Same-Sex Relationships & the Fluidity of Marriage in Islamic History (by Ali A. Olomi)

One scholar’s response to Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj’s “Open Letter to American Muslims on Same Sex Marriage” 
by ALI A. OLOMI for ISLAMiCommentary on JULY 17, 2015:

Since the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th 2015, various religious groups have responded to the ruling. Muslim Americans, who themselves are a minority group in the United States, have struggled to find consensus.
Some have openly condemned the ruling. Others have urged a more hesitant acceptance of the court’s decision. Cognizant of the precarious position of minorities in the United States, Imam Suhaib Webb posted an online message where he encouraged a nuanced perspective that respected the ruling and supported it politically, while acknowledging the theological and ethical dilemmas for conservative Muslims. A group of Afghan American thinkers and activists on The Samovar Network took a more accepting stance when they held an online panel (via a Google hangout) and showed support for the ruling and the LGBTQ community as a whole.
Author, Reza Aslan and comedian, Hasan Minhaj wrote an open letter, published in Religion Dispatches, to Muslim Americans encouraging acceptance and tolerance, reminding Muslims that they too are a minority in the United States and should stand for the rights of their fellow minorities.
People were surprised by the letter and some have attributed the position of the authors to Western influence. Popular representations in America and Europe, tend to depict Muslims as staunchly against same-sex marriage. But I would point out that positions like Reza’s and others like him actually highlight a forgotten part of Islamic history.
Just as in the case of Christianity, the history on same-sex relationships in Islam is far more complex than some would have you believe.
First, we have to acknowledge that though same-sex relationships are timeless and gay people have existed throughout history, according to theorists, like Michel Foucault, homosexuality as an identityemerged alongside heterosexuality in modernity. Indeed, an argument can be made that homophobia itself is a predominantly modern fear tied to anxieties about masculinity within nationalist contexts. The Qur’an itself does not address homosexuality directly, but refers to specific practices.
When it comes to same-sex relationships, Muslims point to the infamous Qur’anic verses on the People of Lot (7:80-84), which some modern scholars — by projecting modern sensibilities on the verse — interpret as being a condemnation of homosexuality. Yet, other scholars point out the context of the verse in the Qisas Al Anbiya, a commentary and history on the lives of the Islamic prophets by Al Kisa’i, that relates the tale of Lot as a condemnation of the corruption festering in the people of Lot, whose bestial carnality led to rape and sodomy; i.e. it’s not a direct condemnation of sodomy.

In fact, the Qur’an actually supports diversity of desires when it states that God created various mates for mankind (30:21). Furthermore, the Qur’an uses homoerotic imagery to describe paradise as full of eternally youthful manservants so attractive that “when you see them, you’d think them as beautiful as scattered pearls.” (52: 24, 76: 19).
We must also consider the Prophet Muhammad’s life and how his wife, Umm Salama, had a gay or interest manservant, Hit. In addition to Hit, there was also Tuways and Al Dalal. These individuals, known as mukhanathum, were counted as companions of Muhammad, or disciples and friends. The mukhanathum even served as guardians of Muhammad’s tomb when he died.
Same-sex relationships and romance existed throughout the history of Islamic civilization from the 7th century on. The famed Persian poet Rumi and the father of Classical Islamic poetry, Abu Nawas, wrote verses extolling the beauty of young men. Indeed, in medieval Abbasid, Ottoman, and Safavid empires, the normative standards of beauty in works of poetry and art revolved around the youthful and desirable appearance of young men.
While women were absolutely praised, the normative standard of beauty focused primarily on a concept of youthfulness that was equated to vitality and desire. In many of the poems like those of Abu Nawas and Rumi and many others, this meant young men, but these young men were attributed with feminine qualities, highlighting the fluid nature of masculinity and femininity.
Caliphs like Al Amin in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate engaged in same-sex relationships, and it is written that the warriors of Abu Muslim, who overthrew the Umayyads, lay with their male pages. While periods of oppression certainly existed and scholars anxiously debated whether acts were permissible or prohibited, on the whole, Islamic civilization tended to be not only tolerant, but accepting of same-sex romances.
Textual evidence for same-sex relationship between women were not as widespread in the Arabic and Islamic literary tradition, but there is still ample evidence of the tolerance and even praise of same-sex relationships between women. For example, in the 10th century, Jawami al-Ladhdha or, Encyclopedia of Pleasure by Abul Hasan Ali, he relates a story of love and romance between two women, Hind bint al Nur’man and Al Zarqa.

