One late, lonely night back in February of this year I found myself, as one sometimes does, wandering the dingy halls of a gay S & M bathhouse in the bowels of downtown Toronto. Entering my private cubicle, I caught the eye of a very intense, handsome fellow with a close-cropped beard and brown skin who I figured was Latino, but who actually turned out to be a Shiite Muslim of East Indian extraction born and raised in East Africa. I invited him into my room, and thus began my crash course in the wild world of Islam.
Before I met Akbar, I was inexcusably ignorant (as, I’ve subsequently discovered, most Westerners are) about a religion practiced by more than a quarter of the world’s population. Well before Black Tuesday I’d been warned by both straight women and gay men alike with some experience in the matter to steer clear of Muslim males as potential boyfriend material, regaled by anecdotes of torture and abuse that made even the Taliban seem like a bunch of Christmas carolers. But as the relationship with my Muslim (who, it must be said, has his own unique set of theosophical beliefs, as most thinking religious people do—no religion is entirely monolithic) began to evolve from a purely sexual one to something deeper and more emotionally complex, I realized that there are a whole slew of misconceptions and stereotypes about Middle Eastern men and practitioners of Islam, many of whom, unavoidably, have sprung from a complicated set of historical and geo-political realities. Or, as one Islamic scholar puts it, imagery can be reworked to expedite a shifting political economy.
One false notion is that Muslims hate the West because of its sexual and social liberties, which presumes that Islam is predicated on sexual repression and frustration. This is supposed to be the reason why the 9/11 hijackers were willing to commit suicide on the promise of a platoon of black-eyed virgins awaiting them in heaven, but doesn’t quite explain why they were drinking cocktails, watching porno, and frequenting strip joints before the attack. In fact, just as people who consider themselves Christians will sometimes bend the rules and go on a bender, your average Muslim also knows how to party. From all accounts prostitution is probably more accepted in the Middle East than in North America (the system of concubinage is tacitly sanctioned and the concubines themselves are treated just fine). Brothels proliferate and hash smoking is widespread, and not just amongst the Sufis, the rock n’ rollers of Islam. The image propped up for the West by governmental or religious establishments like the Saudis or the Taliban—who, for example, take the Qur’anic entreaty for women to be modest about their sex appeal to an absurd, oppressive extreme—doesn’t always reflect the reality of the streets. So if you’re dating a Muslim, even one who is so devout that he prays five times a day and blasts the Qur’an from his car stereo system like some crazy mixed-up Islamic James Dean (like mine does), don’t expect him to be a shrinking violet, or even someone who is particularly conflicted about his occasional vices.
As As’ad Abu Khalil, a professor of Poli Sci at Cal State University puts it, “Islam has traditionally been much more tolerant of bodily pleasure than Christianity.” And from my experience, I can only add, “You can say that again.” The Prophet Mohammed himself had several wives, including, when he was twenty-five, an older and very hot-sounding wealthy widow named Khadija who taught him everything he knew. Companions of Mohammed bragged of his sexual prowess, as opposed to the twelve disciples of Jesus who, the way they tell it, would have you believe that Christ was a sexual geek. In general, Islam promotes sex and other earthly pleasures as something to be fully enjoyed within prescribed moral boundaries (no adultery, rape, or sexual battery, for example). With regard to my Muslim, sensual experience is viewed as the very essence of worship, an extreme appreciation, if you will, of the divine gifts that God has bestowed upon him. That’s why it should come as no surprise that not infrequently in bed he breaks into spontaneous recitations of the Qur’an in Arabic. He tells me that Islam is a spare, devotional religion that eschews the worship of idols or even saints in favor of a profound respect for nature (green is the color of Islam), for the rising and setting of the sun (two of the five times for prayer each day), and for the cycles of the moon that govern their calendar. And, as you can imagine, with lines like these, a Muslim can romance the pants off you.
The question of what is “haram” (a.k.a. forbidden) in Islam is open to a certain amount of interpretation. For example, although alcohol consumption is nixed in the Qur’an, some modern-thinking mullahs condone it in moderation (although you still might want to have your beer without pork rinds). But, as in virtually all religions, the question of homosexuality is the mother of all harams. It may interest you to know that unlike the Bible, which, in Leviticus 20:13, explicitly states that a man who lies down with another man (let alone fucks him), should be put to death, similar prohibitions in the Qur’an (there are only two references) are more nuanced and open to interpretation. In the Hadith (a collection of sayings attributed to Mohammed), however, it does state that “When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes” (exciting, eh?), but also that you should kill both men. In general, though, Mr. Abu Khalil suggests that, historically, “the homosexual/heterosexual categories in Islamic societies have not been as sharply drawn as in the West. People easily move in and out of the two categories with little stigma attached.” He points out that many young Middle Eastern men lose their cherry to another man, pedagogically or otherwise, and, most significantly, that effeminate men aren’t subject to the same fag bashing on the street as fairies have traditionally suffered in the US. In Islamic societies in which men are often separated from women, affection between males, even sexual expression, is not so unusual, which might explain, but not justify, why American sailors have been writing “Hijack this, fags!” on the bombs being dropped on Afghanistan. Faggotry is largely reviled in the Middle East only when people try to organize it politically or make it overt, or even worse, to import Western paradigms of gayness along with McDonald’s and Starbucks. To put it bluntly, if you’re a guy mincing around Mecca wearing a tight Spandex T-shirt with “Snatch” written on it in gold glitter while singing “Believe,” you probably shouldn’t be surprised if somebody pushes a wall on top of you.
Like many misguided Western conceptions about Islam, the false notion of Middle Eastern culture forbidding homosexual expression amounts to a failure of the imagination, a refusal to accept the profound cultural and social differences of what might as well be another world. Just as many in the West (and even in the East) choose to ascribe violent and aggressive meanings to the teachings of Mohammed rather than pay attention to his entreaties for social justice, charity, and rights for women, we similarly ascribe a sinister and dangerous quality to Islamic sexuality. But the bottom line (and it’s coming from a devout bottom) is that there’s still something extremely sensual and potent about the image of the Islamic male. You only have to compare the stiff, asexual frigidity of Bush and his schoolmarmish wife with the moist-eyed, sensitive, and soft-spoken quality of the bearded Bin Laden, feminine yet virile, with his multiple wives and vast progeny, to grasp the difference.
Like I said, I can only speak from personal experience. But if my Muslim is any indication, the sexual boundaries that many of us know in the West—top vs. bottom, oral vs. anal, masculine vs. feminine, heterosexual vs. homosexual, missionary vs. doggy-style—are all but false dualities under Islam. In other words, he’s a real Bedouin in bed. And if we occasionally act out a certain true-believer-vs.-the-infidel scenario in the bedroom, whether consciously or unconsciously, despite its political incorrectness, it’s no one’s goddamn business but our own. After all, raping and pillaging are two of the most common sexual fantasies I can think of.