Homosexuality in Islam

Umar asked:

Hey Jessica,

I was wondering if you could make a post about homosexuality in Islamic history, i.e how open has it been, what were the reactions, etc.

Thanks.

Okay, I guess to start with I should warn everyone that this post will have discussions of sex, including sex between same-gender and non-gender-sex partners.  I don’t intend to go into any particular detail, but if you’re squicked out by sex in general, or by the existence of homosexuality and queer identity, you should probably stop reading.

Also, for the sake of clarity, I’m going to use gender to describe the division between homosexuality and heterosexuality – heterosexual people prefer to have sex with non-same-gender partners, homosexual people prefer to have sex with same-gender people.  It’s not a perfect division, but I strongly dislike the term ‘same-sex,’ as I find it really transphobic.  I use ‘queer’ as a blanket term for all non-straight identities, although for the sake of the current discussion, I’m not really going to talk about asexuality.  Queer studies is the academic field that considers the role of non-straight identity in the humanities and social sciences – it should be point out, it’s not my field, and so I’m coming into this predominantly as a historian whose done a bit of extra reading.

Also, as a historian, I should point out that any discussion of homosexuaily in history needs to come with a couple of caveats.  Firstly, there have been times throughout history and around the world when non-straight behavior was considered a sin, a crime, or a mental illness, and so understandably, non-straight people have often tried hard not to be identified.  Moreover, one of the major periods for believing homosexuality was a sign of mental illness was the 19th century, when many of the standards for editing, translating, and interpreting Medieval texts also date from, so many of the works that come down to us have been re-interpreted through a Victorian mindset.

Secondly, sexual identity and sexual preference are ultimately abstract concepts that only exist inside your head.  No matter what people think, there’s no outward evidence to mark someone as queer (any more than there is for marking people as straight).  The best we can do is interpret what people said about themselves, what they’re reported to have done, and what other people say about them.  The key word here is ‘interpret’ – even in cases where we have reports in historical texts about people who seem to understand each other as the same gender having sex, plenty of people have argued that we’re ‘reading homosexuality into the text,’ and technically they’re right – it could be a literary device, it could be a literary invention, it could be meant as a compliment (during periods when homosexuality was seen as a positive) or as an insult (in times when it was considered a negative).  These problems with interpretation even arise within the queer community and in the field of queer studies – for example, for much of the late twentieth century, it was common to say that figures like Marlon  Brando or Kate Hepburn were gay and in the closet because they were reported to have had sexual relations with both men and women – the claim being that the relations with same-gender partners revealed their homosexuality and relations with non-same-gender partners were them keeping up appearances.  More recently, more and more people have started to argue that we should see them as bi or pansexual, interpreting the relations with both same-gender and non-same-gender partners through the same lens of queer identity.  Ultimately we can’t really know the truth – for living people, we can just ask them and they can tell us, “Oh, actually I identify as pan and aro” (and once they have told us, we should believe them!), but for historical figures, we’re stuck with all of the limitations of interpretation.

That being said, there is significant evidence that non-straight behavior was common in Medieval Islam.  To start with, it’s banned in Islamic law, and in general, you only write laws to ban things that are actually happening.  As outlined in a great article (in Variety of all places?) by Jonathan Brown at Georgetown, non-straight sex legally falls under sex outside of marriage (although potentially would have been legal between two married couples, except in the case of anal penetration, which was specifically prohibited), and so was illegal because all sex acts outside of marriage were illegal.   That there are occasional references specifically to non-straight sex acts in the legal literature, including giving suggested parallels for appropriate punishments, implies that cases involving non-straight sex acts arose often enough for jurists to need a standard and precedence for judging them.

In terms of attitudes towards homosexuality, the best example I can think of is Medieval wine poetry, a genre of Arabic poetry popular in the ninth and tenth centuries, a period which coincides with the emergence of a distinct urban culture, particular around the caliphal court in Baghdad.  Court poets, the best known being Abu Nuwas, would write of the court’s exploits, sneaking into the monasteries in the Christian quarter of the city to drink wine and make love to the young monastic novices.  Again, many people have argued that the imagery in these poems is purely literary, and it is the case that several court poets were executed, in some cases supposedly for heresy, although there is every reason to think court intrigue played a role, as well.  Nevertheless, the popularity of this poetry, including its continued circulation for several centuries after the genre itself died off (along with the Baghdadi court, which started to lose power after the tenth century) all suggest that the imagery of the poems played a genuine cultural role in Muslim society.

There are also several cases of major Muslim leaders who were reportedly queer – for example, ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III, one of the Nizari Isma’ili Imams, and al-Hakam II, caliph of the new Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia, but again, since homosexuality is sometimes used as an analogy for positive or negative behavior, it’s hard to judge if these accounts are historically accurate.  ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III in particular was a hated ruler who was eventually overthrown, so it’s tempting to see accounts of his homosexuality as part of a broader smear campaign.  Similarly, Western accounts of the Ottoman court include claims of homosexual behavior, going back as far as Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, but again, it’s hard to know if those accounts speak to any reality, or simply represent Western interests in portraying the Ottomans as decadent and corrupt.

I have to admit, as a historian, I’m always struck by the same feeling in researching homosexuality in the past, namely, that people just didn’t care.  There is historical evidence to suggest that queer people have always existed and faced varying levels of resistance or acceptance by society more generally, but I think one of the problems in any discussion of homosexuality in a historical context is that the modern age is way more focused on the individuality and individual behavior than the pre-modern world.  For the most part, the pre-modern world just didn’t care what people did at home or what they thought or felt.  As noted by Professor Brown, “the focus on actions in the Shariah means that desires or inclinations have no legal substance.”  The idea of investigating people’s ‘identities’ just doesn’t really make sense in most times and places historically – leader’s identities were important because they played a special role in major decision-making, including, in the Muslim world, in serving as a representative of God’s Will on earth, but the identity of ordinary people just wasn’t something anyone thought about or wrote about.  That a poet would write about the beauty of a man’s lips and that another man would enjoy that poem just didn’t mean anything to them the way it does to us (or, at least, not in a way that’s been preserved in written sources).

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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