Framework of the Analysis

As a woman who belongs to Muslim society and has access to writing (a male privilege and the incarnation of power), I am indulging in the indescribable pleasure of rewriting the cultural heritage — a subversive and blasphemous act, par excellence. What I mean by »rewriting« is an active reading — that is, a process of decoding the heritage and at the same time of coding it in a different way. I am going to indulge myself and take the elements that have been assembled by the religious authorities and philosophers into a specific order and cut them up and reassemble them according to an order fantasized by me. And my fantasy is to try to understand how a man molded by Muslim philosophy loves a woman. Why must I be silent in order to excite the desire and win the love of my partner? Why is it that every time I assert myself, exercise my will, or attempt to escape from the control of others — in short, every time I exercise my freedom — I feel the love and desire that I inspire fade and evaporate?
Why is it that a female body and spirit that aspire to be free of control and seek to assert themselves with an autonomous will provoke anxiety and mistrust in a male partner and cool his sexual desire and love? Why does a man not desire the body of a woman who refuses to submit to his will alone? Why does a man's body burn with desire for the body of a woman that declares itself to be submissive and dominated? What are the links between desire and submission?
In order to answer these questions, I have made a selection of works from the Muslim heritage that would appear absurd to an orthodox Muslim imam, for he would find some works that he would consider sacred and others that he would consider not only secondary but utterly unimportant and insignificant. However, it is this absurdity according to the canons of Muslim orthodoxy that I claim to be the essence and the basis of my reading of that Muslim heritage. It is the distinctive feature of power to establish an order of the component elements of the world and how they should be perceived according to a given hierarchy of values in order to set up a given cultural system. I am asserting a claim to my part of that power (monopolized by men up until now in my society) by making a personal selection of works to be analyzed, which escapes the selection imposed by the religious authorities, and by giving it my personal interpretation.
The selection that I have made is composed in general of three types of works: works regarded as the foundation of Islamic legality; works belonging to erotic literature; and works belonging to what might be called the literature of chivalry — that is, treatises on love or on woman as an object of love. There is also a fourth category that is an eclectic selection ranging from treatises describing Paradise to those preparing the young Muslim man for his wedding night. These treatises are often listed by the orthodox religious authorities as being »valueless,« but I regard them as having a conceptual import just as revealing as the »sacred« sources.

The Legal Discourse:
Orthodox, Legal Islam or he World of Power

For elucidating the underpinnings of the conception of love and desire in the legal discourse, the basic documents that I will use are:

  • The Koran[1]
  • Imam Malik, Al-Muwatta[2]
  • Imam Bukhari, Al-Sahih, with commentary by Al-Sindi[3]
  • Imam Muslim, Al-Sahih[4]

As secondary sources I will use:

  • Tarmidi, Al-Sunan[5]
  • Imam Ghazzali, Ihya 'ulum al-din

The legal Islamic discourse is well enough known that I need only identify it. It consists of the original legal sources, which are the Koran and the Sunna. The Koran is the book revealed to the prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of God (al-rasul); it is composed of 114 surahs (chapters), each divided into verses. There are 6 219 verses.[6] The Sunnas are »the way of acting, the behavior of the Messenger of God, shown by word (taqrir), action (fi'l), silence (sukut); they outline for the believer the way to follow.«[7] The Sunnas are a source of laws like the Koran, and from this follows the importance of the correctness of the hadiths, which are statements by the Prophet's contemporaries. A hadith is:

  • an account relating to a deed or decision attributed to Muhammad, an authentic documentation of some practice, whose composition has two parties to it: a chain of authorized persons certifying that the transmission of the account was made from one person to another from the last ram [narrator] to the first transmitter. ... »So- and-so told us, according to So-and-so, who heard it from So-and-so, who got it from So-and-so ... so that . . . here begins the text or matn of the account.«[8]

