Open menu


Open menu


Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space



The aptly-named Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 by Khaled El-Rouayheb (Chicago, 2005) is a study of “homosexual behaviour and feelings” in “the Arabic-speaking parts of the Ottoman Empire from the early sixteenth to the early nineteenth century”, which draws on the author’s exhaustive knowledge of published and manuscript Arabic sources, as well as the accounts of European observers.

The behaviour and feelings described were pederastic and El-Rouayheb’s “central contention is that Arab-Islamic culture on the eve of modernity lacked the concept of ‘homosexuality’ .” As he points out, this was generally typical of the pre-modern world, in which it was assumed that men were usually attracted to both women and boys.  Here follows what he says about the age and physical development of the boys who attracted them, critical points for understanding of Greek love.

The footnotes are all by El-Rouayheb, except the first which explains a point made by him earlier. 



The State of the Field

I should perhaps add that the imposed geographic and temporal limits do not imply any commitment on my part to the uniqueness of attitudes in that area and period. However, I also do not want to claim that each and every point I make will be valid for earlier periods of Arab-Islamic history.


Transgenerational Homosexuality

In the “homosocial” world of the early Ottoman Arab East, sexual symbolism was thus never far from the surface. Yet actual sexual intercourse between adult men was clearly perceived as an anomaly, linked either to violence (rape) or disease (ubnah).[1] Homosexual relations in the early Ottoman Arab East were almost always conceived as involving an adult man (who stereotypically would be the “male” partner) and an adolescent boy (the “female”). The latter—referred to in the texts as amrad (beardless boy);ghulām or ṣabī (boy); or fatā, shābb, or hadath (male youth)—though biologically male, was not completely a “man” in the social and cultural sense; and his intermediate status was symbolized by the lack of the most visible of male sex characteristics: a beard. The cultural importance of beards and/or moustaches in the early Ottoman Arab East is attested by both the European travel literature and the indigenous literature. The beard or moustache was a symbol of male honor, something one swore by or insulted.

Corollary to the tacit association of coarse facial hair with masculinity was the relative feminization of the teenage boy whose beard was as yet absent or soft and incomplete. This feminization must have been enhanced by the fact that, in the urban centers at least, women’s faces were normally veiled in public.

It is not a straightforward affair to determine the age during which a male youth was considered to be sexually attractive to adult men. The relevant terms, such as amrad or ghulām, tend to be impressionistic and somewhat loosely employed in the sources. For example, the term amrad (beardless boy) could be used to refer to prepubescent, completely smooth-cheeked boys, as opposed to adolescent, downy-cheeked youths, but it could also refer to all youths who did not yet have a fully developed beard, and hence to youths who were as old as twenty or twenty-one. According to a saying attributed to the first Umayyad Caliph Muʿāwiyah (d. 680) and quoted in an eighteenth-century dictionary:

Master and houseboy

I was beardless for twenty years, fully bearded for twenty years, I plucked gray hairs from it for twenty years, and dyed it for twenty years.[2]

If the upper age limit was physical maturity at around twenty, the lower age limit for the sexual interest of the pederasts seems to have been the recognized transition from childhood to youth, at the age of seven or eight. The weight of the available evidence tends to support the conclusion that the pederasts’ lust tended to be directed at boys whose age fell within this interval, and that the boy’s attractiveness was usually supposed to peak around halfway through, at fourteen or fifteen. The Egyptian Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī, writing in the late seventeenth century, opined that a boy’s attractiveness peaks at fifteen, declines after the age of eighteen, and disappears fully at twenty, by which time he will be fully hirsute: “So infatuation and passionate love is properly directed only at those of lithesome figure and sweet smile from those who are in their tens (awlād al-‘ashr).”[3] Similarly, an anonymous poem cited by the Damascene chronicler Ibn Kannān al-Sālihī (d. 1740) on the natural ages of man associated the “son of ten” (ibn al-ʿashr— presumably in the sense of “in his tens” rather than “exactly ten years old”) with incomparable beauty, the “son of twenty” with the heedless pursuit of pleasure, the “son of thirty” with the apogee of strength, etc.[4] In love poetry and rhymed prose, the age of the beloved was often said to be fourteen, probably a standard rhetorical device engendered by the conventional comparison of the face of the beloved with the moon, which reaches its apogee around the fourteenth of each month of the Muslim lunar calendar.[5] However, there is independent evidence from European travel accounts that catamites were “likely of twelve, or fourteene years old, some of them not above nine, or ten.”[6] Much depended, however, on the eye of the beholder as well as the individual rate of maturation. As will be seen in the next chapter, the comparison of the respective charms of beardless and downy-cheeked youths was a conventional topic in the belles-lettres of the period. Many poets expressed the opinion that a boy ceased to be attractive already at the appearance of beard-down (ʿidhār) on his cheeks, which would imply a somewhat lower upper age limit. The Damascene scholar and biographer Muhammad Khalīl al-Murādī (d. 1791) seems to have had enough beard-down by the age of fourteen to merit a poem celebrating the occasion. A grandson of ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī was seventeen, and a son of the Iraqi scholar Mahmūd al-Alūsī eighteen, when they elicited similar poems.[7] The prominent Syrian mystic Muhammad ibn ʿIrāq (d. 1526) veiled his son ʿAlī between the age of eight and sixteen, “to keep people from being enchanted by him,” suggesting that by the latter age his features were deemed by the father to be developed enough to make him unattractive to other men.[8] On the other hand, the chronicler Ibn Ayyūb al-Ansdcl recorded the death of a seventeen-year-old Damascene youth who left behind a host of lamenting male admirers.[9] The Iraqi poet Qāsim al-Rāmī (d. 1772/3) traced in verse the development of a boy from the age of ten, when he “became settled in the sanctuary of beauty,” to the age of sixteen, when he (disreputably) started to pluck the hairs from his cheeks.[10] Plucking beard-down from the face seems to have signaled, in a too direct and indiscreet manner, that the boy actually enjoyed being coveted by men, and was in no hurry to become a bearded adult. To that extent, it was associated with the behavior of boy prostitutes or effeminate males. The above-mentioned Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī thus stated that the term natīf (literally “plucked”) was used of the beardless boy who, “if his beard starts to grow, and he enjoys being effeminate (al-khināth) or—God forbid—he has ubnah, will constantly shave his beard and beautify himself for the libertine (fāsiq) ... for souls incline toward the beardless boy as long as his cheeks are clear.”[11]

