Pederasty in Early Ottoman Arabic Literature

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The poet Figani with a young cupbearer. Ottoman miniature painting from an illustrated volume of a copy of Senses of Poets (مشاعر الشعراء Meşairü'ş-Şuara, 1568) by Aşık Çelebi. Istanbul, Millet Yazma Eser Kütüphanesi, Ali Emiri Collection, TR 772, fol. 534a.

From Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500–1800 by Khaled El-Rouayheb (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

The Arabic literature of the early Ottoman period (1516–1798) is replete with casual and sometimes sympathetic references to homosexual love. Biographical dictionaries, poetic anthologies, and belletristic works on profane love relate, usually without any hint of disapproval, the pederastic love affairs of prominent poets, religious scholars, and political notables. Much if not most of the extant love poetry of the period is pederastic in tone, portraying an adult male poet’s passionate love for a teenage boy. A popular topic amongst poets and belletrists was whether beardless or downy-cheeked youths were more appropriate objects of passionate love. The general picture suggested by such passages is reinforced by European travel accounts of the period. Many travelers were of course silent on the issue, but several noted, usually with astonishment or disgust, that local men openly flaunted their amorous feelings for boys. For example, the Englishman Joseph Pitts, a sailor who was a captured and sold into slavery at Algiers in 1678, to escape fifteen years later, noted:

This horrible sin of Sodomy is so far from being punish’d amongst them, that it is part of their ordinary Discourse to boast of their detestable Actions of that kind. ’Tis common for Men there [Algiers] to fall in Love with Boys, as ’tis here in England to be in Love with Women.

The French traveler C. S. Sonnini, who visited Egypt between 1777 and 1780, made a similar observation:

The passion contrary to nature . . . the inconceivable appetite which dishonored the Greeks and Persians of antiquity, constitute the delight, or, to use a juster term, the infamy of the Egyptians. It is not for the women that their amorous ditties are composed: it is not on them that tender caresses are lavished; far different objects inflame them.

To be sure, such testimony from often bigoted travelers should be treated with caution. However, their claims receive support from the fact that Muslim travelers who “rediscovered Europe” in the first half of the nineteenth century found it noteworthy that the men there did not court or eulogize male youths. For example, the Moroccan scholar Muḥammad al-Ṣaffār, who visited Paris in 1845–46, wrote:

Flirtation, romance, and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men. Rather, that is extremely disgraceful to them.

The Egyptian scholar Rifāʿah al-Ṭahṭāwī, who was in Paris between 1826 and 1831, noted:

Amongst the laudable traits of their character, similar really to those of the Bedouin [ʿarab], is their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in poetry, for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals. One of the positive aspects of their language and poetry is that it does not permit the saying of love poetry of someone of the same sex. Thus, in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth (ghulām), for that would be an unacceptable and awkward wording. Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying in the translation: I loved a young female (ghulāmah) or a person (dhātan).

The surprise expressed by Ṣaffār and Ṭahṭāwī suggests that they came from societies in which “flirtation, romance, and courtship” with boys was quite familiar, as was composing “amorous ditties” for male youths.


Recent general histories of homosexuality find a “disparity” between the proclaimed ideals and actual behavior of some Islamic scholars who, on the one hand, condemned “homosexuality” but, on the other, wrote “strongly homoerotic poetry.”

What Islamic scholars condemned was not “homosexuality” but liwāṭ, that is, anal intercourse between men. Writing a love poem of a male youth would simply not fall under the juridical concept of liwāṭ.

What such examples show is that care should be taken before translating as “homosexual” any Arabic term attested in the texts. The possibility at issue is precisely whether pre-nineteenth-century Arab-Islamic culture lacked the concept of homosexuality altogether, and operated instead with a set of concepts (like ubnah or liwāṭ) each of which pick out some of the acts and actors we might call “homosexual” but which were simply not seen as instances of one overarching phenomenon. In the course of this study I hope to show that this was indeed the case. I argue that distinctions not captured by the concept of “homosexuality” were all-important from the perspective of the culture of the period. One such distinction is that between the “active” and the “passive” partner in a homosexual encounter—these were typically not conceptualized or evaluated in the same way. Another distinction is that between passionate infatuation (ʿishq) and sexual lust—emphasizing this distinction was important for those who would argue for the religious permissibility of the passionate love of boys. A third distinction centers on exactly what sexual acts were involved—Islamic law prescribed severe corporal or capital punishment for anal intercourse between men, but regarded, say, kissing, fondling, or non-anal intercourse as less serious transgressions.


