Sufi Gender Unconventionality in Islamic History


Up until the end of the twentieth century, the topic of homosexuality within Middle Eastern and Islamic traditions has been one of closed inquiry, with reasons ranging from simple disinterest, moral conviction, and sometimes viewing the topic as a distasteful one to study (Schmidtke 1999, 261). This paper looks at homosexuality within the historical Islamic tradition, examines how several notable Sufi personalities broke away from heteronormative and masculine gender normative social and religious boundaries, before reflecting on how Sufi spirituality, as embodied by the likes of Amir Khusro (1253-1325) and Shah Hussayn (1539-1599), might be of use to contemporary sexual ethics.

Homosexuality within the Islamic Tradition

The Islamic religion’s foundational texts address homosexuality and many would claim that it does so within a negative light through a condemnation of sexual relations between members of the same sex (Ellens 2012, 282). The Muslim’s holy text, the Qur’an, speaks of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (7:80-81; cf. 26:160-166, 27:54-55, 29:28-29), a story which has entertained frequent interpretation, exegetical commentary, and legal analysis. The predominant interpretation is the condemnation of same-sex intercourse, particularly anal penetration between two men. However, the Qur’an does not ascribe or indicate specific punishments for same-sex intercourse, which has led many jurists to access the hadith traditions, namely the oral traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. There is a setback here for none of the hadith referring to homosexuality are Sahih, which is the most reliable tradition according to Sunni Muslims. Nonetheless, an awareness of the importance of the Qur’anic and hadith sources within the Islamic tradition is imperative given their prominence within Islamic societies and cultures since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, particularly on the topics of law, belief, ritual, worship, and morality. Although some hadith traditions of the prophet display tolerance of homoerotic desires, there are others that condemn homosexual practice (Sunan Abu Dawood, 38:4448; Al-Mu’jam al-Awsat: 4157) and have the Prophet stating that both the active and passive partners should be killed (Sunan Abu Dawood, 38:4447). The result of these traditions is that jurists have differed on the severity of punishment, which has ranged from flagellation to stoning and death (Peters 2006, 61-62). What the hadith do suggest is an awareness and presence of homosexual relations within historical Islamic societies at and prior to the date of their composition. Despite homosexuality’s and same-sex intercourse’s illegality it is challenging to determine the degree of punishment and enforcement of the laws at any given time or place as documented cases of prosecution are rare (Rowson 2004, 443).

Schmidtke explains that “the frequency of homosexual practices in the Islamic world is well attested by a variety of sources, such as prose romances, poetry, adab literature, dream books, and legal and medical literature” (Schmidtke 1999, 260). This is detailed within the work of Scott Kugle on Shah Hussayn and gender ambiguities within India’s Mughal Empire, to which we shall shortly turn. Moreover, within the 21st-century sexual morality, in particular homosexuality, is still used as a polemical means for denigration. Schmidtke notes how some Islamic propagandists view the Western acceptance of homosexuality as proof of Islam’s moral superiority, and to whom such liberal attitudes evidence the decay of Western culture (Schmidtke 1999, 260). The result is that some conservative Islamic states repress homosexual practices given it is perceived as a symptom of Westernization.

Schmidtke also pays attention to an important detail found in Kugle’s work, namely homosexual relations between an adult male and an adolescent boy evidently practiced within Islamic societies (Schmidtke 1999, 260-261). These boys possessed features similar to women, such as hairless bodies, soft skin, and a subordinate role as members of society. The penetration of the boy was not deemed to compromise his masculinity despite the boy’s passive role in the sexual act, although for an adult male it was perceived as disgraceful to be a passive partner in the sexual act (Rosenthal 1978). This is partly due to the phallocentrism of Islamic civilization in which, within sexual intercourse, the role of the penetrator is considered dominant and superior.

Same-Sex Sexuality within Sufi Spirituality

Kugle looks in detail at Sufi Punjabi poet Shah Hussayn because of the figure’s relevance to contemporary gender theory, queer theory, and sexual ethics (Kugle 2011, 183). Kugle considers Hussayn queer because of his deliberate unconventionality, and homosexual because of his sexual relations with Madho, a Hindu adolescent male of the Brahmin caste (Kugle 2011, 196).

From hagiographic accounts, one learns that Hussayn was an unconventional figure. He would drink wine in public, which was prohibited according to Islamic law despite its wide practice within Islamic societies (Ahmed 2017, 57-62). Alongside his devotees, he would dance in the streets while playing musical instruments. Hussayn fell in love with Madho despite their disparities in class, age, and religion, and although several details within Hussayn’s poetry evidence heartache at feeling unnoticed by Madho, the pair eventually became intimate, which included sharing a cup of wine and a kiss together. For Sufis such as Hussayn, the act of kissing represents a spiritual communion and a sexual union (Kugle 2011, 191-193). On the spiritual level the kiss functions as an intimate bestowal of grace and compassion, which draws impetus from the Qur’anic stories of God breathing life into Adam (3:49) and Christ using his breath to bring to life a bird (5:110). A kiss, combined with erotic attraction and spiritual significance, represented an intimate mingling of souls and spiritual renewal (Kugle 2011, 195). This is embedded within Sufi tradition which held mystical insights to be transmittable via bodily contact, especially through a shared drink or saliva (Kugle 2011, 196).

