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Attitudes toward homosexuality in the pre-modern Arab-Islamic world are commonly depicted as schizophrenic—visible and tolerated on one hand, prohibited by Islam on the other. Khaled El-Rouayheb argues that this apparent paradox is based on the anachronistic assumption that homosexuality is a timeless, self-evident fact to which a particular culture reacts with some degree of tolerance or intolerance. Drawing on poetry, biographical literature, medicine, dream interpretation, and Islamic texts, he shows that the culture of the period lacked the concept of homosexuality.
"A remarkably learned volume that provides an excellent introduction to a long-neglected area of study in the English-speaking world. . . . A trenchant, insightful, and even brilliant book."—Gay & Lesbian Review
— Donald L. Boisvert
— Sabine Schmidtke
— Walter Andrews
Sex as Polarization
Toward the end of the year 1701, a Druze chieftain (Emir) from the Wadi al-Taym area in Syria came to Damascus to be officially invested as head military official (Yayabashi) of his home region by the governor of the city. According to a contemporary chronicler, the Emir was a notorious womanizer, who "in Damascus was determined to conduct himself with his characteristic lewdness." Once, while at the house of a local woman, he was surprised by around twenty Turcoman soldiers, who gang-raped him and robbed him of his clothes, leaving him barefoot and clad only in his inner garments. "He who encroaches upon the womenfolk (harim) of the Muslims deserves more than this," they reportedly said before letting him go. "News of the incident," the chronicler added, "reached the women and children [of the city], and songs about him [i.e., the Emir] were composed and performed by singers ... He then departed to the land of the Druzes, his home, and it was said that the woman remained untainted [i.e., she was not dishonored before the arrival of the soldiers], and thus God forsook the damned Emir at the hands of the Turcomans." The quoted remarks make it clear in what terms the chronicler, and the Muslim population of Damascus in general, viewed the reported action of the soldiers. An outsider, and a non-Muslim at that, by his attempt to seduce or rape a local woman, had threatened the honor of the community at large. The threat was not only averted, but the potential dishonorer was himself dishonored by being buggered, and the Turcoman troops came in this particular case to be seen as instruments of poetic justice. Underlying the interpretation, of course, is a tacit identification of sexual penetration, both the one averted and the one committed by the soldiers, with dishonor. This assumption is one that will be all too familiar to anyone acquainted with the more bawdy or ribald aspects of present-day Arab (and Mediterranean) culture, as manifested for example in jokes and insults: to penetrate phallically is to dominate, subjugate, and ultimately to humiliate. According to the oneiromantic handbook of the Damascene scholar 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1731), to dream that one is sexually penetrating a rival or enemy forebodes that one will get the better of him in real life, whereas being penetrated by him is ominous, signifying the reverse. A strikingly uncompromising expression of this way of conceiving phallic penetration is contained in the following defamatory poem in which Ibrahim al-Ghazali (d. 1678), deputy judge at one of the courts of Damascus, lampooned a contemporary:
By God ask, on my behalf, the gross character: "Of what do you disapprove in so-and-so?" and you will be amazed.
You will not find the reason to be other than that I did not fuck him since he has long disgusted me.
And had I inflicted upon him my penis and given it to him, he would not have reckoned I had any faults.
But I now cauterize his ulcerous arse with the fire of my penis, and ascend the ranks [of virtue] in his eyes.
I impose on my self what is contrary to its preference; before me many did what I am now doing ...
O penis! Arise! Put on your armor, and enter his interior like a raider, and give us his guts as spoils.
Make him wide as you hump and shake within him, and if you cannot, delegate in your place a piece of wood.
