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Gender and Sexuality in the Premodern Islamic World

Session IV-09, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel grapples with both the continuity and the shifts in the construction of gender and sexuality in premodern Islamic societies, from the beginnings of Islam to the early modern period. Through a series of close-readings across textual genres, including mystical, erotic, poetic, and legal texts, the panel invites us to approach the study of gender and sexuality from a perspective that is at once interdisciplinary, yet regionally-focused. The papers attempt to critically argue with modern theoretical concepts of gender and sexuality, reflecting on the possibilities and limitations of using modern categories for thinking about the past; each of the papers on this panel asks, in different ways, what new light can be shed on premodern subjects by thinking of them as gendered/sexed? What dangers do these categories pose for misrepresenting the past? Meanwhile, the panel also invites us to reconceive area studies as a site of research that can make distinct and novel contributions to the conceptual debates about gender and sexuality. Seeking to move beyond applicationist approaches, this panel thinks with legal, mystical, and literary texts of the Islamic past in attempting to pave new ways of understanding gender and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world. Each of the papers on this panel addresses these questions by critically examining premodern Islamic materials alongside methods and approaches in the study of gender and sexuality. Reading classical Islamic law in conversation with anthropological theory, the first paper suggests that the practice of stipulating dowers (mahr/sadaq) in Islamic marriages can be understood in terms of gift exchange theory, arguing that Muslim jurists of the formative period conceptualized dowers as a wife’s weapon that could be used to negotiate her positionality in marriage, sexual pleasure, and divorce. The second paper reads medieval mystical and erotic love poetics with an approach informed by psychoanalytic and feminist theory, arguing that the polyphony of the term ‘ishq carried a meaning of an ethic of care and societal engagement, emblamatically represented by the lover Layla in the famous love story of Layla and Majnun. The third paper, examining the genre expectations of premodern Persian literature against contemporary understandings of homosexuality, argues that Zolāli’s Maḥmud o Ayāz (1615 CE) confounds our understanding of premodern Islamic masculinities through its depiction of a prolonged, homoerotic relationship. This panel thus offers a variety of new inroads to the study of gender and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world.
  • Scholars such as Julie Meisami and Dick Davis classify Niẓāmī’s (d. 1209) mas̱navīs as medieval romances and thereby categorize them alongside the works of European authors such as Béroul or Boccacio. While the broad category of romance is useful for comparative projects, it risks overlooking the role of the mas̱navī form as the dominant vehicle of narrative poetics in the medieval Persianate literary landscape. In this paper, I demonstrate how Niẓāmī’s Laylī o Majnūn negotiated mystical and courtly forms of desire through use of the mas̱navī form, and what overall effect this negotiation had on the definition of desire itself. Instead of separating the sacred (mystical) from the profane (courtly) along the lines of a modern, Western perspective, I show how Majnun’s speech throughout the text represents a convergence of these two registers by placing select passages into conversation with mystical theories of desire as well as contemporaneous erotic poetics. After demonstrating how Majnun’s speech negotiates these registers, I shift to analyzing Layla’s reported speech as the main cite that critiques Majnun’s dominant discourse. Layla’s critiques throughout the work underscore the ways in which the mystical and the erotic construe desire as masculine, as well as show how their convergence leads to the impossibility of a feminine desiring subject. I analyze in depth Layla’s letters from the work that cite the gendered norms that constrict her expression of desire as well as that offer a more socially informed perspective on ‘ishq (variously translated as eros, radical love, or mystical longing). In other words, by reading Layla’s position in the work as a lover and not just as a beloved, I argue that her perspective offers an alternative view of ‘ishq as inextricably entangled with active engagement in the world. Such a perspective raises questions not just around the gendered politics of love poetics at the time, but also around the way in which the Niẓāmī’s mas̱navī experimented with literary form so as to offer a different kind of dialogic space for considering and navigating various registers of the complex human question of what it means to love.
