Foucault and the Ottomans: A Review of Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World, 1500-1800

Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World 1500-1800, as a historical text, helps show how Foucauldian ideas about the construction of the subject, as it relates to sexuality and gender, existed within non-Western frameworks. As El-Rouayheb points out, Foucault argued that El-Rouayheb’s thesis is based on social constructivist ideas, in that he argues that “homosexuality”, as our modern, Western context constructs it, did not exist during the period studied in the book. Rather, many of the distinctions the current idea of “homosexuality” upholds as critical ran together, and, more importantly and saliently, the idea of “homosexuality” does not recognize or does not place the same amount of emphasis on many distinctions that existed in the Arab-Islamic world from 1500-1800.

As presented in the introduction, El-Rouayheb’s methodology is that of a historian. He engages with other historians at times in the book, but the bulk of his evidence comes from his presentation and analysis of primary source texts from the time, most of which are from the culture itself, and which include poetry, legal sources and other writings of the time. El-Rouayheb acknowledges the limitations of his work; by focusing on analysis of written texts, his survey of Arab-Islamic “homosexuality” tends to focus on urban, male members of the educated elite in the Ottoman empire, a group that doesn’t cover all of the Arab-Islamic world of the time as El-Rouayheb notes. Still, his use of primary sources seems to counter many of the misperceptions about what is and was labeled homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world from Western sources, both contemporary to the period and later.

However, El-Rouayheb seeks to employ the work of other historians, like Foucault, in order to produce a thesis and a lens through which to view his primary sources. In addition to referencing Foucault as a source for the intellectual framework upon which he constructs his thesis, El-Rouayheb also looks at the work of other historians of the Middle East, such as Bernard Lewis and Marshall Hodgson who write about the societal “acceptance” of “what Islamic law prohibits”, but draws distinctions between their conclusions and his own, highlighting the difference between sodomy (liwat) and love (El Rouayheb, 3). He also warns about trying to make broad conclusions about the state of a large region of the world with many varying opinions based on a handful of resources (8- Note: Unless otherwise specified, all citations come from El-Rouayheb). His exploration of the current field is not entirely dismissive; El-Rouayheb cites other authors, such as Arno Schmitt, Everett Rowson and Thomas Bauer, as finding similar conclusion as he himself draws (7-8).

His first chapter, entitled “Pederasts and Pathics”, is an overview of what kinds of relationships or sexual encounters occurred between men and boys at the time. While he does spend some time in the beginning of the chapter discussing penetration as an act of aggression and violence, the center of this chapter are relationships between adult men and boys.

His second chapter, called “Aesthetes”, addresses the phenomenon of love poetry directed towards youths by adult men, in order to highlight the important distinctions and nuances that seem to refute the idea that “homosexuality”, as we conceive of it, existed in Arab-Islamic world of the time. Key to El-Rouayheb’s argument in this chapter are the divisions this culture placed between an aesthetic appreciation of beauty, pining and chaste romantic love and the sin of liwat. Additionally, such divisions sometimes, though not always, lacked the gendered dimensions that a concept like “homosexuality” would necessitate. For example, El-Rouayheb notes that the beauty of women and boys was considered comparable, and expressed through the same sort of language (67). More broadly, love poetry, in El-Rouayheb’s analysis highlights the ways in which romantic and sexual attraction between men and boys not only existed, but was celebrated through praise of boys’ bodies and expressions of the man’s romantic longing for the beloved in this poetry.

Finally, the last chapter of El-Roauayheb’s book, called “Sodomites” focuses on the legal codes that existed at the time, and examines the varying opinions about sodomy across different legal schools of thought.

According to El-Rouayheb, while there were certainly sexual and romantic relationships between men and boys in the pre-modern period within the urban elite of the Arab-Islamic world, to call such behavior “homosexuality” is an oversimplification. The modern, Western concept of the “homosexual” as we understand it today did not exist. Distinctions existed within what we would call “homosexual” behavior existed in the Arab-Islamic world of 1500-1800 that do not exist in the modern West today, or were emphasized much more saliently in this time and place than they are in our modern, Western context. Most important of these was the difference between the penetrator and the penetrated, a distinction that is not as emphasized in a modern Western context.

