Medieval Islamic society, however, had its own peculiarities:
- as women were for the most part kept separate, and because
- Arabic culture had inherited the Greek idealization of the older male and beautiful youth relationship
- the masculine was valued above the feminine, and
- the masculine active role of penetration was superior to passivity;
therefore the act of penetration was more acceptable and with this comes the division between the older, dominating male and the passive youth.
The Sufis borrowed this cultural idea in their practice, theory, and literature.
They used homoerotic imagery to symbolize the ultimate union between the Divine and mystic, in which the mystic's soul plays the passive role and is consumed by the Beloved.
As homosexual acts were outwardly condemned by Islam, and because holy men were supposed to practice worldly renunciation and chastity, the use of homoerotic motifs by Sufis was a subversive stab at orthodox practice.
The ideas disturbing to the orthodox community were:
- that God is capable of passionate love for humanity,
as well as the assertion that
- the only true path towards the Divine is through love, which must replace all other unworthy aspects of faith.
The Sufis believed that love is the eternal attribute of God and only with love can one experience Divine Union.
Through the use of homoerotic imagery, Sufi poets expressed their:
- experiences of unitive fusion with the Divine, and their
- belief of the manifestation of Divine Beauty and Love on earth.
Homosexual acts were strictly forbidden by the Quran, as embodied in the destruction of the sinful city of Lut, in which God states:
For ye practice your lusts
On men in preference
To women: ye are indeed
A people transgressing
-- (Sura 7:81)
The theme of homosexual acts as a perversion against God and nature is prevalent in the Quran, and this message is repeated in Sura 11:77-83, 21:74, 27:165-75, 27-54-58, and 29:28-30.
Yet the punishment given in the Quran for homosexual acts is surprisingly light:
If two men among you
Are guilty of lewdness,
Punish them both.
If they repent and amend,
Leave them alone; for Allah
Is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful
-- (Sura 4:16).
The fact that the story of Lut is consistently repeated throughout the Quran as an example of a people that sinned against God and were punished suggests that homosexuality was common in the society to whom Muhammed preached.
Although in Islamic doctrine:
- homosexual acts were seen as an aberration against God,
- homosexual desire was not condemned as harshly by the prophet, and was even viewed as understandable.
Jim Wafer, in his article "Muhammed and Male Homosexuality", states that because men caught in homosexual acts were not punished if penitent, Muhammed must have taken a "lenient attitude toward sex between males" (Wafer, 89). He points out that Muhammed must have understood the attraction of men for young males as paradise has young cup bearers as well as beautiful women, or houris:
Round about them will serve,
(Devoted) to them,
Youths (handsome) as Pearls
-- (Sura 52:24)
One of the hadith reports that Muhammed said:
- "I have seen my Lord in a form of the greatest beauty, as a youth with abundant hair, seated on the throne of grace, clad in a garment of gold, on his hair a golden crown, on his feet sandals,"
while in another he cautions his followers not to
- "gaze at beardless youths, for they have eyes more tempting than the huris." (Wafer, 90).
Therefore Muhammed condemned the homosexual act, while not condemning the attraction for males as either unnatural or against God.
In most Islamic societies there is no separation between secular and religious law; the Quran is Divine Law, and it is both immortal and unchanging. This is true of the medieval Islamic period, and therefore Islamic doctrine dictated that homosexual acts must be outlawed. Yet it is difficult to gauge the tolerance of medieval Islamic society towards homosexuality or its acceptability.
In his book "The Arabian Nights: A Companion", Robert Irwin states that there is evidence "to suggest that in medieval Arabic society active homosexuality was regarded as an acceptable way of finding relief from sexual tension, but that passive homosexuals and those who cultivated effeminate traits were scorned" (Irwin, 168).
