The history of sexuality in the Islamic world is a topic of growing interest for students and scholars today, and one of the major areas of inquiry has been the development of contemporary notions such as homosexuality in Islamic societies and the context within which they are formed or introduced. This literature itself usually embraces a critique of present-day categories that reinforce heteronormativity or rigid understandings of sexual orientation that seek to objectively define sexuality, which scholars see as a fluid category to be studied within constantly changing cultural and historical contexts. A more challenging task, however, has been properly understanding issues such as same-sex relationships or attraction during past periods when commonly accepted categories in use today did not apply. Works such as at Khaled El-Rouayheb’s Before Homosexuality offer a model of how past Islamic societies approached these issues, and these works develop a better context for the cultural, legal, and moral understandings of what today are referred to as homosexual acts and desires.
One of the most fundamental goals for scholars focusing on the issue of sexuality in the past may then be identifying whether or not content is even of a sexual nature in the first place. In Episode 62 of Ottoman History Podcast, Selim Kuru shares some of his own thoughts on this very topic through a discussion of his research on sex, love, and worship in Ottoman literature. He identifies two distinct concepts: mahbub peresti, which is worship or admiration of the beloved, and gulâm pâregi, which can be understood as pederasty. Kuru uses shehrengiz texts (a genre of literature dealing with the merits of particular cities) as a way of accessing this topic. These texts include descriptions and comparisons of beautiful boys that have been interpreted by past scholars as homoerotic, but Kuru warns that particularly in a context where the admiration of male beauty by other males would not have been stigmatized or marked as distinctly homosexual, these descriptions could have served an entirely different purpose and must therefore be studied as distinct from explicit descriptions of sexual acts.
While this conversation revolves around literary analysis of Ottoman texts of a specific genre and a specific issue, the discussion has implications for all historians and scholars dealing with old texts. Kuru stresses the importance of properly studying the context that produced these texts before haphazardly perusing and mining them for material that seems to be about an issue that concerns us today, in this case sexuality. This painstaking task is one that unites disparate disciplines dealing with a common set of source material and subject of analysis in their quest for a more proper understanding of the text.
Bios of Discussants
Chris Gratien is the editor and co-host of Ottoman History Podcast and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Georgetown University researching the social environmental history of Ottoman Anatolia and Syria.
Selim Kuru is a Professor of Ottoman and Turkish studies at University of Washington in Seattle.
Oscar Aguirre-Mandujano is a doctoral candidate at University of Washington in Seattle studying Ottoman history and literature.