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Queer Sexuality and Identity in the Qur'an and Hadith
by Faris Malik
(For citations in the original Arabic, please click here - certain browsers will display the Arabic correctly)
The Qur'an generally scorns "approaching males in lust", as well as the castration of males, as the sin of the people of Lot (Qur'an 7:81, 26:165-166, 27:55, 29:28-29).
7:81 "Indeed you approach males in lust excluding women..."
26:165-166 "What! Do you approach the males of the worlds and forsake those whom your Lord has created for you for your mates?"
27:55 "Will you indeed approach males in lust excluding women?"
29:28-29 "Most surely you are guilty of an indecency which none of the nations has ever done before you; What! do you come unto the males and cut the passageways [i.e. vas deferens and/or urethra] and do so in your private clubs?"
But the Qur'an does not prohibit using, as passive sex partners, the ancient category of men who by nature lacked desire for women, since such men were not considered "male" as a result of their lack of arousal for women. This kind of man is often known as "gay" in modern times, but in the ancient world he was identified as an anatomically whole "natural eunuch." Although the Qur'an never uses the word eunuch, the hadith and the books of the legal scholars do. Furthermore, the Qur'an recognizes that some men are "without the defining skill of males" (sura 24:31) and so, as domestic servants, are allowed to see women naked. This is a reference to natural eunuchs, i.e. innately and exclusively gay (if not totally asexual) men.
A person had to be indifferent to women's bodies in order to assume the role as a servant in women's private space. In the following case from the hadith, a household servant who had been falsely assumed to be indifferent to women due to his being an "effeminate man" [mukhannath] evicted by the Prophet because he unexpectedly exhibited a lascivious attitude toward women:
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXII (Marriage), Chapter 114:
What is forbidden concerning the entering upon the wife by those imitating women.
(162) Umm Salama reported that the Prophet, peace be upon him, was at her house, and in the house there was an effeminate man, and the effeminate man said to the brother of Umm Salama, Abdullah bin Abi Umayya: "If God makes you all conquer Ta'if tomorrow, I will point out to you the daughter of Ghailan, for surely she has four when coming towards you and eight when she turns her back." Then the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "This one shall not call upon you (pl.)."
Muslim, Collection of Authentic Traditions, Book XXVI (Greetings), Chapter 12:
(5415) Umm Salama reported that she had an effeminate man in her house. The Messenger of God, peace be upon him, was once at the house when he (the effeminate man) said to the brother of Umm Salama, 'Abdullah b. Abu Umayya: "If God makes you all conquer Ta'if tomorrow, I will point out to you the daughter of Ghailan, for surely she has four when coming towards you and eight when she turns her back." The Messenger of God, peace be upon him, heard this and he said: "These ones shall not call upon you."
(5416) 'A'isha reported that an effeminate man used to call upon the wives of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and they considered him to be "without the defining skill" (of males). The Prophet, peace be upon him, came by one day as he (the effeminate man) was sitting with some of his wives and he was describing a woman, saying: "When she comes towards you, she has four, and when she turns her back, she has eight." Then the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "I see this one knows these things! He shall not call upon you (pl.)." She ('A'isha) said then they began to observe veil from him.
Note that in 'A'isha's telling of the story, she states that the women allowed him into their private rooms because they assumed he lacked "the defining skill". 'A'isha actually quotes the Qur'anic verse about men who "lack the defining skill of males," demonstrating that his presence in the women's space would have been proper according to the Qur'an if only he had in fact been "without the defining skill." However, the statement of the effeminate man about the daughter of Ghailan, whatever it meant, indicated to Muhammad that he did not lack the defining skill of males and that, on the contrary, he had an appreciation of women as sexual objects. This disqualifies him as an intimate domestic servant according to the Qur'an as well as the standards of the day. In a system that depends on household servants to be heterosexually indifferent, the main risk is that this indifference can be faked. In other words, an ordinary male can pretend to be an exclusive homosexual in order to gain free access to the private space of women.
There are other ahadith against cross-dressers in which the Prophet specifically curses "males" who imitate women and women who imitate males, and in which the consequence of their malfeasance is that he "evicts them from the houses." The specific reference to "males" who do this (as opposed to non-male eunuchs, for example) is made very explicit:
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXXII (Dress), Chapter 61:
(773) The Messenger of God, peace be upon him, cursed female-impersonators [m.pl.] who are males, and male-impersonators [f.pl.] who are women.
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXXII (Dress), Chapter 62:
(774) The Prophet, peace be upon him, cursed the effeminate men [m.pl.] who are males, and the male-pretenders [f.pl.] who are women, and he said: Evict them from your houses, and the Prophet, peace be upon him, evicted such-and-such [m.sg.] and 'Umar evicted such-and-such [f.sg.].
