Same-Sex Love (Homosexuality) in the Arab-Muslim History and Literature

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Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856 – 1931), a German photographer know for his often nude pictures of Arab and Italian boys and young men

T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — wrote in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; “They were an instance of the eastern boy and boy affection which the segregation of women made inevitable. Such friendships often led to manly loves of a depth and force beyond our flesh-steeped conceit. When innocent they were hot and unashamed.”

Yotam Feldman wrote: “The fantasy that lured Western travelers to the Arab world is not new. In the 19th century, writers and other creative artists, Europeans in general and Frenchmen in particular, were drawn to the Levant under the auspices of colonialism. On their return they described places where men slept with other men without being categorized as homosexuals, as in the West.

“What connected me to the East was French literature of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Arnon says. “Roland Barthes connected me to Morocco, and Flaubert to Tunisia. My image was of a place where almost every man could find himself in a sexual situation with another man, because you don’t have the Catholic prohibition on sexual contact between males. That is further intensified for a Western man, for whom all the barriers are lifted, in part by material incentives. It is not confined to a bar or a park. The horizon of possibilities is far more dynamic, and it is not just about those who declare themselves gay. It can also be a married man – anyone, really.”

Websites and Resources: Islam “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts

Richard Burton on 19th Century Muslim Homosexuality

Richard Burton's ten-volume translation of the “The Arabian Nights” was followed by a 'Terminal Essay', which deals with a number of interpretative issues. Section D addressed "pederasty" (sexual activity involving a man and a boy). This essay represents one of the earliest modern efforts to collect cultural and historical information about "homosexuality", a word that Burton doesn’t use and refers to instead with words like "vice" and "inversion".

Burton wrote: “In 1845, when Sir Charles Napier had conquered and annexed Sind... It was reported to him that Karàchi, a townlet of some two thousand souls and distant not more than a mile from camp, supported no less than three lupanars or bordels, in which not women but boys and eunuchs, the former demanding nearly a double price,[l] lay for hire. Being then the only British officer who could speak Sindi, I was asked indirectly to make enquiries and to report upon the subject.

“There exists what I shall call a 'Sotadic Zone,' .... including meridional France, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and Greece, with the coast-regions of Africa from Marocco to Egypt. Running eastward the Sotadic Zone narrows, embracing Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Chaldaea, Afghanistan, Sind, the Punjab and Kashmir....Within the Sotadic Zone the Vice is popular and endemic, held at the worst to be a mere peccadillo, whilst the races to the North and South of the limits here defined practise it only sporadically amid the opprobrium of their fellows who, as a rule, are physically incapable of performing the operation and look upon it with the liveliest disgust.

“Pederasty is forbidden by the Qur’an. In chapter iv. 20 we read; 'And if two (men) among you commit the crime, then punish them both,' the penalty being some hurt or damage by public reproach, insult or scourging. There are four distinct references to Lot and the Sodomites in chapters vii. 78; xi 77-84; xxvi. 160-174 and xxix. 28-35.

“As in Morocco so the Vice prevails throughout the old regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli and all the cities of the South Mediterranean seaboard, whilst it is unknown to the Nubians, the Berbers and the wilder tribes dwelling inland. Proceeding Eastward we reach Egypt, that classical region of all abominations which, marvellous to relate, flourished in closest contact with men leading the purest of lives, models of moderation and morality, of religion and virtue. Amongst the ancient Copts Le Vice was part and portion of the Ritual and was represented by two male partridges alternately copulating (Interp. in Priapi Carm. xvii).

“The Badawi Arab is wholly pure of Le Vice; yet San'a the capital of Al-Yaman and other centres of population have long been and still are thoroughly infected. History tells us of Zu Shanatir, tyrant of 'Arabia Felix,' in 478, A.D. who used to entice young men into his palace and cause them after use to be cast out of the windows: this unkindly ruler was at last poinarded by the youth Zerash, known from his long ringlets as 'Zu Nowas.'

Gloeden photo

“A favourite Persian punishment for strangers caught in the Harem or Gynaeceum is to strip and throw them and expose them to the embraces of the grooms and negro slaves. I once asked a Shirazi how penetration was possible if the patient resisted with all the force of the sphincter muscle: he smiled and said, 'Ah, we Persians know a trick to get over that; we apply a sharpened tent-peg to the crupper-bone (os coccygis) and knock till he opens.'

