Queer Islamic Art: A very brief history
Polina Ignatova | Lancaster University
Stereotypically, Islam is seen as historically intolerant of, and incompatible with, queerness and homosexuality. In reality the relationship between the Muslim faith and same-sex love comprise a multidimensional issue, which cannot be simplified to ‘Islam versus LGBTQI+’. Whereas works of art can tell us a lot about the society’s life and values, the analysis of queer art produced in the Muslim world between the 16th and 21st centuries is one of the ways to understand the lives of queer Muslims in the past and today. From the Qur’an, we know that Islam broadly disapproves of homosexual encounters. The Qur’anic story of prophet Lut narrates about the two towns which, just like the Old Testament’s Sodom and Gomorrah, were destroyed by a rain of ‘brimstones hard as baked clay’ (Qur’an 15:74). The citizens of the two towns, also referred to as ‘Lut’s people’ were punished for their homosexual practices, as is clear from the verses: ‘We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: “Do you commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For you practice your lusts on men in preference to women: you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds”’, (Qur’an 07:80). A 16th-century Persian miniature captures the moment when Lut’s people are crushed by falling debris alongside Lut’s wife, who is hit by a large stone for refusing to believe in Lut’s prophetic message.
Still, the numerous works of poetry and art, which were created centuries after Prophet Muhammad received God’s message, suggest that for a certain period of time homosexual relationships were visible in the Muslim world. For example, Haft Awrang, or Seven Thrones by the celebrated Persian poet Jami (1414–1492) contains the following anecdote: an old Sufi dervish attempts to court a beautiful young man inside a hammam. As the young man has his head shaved, the dervish collects every strand of the hair, which falls to the floor. Following this and other courting efforts attempted by the dervish, the youth eventually says: ‘Die before me, so that I may notice you’. The dervish accordingly drops dead, but later appears to the young man in a dream to rebuke him for not noticing him even after death. Shaken by the apparition, the young man casts off his fine clothes and, to amend for his sin, goes on the hajj, or pilgrimage, every year and rubs his face on the grave of the dead dervish. The unfolding drama in the hammam is illustrated in a splendid watercolour illumination from the 16th-century Iran.
Another anecdote from the same collection focusses on the story of a young man who, while standing on a rooftop and flirting with his male suitors, is approached by a crookbacked old man. The old man declares his passion towards the handsome youth; the youth in response offers the old man to turn around and have a look at something even more beautiful. As the old man turns away – and sees nothing – the youth kicks him off the roof. The old lover’s unsuccessful courting attempt is illustrated in another folio of the same manuscript.
We cannot claim that Jami’s stories showcase his personal tolerance towards same-sex love: after all, both men involved in the first anecdote end up as Sufis – a group strongly disliked by Jami, as we know from his other works. Crucially, however, the moral messages of the two anecdotes do not focus on the homosexual nature of these encounters. The first story concentrates on sin and repentance, while the second teaches that it is impossible to have more than one true love, as the old man, who turns away hoping to see something even more beautiful than his beloved, is duly punished.
The 17th-century portrait of Shah Abbas I and his page by Muhammad Qasim Musavvir, one of the famous artists of the Isfahan School, is also often read as homoerotic. European travellers noted Abbas’s liking for young pages and cupbearers. The impression is further reinforced by the Persian couplet on the right: ‘May life bring you all you desire of three lips: the lip of your lover, the lip of the stream, and the lip of the cup’.
The two miniatures recently sold by Sotheby’s and attributed to Abdullah Bukhari, an 18th-century Ottoman court painter, represent much more explicit forms of homoerotic art, even though the men depicted there are fully dressed in bright clothes. On the first miniature, one man mounts and penetrates the other. On the second another man, whose masculinity is reinforced by the moustache, tightly embraces his lover.
While all these examples constitute the perceptions of queer individuals through the eyes of artists, modern queer Islamic art shows us how queer Muslims perceive themselves. Islamic art today is often associated with resistance, as for many modern Muslims, coming out as LGBTQI+ is associated with being shunned from their community, and, in several regions of the world, would put their lives in danger. Jamil Hellu, a visual artist and a lecturer at Stanford University, addresses the issues of ostracization, punishment and death as a consequence of queerness. His art work, an animated gif of the 24 Variations for a Stoning Rock, is accompanied by the disturbing caption, which highlights the practicalities of choosing a right-sized stone to be thrown at a person: 'The size of the stone used in stoning shall not be too large to kill a person by one or two throws and at the same time shall not to be too small to be called a stone'.
