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Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature

Stephen O. Murray
Will Roscoe
Eric Allyn
Louis Crompton
Mildred Dickemann
Badruddin Khan
Hasan Mujtaba
Nauman Naqvi
Jim Wafer
Sigrid Westphal-Hellbusch
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 340
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  • Book Info
    Islamic Homosexualities
    Book Description:

    The dramatic impact of Islamic fundamentalism in recent years has skewed our image of Islamic history and culture. Stereotypes depict Islamic societies as economically backward, hyper-patriarchal, and fanatically religious. But in fact, the Islamic world encompasses a great diversity of cultures and a great deal of variation within those cultures in terms of gender roles and sexuality. The first collection on this topic from a historical and anthropological perspective, Homosexuality in the Muslim World reveals that patterns of male and female homosexuality have existed and often flourished within the Islamic world. Indeed, same-sex relations have, until quite recently, been much more tolerated under Islam than in the Christian West. Based on the latest theoretical perspectives in gender studies, feminism, and gay studies, Homosexuality in the Muslim World includes cultural and historical analyses of the entire Islamic world, not just the so-called Middle East. Essays show both age-stratified patterns of homosexuality, as revealed in the erotic and romantic poetry of medieval poets, and gender-based patterns, in which both men and women might, to varying degrees, choose to live as members of the opposite sex. The contributors draw on historical documents, literary texts, ethnographic observation and direct observation by both Muslim and non-Muslim authors to show the considerable diversity of Islamic societies and the existence of tolerated gender and sexual variances.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6108-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Part I: Introduction to Islamic Homosexualities

    • CHAPTER 1 Introduction
      (pp. 3-13)
      Will Roscoe and Stephen O. Murray

      While the study of sexuality may no longer be a “virgin field,” as historian Vern Bullough (1976) once described it, our knowledge concerning homosexuality in most periods of history remains uneven and few attempts have been made to create historical or cross-cultural syntheses of the evidence on homosexuality that does exist. We know something about homosexual patterns among the elite men of classical Athens (Dover 1978; Halperin 1990; Winkler 1990), in the Roman Empire (Richlin 1993; Lilja 1983), among medieval clerics (Boswell 1980) and some victims of the Inquisition, in certain locales of Renaissance Europe (Monter 1981; Murray and Gerard...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Will Not to Know: Islamic Accommodations of Male Homosexuality
      (pp. 14-54)
      Stephen O. Murray

      Although, clearly, waves of puritanism rose and fell before contemporary “Islamism” (more commonly mislabeled “fundamentalism”),¹ traditional and modern Arab states (and non-Arab Islamic ones, with the exception of contemporary Iran) have not attempted to remove homosexual behavior or its recurrent practitioners from society.² Variations over space or time in acceptance of unpublicized homosexualities are important—and central to this volume.³ Although in theory theQur’ānlegislates every aspect of social life, interpretations and applications of that fixed and authoritative guide have differed widely,⁴ though not without limit. Recognizing the existence of variance should not preclude examining similarities that do exist...

    • CHAPTER 3 Precursors of Islamic Male Homosexualities
      (pp. 55-86)
      Will Roscoe

      As the religion of Islam spread outward from Arabia—first under the banner of Mohammed’s armies, then more slowly in the trail of Muslim traders and missionaries, until the greater part of the region from northwestern Africa to insular southeast Asia came under its influence—it encountered societies with ancient roots. In contrast to Judeo-Christian monotheism, however, Islam proved more capable of accommodating diverse cultural practices and even other religions. The capacity to adapt to and sometimes adopt local customs extended to sexuality as well. Any attempt to understand Islamic homosexualities, therefore, needs to begin with a survey of the...

    • CHAPTER 4 Muhammad and Male Homosexuality
      (pp. 87-96)
      Jim Wafer

      Thesharī‘a, or traditional law of Islam, is based on the Qur’ān, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by God, and on thehadīth,¹ or “traditions,” which are sayings attributed to the Prophet. These texts, from which Islamic policies toward homosexuality are derived, have been generally interpreted as condemning sexual relations between persons of the same sex.

      In countries where Islam is the dominant religion, equal rights for gays and lesbians are unlikely to be achieved by means of secular arguments that do not pay due respect to the sacred sources of Islamic culture. Such an approach is more...