“ The Afghans are commercial travellers on a large scale and each caravan is accompanied by a number of boys and lads almost in woman's attire with kohl'd eyes and rouged cheeks, long tresses and henna'd fingers and toes, riding luxuriously in Kajawas or camel-panniers: they are called Kuch-i safari, or travelling wives, and the husbands trudge patiently by their sides.

“Resuming our way Eastward we find the Sikhs and the Moslems of the Panjab much addicted to Le Vice, although the Himalayan tribes to the north and those lying south, the Rajputs and Marathas, ignore it. The same may be said of the Kashmirians who add another Kappa to the tria Kakista, Kappadocians, Kretans, and Kilicians...M. Louis Daville describes the infamies of Lajore and Lakhanu where he found men dressed as women, with flowing locks under crowns of flowers, imitating the feminine walk and gestures, voice and fashion of speech, and ogling their admirers with all the coquetry of bayadères. Victor Jacquemont's Journal de Voyage describes the pederasty of Ranjit Singh, the 'Lion of the Panjab,' and his pathic Gulab Singh whom the English inflicted upon Cashmir as ruler by way of paying for his treason. Yet the Hindus, I repeat, hold pederasty in abhorrence and are as much scandalized by being called Gand-mara (anus-beater) or Gandu (anuser)

“One case of pederasty came to light and that after a tragical fashion some years afterwards. A young Brahman had connection with a soldier comrade of low caste and this had continued till, in an unhappy hour, the Pariah patient ventured to become the agent. The latter, in Arab Al-Fa'il = the 'doer,' is not an object of contempt like Al-Maful = the 'done'; and the high-caste sepoy, stung by remorse and revenge, loaded his musket and deliberately shot his paramour. He was hanged by court martial at Hyderabad and, when his last wishes were asked he begged in vain to be suspended by the feet; the idea being that his soul, polluted by exiting 'below the waist,' would be doomed to endless transmigrations through the lowest forms of life.”

Homosexuality in Arabian Nights

Gloeden photo

On homosexuality in Arabian Night (1001 Nights, the Middle Eastern literary classic), Burton wrote: “The pederasty of The Nights may briefly be distributed into three categories. The first is the funny form, as the unseemly practical joke of masterful Queen Budur (vol. iii. 300-306) and the not less hardi jest of the slave-princess Zumurrud (vol. iv. 226). The second is in the grimmest and most earnest phase of the perversion, for instance where Abu Nowas [70] debauches the three youths (vol. v. 64-69); whilst in the third form it is wisely and learnedly discussed, to be severely blamed, by the Shaykhah or Reverend Woman (vol. v. 154). 70 Of this peculiar character Ibn Khallikan remarks (ii. 43), 'There were four poets whose works clearly contraried their character. Abu al-Atahiyah wrote plous poems himself being an atheist, Abu Hukayma's verses proved his lmpotence, yet he was more salacious than a he-goat; Muhammad ibn Hazim pralsed contentments yet he was greedier than a dog; and Abu Nowas hymned the Joys of sodomy, yet he was more sassionate for women than a baboon.'

“Arab enjoys the startling and lively contrast of extreme virtue and horrible vice placed in juxtaposition. Those who have read through these ten volumes will agree with me that the proportion of offensive matter bears a very small ratio to the mass of the work. In an age saturated with cant and hypocrisy, here and there a venal pen will mourn over the 'Pornography' of The Nights, dwell upon the 'Ethics of Dirt' and the 'Garbage of the Brothel'; and will lament the 'wanton dissemination (!) of ancient and filthy fiction.'

“ This self-constituted Censor morum reads Aristophanes and Plato, Horace and Virgil, perhaps even Martial and Petronius, because 'veiled in the decent obscurity of a learned language;' he allows men Latinè loqui; but he is scandalized at stumbling-blocks much less important in plain English. To be consistent he must begin by bowdlerizing not only the classics, with which boys' and youths' minds and memories are soaked and saturated at schools and colleges, but also Boccaccio and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Rabelais; Burton, Sterne, Swift and a long list of works which are yearly reprinted and republished without a word of protest. Lastly, why does not this inconsistent puritan purge the Old Testament of its allusions to human ordure and the pudenda; to carnal copulation and impudent whoredom, to adultery and fornication, to onanism, sodomz, and bestiality?”

