The title of this article is inspired by the book al-‘Ulama al-‘Uzzab (the unmarried scholars) by ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah. I will start with a few examples of homosexual ulama (Muslim clerics) and bring up a theoretical discussion later on. I believe it is necessary to expose the theoretical aspects hence we can see how problematic the concept of “homosexuality” is as a modern construct that ignores the diversity of sexuality, even the diversity of sex itself and same-sex love.
Although the Qur’an and, especially, the books of fiqh strictly forbid same-sex relationships, there is indeed a discrepancy between the theory and reality of the matter. My argument is in line with several studies that have been done previously by many scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike. One of them is that of Khaled El-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 (2005).
The words “before homosexuality” is important to highlight because it illustrates that there was a different portrait of signification before homosexuality was finally being essentialized since the 19th century onwards with monolithic meaning.
It is somehow unfortunate that many excellent studies about conceptual problems of “homosexuality” focus only on the Arab-Islamic world during the Ottoman period. See, for example, the following works: Mehmet Kalpakli and Walter Andrews, Love and Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society (2005); Dror Ze’evi, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 (2006).
I what follows, I will begin our discussion with some examples of ulama who were accused, described, and known as homosexuals and/or engaged in same-sex love before the Ottoman period as investigated by the scholars above.
The Story of Homosexual “Ulama”
I put the word “ulama” with a quotation mark because some of you might not consider the names I mention below as ulama as it is generally understood. Therefore, I will use the word “ulama” in its generic sense as Muslims who are knowledgeable and recognized in their age to have certain honorable positions.
I will start with Ibn Bajjah (d. 1138), one of the leading Muslim philosopher from Andalusia, known in Europe as Avempace. He was a brilliant commentator on the works of Aristotle and his mastery of such various disciplines as medicine, astronomy, mathematics is widely acknowledged.
The anthologist Ibn Khaqan identified Ibn Bajjah as a homosexual. Ibn Khaqan, the author of al-Iqyan Qala’id Mahasin wa al-A’yan, with a cynical tone described how Ibn Bajjah was infatuated with a black slave. Interestingly, Ibn Khaqan himself is often recognized as a homosexual, too.
This article is not intended to prove whether or not Ibn Khaqan’s allegation is true. As a matter of fact, it was extremely rare for those ulama to openly admit if they were gays, like Abu Nuwas whose poems are often recited in the mosque. Abu Nuwas’ homosexuality is not only exposed from the testimony of many people but he himself admitted it.
It was narrated by Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Jammaz that Abu Nuwas said, “I want something that is not found in this world and the hereafter.”
Jammaz said, “Isn’t that all of what you want is provided in Heaven?”
Abu Nuwas replied, “What I want is a boy who is halal (gulaman halalan)!”
Abu Nuwas’ statement, “tazawwadu min ladzdzatin la tujad fi al-jannah” (enjoy the pleasure which is not there in Heaven), should then be understood as refering to a same-sex relationship.
Romance (and breakup) between Abu Nuwas and Walibah bint Hubab is narrated by their colleagues, such as al-Jammaz and al-Jahiz. The latter is a prominent essayist in the 9th century who also told a story about Abu Sa’id al-Hadithi who slapped a boy that rejected his request to do sexual intercourse in the bathroom (hammam).
When being confronted on his reason of hitting the child, shaykh Hadithi argued that the boy doused him with hot water.
“Then why does your penis erect?”
Hadithi replied, “Of course because of its contact with the hot water!”
Life stories of Muslim gays and lesbians are collected in details by Shihab al-din Ahmad al-Tifashi (d. 1253) in a book titled Nuzhat al-Albab fi-ma la Yujad fi al-Kitab. If translated into Bahasa Indonesia, this book will undoubtedly shock people from all over the archipelago. Tifashi does not hesitate to mention the names of such great Muslim figures as Abu Hatim al-Sijistani, a Sufi known as one of the most wara’ and pious one in his age. It is reported that he completed reading the whole Qur’an every week but “kana mula’an bi al-ghilman” (he liked boys).
Some people may contend that Sijistani like men to help him strengthen his spirituality, and that is none of my business after all!
For the most part in his book, however, Tifashi does not mention the names of the “latah” (homosexuals), including those whom he knew were doing some same-sex romantic activities in the mosque. I hope to review the Nuzhat al-Albab in the near future in more details.
So, What Can We Learn?
While reading the Nuzhat al-Albab, one may ask: Is it true that homosexuality practices are widely tolerated in the Arab-Islamic world in the pre-modern era? If the work of Tifashi does not yet wake you up, then take a look at the super long list of names of Muslim homosexual scientists, intellectuals, and writers which are compiled by Arno Schmitt in his Bio-Bibliography of Male-Male Sexuality in Muslim Societies (1995). The book’s title in Arabic is al-Fihris al-Mubin fi Akhbar Man Dzukira Min Lutiyyin wa al-Ma’abin wa Muhibbi al-Ghilman wa al-Mukhannathin.
I was not so surprised by the length of the list Schmitt composed (the book is over 300 pages and contains only names and their sources). However, I admire his perseverance and patience in tracing all those sources in a variety of languages, including Arabic. Subhanallah! I feel like I am the laziest person on earth.
What happened in the pre-modern era was not caused by sort of moral decline nor poor level of religiosity nor the influence of secularization. Although the Qur’an and books of fiqh advocate negative attitudes toward homosexuality, the Muslim community in general ignored the curse. The Muslim culture of that era treated homosexuality with indifference, if not amazement.
Almost with no exception, works of literature, poetry, and prose of Abu Nuwas and al-Jahiz, including the famous Alf Laylah wa Laylah (1001 Nights), address gays and lesbians and their sexuality with full respect and acceptance. The imagery of homosexual love and eroticism can be found so commonly in the works of great Sufis.
Thus, we need to question: What’s wrong with modernity? Why do humans who live in this modern (or even, post-modern) era tend to view sexuality as something static, fixed, and do not vary over the time and from one culture to another?
In the context of the question above, I see that the term “homosexuality” used in the modern era has failed to picture the variety of distinctions that form prevalent understandings of homosexual behaviors in the pre-modern Arab-Islamic world. A few examples mentioned earlier in this article reflect a huge diversity of forms of homosexuality from merely having a crush on handsome men without beards, spending time together with boys for the sake of spiritual inspiration, to the aesthetic sensitivity and even sexual penetration.
We need to be more attentive to the complexity and multiplicity of the patterns and practices of homosexuality in order to understand the other side of modernity (in this case, “colonialism”) which brought about catastrophic damages to the Arab-Islamic world.
In concluding, I would like to present research findings by two Middle East experts. Mervat Hatem argues, “With the ascension of Abbas to the thrown, public legitimacy and recognition of homosexuality reached its highest point. Hi brutal murder, however,… and the spread of Western cultural influence during the second haft of the nineteenth century all contributed to the eventual social and political decline of homosexuality ” (1986: 270).
“Homosexuality between man and boy,” Gavin Maxwell concludes, “was never considered in any way abnormal or shameful in Morocco until the infiltration of European opinion with the French occupation” (1983: 286).
Who then spread the hatred against homosexuality?
Translated from Bahasa Indonesia Ulama-Ulama Homoseksual
By: Cania Citta Irlanie