This is the reason for the importance of the date of the establishment of the hadiths. I have chosen two texts that are considered »perfect«: that of Imam Bukhari (died in 870 A.D.) and that of Imam Muslim (died in 815 A.D.). Both of them are called »Al-Sahih« (The True), »because apocryphal texts have been strictly eliminated from them. Bukhari, for example, has kept only 8 000 hadiths out of more than 300 000 that came to his attention.«[9]

The Sunnas of Tarmidi, on the other hand, are considered »good«; they are those that are of known origin, reported by well-known transmitters. Theoretically it is difficult to distinguish them from »perfect« hadiths. The question is solved in practice by the fact that the texts thus qualified have been grouped into collections and have been implemented by all jurists.
In this study I am attempting to show how representation and perception, the culture's writing about reality, become a society's definition of things and beings. In order to bring out more strongly the dimension of Islam that illustrates this point, I am going to replace the word legal from now on with the word orthodox. I will use the expression orthodox Islam whenever I am referring to legal Islam.
The orthodox is defined as that which »conforms to dogma, to the doctrine of a religion.« The concept of orthodoxy brings out the interpretative aspect of a given heritage better than do the words legal or Sunni. The interpretative approach to a given heritage or reality is the central idea of this study, which proposes to decipher various discourses as varieties of writing, as constructions, as cultural impositions onto reality and particularly onto the female body. Contained in the idea of orthodoxy is a clear distinction between »dogma« and »interpretation.« This distinction is less pronounced when one uses the adjective legal. So I prefer the adjective orthodox simply in order to bring out the interpretive aspect — here, the conventional interpretation of Islam as heritage. And every time I use the word orthodox it is meant to refer to legal or Sunni Islam. The advantage of the word orthodox is that it makes us aware that there are possible nonorthodox interpretations. Orthodoxy, by insisting on conformity, paradoxically contains and affirms the possibility of heresy, of different, heretical interpretations.
Orthodox Islam is being attacked every day in the Muslim countries, not only in writing, but more especially in practice. And the more decisive the attacks and violations of orthodoxy, the more urgent becomes the necessity for demanding a return to orthodoxy, to conformity to dogma as justification and absolution. As far as the female body as a political field is concerned, every new attempt to manipulate, utilize, or set up a new program for this body, more in conformity with the economic and ideological requirements of dependent societies, is expressed through a new reading of the »orthodox discourse« as the source and guarantor of legitimacy. It is this that makes this discourse interesting for us, not solely as an orthodox text fixed and established in the Sunnas, in tradition, but as the focus of interpretative strategies that one confronts every day in the Muslim world. The importance of reanalyzing orthodox Islam, and writing about the female body and sexual matters in general, is to bring to light the elements that these strategies might possibly isolate, assimilate, and copy as support for new sexual policies imposed by dependent Islamic societies.

The Erotic Discourse:
Erogenous Islam or the world of Desir

The books I will be using are: The Perfumed Garden by Shaykh Nefzawi and How An Old Man Can Regain His Youth Through Sexual Potency by Ibn Kamal Pasha, who died in the year 940 of the Hegira (1573 A.D.). Although the date of Ibn Kamal Pasha's book is very precise, that of Shaykh Nefzawi's is more uncertain; some believe it was written in the sixteenth century, others in the fifteenth.[10] These two books are the standard works in this field and occupy a prestigious place in Arabic erotic literature.

Salah al-Munajid catalogued this literature of eroticism in his book, Sexual Life Among the Arabs, published in Arabic in 1958.«[11] The last chapter is devoted to »Erotic Publications,« which it classifies into four categories:

  1. The first category is devoted to works on the arts of love and eroticism.
  2. The second category is centered on the medical aspects of copulation, especially diet, remedies and cures for illnesses and dysfunctioning of the genital organs and sexual orgasm, methods of birth control, and so on.
  3. The third category combines the two themes cited above, that is, erotic technique and the medical aspect.
  4. The fourth category comprises general works which deal with themes other than sex, but which include mention of it. Such works include Kitab al- Aghani, by Abu al-Faraj al-Asbahani; Al-imta' wal-munasa, by Abu Hayyan; and those of Ibn Abd al-Rabbah.[12]