  • There is a multiplicity of reports as to how the Ghaznavid Sultan Maḥmud (d. 1030 CE) fell in love with a servant boy named Ayāz. These short anecdotes about Maḥmud and Ayāz begin to appear in histories, biographical dictionaries, and Sufi poetry from the middle of the eleventh century. Given the nature of Persianate poetry, which allows for both secular and spiritual readings of love, the story of Maḥmud and Ayāz has understandably been received as both an admirable example of total submissiveness to divine love, or – in popular media – as a tale of “gay muslim heroes” of the Islamicate past. Of course, as the scholarship of Khaled El-Rouayheb and others has demonstrated, the pre-modern Islamicate gender system does not have an equivalent for the modern concept of homosexuality. Maḥmud and Ayāz thus cannot be seen as a pre-modern homosexual couple, but as a man and a youth in a homoerotic relationship. This paper explores the story of Maḥmud and Ayāz in the version of the Safavid poet Zolāli Khwānsāri (d. 1615 CE). His poem, a mathnavi of about 6000 lines, privileges a mystical perspective on their relationship, as opposed to a purely homoerotic one. However, I maintain that even though the homoeroticism of the text may be allegorical, a comprehensive reading of this text should account for both literal and allegorical levels of meaning. This paper therefore analyzes the construction of masculinities through the homoeroticism present in the text. A close reading shows that descriptions of Ayāz are consistent with the typology of the beloved youth found in other genres of Islamicate poetry, such as ghazals. However, given the longer mathnavi form, the story of the two lovers is also reminiscent of well-known heteroerotic romances, such as Khosrow and Shirin, or Layli and Majnun. Because of this overlap of genre expectations, Zolāli’s Maḥmud o Ayāz is not merely a short account of an infatuation, but a fully-fledged, homoerotic romance. As such, the poem’s construction of homoerotic masculinities is unique in the Islamicate literary sphere.
  • In their chapters on Islamic marriage (nikah), early Muslim legal treatises such as Sahnun b. Sa'id al-Tanukhi's al-Mudawwana al-Kubra emphasize the significance of bridal dowers (mahr/sadaq) in marital arrangements. Although the dower, where stipulated, is usually given by the husband to the wife, its form can vary significantly. According to Sahnun, a dower may be paid immediately (naqdan) or in installments, one of them due before the parties consummate their marriage, the other at an agreed-upon time (ila ajal) or in case of husband-initiated divorce (talaq). In this paper, I examine Islamic marriage as a site of exchange by exploring and discussing the legal positions presented in fiqh-manuals from the formative period. The paper takes issue with the observation that Islamic law configures women singularly as naturally deficient and explores Islamic marriage as a transformative site that leads to the creation of value. This value, I argue, manifests not merely in the financial security and leverage acquired by women by stipulating bridal dowers (mahr) but beyond that, subsists in enhanced opportunities for them to advance claims within marriage and negotiate forms of sociality, including but not limited to their positionality in marriage, sexual pleasure, and divorce. Therefore, the value of the bridal dower lies not so much in its face value but, instead, in the inherent quality that it can be exchanged further in return for enhanced rights and conditions. This paper thus invites us to imagine Islamic marriage as a site of gift exchange while complicating the discussion of gender configurations in Islamic law as essential attributes, showing that the marital practices prescribed by Muslim jurists from the formative period subscribe to a relational concept of gender in which the spouses' rights and obligations are defined in relative terms and mutually opposed to each other. The argument of this paper is fleshed out by drawing on the analytical concepts of gift exchange, value creation, gender, sociality, and hierarchy as used in the works of Marcel Mauss, Marilyn Strathern, and Lucinda Ramberg.
  • The theme of this paper is to occupy the liminal spaces of what constitutes “acceptable” scholarship on gender and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world. First, it pushes the boundaries of MESA by carving a space for South Asian scholarship in ways that can allow for comparative engagement with the SWANA regions. Second, it employs unorthodox methodology in its analysis of the Urdu ghazal, by reading a form of subjectivity and agency in a formally rigid genre. Lastly, it challenges normative understandings of autobiography by extending the threshold of literature to acts of performativity. All of the above are possible through a deep analysis of the tawaif, or courtesan of premodern South Asia, and the body of literature written by and about this influential figure. In the first part of my paper, I set the mise en scène for the South Asian courtesan, one which emphasizes acts of resistance and erotic manipulation through the cultural production of poetry, music, and architecture. This anti-imperial historiography about courtesans allows the opportunity for poetry to function as a vehicle of social and physical mobility for premodern women. I examine the kotha, or bordello, as a space where female sexuality is fairly constructed by women and associate the poetry of the courtesan through Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope, to distinguish the imagined spaces described in ghazals with actual physical spaces that the courtesan was able to travel. Next, I problematize the gendered voice in Urdu ghazals and illustrate how tawaifs wrote in masculine voice to invert gender norms of the time and to challenge alternative patronizing genres in the feminine voice. In my opinion, the manipulation of erotic and devout imagery in the ghazal, combined with direct solicitations, show a particular agency that traditional literary scholars may overlook. Lastly, I challenge the genre of the autobiography by constellating architectural sites, courtly performances, and gift giving to create a more inclusive picture of who these women were. Based on deconstruction theory, I argue that poetry is another instantiation of autobiographical work as it is a performance of selfhood. An inquiry into poetry as autobiography may seem theoretically unorthodox, but this is an exercise in anti-assimilationism for the pre-modern courtesan and for the scholar who studies her.