Rumi on Male Friendship

The great 13th century mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote:
" Every form you see has its archetype in the placeless world....
From the moment you came into the world of being
A ladder was placed before you that you might escape (ascend ) .
First you were mineral, later you turned to plant,
[101]Then you became an animal: how should this be a secret to you ?
Afterwards you were made man, with knowledge, reason, faith;
Behold the body, which is a portion of the dustpit, how perfect it has grownig
When you have travelled on from man, you will doubtless become an angel;
After that you are done with earth: your station is in heaven.
Pass again even from angelhood: enter thatocean,
That your drop may become a sea which is a hundred seas of ' Oman.' "
From the Divani Shamsi Tabriz of Jalalu-ddin Rumi, trans. by R. H. Nicholson.

Gloeden photo

“Twere better that the spirit which wears not true love as a garment
Had not been: its being is but shame.
Be drunken in love, for love is all that exists.
Dismiss cares and be utterly clear of heart,
Like the face of a mirror, without image or picture.
When it becomes clear of images, all images are contained in it."
Happy the moment when we are seated in the palace, thou and I,
With two forms and with two figures, but with one soul, thou and I."

"Once a man came and knocked at the door of his friend.
His friend said, ' Who art thou, O faithfulone ? '
He said, "Tis I.' He answered, ' There is no admittance.
There is no room for the raw at my well-cooked feast.
Naught but fire of separation and absence
Can cook the raw one and free him from hypocrisy I
Since thy self has not yet left thee,
Thou must be burned in fiery flames.'
The poor man went away, and for one whole year
Journeyed burning with grief for his friend's absence.
His heart burned till it was cooked; then he went again
And drew near to the house of his friend.
He knocked at the door in fear and trepidation
Lest some careless word should fall from his lips.
His friend shouted, ' Who is that at the door? '
He answered, ' 'Tis thou who art at the door, O beloved I '
The friend said, ' Since 'tis I, let me come in,
There is not room for two I's in one house."'
[Source: the Masnavi of Jalalu-ddin Rumi, trans. by E. H. Whinfield]

Flowers Culled from Persian Gardens

The following are taken from Flowers culled from Persian Gardens (Manchester, 1872): "Everyone, whether he be abstemious or self indulgent is searching after the Friend. Every place may be the abode of love, whether it be a mosque or a synagogue.... On thy last day, though the cup be in thy hand, thou may'st be borne away to Paradise even from the corner of the tavern." — Hafiz.

"Neither of my own free will cast I myself into the fire; for the chain of affection was laid upon my neck. I was still at a distance when the fire began to glow, nor is this the moment that it was lighted up within me. Who shall impute it to me as a fault, that I am enchanted by my friend, that I am content in casting myself at his feet? " — Saadi

Saadi's Rose Garden:
"A youth there was of golden heart and nature,
Who loved a friend, his like in every feature;
[102] Once, as upon the ocean sailed the pair,
They chanced into a whirlpool unaware.
A fisherman made haste the first to save,
Ere his young life should meet a watery grave;
But crying from the raging surf, he said:
' Leave me, and seize my comrade's hand instead.'
E'en as he spoke the mortal swoon o'ertook him,
With that last utterance life and sense forsook him.

Gloeden photo

“Learn not love's temper from that shallow pate
Who in the hour of fear forsakes his mate
True friends will ever act like him above
(Trust one who is experienced in love);
For Sadi knows full well the lover's part,
And Bagdad understands the Arab heart.
More than all else thy loved one shalt thou prize,
Else is the whole world hidden from thine eyes."
Lov'st thou a being formed of dust like thee
Peace and contentment from thy heart shall flee -
Waking, fair limbs and features shall torment thee;
Sleeping, thy love in dreams shall hold and haunt thee.
Under his feet thy head is bowed to earth;
Compared with him the world's a paltry crust;
If to thy loved one gold is nothing worth,
Why, then to thee is gold no more than dust
[105] Hardly a word for others canst thou find,
For no room's left for others in thy mind."

" Dear Friend, since thou hast passed the whole
Of one sweet night, till dawn, with me,
I were scarce mortal, could I spend
Another hour apart from thee.
The fear of death, for all of time
Hath left me since my soul partook
The water of true Life, that wells
In sweet abundance from thy brook."

Necin, or Nesim Bey, a Turko-Albanian poet, wrote:
"Whate'er, my friend, or false or true,
The world may tell thee, give no ear,
For to separate us, dear,
The world will say that one is two.
Who should seek to separate us
May he never cease to weep.
The rain at times may cease; but he
In Summer's warmth or Winter's sleep
May he never cease to weep."