As described in this context, the act of penetration can hardly be called "sexual," as it is dissociated, not only from love and intimacy, but also from desire and pleasure. It is explicitly stated that the penetrator has to overcome his feeling of disgust and impose on his self "what is contrary to its preference," whereas the fact that the penetrated is said to derive pleasure from the act simply adds to the insult. "You who closes his thighs around the manhood from pleasure! You pasture-ground of penises!" a seventeenth-century Egyptian scholar wrote to an adversary. As has been noted by the psychiatrist T. Vanggaard, it seems to be a misconception to assume that men are only able to sustain an erection and have intercourse if they are attracted sexually (in any ordinary sense of the word) to the person in question. In some cases, the erection may be sustained by feelings of aggressive hostility. The possibility of what Vanggaard calls "phallic aggression" seems to have been conceived in the premodern Arab East. The Iraqi scholar Mahmud al-Alusi (d. 1854), for example, stated that some people in his time used sodomy as a way of getting revenge in vendettas (akhdhan li-al-tha'r). In addition, some of the traditions which were invoked by Muslim religious scholars to explain the rise of sodomy among "the people of Lot" (Qawm Lut.) stated that they started to sodomize strangers as a way of driving them off their land, "without having any sexual desire to do that (min ghayr shahwah bihim ila dhalik)."
Instead of references to desire and pleasure, the quoted verses of Ibrahim al-Ghazali contain a remarkable profusion of metaphors derived from the language of violence and war: infliction, fire, armor, raid, spoils. Conversely, literary descriptions of battles in classical Arabic often conjure up, perhaps unconsciously, the imagery of sexual intercourse: the defeated soldiers "turn tail" (wallaw al-adbar); the swords of the victorious ravage the turned tails (fataka or 'amila fi adbarihim) of their enemies; the sword of the powerful military commander was said to "make courageous men into women" (yu'annithu al-buhm al-dhukur) or to "make male enemies menstruate" (ja'ala al-dhukur min al-a 'adi huyyadan). The word futuh can be used equally of military conquest and of sexual penetration or deflowering. If the act of penetration can be seen as a uniting of two persons or as "making love," it can also be perceived as a deeply "polarizing" experience, which distinguishes the dominant from the dominated, the dishonorer from the dishonored, and the victorious from the defeated. Some recent writers seem to want to juxtapose the two views, and attribute the former to the modern West and the latter to the Mediterranean-Middle Eastern area. Yet the idea of sex as jima' (i.e., bringing together, combining) was not foreign to the premodern Middle East, nor is the idea of "screwing" in the sense of defeating or insulting in any way absent in the contemporary West. Having said this, it is still undeniable that the aggressive, masculine-centered view featured much more prominently in the public (male-dominated) discourse of the early Ottoman Arab East than the affectionate-androgynous view. In the ongoing rivalries for posts, money, status, and influence in the exclusively male public sphere, allusions to phallic penetration were always near at hand. When the poet Mamayah al-Rumi (d. 1579) was appointed as interpreter at one of the courts of Damascus at the expense of the previous holder of the position, a Turk by the name of Amrallah, he composed the following lines in celebration:
Thanks to God, I achieved my desired aim, and the opponent was discharged. And I received what I had hoped for, and God's will (amr Allah) was done (maf'ulan).
Since maf'ul bihi is the term usually used to denote the passive sexual partner, the allusion is very clear in Arabic: Amrallah has been "screwed" by his successful rival for the post.
The modern concept of "homosexuality" elides a distinction that, in the Middle East, was (and still is) fraught with symbolic significance: that between the penetrator and the penetrated. Not surprisingly, in ordinary language there was no corresponding concept that would apply to both those who preferred the active-insertive role and those who preferred the passive-receptive role in a homosexual act. The term luti was typically used of the former, while mukhannath or ma'bun or (more colloquially) 'ilq was reserved for the latter. It is worth dwelling on this point, since there is a persistent tendency among some modern scholars to overlook this distinction and render the indigenous term luti as "homosexual." In Islamic law, the luti is a man who commits liwat. (i.e., anal intercourse with another man), regardless of whether he commits it as an active or passive partner. However, in ordinary, nontechnical language (as manifested in, for example, bawdy-satirical anecdotes) the term luti almost always meant "pederast." One short anecdote illustrates the fact that a stereotypical luti was thought to be interested in active-insertive anal intercourse with boys: "... of another person it was related that he was a la'it. [variant of luti], and so his wife told him: I have what boys have ('indi ma 'ind al-ghilman). He replied: Yes, but it has an unpleasant neighbor [i.e., the vagina]." A tradition related by the Shii scholar Muhammad al-Hurr al-Amili (d. 1693) also confirms that liwat. was normally understood to be equivalent to sodomizing boys: a heretic (zindiq) asked Ali ibn Abi Talib (the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law) for the reason behind the religious prohibition of liwat. 'Ali supposedly answered: "If carnal penetration of a boy (ityan al-ghulam) were permitted, men would dispense with women, and this would lead to the disruption of procreation." In the Egyptian version of the popular, orally transmitted epic Sirat Baybars, the term luti is used of adult males who make sexual advances to beardless youths, and the term is used interchangeably with the colloquial term bita 'alsighar, which roughly translates as "he who is for youngsters." According to an anonymous and tongue-in-cheek couplet cited in both a late seventeenth-century Egyptian and a late eighteenth-century Damascene text:
The lover of beardless boys is known among people as a luti, and the lover of young women is called a fornicator [zani].