Some periods of Islamic history were more accepting than others and we should acknowledge that there was regional variation, but the historical arc was significantly towards toleration. When famed 19th century Moroccan scholar, Muhammad al Saffar traveled to Europe he was surprised to find same-sex courtship repugnant to the Europeans in contrast to its acceptance in the Islamic world. Indeed, that acceptance of same-sex courtship and romance was used by European Christian and orientalist writers as a sign of the supposed moral laxity of the “orient.”
Same-sex relationships between men, for example, were depicted in art, including in these images (now in the public domain): 1) “Shah Abbas and Wine Boy”- 17th Century art by Muhammad Qasim depicting Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas with his lover and wine boy; 2) “Haft Awrang”- The Seven Thrones, an illuminated manuscript by 16th Century Jami. Depicts a male youth with his male suitors; 3) “Aqa Mirak” – 16th Safavid watercolor by Aqa Mirak Tabriz depicting two young princes and lovers (currently located in the Smithsonian) and 4) “Sawaqub”– 19th Century Ottoman depiction in Sawaqub al Manaquib depicting sexual relations between a man and his wine servant.
These cultural and social realities of same-sex relationships in Islam have been made subterranean in historical reflection. People who wish to push a singular interpretation of religion conveniently ignore these parts of Islamic history in favor of narratives hewn from their prejudices. While the historical existence of relationships between couples of the same sex is an irrefutable fact, these narratives are often swept under the rug and the history of tolerance is forgotten in favor of depictions of Islam as a homophobic and aggressive faith.
Aside from this complex history, in Islam the definition of marriage and permissible relationships has evolved—something that historians of marriage in general often point out.
Most modern Muslims practice traditional marriage as one man and one woman for the purpose of family, yet this definition is quite different than what Qur’an depicts.
While accepting of sexual pleasure, marriage in the Qur’an can be polygamous (4:3). Additionally, as in the Bible, men are allowed to retain female concubines, referred to as ma malakat aymankum, or “those your right hand possesses (4:24, 23:5-6).”
Today, marriage is defined in Islam quite differently and most of its orthodoxy does not actively promote concubinage, nor do the majority of Muslims practice polygamy. Throughout its history, the Islamic interpretation of the concept of marriage has evolved and changed and what we call “traditional marriage” is hardly an immutable institution.
Understanding this history is important and was largely unquestioned up until the emergence of the puritanical literalists, the Salafis, on one side, and Islamophobes on the other. Scripture, arguably, does not change, but the believer’s engagement with scripture is constantly evolving according to the historical conditions that they live in.
It is important that we remember the history of tolerance and acceptance in Islam. Reza and others like him aren’t necessarily “Westernized,” but are also looking at the matter by examining Islam’s own history.
By acknowledging that there are other narratives about marriage and same-sex relationships already embedded in their religious traditions, Muslims and others should shake off the notion of a singular and monolithic concept of “traditional marriage” while celebrating the diversity allowed within their religious scriptures.
Ali A. Olomi is a historian, writer, and Ph.D student at the University of California Irvine where he studies the history of the Middle East and Islam, specializing in topics of religion, gender and sexuality, cultural and intellectual history, and politics. In addition to his academic work, he writes articles putting contemporary politics into historical context. He Tweets at @aaolomi.
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ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).
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