Gender and Sexual Diversity in Islamic Art

The common medieval tradition of gender and sexual diversity within Muslim and Arab societies proves how heterogeneous and tolerant practices can thrive.

No artistic discipline is more neglected in Islamic civilization than its figurative art, which involves the depiction of humans and animals on any surface.

While the Jewish ban on this art form has influenced Islamic doctrines and cultures until today; As Islamic civilization expanded into cultural centers outside the Arabian Peninsula, new Muslim nations continued to create images consistent with their inherited local artistic traditions, with varieties in quality, quantity, styles, storage conditions and rules followed to determine what is authorized or authorized. not.

Thus, what is called “Islamic art” does not necessarily reflect religion or religious views, but it surely reflects the Muslim cultures that have shaped the production of these arts.

“Unlike modern Muslim societies where heterosexuality is seen as the default ‘norm’, medieval Muslim societies saw bisexuality as the norm for men, at least in terms of attraction and desires”

Yet the subject most modern Muslims would not expect to find in the artwork of their ancestors is the depiction of love affairs and sexuality.

Although such depictions are rare compared to images made of other subjects, the surviving erotic images are stunning and breathtaking.

These works were painted for different reasons in books or on objects intended to belong generally to educated and privileged people, since painting was – in general – an expensive art form.

In this article, we have a general view of the representation of gender and sexual diversity in classical Islamic art, providing some examples from different eras and areas, and taking into account that the images selected are more conservative than those not shared.

Mughal emperor Jahangir in 18th century Nepal

Among the earliest surviving figurative art in Islamic history are the murals of the Amra bathhouse in Jordan, which belonged to the Umayyad Caliph Alwalid bin Yazid in the 8th century.

Here we can see depictions of naked women bathing and topless dancers and men wrestling in their underwear, but there are also heterosexual love and sex scenes.

At that time, most local artists were still influenced by Greco-Roman artistic traditions, belonging to a very sensual culture. Moreover, historical records show that Alwalid bin Yazid was a very secular libertine ruler, keen on visual arts.

This explains the existence of such images in his public baths. In fact, the tradition of decorating the walls of public baths continued to be widespread throughout the Islamic world.

In his book The Ring of the Dovethe Andalusian polymath and jurist Imam Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi reproaches his friend for having fallen in love with an imaginary girl whom he saw in his dream, and he says to him: “I would excuse you if you fell in love with a picture of those in the bathhouse.“But what would be the images at the public baths?

Couple from Reza Abbasi, Iran 17th century

Unfortunately, apart from the Amra bathhouse, we don’t have many bathhouse frescoes from the medieval Islamic period.

Yet the use of the gender-neutral phrase “loving images” is known in ancient Arabic literature to mean falling in love with male or female characters, whether depicted in paintings or as actual human beings.

Unlike modern Muslim societies where heterosexuality is seen as the default “norm”, medieval Muslim societies saw bisexuality as the norm for men, at least in terms of attraction and desires.

Thus, the depiction of beautiful young people would be as beautiful and erotic as the depiction of girls, whether in the form of murals in the homoerotic atmosphere of public baths, or anywhere else.

In fact, from at least the Safavid dynasty (from 1500), it is difficult to distinguish between young men and women in Persian art because beardless boys look gentle and feminine, while that girls are somehow masculine.

They both wear jewelry and a similar fashion style. Only the breast may be the key to distinguishing between the two sexes, but even this characteristic is not obvious in many cases. This reflects not only the beauty standards of the time, but also the sexual preference in the Islamic world in general, and in Persian societies in particular.

This eerie atmosphere can be extended to Turkish/Ottoman miniatures, where boys would replace women by cross-dressing while performing and dancing at public events. Indeed, it was not acceptable for women “to humiliate their honor” in the presence of strangers, while the sexual reputation of boys “can be replenished” once they reach adulthood.

Couple, Amra Omayyad Public Baths, Jordan 8th Century
Shah abbas with his cupbearer by Mohd Qasim, Iran 17th century

In general, although the Arabs were the nation most open to the production of erotic literature in medieval times, their surviving figurative arts are more conservative than the works of non-Arab Muslims.

Nudity in Arabic imagery was mostly time-limited and justified by context, while even intimate scenes were usually portrayed in subtle ways. It seems that the Arabs believed that what is allowed to be spoken or written is not necessarily acceptable to be represented visually.

This belief is persistent until today, and this view extends to their conservative stance on the depiction of the prophets, whereas non-Arab Muslims found no problem in any subject.

For example, Mughal art which flourished in South Asia under Islamic rule (from 1600) – can be considered the most erotic school among all Islamic art schools. This school was heavily influenced by a Hindu culture already filled with erotic sculptures and paintings.

Therefore, Mughal artists from all walks of life saw no problem in depicting erotic scenes, including not only heterosexual couples, but also other sexual forms and practices, including lesbian romance, orgies, and even bestiality.

As Westernization swept through the Islamic world during the colonization of the first half of the 20th century, Muslims borrowed and adopted conservative sexual norms at the time, mixed with ignored religious views, which strongly influenced the arts and local literature.

Women in Zenana, 17th century Mughal India

This led to the banning or censorship of certain ancient works classified as violating public taste and led to the complete disappearance of homoeroticism in Islamic art.

Many modern Iranian artists still draw inspiration from ancient Persian romantic miniatures, but they avoid the depiction of nudity and handsome boys, in keeping with the homophobic norms imposed by the modern regime and society.

Ironically, these standards do not resemble the standards of ancient Muslim societies, but rather those of Victorian morality.

Jamal Bakeer is a Jordanian/Lebanese writer, multiplatform storyteller, and heritage and civilization researcher.

Follow him on Twitter: @JamalBakir

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