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)