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Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800

By Khaled El-Rouayheb

Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press,  2005. 210pp. ISBN: 0-226-72988-5

Reviewed by Edward J. Tejirian, Ph.D.

Khaled El-Rouayheb succinctly states the primary thesis of his book on the first page of the Introduction: that Arab-Islamic culture prior to1800 lacked the concept of “homosexuality” as it exists today in the modern—or post-modern—West. That said, I don’t think that it is at all certain that there is agreement on just what  “homosexuality” today is, or if  it is a unitary concept at all. However, what is certain is that male to male erotic feeling and male to male sexuality has taken different forms at different times and in different places. The inference that can be drawn from this is that the potential for erotic attraction  as well as actual sexual engagement between  males is a normal aspect of male psychology. Whether this potential will be realized is dependent on 1) individual life experience and 2) the possibilities afforded by culture for its expression or suppression.

Why one culture permits or even idealizes a certain form of sexual expression while another disapproves or prohibits it is still not well understood. This paradox is seen in the particular aspect of male to male sexual feeling that is the major focus of this book: the attraction of the adult male towards the teenage boy in the pre-modern Islamic world.  Such attraction was not only accepted as  normal, but was also idealized, and as such was a widely prevalent theme  in poetry and literature. In focusing on adult men’s admiration and love for adolescent boys, pre-modern Islamic culture resembled that of the Athens of Plato’s time. In both cultural traditions, the growth of the beard meant  the transition into manhood and the end of the erotic relationship. However, El-Rouayheb  points out that the beginning of the down  that appeared on a boy’s cheeks was also an aspect of his erotic appeal for many men. In practice, age twenty marked the end of this idyllic period. However, the peak of a youth’s attractiveness for many men would have been about age 15.

It is supremely ironic, then, that in contemporary America, the idealized subject of countless poems of passion, delicacy, and refinement of the pre-modern Islamic period would be seen as expressions of a reprehensible—if not pathological—pedophilia. Analogously, a pattern that might be seen as an ideal in American gay relationships—one between partners of roughly the same age, without clear-cut distinctions between “active” and “passive” roles—would not have been seen as either common or desirable in pre-modern Islamic society.

As Dover tells it in his analysis of same-sex love in classical Athens, it was felt that a man who loved a boy had an obligation to also take on the role of mentor and moral guide. With love there went responsibility, according to the Greek pederastic ideal (Dover, 1978). It is not clear that such an injunction was stated as such in pre-modern Islamic culture, but a man was expected to behave honorably toward the youthful object of his affections. Indeed, it was understood, and to some extent seen as virtue, that the relationship between a man and the boy he loved might even remain chaste.

In our own cultural setting, there are situations where an adult man’s affection for a boy other than his son is seen as legitimate and beneficial—but for this to be so, it is crucial that the adult not introduce an erotic element into the relationship. Both in the case of the Greeks and the pre-modern Arab world, we have very little from the boys who were the objects of desire, even though surely some of the men who courted youths must themselves have been courted when they were young. But in both Greek and Arab culture, it was not thought that an erotic relationship—whether in feeling or in actual fact—was  in and of itself harmful to the well-being of the boy. In contemporary American culture, on the other hand, it is emphatically thought to be so. In thinking about this paradox, I can offer one possible—though not necessarily complete explanation: with no culturally legitimate pattern for relationships between adult men and adolescent boys, those men who do engage adolescents are likely to be temperamentally lacking in the necessary sense of responsibility for the consequences of their actions and in respect for the welfare of the boys whom they engage in sexual relationships. And with no cultural legitimacy for these relationships, the young person himself is likely to feel a sense of guilt and shame for acceding to it. Added to these problems is that, as the boy grows too old to be sexually desirable to the adult, he is likely to abandoned, with a consequent sense of betrayal. I think this is the sequence of events that we have been seeing in the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church.

It is commonplace today to say that Islam, as a religion, disapproves of “homosexuality.” In fact, the author points out that it was only in the early part of the 20th century that Western attitudes toward same-sex love began to be internalized by the intellectual classes in the Middle East. Thus, even the works of famous poets might be expurgated to eliminate references to male to male erotic feeling. Yet, oddly, as gay movements have claimed their rights and been acknowledged in the West, attitudes enunciated in the Middle East often remain tied to the Victorian attitudes of an earlier era. Adding to negative attitudes are the interpretations put forth by the recently prominent “strict” schools of Islamic law which, though they might purport to be a return to the “true” Islam of an earlier period, are in fact radical departures from the more broadly expansive tolerance characteristic of the traditional schools of Islamic law.

El-Rouayheb does not comment on the realities of male to male sex in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa. And, in fact, there is no reason to think that practices are uniform across so many different countries, nor for that matter, that the old patterns have entirely disappeared A few years ago there was an article in the New York Times that told of a tough Afghan Mujahadeen fighter who spoke wistfully of a vision of paradise that included beautiful boys, which were also mentioned, alongside beautiful young women, in pre-modern descriptions of the hereafter.  The article also mentioned that some warlords were known to maintain an erotic relationship with a favorite youth, very much in the pre-modern style.

Displays of physical affection between men are common in the Middle East. In my travels in Syria and Jordan about ten years ago, it was utterly commonplace to see men, especially young men, walking arm in arm and holding hands in the streets. In a trip to Tunisia a few weeks before this writing, I noticed a young, uniformed Tunisian policeman kiss his comrade in greeting on a crowded sidewalk. What happens in private is, of course, another matter. An in-depth survey of male sexual behavior in the Middle East would undoubtedly be as revelatory as the Kinsey studies were in this country.  Nevertheless, the “official” attitude towards male to male sexuality can be repressive. Recently, Iran has seen executions of young men for having sex with each other. A few years ago, the Mubarak regime in Egypt tried a group of men on what were probably trumped-up charges of “homosexuality.” And currently, it appears that Brokeback Mountain will not be shown in the United Arab Emirates because of official sensibilities.

On the same Tunisian trip, I had occasion to speak with a highly educated, well-traveled man in his mid-thirties who was manager of a high-end resort hotel on the Mediterranean coast. In discussing American cities, he said that he liked San Francisco very much but was shocked at the number of gays there. Surely, I remarked, there were gays in Tunisia too. Yes, he acknowledged, but they kept a low profile because “Islamic culture” did not approve of homosexuality.  Of course, I said, the culture had changed and mentioned the 11th century Persian prince who advised his son against rejecting either male or female lovers, recommending women for the winter and youths for the summer (Levy, 1951). Far from being “shocked,” my Tunisian acquaintance laughed, exclaiming, “And in the spring, 50-50!” My inference was that the advice of the pre-modern Persian prince struck a not entirely unfamiliar chord in the consciousness of this urbane, post-modern Tunisian man.

References

Dover, K.J. (1978) Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Levy, Reuben (1951, trans.) A Mirror for Princes. The Qabus Nama of Ibn Iskandar. New York: Dutton.