The words "males" and "women" are obviously emphatic here because the grammar does not really require them to be used, unless it be for emphasis or clarification. Masculine gender is already provided grammatically by the endings on the words "impersonators" and "effeminates," and feminine gender is already provided in the words "impersonators" and "male-pretenders." Given the emphasis, the curse is specifically directed only at "males" and "women," and does not cover non-males who might be female-impersonators (or non-women who might be male-impersonators, if indeed there was a recognition of "non-women"). It's okay to be a drag queen as long as you are not a straight man posing to gain access to unsuspecting women, or to the wives of unsuspecting husbands.
The Qur'an recognizes that there are some people who are "ineffectual", thus neither male nor female:
42:49 "To Allah belongs the dominion over the heavens and the earth. It creates what It wills. It prepares for whom It wills females, and It prepares for whom It wills males.
50 Or It marries together the males and the females, and It makes those whom It wills to be ineffectual. Indeed It is the Knowing, the Powerful."
These last two verses (42:49 and 50) are usually interpreted differently in English translations to say that God bestows daughters or sons on whom It wills and gives some people both sons and daughters. But there are problems with this interpretation, one of which being that the word for causing to marry or pairing up is used in the second verse. When families have boys and girls, the boys and girls do not usually arrive in pairs! The second problem is that, in Qur'anic verses mentioning males and females together, the males are usually mentioned first, and the females second (e.g., 3:195, 4:12, 4:124, 6:143-144, 16:97, 40:40, 42:50, 49:13, 53:21, 53:45, 75:39, 92:3). This is the only verse in the Qur'an, as far as I know, in which the female is mentioned before the male. If these two verses were talking about sons and daughters, we would expect sons to be mentioned before daughters.
In this case, the "males first" principle would indicate that the lines are referring to females and males not as offspring, but as counterparts, i.e. objects of desire, for "whom(ever) God wills." The female objects of desire are mentioned first because they are most typically objects of desire for males. Hence, even this verse is referring to males first, as the most typical "whom(ever)" for whom God prepares females. Yet the use of the word "whom(ever)" leaves it open for females to be objects of desires for other females as well, when God wills, and for males to be love objects for females and other passive non-males. I believe this verse is very neatly and concisely describing the varieties of sexual orientation and gender, which Allah, the All-Knowing and All-Powerful, creates as Allah wishes.
The ineffectual can include abstinent women as well as men, and in fact "the abstinent ones among women, who do not hope for marriage", are permitted to "put off their cover" in Sura 24:60.
Another intriguing example of a gender variant woman is Jesus's mother Mary. According to ancient notions about procreation, males were the only ones capable of producing seed. It would be impossible for a woman to give birth to a child, let alone a boy, without receiving seed from a male. In Christianity, this problem is solved by making God the male father of Jesus. According to the Qur'an, however, God does not procreate. This means that the seed that became Jesus came from within Mary. If Mary carried viable seed originating from within her, then by ancient definitions, she was a male, despite appearances to the contrary. So the Qur'an says that, when Mary was born, her mother declared that she was a female baby, but God knew better:
(Qur'an 3:36) Lord, surely, I have brought it forth a female - and Allah knew best what she brought forth - and the male is not like the female...
There are other traditions about the gender variance of Mary. I have argued elsewhere that Mary's virginity is not merely the innocent state of a girl who has not yet known a man, but a more permanent rejection of sex with men, like that of the Vestal virgins in Rome. In Isaiah 7:14, it is predicted that a virgin will conceive bear a son, but the word for virgin used there is not the generic bethulah used throughout the Hebrew scripture for girls who have not yet had sex. Instead, the word almah is used, a very rare word in the scriptures, which is the female counterpart to elem, meaning boy. In the other verses in which it is used, it is compatible with a meaning of tomboy or rebuffer of men (cf. Proverbs 30:18-19, in which an almah appears to be impermeable to men).
Homosexual activity by straight men
Homosexual activity by homosexuals (eunuchs) is not spoken of in the Qur'an, which mentions only the unjust homosexual rape perpetrated by straight men against other straight men. Besides the Lut story, sexual exploitation of straight males is also alluded to in the assurance that the prophet Joseph's slaveholders "abstained from him" (sura 12:20).
But the Qur'an and hadith also have traces of the permitted homosexual desires of straight men. There is even a hadith in Bukhari, admittedly giving not the Prophet's opinion but that of Abu Jafar, according to which a pedophile is prohibited from marrying the mother of his boy-beloved if there is penetration:
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXII (Marriage), Chapter 25:
As for whom(ever) plays with a boy: if he caused him to enter him, then he shall not marry his mother.