James T. Monroe, in his article "Abu Bakr's Naughty Son", asserts that there was no concept of homosexuality in medieval Islam, but that "Islamic jurisprudence adopts a more restrained attitude, according to which attraction toward members of one's own sex is viewed as entirely normal and natural," and that "since same-sex attraction is viewed as natural, surrendering to a natural temptation cannot make the individual abnormal - merely sinful. . . within the restricted limits of discussion set by Islamic law, there was no room for the emergence of delineation of a homosexual personality per se" (Monroe, 118).
Though homosexuality was supposedly forbidden by religious law, and Islamic society seemed outwardly to be restrictive and severe, homosexual acts seem to have been quite prevalent and even acceptable in society. This is seen in the story "Girls or Boys" from the "Arabian Nights", in which the lady Dahia and the old man al-Salihani argue whether boys or girls are preferable. Ironically, al-Salihani uses the Quran to support his view:
"The Koran says: 'Men surpass women because Allah has given them superiority'. .. These holy words prove once and for all that a woman is worth only half a man"
-- (Mardrus, 410).
Despite al-Sulihani's assurance that the prophet approved of homosexual acts, it was against Islamic law; the desire, however, was not.
Homoerotic desire was seen as not only natural, but even as embodying the love relationship between God and man. The Sufis were especially enamored of love theology, and used homoeroticism in both their poetry and practice:
- beauty and earthly perfection were seen as physical manifestations of God's love as Creator;
- God's presence on earth could be contemplated through "nazar" (which is gazing upon a beautiful object and experiencing unfulfilled desire),
- which symbolized longing for union with the Divine.
It was also an ascetic practice: the denial of earthly and carnal desires in order to concentrate fully upon God.
Asceticism and rejection of earthly pleasures is a central aspect of Sufism, as the ultimate goal is God as center of every moment and experience of God's love. Sensual pleasures distract one from traveling the right spiritual path and they must be surrendered in order to focus upon God; the heart renounces the world and sacrifices all for devotion to God.
According to the anonymous thirteenth century Sufi author of "Clarifications for Beginners," God created humans so:
- they could know Him and
- God's creation makes His presence known.
As the Sufi shaykh, Junayd was asked: "What is proof of the Maker's existence?"
He replied: "Morning has freed me of need for a lamp"
-- (Chittick, 66).
Through earthly creation, God allows one attribute of His Essence to be known, as "when the Gnostic looks at the manifest dimension of the existent things, he sees nothing but manifestation and generous giving, for that is the presence of self-disclosure and the court of descent" (Chittick, 68).
Both asceticism and experience of God could be sought through unconsummated homoerotic desire, and the Sufis ritualized the gazing upon a beautiful, beardless youth as part of their spiritual practice. The youth was considered a shahid or witness of God's beauty on earth.
The sama, or gathering in which the nazar took place, was given a spiritual dimension by the Sufis, and the "musical gathering is the company of the faithful, the garden in which it takes place is Paradise, the drinking of wine is the intoxication of divine love, and the beautiful youth, who may be the cup bearer, is the Divine Beloved Himself (Wafer, 111).
The twentieth century orientalist Henry Corbin relates the Sufi practice oí nazar to the Mandean belief that each human being has a heavenly twin, and the two are united in death:
"When the human soul has completed its cycle of purifications and when the scales of Abathur Muzania bear witness to its perfect purity, it enters the world of Light and is reunited with its eternal partner:
I go towards my likeness
And my likeness goes towards me;
He embraces me and holds me close
As if I had come out of prison"
-- (Corbin, 33).
Corbin refers to the "true man, the man within man," that dwells within each human and who bears witness to human action and guides the human; through contemplation of the inner man, the human is "united with it to the degree that all his defects are effaced in it; it is the homologue of Perfect Nature, of the shahid as the form of light"
-- (Corbin, 35-36).
Unity through contemplation is reflected in the Sufi nazar as through spiritual gazing upon beauty, the soul reaches a vision of light in which it realizes unity:
"Thus the 'witness in Heaven' is called the 'scales of the supersensory' ... the beauty of the
being who is the witness of contemplation is likewise a means of weighing, since it proves the
capacity or incapacity of the soul to perceive beauty as theophany par excellence"
-- (Corbin, 36).
