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Love in Bloom, an essay by Harry Seymour

  • By Harry Seymour
  • 9th March 2016
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Harry Seymour, an art historian, curator and critic, explores the history of non-heterosexual relationships in Islamic culture and how attitudes have developed over time. This essay is part of Quilliam Foundation's exhibition, 'The Unbreakable Rope – An Exploration of Sexuality in Islam' which will be on display at Free Word Centre 10 March-8 June 2016.

Prior to the advent of Islam, homosexual acts appear to have been commonplace in the Arabian Peninsula amongst the polytheistic nomadic peoples. The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 AD) effectively saw a prohibition on such acts that spread in less than a century from the Prophet’s journey to Medina (622 AD) throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Since its creation, the Qur’an has become the way of the word for Muslims, offering ethical, legal and social guidance for their public and private lives. For Muslims, the Qur’an represents the divine word – an irrefutable yet sacred governance.

Several times does the Qur’an condemn homosexuality, arising from two distinct themes. The first is regarding the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – a narrative shared with the Judaeo-Christian Old Testament. The second concerns the scripture regulating the sex lives of the followers of Islam, which sets out what is permissible and what is prohibited with regards to sexual intercourse (zinā). In each case, homosexuality between men, and women (mentioned once in in Sura 33:30) is judged to be a base act (al-fahisha), which can be severely punished. This is confirmed by two often-recited passages; “If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, leave them alone, for God is Oft-returning, Most Merciful” (Sura 4:16), and “Of all the creatures in the world, will ye approach males / And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing (all limits)” (Sura 26:165-66). Exegetes interpret these writings with varying degrees of force, often depending on the interpretation of the historical context in which they were written. One explanation for these discrepancies could be the changes between the shorter and more forceful Meccan verses, and the later Sura revealed to the Prophet at Medina, by which time Muhammad was already the leader of a fully-flourishing society. However, despite the Qur’an’s forbidding of homosexual acts, during certain periods it has played a significant role within Islamic cultures. There is evidence from correspondence, literature and art to suggest that a diverse spectrum of sexuality flourished at certain times and in certain pockets of the empire, including the Spanish Umayyads (756 – 1031), the Seljuks in Persia (1037 – 1194), the Malmuks in Egypt (1250 – 1517) and to a certain degree, the Ottomans in Turkey (1300 – 1923).

Abū Nuwās (756 – 814) is regarded as one of the greatest Classical Arabic poets (756 – 1031), who flourished during what is seen as the Golden Age of Islam (dar al-Islam), which consisted of the Umayyad dynasty (661 – 750) in Damascus and the first period of the Abbasid dynasty (750 – 1258) based in Baghdad. This was a culturally lively and sophisticated period with opulent and cosmopolitan courts. Homosexuality was within this society, celebrated as a variant of eroticism, however roles (as often was the case in Antiquity) were defined by the passive and active participants. The older and socially superior male would normally adopt the active role, and typically the passive role would be adopted by an adolescent boy, emphasising the social hierarchy of society. During certain periods of this Golden Age, many chose to shun the traditional Bedouin lifestyle of chastity, valour and courage in battle for a focus on wine, passionate love and revelry. Biographers of the life of Abū Nuwās recount his many relationships with both women and boys, full of the flavour of this libertine spirit. He lived a bohemian lifestyle, especially during the years in which al-Amīn was caliph (809 – 13) with who Abū Nuwās shared many experiences. His Dīwān, a collection of lyrical prose, provides evidence for his heady thirst for secular, carnal life, which he said to be comprised of four elements; “flowing water, gardens, wine and the beautiful face of the beloved”. The most well known and celebrated of his erotic works are the ghazal and the khamriyyāt, which exalt wine and revelry. In his work ghazal, Abū Nuwās celebrates his love boys and young men, including epehebes (ghulām amrtad) and fifteen year olds (khumāsi), although both younger and older boys are not to be discounted, even once they have began growing facial hair (muaddir). His work compares young males to fawns, gazelles and kid-goats and his descriptions of male youth-beauty conform to those of the day: being slender and supple with smooth skin, narrow hips and firm buttocks, a face with moon-like radiance, languid eyes, pink cheeks, plump glossy lips, hair slicked back with ambergris, a clear and pronounced voice and musky kisses. Passages from his work describe the seduction of young Persian boys in taverns. Pages, prostitutes, slaves, Christians and Zoroastrians are all lured by presents and the clink of gold coins. His lyrics speak of burning carnal desires, which are sometimes accepted but often scorned, while his works range from euphoric and explicit to melancholic and ironic.

