A reply to ‘A Queer History of Islamic Art’ by Idris Martin
Words by Kyriaco Nikias
Idris’s article about gay histories in the “Islamic world” treats a fascinating theme in history, and we should welcome his attempt to voice it. This reply serves less to disagree with Idris as to add some points which I think are important to remember when looking at the histories of societies very different to our own.
West versus East?
Idris compares the acceptance of queer sexualities in the West and the Ottoman East:
“While Europe was largely seething in deeply conservative views regarding sexuality; [Western] 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.”
But this exaggerates the “conservati[sm]” of the West at the same time that it overstates the “liberal[ism]” of the Ottomans. It is, of course, wrong to think that the Islamic world has always cultivated — without the kind of exception that Idris talks about — an oppression of the human spirit with no place for sexual freedom. Persia is probably the best counter-example. But we should be careful not to make the same mistake when talking about the West, in order to make things further East seem exceptional and all the more impressive.
Idris repeats a frequent critique of colonialism, that, with the arrival of a new colonial legal system came the express prohibition of homosexual acts — usually “buggery” — in places where such prohibitions did not exist. Again, it purports to show a neat contrast between a sexually-repressive West, and a liberal East. This is a half-truth. In the case of the Ottoman Empire — which still controlled in the nineteenth century most of the eastern Mediterranean, before much of it fell to Europeans — its early decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1857 was a consequence of the importation of French statute (which had decriminalised sodomy after the Revolution).
This is not to say that an outstanding legal intolerance did not characterise the British Empire. It is well documented how British colonial authorities pushed the imposition of Victorian morality on subject populations (mainly India) in the nineteenth century. On homosexuality, the Anglo-Saxon world has a particularly bad record — Britain decriminalised buggery in 1967, and South Australia not fully until 1975. It is a sad irony that many African states — which derive their illiberal laws from colonial British law — today defend their criminalisation of homosexuality against what they perceive to be neo-colonial attempts to decriminalise it.
But there is a history of legal oppression of normatively deviant sexuality in the East too. Before the Ottomans had decriminalised sodomy, law based in religious morality punished homosexual acts just as had been done in the West. We should be careful to attribute virtue to any one “side” — no historical schools of jurisprudence treat homosexuality in a way we would be comfortable with today.
It is very right for Idris to remind us that “in the wider pre-modern Arab and Persian world … [like] many pre-modern civilisations, love between two males was widely associated with relations between young men or boys”. We should tread carefully when we meet the history of paederasty in societies markedly different in structure and morality to ours. The homosexuality of today is not the paederastia of fifth century BC Athens. Despite the poetry, sculpture, and painting it inspired, it rightly disturbs our modern emphasis on the importance of adulthood and consent.
The same must be said for the Islamic world. We should not forget the official Ottoman practice of sexual slavery. The köçekler — one type of sex slave — who were chosen for their youthful beauty, could sometimes come from the caste of the devşirme, who were boys kidnapped from the Christian population to serve the Empire.
Idris is again right to retort that this does not mean we must turn our back to these stories. It is a very interesting paradox of gay history that, by pointing to the supposed sexual freedom of the Greeks — whose civilisation had become associated with virtue — nineteenth-century gay scholars and artists could defend, perhaps dignify, their own sexualities to intolerant peers.
Without discounting the value of classical Arabic and Persian homoerotic texts, I think it is too much to say that these literatures produced more homoerotic works than any other tradition. Pre-Roman Greek literature is the obvious counter-example. Perhaps more important than this measuring contest is the regretful fact that, in both the literatures, the stories of lesbian love are relatively few. Poets like Sappho enchant us with her bittersweet voice, but the fact that she lacks a peer of equal worth reminds us that hers was a man’s world.
The point is, we should not draw too strong conclusions in history. Neither the history of the West or the Islamic East — so far as these histories can clumsily be considered as wholes — deserves special praise for its treatment of sexuality. Of course, the history of homosexuality in the Islamic world is too often ignored by people who prefer the neater historical narrative of the “illiberal East” and “tolerant West”. By the same stroke, we should not try to do justice to one history by doing injustice to another.