Al-Andalus. Poetry. Homoerotic Verse.
One of the many surprises of the poetry of al-Andalus (as the Moors called the land they occupied in the Iberian Peninsula) is the existence of homoerotic verse. It was, however, not an isolated feature but figured as part of a general occurrence across the Islamic world. This despite the orthodox view as reflected in the Qu’ran, in the hadiths (the collected sayings attributed to Muhammad) and in legal treatises (e. g. the theologian Malik of Medina) which was generally unforgiving. Punishment was death by stoning, although in the most liberal cases the penalty could be reduced to whiplashes.
The continued and widespread penning of homoerotic poetry reflected, then, a marked ambivalence or at least cautious acceptance when popular attitude was measured against orthodox stances. In al-Andalus, the most articulate and influential commentary on love was made by the Cordoban Ibn Hazm (994-1064) in his wide-ranging book, The Dove’s Neck-Ring about Love and Lovers (c. 1022). For Ibn Hazm, love was natural, God-given and beyond man’s control and most of his arguments refer to heterosexual relationships, as exemplified by numerous anecdotes. However, he does also include tales of men falling in love with other men or youths without condemnation. What was important was that lovers should keep their love secret. Ibn Hazm even extols those who love without the objects of their love even being aware of the passion they had awoken. Those thus infatuated were the “martyrs of love.”
In reciprocated homosexual love, Ibn Hazm seems to suggest that relationship be restricted to chaste embraces and kisses without intercourse or at least should not infringe on public morality. The frequent references in legal and moral commentaries, as well as in poetry, to male friendships suggest that the practice was fairly common and tolerated.
Several leaders –kings, ministers of state, scholars, civil servants– were known to be bisexual, including the great Abd al-Rahman III (912-61), self-declared caliph who ruled al-Andalus in its political and cultural heyday, Abd al-Rahman’s son, al-Hakam II (915-76), and al-Mu’tamid (1040-95), the king/ emir of the taifa of Seville.
Homoerotic poetry in al-Andalus is in many ways much like heterosexual verse in that it seeks to open to readers a world of unexpected associations based on images that delight in awakening a sensory response. Nature, from precious metals and jewelry to animals and flowers, has an important function in this. It is trawled for a combination of images that suggest refined eroticism and indolent pleasure with, for example, reclining youths whose beauty the leaves the lover inebriated. Wine is frequently present (despite official Muslim injunctions against alcohol) served perhaps by a slender youth or cup bearer whose emerging beard only adds to his desirability.
[There is a revered source that may surprisingly have helped
make such poems acceptable, and that is the Qu’ran,
where the image of paradise frequently conjures a garden
with bountiful streams where boys serve the blessed with
wine and fruits, e.g. Suras 76, 56, 52,]
Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi (858-940), the most prominent poet in the courts of Abdullah ibn Muhammad (ruled 888-912) and Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912-61), describes the effect of a cup bearer when he looks at him:
Oh that face that shines at me
almost bled (i.e. blushed) when I gazed at it.
He gave me the cup and the darts of his eyes,
and before I drank from his hands,
it was from his eyes that I drank. (Legacy, 330)
The first growth of a youth’s beard commonly awoke a passionate response in Arabic poets. Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi puts it like this:
Oh you on whose cheeks the sprouting beard
has drawn two lines arousing passion and frustration,
I never knew your glance could be a sword until you put
on the sword belt of your new beard. (Banners #64)
Ibn Aishah of Valencia (end 11th beg 12th C) avoids the martial imagery for a softer picture, as he describes the transformation from child to youth entirely in terms of natural objects:
If you loved his face when it was a garden where soft narcissus and red roses grow,
Love it all the more now, and with greater passion, for his new beard has added violets. (Banners #66)
Night, predictably, figures frequently in love poetry; it is a time when lovers can be alone. Ibn Hazm quotes lines from Ibn Ammar (d. 1086), the bisexual vizier to al-Mut’amid with whom he had a stormy relationship and by whom he was killed! Ibn Ammar describes an erotic night he spent with the then youthful al-Mu’tamid, whose beauty is evoked by natural objects that convey youthful colour (the myrtle is an evergreen bush with aromatic white or rosy flowers) combined with the purity and fragrance of the lilies:
During the night of union there was wafted
To me, in his caresses, the perfume of its dawns,
My tears streamed out over the beautiful gardens
Of his cheeks to moisten its myrtles and lilies… (Crompton, 151).