Still, modern queer Muslim artists do not aim to subvert Islam – on the contrary, their agenda includes challenging Islamophobia within mainstream LGBTQI+ groups. Acknowledging their heritage, they seek recognition and visibility within their own communities, so as queer art and Islam could co-exist as they did in the past centuries.
Many modern Muslim artists, whose works address LGBTQI+ rights, engage with history and tradition. For example, Hellu’s other project features a photograph of him with a brightly-dressed person in elaborate makeup, who is holding a deer figurine. Hellu, who comes from Brazil, employs the deer to illustrate the shifting attitudes towards queerness across cultures and centuries. The caption explains that in Arabic poetry a deer often symbolises an effeminate young man, while in Brazilian slang the word ‘deer’ (veado) is used to insult gay men.
Parisa Parnian, visual and performance artist and designer, also links her artworks to the use of language. She writes how, at the age of 19, she was advised to hurry up finding a husband or else she would become Torsheedeh. This word comes from Torsh, which in Farsi means ‘sour’, or Torshi, which means ‘pickled’. In the Iranian immigrant community, Torsheedeh was used to refer to single women who have passed their prime. In 2020 Parnian recalls that conversation: ‘to me, the idea of being a “Torsheedeh” woman felt radical and liberating’. She argues that pickled vegetables, which transform under the influence of brine into ‘the most vibrant and delicious versions of themselves’ is a perfect metaphor for QTBIPOC resilience and queerness.
Other metaphors for queerness refer to Muslim miracle narratives. Farhat Rahman and Layle Omeran, the editors of an upcoming transgender and gender-expansive Muslim anthology, have decided that their work is best represented by Buraq – the magic steed, which was entrusted with bringing Prophet Muhammad to Jerusalem and to Heaven. ‘Several interpretations of the Buraq have denoted that the winged figure did not have a perceivable sex or gender, and constituted to have evaded the gender binary altogether,’ – Rahman and Omeran explain. Often chosen as a logo for businesses and organisations in Muslim countries due to its association with speed and safety, Buraq as a symbol of an LGBTQI+ publication stands out because, in this case, its other features come to the forefront. The figure of Buraq transgresses boundaries in many ways: a composite creature, its neither human nor non-human animal; not only it can travel between countries in mere seconds, it can also reach Heaven, crossing the border between life and the afterlife, terrestrial and spiritual.
Syeda Mahbub’s poster which accompanies the anthology’s call for papers features one of the most recent interpretations of Buraq. The appearance of the magic steed resonates with the earlier depictions, as it also has a peacock tail and a long mane. A moustache and a beard are a new addition clearly meant to emphasise this Buraq’s queerness.
Of course, the areas explored are not narrowed down to religion and tradition only. With Muslim artists coming from many different countries and diverse backgrounds, all aspects of Islamic art, including queerness, are rich and multidimensional. Numair A. Abbasi, who lives and works in Karachi, challenges the social constructs of gender and the taboos associated with queer discourses. His art often originates from anecdotes, either witnessed or personally experienced.
Starting from Lut, the relationship between the LGBTQI+ community and Islam has never been easy or straightforward. The current discussion tends to focus on the shift from the apparent visibility of the queer individuals in the past to the perils associated with coming out as a queer Muslim today. Yet as the Muslim world comprises a number of diverse states and nations with their unique histories and mentalities, there is no simple or single answer. Critical analysis of the historical material as well as contemplation of queer works produced by Muslim artists present and past can move us towards understanding the complex relationship between the LGBTQI+ community and modern Islam.
 Sufis are those who practice Sufism – the mystical tradition of Islam. Sufi dervishes were religious mendicants with ascetic lifestyles.
 Hammam is a place of public bathing in the Muslim world.
 QTBIPOC is an abbreviation used to represent the communities of queer, trans, black, indigenous people, and people of colour.
Dr Polina Ignatova has recently completed her PhD in history at Lancaster University and is particularly interested in how knowledge was generated and received in the Middle Ages. She is currently working on developing her thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled 'Raising the Dead: The Meaning and Purpose of Restless Corpses in Medieval English Narratives'. She is also looking at the ways aquatic organisms were studied in the Middle Ages and hopes to develop this research into a postdoctoral project. Click here to find out more.