(This rule is accompanied in the same chapter by prohibitions against a man marrying both a mother and her daughter.) Apparently according to this hadith, even sexual penetration of a boy is not considered sodomy, because if it was, surely the sodomite would have more worries than whether he could marry the boy's mother! Like whether he preferred to die by fire, stoning, or falling from a high tower! These are some of the punishments mentioned in the hadith for "doing as the people of Lut did." [A reader wrote in to say that this hadith would not necessarily imply that penetration of boys was not sodomy, but could be a recognition of the fact that not all crimes will be discovered and punished and that one who does penetrate a boy, even if he is not punished for sodomy for whatever reason, should at least know in his own conscience that the mother of his boyfriend is off limits. In any case, one possible inference from this hadith is still very interesting: namely, that if a man plays with a boy without penetration, then marrying the mother is still a possibility!!]
The distinction between pederasty (sex with boys) and sodomy (penetration of "males") was commonly, albeit not universally maintained throughout the ancient world, and indeed survived throughout most of the history of Islam until at least the nineteenth century (in spite of the futile objections of some medieval scholars). Apparently, boy-love was considered okay by many people because, like "natural eunuchs," adolescent boys were also thought to lack the "defining skill of males" (sexual potency with women). The Qur'an itself gives support to pederasts in its glimpses of paradise:
52:24 And they shall have boys who will walk around among them, as if they were hidden pearls.
56:22-23 And dark-eyed ones, the like of hidden pearls
76:19 And boys never altering in age will circulate among them, when you see them you will count them as scattered pearls.
2:25 And they shall have immaculate partners in [the gardens] ...
4:57 And they shall have immaculate partners in them ...
One of the great male Sufi contemporaries of Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya provided a divine justification for a pederastic relationship, which was repeated without a hint of disapproval in a 10th century book about great Sufi women:
One day Rabi'a saw Rabah [al-Qaysi] kissing a young boy. 'Do you love him?' she asked. 'Yes,' he said. To which she replied, 'I did not imagine that there was room in your heart to love anything other than God, the Glorious and Mighty!' Rabah was overcome at this and fainted. When he awoke, he said, 'On the contrary, this is a mercy that God Most High has put into the hearts of his slaves.'
(Quoted from as-Sulami, Early Sufi Women, translated by Rkia E. Cornell, Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999, pp. 78-79.)
Sexual use of eunuchs
Besides boys, straight Muslim men were occasionally interested in grown adults as well, provided they were not "male." There is a hadith in which the Prophet's companions asked whether they were allowed to use men (presumably prisoners of war) as eunuchs to fulfill their sexual urges, since they were far from their wives.
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXII (Marriage), Chapter 6:
(9) Narrated ibn Mas'ud: We used to fight alongside the Prophet, peace be upon him. There were no women with us, so we said: "O Messenger of God, may we not treat some as eunuchs?" He forbade us to do so.
The version in Bukhari, Book LXII Ch. 8:13a says that rather than let the companions "treat [some] as eunuchs" while stuck out on military campaign, the Prophet allowed them to have sex with corrupted women, and he recited to them from the Qur'an (5:87): "O ye who believe! Make not unlawful the good things which Allah has made lawful for you, but commit no transgression." This reflects the ancient view that a man could only commit adultery by having sex with a married woman (who was not his wife, of course).
The fact that Muhammad forbade the companions from designating men as eunuchs is not the point here. Of course, using a straight male as a eunuch was wrong -- that was essentially the sin of the people of Lut. But what about using a eunuch (i.e. one who permanently lacks arousal with women) as a eunuch? Given that ibn Mas'ud made reference to the use of eunuchs for sexual gratification, and given that the Prophet understood what he meant, that indicates that the use of eunuchs for sexual gratification was known in Arabic society, and was considered a use that was appropriate to eunuchs. Since eunuchs were not considered male, there was no prohibition against it, not even in the Qur'an.
Eunuchs were still sex objects for straight men in the Mamluk dynasty, according to David Ayalon in Eunuchs, Caliphs, and Sultans: A Study in Power Relationships (Jerusalem, 1999). They not only served to prevent older Mamluks from having sexual access to younger trainees:
The eunuchs seem to have served as a shield against homosexual lust in yet another way. They themselves formed the target of that lust, thus diverting it from the youngsters. They are described as being womanly and docile in bed at night and manly and warlike by day in a campaign and in similar circumstances (hum nisaa' li-mutma'inn muqeem wa rijaal in kaanat al-asfaar; li-annahum bil-nahaar fawaaris wa-bil-layl 'araa'is). [Arabic transcribed by Ayalon on page 34, from Abu Mansur al-Tha'alibi, Al-Lataa'if wal-Zaraa'if, Cairo 1324/1906-7, p. 79, lines 1-7; and the same quote from Tha'alibi in his Tamtheel wal-Muhaadara, Cairo 1381/1961, p. 224.]