Kugle sees evidence of “gender-bending” and transgender behaviour within Islamic history in the Sufi poet Amir Khusro and his spiritual guide, Nizam al-Din Awliya (Kugle 2010, 252). Khusro dedicated his life to his guide in a romantic friendship of love, which also caused transgressing accepted social gender norms, particularly by portraying al-Din Awliya as a beloved groom to whom he expresses intimacy through the voice and persona of a woman (Kugle 2010, 252). There is also the transvestite episode in which after his guide lost his dear nephew, Khusro dressed up as a female courtesan with bangles and bells and danced before al-Din Awliya in order to console him. Kugle further looks to the Khanaqah for traces of gender-bending and transgender behaviour. The khanaqah was a transformational place where social norms were temporally eclipsed by “the sacred power of direct contact with transcendent authority” (Kugle 2010, 249). At the khanaqah, Sufis gathered to worship God through serving others and humbling themselves in anticipation of spiritual blessing. It was also a place where masculine norms were questioned (as well as reaffirmed, abandoned and reinforced), and where Sufis often crossed socially defined gender boundaries (Kugle 2010, 249-251). Such practices were nonetheless conducted with sanctity in mind as it symbolized self-surrender, the abandonment of worldly ambition, as well as love for and devotion to God. Sufi men engaged in acts such as adorning themselves with eccentric, coloured clothing, wearing no clothing, shaving their beard and mustache, and putting aside family and status (Kugle 2010, 251). This included transgender behaviour of wearing women’s clothing, adopting women’s speech, song, and gesture, and more.

The Usefulness of Sufi Spirituality and Sexuality for Contemporary Sexual Ethics

Sufi spirituality can find useful for contemporary sexual ethics and theory. One such use, particularly for the historian or scholar of religion, is that it illuminates previously ignored practices and experiences of some devout Muslim persons. It usually takes an invested investigator to pry open these experiences. For example, if it were not for the work of historian Caroline Walker Bynum our knowledge of the experiences of European women and nuns living during the medieval period would be at great poverty if not near non-existent. Similarly, it takes scholars such as Kugle to elucidate was has been until more recently an ignored reality of historical Islamic life, namely persons who break away from social, cultural, and religious conventionality through their homosexual and transgender behaviours.

Further, the usefulness of Sufi spirituality and sexual ethics will be exaggerated in gender studies, feminist theory, and queer theory. Kugle made this clear stating that within gender studies men and women are the objects of analysis, notably in relation to gender roles being situation-specific, culturally relative, and constantly under renegotiation (Kugle 2010, 247-248). The likes of Hussayn and Khusro, as well as the remarkable Sufi practices at the Khanaqah, are fertile grounds for objects of analysis because none of them sit comfortably within strict heteronormative and patriarchal confines commonly associated with Islamic religion and culture. That there exists cases of historical Muslim individuals who were gay, unconventional, and non-conformist has enabled gay and lesbian studies to “join in the dialogue as a distinct but complementary set of voices” (Kugle 2010, 248).

On a more personal side note, I am partially aware of debates within feminism, masculinity, and pornography. Given what I know from past research, it is not possible to enter into this dialogue in any detail, but it will suffice to say that feminists vary themselves and adopt different, often dichotomous, stances on questions of sexual ethics and sexual freedom. As an example, one might refer to the passionate debate on raunch culture between second and third wave feminists. What is relevant to the feminist project and is certainly most relevant to Sufi spirituality and history is what Morrell (1998) and Elliot (2003) refer to as “New Man masculinity.” I discovered in my exploration of these topics that New Man masculinity is partly a response to certain hegemonic masculinities, particularly toxic masculinity, and denotes a “new man” who possesses desirable traits (often associated with women but have been downplayed in men): he is gentle in approach, caring, introspective, outspoken on women’s rights, and domestically responsible. According to Morrell, the new man challenges “violent masculinity and, in so doing, develop new models of how to be a man…” (Morrell 2001, 31). Retrospectively, Sufi history and its personalities are a rich reservoir for the new man and its possible models. Figures such as Khusro, al-Din Awliya, Hussayn, Shams Tabrizi, and Rumi show tenderness, passion, and love between men in their poetry. Ibn Arabi portrays the God-human relationship as one of intimacy, closeness, and love.

Certainly New Man masculinity theorists would do well to look into Sufi history and spirituality for models of what constitutes the ideal man. It is also clear that Kugle’s work offsets common stereotypes of Islamic religion, society, and culture by touching on some very real aspects of experience, namely Muslims who considered themselves devout but were yet unconventional and even practicing homosexuals.


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