scholars condemned “liwat” (anal intercourse between men) but not “homosexuality” (e.g. writing a love poem of a male youth would simply not fall under liwat). Three rich chapters provide cultural strands that highlight perceptions of same sex love among the urban elite of the time. Chapter one provides that the “active” or “insertive” role in sexual intercourse was appropriated to a man and a “passive” or “receptive” role was appropriated to women. A man who took on the latter role was stereotyped into being an effeminate and having some sort of abnormal or pathological condition. However, a man who sought to have intercourse with a beardless male youth was not violating the ideal of masculinity as long as he stuck to the “active” or “insertive” role.

Chapter 2 explores the general aesthetic sensibility towards human beauty, be it in the form of women or beardless youths. The chapter contains an illuminating discussion on whether Arabic love poetry dedicated to boys was just fiction and asks “to what extent is it legitimate to regard love poetry and belletristic disputations as historical sources that reveal certain values and tastes within the real-life milieu of belletrists and their audience?” (p. 75). The author argues that the frequency of expressions of pederastic love in that genre certainly must have corresponded to a prevalent cultural notion among the poets and their audience, who considered the refined and chaste love for boys with sympathy and in an idealistic manner. In the world of Islamic mysticism, an aesthetic view of handsome youths or beautiful women was imbued with a metaphysical sense where it was understood to be a means of experiencing the beauty of God.

The final chapter evaluates forms of sexual relations between men in Islamic legal literature, and the related discipline of commentaries in the Qur’an and traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad. This includes detailed discussions of the various legal opinions regarding issues such as gazing at beardless boys, sexual intercourse between men, the question of whether liwat could exist in paradise, and of what falls within the boundaries of liwat and what does not. This final strand views sexual relations between men as a transgression against the sacred law, though most schools of law only viewed anal intercourse as a cardinal sin. Generally, the jurists who were committed to the principle of not prohibiting what God made licit, or to think well of fellow Muslims, did not deem anything that might lead to such transgression as a sin itself, though they found it be problematic and allowed the composition of pederastic poetry.

The author concludes by charting the cultural change that has taken place where European Victorian attitudes intervened, and the various strands of same-sex love came under a new term shudhudh jinsi, corresponding to the European pathological understanding of homosexuality as ‘sexual perversion’, and its far-reaching consequences

Haroon Sidat

El-Rouayheb, K. (2009). Before homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world, 1500-1800: University of Chicago Press.