5 Queer Couples in Islamic History

The phrase “the love that dare not speak its name,” borrowed from a line in a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, had been interpreted as a euphemism for homosexuality ever since it was mentioned in Oscar Wilde’s trial in which he was accused of gross indecency. But what about the lovers whose love stood the test of time? As a queer boy, growing up in a Muslim society, I did not know the diverse history of LGBT Muslims or their love lives.

Queer Muslims, it turns out, have their historical Adams and Steves. Sometimes, they are in a relationship with another Muslim, other times with a friendly non-Muslim neighbor, and sometimes even with the spies of colonial powers. Nevertheless, love is love… and did these ever love!

 

Al-Amin and Kauthar, 800s

Al-Amin was the son of Harun al-Rashid, by far one of the most important caliphs in the history of Islam. Al-Amin became the caliph upon the death of his father in the year 809. Muslim historian Al-Tabari wrote that he fell madly in love with one of his male slaves, Kauthar, whom he had named after a river in paradise. Imam Daayiee Abdullah, who is openly gay, says Al-Amin’s mother went to great lengths, including fashioning young women in the harem into men, in order to lure her son from his homosexual relationship. Of course, she failed. According to Iman Radeef, a journalist in Morocco, Al-Amin composed many poems about Kauthar, including one in which he said that “Kauthar is my life and afterlife, my ailment and my medicine,” as published in Assabah, the daily magazine.

Rumi and Shams, 1300s 

It was in the middle of the 13th Century when one day Rumi met Shams al-Din in a market in Konya, Turkey. It’s said their eyes met, and the two rarely separated after that. According to Keith Hale, an American scholar, Rumi and Shams would sometimes disappear into a room for months at a time, which led to jealousy among Rumi’s students and made them exile Shams at least twice. But, each time Rumi would be so heartbroken that they would allow the return of Shams to Konya. According to Rahal Eks, the author of the Sufi book On the Path of The Friend, the love of these two men “was the ultimate love. Their love really cooked Rumi and turned him into the Sufi poet and master that he is known for now.” The two are buried in Konya, Turkey.

Shah Hussain and Madho Lal, 1500s 

It was in the late mid 1500s when Shah Hussain broke into the poetry scene with his spiritual prose. His poems have been performed as songs by Qawwali musicians such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as they are short and on point. Shah Hussain met Madho Lal, a Hindu young man, and the two fell in love. They are buried together in the same shrine in Lahore, Pakistan, and the Mela Chiraghan festival celebrates his death anniversary. According to Yoginder Sikand, the author of Sacred Spaces, the two men “became so closely associated that in the popular mind the saint is most commonly known as Madho Lal Hussain, as if the two had been fused into one,” as he wrote in the Pakistan Christian Post, adding that the “intensely close relationship that blossomed between them has been the subject of much speculation and controversy, starting in their very lifetime.” One story says that Madho Lal’s relatives wanted to kill them, but when they arrived at the couple’s door they couldn’t find the door.

Selim “Dahoum” Ahmed and Lawrence of Arabia, 1900s

In the early 1900s, a Syrian boy named Selim Ahmed met and was hired by a British archeologist named T.E. Lawrence. At first their relationship was purely professional, but the two realized soon enough that their relationship had transitioned. Lawrence, who is known as Lawrence of Arabia, said the love he had for this one young man (their relationship ended when Selim died at 19) changed the motivation of his entire career. In his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was published five years after Ahmed’s death, Lawrence dedicated it to S.A., writing “I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands / and wrote my will across the sky in stars / To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house, / that your eyes might be shining for me / When we came.” According to Jay Spears, the custodian of GayHeroes.com, Lawrence said, “I liked a particular Arab very much, and I thought that freedom for the race would be an acceptable present.”

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed and Qiyaammudeen Jantjies, 2000s

Algerian-born Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed went to a conference in South Africa in 2010. Once there, he saw a video presentation done by a young South African man named Qiyaammudeen Jantjies. He fell in love with him right then and there. “Unfortunately, he was not there and I had to wait until the next year to meet him,” Zahed told me in my book Queer Jihad. Soon, the two made history when their 2012 Muslim marriage was reported in the Arab World through Al-Jazeera and the Arabic channel of FRANCE 24. “I am sure that if the Prophet Mohamad was still alive, he would marry gay couples,” Zahed told FRANCE 24, creating an intense debate between liberal and conservative viewers and readers. It’s a love story that is also a perfect fitting for its time, as Gay Marriage had recently become a debated issue in Africa and the Arab World.

Afdhere Jama is the author of  Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the FaithHe lives in the United States.

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