Folk Interpretation and the “Dark Matter” of Pre-Modern Islamic Law

In his recent book The Making of the Medieval Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2018), Jack Tannous draws attention to the overwhelming majority of “simple” Christians and Muslims with minimal exposure to (or interest in) the rarefied doctrinal issues that dominate the received history of Late Antique Christianity and early Islam. He argues that, like the “dark matter” of astrophysics (which is thought to account for the majority of matter in the universe but cannot be directly perceived or measured), the lives of such unlearned people accounted for the great bulk of the religious experiences of the past but are rarely directly represented in our sources. Thus, we must extrapolate to reconstruct nonelite religion from elite sources that may polemicize against it.

As Tannous himself points out, his model has relevance far beyond the very early period and the genuinely uneducated circles that are his primary focus in the book. Over the centuries, there was surely another category of moderately informed laypeople – much larger numerically than the ulama, but smaller than the mass of peasants and urban poor – who engaged with the Qur’an and with Islamic law in some form without pursuing any serious degree of religious study. What Islam (or any religious tradition) truly “was” on the ground in a given time or place depended largely on what non-scholars took it to be.

Focusing on another group ill-represented in our pre-Ottoman sources, Ash Geissinger has demonstrated that women’s exegesis of the Qur’an is sometimes visible, although it is not necessarily framed as tafsīr.  These interpretations may originally have been delivered in oral form, such as when early female ritual experts guided other women through the rites of the hajj pilgrimage. [1] Geissinger’s scholarship, like Tannous’s book, alerts us to be vigilant for fleeting glimpses of the interpretive activities of ordinary Muslims (and of extraordinary Muslims who did not wield the same kinds of authority as male ulama).

A while back, I came upon what I believe to be such a glimpse. It occurs in a treatise on love (Qāʿida fī’l-maḥabba) attributed to Ibn Taymīya (d. 728/1328). Like many of the sources Tannous cites, the passage is a blistering denunciation of interpretations advanced by the author’s non-scholarly interlocutors. As such, it is a hostile and perhaps distorted account. Nonetheless, this example is interesting both because Ibn Taymīya claims that the relevant interpretations have been raised repeatedly by members of different groups, and because the interpretations themselves are provocative precursors of some contemporary arguments about the Qur’an’s teachings on sexuality.

Ibn Taymīya’s larger point in the passage is that illicit love may deceptively parallel the forms of love and sex that are religiously licit. In this context, he complains about his contemporaries’ acceptance of a range of unlicensed romantic and sexual behavior, particularly between men. He claims, for instance, that a vow of brotherhood (muʾākhāt) may serve as a cover for a romantic relationship between two men, “and this may be open and notorious to the point that they call it a marriage, and say, ‘so-and-so (masculine) has married so-and-so (masculine),” as some sinners who mock the signs of God do.”[2]

In addition to such relationships that mimic marriage, Ibn Taymīya argues that there are relationships that falsely resemble the sexual ties made licit by slavery. This is because

A woman may possess a man, and a man may possess a boy, and this possession may share a common element with a man’s possession of a slave woman. Thus, a woman may sexually enjoy her male slave, in ways that fall short of intercourse or through intercourse, in imitation of a man’s sexual enjoyment of his female slave. She may interpret the Qur’an to justify this and believe that it is covered by God’s statement “or what your right hands possess” (Qur’an 23:6). Thus, a woman who had married her slave was brought before ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb and cited her interpretation of this verse. [ʿUmar] separated them, disciplined [the slave], and said, “Woe to you, this is for men, not for women!”

Similarly, many ignorant Turks and others may own [enslaved] males whom they love and whom they sexually enjoy. Some of them may justify that by the interpretation of [the verse] “except for your spouses or what your right hands possess.” It is known that this is unbelief by the consensus of the Muslims; the belief that males are [sexually] licit – by virtue of possession or any other reason – is false and constitutes unbelief by the consensus of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. Furthermore, there are those among them who interpret that verse … [or the verse] “Indeed, a believing slave is better than a polytheist” (Qur’an 2:221) without differentiating between the agent and the object of sexual intercourse — as was the case with someone who once asked me about this verse. He was someone who recited the Qur’an and pursued religious knowledge and was under the impression that it meant that [enslaved] male believers were sexually licit.

