Homoeroticism, Blasphemy, and Classical Muslim Society

The following stray thoughts on Islamicate homo-eroticism were penned by Irfan Muzammil on Twitter and I am posting them here for the sake of generating more discussion. My own “off the top of my head” comments are at the end in Italics.

A thread on homoeroticism, blasphemy, and classical Muslim society
By Irfan Muzammil 

In my class on Arabic literature today, we read an anecdote about one of the earliest and greatest of Arab poets, Abu Nuwas. Abu Nuwas lived during the height of Islamic civilization in the early Abbasid period, and rose to such esteem that he taught the sons of caliph Harun al-Rasheed. One of those sons al-Amin became the next caliph and Abu Nawas’ greatest patron. What’s most interesting is that his poetry is filled with eroticism of both homo and hetero kind, and with love for wine and for young boys. The anecdote we read was written by Abu Faraj, who was himself one of the descendants of Umayyad caliphs, and wrote one of the classics of Arab literature, Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs), a 20 volume collection of anecdotes on Arabs poets, singers, and musicians.

One of his anecdotes on Abu Nuwas, which we read in class, is about Abu Nuwas seducing a young boy but the conversation between Abu Nuwas and the boy is entirely in Quranic verses. I was frankly shocked, and told my professor that I’d be killed or jailed for even  posting this, much less writing it out in a book or teaching it in a class. But according to the professor, who is an Arab himself and an expert in Arabic and Islamic studies, this anecdote has often been quoted even in religious texts as a great example of Arab literature.  And it was only in 2001 that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture burned 6000 copies of Abu Nuwas’ books. The amount of homo-eroticism in both classical Persian and Arabic poetry is just staggering.

By the way, yesterday in my class on early Islamicate societies, we saw the naked women painted on the palaces of Umayyad caliphs. I wonder if the classical Muslim civilization was far more liberal than the modern one -unless you were a slave, or a non-elite woman, or a young boy or girl. But it does trash all those silly theories of Iqbal and Sayyid Qutb etc. about the downfall of Muslim civilization because of its moral lassitude. We were far more liberal, at least in terms of sexual mores and wine drinking, when we were at our mightiest, and our downfall began as our society became more severe and intolerant.

(I would be cautious about interpreting this in terms of liberal (then) vs intolerant (now). Times were different all round. And the elites frequently lived lives that did not concern themselves with the moral standards regarded as ideal for commoners or spouted by priests and theologians. Augustus promoted strict Roman virtue without feeling too closely bound by its strictures in his own private life. The Catholic church had a slew of libertine popes without any discernible change in the morality the church was trying to teach their followers. Every Ummayad caliph except Umar Bin Abdul Aziz was supposedly an alcoholic. As were most of the Delhi Sultans and Mughal Kings, but the religious texts in their times all had the same prohibitions they have today. And last but not the least, classical Islam developed within the womb of the Arab empire, it was not present fully formed when that empire rose to power. There is much more interesting stuff to be said about this, but perhaps another day.. meanwhile, I expect commentators will add value)

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

22 thoughts on “Homoeroticism, Blasphemy, and Classical Muslim Society”

  1. Mehmood of Ghazni and Ayaz were supposedly lovers. Mehmood gifted Ayaz the throne of Lahore.

    There has always been homoeroticism in Islamicate societies. Mir Taqi Mir has a famous verse about the physician’s boy (attar kay launday) and how ironic it is that one goes to get medicine from the one who is the cause of the disease. There are many verses in ghazals that refer to “khat-e-rukhsar” or the downing of the beard on the boy’s cheeks, indicating that he will soon no longer be an object of desire.

    Sodomy was frowned upon however and the passive partner was stigmatized. Also, all Muslim men are expected to marry and produce children for the faith, whatever else they may be doing on the side.

    Finally,as Foucault noted, the “homosexual” as a distinct type of person was invented in 19th century Europe. Before that people engaged in homosexual behaviors but that didn’t define their entire identities.