The two works used in this study belong to the third category, since they deal both with technique and the medical aspect.
According to Al-Munajid, the first Arabic works of erotica appeared at the beginning of the third century of the Hegira (about the ninth century A.D.). A veritable explosion of those works occurred at this time, due, among other things, to the appearance in the Muslim empire of a rich, leisured class, which consumed pleasure and pushed the refinement of it to the extreme.«[13] According to Al- Munajid, another factor that fostered the interest of this class in eroticism was the flood of women slaves that came to Baghdad from the four corners of the Muslim empire: »They brought with them different and varied sexual techniques and practices,« a ploy they were supposed to have developed in order to establish their power in the palaces of the men they were intended to satisfy.[14] The fact that Baghdad in the time of the Abbasids was the center of power, wealth, leisure, and erotic curiosity not only contributed to the production of an Arabic erotic literature, but also encouraged the translation of works belonging to older civilizations, such as the Persian, Indian, and Greco-Roman. Most of the works of erotica were written by order of the kings and emirs.[15]
The production of erotic literature reached its apogee between the ninth and eleventh centuries; after that the writers merely reproduced earlier works or rearranged them. The two works chosen for my analysis belong to the last century when this literature was still being produced, although at a sharply reduced rate. The book by Nefzawi, according to Bouhdiba, marked a veritable cutoff point, for one has to wait until the nineteenth century before this literary genre makes a new appearance.[16] In order to give an idea of the extent of this literature, Al- Munajid drew up two lists of works that he himself had examined for his undertaking. The first list was of manuscripts that had been deposited in various libraries, the majority of which have never been published. He listed twenty-three of these.[17] The second list was of published works, and there were thirty-nine of those. As secondary sources I have chosen two texts that are more medical treatises than anything else. They are Al-Rahma by Al-Suyuti and Tashil al-manafi' by Al-Azraq.[18]

The Discourse of Civalry:
Affective Islam or the world of Sentiment

This is a series of works that treat love and desire (and woman as the object of love and desire) not only as subjects for light reading but more especially as phenomena of civilization which Muslim philosophers and thinkers had to deal with. The author who approaches love and desire as a subject for light reading is Al-Jahid in two of his famous »letters": The Book of Women Slaves and The Tournament Between Women Slaves and Men Slaves.[19] The other authors selected (religious authorities, philosophers, and thinkers) approach love and desire as very serious phenomena that confront the Muslim and for which they had to be able to find solutions within the framework of Muslim faith and law. The following books (with titles translated into English) fall into this category:

  • Ibn Hazm, The Dove's Necklace
  • Shaykh al-Sarraj, Lovers' Perils
  • Imam Abd al-Rahman Ibn al-Jawzi, The Disparagement of Love
  • Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzia, The Lovers' Garden
  • Dawud al-Antaqi, Pleasures of the Bazaar As Told in Love Stories
  • Ibn Hajla, Anthology of Love
  • Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Best Tales of Women Slaves
  • Imam Tayfur, Women's Eloquence
  • Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzia, Tales About Women[20]

