Islamic Sexuality Is More Complicated Than You Might Think

06/23/2016 01:22 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2017

(This piece was co-authored by Carolina Mendoza)

For over fourteen centuries, Islamic societies from Morocco to China have had sexual landscapes as diverse as the lands they have been built on. Multiple ways of negotiating sexual behavior have existed for as long as the religion itself. In fact, the idea that sex should only occur between two married heterosexuals is a relatively recent norm -one which came about during the process of Westernization in the late nineteenth century.

While "homosexuality" first appeared as a medical term in the late nineteenth century, it is appropriate to speak of a long history of homoeroticism in Islamic societies. Far from being considered entirely taboo, homoeroticism and homoerotic behavior was found everywhere from the most ostentatious caliph's court to the humblest Sufi lodge.

To be clear: exegetes (interpreters of scripture) and jurists (creators of law) have often historically condemned certain homosexual acts for men and women alike, though -before recent centuries- many had no issue with desire for someone of the same sex and its public expression. However, there is no reason to think that exegetes and jurists alone define what is "Islamic." Literature and lived practice are not only just as important in producing the definition of Islam, but are sometimes more indicative of what people actually think and do.

While there are Muslims and non-Muslims alike who claim that the Qur'an condemns homosexuality, no verse of the Qur'an gives a legal punishment for either homoerotic inclinations or behaviors. Muslims have generally relied upon the story of "Lot's folk" in the Qur'an as a foundation for homophobia. The Qur'anic narrative, however, can be (and has been) read a number of ways. While many exegetes claim that the "deed of Lot's folk" was homosexual behavior, other Muslims have argued that the action being condemned is in fact rape. Early Muslims also read certain verses of the Qur'an as carrying homoerotic allusions, such as verses describing Paradise.

Non-Qur'anic Islamic scripture speaks of a group of men in the Prophet Muhammad's city (Medina) known as the mukhannaths. Commentators have classified these men under a number of different labels (including homosexuals, transgender women, intersex individuals, bisexuals, and hermaphrodites). The actual identity of the mukhannaths remains unclear, and is unlikely to correspond neatly to any modern categories. What seems clearer, however, is that to be a mukhannath was to have no sexual desire for women. This allowed mukhannaths special access to women's private spaces in Medinan society, a form of social power which gave them the ability to act as choice matchmakers.

The mukhannaths are said to have lived in the Prophet's city during his lifetime and well afterwards. Several were renowned musicians. The mukhannaths remained a staple of Islamic society well into the Abbasid period, two hundred years after the Prophet Muhammad's death. It was during this era when the creators of Islamic scripture began writing polemical and condemnatory commentaries against the mukhannaths as part of a greater attempt to regulate public sexuality. The fact that they spent much effort attempting to do this implies the vast diversity of sexual life in medieval Islamic societies.

Many poets of the same era took a sharply distinct approach to homoeroticism. Abbasid-era poetry, written in both Arabic and Persian, was deeply suffused with homoerotic imagery. The literary figure of the Beloved was often used as a device in lyric poetry as the object of the poet's desire. A great number of these Beloveds were male, including "cupbearer boys," "beardless youths," "Indians," and "Turkic slave-soldiers." Many of the most renowned Persian poets of the medieval world -such as Sa'di, Sana'i, and Hafez- addressed many of their love poems to such Beloveds. Writing in Arabic, the poet Abu Nuwas did much the same thing.

Homoeroticism also featured prominently in medieval prose. In works such as the Thousand and One Nights, stories depict (male and female) homosexual behavior as both incidental to certain plots and central to others. The Ensembles of the chief judge of Balkh (in modern Afghanistan) contains a lively discussion between a "sodomite" and a "fornicator" who argue about who has the better lifestyle before the author concludes that both have their merits. The Qabusnama, written by a Persian ruler as advice for his heir, explicitly outlines the best ways of practicing homosexual behavior. This ruler ultimately suggests that his son adopt a bisexual approach so that he could reap the benefits of both sexes.

The sheer range of medieval Islamic societies -including Western China, Central Asia, parts of the Indian subcontinent, the Persian Gulf, eastern and northern Africa, and more- makes it impossible to fit a comprehensive history of homoeroticism into a concise space. Most sources for more information on the matter remain unexplored.

But even from a brief overview of medieval Islamic queerness, it is clear that blanket homophobia is historically unjustifiable. One cannot claim that Islamic societies have always rejected homoeroticism or non-heterosexual behavior. Nor can one say that they were havens for non-heterosexual individuals or communities.

Rather -much like every other aspect of these societies, and all other societies- the place of homoeroticism was constantly contested and challenged. There were too many sexualities in the medieval world (as is the case today) for us to make any one totalizing claim about which one was Islamic.

Unless we simply say -as we do- that they all were.