A Queer History of Islamic Art
Words by Idris Martin
Last year, two miniature paintings by 18th century Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukhari were quietly sold as part of an exhibition by legendary London-based auction house Sotheby’s. Faded slightly from age, bright colours draw your attention to this iconography that could fit onto the page this article has been printed on.
The nature of the images themselves is striking.
In the first, a man embraces his lover tightly. They are clothed, but there is no modesty to be found here. The lover’s erect penis is prominent and clear. In the second, another man rests upon a red cushion as his lover has mounted and penetrated him.
Fitting subject matter for an exhibition entitled Erotic: Passion & Desire, these paintings sold for over AUD$50,000. This month, they plan to auction a 200-year-old Ottoman erotica manuscript. It’s estimated selling price is AUD$500,000. It wouldn’t be unfair to think about the irony of how many in the Muslim world would rather have seen the paintings burnt instead right now.
That isn’t to say that the Western world has a greater appreciation for artistic freedom or values, especially considering the hoarding and trading of cultural artefacts from former colonies. However, the considerable erasure of queer history in the Muslim world is irrefutable.
While Europe was largely seething in deeply conservative views regarding sexuality; their audiences being largely limited by religious forces, the Ottomans throughout the 18th and 19th centuries had a far more fluid and liberal understanding compared to their contemporaries, and erotic literature was popular and widely shared. This fuelled European fascination in Orientalism and spurred stories of Orientalist eroticism and the perversely decadent ways of the Ottoman people. Victorian audiences were scandalised but voraciously consumed exaggerated tales of Ottoman harems and sexual promiscuity.
Perhaps we can begin to see why Sotheby’s is able to make such a tidy profit today — did the almost fetishist fascination ever really dissipate?
It would be irresponsible to neglect to mention pederasty and its relationship to homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire, and in the wider pre-modern Arab and Persian world. Like many pre-modern civilisations, love between two males was widely associated with relations between men and young men or boys. Youthful beauty is a common dimension to the conception of same-sex attraction and love in historical Islamic art. Modern standards rightly hold that paedophilic love is grossly wrong and morally reprehensible, however, erotic art through all civilisations have explored beauty and youth as entwined concepts. Indeed, the history of expressions of same-sex love and admiration of youthful male beauty by other males goes much further than Ottoman erotica.
Islamic mystic poetry regularly dealt with male-to-male love and, as Arab scholar Thomas Bauer describes, “there is no other premodern literature in which homoerotic texts are as numerous and as central as they are in classical Arabic — Persian being the only serious rival.”
From Persian literature, one of the English-speaking world’s favourite poet stands out for his use and exploration of male beauty in his writing: Rumi.
And so he said to me, “O old love of mine,
don’t ever get out from under my arm.”
And I said, “Yes,” and I stayed there.
He Took Me Under His Arm, Rumi.
The homoeroticism weaved into Rumi’s verses is undeniable. Rumi explores his love for Allah, his Beloved, through the expression of love between male lovers. What the Western world calls Sufism; the practice of seeking divine love through direct contact with God, Muslims have traditionally understood as tawassuf. It is in Sufi poetry we find so much homoerotic imagery.
Where British Oriental scholars sought to differentiate deeply spiritual contemplations and practices from others they repudiated, Sufism was born, however, the inwardly focused spiritual exploration of faith and devotion or Islamic mysticism has a history of esoteric spiritualism.
In Islamic mystical poetry, we see the spiritual love and devotion to the Beloved regularly explored through the lens of homoerotic love.
The patriarchal dominance of writings from this period does not discount the existence or comparative prevalence of woman-to-woman love. 14th-century poet Hafiz, who according to legend had committed the entirety of Rumi’s works to memory, accounts for this love:
And men and men who are
And women and women
Who give each other
It Happens All The Time, Hafiz.
Of course, as the Muslim world is not a homogenous beast, regional and culturally specific practices largely govern how queer identity has been represented and expressed through art or literature. Nonetheless, what we can see is an exceptional openness regarding sexuality within the historical Muslim world that has not persisted through to the mainstream Muslim world today for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the importation of queer criminalisation and institutional queerphobia by colonial powers, particularly the British Empire.
Despite this, not all Muslims have forgotten our forebears within the narrative of Islamic art history, and modern queer Muslims continue to explore sexual identity and faith through art.
At the beginning of this year, SOMArts Cultural Centre in San Francisco ran an exhibition entitled The Third Muslims: Queer and Trans Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience. Featuring the work of 14 queer, transgender and non-binary artists from across the Muslim world, the exploration of queer Islamic identity found multiple mediums. What is clear from their work is that queer Muslim art has fundamentally changed in its nature.
We’ve seen historical queer artistic voices were devoted to the expressing and exploring love for Allah, queer Muslims must now turn our voices to resistance. That is not to say that queer identity within the Muslim world has not always been a site of resistance. Rather, we can see a wall between Islamic faith and queer identity that contemporary art must attempt to deconstruct today, where historically queer Islamic love and identity were freely explored and expressed outside of resistance narratives.
This is where I ask you to take a small amount of time to support queer Muslim artists — look up their work, send them some internet traffic at least.
The deeper questions beyond material ways to challenge and deconstruct heteronormative and queerphobic attitudes and cultural norms within the Muslim world can be found in the work of queer Muslim artists. As contemporary queer Muslim artists celebrate the work of their forebears and challenge the Muslim world to recognise space and rights of queer Muslims, there is tension in the position of so many in the Muslim world that do reject queer Muslims. It is difficult to reconcile the oppressive values that propel queer Muslim artists to produce works of resistance with the historical reality of queer themes in Islamic art.
The question of how parts of the world, with such a strong legacy of exploring and being open to sexual and gender identity in their history, are now sites of some of the most horrific abuses undoubtedly is crucial to future progress. Perhaps the eventual owner of the 209-page Ottoman erotica manuscript can help shed some light and share their auction winnings with the world.
At the very least, I’d bank on a few hot tips for the bedroom, so it’s a win no matter what.