Many other homoerotic Islamic authors existed during this Golden Age, in which homosexuality played a large part in culture, in part explained by the fact that Islam makes no distinction between spirit and the flesh unlike in Christianity, while also highly valuing sexual pleasure. The Persian Ibn Dāwūd (868 – 909), the Andalusian Ibn Quzmān (1080 – 1160) and the Arabic-Sicilian Ibn Hamdīs (1053 – 1133) all wrote skilled and beautiful prose flowered with homoeroticism. There are also extant practical lovemaking manuals, such as The Perfumed Garden (Ar-rawd al-atir fi nuzhatil khatir) written by the Tunisian sheikh Muhammad Ibn Umar al-Nafwāzi between 1410 and 1434, which instructs how to enjoy sex to the fullest, and The Book of the Respective Merits of Maids and Youths (Kitab mufaharat al-jawari wa-l-ghilman) written by Ūthmān al-Jāhiz (777 – 869), which discusses the pleasures of making love to women versus young boys. Many texts from this time discuss the desire of, and lovemaking to both heterosexual and homosexual partners, often in lively and humorous tones.

During the Classical Age of Persian literature beginning in the thirteenth century, Sufism begins to gain popularity. Sufism, recalling the teachings of Plato, is a mystical movement that celebrates the love of absolute beauty. In these texts the loved one is exalted as making the pain of life worthwhile. Some of the most prominent Persian writers at this time were Omar Khayyām (mid-eleventh century – 1126) who writes about his hedonistic pursuits of sensuality, and Sa’dī of Shiraz (1184 – 1291), who discusses his love for young males in both spiritual and graphically sexual terms. This same approach is adopted by Hāfiz (1319 – 1390), interplaying mysticism with physical beauty to create a divine union. Much like Abū Nuwās, Hāfiz talks of being intoxicated with both wine and love. The most celebrated of al poets however, is Jalāl ad-Din Rūmī (1207 – 1273) who writes passionately about the wandering dervish Shams of Tarbiz. According to the American scholar Keith Hales the two were barely separated, deeply in love, and often would retreat for months at a time together in to sexual bliss.

In Islamic art, references to homosexuality are exceptionally rare, especially as in Orthodox Islam depictions of humans are forbidden. Depictions of lesbian lovers are even rarer. Some periods of miniature painting saw homoerotic imagery appear, particularly in Persia under the Safavid dynasty (1502 – 1722) and in Turkey between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two painters from the court of Shah Abbas the Great (1588 – 1629) were Riza-I Abbas and Mohammed Qāsīm Mussavir who used explicit homosexual imagery, and in nineteenth century Turkey Nevi Zade Atai’s paintings contained highly explicit imagery of penetration. However on the whole homosexuality in Islamic art is historically limited to young males in salacious poses, bodies entwined and with longing gazes. An example of this is a ceramic commissioned by Shah Abbas for his pleasure palace in Isfahan in 1590, depicting four males sat by a river in a garden gazing upon one another whilst drinking wine. A hint of sexual relations comes from the gentle touching of one of the characters neck by his counterpart. The four figures reflect the concept of paradise as lyricised by Abū Nuwās; “flowing water, gardens, wine and the face of the beloved”.

With the spread of the bourgeois throughout eighteenth century Europe, a cultural shift happened in the Arab empire that saw an increase in artistic censorship (especially forbidding human representation). Women were obliged to wear veils and homosexuality was scorned. In the nineteenth century the hypocrisy of the British Victorian classes caused homophobia to spread throughout the Ottoman empire, and as social tensions climaxed, sexuality became a much less free affair. Stiffening religious institutions, high unemployment and illiteracy and ingrained ideas propagated the issue throughout the decades.

