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LGBTQ activism: Seeking queer love in Middle Eastern history

July 10, 2023

LGBTQ activists are trying to counter the conservative narrative that suggests homosexuality has no place in Muslim culture. There's plenty of evidence in regional history that says otherwise.

17-century Persian miniature painting showing two men embracing.
Literatur and historical evidence show that the Middle East used to be more tolerant towards same sex attraction.Image: picture alliance / CPA Media Co. Ltd

"When I'm trying to impress someone I'm into, I like to send them classical poems that celebrate male beauty," Fouad, a 26-year-old gay man, explained during a call with DW. “It’s proven to be very effective," he said, laughing.   

Fouad is from Lebanon, one of the few Arab countries where homosexuality is not explicitly illegal. But due to the government’s recent crackdown on the local LGBTQ community he chooses to maintain a low profile and won't share his full name.  

Fouad finds inspiration in classical poems by the 8th-century poet Abu Nawas, who was renowned for his homoerotic verses.  

Abu Nawas and many other classical Arab, Persian and Turkish poets explored same-sex desires centuries ago. But their legacy has been sidelined in the modern Middle East because homosexuality is a criminal offense in most countries in the region.  

Rainbow flag at a pride parade in Beirut
Governments in the Middle East have been cracking down on LGBTQ gatherings but activists are trying to find ways to fight back.Image: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo/picture alliance

The claim that same-sex relationships are not part of the Middle East’s indigenous culture finds support from many officials and religious leaders. One example is Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni learning in Cairo, Egypt. Al-Tayeb repeatedly calls homosexuality a Western cultural import.

But many LGBTQ activists hold the opposite view. They blame colonialism for spreading homophobia in the region.

In a video of her TED talk, Blair Imani, an African-American queer Muslim woman, criticizes the idea that Muslim societies have historically held rigid attitudes toward sexuality. "When Muslims and Christians came into contact with each other, Muslims were known to be more sexually permissive [than Christians]," she told her audience.  

However, the history of same-sex romance in the Middle East is complex and nuanced. 

How the Middle East originally treated same-sex desires 

Historical research shows that kings, commanders, judges, as well as ordinary individuals, displayed relative openness towards non-heterosexual desires. 

For instance, Muslim travelers visiting Europe in the mid-19th century found it noteworthy that European men did not court young men. In return, European travelers visiting pre-colonial Arab communities were shocked to see men openly expressing their attraction for boys. 

Records also indicate recognition of transgender individuals, with some medieval Arabic dictionaries and encyclopedias describing five or more categories of sexes. In a 2020 essay, Shireen Hamza, a researcher at Harvard University, describes these as "woman, masculine woman, khuntha, effeminate man or man."

A "khuntha" was somewhere between the genders. Hamza also writes about a judicial case where a Muslim judge in 16th-century Damascus permitted a transgender woman to marry a man who was in love with her. 

Accepting LGBTQ individuals? 

Still, historians are cautious about branding the pre-colonial Middle East as LGBTQ-tolerant. 

Sexual orientation was not seen as central to an individual's identity in Muslim societies. The medieval Arab world viewed sexual attraction in conflicting ways, Khaled el-Rouayheb, an historian at Harvard University, writes. Expressions of same-sex attraction were met with varying degrees of tolerance and intolerance, el-Rouayheb explains in his 2007 book, "Before Homosexuality."

For example, Islamic scholars distinguished between sexual intercourse between two men and the less physical expression of love for another man. The first was considered a sin, while the latter was a sign of refined sensibility, the ability to appreciate human beauty.

How homophobia spread 

Attitudes towards same-sex attraction radically changed in the contemporary Middle East, with Western colonialism thought to have played an important role.  

France and Britain, each controlling major parts of the Arab world, introduced the first penal codes against homosexuality in the region. In Algeria for example, French colonial forces stipulated severe punishments for same-sex relationships, including imprisonment and forced labor. 

Their influence persisted long after they left their colonies. Nationalist projects adopted the colonial notion that regarded same-sex attraction as decadence or a form of mental illness. Islamist movements followed suit, criminalizing same-sex relations. As a result, poets like Abu Nawas, who had long been celebrated for their literary talent, became controversial and had their poetry censored.

A forgotten legacy 

The Arab world still has a blind spot about this, according to Samar Habib, a US-based novelist, and independent researcher. But the Arab LGBTQ community is now going through history to build a case against discrimination, she noted. "This is how you create a body of resistance," Habib told DW. 

Persian and Arabic literature are used within LGBTQ activist circles to demonstrate that homophobia is not universal in Arabic and Persian histories and cultures, Habib said.

 Mashrou' Leila vocalist Hamed Sinno
Mashrou Leila, whose lead vocalist was gay, is famous in the Arab world for openly supporting the LGBTQ causeImage: Diaa Hadid/AP/picture alliance

Mashrou Leila, a popular Lebanese indie-rock band, has produced dozens of songs about queer love, drawing on historical and traditional allusions and mentioning figures like Abu Nawas. The band's open support for the LGBTQ community faced backlash from some governments in the region, resulting in their prohibition in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, and ultimately leading them to disband in 2022. 

Similarly, the Middle Eastern LGBTQ community's heritage is increasingly taking center stage in visual arts and paintings. One popular example is  "Habibi, les revolutions de l'amour" (or Habibi, Love Revolution"), an art exhibition at the Paris-based Arab World Institute, that delves into Middle Eastern queer culture, interweaving traditional elements and historical references from Arab and Persian cultures.  

Social media is also witnessing an increase in posts highlighting same-sex love in the literature and history of Muslim-majority societies, with some users suggesting that Islamic law has a lot of space for interpretations that could incorporate LGBTQ rights. 

Need for a critical review of the past 

The Middle Eastern LGBTQ community faces a double-edged challenge, Aya Labanieh, a researcher at Columbia University in New York, told DW. "One side is the domestic repression, which brands their identity as an imported one, foreign to Islamic society and culture. The second is the Islamophobic narratives that treat them as tokens and use their grievances to portray a dark picture of Muslim societies." Consequently, queer activists are increasingly emphasizing the indigenous aspects of their identity, she noted.  

However, the past should not be glamorized either, Labanieh warns. "A critical review, that also considers modern values like equality and rights, is necessary," she said.  

With the help of his father, Fouad began reading classical Arabic poetry at a young age. It later served as a refuge from trauma. "I know many gays and lesbians who grow up hating themselves because they have been led to believe that there is something wrong with them," he said. "I didn't experience that because as a teenager I could see geniuses like Abu Nawas had the same desires I did." 

Before the interview ends, Fouad recites his favorite verses by Abu Nawas, saying they hold a message for everyone: "Let go of the costumes and ethics that have been destroyed over time, left to the wind and rain, given to inevitable decay. Be among those who live life in pleasures and risks." 

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