Today, we’re moving to the early modern Middle East to explore Islamic ideas of sexuality and queerness with Professor Elyse Semerdjian, who teaches Middle Eastern History at Whitman College. She studies the history of the Ottoman Empire and Syria, and her research focuses on, as she puts it, “women, religious and sexual minorities, and popular classes typically left on the margins of history.” We sat down to talk about her life, her research, and one of her fantastic publications.
When she was younger, Semerdjian lived in Aleppo, Syria, just across the street from a sex worker. “A lot of her clients were people in the government,” she said. “And it was just sort of known in the neighborhood.”
She was fascinated by the contrast between the kind of sexual permissiveness she was witnessing in Syria and the stories she’d heard from other predominantly Islamic countries.
She’d also heard, from an aunt’s gynecologist, about the practice of “creating fake hymens prior to marriage,” a surprisingly common practice that hinted at a longer history of sexual behavior that didn’t conform to widely accepted norms.
These ideas sparked her interest in studying sexuality in Islamic history: how had sexual deviancy been treated in the past, not just in Islamic texts, but in actual, everyday life?
When she began researching these concepts in college and graduate school, she knew just the right documents to reference: historical local court records. They registered all sorts of everyday activities: “marriage, divorces, stolen donkeys. Any kind of thing that happens, people would go to the court and register a complaint.”
And these records revealed a “wild world,” in which jurors ruled that a marriage wasn’t necessarily invalid because of a broken hymen, and in which women were getting divorces based on impotence, “which meant they were entitled to sexual satisfaction in their marriages.” This kind of evidence “blows apart a lot of modern conceptions we have about Islam,” she told me. “It invites us to decolonize our understanding.”
We turned our conversation towards Semerdjian’s article, “‘Because He Is So Tender and Pretty’: Sexual Deviance and Heresy in Eighteenth-Century Aleppo.” In her wide-ranging study, spanning 359 years, she scoured court records for successful prosecutions of same-sex intimacy in Aleppo, Syria. Out of the thousands of court cases she searched through, she found only one successful prosecution: the case of a young boy named Muhammad ibn Hajj ‘Ali.
That incredible discovery raises the question: was sodomy seen as illegal during that time? “Jurists…legal thinkers, were split about that. There was a side that felt that it did not constitute a crime,” she explained.
However, she noted, any criminalization of sodomy “was also about power.” After all, there were a lot of powerful men who engaged in same-sex relationships. How do we know this? “On their diplomas–these ijazah… [they] tell you what a man studied, who he studied with…it’s the equivalent of a college diploma. On those diplomas, it would tell you, ‘And he likes to chase beardless men!'”
“There is persecution, and sometimes religious persecution bleeds into sort of a form of sexual persecution," she continued. "But targeting people we would call gay today? It's very hard to find those cases, if at all.”
That kind of tolerance was not limited to sexuality–it also extended into acceptance of what today we might call nonbinary identities. “They understood that there was one sex…and women are deformed men. This [idea] is from Aristotle. But it was that one or the other gender would eventually present.”
And although there is a very real gender binary in Islamic law, historical jurists also acknowledged the existence of people outside the binary. They were called mukhannath, “which means more like an effeminate male.” The term doesn’t have a neat translation into English, however.
“If you read some of the fatwas [a formal interpretation of Islamic law] on, for example, intersex babies that are born," she continued, "a 12th century jurist is saying, just let the kid develop and see which sex dominates and which one doesn't. Don't determine the gender, just let the developmental phases present themselves. If there's ambiguity, let time tell.”
“This kind of nonbinary, khuntha [intersex] character and intersex person gets their own space in mosques separate from the men and women, not to segregate them but because they don't fit in the two-sex framework.”
So how does this historical understanding of nonbinary and queer identity relate to our modern conceptions of queerness? “To go back to the research, the amrad is the prepubescent boy, beardless boy, androgynous figure. Do we call him queer? I mean, I understand because everyone wants to see themselves reflected in the historical record.”
So, Semerdjian suggested, “it would be just so cool to actually throw a lot of this terminology, ancient and modern, out the window and start from scratch.”
For more of Semerdjian's amazing work, check out her book, “Off the Straight Path”: Illicit Sex, Community and Law in Ottoman Aleppo (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008).