    • CHAPTER 5 Woman-Woman Love in Islamic Societies
      (pp. 97-104)
      Stephen O. Murray

      Women have only recently become visible at all in Islamicist/Orientalist discourse.¹ Within most present-day Islamic states, where representation of even married heterosexual conduct is heavily censored, woman-woman sexuality remains thoroughly submerged. What follows is a brief compilation and discussion of the evidence that does exist concerning woman-woman sexual relations in Islamic societies.

      Classical treatises on sexual vice discuss tribadism (sahq)—from a male perspective (see Rowson 1991:63 for some unilluminating examples). There is also a tradition that women “practiced the vice [of sodomy] for forty years among the tribe of Lot before the men took it up” (Bellamy 1979:37, citing...

  4. Part II: Literary Studies

    • CHAPTER 6 Vision and Passion: The Symbolism of Male Love in Islamic Mystical Literature
      (pp. 107-131)
      Jim Wafer

      The mystical literature of both Islam and Christianity has used the symbolism of romantic love to represent the love of God.¹ In Christianity, however, this love is exclusively heterosexual. Either the soul is regarded as female in relation to God, as in Gregory of Nyssa’sCommentary on the Canticle of Canticles(Daniélou and Musurillo 1961:30, 161, and passim) or the poems of Saint John of the Cross (Hardy 1987:134–36); or else the divine nature is represented in female form, symbolizing Wisdom or Gnosis, in relation to a male lover, as in the poetry of the medieval Worshippers of Love...

    • CHAPTER 7 Corporealizing Medieval Persian and Turkish Tropes
      (pp. 132-141)
      Stephen O. Murray

      The Persians were conquered by Arabs in 637. Most Persians converted to Shi‘a Islam after the fall of the (Sunni) Caliphate in the mid-thirteenth century. (Quite a few had done so before.) The famed medieval poets who wrote in Persian or Turkish all wrote poems about desired boys. Indeed, not only poetry but all genres were written about men, by men, and for exclusively male audiences. Often, its pederastic content has been obscured in translation with female pronouns. As Baraheni notes, one aspect of this poetry “is the difficulty in deciding whether the poet is addressing himself to a man...

    • CHAPTER 8 Male Love and Islamic Law in Arab Spain
      (pp. 142-158)
      Louis Crompton

      A unique flowering of homoerotic poetry took place in Iberia after the Arab conquest in 711. The efflorescence there repeated a phenomenon of the Islamic world generally, paralleling the erotic lyrics of Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, Mughal India, Turkey, and the North African states of Egypt, Tunis, and Morocco. The anthologies of medieval Islamic poetry, whether compiled in Baghdad, Damascus, Isfahan, Delhi, Kabul, Istanbul, Cairo, Kairouan, or Fez reveal, with astonishing consistency over a period of a millennium, the same strain of passionate homoeroticism we find in love poems from Cordoba, Seville, and Granada.

      The civilization created by the Umayyad rulers...

  5. Part III: Historical Studies

    • CHAPTER 9 Male Homosexuality, Inheritance Rules, and the Status of Women in Medieval Egypt: The Case of the Mamlūks
      (pp. 161-173)
      Stephen O. Murray

      “To one dark feature we can but distantly allude,” Sir William Muir, a Victorian Orientalist, wrote in 1896 (p. 217).¹ Typical of the discussion of homosexuality by Western historians, that distant allusion is all there is in a long volume. Sixty-six years later, mention is more explicit, but no lengthier: “They were addicted to homosexuality” (Moorhead 1962:72).

      The mamlūk military elite, purchased anew in each generation from the steppes of Eurasia, ruled Egypt and Syria from 1249,² when they defeated an invading army of Crusaders led by Saint Louis, until they were defeated by the mass army of Napoleon in...

    • CHAPTER 10 Homosexuality among Slave Elites in Ottoman Turkey
      (pp. 174-186)
      Stephen O. Murray

      In the Ottoman Empire,¹ as in the mamlūk regimes eventually subdued by and incorporated within it, the ruling elite consisted of “slaves”² (kullar, sg. kul) who had been born outside Dar al-Islam (i.e., in Dar al-Harb), acquired mostly at ages 10 to 12 (but in some cases ranging from ages 8 to 20), then trained to defend and administer the empire. Theajemi-oghlan,foreign-born youths, were early separated from parents, homeland, and the Christian faith. The exclusion of those born Muslim, including the sons of the ruling elite, was consciously designed to prevent the concentration of inherited fortunes and the concomitant...