The love making is converted into a suggestive, erotic picture but constrained by the delicacy of the metaphors drawn from nature.
One of the best-known poets of homoerotic verse is Ibn Shuhayd (992-1035), like Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi, from Córdoba. Well known, too, for raging against the impotence and disintegration of his beloved Córdoba, Ibn Shuhayd could celebrate his attachment to his lover with some disturbing images for the modern reader. In one poem, he describes their meeting at night:
When, drenched in drunkenness, he lay down and fell asleep, and the eyes of the night watchman closed in slumber,
I approached him timidly, like a friend who is searching for something;
imperceptibly as a dream, I crept towards him, and as sweetly as breathing, I drew close to him,
I kissed the whiteness of his neck and sipped the redness of his lips;
and I spent the night with him deliciously, until the darkness smiled, showing the white teeth of dawn. (Banners #177)
Modern sensibility would probably not view the picture very favourably since this is a one-sided picture of events, despite the seemingly innocuous imagery of timidity and friendship and apparent satisfaction. But that satisfaction is not seen to have been shared, since the narrator has taken advantage of his partner’s drunkenness to caress him, and the “I” of the last line is conspicuous rather than the expected “we” of shared pleasure. Nowadays, we might classify this non consensual, a kind of rape, with the partner unconscious and the action centred around the “I” of each line except the first.
The same criticism of one-sided satisfaction might be made of the following two lines, where questionable poetic taste and overwrought passion –as expressed by Ibn Shuhayd– have combined to produce a comical image:
Such was the kissing, such my sucking of his mouth
that he was almost made toothless. (Watt and Cachia, 102)
A final example shows how difficult it is sometimes to distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual poems, since the imagery can be similar to that used in describing the lady. In fact, in a well regarded Spanish translation of the Banners by Emilio García Gómez, Poemas arabigoandaluces # 41) the following extract is from a poem is entitled “The beautiful woman in revelry: la hermosa en la orgia.” In two English versions (Banners and Monroe’s anthology) it is a young man who is described. The poet, Prince Marwan ibn Abd al-Rahman (grandson of Abd al-Rahman III, d 1009) imagines his lover drinking a glass of wine. He begins:
His supple waist was a branch that balanced on the sandy dune of his hips, from which my heart seized fruits of fire.
The fair hair that peeped over his brow cast a curl over the white page of his cheeks, like gold running over silver. (Poemas arabigoandaluces #41)
The poem continues with contrasting images of the wine as red nectar in a glass held by the lover’s white fingers, and when drunk the wine becomes the sun which sets in his lips leaving its setting rays on his cheeks.
The sensation from reading this kind of poetry –not only homoerotic but also heterosexual– is that of refined eroticism and indolent pleasure. It is an impressionistic picture of the beloved as a medium for aesthetic as well as sensory gratification. The prominence of wine might surprise us in view of the Islamic strictures against alcohol, but if documentary evidence is anything to go by, the restrictions were not too severely applied, and in fact, the praise of wine was a very widely exploited topic in Arabic poetry (The Rubaiyat (i. e. Quatrains) of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) is undoubtedly the best known, thanks to Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation).
There is something transgressive in the indulgence enjoyed in skirting official sanctions. Writing about wine and homosexuality was perhaps, acceptable because it was not seen as openly advocating such behaviour but as a doorway to new and unexpected worlds of aesthetic pleasures.
Bellamy, James & Patricia Owen Steiner Banners of the Champions. An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry from Andalusia and Beyond. Selected and transl. from the original Arabic of Ibn Said’s anthology Madison 1989.
García Gómez, Emilio Poemas arabigoandaluces Mexico 3rd ed 1946 (based on Ibn Said’s collection, The Banner of the Champions).
Menocal, Rosa, Scheindlin, Raymond and Sells,Michael The Literature of Al-Andalus Cambridge 2000.
Monroe, J. T Hispano-Arabic Poetry: a Student Anthology Berkeley 1974.
Rubiera Mata, Ma Jesus Literatura hispanoárabe Madrid 1992.
Salma Khadra Jayyasi ed. Legacy of Muslim Spain Leiden 1992.
Watt, Montgomery and Cachia, Pierre A History of Islamic Spain New York 1967.