Corbin's theory that the human reaches spiritual actualization through contemplation of the beauty of its heavenly twin is in accordance with Sufi love theory that asserts that humans have the capability to unite with the Divine within their own souls, for the Divine Essence is both within and separate from the soul. Thus the soul feels the agony of separation and emptiness before and sometimes after realization of the Divine Essence within.
Essential to Sufi love theory is the symbolization of God Himself as the Divine Beloved;
the lover both longs and suffers for the Beloved, and this is expressed through remembrance of the lost Beloved. Through annihilation of Self the Sufi sought to experience ecstatic union with the Divine and reach the ultimate ecstatic state or wajid. Mystical experience is expressed through love imagery and ecstatic union is often depicted as sexual or as an amorous nuptial.
The Sufi shaykh Abu l-Husayn an-Nuri describes the vacillation between veiling and unveiling, the experience of union and separation:
"For twenty years I was between wajd and faqd. When I found my lord, I lost my heart, and when I found my heart, I lost my lord"
-- (Sells, 113).
Mystical union necessarily resulted in both extreme joy and despair as one is a "love martyr," and dies a spiritual or even physical death for love of God, for it is only through death for ideal love that the soul is resuscitated. Love mysticism with God as Beloved was used by the Sufis to express the ineffable nature of humanity's relationship with the Divine. Medieval Sufi mystical verse often employs homoerotic imagery and symbolism in order to effect both emotive reactions and express theological beliefs of the nature of God.
The tenth century mystic Al-Husayn ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj experienced ultimate unveiling as he proclaimed that his spirit was united with God, to the point that he believed he was the supreme manifestation of God's presence on earth:
"I have embraced, with my whole being, all Your love, O my Holiness! You have manifested Yourself so much that it seems to me that there is only You in me! I examine my heart amidst all that is not You, I do not see any estrangement between them and me, and only familiarity between You and me!"
-- (Massignon, 143).
Hallaj goes so far in his love theory to assert that Satan was the perfect lover of God, for when Satan was asked to bow down before Adam, Satan replies:
"Even if I am abandoned, abandonment will be my companion. How can it be abandonment while love is one? To you, praise in success, in the pure absolute for a servant of true heart who will bow to no other than you"
-- (Sells, 275).
According to Hallaj, "Satan had, more than any other lover of God, sought to please, not God but the sublime idea that he had had of God, that men must imitate his example by pushing their desire for God further to breaking the Law" (Massignon, 171). In much the same way, Hallaj was the tragic lover of the Beloved; in his gory death and abandonment by God as a sacrifice, Hallaj achieved union with the Divine.
In his poetry, prayers, and anecdotes about his preaching, Hallaj portrays two visions of God as Divine Beloved: God as cruel, demanding, and jealous, and God as manifested in Hallaj's soul. With the joy of ecstatic union comes the agony of separation, and the realization that there is nothing without God within. Hallaj spoke of this intense fear of the Beloved when he told a gathered crowd to "save me from God. .. For he has robbed me from myself, and He does not return me to myself. . . I am afraid of His forsaking me. .. He will leave me deserted, forsaken, outlawed"
-- (Massignon, 142).
God is spoken of in the terms of a human relationship, as Hallaj fears he will be "deserted" and "forsaken" like a lover that is too much in love with an indifferent beloved. The image is one of a cruel Beloved who so overwhelms the lover he loses all sense of self; the Beloved leaves the lover with the horror that He may withdraw and leave the lover utterly empty. The Beloved is also fiercely jealous, an element of human love that is considered a vice, and the Beloved punishes the lover by removing all love for him in the world. The lover will be hated and killed, but this pain and rejection will draw him close to the Beloved. The reward is immense, as Hallaj describes his experience of Divine Union:
"I am He Whom I love and He Whom I love is I,
We are two spirits indwelling in one body.