In the “homosocial” world of the early Ottoman Arab East, sexual symbolism was thus never far from the surface. Yet actual sexual intercourse between adult men was clearly perceived as an anomaly, linked either to violence (rape) or disease (ubnah). Homosexual relations in the early Ottoman Arab East were almost always conceived as involving an adult man (who stereotypically would be the “male” partner) and an adolescent boy (the “female”). The latter—referred to in the texts as amrad (beardless boy); ghulām or ṣabī (boy); or fatā, shābb, or ḥadath (male youth)—though biologically male, was not completely a “man” in the social and cultural sense; and his intermediate status was symbolized by the lack of the most visible of male sex characteristics: a beard. The cultural importance of beards and/or moustaches in the early Ottoman Arab East is attested by both the European travel literature and the indigenous literature. The beard or moustache was a symbol of male honor, something one swore by or insulted.


Corollary to the tacit association of coarse facial hair with masculinity was the relative feminization of the teenage boy whose beard was as yet absent or soft and incomplete. This feminization must have been enhanced by the fact that, in the urban centers at least, women’s faces were normally veiled in public.


It is not a straightforward affair to determine the age during which a male youth was considered to be sexually attractive to adult men. The relevant terms, such as amrad or ghulām, tend to be impressionistic and somewhat loosely employed in the sources. For example, the term amrad (beardless boy) could be used to refer to prepubescent, completely smooth-cheeked boys, as opposed to adolescent, downy-cheeked youths, but it could also refer to all youths who did not yet have a fully developed beard, and hence to youths who were as old as twenty or twenty-one. According to a saying attributed to the first Umayyad Caliph Muʿāwiyah (d. 680) and quoted in an eighteenth-century dictionary:

I was beardless for twenty years, fully bearded for twenty years, I plucked gray hairs from it for twenty years, and dyed it for twenty years.

If the upper age limit was physical maturity at around twenty, the lower age limit for the sexual interest of the pederasts seems to have been the recognized transition from childhood to youth, at the age of seven or eight. The weight of the available evidence tends to support the conclusion that the pederasts’ lust tended to be directed at boys whose age fell within this interval, and that the boy’s attractiveness was usually supposed to peak around halfway through, at fourteen or fifteen. The Egyptian Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī, writing in the late seventeenth century, opined that a boy’s attractiveness peaks at fifteen, declines after the age of eighteen, and disappears fully at twenty, by which time he will be fully hirsute: “So infatuation and passionate love is properly directed only at those of lithesome figure and sweet smile from those who are in their tens (awlād al-ʿashr).” Similarly, an anonymous poem cited by the Damascene chronicler Ibn Kannān al-Ṣāliḥī (d. 1740) on the natural ages of man associated the “son of ten” (ibn al-ʿashr—presumably in the sense of “in his tens” rather than “exactly ten years old”) with incomparable beauty, the “son of twenty” with the heedless pursuit of pleasure, the “son of thirty” with the apogee of strength, etc. In love poetry and rhymed prose, the age of the beloved was often said to be fourteen, probably a standard rhetorical device engendered by the conventional comparison of the face of the beloved with the moon, which reaches its apogee around the fourteenth of each month of the Muslim lunar calendar. However, there is independent evidence from European travel accounts that catamites were “likely of twelve, or fourteene years old, some of them not above nine, or ten.” Much depended, however, on the eye of the beholder as well as the individual rate of maturation. As will be seen in the next chapter, the comparison of the respective charms of beardless and downy-cheeked youths was a conventional topic in the belles-lettres of the period. Many poets expressed the opinion that a boy ceased to be attractive already at the appearance of beard-down (ʿidhār) on his cheeks, which would imply a somewhat lower upper age limit. The Damascene scholar and biographer Muḥammad Khalīl al-Murādī (d. 1791) seems to have had enough beard-down by the age of fourteen to merit a poem celebrating the occasion. A grandson of ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī was seventeen, and a son of the Iraqi scholar Maḥmūd al-Alūsī eighteen, when they elicited similar poems. The prominent Syrian mystic Muḥammad ibn ʿIrāq (d. 1526) veiled his son ʿAlī between the age of eight and sixteen, “to keep people from being enchanted by him,” suggesting that by the latter age his features were deemed by the father to be developed enough to make him unattractive to other men. On the other hand, the chronicler Ibn Ayyūb al-Anṣārī recorded the death of a seventeen-year-old Damascene youth who left behind a host of lamenting male admirers. The Iraqi poet Qāṣim al-Rāmī (d. 1772/3) traced in verse the development of a boy from the age of ten, when he “became settled in the sanctuary of beauty,” to the age of sixteen, when he (disreputably) started to pluck the hairs from his cheeks. Plucking beard-down from the face seems to have signaled, in a too direct and indiscreet manner, that the boy actually enjoyed being coveted by men, and was in no hurry to become a bearded adult. To that extent, it was associated with the behavior of boy prostitutes or effeminate males. The above-mentioned Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī thus stated that the term natīf (literally “plucked”) was used of the beardless boy who, “if his beard starts to grow, and he enjoys being effeminate (al-khināth) or—God forbid—he has ubnah, will constantly shave his beard and beautify himself for the libertine (fāsiq) . . . for souls incline toward the beardless boy as long as his cheeks are clear.”