[People who make this argument] are joined by others who say to them, “There is disagreement on this issue,” and attribute lies to the authorities of the Muslims whose schools of thought are not represented in [the person’s] own region, like someone who is in Anatolia (arḍ al-Rūm) and lies about the school of Mālik, saying “It is permitted in the school of Mālik.” There are [also] those of them who say, “This is permitted in cases of necessity, for instance, if a man goes forty days [without intercourse].” [All of this] is in addition to similar things that have been stated to me, or about which I have been consulted, by groups from among the military, the common people, and the Sufis (al-fuqarāʾ). [These people] had diverse varieties of these corrupt beliefs that were blocking them from the path of God.  Some of them had heard that there was a disagreement among the scholars about the obligatoriness of the ḥadd penalty for some forms [of illicit sex], and inferred that that constituted a disagreement about the illicitness [of that conduct]. [Such a person] may say that, or believe it, without differentiating between disagreement over the stipulated ḥadd penalty and [disagreement over] the illicitness of the action, and [without realizing] that a thing may be among the greatest of prohibited things — like [eating] blood, carrion, and pork — without having a stipulated ḥadd penalty. Furthermore, that disagreement may be a weak opinion, and that weak opinion (which is the mistake of one of the scholars qualified to engage in legal reasoning), and this false inference (which is the mistake of one of the ignorant people), and the lie (which is the slander of a wrongdoer) may lead to the alteration of the religion, obedience to demons, and the wrath of the Lord of the Worlds.[3]

Ibn Taymīya’s first example is of a woman who is said to have argued for the sexual licitness of her male slave in the early Islamic period. This anecdote has been discussed by Kecia Ali, who shows that this interpretive possibility were marginalized very early in the development of Islamic law.[4]  Ibn Taymīya does not suggest that he has encountered contemporary women making such a claim. In contrast, he suggests that he has been approached by a number of different men citing the Qur’an as support for the sexual licitness of enslaved men. He attributes this interpretation to unnamed people from groups (such as military men and Sufis) that may be religiously engaged and/or elite, but are not legal scholars (with the possible exception of one student of the religious sciences).[5] In addition to citing a supposed Qur’anic proof-text, Ibn Taymīya’s interlocutors argued that the normative status of same-sex contact is subject to juristic dispute – implying that, since its prohibition is not a matter of consensus (ijmāʿ), its denial is not a matter of disbelief.

Verses 2:221 and 23:6 are certainly of little use for contemporary Muslims seeking to advance a reading of the Qur’an’s sexual ethics that is inclusive in terms of gender and sexual orientation. The putative licitness of same-sex contact between enslavers and the enslaved is both irrelevant to a modern legal order and incompatible with an egalitarian or consent-based sexual ethic. The other half of the argument described by Ibn Taymīya, however, eerily prefigures modern exchanges.  On one side, there is a claim of juristic disagreement (ikhtilāf), placing the issue of same-sex sexual content within the scope of legitimate interpretive diversity. This argument is countered by the argument that it is only the punishment (rather than the underlying prohibition) of the behavior that is subject to dispute.[6] Within a classical scholarly model of legal authority, the arguments cited by Ibn Taymīya do not destabilize the claim of ijmāʿ. They do, however, possibly offer a glimpse of a largely lost world of non-scholarly pre-modern interpretation of the Qur’an.


[1] Aisha Geissinger, “Portrayal of the Ḥajj as a Context for Women’s Exegesis: Textual Evidence in al-Bukhārī’s (d. 870) ‘al-Ṣaḥīḥ,’” in Insights into Classical Arabic Literature and Islam, ed. Sebastian Guenther, Islamic History and Civilization Series, Vol. 58 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), 153-179.

[2] Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ibn Taymīya, Qāʿida fī al-maḥabba, ed. Muḥammad Rashād Sālim (Cairo: Maktabat al-Turāth al-Islāmī, 1987), pp. 111-112.

[3] Ibid., pp. 113-115.

[4] See Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 12-13.

[5] For possible pre-modern scholarly precedents see Jonathan A.C. Brown, “A Pre-Modern Defense of the hadiths on Sodomy: An Annotated Translation and Analysis of al-Suyuti’s Attaining the Hoped-for in Service of the Messenger (s),” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 34:3 (2017), pp. 16-17, n. 4.

[6] See, for instance, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, “Sexuality, Diversity, and Ethics in the Agenda of Progressive Muslims,” in Omid Safi, ed., Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003), p. 216; Brown, op. cit., p. 3.

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