When thou seest me, thou seest Him,
And when thou seest Him, then thou dost see us both"
The claim that the Beloved had penetrated and suffused Hallaj's soul to the point that the two were indistinguishable rocked the orthodox community who demanded his death. Yet his extreme words truly embody the Sufi goal of passing from selfhood to God through love, an idea the orthodox community found disturbing and arrogant.
Human relationships were used as a symbol of Divine Love, and the twelfth century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar used the famous homosexual lovers Shah Mahmoud and Ayaz in his "Conference of the Birds" to depict ideal love of God. When Ayaz is raised to kingship from slave by the king and commanded to lead armies in faraway lands, he says:
"What he commands I'll do, but in my heart
We shall not- for one instant- live apart;
And what have I to do with majesty?
To see my king is realm enough for me"
-- (Attar, 159).
Only love is true faith, and Attar continually expresses this ideal love through homosexual imagery. The believer must be a slave to God in love, and be completely overwhelmed with desire and madness for God, as the slave who proclaimed to love the king learned:
"I would have worn his livery, a king
Would have become his slave in everything-
But he resisted love, and it is right
That he should lose his head in such a fight"
-- (Attar, 95).
The two stories are both enclosed by tales or sermons that espouse the proper way in which to love God. The homosexual imagery is not erotic as it is not meant to describe spiritual rapture, but how to surrender oneself so completely to God that death is preferable to separation. The slave had to die because he could endure separation from God; he loved his own life, a mere earthly body, when God was supposed to be his very life, breath, blood, and center of his every living moment.
According to Attar, complete asceticism is necessary for those on the mystical journey, and in this way his writing is relatively orthodox. The carnal pleasure of homosexual acts does not come into play in Attar's use of the homosexual motif, for Sufis must pass from carnal love to love of God. There is no place for love of a created being in Attar's theology, as he chastises those who love worldly things:
"This love is not divine; it is mere greed
For flesh - an animal, instinctive need. …
All those who loved appearances will prove
Each other's enemies and forfeit love,
While those who love the absent, unseen Friend
Will enter that pure love which knows no end"
-- (Attar, 111).
Attar portrays earthly love as an animalistic craving for pleasure, and this love is selfish and impure. True pleasure only comes from the love of the "unseen," unmanifest Divine, for to attempt to encapsulate Divine Beauty in human form is crass. Through purification of the heart one reaches pure Love, and experiences God's uniqueness which is the very essence of tawhid. In Attar's writing, tawhid is not merely the belief in one God, but the experience of loving only God. As Ayaz would sacrifice all felicity for Shah Mahmoud, so must the Sufi devout all to God, and through this the soul is emptied of self and the soul reaches an inward consciousness. The Sufi appears to be a slave to God, yet true liberation is found in enslavement, as Ayaz says to his master:
Persuades my sovereign lord to glance at me,
My being vanishes in that bright light
Which radiates from his refulgent sight;
His splendor shines, and purified I rise"
-- (Attar 195-196).
The thirteenth century Sufi poet Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi wrote of the prophethood of passionate love, and he envisioned Divine union as a movement of the lower human soul towards the perfect Being of pure light. The lower is consumed by the higher through love; the Light of Lights feels only love for itself, but the lover is absorbed by this love:
"The experience of delight is nothing but the consciousness of perfection and completeness arising from the fact that it itself is completeness and perfection"
-- (Suhrawardi, 7).
His poetry expresses the desire of the lover for God as both a painful separation which is sometimes rewarded with "tasting" the Beloved:
"The hearts of those who love you long for you
and take pleasure in the sweetness of reunion with you.
You have shown mercy on those lovers who have taken on themselves
the veil of affection; and passion is the reveler of secrets"
-- (Suhrawardi, 10).
The lover experiences unveiling and the attribute of God as Love, and though the lover's desire is misunderstood and judged, he must nonetheless pursue the Beloved. Suhrawardi asserts the Sufi belief of complete annihilation of Self, and expresses this annihilation through violent and painful love imagery:
"They take delight in nothing save remembrance of their Beloved . ..
They have attained the Presence; all traces of their own essence have vanished. . .