    • CHAPTER 11 Male Homosexuality in Ottoman Albania
      (pp. 187-196)
      Stephen O. Murray

      As Edward Gibbon long ago remarked, although Albania is only fifty miles from the heel of the Italian boot, the country and its people are all but unknown.¹ The following passage from William Plomer’s biography of Ali Pasha distills nineteenth-century romantic writings about the Skipetar “national character”:

      Perhaps of Scythian origin, they called themselves Skipetars, and spoke a mixed language with a Slavonic basis…. Half shepherds and half warriors, devoted to their native mountains and inheriting heroic traits from the remote past … they delighted to regard themselves as Palikars, or braves…. They were much given to homosexual practices, and...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Balkan Sworn Virgin: A Cross-Gendered Female Role
      (pp. 197-203)
      Mildred Dickemann

      The “sworn virgin” of the montane Balkans, strangely neglected by anthropology, is a theoretically important gender role, as these cross-dressed, cross-gendered females are the only known institutionalized female-to-male role and identity transformations in modern Europe, paralleling those known from native North America (Blackwood 1984; Lang 1990).¹ Indeed, Scandinavianist Carol Clover (1986) has proposed that they represent a surviving example of cross-gendered female roles widespread in pre-Christian Europe, as evidenced by sagas, folklore, and early Christian accounts. In fact, their former presence in now urbanized Dalmatia and Bosnia is attested by epic folksongs (Filipovic 1982:59–69).

      Our knowledge of the sworn...

    • CHAPTER 13 Some Nineteenth-Century Reports of Islamic Homosexualities
      (pp. 204-221)
      Stephen O. Murray

      For James Silk Buckingham, who journeyed through Mesopotamia in the summer of 1817, passing the ruins of Nineveh along the Tigris River on his way to Baghdad, recording the “unspeakable” lifeways of the debauched Orient was a “duty.” Beyond its standard litany of the “indescribable” and the “infamous,” the following passage is interesting for the way it reveals how such attitudes were reflected back by “natives,” who were aware of the Christian European denigration of Islamic acceptance of “depravity,” and therefore denied that anything sexual was going on. It opens with Buckingham’s description of Hebheb, where the appearance of the...

    • CHAPTER 14 Gender-Defined Homosexual Roles in Sub-Saharan African Islamic Cultures
      (pp. 222-230)
      Stephen O. Murray

      Arab traders (allied with coastal African tribes against enemies from the interior) carried Islam down both the eastern and the western coasts of Africa. The conventional wisdom used to be that possession cults in which women played leading roles were residues of pre-Islamic traditional religions, “little traditions” persisting in the shadow of the quranic “great tradition.” In recent years, anthropologists have focused on the extent to which Islam is a “folk religion” rather than a “religion of the book.”¹ They have also suggested that rather than fading away under increasing Islamic hegemony, possession cults seem especially to flourish in cultures...

  6. Part IV: Anthropological Studies

    • CHAPTER 15 Institutionalized Gender-Crossing in Southern Iraq
      (pp. 233-243)
      Sigrid Westphal-Hellbusch

      During our study of the Ma’dan clans of the lower Euphrates-Tigris¹ we were able to establish rather close contact with a female poet of local fame. She led her life as amustergil, that is, a woman in men’s clothing. The phenomenon of transvestites has been reported, for instance, among South and North American tribes, but for the Arabic world it has met with little notice.² As our poet is not an isolated case—she maintained that in her own clan alone approximately fifty women lived as men—the question as to the basis for this phenomenon merits attention.


    • CHAPTER 16 The Sohari Khanith
      (pp. 244-255)
      Stephen O. Murray

      Halfway through her first fieldwork in the town of Sohar on the northeastern coast of Oman, in the summer of 1974, the Norwegian anthropologist Unni Wikan was astonished one day when one of her women friends stopped and talked freely with a man. Equally surprising was the man’s costume: he was wearing a pink tunic. Wikan’s friend explained that this gaudily dressed man was axanith(khanithis a more conventional romanization of the Arabic term and will be used here except in direct quotations). In the course of a twentyminute walk through town, she pointed out four more. Her...

