Ever since I finished ‘The Book of Saladin’ by Tariq Ali, I have been wondering whether the homosexuality was as prevalent in the medieval Islamic societies as the writer has portrayed or did he exaggerate the existence of the phenomenon a bit too far. Reading the reviews on the book on various websites, I also realised that most of the people were not really impressed by his, what they regarded as, overindulgence into the topic of sex and homosexuality. Sultan Salah al-Din Ayyubi seemed to have been surrounded by perverts of almost all the kinds (homosexuals, pederasts, adulterers and zoophiles). Two of his wives, Jamila and Halima, had sexual relations, his trusted scribe Imad al-Din al-Isphahani loved boys, even one of the top clerics of Cairo was portrayed as a homosexual.

All this made me wonder whether the Islamic society was actually so tolerant towards homosexuality at that time or was it just this fictitious historic novel, written by a ‘self-proclaimed atheist’, which portrayed the Muslims of the medieval era in such secular light. To address my curiosity, I started reading some topics on the internet about Islamic view on homosexuality. While most of the things I read were exactly in line with the orthodox beliefs of the Muslim populations across the world about homosexuality, some interpretations really aroused my interest and what I have realised after reading all those sources is that though the orthodox view of the subject in the light of Quran and Hadith is strictly against homosexuality, the Muslim societies at large have been quite open to it.

For example, the Abbasids brought homosexuality to the mainland Islam after their takeover of the power in the 8th century. The famous Abbasid caliph al-Amin is said to have asked the women slaves to dress like men in order to seduce him so that he could have an heir from them. Al-Mutasim was also among those who were accused of homosexuality. In Spain, Abdul Rahman – III fell in love with a man from Leon, who he later executed for having resisted him.

Iqbal’s favourite Mahmood and Ayaz have also been mentioned as sexual partners in various traditions. The Book of Saladin is set in the later part of the 12th century. Though the prevalence of homosexuality in the society at that time may have been exaggerated by Tariq Ali, even if it was not that widespread the tolerance for it by the Sultan is quite striking. However, it is yet to be qualified whether the Sultan was actually that tolerant towards homosexuality or not. Shah Abbas of Iran (17th century) too had desires for young boys.

Some 200 years later, the Ottoman caliphate was formed. Mehmet the Conqueror was described by the Europeans of having ‘ambivalent sexual tastes’. When the Tanzimat were taken up during the 19th century, towards the end of Ottoman Empire, homosexuality was decriminalised in what can today be described as a radical step not only from Muslim, but global standards of that time.

Qualifying Tariq Ali’s ‘exaggeration’:

Tariq Ali’s portrayal of the presence of homosexuality in Syria and Egypt under Fatimids and Seljuk dynasties is most likely to be exaggerated but the fact is that homosexuality prevailed in the Crusading armies as well. Richard – the Lion-hearted was allegedly a gay too. And this brings us to the reality that almost all the armies across the globe used to have a certain level of homosexuality prevalent among them. The Greeks were quite fond of homosexuality. The Roman armies were no different. US drama television series like Rome and Game of Thrones and others also show homosexuality as a regular feature of the armies and the elites. Therefore, it may also have prevailed among the nobility as well as the soldiers of the medieval armies.

Besides, the theme regularly appears in the literature, especially poetry, of the Muslim languages like Persian, Arabic and Urdu. In fact according to MacMillan’s Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, love poetry by men about boys more than competed with that about women, it overwhelmed it.

Though it is sad to see that the tolerance level in the society has only gone down since the medieval times in most part of the Muslim world, it must also be remembered that the nobility and the elite have always remained a bit different that the Muslim society at large. Therefore, assuming that the Muslim world was all for homosexuality a thousand years ago may be incorrect, but it was seen as normal at least in the armies. This might have been mainly because the armies comprised men only and since the sexual desires among those men were quite natural, them exercising homosexuality was probably overlooked in order to keep the armies motivated.

Homosexuality under Islamic law:

A claim made by Wayne Dynes and his team in Encyclopedia of Homosexuality about the Hanafi school not having considered homosexuality as a physically punishable crime is quite striking. Dynes claims that the Hanafi school didn’t consider it physically punishable because there was no authentic Hadith reported from the Prophet prescribing a punishment for the homosexuals. Although several scholars have established Ijma that the homosexuals should be thrown off the rooftops or high places, it is a fact, according to Professor Faisal Kutty, that “even classical Islamic jurists struggled with this issue and had a more sophisticated attitude than many contemporary Muslims”.

This article was originally published on Fasaadi.com