Lesbian Love in A Turkish Bath, 1560

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522 - 1592) was a Flemish diplomat and man of letters who was made ambassador to Constantinople by Ferdinand I of Austria. Although he is not well known today, he was still popular in the 19th century and is credited with introducing the lilac and the tulip to western Europe. Charles Thornton Forster and F.H. Blackburne Daniell wrote in their 1881 biography: "During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hardly any author was so popular as Busbecq. More than twenty editions of his letters were published in the literary capitals of Europe... He was eminently what is called a 'many-sided man'; nothing is above him, nothing beneath him. His political information is important to the soberest historians, his gossiping details would gladden a Macaulay."

The following letter is part of one of his long letters about Ottoman life and manners: Constantinople, 1560: “The great mass of women use the public baths for females, and assemble there in large numbers. Among them are found many girls of exquisite beauty, who have been brought together from different quarters of the globe by various chances of fortune; so cases occur of women falling in love with one another at these baths, in much the same fashion as young men fall in love with maidens in our own country. Thus you see a Turk's precautions are sometimes of no avail, and when he has succeeded in keeping his wives from a male lover, he is still in danger from a female rival! The women become deeply attached to each other, and the baths supply them with opportunities of meeting. Some therefore keep their women away from them as much as possible, but they cannot do so altogether, as the law allows them to go there. This evil affects only the common people; the richer classes bathe at home. [Source: Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522 - 1592): “Lesbian Love in A Turkish Bath, 1560", Life & Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, C. Kegan Paul & Co., London, 1881, pp. 231 - 232, Internet Archive, from Letters Magazine]

“It happened that in a gathering of this kind, an elderly woman fell in love with a girl, the daughter of an inhabitant of Constantinople, a man of small means. When her courtship and flatteries were not attended with the success her mad passion demanded, she ventured on a course, which to our notions appears almost incredible. Changing her dress, she pretended she was a man, and hired a house near where the girl's father lived, representing herself as one of the slaves of the Sultan, belonging to the class of cavasses; and it was not long before she took advantage of her position as a neighbour, cultivated the father's acquaintance, and asked for his daughter in marriage. Need I say more? The proposal appearing to be satisfactory, the father readily consents, and promises a dowry proportionate to his means. The wedding-day was fixed, and then this charming bridegroom enters the chamber of the bride, takes off her veil, and begins to chat with her. She recognises at once her old acquaintance, screams out, and calls back her father and mother, who discover that they have given their daughter in marriage to a woman instead of a man.

“The next day they bring her before the Aga of the Janissaries, who was governing the city in the Sultan's absence. He tells her that an old woman like her ought to know better than to attempt so mad a freak, and asks, if she is not ashamed of herself? She replies, "Tush! You know not the might of love, and God grant that you may never experience its power." At this the Aga could not restrain his laughter; and ordered her to be carried off at once, and drowned in the sea. Thus the strange passion of this old woman brought her to a bad end.”

Suleyman the Magnificent and his Vizier Ibrahim

Ottoman Sultan and the Great Vizier

In “The Story of Suleyman's attachment to his Vezir Ibrahim,” Stanley Lane-Poole wrote: "Suleyman, great as he was, shared his greatness with a second mind, to which his reign owed much of its brilliance. The Grand Vezir Ibrahim was the counterpart of the Grand Monarch Suleyman. He was the son of a sailor at Parga, and had been captured by corsairs, by whom he was sold to be the slave of a widow at Magnesia. Here he passed into the hands of the young prince Suleyman, then Governor of Magnesia, and soon his extraordinary talents and address brought him promotion.... From being Grand Falconer on the accession of Suleyman, he rose to be first minister and almost co-Sultan in 1523. [Source: “Turkey, Story of Nations series,” by Stanley Lane-Poole, p. 174]

"He was the object of the Sultan's tender regard: an emperor knows better than most men how solitary is life without friendship and love, and Suleyman loved this man more than a brother. Ibrahim was not only a friend, he was an entertaining and instructive companion. He read Persian, Greek and Italian; he knew how to open unknown worlds to the Sultan's mind, and Sulevman drank in his Vezir's wisdom with assiduity. They lived together: their meals were shared in common; even their beds were in the same room. The Sultan gave his sister in marriage to the sailor's son, and Ibrahim was at the summit of power."