The  fourth Series of Works

Another series of works that I have utilized belong to other realms and fulfill other functions. Once the models, the messages, the sexual dynamics have been extracted from the legal sources of Islam, the Koran and the Sunnas, it should become possible to find their reflections in other spheres and subuniverses, especially in philosophy, the global vision of the system, the institution of marriage, and the conception of Paradise.
For gaining an overall understanding of the Muslim universe, I have chosen Ghazzali, because I have a great deal of admiration for this genius of Muslim thought, and I find enormous pleasure in observing the clarity and rigor with which his intellect moves around in the areas that he seeks to analyze.
For the institution of marriage, I have selected as a secondary source two small works that are typical of manuals for the young Muslim husband, in which the imams, charged with showing the believer the right way in all circumstances, describe to him in great detail the conduct to adopt during the first days of marriage. These manuals, like the erotic literature, form part of Muslim culture that no one speaks about but that is always available for a small price, often from street vendors who post themselves in front of the doors of the mosques or display their merchandise in the main streets of the old sections of the Muslim cities. The first one that I have used is Qurrat al-'uyun by Gannun al-Idrisi al- Hasani, and the second is Adab al-zifaf by Nasir al-Din al-Albani.[21]
For examining the conception of Paradise, I have utilized three works: the first is by Ibn Ahmad al-Qadi, the second by Al-Suyuti, and the third by Ghazzali.[22]
In the case of the erotic discourse and the legal discourse, the popularity of the works has been a very important criterion in my choice of the documents used. What we have is a selection of works that are still very widely consumed in Arab Muslim countries today. We are not talking about obscure treatises known only to an elite of experts. The popularity of these documents will allow me to advance the thesis that the models, messages, ideas, and images programmed into them are still at work in the psyche of men and women in the contemporary Muslim countries.
I have been guided in my choice by two criteria: the authenticity of the discourse and whether it remains operational in the society. Authenticity assumes a fundamental importance in this decade when the economic dependence of the Muslim countries vis-a-vis the industrialized countries (predominantly Judeo- Christian) is defined according to a time scale related to Western aggression in the area. This process began with and was embodied in the European colonization of these societies in the nineteenth century. According to this definition, what is precolonial is authentic and what is not is probably adulterated and corrupted by Western influence, which was being exerted at the time when the weakened Muslim societies did not have the power to defend themselves and to reestablish the equilibrium that normally regulates cultural relations between different societies. Most of the basic documents used in this study date from a period stretching from the seventh century to the sixteenth.
As for the concept of operationalism, it is measured on a quasi-economic scale: the consumption of the discourse. I have chosen two discourses that are still consumed by certain groups of the society in one way or another.
The orthodox Islamic discourse, given the fact that the official state machinery acts in its name, is consumed every day through the many ideological apparatuses of the state, such as the institutions of the justice system (the shari'a, the religious law, still regulates personal status in most Muslim societies) and of education (the Koran is taught in the schools, recited and commented on by the radio and television), to mention only the most important. As for the discourses of eroticism and chivalry, as well as the books in the fourth series, especially those I have called »manuals for the young husband« and descriptions of Paradise, the easy availability of these works in bookstores even in smaller urban centers, the great variety of editions (often pirated, the publisher rarely being named on erotic works), and the modesty of the prices (erotic works cost the equivalent of about sixty cents) allow one to assert that they are still operational and widely consumed.
All of the works used in this analysis are in the Arabic language and are regarded as an integral part of Arab Muslim culture, even though they contain very important non-Arab elements (the Persian and Hindu elements in the erotic literature are beyond question). By opting for the Arabic language, I have excluded a whole part of the Muslim world, and the field of study has been restricted solely to the Arab Muslim cultural area.
As was said at the outset, this study represents an attempt at decoding the messages inscribed on the female body by Islam as a cultural system and as a code that distributes signs and values to beings and things according to its own specific hierarchy. What this study proposes to do is decipher through the ideal of female beauty the ideological and political bases of the structuring of the libido in Arab Muslim society.
It is a question of seeing the sexual, erotic, and affective processes as the very base of the ideological process and of exposing the way in which they have been carefully separated from the political field and presented as distinct and autonomous and unlinked to the power process.[23]
In the next chapter we will examine the relationships between sex and economics and politics in dependent Islam. In the pages that follow I will try to decode the primary messages that first the erotic discourse and then the legal discourse inscribe on the female body. Then I will deal with the way in which Islam as a civilization integrates and manages first desire and then sexuality; how as a cultural system it rewrites the one and then the other. In the conclusion I will try to synthesize and identify the elements of an answer to our initial question: Does the esthetic model, the ideal of female beauty — a silent, obedient, and secluded woman — determine political models or not?