So, out of chastity, I turned to those with beards, and thus I am neither a luti nor a zani.
The Egyptian scholar and poet Ahmad al-Khafaji (d. 1659) complained in verse of the age in which he was living, claiming that it was similar to "the people of Lot" in giving preference to young upstarts at the expense of the older and venerable. In a love poem, the Iraqi scholar 'Abd al-Baqi al-'Umari (d. 1697/8) said of the eulogized female that, "if the people of Lot had seen her beauty, they would never have turned to a boy."
The image of "the people of Lot" in the Islamic tradition was, to be sure, not entirely uniform. In commenting on the just-quoted verse of 'Abd al-Baqi al-'Umari, the Iraqi scholar Muhammad Amin al-Umari (d. 1788) reminded readers that the people of Lot not only sodomized boys but also adult male strangers. This was the standard dual image of the "people of Lot" in the Qur'anic commentaries of the time: on the one hand they were portrayed as pederasts and, on the other, as an aggressive people who anally raped trespassers. In both cases, however, they were assumed to be the "active" or "insertive" party, and this assumption tended to reflect back on the juridical literature itself. The Palestinian religious scholar Muhammad al-Saffarini (d. 1774), for example, defined liwat. or "the act of the people of Lot" ('amal qawm Lut.) as "carnal penetration of males in the anus (ityan al-dhukur fi al-dubur)." Though Saffarini was committed to the idea that the man who willingly assumes the passive-receptive role in anal intercourse has committed sodomy and may be prosecuted accordingly, it still seemed natural for him to define sodomy in a way which suggests that it is only the activeinsertive party who commits it. Similarly, the Egyptian jurist Ibrahim al-Bajuri (d. 1860) stated that liwat. was "the act committed by the people of Lot (fi'l qawm Lut), for they were the first to sodomize men (fa-innahum awwal man ata al-rijal fi adbarihim)." He went on to claim that the habit disappeared after the destruction of Sodom, and was only resurrected after the Islamic conquest of the Middle East. Many soldiers were away from their women, and availed themselves of native, subservient males instead, and so they "did it to them and treated them as women" (fa'alu bihim wa ajrawhum majra al-nisa'). Bajuri's remarks are not particularly valuable as a historical observation, but again reveal that even jurists were prone to make the tacit assumption that liwat. ("the act of the people of Lot") was active rather than passive sodomy, and that the paradigmatic luti was therefore the active-insertive partner. The assumption was articulated clearly in nonjuridical discourse, such as the following defamatory poem by the Aleppine poet Husayn al-Jazari (d. ca. 1624):
Does the offspring of al-Nahhas Fathallah seek satisfaction for his scratchy arse?
Trust my maternal cousin in liwat. and trust his extended, erect prick.
Take it and forgo my penis, for I see no one suitable for that effeminate man (mukhannath) except that luti.