    • CHAPTER 17 Male Actresses in Islamic Parts of Indonesia and the Southern Philippines
      (pp. 256-261)
      Stephen O. Murray

      Although gender and sexuality may be distinguished analytically, they are far from being independent from each other. Indeed, outside the elite realm of academic gender discoursing, sexuality and gender generally are expected to coincide (see Murray 1994, 1995). That is, effeminate males are widely supposed to be sexually receptive, masculine persons to be insertive.

      Across Indonesia, traveling troupes of entertainers provide an occupational niche for men attracted to men and for men who act women’s roles. Among the Makassarese of southern Sulawesi, at least through the 1940s, there weremasridancers aged nine to twelve, who dressed somewhat like women.¹...

    • CHAPTER 18 Two Baluchi Buggas, a Sindhi Zenana, and the Status of Hijras in Contemporary Pakistan
      (pp. 262-266)
      Nauman Naqvi and Hasan Mujtaba

      Lai Bux alias Mumtaz resists emasculation, aspires to lead a normal life (with wife and progeny) and performs as ahijraprimarily because of economic constraints. Lean and tall, with a long stride, high cheekbones, deep voice, and a muscular physique, Lai Bux is a handsome masculine specimen. But Bux/Mumtaz’s hair is long and curly. “I don’t do anything to it,” he says, “It is naturally like this: Baluchi hair.” Mumtaz invariably refers to himself in the masculine gender, although his gestures range from the archetypally masculine to the quintessentially feminine. Every once in a while there are moments when...

    • CHAPTER 19 The Other Side of Midnight: Pakistani Male Prostitutes
      (pp. 267-274)
      Hasan Mujtaba

      If you are a man alone driving a car or riding a bike in the Clifton, Defense, Tariq Road, Bahadurabad, and KDA-building areas, or around the Quaid-e-Azam’s Mazaar in the evening, chances are you will be flagged down by a teenage boy ostensibly hitching a ride. If you oblige him, the young man will direct a barrage of questions at you: What do you do? Where do you live? Do you stay alone? etc. Similarly, if you are walking around the busy Saddar area or Tariq Road alone after dusk, a good-looking youth will ask for a match, the time,...

    • CHAPTER 20 Not-So-Gay Life in Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s
      (pp. 275-296)
      Badruddin Khan

      When I told a Pakistani friend who lives in Pakistan that I planned to write about gay life in Karachi, he was shocked, disbelieving, and very uncomfortable. As a gay man of Pakistani origin now living in Toronto (though I spend a month or more per year in my homeland), I could understand his discomfort. The subject is taboo. This fact also underlies my use of a pseudonym to allow this to be published.¹

      TheSpartacusguide is not very encouraging on the subject of gay life in Pakistan or in Karachi, its largest city. Its outdated listings include big...

    • CHAPTER 21 Two Islamic AIDS Education Organizations
      (pp. 297-301)
      Stephen O. Murray and Eric Allyn

      “There is no gay organization in Malaysia,” Kit, Andrew, and Hong, the three Malaysian delegates to the Third Asian Gay and Lesbian Conference (held in Bangkok in August 1990) stressed. Pink Triangle, which Hong officially represented, is a registered AIDS-prevention and counseling organization “which happens to be made up of mostly gay people.” Founded in 1987 by gay men in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to provide AIDS-prevention information to gay men, it delivers safe sex information in fifteen Indian, Malay, and Chinese languages. Kit explained that the group has become known by the government as a “gay” group,...

  7. CHAPTER 22 Conclusion
    (pp. 302-320)
    Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe

    As Murray notes in chapter 2, the dominant Arabic and southwest Asian discourse on pederasty has co-existed with attested (if less discussed and uncelebrated) instances of gender-variant homosexuality, and at least some relatively egalitarian relationships. While the major norm or cultural script of homosexual roles in Islamic societies does not describe the extent of homosexual behavior or relations, conventions of discretion and covertness keep even acted-upon illicit desires from challenging public norms.¹

    Pederasty has not been the only form of homosexuality in Arabic culture (and still less so in other Islamic cultures—especially in the eastern reaches of Islam), but...

  8. Appendix
    (pp. 321-322)
  9. Authors
    (pp. 323-324)
  10. Index
    (pp. 325-332)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 333-333)