In the 1600’s, English travel writers, and their readers, were obsessed with the sexuality of Muslims.
They were particularly preoccupied with the idea that Muslims engaged in homosexual relationships.
Nabil Matar quotes the Scottish traveler William Lithgow, writing in the 1610’s:
…Lithgow wrote that in summer, the city of Fez ‘openly licentiate three thousand common stews of sodomitical boys,’ and he confirmed that he had seen ‘at midday, in the very market places, the Moors buggering these filthy carrions, and without shame or punishment go freely away.’Matar, Nabil. Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery
Others reported similar observations. Matar quotes an Englishman named Thomas Shirley, who wrote in 1607 about his captivity in Istanbul:
Theyre [Turks] mannor of liuinge in priuate & in generalle is moste vnciuille & vicious; & firste, for theyre vices they are all pagans & infidelles, Sodomittes, liars, & drunkardes, & for theyre Sodommerye they vse it soe publiquelye & impudentelye as an honest Christian woulde shame to companye with his wyffe as they doe with theyre buggeringe boyes.Matar, Nabil. Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery
Nearly every English traveler to Muslim lands claimed to have witnessed homosexual relationships among the Muslims.
Writers about the Muslim world felt they were expected to say something about Muslim sodomy in the same way it was expected of Muslims to be sodomites. The accounts therefore that describe Muslim sodomy are wide-ranging and appear in all genres—captivity accounts, drama, travel and, much less frequently and significantly, in government documents. Readers luxuriated in the degeneracy and deviance of the Muslims.
Matar asserts that by continually portraying Muslims as sodomites, “English writers created the stereotype of the Turk and the Moor.” He further states that “English writers used such a stereotype of the Muslims because they sought to establish a demarcation and polarization with them.”
Law and order and “sodomie” in Muslim lands
It seems that English readers believed Muslims regularly held homosexual orgies, involving thousands of men and boys, in full public view in major cities.
Yet homosexual acts were firmly prohibited in Islamic law (although many English writers believed the opposite).
What’s more, public defiance of the law was extremely rare in Muslim societies at the time. We know this in part because the standards of evidence under Shari’a law are extremely strict; many crimes require multiple eyewitnesses in order for prosecution to proceed, such that convictions were only possible for crimes committed in full public view. In most courts, convictions were extremely rare, and this indicates that crimes were not often committed openly.
Even English writers attested that Muslim societies were generally well-ordered and law-abiding. For example, in 1618, the English captain Henry Mainwaring wrote in:
…as for instance in Tunis…In 5 months together when I was coming and going I never heard of Murder, Robbery, or private Quarrel. Nay a Christian, which is more than he can warrant himself in any part of Christendom, may on my knowledge travel 150 miles into the country, though he carry good store of money, and himself alone, and none will molest him.Henry Mainwaring. Of the Beginnings, Practices, and Suppression of Pirates, 1618
In most of his writings, Mainwaring is quite disparaging towards Muslims – which suggests that when he says something good he is most likely telling the truth. Furthermore, Mainwaring’s manuscript was written specifically for King James I, and the King relied heavily on Mainwaring’s recommendations to shape official English policy towards Muslim lands – another indication that Mainwaring was considered a trustworthy and authoritative source.
If public lawbreaking was all but unknown in Muslim societies, it seems extremely unlikely that English travelers would have witnessed acts of sodomy “at midday, in the very market places.”
So are these writers simply lying to titillate their audience?
Or is there something else going on?
Seeing ‘sodomie’ everywhere: what is “homophobia” anyway?
Google Dictionary offers the following definition of a “phobia”:
pho·bi·a – /ˈfōbēə/nounplural noun: phobias. An extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. Synonyms: abnormal fear, obsessive fear, dread, horror, terror, dislike, hatred, loathing, detestation, and aversion.
Certainly, English society of the 1600’s could be described as “homophobic.”
Same-sex relationships were probably at least as common in England as they were in the Muslim world.
King James I himself engaged in open homosexual relationships, as did some of his admirals, chancellors, and other administrators and courtiers.
Yet aside from occasional allusions and literary jokes, English writers almost never mention same-sex relationships occurring in their own culture.
At the same time, when writing about Muslim societies, Englishmen rarely failed to claim that Muslims practiced sodomy. Matar states that “Sodomy was the dividing line between the Christian, civilized Briton and the Muslim ‘barbarian'” – the clearest and strongest evidence that Muslims and their civilization were corrupt.
Is this a case of simple hypocrisy?
Or did these writers have additional motives to make such claims?
How English writers used Islamophobia and homophobia to justify colonialism
English writers may have had a material motive to claim that Muslims practiced sodomy.