Of course the situation differs historically state to state as Islam is a body composed of many member nations; despite being glued by religion, these states do not share a common political, economic or social structure. Cultural outlooks differ widely not only between countries, but also provinces, towns and down to individuals. However, homosexuality is officially outlawed in every country in the Islamic world and it remains a taboo that is either silenced or denied to exist. Sodomy is explicitly forbidden on all sides; by the Qur’an, the hadith, the sunna (the rules for correct behaviour), the fiqh (jurisprudence) and the sharī’a (the law). To the modern Arab mind, sexuality is a perversion of man and union, and sexuality can only be understood through strict social and religious regulations that set out to control desire. Modern Islamic culture is also masculinist and hierarchical, with the two sexes living in different worlds that only combine in prescribed cases. All beings are classed as either “men”, or “subject to man”; including women, concubines, slaves and even infidels.

Yet, the strict control of homosexuality in modern Islamic cultures paradoxically causes it to take its own form. The degree of secrecy necessary can cause heightened body expression and language – fleeting glances and an intensified desire cause homosexuality to attain an underground cult status with its own visual clues and cues. Unlike the West’s brazen sexuality, it becomes a sophisticated mechanism of homoeroticism and a creative visual iconography is established. In art, film, music, literature and theatre, homoeroticism has developed its own techniques of suggestion.

The oppression of non-heterosexual relationships in recent decades signals a shift in liberalist Islam. Apart from in Iraq, Egypt and Turkey, homosexuality is punishable with imprisonment and even death. As a result of this in the last century, non-heterosexuality has rarely been examined within Islamic cultures from the inside, but rather by Arabs in Europe, or Europeans. Since the eighteenth century publication of Thousand and One Nights by Antoine Galland, the West has had an erotic fascination with “Orientalism” (the predominantly Islamic cultures encompassing the Middle East and North Africa). Its foreign, magical and seductive charm drew European aristocrats on grand tours and inspired a Western tradition in the arts for romanticising the intoxicatingly diverse sexuality of the East. Yet this was a European invention and not the reality, sometimes constructed to enhance the allure of the East for one’s financial gains. In the twentieth century with the advent of photography, a global press and air travel, the vogue for Orientalism faded as stereotypes crumbled.

In Europe and the USA, Muslims have in the last few decades found the freedom to love openly, yet have the struggle of creating a new figure – the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender faithful Muslim. The first support network GLAS (Gay and Lesbian Arab Society) was established in the USA in 1988 and the number of groups has steadily grown to fight discrimination both in Arab countries and the rest of the world. Understanding the history of these relationships within Arab cultures is a crucial stepping-stone to tolerance and acceptance and in letting current and future generations know they are not alone.

In recent years, countries such as Egypt are claiming people who partake in non-heterosexual relationships as defaming both Egypt and Islam. The oppression of sexuality is a way of reinforcing power and control whilst perhaps also a tool to distract from other economic and social conflicts. Yet in the internet age it is increasingly hard to silence repressed voices, and with every new story of the persecution of people for their choices in love (such as within Islamic State controlled territory where suspected homosexuals are regularly tortured and killed) the uproar gains further momentum. Contemporary fundamentalism’s denial of non-heterosexuality is becoming increasingly hard to swallow, and a chasm in the Islamic world seems to be widening between the sacred and profane, where in order for people to love freely they cannot continue to practise their faith. The tensions between East and West will continue until a peaceful cohabitation of the two, albeit antipodean civilisations is realised. It remains to be seen if future generations will be drawn in to conflict on these issues, or if with a bit of luck and lots of work, the chasm will be dammed with the words of free love and bridged with the unbreakable rope.

The Unbreakable Rope – An Exploration of Sexuality in Islam will be on display at Free Word Centre 10 March-8 June 2016. For more information, please click hereYou can also visit the exhibition website directly by clicking here: www.unbreakablerope.com.

This blog post is part of Free Word’s series, Unravelling Europe. Against a backdrop of increasing fragmentation fuelled by anxiety and fear, the conditions and values that underpin our open, democratic societies are under threat. Putting artists at the heart of the discussion, alongside thinkers and speakers from other disciplines, Unravelling Europe sets out to ask: why is this so, what are the consequences and how might we act to counter them?

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