    Joseph Massad, a Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, wrote a book called “Desiring Arabs” (2007) which goes into some of these issues.


    1. The PRRI notes: “Most religious groups in the U.S. now support same-sex marriage, including overwhelming majorities of Unitarians (97 percent), Buddhists (80 percent), the religiously unaffiliated (80 percent), Jewish Americans (77 percent), and Hindus (75 percent). Roughly two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67 percent), white Catholics (66 percent), Orthodox Christians (66 percent), and Hispanic Catholics (65 percent) also favor same-sex marriage.

      “A slim majority of Muslims (51 percent) favour same-sex marriage, but only 34 percent are opposed; 15 percent offer no opinion on this issue.”


      1. That is quite interesting. Quranically, marriage can only be between a man and (up to 4) women.

        So in supporting same sex marriage these Muslim Americans are acting more as Americans than as Muslims.

        But I guess if you want to live in a place where Islamic law applies you can always go live there. People come to the US for a reason.

        1. Standard answer to above

          What is the definition of the word Marriage
          a) Marriage as in a covenant with “God”
          b) Marriage as in a “legal” secular union, recognized by the state.

          The basic issue stems from trying to equate a=b

          “legal” unions are recognized and the word marriage is avoided I think much of blowback can be avoided.

          There is no religion sanctioned marriage/civil union in Buddhism.
          No Buddhist priest is welcome or to be seen in a “marriage ceremony”.

          That said if “civil unions” of the same sex are approved in SL, I am sure the Buddhist hierarchy will be up in arms saying its contrary to “Buddhist/Sri Lankan” culture. Of course ignoring that Buddhist Priest have been busy bonking novice priests (ordained as young as 8 years old). No different from Catholic priests. Hindus are welcome to comments on the moral of Hindu priests.

    2. Finally,as Foucault noted, the “homosexual” as a distinct type of person was invented in 19th century Europe. Before that people engaged in homosexual behaviors but that didn’t define their entire identities.

      obviously, there’s some truth in what he’s saying, homosexual behavior was (and is) much more common than homosexual identity, and a ‘queer community’ may or may not have existed. but some people in antiquity are clearly described as being notably obligate homosexual, often to the contempt and opprobrium of observers at the time (eg Elagabalus is described like this, which even if inaccurate and scurrilous point to the existence of a subculture of what is hard to deny are ‘gay’ men).

      i think the big difference today in many societies is that homosexual activity, which was semi-tolerated is conflated with exclusive homosexual orientation, which was not.

      though even today homosexual activity is tolerated even in conservative muslim contexts. some defectors from ISIS have talked about fighters having sex with each other as one reason they were disillusioned.

      1. Yes, Foucault’s entire point is that orientation (I think we are supposed to say “identity” now) is different from behavior. This is why it makes no sense to ask if Shakespeare (or the speaker in the sonnets) is gay, even though the text clearly refers to “the master-mistress of my passion”. The terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” were first evidenced in the 19th century.

        Islamic societies are extremely hypocritical. As long as you have a wife and a few kids for the sake of your public reputation, you can do whatever you like in your private life. Don’t ask don’t tell seems to be in operation.

        Men do have sex with each other in situations where women aren’t available. It’s called “situational homosexuality”. I don’t know if that applies to the ISIS fighters, but they have so many other issues this seems to be fairly low on the list of things that we should worry about regarding them.

        1. i have gay male friends who go on sex tourism trips to the middle east. the reason is it’s a part of the world where it is very easy to find willing straight male sex partners (some gay men have a fetish for straight men). since people are delaying marriage and premarital sex is taboo and frowned upon, men have sex with men, and in many situations it is preferred that they have sex with a foreigner (eg filipinos in saudi arabia) or find an obligate homosexual as a passive partner.

          in american culture it’s not that hard if you are a straight male to find willing female sex partners. so many of us never have homosexual encounters whereas in the past some might because it was ‘part of growing up’ (like in british ‘public schools’).

