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

Archives of Sexual Behavior

Wozniak, Steven
Publication LanguageEng
Short TitleBefore Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World
Original PublicationArchives of Sexual Behavior

Book Review

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

By Khaled El-Rouayheb. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, 210 pp., $32.50

Steven Wozniak

South of Market Mental Health Services, 760 Harrison Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, USA
Contact Information     Steven Wozniak
Published online: 19 October 2010

This short book is an exploration of same-sex sexual and cultural practices in some Arabic-speaking parts of the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries. El-Rouayheb uses multiple sources, including poetry, biographical texts, travel journals of both European and Imperial authors, and religious and legal interpretations of the Koran and Sharia law. Much of the primary source material has been translated from manuscripts by the author himself. One consequence of the source material is that it tends to be written by and about an urban elite of educated and generally influential men, thus limiting the generalizability of the findings. From the outset of the book, El-Rouayheb contends that the modern concept of “homosexuality” did not exist during the period under review. Yet, he finds that much earlier scholarly work evaluating same-sex desire/behavior fails to recognize this simple fact. As a result, it leads to confusion and seeming paradoxes (e.g., the Koran appears to ban “homosexuality,” yet the culture of the time appears to celebrate it quite openly, at least among a literate elite). By presenting a more nuanced view of the expressions of same-sex desire, El-Rouayheb aims to remedy this perplexity. In this modest goal, he is largely successful.

The book begins with a brief review of what the author calls the essentialist versus the constructionist views of homosexuality. The basic idea of the former is that the way in which sexuality is expressed and understood does not vary from culture to culture or from time period to time period. This is in contrast to the latter perspective, which finds that each culture and time period develops or constructs its own forms of sexuality. These may overlap with the forms of other cultures but, nevertheless, are determined uniquely by each one. Though stating “adjudication of the dispute between constructionists and essentialists should of course be based on a careful investigation of the historical evidence” (p. 6), it is clear that El-Rouayheb is a proponent of the constructionist viewpoint.

Much of the argument that unfolds throughout the book derives from English interpretations (and misinterpretations) of various Arabic words. The modern term homosexuality tends to be a somewhat blurry word that fails to capture many of the distinctions that significantly shaped the understanding of same-sex behavior in the pre-modern Middle East. One of the main ones relates to the role of each individual man in anal intercourse. Men who enjoyed being in the so-called passive role were commonly called ma’bun. They were thought to suffer from a medical illness (ubnah) for which physicians might recommend various treatments. This is in contrast to those men in the so-called active role, called luti, who are simply performing a specific behavior, liwat (p. 20). This latter group did not suffer from a medical illness and the sexual activity itself may or may not have been related to some pattern of behavior that a 21st century person might think of as homosexuality.

Further distinctions can be made based upon the reason that a man might choose to penetrate another sexually. Though the vast majority of examples provided have to do with passionate or romantic causes, sexual humiliation of another threatening male is suggested as an alternative. In the case described in the text, an outsider male is essentially gang-raped by a group of men after he threatened to sexually assault their wives. Instead of being punished or pathologized, these men were depicted as the saviors of their village.

The age of the two men involved in the sexual act seems to have been of great significance. For reasons that are not made completely clear, most of the literature discussed here involves adult men, generally thought of in the active role, with adolescent boys, usually thought of in the passive role. This may be due to the strict gender segregation practiced in these places and the idea that an adolescent is “not completely a ‘man’ in the social and cultural sense” (pp. 25–26). Therefore, luti might more accurately be translated as “pederast” (p. 18). The majority of the book is an exploration of this type of relationship, always from the point of view of adult male admirers of adolescent boys as well as commentaries by these men’s detractors. El-Rouayheb discusses love poetry extensively. It tends to idealize and romanticize these pederastic relationships. The poetry moves away from the language of luti, liwat, and ma’bun to metaphorically describe, for example, adolescents as “gazelles” and to offer heart-wrenching, passionate expositions of the development of “idhar," the first down of facial hair on the beloved’s cheek” (pp. 62–63). A dreamy and, perhaps surprisingly, considering the content, charming image of this “love” emerges. With that, though, comes a certain tension. Presumably, these adolescent boys are not actually ma’bun themselves. So, ultimately, this passionate desire has no hope for fulfillment or perhaps can only be consummated by force or deception. Moreover, El-Rouayheb shows that a lot of debate existed at the time among the admirers of adolescents and their critics about the appropriateness and legality of this interest.

This leads to the final sections of the book, in which the various legal/religious traditions about liwat are analyzed. Though generally illegal with very strict penalties (often various types of execution), it seems that, in practice, these cases rarely went to trial. To go forward, four witnesses were required. Yet, there seems to have been a lot of social pressure not to witness for this kind of case. Lastly, leniency seems to have been practiced by the jurists. Religious arguments hinged on the question of whether or not beauty, in this case, the beauty of the adolescent male, had some relevance for the contemplation of God.

There is a short conclusion, which primarily summarizes the events and cultural changes occurring after the period covered by the book. El-Rouayheb argues that with the spread of Western ideas and values in the 19th and 20th centuries, the constructions of same-sex desire gradually changed to the point that they essentially mirrored the Western idea of homosexuality.

The book is well written, rich in detail, elegantly produced, but ultimately only descriptive in nature. There were several missed opportunities to introduce and explore ideas from feminist and queer theory perspectives. Though the author refers to Foucault, unlike his work on sexuality in the West, El-Rouayheb never quite places this cultural thread of same-sex desire/behavior into the larger context of pre-modern Ottoman social, political, and power structures. Moreover, the author’s somewhat myopic view of male-male relationships appears to subvert his stated assumption that homosexuality did not exist for these men. The book offers no significant discussion of relationships with women or even with other adult men for that matter. A more far-reaching analysis of these men’s private and public sexual lives seems to be required to develop a more complete picture. Perhaps El-Rouayheb has a sequel in mind? I look forward to it enthusiastically.