The confusion resulting from the assumption that luti translates as "homosexual" may be seen, for example, in a modern discussion of the collection of erotic anecdotes entitled Nuzhat al-albab fima la yujad fi kitab by the Egyptian scholar Ahmad al-Tifashi (d. 1253). Having apparently been misled by a French translation, Robert Irwin asserts, in his absorbing and rewarding book The Arabian Nights: A Companion, that the sixth chapter of Tifashi's work deals with homosexuals, and goes on to give the "characteristic features" attributed to them:
The homosexual should have a pleasant lodging, well-furnished with books and wine, and made pleasanter yet by the presence of doves and singing birds. A homosexual can be recognized by the way he stares directly at one, this direct gaze often being followed by a wink. The typical homosexual has thin legs with hairy ankles and tends to wear robes which reach right down to the ground. When he walks, his hands and his legs sway.
Chapters 6-8 of al-Tifashi's book are in fact devoted to al-lata (plural of luti) and al-murd al-mu'ajirin. Even a cursory reading of the Arabic text (to which Irwin did not have access) reveals that the former term refers to adult men who desire to sodomize boys-that is, to "pederasts" rather than "homosexuals"-while the term murd mu'ajirin refers to beardless boy prostitutes who render sexual services to al-lata. The quoted account of "characteristic features" runs these two categories together: it is the pederast who should have pleasant lodgings, books and wine, but it is the boy prostitute who may be recognized by his gaze, his legs, and the way he walks. What is even more damaging to the assumption that the term luti is synonymous with "homosexual" is the fact that a later chapter of Tifashi's work (chapter 12) deals with al-khinath-that is, effeminate adult men who desire to be sodomized by (preferably very masculine) men. This category is clearly treated by the author as distinct from the previously mentioned lata and mu'ajirin (the latter are beardless boys and their motives are depicted as pecuniary). It should be clear by now that the modern term "homosexual" hopelessly muddles certain native distinctions, and that insisting on using it in translation or paraphrase leads to serious misunderstanding. It is also clear that Tifashi's work cannot be invoked, as Irwin does, in support of the idea that some medieval Arabs thought of homosexuality as a "single condition" shared by those who prefer the active role and those who prefer the passive, nor of the idea that this single condition was considered by some to be "a form of illness." There does not seem to be any support at all for the idea that pederasts were thought to suffer from an illness. One may admittedly encounter a few passages in which liwat was called a da', and the latter term may in appropriate contexts mean "disease." However, the term da' was frequently used in a loose sense to cover any habit or character trait that was held to be reprehensible. The very passages or works that use the term da' of liwat also use it, for example, of stinginess (bukhl) or ignorance of religious stipulations (jahl). There were no medical discussions of liwat. or any other indication that a tendency to commit liwat. was held to be a disease in the strict sense, with a physiological basis, physical symptoms, and natural remedies. The luti was instead widely represented as a morally dissolute person, a libertine (fasiq), and this latter word was sometimes used as its synonym. Being a pederast was often spoken of in the same breath as being a drinker of wine: "he is suspected of drinking wine and being inclined to beardless boys"; "[he] loves boys and drink"; "he became famous for drinking wine and loving boys"; "both of them are unscrupulous wine-drinkers and rakes, well known for their carousing, and famous among rich and poor for kissing fair boys and fair girls." As in the case of drinking alcohol, the antidote to pederasty was repentance. A story in a collection of humorous anecdotes, perhaps dating from the seventeenth century, started thus: "It was related that one of the lutis repented (taba) from sodomy (liwat)." In the romance of Baybars, men who make sexual advances to the young hero and his groom 'Uthman are regularly beaten up until they say: "I repent at your hands, and swear by your head and eyes that I will no longer meet youngsters and commit liwat," or, "My master! I repent and recant for what I did, and regret and repent at your hands from this time on, and if I should revert to anything of the kind then kill me." The following couplet by the poet Mamayah al-Rumi also illustrates the tendency to assimilate pederasty to sins such as (heterosexual) fornication and drinking alcohol:
My career in pursuit of fancy is ruined, so have mercy on me, O Bestower and Benefactor!
I've lost this world and the next, on fornication, booze, and beardless boys in my time.
Excerpted from Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 by KHALED EL-ROUAYHEB Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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