He has annihilated them and torn them from their selves;
He has parted for them the curtains of subsistence,
so that their spirits have become nothing"
-- (Suhrawardi, 12).
His poetry is reminiscent of Attar's assertion that one must only love God, yet his imagery is not of the gentle light that absorbs being, but a violent ripping of the self from the soul, leaving no trace of self, indeed leaving absolute emptiness behind. The image is more in tune with Hallaj's image of God as robbing him of his essence, and fearing utter nothingness if the Beloved withdraws.
Attar's homosexual love imagery usually portrays a royal man as God, and a lowly male slave as humanity, and the love is platonic and chaste; the love is seen as purely symbolic of how to love God rather than the embodiment of ecstatic experience. The lover slave symbolizes the faithful Muslim's complete submission to God and the way in which humans should be consumed only with love of God. Suhrawardi's use of homosexual imagery is much more esoteric; his poetry encapsulates the inexpressible experience of union. Other Sufi poets used more explicit homoerotic imagery to depict the lover's complete submission to the Beloved.
In the case of the thirteenth century Persian Sufi Jalalu'1-Din Rumi, the poetry may have expressed autobiographical elements through which the Essence of Divine Love was explored and interpreted. Rumi found the physical manifestation of the Divine Beloved in the human form of the Sufi dervish Shamsu'1-Din of Tabriz. Shams claimed to have transcended the position of lover and had become the beloved, which presupposes the experience of Divine union.
Passionately devoted to him when they lived together for two years, Rumi was even more devoted after Shamsu'l-Din's death when he began to write poetry. Rumi had two other significant relationships with males, the goldsmith Salah al-Din Zarkub, and his disciple Husam al-Din Chalabi. Rumi's poetry is an ambiguous celebration of human and Divine love, which may or may not have been consumated in reality with his male lovers. For Rumi, the natural love that humans share for each other was neither animalistic nor impure; it was imperative in order to show humans the way to love God. Rumi expressed his love of God through his love for Shams, who was to him the ultimate Sufi master and guide to Divine Love.
Rumi proclaims the Religion of Love through his poetry; for him, the supreme attribute of God is Love beyond all human notions of love. His poetry is thick with opulent imagery of lush gardens, wine, music, and beauty, all of which are used to personify love. The use of homoerotic imagery points to a passionate and intense longing for God, and an understanding of the nature of Divine Love:
Come! How much for a kiss from those precious rubies?
If a kiss costs a life, it still must be bought.
Since that kiss is pure, it is not suited for dust-
I will become a disengaged spirit, I will leave this body.. . .
Another mark is that mad desire for the lip of the Water of Life
makes Love stir up a thousand fires and furnaces every instant.
Still another mark is that the body, like the heart, runs after that kiss with haste.
It becomes slender and delicate like the Friend's lips-how marvelous!
Slenderness from the fire of a boundless Beloved!
-- (Chittick, Rumi 303)
The encounter between God and man is sensually physical; man's longing is depicted as sexual attraction to a body. Yet the poem clearly does not advocate carnality, as the human body must be sacrificed to receive the Divine Kiss. The body is mere dust, which is a potent reminder of the fall of Adam that condemned humankind to death. Rumi answers the question of how man, composed of earth, can aspire to touch, to caress, the Divine Face. The self must be annihilated for the soul to be passively changed by Divine Love, and the surrendering of the self must be an active effort towards union. The poem is charged with longing as Divine Love causes an unbearable heat, an image of the hell of separation, which is the physical sensation of desire. Yet the body is not entirely sinful as it too runs after the Kiss. Rumi's words are rooted in the sensuality of physical desire, and the soul itself is transformed physically to become like the "Friend's lips." His imagery is both unorthodox and verging on wrong belief, as passion overwhelms all other elements of faith.
In another poem Rumi writes:
"Thy Love has transformed every one of my hairs into a verse and a ghazal!
The ecstasy has made every part of me a vat of honey. . .