The distinction between penetrator and penetrated is not a simple one. While the penetrated does seem closer to the modern, Western idea of the “homosexual”, both the penetrator and the penetrated seemed to have different places in society, which in some ways seem to exist as an undercurrent in our own modern society. In many ways, penetrating another person was a sign of everything masculine: dominance, manhood and victory. The rhetoric of penetrating another man was sometimes employed by authors as a way to assert their dominance in quarrels over one another, as El-Rouayheb points out in his first chapter. This is not to say, however, that acting as a penetrator with another man acquitted one of any social stigma tied with sex with another man.

The penetrated was, in many ways, closer to the social idea of the “homosexual” developed in the late 1800s in Europe and persisting into the twentieth century. Like “homosexuality”, the desire to be anally penetrated in the Arab-Islamic world was sometimes treated as an illness (ubnah) and conceptualized as such (19). While a term for “sodomy” does seem to exist in the Shari’a (or legal guidelines based on the Qu’ran and hadith) and is prohibited, this term seems to imply that the burden of sin of this practice is placed on the penetrated. It is also important in this context to emphasize another important feature of Arab-Islamic “pre-homosexuality’: the relationship between man and boy. El-Rouayheb points out that much of the behavior that we would deem nowadays as “homosexual” occurred between grown men, assumed to be acting as penetrator, and boys, assumed to be the penetrated. El-Rouayheb complicates this simplistic notion, noting that there’s no way to predict what kind of sexual behavior occurred between men and boys behind closed doors, but does emphasized that the underlying assumption of the society was, should sex occur between the two, the boy would act as the more “passive” partner, and that the rhetoric of romantic poetry written for boys by adult men in this context does place the “beloved” in a feminized and more submissive role than the adult man pursuing him.

However, penetrator and penetrated was not the only distinction that is key to an understanding of the ways in which relations between males in this context can’t simply be boiled down into a homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy. For example, he notes the importance of the difference of the chaste desire of most love poetry in contrast to sodomy, in the second chapter (89). Even beyond the important distinction of chaste romantic love vs. the perceived lust of sodomy, some of the sources of the time suggest that some men chose to write romantic love poetry for fictional beloveds, reinforcing the difference between thoughts and actions that make “homosexuality” a problematic term in this case (110-111).

Certain distinctions that we hold as clear, too, may be different in the differing cultural contexts. For example, in El-Rouayheb’s last chapter, he discusses how many legal schools considered sodomy between both unmarried men and women and between men and boys equal under law, and many lesser sexual acts between men and boys (such as intercrural sex or fondling) weren’t even near the same level of punishment as unmarried fornication between men and women (138).

Overall, El-Rouayheb’s book is thorough and is well-supported. He effectively applies the idea that sexuality, like gender, is constructed, and supports this claim using a wealth of primary source documents and fellow historians’ work. He notes the limitations of his work, and seeks to avoid making broad generalizations based on limited sources. Despite the limitations he notes in his work, he is able to make a good, well-rounded argument by using a diverse set of sources such as poetry, first-person accounts and legal documents in a way that notes the nuances across the Arab-Islamic world but also is able to extract key conclusions.  El-Rouayheb’s book is not perfect, however. El-Rouayheb argues that many of the distinctions, like penetrator/penetrated and romantic love/sodomy, were indicative of a lack of the concept of homosexuality in this concept, because these distinctions do not exist in our modern, Western context. I would argue, instead, that some of them do exist, but have served to more clearly define gender categories do exist in the modern, Western world. For example, in the film “Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders”, the idea of penetrator vs. penetrated is broached in relation to gay men in the West. Almost all of the men asked identified themselves as “tops” as opposed to “bottoms”, not because they thought it made them any less gay men, but because it solidified their more masculine role in the relationship. Similarly, modern Western society does seem to recognize a difference between romantic love and sexual desire, but tends to ascribe romantic love as a “feminine quality” rather than the more “masculine” desire to have sex. While drawing parallels between the Arab-Islamic pre-modern world and our modern Western context, El-Rouayheb does help situate the topic in relation to a modern, Western reader. While this comparison is not always perfect and can ignore nuance, it does help remind us of the cultural relativity of our own context, even when El-Rouayheb’s conclusions about the modern world are not always completely crystallized. Despite this caveat I would place on El-Rouayheb’s work, his work is an insightful addition in the academic area of gender and sexuality studies.