Sheikh and boy partying in a garden by Mohammad Ali, Morocco 1530

[1] Ubnah was described in the first chapter as the “disease with prescribed remedies” responsible for the adult man, “viewed as a pathological case, … who desires to be anally penetrated.” Such men stood out, in contrast to men who desired to penetrate boys, who were seen as normal.

[2] Muhammad Murtada al-Zabīdī,Taj al-ʿarūs bi shar jawāhir al-Qāmūs. (Kuwait, 1965-2001) 9 : I66 (m-r-d).

[3] Yusuf Shirbīnī, Hazz al-quūf, (Cairo, 1322H) 94. This is strikingly similar to the pre-Meiji Japanese views analyzed in G. M. Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600—1850. (Berkeley, 1999) 31.

[4] Muhammad Ibn Kannan al-Ṣaliḥ, al-awādith al-yawmiyyah min tārīkh idā ‘ashar wa alf wa mi’ah. (Partial ed., A. ‘Ulabī [with the tide Υawmiyyāt shāmiyyah]. Damascus, 1994) 417.

[5] Hasan al-Būrīnī, Tarājim al-a‘yān min abnā’ al-zamān (edited by S. al-Munajjid. Damascus, 1959—63) 2:241; Muhammad Amīn Muḥibbī, Dhayl Nafat al-rayānah (edited by ‘A. al-Ḥilū. Cairo, 1971) I:412; Ahmad al-Khafājī, Rayānat al-alibbā wa zahrat al-ayāt al-dunyā (edited by ‘A. al-Hilū. Cairo, 1967) 1:247. An eighteenth-century Turkish work of bawdy comedy also states that for pederasts the ideal age of boys is fourteen (see J. Schmidt, “Sünbülza de Vehbi ’s Ševki-Engiz, an Ottoman Pornographic Poem.” Turcica 25 (1993): 24).

[6] H. Blount,A Voyage into the Levant (London, 1636) 14.

[7] Muhammad Khalīl al-Murādī, Silk al-durar fī a‘yān al-qarn al-thānī ashar (Cairo and Istanbul, 1291-1301) I: 247; Kamal al-Dīn Muhammad al-Ghazzī, al- Wird al-unsī wa al-wārid al-qudsī fī tarjamat al-‘ārif

bi-allah ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (MS, American University of Beirut, Mic-MS 243) fol. 110b-111a; Mahmud Shukri al-Alūsī, al- Misk al-adhfar nashr mazāyā al-qarn al-thānī ‘ashar wa althālithʿashar (edited by ‘A. al-Jabbūrī. Riyad, 1982) 98-99. In these cases, the last hemistih of the poems contains the date of composition in letter-code. Together with the date of birth, they allow the calculation of the age of the youth at the time.

[8] Raḍī al-Dīn Ibn al-Ḥanbalī, Durr al-abab fī tārīkh a‘yān alab (edited by M. al-Fākhūrī and Y. ‘Abbārah. Damascus, 1972-74) I : 1109. Ibn al-Ḥanbalī knew the son in question personally.

[9] Musa Ibn Ayyūb Ibn Ayyūb al-Anṣārī, Nuzhat al-khāir wa bahjat al-nāir (edited by ‘A. M. Ibrāhīm., Nuzhat al-khāir) 2 :204.

[10] ‘Uthmān al-‘Umarī, al-Raw al-nair fī tarjamatudabaʾ al-ʿasr (edited by S. al-Nu‘aymī, Baghdad, 1974-75) 2:270-73.