          1. Sex tourism is gross whether it is engaged in by “gay” or “straight” people (creepy old men in Thailand, looking at you). But yes, the Arab understanding of sexuality is different from that of Westerners. A lot of stuff happens in hammams. “Desiring Arabs” by Professor Massad (mentioned above) talks about these issues. And even E.M. Forster went to Egypt where he found an Arab lover. This kind of “tourism” has been going on for ages. On the other hand, if you actually want a mutually satisfying romantic relationship, the Middle East is not the best place for that.

            British boarding schools and prisons are the big examples anthropologists use for “situational homosexuality”.

            When I was in high school in the US, it was basically assumed that if you were not actively dating girls you were either a “loser” or gay. The fact that your parents would murder you if you so much as thought about dating while living under their roof didn’t seem to register with my peers. I remember once trying to talk about my sexuality with my parents and them basically saying “we’ll revisit this when you’re 25”. Not the best answer to give a 15 year old….

  2. I was more interested in the question of blasphemy here. It does seem that blasphemy was not that big an issue in the first 3 or 4 centuries of Islam unlike the modern era. About homosexuality, I think the issue is more multilayered. There’s no single prism, either of class or of premodern/modern temporality that fits. Homosexuality was strictly banned in Zoroastrianism and Judaism (probably influenced by Zoroastrians). But it was openly embraced by the Greeks. In Papua New Guinea, young boys had to drink older men’s semen as a symbol of entering adulthood, though sex among adult men was looked down upon. We had Ibn Akhtam in 9th century Baghdad who was openly bisexual and came to be the head jurist of Islam in Abbasid caliphate, and was respected for his scholarship by someone as fanatical as Ibn Hanbal. Even in modern South Asia there’s a whole subset of hijras and boys/guys who offer their services, often through Sufi shrines, to other homosexuals. I remember once watching a Suzuki FX filled with 10 or 12 young boys in my middle class neighborhood in Karachi, and one of the boys brought a heavily coiffured Hijra to go with them -to probably a dingy apartment. I felt terrible for that guy. I know gay guys among the most elite Pakistanis who committed suicide, and a few who were forced to marry women. Going back to Baghdad, what most of us don’t realize is that even by 9th and 10th century, almost 40% to 50% of it was non-Muslim. So, it was sort of like modern Beirut. There is this interesting passage by a 10th century scholar about how Baghdad is the safest place for the caliph because there are so many different sects here that not one can dominate and turn into a danger for him. Probably the best mirror of classical Islamic society is its poetry -written but often performed in the markets. They were the superstars of the time. And even the most esteemed of poets wrote the most obscene and pornographic stuff about breasts, incest, necrophilia, a mother’s drib drab of her urine, etc. -including Prophet Mohammad’s official poet Hassan ibn Thabit.

    1. Sexuality was certainly more fluid in the past, even in the “Islamic” world.

      What you say about hijras or boys/men selling their services isn’t necessarily about homosexuality as such but more about sex work and exploitation. Many of these men who sell their services are straight in their personal lives and have sex with men only to earn a living. In the public health literature they are referred to as MSM (Men who have sex with men) because many of them would not identify as gay given that they have wives and children. Of course, some may be bisexual and are using sex work as an excuse to fulfill that part of their sexuality.

      A distinction must also be made between pederasty and pedophilia. Most of the objects of male desire in the Urdu or Persian tradition are adolescent boys (hence the reference to the down on their cheeks) not children. Pedophilia is just gross and I don’t think even early Islamicate societies were OK with it. But again, “Childhood” and “Adolescence” are relatively modern constructs.

      I don’t really want to say any more on a public forum. You can always contact me offline if you want to discuss this further.

      1. __ “Childhood” and “Adolescence” are relatively modern constructs __

        Haha, the BS people come up with!

        Childhood and Adolescence are modern labels for actual biological stages of humans. They are not “constructs”, any more than pregnancy is a “construct”. These are well-understood stages of biological development with clinical implications.