Leaving Behind a Loved One in Baghdad

Writing about his male guide, who was supposed to have left his heart behind him in Baghdad, T. S. Buckingham wrote in "Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia,": " Amidst all this I was at a loss to conceive how the Dervish could find much enjoyment [in the expedition] while laboring under the strong passion which I supposed he must then be feeling for the object of his affections at Bagdad, whom he had quitted with so much reluctance. What was my surprise, however, on seeking an explanation of this seeming inconsistency, to find it was the son, and not the daughter, of his friend Elias who held so powerful a hold on his heart. I shrank back from the confession as a man would recoil from a serpent on which he had unexpectedly trodden . . . but in answer to enquiries naturally suggested by the subject he declared he would rather suffer death than do the slightest harm to so pure, so innocent, so heavenly a creature as this. [Source: T. S. Buckingham, "Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia," Travels, Etc., 2nd edition, vol. I, p 159]

"I took the greatest pains to ascertain by a severe and minute investigation, how far it might be possible to doubt of the purity of the passion by which this Affgan Dervish was possessed, and whether it deserved ta be classed with that [108] described as prevailing among the ancient Greeks; and the result fully satisfied me that both were the same. Ismael was, however, surprised beyond measure when I assured him that such a feeling was not known at all among the peoples of Europe."

one last Gloeden photo

" The Dervish added a striking instance of the force of these attachments, and the sympathy which was felt in the sorrows to which they led, by the following fact from his own history. The place of his residence, and of his usual labor, was near the bridge of the Tigris, at the gate of the Mosque of the Vizier. While he sat here, about five or six years since, surrounded by several of his friends who came often to enjoy his conversation and beguile the tedium of his work, he observed, passing among the crowd, a young and beautiful Turkish boy, whose eyes met his, as if by destiny, and they remained fixedly gazing on each other for some time. The boy, after ' blushing like the first hue of a summer morning,' passed on, frequently turning back to look on the person who had regarded him so ardently. The Dervish felt his heart ' revolve within him,' for such was his expression, and a cold sweat came across his brow. He hung his head upon his graving-tool in dejection, and excused himself to those about him by saying he felt suddenly ill. Shortly afterwards the boy returned, and after walking to and fro several times, drawing nearer and nearer, as if [109] under the influence of some attracting charm, he came up to his observer and said, ' Is it really true, then, that you love me? ' ' This,' said Ismael, ' was a dagger in my heart; I could make no reply.' The friends who were near him, and now saw all explained, asked him if there had been any previous acquaintance existing between them. He assured them that they had never seen each other before. ' Then,' they replied, ' such an event must be from God.'

" The boy continued to remain for a while with this party, told with great frankness the name and rank of his parents, as well as the place of his residence, and promised to repeat his visit on the following day. He did this regularly for several months in succession, sitting for hours by the Dervish, and either singing to him or asking him interesting questions, to beguile his labors, until as Ismael expressed himself, ' though they were still two bodies they became one soul.' The youth at length fell sick, and was confined to his bed, during which time his lover, Ismael, discontinued entirely his usual occupations and abandoned himself completely to the care of his beloved. He watched the changes of his disease with more than the anxiety of a parent, and never quitted his bedside, night or day. Death at length separated them; but even when the stroke came the Dervish could not be prevailed on to quit the corpse. He constantly visited the grave that contained the remains of all he held dear on [110] earth, and planting myrtles and flowers there after the manner of the East, bedewed them daily with his tears. His friends sympathized powerfully in his distress, which he said ' continued to feed his grief ' until he pined away to absolute illness, and was near following the fate of him whom he deplored."

"From all this, added to many other examples of a similar kind, related as happening between persons who had often been pointed out to me in Arabia and Persia, I could no longer doubt the existence in the East of an affection for male youths, of as pure and honorable a kind as that which is felt in Europe for those of the other sex . . . and it would be as unjust to suppose that this necessarily implied impurity of desire as to contend that no one could admire a lovely countenance and a beautiful form in the other sex, and still be inspired with sentiments of the most Dure and honorable nature towards the object of his admiration."

"One powerful reason why this passion may exist in the East, while it is quite unknown in the West, is probably the seclusion of women in the former, and the freedom of access to them in the latter.... Had they [the Asiatics] the unrestrained intercourse which we enjoy with such superior beings as the virtuous and accomplished females of our own country they would find nothing in nature so deserving of their love as these."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology 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,, 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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