[11] Shirbīnī, op. cit., 233.



If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to greek.love.tta@gmail.com, mentioning in the subject line either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.


Mike,   25 July 2019

I'm a bit critical here of the extensive use of integer chronological age in what I assume to be an attempt to define pederasty. Let me suggest that you look for ways to break away from that supposed restriction, even while applauding what you've already done along those lines by providing examples of art, and first-person historical accounts. I believe falling back into trying to view the situation in terms of chronological age is a modernism that doesn't serve your larger purpose.

In that historical and cultural context (devoid of formal birth certificates and intense government regulation of life based on chronological age) people's status was defined much more on individual traits, tastes, and talents. I would contend this respect for human diversity and individuality is a better approach to understanding all aspects of humanity than chronological (even in our own era). Not all readers may realize that growth milestones like puberty can vary greatly among individuals, as well as in different historical and cultural contexts (due to diet, stress, exposure and to modern human-created chemicals). Thus a reliance—even if not exclusive—on chronological age to describe or define human erotic situations will not only lend to misunderstanding, it also reinforces as "standard" a modernist view of humanity that deserves no special status.

For example, eunuchs were not uncommon in that era and culture. Some eunuchism occurred naturally, and some through surgeries and accidents. The surgeries were sometimes done to increase erotic desirability. And they were a regular part of that culture and can't be dismissed as "freaks" or "exceptions." A reliance on chronological age to define the optimal desirability for an Islamic pederast makes the whole phenomena of eunuchs unexplainable: why take the risks of such a procedure if age is the primary component of desire, and not other, more tangible human attributes? This is only one extreme example where a reliance on age obscures—rather than enlightens—the reader on what constitutes the object of pederastic desire.

* * *

Editor,   29 July 2019

Thanks for the very interesting comment. I agree quite strongly with almost everything you write. I don't wish to encourage anyone "to view the situation in terms of chronological age", but I do think the apparent age of the boy is one consideration that helps us to understand what pederasty was about, and that is why El-Rouayheb and others wise in these matters have devoted a little space to it.

As it happens, I am currently working on an extensive essay, "On the distinct character of Greek love", which will present my current understanding based on the writings so far on this website and certainly includes your points. I'll send you a draft when it is nearer finished and will gladly take on board any further thoughts you have about it.

I'm not sure if I've understood your point about eunuchs. I thought that when boys were castrated for pederastic purposes, it was in order to prolong the period in which they would be attractive (which, as El-Rouayheb says, would otherwise end with the growth of the beard) rather than to increase erotic desirability at an age when boys were anyway found attractive. Unless you are simply pointing out that it was physical development rather than chronological age that mattered, with which I entirely agree.

* * *

Mike,   31 July 2019

Indeed Editor, that was my intent with the comment about eunuchs: the pederast wasn't attracted by chronological age, but rather by a more complex array of triggers of desire independent of age.

I would contend that one must be very, very careful about categorizations. Humanity is profoundly diverse, and we all have a unique set of triggers of desire (for lack of a better term). So when a statement is made about "lack of a beard" we might forget that most women are expected not to have a beard. Is the presence of a penis AND the lack of a beard the root of pederastic desire? Does a boy's effeminate or masculine bearing matter? Does his physical fitness or height matter? Can a boy's excessive height veto desire? Would a boy's "chubbiness" veto it? It isn't one or two triggers that cause desire, but dozens, if not hundreds, both positive and negative. And not just physical attributes, but social positions: questions as to the extent that relative social power plays in pederastic desire are also very interesting—just as they are in adult heterosexual relationships. Each "pederast" (and human) is unique: he (or she?) has a unique set of erotic triggers and "no-goes." So, in a very real sense there isn't "pederasty" but a whole spectrum of "pederasties" that—when cavalierly lumped together—can often result in confusion, obscuring, and even facilitate various bigotries. For example, I have recently heard commentators employed by America's usually prestigious PBS (or possibly NPR) refer to Jeffery Epstein as a "pedophile," which I find profoundly confusing, obscuring, and facilitating bigotry.

* * *

Mike,   31 July 2019

Here's another example of how chronological age distorts our perceptions: a short, mild-mannered, soft-spoken priest gives oral sex to a tall, self-confident, athletic, guy. If the priest is 26-years-old, and the guy 15 everyone in the modern west today would call that pederasty, if not pedophilia. However a typical 1600s Arab would think that conclusion to be just ridiculous. Who is 'correct'? There's no way to tell if we are even posing the question in a useful way: one that leads us to a better understanding. We just don't have appropriate tools to understand these issues objectively.

The modern West has made remarkable strides in physics, chemistry, engineering, electronics, but as far as the human sciences go, the "modern" West is still in their dark ages. Our understanding of human relationships and eroticism is still mired in religious prejudices and bigotries. The USA particularly is loath to apply even Darwinism to the understanding of human nature—outside a few academics who are under constant scrutiny and intense objections from most of the general population.