Mohamed Aleter

Pre-Islamic sex in the Arabian Peninsula

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It can be said that sex before Islam was distinguished by freedom; that is, with regard to the way the subject was seen, approached and discussed. Perhaps this was due to the nature of Bedouin society, which greatly reduces the complexities of social relationships, generally speaking, in comparison to the situation in settled environments.


The Arabs were familiar with various kinds of sexual practice, all of them within the framework of the male-female relationship. There is no historical record from the pre-Islamic era, in the poetry and stories from that time, of the proliferation of homosexuality in the Arabian Peninsula, at least not among the Arabian Peninsula’s most famous tribes. Nevertheless, according to some studies, such sexual practices did exist among Arabs before Islam.


There were many ways people could engage in intercourse in the pre-Islamic era. Some of them were passed down by Aisha bint Abi Bakr, who said that there were four, including the one sanction by Islam. Others said there were ten, including the four mentioned by Aisha. The most well-known types are as follows:


1 - al-istibḍāʻ

Wherein a man would send his wife to another man who was a prominent member of the community, such as a poet, knight or person of good lineage; the stranger would then have intercourse with the woman and when she fell pregnant she would return to her husband.



2 - al-muḵādana

Roughly translated as ‘the taking of secret lovers,’ al-muḵādana, is mentioned in the fourth chapter of the Quran, Surat al-Nisa. According to the chapter’s 25th verse, a man should not marry “those who take aḵdān” -- or, as the phrase is usually translated: “those who take [secret] lovers.” This shows then, that before the advent of Islam, some women would take lovers and those lovers would lay with them. However, there is a difference of opinion on how al-muḵādana was performed, both before and after the advent of Islam. Some have said that al-muḵādana did not include intercourse itself, and that the lover would suffice with kissing and embracing the woman. While there is also some disagreement over whether it was a secret practice or an accepted custom, most evidence suggests it was secret. According to one Arabic proverb about al-muḵādana, “that which goes unseen is harmless and that which is evident is wickedness.”



3 - al-badal

Wherein two men would swap wives temporarily for pleasure and variety without instigating divorce procedures or exchanging marriage contracts; according to the companion of the prophet Mohammad, Abu Hurairah, “in the time of Jāhilīyah, al-badal meant for one man to say to another: give up your woman to me, and I shall give up my woman to you and bestow upon you greatly.”



4 - al-muḍāmada

Wherein a woman would take one or two additional husbands in addition to her original husband; in dictionaries of classical Arabic, the definition of al-muḍāmada or aḍ-ḍimād is for a woman to share the company of two or three men so that she may eat with either of them in times of drought. It seems that this practice was not approved of, and perhaps the Arabs saw it as betrayal on the part of the woman. Yet despite this, it was an applied and widespread custom.


In one of his verses, the well-known pre-Islamic poet Abu Dhuayb al-Hudhali addressed the subject as follows: “You wish to have my company and that of Khaled* / Woe unto you! Can two swords gather in one scabbard?” The story goes that al-Hudhali delivered this couplet when his wife made his cousin Khaled bin Zuhair her second husband. Most agree that he considered the practice detestable. Indeed, for as he went on to say: “I see aḍ-ḍamad as a detestable thing.” With regard to the incident in question, he also said: “you wished to have my company and the company of my friend / No you shall not! Love my friend and leave me alone.”



5 - ar-rahṭ

Wherein ten men would meet and have intercourse with one woman, and if the woman became pregnant she would send for all of them; she would then choose who was to be the father of the fetus she was carrying and no one could refuse to accept.



6 - aṣḥāb ar-rāyāt (flag bearers)


These women, who were also referred to as al-baġāya or prostitutes by their contemporary name, would raise a flag to show that they were ready (and red is said to have been the chosen color of such flags.) Then men would come.


The above six variations are the most famous types of pre-Islamic intercourse, and they differ from the type of intercourse which Islam would later sanction, and which is known today as aš-šuhūd, al-‘uqd and other names.


With regard to homosexuality in pre-Islamic times, there are various stories, and it is difficult to discern their accuracy. Some people say it was widespread, while others refuse such ‘claims,’ basing their view on a theory that says the type of sexual orientation in question entered the Arab world from the neighboring cultures later on during the Islamic conquests. As for the issue of homosexuality among women, there is one unconfirmed story which claims that the first two women in the Arab Peninsula to prefer being intimate with one another other over intimacy with men were Zarqa al-Yamama and Hind bint al-Nuaman, daughter of the last Lakhmid king of Hira.



Islam changed the face of sex


With the advent of Islam new rules for legitimate sexual practice were put in place. However, some believe that Islam did not bring about a total break with pre-Islamic Arab sexual customs. This theory is based on the idea that although it regimented and organized sex for social reasons, Islam tolerated some of the practices Arabs were accustomed to before its arrival. One example of this is that men were allowed to marry four women.


Additionally, in Islam there are some acts which are not forbidden, and are considered by some to belong to the category of ‘al-lamam,’ or ‘slight sins.’ As the Quran says, “those who avoid the major sins and immoralities, only [committing] slight ones. Indeed, your Lord is vast in forgiveness.” According to the influential Persian scholar Ibn Jarir, Abu Huraira defined al-lamam as “kissing, winking, gazing and physical contact.” However, Abu Huraira cautioned, “should the genitals touch washing is mandatory, for that is forbidden.” The renowned Islamic scholar Al-Qurtubi also classified al-lamam as kissing, winking and gazing. “They are the lesser sins that can only be avoided by those who devote themselves to God,” Al-Qurtubi explained.

* The verb/pronoun combination taḍmadīn, which shares the same root as al-muḍāmada and aḍ-ḍimād, has been rendered as “to have the company of me” in this translation.

This article has been translated from the original Arabic by Ullin Hope.


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According to one Arabic proverb about al-muḵādana, “that which goes unseen is harmless and that which is evident is wickedness.”