A eunuch Companion?
As for the issue of whether Muhammad himself expressly acknowledged that some people by nature are incapable of heterosexuality, thus being natural eunuchs, consider the following ahadith.
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXII (Marriage), Chapter 2:
The Statement of the Prophet, peace be upon him: "Whoever is able to perform coitus should get married, for it helps him lower his gaze and use his private parts in the best way." And should he get married who does not have the ability to consummate a marriage?
(3) Narrated 'Alqama: [...] I heard [Abdullah] saying [to Uthman]: [...] The Prophet, peace be upon him, once said to us: "O young men! Whoever among you is able to perform coitus, he should get married, and whoever is not able, should abstain, because for him it is a harm."
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXII (Marriage), Chapter 3:
Whoever is not able to perform coitus should abstain.
(4) Narrated Abdullah: We were with the Prophet, peace be upon him, as young men and we did not feel any passion. And the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, said to us: "O young men! Whoever among you is able to perform coitus, he should get married, and whoever is not able, should abstain, because for him it is a harm."
In the next case, a specific man, Uthman bin Madh'un, comes to ask if he can be permitted to live a life of asceticism, and he is not allowed to:
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXII (Marriage), Chapter 8:
What is disliked about asceticism and eunuchism.
(11) Narrated Sa'd bin Abi Waqqas: The Messenger of God, peace be upon him, forbade Uthman bin Madh'un to be an ascetic, and if he had allowed him, we would have lived as eunuchs.
(12) Narrated Sa'd bin Abi Waqqas: He forbade this, that is to say, the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, forbade 'Uthman bin Madh'un, and if he had allowed him to be an ascetic, we would have lived as eunuchs.
But notice the different outcome in the following case:
Bukhari, Authentic Traditions, Book LXII (Marriage), Chapter 8:
(13b) Narrated Abu Huraira: I said, "O Messenger of God, I am a young male, and I fear torment for my soul, but I do not find [or feel] that with which to marry a woman". He remained silent, then I said the same thing again, and he remained silent, and I said the same thing again, and he remained silent, and then I said the same thing again. Then the Prophet of God, peace be upon him, said: "O Abu Huraira, the pen is dried as to what you are suited for. So be a eunuch for that reason or leave it alone."
If Muhammad's answer to Abu Huraira is to make sense, then of course it must bear a relation to the statement Abu Huraira made. First we have to ask what kind of torment Abu Huraira feared for his soul? Muhammad Muhsin Khan, the translator of Bukhari into English, interpreted it as fear of committing illicit sexual intercourse. If that interpretation is correct, then we still have to determine what "illicit sexual intercourse" would mean for Abu Huraira. As a self-described "male," two forms of sexual activity would be inadmissible and therefore the temptation to them would cause torment for his soul: the desire to be sexually passive with a man (known as ubnah) or the desire to commit adultery with a female. Yet, Abu Huraira ["the father of kittens"] seemed to hint at a solution to his dilemma when he said he did not "find" that which was required for marrying a woman. The Arabic word for "find" also has the meaning of "feel, sense". If Abu Huraira's statement meant he did not feel passion for women, then obviously he could not be fearing the temptation to adultery with women. In that case, only passive homosexuality was a danger. However, if he would not ever marry a woman, due to impotency with women or for any other reason, then he would not be acting as a male, but rather as a eunuch, in which case passive homosexuality would not be forbidden for him. But Muhammad cautions him that his identity, either as a eunuch or as a male, has already been determined by his Creator ("the pen is dried"), and he must figure it out which it is and live his life accordingly. If he ever intends to have sex with a woman (i.e. act as a male), then he must avoid passive homosexuality and get married.
Prohibition of public displays
Finally, there is a pair of verses calling for punishment in cases of indecency between people of any gender (4:15-16). These verses are often cited as a prohibition of homosexuality because one of the verses refers to indecency committed by women (with the implication that men were not involved). But in referring separately to an act committed by women, these verses are simply covering all the bases, so to speak. In order to address all cases, it is necessarily for grammatical reasons to deal separately with an offense by women only. As to what is meant by an indecency, the text does not specify. But in order for someone to be convicted of the offense, four eyewitnesses have to testify to it, which seems to indicate some sort of public act. Certainly the idea that, for the sake of decency, erotic behavior should be carried out in private goes back at least as far as Plato. In any case, by "indecency," these verses are not referring to homosexuality per se, since two people of opposite sex can also be covered by verse 4:16.