Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Khomeini on Sodomy

Laws concerning same-sex sex are against certain sexual acts, not against certain categories of persons, in Iran.1 In my opinion, it is in the interest of Iranians to overturn such laws, as they have been in Cuba and South Africa, as well as many countries in the North (though in the USA not until 2003: Lawrence v. Texas). I do not think, however, that one has to subscribe to the idea of sexual orientations to overturn them.

For instance, do you know Khomeini had a hilarious opinion about sodomy?
Ayatollah Khomeini's 1947 manual, Risaleh-yi Towzih al-masa'il (Explanation of problems), is a case in point. Article 349 of this book states that "if a person has sex and [his organ] enters [the other person's body] to the point where it is circumcised [corona] or more, whether he enters a woman or a man, from behind or the front, an adult or pre-adult youngster, and even if no semen is secreted, both persons will become ritually polluted (najes)." But ritual impurity can always be cleansed away through the observance of rules stated in the same manual. (Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, University of Chicago Press, p. 159)
Iranian men and women might amend the existing laws against sodomy, which, if successfully prosecuted, entails harsh punishments, by reinterpreting this 1947 Khomeini opinion: you may commit sodomy as long as you are mature and clean yourself by ablution after your enjoyment!

1 To understand this distinction, see, especially, Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990 [originally published in France in 1976 and translated into English in 1977]). Other useful works on the origins and development of modern discourse of sexuality include John D'Emilio, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, eds. Ann Snitow, et al. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp. 100-113; and Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (New York: Dutton, 1995). See, also, Yoshie Furuhashi, "Clash of Sexual Civilizations," Critical Montages, 25 September 2007.


masoud said...

Hi Yoshie,

I've been following your blog for quite some time now, and I just wanted to say thank you. The information you are disseminating is not only an invaluable resource, it helps to keep me(and many others i am sure) sane whenever cnn and the right wing blogosphere are at it's worst.

As for the subject matter of the post at hand, i'm happy to announce i finally have something to contribute, though somehow I wish it was concerning any other post you've made. Though i'm sure you understand the nuance, others may be confused.

Khomeni's judgement one's post sodomitic state of cleanliness likely hardly novel, and quite probably the only position adopted by any muslim scholar.

It is not a judgement about the morality of the act itself. It simply adresses the somehwat practical matter of, "OK what now? it's almost time for prayers". While perhaps conceivably this judgement could be paired with some other scholar's general endorsement of sodomy to provide a kind of gay-escape-clause, I'm quite sure none actually exists.

If Iran's criminal law, which i believe prescribes death for repeat/unreformable offenders, is any indication( and it should be) Khomeini's position on the matter is quite mainstream.

But as you indicated, there are enormous difficulties in meeting the standard of evidence required to actually prosecute these kinds of offenses (something like four credible eyewitnesses or three seperate confessions with both a judge and legal representation present, maybe not quite that but something similar) which is why these laws are seldom implemented.(pedophilia though, is another story)

Yoshie said...

Dear Masoud,

Thank you so much for your kind note.

As you say, Khomeini's judgment in itself does not address the morality of the act of sodomy. I have yet to survey Islamic jurisprudence on sexual matters, but it is highly unlikely that an endorsement of same-sex sex has already come out of any school.

But that does not mean that it won't in the future. Even just a few decades ago, most people, queer or straight, would have thought it quite unlikely that any Jewish or Christian theologian would come out for same-sex love and justify it on scriptural grounds. A similar evolution, I believe, is not impossible in the Islamic traditions, which, if anything, have been more variegated than Jewish and Christian ones.

Additionally, Iranians also have another cultural resource: pre-modern Persian-language literature, religious and non-religious, in which same-sex love is celebrated.

masoud said...

While anything is possible, i think we are a very long way from that kind of endorsement from any orthodox muslim school. I think it's more likely that the idea that a Muslim state has no place in enforcing edicts in people's personal lives will gain currency with Muslim ideologues.

About the poetry, I've heard this before, mostly from non Farsi speakers, but I doubt it. My Farsi's not great but it's not come across in any of the translations of poetry i've read. Farsi is also a gender-neutral language so definitive celebrations of something like this would have to be quite explicit. Which would be surprising considering how dear poetry is to Iranians and the majority view among them that homosexuality is at best a disease/deformation. Can you provide any references/quotes?

Yoshie said...

I agree with you that there will have to be a long social and cultural struggle before major revisions of theology may come about. Arguing for a moratorium on enforcement in the meantime definitely makes sense.