        Forcing intercourse on any human w/o consent is deeply revolting. The medieval (or ancient) cultures had a moral philosophy (and science and technology and economics) inferior to ours .. and it shows.

        1. What I mean is that in the olden days both boys and girls used to be considered adults at the age of puberty and married off. It was not a weird thing. Romeo and Juliet are both adolescents. Romeo is supposed to be 16 and Juliet is 13. As her suitor Paris says to Lord Capulet “Younger than she are happy mothers made”. Romeo and Juliet clearly consummate their marriage. It is known as the “Consummation scene” in Literature. In the 21st century, we would consider that statutory rape because they are both under 18 and he is 3 years older than her.

          This idea that people in their early twenties are Adolescents and they go to college and “find themselves” is a modern construct. If you are going to die at 35, you get married and start reproducing at 13.

          I do agree with you on consent. Non-consensual sex is Rape. But again, the values of the 21st century don’t apply to the past (presentism is considered a flaw in History). Even today, India is debating whether “marital rape” is a thing or whether being legally married to a woman allows you to have sex on demand.

          1. If there is Grass you can play Ball: If I remember right from “My Secret Life” by Frank Harris,

            Kudos to the Shakespeare quote, I will be using it.

  3. Omar, none of this is surprising to anyone with a deep interest in Persian literature or Arabic literature. What is surprising is that some might find it surprising. For that matter liberal interpretations of Islam have been legion since 632 AD. They still are.

    This is all part of the Islamic Civil War.

    A question to all. Obviously liberal themes have always played a large role in Islam within Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, Hindustan (SAARC) and South East Asia. How large a role did these themes play in other parts of the muslim world (Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the rest of Africa etc?

      1. Yes. But that is several articles in the “Sanathana Dharma” series.

        Male and female isn’t a big different in Sanathana Dharma and switch often between life times. This is the reason most males can experience female-ness and most females can experience male-ness.

        With respect to the specific subset of Mughal culture, Kabir can comment much more informatively than I can–since I haven’t read Mughal literature in a long time and not nearly as much as Kabir has.

        The theme of close relationships male to male and female to female is common in Mughal literature. However in my mind it need not have a physical intimacy component. Men and young boys often have something special. Woman and girls also often have something special [Jahanara and Nadira Banu]. For that matter boys can have something special with their woman mentors and teachers. And girls can have something special for their older male mentors (Fatima toward Mohammed). Often, even usually, the closest soul to soul relationships have no sexual component.

        Bharat has a strong sense of maternal and paternal warmth and family-ness. Often families–including opposite gender siblings–sleep on the same large bed. Its normal and not sexualized for Hindustanis. People feel safe in the physical proximity of family. By the same token when an unrelated man and boy sleep together in the South Asia (which isn’t a big deal if they are family–uncle and nephew for example) it is usually not a physical intimacy thing. Ditto with woman and girls sleeping together. Often females are very affectionate to their saheli friends. They hug and kiss each other but it isn’t sexualized.

        The idea that everything is necessarily sexualized comes from modernist cynical European scholars. It doesn’t come from Freud, but Freud is the modern symbol for it. Even between a husband and wife that are deeply and completely in love, it is only 0.01% lust and 99.99% not lust. The other 99.99% matters a lot. And it is entirely possible to have soul friends and companions that have no lust component. To be clear I am not saying that there is anything wrong for a wife to be physically attracted to her husband–I have never seen any religious text to that effect.

        1. I believe Lord Shiva has a form which is half male and half female. I can’t recall the exact name right now, but I’m sure AnAn knows.

          1. Yes, that is exactly the name I was looking for. That is what I mentioned in my term paper on “The Hijras of India” written many years ago and linked below.

  4. By the way, I wrote this term paper for my Intro to Cultural Anthropology Class at LUMS (this is way back in 2006-2007) on “The Hijras of India”. I had gotten it published somewhere online. That original site is now dead but someone re-blogged it. The link is here:


    It’s not a particularly original paper or anything but keep in mind that I was a 20 year old undergrad when I wrote it.

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