History of Sex in the Muslim World

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Harem pool and eunuch

There are stories that seraglio of the Ottoman sultan housed about 1,600 virgins. But Middle Eastern men were not the only ones having fun. Lesley Blanch in her book “The Wilder Shores of Love,” describes European ladies in Arabia having lots of sex with Bedouin sheiks.

The great 13th century mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote:
If you want what visible reality
can give, you’re an employee.
If you want the unseen world,
you’re not living your truth.
Both wishes are foolish,
but you’ll be forgiven for forgetting
that what you really want is
love’s confusing joy.

In his 16-volume, 19th-century translation of “The Arabian Nights”, Sir Richard Burton. Burton provided footnoted information on Muslim customs such as female circumcision, homosexuality and bestiality. The English version of the “Scented Garden Men's Hearts to Gladden”, he wrote would be "a marvelous repository of eastern wisdom: how eunuchs are made and married...female circumcision, the fellahs copulating with crocodiles."

Burton, a 19th century adventurer and writer, described tribal slave girls — known as kabbazah, Arabic for “holder”— who used their “the constrictor vaginae muscles,” to induce her partner’s orgasm “not by wriggling and moving but by tightening and loosing the male member with the muscles of her privities.” Holders were quite expensive. Burton also described how a single slash brutal transformed a boy into a eunuch, adding “He often survives.”

Websites and Resources: Islam “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology sexarchive.info IslamOnline islamonline.net ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding ispu.org; Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline

Concubinage and Sexual Slavery in Muslim Societies

According to the Encyclopaedia of Islam: “Concubinage may be defined as the more or less permanent cohabitation (outside the marriage bond) of a man with a woman or women, whose position would be that of secondary wives, women bought, acquired by gift, captured in war, or domestic slaves.”

In the Ottoman Empire the sale of woman as slaves continued until 1908. The BBC says: “Muslim cultures are thought to have had more female slaves than male slaves. Enslaved women were given many tasks and one of the most common was working as a domestic servant. But some female slaves were forced to become sex workers: not prostitutes, as this is forbidden in Islam, but concubines. Concubines were women who were sexually available to their master, but not married to him. A Muslim man could have as many concubines as he could afford. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“Being a concubine did have some benefits: if a slave woman gave birth to her owner's child, her status improved dramatically - she could not be sold or given away, and when her owner died she became free. The child was also free and would inherit from their father as any other children. |::|

“Concubinage was not prostitution in the commercial sense both because that was explicitly forbidden and because only the owner could legitimately have sex with a female slave; anyone else who had sex with her was guilty of fornication. Concubinage was not unique to Islam; the Bible records that King Solomon and King David both had concubines, and it is recorded in other cultures too.” |::|


According to the BBC: “Male slaves who had had their sexual organs removed were called eunuchs, and played an important part in some Muslim societies (as they did in some other cultures). They had the advantage for their masters of not being subject to sexual influence, and as they were unlikely to marry, they had no family ties to hinder their devotion to duty. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“Eunuch slavery involved compulsory mutilation, which usually took place between the ages of 8 and 12. Without modern medical skills and anaesthetics this was painful, and often led to fatal complications, and sometimes to physical or psychological problems for those who survived the operation. |::|

“Eunuchs had a particular role as guardians of the harem and were the main way in which the women of the harem had contact with the world outside. |::|

“In the Ottoman Empire eunuchs from Africa held considerable power from the mid sixteenth century to the eighteenth. It's recorded that the Ottoman family owned 194 eunuchs as late as 1903, of whom 35 'bore a title of some seniority'. Eunuchs could also play important military roles. |::|

Harem Women

Harem women were essentially concubines who lived in the harem, an area of the household where women lived separately from men. According to Ehud R Toledano: 1) The harem system grew out of the need in Ottoman society to achieve gender segregation and limit women's accessibility to men who did not belong to their family. 2) Households were divided into two separate sections: the selamlik, housing the male members, and the haremlik, where the women and children dwelt. 3) At the head of the women's part reigned the master's mother or his first wife (out of a maximum of four wives allowed by Islam). [Source: Ehud R. Toledano, “Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East, 1998,” the BBC |=|]

4) The concubines were also part of the harem, where all the attendants were women. Male guests of the master were not entertained in the harem. 5) An active and well-developed social network linked harems of similar status across Ottoman towns and villages; mutual visits and outdoor excursions were common. 6) For the women who actually spent their lives in the harems, reality was, of course, far more mixed and complicated. |=|


7) The women who came into the harem as slaves (câriyes) were taught and trained to be "ladies," learning all the domestic and social roles attached to that position. As they grew up, they would be paired with the men of the family either as concubines or as legal wives. 8) However, harem slaves' freedom of choice was rather limited, as was that of women in general in an essentially male-dominated environment. Harem slaves frequently had to endure sexual harassment from male members of the family. |=

According to the BBC: “Writers disagree over the nature of concubinage and the harem: 1) Some argue that it was seriously wrong in that; 2) it was just slavery; 3) it breached human rights; 3) it exploited women; 4) women could be bought and sold, or given as gifts; 5) it involved compulsory non-consensual sex - which would nowadays be called 'rape'; 5) it reinforced male power in the culture; 6) Others say that it was relatively benign, because; 7) it gave female slaves a relatively easy existence; 8) it gave female slaves a chance to rise socially; 9) it gave female slaves a chance to gain power; 10) it gave female slaves a chance to gain their freedom. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“A balanced view might be to say that sexual slavery in this context was a very bad thing, but that it was possible for some of the more fortunate victims to gain benefits that provided some degree of compensation. |::|

Political Role of Concubines in the Ottoman Empire

Concubines sometimes played important political roles and wielded direct political influence government policy. Leslie P. Peirce wrote in “The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire”: “More than any other Muslim dynasty, the Ottomans raised the practice of slave concubinage to a reproductive principle: after the generations of Osman and Orhan, virtually all offspring of the sultans appear to have been born of concubine mothers.” [Source: Leslie P. Peirce, “The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire,” 1993]

According to the BBC: “The benefit to the state, or at least to the ruling dynasty, of having the ruling line born through concubines rather than wives was that only one family was involved - the family of a concubine was irrelevant, but the family of a wife would expect to gain power and influence through their relationship to the mother of the son. These conflicting interests could threaten the succession and weaken the ruling family. (This didn't eliminate conflict between heirs and families altogether, but it probably reduced it.) [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

“Concubines as well as wives also played an important role in strengthening cohesion, stability, and continuity at household level too, as this remark about 18th century Cairo demonstrates. Mary Ann Fay wrote: “Marital and nonmarital unions strengthened the links among men; women legitimized the succession of men to power, and women's property ownership added to the overall wealth, prestige, and power of a household. [Source: Mary Ann Fay, “From Concubines to Capitalists: Women, Property, and Power in Eighteenth-century Cairo,” Journal of Women's History, 1998]

“However, the harem was not a prison; it was instead the family quarters of an upper-class home which became exclusively female space when men not related to the women were in the house and whose entry into the harem was forbidden. Women, heavily veiled, could and did leave their homes...Women were not imprisoned in the harem or in the veils and cloaks that concealed their bodies and faces on the street, but both customs were important signifiers of women's lack of sexual autonomy and of men's control over the selection of women's sexual and marital partners. In the economic sphere, however, women had a great deal of autonomy... Therefore, the eighteenth-century Egyptian household should not be seen as the site of unrelieved oppression of women but rather in terms of asymmetries of power between men and women.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and Columbia University

Text Sources: “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology sexarchive.info Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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