As for homoerotic Persian literature, how about Attar's The Conference of the Birds; Sa’di's celebration of Mahmud and Ayaz in Bustan and a chapter on youth and love in Gulistan; and Hafiz's ghazals, e.g., XXXV, LXVII, and XC?

Encyclopaedia Iranica also has a useful entry on homosexuality in Persian literature.

In Arabic, the most famous example is Abu Nuwas, cited in A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition by Gregory Woods (see pp. 54-55 -- click on the link, and it should take you to p. 54)?

masoud said...

Hafiz's 35th Ghazal:

Keep to your own affairs, why do you fault me?
My heart has fallen in love, what has befallen thee?
In the center of he, whom God made from nothing
There is a subtle point that no creature can see.
Until His lips fulfill my lips like a reed
From all the worldly advice I must flee.
The beggar of your home, of the eight heavens has no need
The prisoner of your love, from both worlds is thus free.
Though my drunkenness has brought forth my ruin
My essence is flourished by paying that ruinous fee.
O heart for the pain and injustice of love do not plead
For this is your lot from the justice of eternity.
Hafiz don’t help magic and fantasy further breed
The world is filled with such, from sea to sea.

برو به کار خود ای واعظ این چه فریادست
مرا فـتاد دل از ره تو را چه افتادسـت
میان او کـه خدا آفریده اسـت از هیچ
دقیقه‌ایست که هیچ آفریده نگشادست
بـه کام تا نرساند مرا لبـش چون نای
نصیحـت همه عالم به گوش من بادست
گدای کوی تو از هشت خلد مستغنیست
اسیر عشق تو از هر دو عالم آزادسـت
اگر چه مستی عشقـم خراب کرد ولی
اساس هستی من زان خراب آبادسـت
دلا مـنال ز بیداد و جور یار کـه یار
تو را نصیب همین کرد و این از آن دادست
برو فسانه مخوان و فسون مدم حافـظ
کز این فسانه و افسون مرا بسی یادست

A poem like this may seem homoerotic, but it's not. This poem doesn't contain the word 'his' because that word doesn't exist in Farsi. Gender is not a consideration in Farsi Grammar at all. This poem could just as validly have been translated using 'her lips', but since Hafiz was most probably referencing God with this line, 'his' would make more sense to English speakers. I've looked up one or two other poem's you've mentioned and they seem to be the same type of animal. (as well as those listed on Iranica, which is contributed to quite heavily by those with Orientalist mindsets)

The stuff on Mahmood and Ayaz is more interesting, I'm gonna try and take a good long look at it, though Saidi's version could just as well have been about best friends. I highly doubt that it will pan out for the more well known religious types such as Hafiz, Sa'di and Rumi but who knows? maybe there's something to these claims about the less celebrated poets.

Yoshie said...

That classic Persian poems that are considered homoerotic are mostly gender-ambiguous and embedded in religious contexts or feudal relations or both creates a challenge, but similar challenges (e.g., is it eros or friendship?) arise in interpreting sonnets by Michelangelo and Shakespeare, for instance (though in their cases the gender of the beloved is often clear).

Also, those classic works help us see a great difference between past and present in understanding gender and sexuality. Have you checked out Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity by Afsaneh Najmabadi? She observes that eros in Iran became "heteronormalized" in the 19th century, when "Iranians became acutely aware that adult-amrad love and same-sex practices prevalent in Iran were considered vices by Europeans" (p. 4). So, admiration of beautiful beardless boys, which was a common trope in classical literature, became marginalized in modern literature.

BTW, here's another example from classics: Jami's Haft Awrang, e.g., the tale "A Father Advises His Son about Love."

masoud said...

No I haven't had a look at that title yet, I don't have as much free time as I sometimes wish. Though western opinions may have had some kind of effect on Iran's views on sexuality, I doubt it would be enough to singlehandedly and so cleanly move all segments Iran's population from a kind of hands off acceptance to it's current position. As always your knowledge of these matters is quite impressive for someone who's interest with Iran has only begun recently.

Yoshie said...

My brief mention hardly does justice to Afsaneh Najmabadi's work. She doesn't argue for a simplistic idea of "cultural imperialism." A monumental change like this is always rooted in more than reactions to external influences in any case.

If I get a chance, I'll try to review the whole book in a way that makes clear the complexity of the whole process.

I'm also currently reading Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 by Dror Ze'evi. This tracks a similar process of change in the sex/gender/sexuality system by drawing upon a wide range of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish sources. It also touches on the territory that Najmabadi covers, albeit only for the sake of comparison with the author's focus area. When you have more free time than now, maybe you can take a look at this book, too? It's among the best books on sexuality that I have read. I highly recommend it.