Last night, the Friend kissed me on the lips- otherwise,
Why should my words be so full of savor?"
-- (Chittick, Rumi 271-272).
Here Rumi describes the transformation that the spirit undergoes through Divine Union, and the profoundly spiritual experience is described with images of physical kissing, animals, and sweet honey. The poem continues:
The lovers lament like reeds, and Love is the flutist.
What marvellous things will Love breathe into this flute of the body!
The flute is manifest and the Flutist hidden- in any case,
my flute is drunk from the wine of His lips.
Sometimes He caresses the flute, sometimes He bites it!
Ah! I lament at the hands of this sweet-melodied, flute-breaking Flutist!
-- (Chittick, Rumi 272)
The image of the Beloved playing the lover like a flute is overtly sexual in nature, as the flute is both a phallic image and the body's connection to the Divine Breath. Rumi shifts all authority of voice to God; he is only the manifestation of the unseen Divine Will, and the Divine is the source of his words and inspiration. Wine imagery is a popular Sufi motif used to describe the experience of Divine rapture, as though Divine Love permeates every element of the mystic and influences all action. Wine, like homosexual acts, is forbidden by Islamic law, and use of the two motifs is a transgressive act in and of itself. Rumi exploits subversive carnal imagery by combining wine and homoeroticism, as the lover is intoxicated by the wine of "His lips" while he plays upon the lover. Once again, the Beloved is depicted as sometimes cruel, sometimes affectionate, with the agonizing bite juxaposed with the loving caress. Spiritual pain is described in terms of the physical, as is spiritual love. Rumi's words are rooted in the sensual, erotic, and lusty, yet they convey the spiritual lusciousness and abundance of the mystical relationship with God.
Sufi poets often appropriated the form of conventional, profane Arabic poetry and imbued the classical style with spiritual meaning. The thirteenth century Arabic Sufi Ibn al-Farid used traditional themes and allusions from the pre-Islamic Arabic nasib, or ode, to give shape to his ecstatic experiences. His poetry moves in the direction of the nazar in which he celebrates Divine beauty and rapture through anthropomorphic imagery of Divine beauty, which are sometimes of an explicitly homoerotic nature:
The sun's self, yea, and the graceful gazelle submit humbly
before his face as he gazes about him, and take refugue
and shelter in his beauty. .. The harshness of his
heart rivals the tempered steel.. .
Ice-cool are his deep-red lips, and sweet his mouth to kiss
in the morning. . . .
Of his mouth and his glances cometh my intoxication; nay,
but I see a vintner in his every limb
-- (Wafer, 116).
The sun is a prevalent image of the Beloved as the only nourisher and source of life for the lover, and Rumi used the sun to symbolize Shams as his only source of illumination and joy. Divine Beauty as light is also employed in Sufi imagery as a lightning flash that illuminates the lover's heart for a brief moment of spiritual realization; it symbolizes "ahwal", the state of constant change.
Vulnerability is represented in the sentimental depiction of the gazelle that takes shelter in the safety of the Beloved, yet the Hallajian image of the demanding Beloved, who took away all earthly affiliations from Hallaj in order to draw him near, is present in the hardness of the Beloved's heart; the imagery vacillates between being enveloped by the Beloved's mouth and unrequited longing, with union portrayed as intoxication and the Beloved's mouth the source of "tasting." Ibn al-Farid used wine imagery to symbolize "the wine of the divine love, which the lovers have quaffed before the grapes were created (i.e., on the Day of the Covenant), and which intoxicates the whole world. . . and leads man like the North Star toward his eternal goal"
-- (Schimmel, 275-276).
The image of the mouth is sensual and inviting, and it suggests the physical presence of a shahid. As with Rumi, Ibn al-Farid is playing with two forbidden carnal pleasures, wine and homosexual acts, to envision spiritual truth outside of orthodox Islam. Ibn al-Farid embodies the Sufi belief that love was the highest spiritual truth, and was above orthodoxy and faith.
