Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Islam

When you picture Islamic women, the image that immediately comes to mind is a woman cloaked in black, with not one part of her body visible. Even more so, it is hard to imagine this specter as possessing any sort of sexuality. Yet, in Tariq Ali’s novel, The Book of Saladin this is exactly how the ancient Islamic world used to be. Women were significantly freer and commanded great respect. Sex was openly talked about, and homosexuality was widely acknowledged. In the book, the two characters of Halima and Jamila show the power of women during the golden age of Islam. They represent the strengths that women can possess, ranging from philosophy to independence to musical skills. Compared to modern Muslim women, it seems that they are the ones who should be living in modern times. In The Book of Saladin Tariq Ali displays the strength of women in society, while also noting how free of sexual mores the Muslim people were compared to Europeans of the time.

When you think of the modern feminist, women who are in powerful positions most likely come to mind. Chances are they are educated, or are greatly skilled at something, maybe even in politics. In America feminism has come a long way, there are even women who are running for president, which was not imaginable even 25 years ago. However, nowadays Islam is a completely patriarchal society. What makes Halima and Jamila so special is how they are able to stand out in a male dominated society. Ali is careful to note the strengths of each women. While each might not be historically accurate, what they display is the potential of women in the golden age of Islam that they lived in.

Halima is important to the idea of powerful women because of her independence. While she is noted for her beauty, it is not just that defined her. For example, she is charged with adultery, because of her affair with another man. Even when threatened with death, she remains true to herself. When speaking to the Sultan, she is bold and confident, as Ibn Yakub, the Sultan’s scribe notes, “ At this her eyes blazed…She spoke with confidence and with no trace of humility. She had entirely regained her self possession, and spoke to the Sultan in a confident voice as if addressing an equal” (24). Halima’s willpower when speaking to the Sultan displays her confidence, if not flat out aggression. To be on the edge of death, and at such a young age (she is twenty), but still be so firm when speaking to the most powerful man in the kingdom shows her utter confidence in herself. If anything, it is very bold of her. Women in Islamic society now are known to be at the whim of their husbands. If one spoke up for herself the way Halima does, almost a thousand years ago, she would almost certainly be put in jail, if not met with harsher punishments. Instead, the Sultan is extremely impressed. Ibn Yakub notes his reaction, stating “Salah Al-Din had drunk in every word, observed every gesture, and noticed every flash of the eyes” (27). The Sultan’s reaction shows that values of the Islamic society. Even though this women should be sentenced to death for her crime, and would have been stoned to death in modern times, he instead opts for a different path. By sparing her, he shows the value that the Islamic society placed on independence. The fact that this value was extended to a woman as well displays the kind of equality that women could be expected to have in society. Halima’s episode with the Sultan shows how women could expect to have fair treatment and are valued on their own actions versus just their gender.

The other main female character in the book is Jamila. While Halima is known for her hotheadedness and beauty, Jamila is remarkable for her mind. Of course, she is also a beautiful woman, but what makes her so valuable is her mind. This premise is set up in Ibn Yakub’s conversation with Halima, who states “It is Jamila who keeps our minds alive. Her father was an enlightened Sultan. He adored her and insisted that she be educated, just like her brothers” (94). The fact that Jamila was educated in itself was an extreme rarity. In European society, most people could not read, and the most a woman could hope to achieve was to be someone’s wife. They would have been educated on how to be a lady, not to understand complicated philosophies. Even now, the education of women is an important issue. Girls in middle eastern countries are threatened if they go to school and the vast majority will never receive a secondary education. Here, in the 12th century is a woman who has the mental capacity to rationally question the existence of God. This can be seen in her letter to Ibn Yakub, which contains a parable that reads “How wilt thou decide when a question arises… Mu’adh: According to the sunnah of the messenger of Allah. Prophet: And if thou findest naught therein? Mu’adh: Then I shall apply my own reasoning” (191). Jamila’s ability to apply philosophical reasoning and logic to her own life is an incredible skill. Being able to speak up for oneself and to think on ones own displays a high level of critical thinking, not commonly seen in most men. Especially in a time when religion dictates everyday life and every action has to be according to certain rules. Jamila’s intelligence is another way to show how women had value in ancient Islamic society. Although she is also beautiful, Ali makes the reader know that the real important part of her is her mind, which is what really needs to be respected.

Another important aspect that ties into the liberal parts of the Islamic society is the freedom of sexuality. Comparably, in the dark ages of Europe, sex was deemed immoral and illegal outside of marriage. In the Islamic states, it was widespread and openly talked about, even between men and women. For example, Jamila tells a story that reflects the openness of her sexuality to Ibn Yakub, a person who she had just met. She casually states “I remember one occasion, soon after I had become his wife. We were in bed and he suddenly decided to practice al-Azl, by withdrawing at a critical moment” (123). Jamila’s openness regarding her sex life is astounding. Even in modern society, this is a very private part of someone’s life to share. To talk about it with someone who is practically a complete stranger even more so. The liberalism of the Muslim society during this time is an honest reflection of their societal values. They like openness and sharing, discussing and contemplating. Being open about sex, something that is normally so stigmatized is a part of that. Additionally to just normal sex, homosexuality is widely accepted. In fact, it was almost even popular. Ibn Yakub notes “From a special brothel reserved exclusively for the nobility, a young male prostitute had been procured for the night” (120). The fact there were brothels with only male prostitutes speaks to their popularity. It would have been a much more underground and less publicized thing if it was illegal or even socially stigmatized. Instead, it is common knowledge that there are many male prostitutes, who mainly service other men. By noting Muslims openness to sex and sexuality, Ali is able to effectively display another part of their liberalism.

What makes The Book of Saladin so interesting is its discussion of topics that pertain to modern day Islam. Tariq Ali shows the values of old Muslim society and it practically compares itself to the modern day Islamic state. Ali wanted to educate western readers, especially Americans, on what the Islamic society used to be. One huge part of this are the ideas of feminism and women’s place in society, along with exploring sex and sexuality. These facets of society are heavily persecuted against in modern Islam, but they used to be much more liberal. By having characters like Halima and Jamila, Ali effectively shows how women could and did prosper in society. In these two women he captured two important traits, independence and intelligence that are usually reserved for men. By exploring sexuality, Ali shows how Muslims used to be so open about something that is private and personal. This speaks to the liberalism of ancient Islam and how different their values were. It seems like modern Islam has gone backwards socially, and thats a shame for the world. Luckily, Ali shows Muslims at the height of their power and portrays a world that seems like a good place to live.