The laws against sodomy that had been instituted in England by Henry VIII, and sustained throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods, had sanctioned dispossessing the sodomite of all his ‘goods, chattels, debts, lands, tenementes, and hereditaments.’Matar, Nabil. Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery.
English colonists actually also claimed that the majority of the First Nations of the Americas practiced sodomy, and used this claim to justify their conquest of North America.
The stereotype of the Indian sodomite helped the colonists in New England – just as it had earlier the Spaniards – to justify the dispossession and destruction of the Indians.
The justification was as follows:
…colonists in America treated the Indians as sodomites would have been legally treated in England. The Indians had broken English law and were therefore to be punished in accordance with that law.
This law suggests a possible ulterior motive for English writers to claim that homosexual relationships were common in other cultures, while ignoring the same within their own society.
Under English law, it was legal, and even encouraged, to murder those who engaged in homosexual relationships, and steal all of their property. Therefore, to justify murder and theft, one only needed to claim that the victim or victims engaged in homosexual relationships.
Unlike the First Nations of the Americas, the Muslims of the 1600’s were far stronger than the English and other European powers. So, while the claim that Muslims practiced sodomy created a legal justification for conquest, Europeans were unable to conquer North Africa or other Muslim lands at this time.
Still, Matar asserts that this claim “served to legitimate Christian/European moral superiority and to prepare for holy war” – which began in earnest two centuries later.
Homosexual relationship…or platonic friendship?
Beyond greed, and hypocrisy, there’s another possible reason English writers claimed that homosexual relationships were so common, and openly visible, in Muslim society.
In many African and Asian cultures, even in the present day, men are quite affectionate with one another, in a manner that is surprising and foreign to Europeans. Even in the present day, Europeans often interpret this physical affection between men to be of a sexual nature, while men of African and Asian cultures do not consider their relationships to be sexual in any way.
It seems possible that English writers in the 1600’s made the same error that many modern travelers make: when observing men holding hand, embracing and kissing one another, and being physically close and affectionate, they may have interpreted this as evidence of sexual relationships in private.
In fact, both Christian and Muslim religious literature describes actions that precede a sexual sin as being a component of that sin. For example, a lustful glance might be described as “fornication of the eyes.”
So when observing public physical affection between men, English travelers may have truthfully stated that they had observed “sodomy” – based on their assumption that physical affection in public was evidence of sexual relationships in private.
How homophobia led to Islamophobia, and vice versa
English writers had a strong motive to deny the existence of homosexual relationships in their own culture. Whoever admitted engaging in a homosexual relationship put his life and property at risk.
It seems possible that, out of fear of being perceived as homosexual, Englishmen became extremely averse to showing affection to male friends.
This culture of “homophobia” may have damaged platonic male friendships in general.
On the other hand, Englishmen of the 1600’s had a strong motive to claim that homosexual relationships were common in other societies – especially when they perceived an opportunity to dominate those societies and claim lands and properties for themselves.
Thus, the claim that Muslims practiced sodomy created the legal and moral basis for European colonialism.
At the same time – and long before colonialism was militarily and politically successful – the claim that Muslims practiced sodomy would have made Englishmen reluctant to associate closely with Muslims.
Any Englishman who associated closely with Muslims would likely have:
- Interpreted any friendly gestures by Muslims as possible sexual propositions or innuendo
- Been wary of accusations by fellow Englishmen of engaging in homosexual relationships with Muslims
- Been conscious of risk to his own life and property if any accusations of homosexual activity were considered credible
For these and perhaps other reasons, Englishmen in the 1600’s had strong reasons to display “Islamophobia” – even if only for purposes of self preservation.
And, once the association of Muslims with homosexual relationships was firmly established, Englishmen likewise avoided close friendship with Muslims, out of fear they would be suspected of engaging in homosexual relationships. Matar mentions that one writer listed the sins of “renegades” – European converts to Islam – as “whoredome, sodometrie, and all other most detestable vices.”
For this reason (and others) the lives and properties of any suspected Muslim converts would have been in jeopardy.
This combination of Islamophobia and homophobia likely contributed to an erosion of platonic (non-sexual) male friendships in modern English and American culture – to the point that, in our own time, many men are unwilling to show affection to a male friend without the qualifier, “no homo.”
Perhaps overcoming these twin prejudices is a necessary first step, if we intend to cultivate healthy non-sexual male friendships in our lives and culture.
Really eye opening. Yasir shared this with me. Thanks
Patrick Bensen says
Thanks Omar! Yes, it’s a lot to ponder. I hope to do further research to try to understand what was going on
Ali Elashram says
This is very interesting. I would never have thought of the connection here. Thanks for sharing, Patrick!
Thanks Ali, I appreciate it!