The supremacy of love is seen in the poetry of the thirteenth century mystic Fakhr al-Din Iraqi. He followed a group of qalandars to India, supposedly because he fell in love with a young man in their group. The qalandars were "wandering dervishes, who, given to wine and love and the 'satisfaction of the heart,' observed only the bare minimum of conventional religious practices, and were not interested in morality and custom, nor asceticism"
-- (Wafer, 120).
Iraqi's poetry reflects overwhelming and passionate longing for the Beloved and he captures in poetic language the state of the true lover:
What man is there that, having eyes to see.. . did not yield
his soul and heart and body unto Him.
The heart cannot withstand His loveliness:
it steals away the mind, and cheats the heart.
That slender grace, that is His beauty's charm,
ensnares the hearts of spiritual men,
and His primeval lovers bear the mark
of servitude eternal to His love.
-- (Wafer, 121)
Again, there is the image of the ruthless Beloved that "steals" heart and mind and empties the soul until it is devoid of self. The poem embodies the triad of lover, love, and Beloved as self is annihilated in the lover and his very mind, essence, and body are consumed by love. Complete submission to the will of the Beloved moves one towards ecstasy, yet it is not faith, but Divine Beauty and Love that pull the mystic irresistibly to surrender and union.
The sometimes blatant disregard for orthodox practice and the celebration of Divine Beauty through carnal and homoerotic imagery was often the source of trouble for Sufis.
Association of Divine Love with the word 'ishq, passionate love, was disturbing for orthodox Muslims, for the Divine was self-contained and would not experience desire for His creations.
The use of 'ishq to describe "Essential Desire" was introduced by the Basra Sufis, who believed that "God loves the soul.. . meaning that if He never restrains the soul, He always desires it, and makes the soul desire Him, and that He 'draws near' it through stages in a mental pilgrimage, in a gradual purification, whose schema can be constructed: as stages of an ascent toward God"
-- (Massignon, 160).
The belief that God desires union is reflected in Rumi's poetry, as he writes:
"When the lightning of love has shot into this heart, know that there is love in that heart.
When love of God waxes in thy heart, beyond any doubt God hath love for thee.
No sound of clapping comes from one hand without the other hand"
-- (Nicholson, 122).
Sufis who believed in this theory were accused of giving anthropomorphic traits to God, who is ineffable and beyond all human emotion. Others believed that Sufi love theory reflected Manichaean ideas, and "worship of God by love is the sin of the Manicheans, the heretics par excellence who imagine that their souls are particles of the eternal divine light, imprisoned in the body, and that a magnetic attraction from the origin of this love will attract them to become united with their origin again"
-- (Schimmel, 138).
It is easy to see where this accusation comes from when one examines the love theory embedded in the poetry of the Sufis.
Sufis who practiced nazar were also accused oihulul, incarnationism, or believing that
'"God is incarnate in or united with the beloved,' and justifying on these grounds their indulgence in not only 'gazing' but also in 'touching' and 'the act'" and they were thus "thought to be guilty of a double heresy, which combined the transgressions of idolaters and sodomites:
'worshipping their minions and copulating with their idols'"
-- (Wafer, 111).
With Sufi poets such as Rumi and Ibn al-Farid it is difficult to separate homoerotic imagery from physical reality; their historical stories lead one to believe that their use of homoeroticism was not merely an esoteric use of a poetic motif.
Secular poets often mocked the quasi-religious practices of some of the less ascetically inclined Sufis in lyrical parodies. Saadi of Shiraz parodies the claim to self-denial by the Sufis in his poetic tale of a hypocritical Sufi ascetic:
A learned Sufi's heart was once enraptured,
His reason by the face and ringlets captured.
Of a well-muscled, power wrestler boy. . .
He groped the boy's apple in hot pursuit,
To take his turn kissing the musky fruit.
He wished to get inside the grappler's crotch
And shoot his arrow to its very notch.