Interestingly, an adolescent youth was himself expected to be sexually attracted to women and it seems to have been a common ploy of those desirous of a youth to adopt a woman as bait. It is also possible that adolescent youths themselves regularly courted younger, prepubescent boys. “Serial” relationships (al-ʿishq al-musalsal), in which the beloved of one man is himself the lover of a woman or boy, are not unknown to the Arabic lore on profane love. According to a couplet by the Damascene Ibrāhīm al-Suʾālātī (d. 1684):

The beloved has fallen in love with a gazelle like himself, and is afflicted by
amorous rapture.
He was a beloved and is now a lover, and thus love has passed its judgment
[both] for and against him.


The homosexuality represented in the texts of the early Ottoman period was, on the whole, of the pederastic, “transgenerational” or “age-structured” type well known from classical Greece and Rome. It is not that this was the only type that was thought to exist; nor was it the only type that was acceptable—it was not acceptable to many—but it was the type that was conceived as being usual. Even those religious scholars who inveighed the most strongly against sodomy and its antecedents warned against gazing at boys, against being alone with a boy in a private place, against composing love poetry of boys, and so on. That an adult man who was not a maʾbūn or mukhannath should actually prefer fully developed adult men to teenage boys is an idea that seems not to have been seriously entertained.

Rather than desiring and having intercourse with each other, pederasts competed and sometimes fought amongst themselves for boys. The Damascene poet Darwīsh al-Ṭālawī (d. 1606) alluded in verse to one such conflict between a chief judge of Damascus and a footman (çuhadār), and was himself deprived of a young, handsome slave whom he loved by the Druze Emir of Mt. Lebanon, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Mʿanī (d. 1635), while passing through the city of Sidon. The above-mentioned Muṣṭafā ʿAlī, in his description of Egypt in 1599, noted that the cavalrymen there often quarreled amongst themselves, usually about boys or horses—this in contrast to soldiers in the Turkish regions of the Empire, among whom he claimed “nobody covets another person’s possessions or horse or boy.”

In the modern West, sexual relations between men tend to be perceived as essentially relations between two persons of the same gender who, because of a psychological orientation or the unavailability of members of the opposite sex, have intercourse with one another. Such liaisons are therefore thought to be especially common in all-male environments: the military, boarding schools, saunas, monasteries, prisons, etc. In the early Ottoman Arab East, liwāṭ was usually thought to involve a man and a boy, and it thus tended to be associated, at least in the popular imagination, with social contexts in which the mixing of generations was especially marked. This is not to say that liwāṭ was, or was believed to be, confined to such contexts. The generations were not segregated in the way the genders were, and the opportunities for pederastic courtship were correspondingly diffuse. However, it seems clear that certain social environments were thought to be especially suspect (or promising) precisely to the extent that, in them, the mixing of men and boys was particularly intense, or could occur hidden from the public eye. This applies first and foremost to the following realms: education; mystic orders; slavery and servitude; coffeehouses and public baths.

Illustration depicting a kulampara (lover of boys). An effendi (master) caresses the face of an içoğlanı (boy servant).

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