Sexuality in Muslim Spain

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When writing historical fiction it is essential that all the facts are checked thoroughly. Readers want to be sure that what they are reading could have actually happened, even if it is written as fiction. So when  I was writing the al-Andalus series of historical novels and found that al-Hakem II was a homosexual I realised that I didn’t know what the general attitude of the people at the time was to homosexuality or to heterosexuality either. Was sex forbidden between men? Was sex something that was endured or enjoyed? What was the law on this?

It seems that in 10th century Moorish Spain, sex was considered to be something pleasurable and to be enjoyed by all – an attitude more in line with 21st century Britain than the 19th century. Islam promoted marriage and within marriage most forms of sexual activity were allowed. Then as now, pre-marital sex and adultery were forbidden. As for homosexuality, it wasn’t illegal for a Muslim to be homosexual in 10th century Spain, unlike today where in some Muslim countries it can carry the death penalty. In al-Andalus if you were part of the intellectual or political elite your sexual practices were never questioned. Homosexuality  was very common in the royal court and was reflected in the poetry written at the time. It was practised much less among the general populace however. The majority of men married – some even married women of Christian or Jewish faith. This was a fairly common practice although Muslim women were not allowed to marry non-Muslim men. (This is a problem for one of the characters in my third book in the al-Andalus trilogy, who falls in love with a Christian monk.)
Everyone knew that Hakem II was a homosexual – as well as having a harem of hundreds of beautiful women, he also had an all-male harem. The only concern for the Royal court was that he would not be able to produce an heir. Although his father al-Rahman III had many children, al-Hakim was his favourite and the one he relied upon to finish his work on building Madinat al-Zahra after he was dead. It was imperative that al-Hakim had a son to succeed him. His mother was a cunning woman and she arranged for one of his concubines to dress as a man and seduce him. As unlikely as it sounds, it worked. The concubine gave birth to two sons and became a close friend and ally of Hakem II, who once his duty was done, returned to the young men he really loved. 

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The concubine, Subh, became one of the most powerful women in the land although her elder son died when he was still a boy. That left the younger one, al-Hisham II, who owing to the sudden death of his father, became caliph at the tender age of eleven-years-old. He never ruled al-Andalus and was caliph in nothing but name. His regent, al-Mansur and his mother, Subh ruled the country between them while al-Hisham remained a prisoner in his palace. He too was homosexual and produced no heir. 

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Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.

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