-- (Sprachman, 201)
Saadi plays off the description of mystical union as rapture; the Sufi is indeed consumed with desire for his beloved, but this time he is enraptured by a human boy. The portrayal of the ringlets and the beauty of the boy's body uses motifs from Muhammed's own description of the vision of God as a beautiful youth with abundant hair, yet the wrestler's body contrasts with the slender, graceful images in Sufi poetry. He is muscular and earthy, and his body is the clear result of physical work. The image of a wrestler carries with it the smell of sweat and physical display; he is the embodiment of carnal, empty lust. While Sufi motifs concentrate on the pure beauty of the Beloved, Saadi's imagery is bluntly sexual and unromantic. Instead of an ineffable Beloved who penetrates the lover in Divine union, the Sufi is overwhelmed with carnal lust and wants to penetrate the object of his desire, not merely gaze upon his beauty and contemplate the Divine.
The idea of the Divine Kiss is played with as the Sufi ironically kisses the "musky fruit," and the Sufi is fumbling with awkward, desperate lust to get inside the wrestler's "crotch." The phallic imagery of the arrow is neither subtle nor sensual, but a crass image of rigorous penetration.
Another secular poet, the infamous Abu Nuwas, was well-known for his own homosexual escapades and homoerotic poetry. He mocks the Islamic edict against the homosexual acts that were so prevalent in society, and he twists Islamic law to proclaim his own message of free-love:
Obey your passion and, in the early morning,
bring it a yellow wine spraying fire.
Make love to boys in their youth,
when their beards begin to sprout, and in ripe old age.
Sit down in every tavern, where wine and lovemaking are offered. . .
And if you are asked: "Is pederasty permitted at this time?"
Say: "Of course!"
To keep souls away from what they love is a great sin...
In this way you will carry out the holy war.
-- (Wright, 12)
His poetry parodies Islamic law, as well as the Sufi doctrine of renunciation. Instead of submitting to God, one must submit only to passion. The Sufi ritual practice of nazar is meant to lead one to spiritual knowledge through contemplation, not result in lovemaking. Sufis are supposed to feel desire in order to learn to control the flesh, and through this control move towards annihilation of self and the shaking off of all earthly desire to reveal only desire for God.
Abu Nuwas mocks the Sufi use of subversive motifs to symbolize the mystical experience as he calls for all to partake in the forbidden pleasures of wine and homosexual acts. He suggests that what souls truly love is pederasty, while the Sufis claim the soul should only desire reunion with the Beloved. Yet these are the crimes that Sufis were often accused of committing; many preached abstinence while breaking the Quaranic edict against homosexual acts.
As homosexual acts and homoeroticism were popular themes in secular literature such as the poetry of Abu Nuwas and The Arabian Nights, it is not surprising that it found its way into Sufi theosophy and poetry. Yet the Sufi treatment of homosexual themes differs from both the Islamic doctrine that forbids homosexual acts, the culture that politely tolerates it, and the literature that celebrates homosexual intercourse between the requisite older male and beautiful youth. Despite the accusations of pederasty and hedonism, Sufi love mysticism did not exalt physical pleasure, but Divine Love. The practice of nazar and the symbolic richness of Sufi poetry point to an experience of the Divine Essence within and spiritual realization of God's beauty and generosity. Homoerotic motifs served to embody the perfect love in which the faithful submits and surrenders all will to the point of complete annihilation of man's essential self, and this love is symbolized as a deep, insatiable longing for the Beloved. The symbolism is in itself transgressive, yet it is the belief behind the homoerotic motifs that is truly subversive:
love of God surpasses all other elements of Islam. Love is the only true faith and all orthodoxy and ritual is empty without love.
The idea that love is the only path towards God and the essential foundation of humanity's relationship with the Divine is beautifully reflected in Rumi's sensual love poetry:
Love is that flame which, when it blazes up,
burns away everything except the Beloved. . .
You are God's lover, and God is such that when
He comes, not a single hair of you will remain. . .
In love with the spirit's King, how should the heart seek a kingdom?
Enraptured by His slender waist, how should the spirit seek a robe of honor?
-- (Chittick, Rumi 216-217)
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