Who Says Only Men Have a Beard?

Revisiting the Question of Gender Ambiguity in Persian Poetry

in Anthropology of the Middle East
Author:
Fateme Montazeri PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley, USA montazeri@berkeley.edu

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Abstract

The presence of male homoeroticism in Persian poetry has long been noted. This sexual configuration is largely based on the conventional manner in which the beloved is described with male attributes, including a hairline above the lips or sideburns. Such readings assume a direct relationship between poetic topoi and external reality, and project, ahistorically, a modern aesthetic assumption onto premodern gender norms. This article argues that a male-associated rendition of the beloved, specifically in the case of the rhetorics of the facial hair that permeates the description of patrons, the divine and women alike, reveals not necessarily the sweetheart's gender, but dominant perceptions of praiseworthy characteristics and the power dynamics that rule the rhetorics of premodern gender norms.

The period of classical Persian poetry is considered to stretch from 900 to 1500 CE. In visiting the question of the beloved, the prime arena of study is the lyric genre, which is assumed to dominate Persian poetic production from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. While such classifications have been criticised (Lewis 2006: 121–122), it is still useful to delimit the scope of the study to the lyrical tradition, although the rhetorics of the beloved, among other lyrical features, had already developed within the time and alongside the literary forms that preceded the dominance of the lyrics.

Lyric poetry is the vehicle not only for romantic themes, but also for mystical Islamic (Sufi) expressions, as well as other content. These themes are not always distinguishable. The ambiguity between earthly love and heavenly desires, which extends to both levels of creation and reception, is visible in the preface to the celebrated twelfth-century treatise on love, Savāniḥ by Ahmad Ghazzālī (d. c.1136), wherein the mystic author writes: ‘I established several chapters … on the truths and states and intentions of love in a manner that there is no delegation neither to the creator nor to the created’ (2012/13: 2). The rhetoric of carnal and divine love is so inextricably intertwined for Ghazzālī and for the many premodern literati who enacted this commonly used concept that the ambiguity of the two becomes innate to the poetic tradition.

From the eleventh century onward a repertoire of terminology that was initially developed for lyrics was substantially drawn on to express the Sufi concept of ‘divine love’. The vocabulary, imagery and ideas shared by erotic and Sufi poetry allowed for ambiguity of expression on the part of the poet, and simultaneously resulted in enduring controversies among readers regarding the genuine meaning of the poems. The transition of ‘love’ (‘ishq in Persian), which was predominantly used in the first centuries after Islam to signify physical, sensual human-to-human attachments, to the context of Sufi poetry happened only after much reluctance.1 The ulema2 and the early Sufis alike initially opposed a rephrasing of the human–divine relationship, known to be a servant–master bond, as a lover–beloved one (Pourjavady 2008/9: 22–31). Nevertheless, the application in Sufi literature of the concept and terminology of love gradually became so solidified by the thirteenth century that the ambiguities of the poetic topoi, culminating in the ambivalent interpretation of the beloved and wine, were perpetuated in the lyrico-mystical tradition up to this day.

In considering the gender configuration of the beloved in the Persian tradition, this article places particular attention on the latter part of the classical period, namely the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, for several reasons. First, this period witnessed the culmination of the ghazal, a short poetic form of five to ten lines known for its erotic language and amatory themes. The ghazal is the most ambiguous vehicle for the expression of romantic and mystical thoughts. The propositions based on a general masculinity of the beloved in Persian literature, as will be shown, prove mostly problematic when it comes to the ghazal and this period. Furthermore, Persian poetry developed into an established institution of well-defined norms by the fifteenth century, owing in part to the patronage of the bibliophile descendants of Timur, who would not only commission historical accounts to celebrate the dynasty's grandiose victories, but also patronised romantic and mystical texts in a vast spectrum of forms and genres, including the lyrical ghazal and the narrative masnavī, a lengthy poetic form of rhyming couplets. Thanks to such patronage, conventions of Persian poetry, including gender norms, were extensively applied by poets of varying social strata, as attested by many non-professional poets whose names and works are collected in then-contemporary dictionaries, such as the Tazkirih by Dawlatshāh of Samarqand and Majālis al-Nafā'is by Alī-Shīr Navā'ī.

In what follows, this article shall review the main arguments that advocate for the persistence of homoeroticism in Persian literature, often in general terms, and will additionally qualify such statements by bringing to light often ignored notions. As will be shown, some of the examples presented as evidence of the male gender of the beloved are better understood as referring to non-humans, or when referring to humans, they are likely to praise a male patron or a female character. This article shall focus on the case of the beloved's facial hair, referred to as ‘khaṭ’ (lit. line) and ‘izār’ (lit. the line of a beard, or sideburns) respectively used in reference to one's newly grown moustache and beard. While these seemingly physical traits are emphatically interpreted to show the beloved's male gender, counterexamples shall be provided to illuminate the application of this concept as a literary convention used in association with the divine, patrons and female characters, as in the romance Salāmān va Absāl [Salaman and Absal] by ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492). A sixteenth-century pictorial representation of the story that further corroborates the point shall be mentioned.

Background

Discussions of the beloved's gender in Persian poetry began to receive scholarly attention more than 85 years ago when Ehsan Yarshater (d. 2018), distinguished professor of Iranian Studies, received his first doctoral degree from the University of Tehran in 1946. His dissertation, ‘Persian Poetry during the Reign of Shāhrukh’, was published as a book of the same title in 1955 after Yarshater returned to Iran having completed a second doctoral degree at the University of London. The book contains a chapter about the ghazal with a controversial subsection titled ‘Ma‘shūq zan nīst’ (‘The Beloved is Not a Woman’). Not surprisingly, the book was met by controversies and even animosity (Yarshater and Zandian 2016: 71). While Yarshater initially proposed the masculinity of the beloved in the context of the Timurid period, he later expanded the temporal span of this proposition to stretch from early Persian poetry (Yarshater 1960) up to the Safavid period (Yarshater 1986).

Yarshater highlights the historical roots of the presence of a male beloved in Persian literature, showing that such a literary image corresponds to the slave boys of Turkic3 origin who were brought to the Persianate lands as a result of raids into Central Asia in the early centuries following the expansion of Islam. These boys, tasked to serve as soldiers, sages and wine servers in banquets – and at times even music players – were frequently the subject of affectionate emotions at courts and the households of the wealthy (Yarshater 1986: 973). An expression of love towards these boys made its way into the opening section (taghazzul) of the prevalent court poetry in a panegyric mode, the qaṣīdih, which later gained an independent form as the ghazal.4 Drawing on this historical background, Yarshater (ibid.) illustrates why the beloved in Persian literature is typically rendered alongside warfare, as a cupbearer and with a hairline (khaṭ) on their face.

Yarshater's contribution remained the most noticeable scholarship on the subject in the twentieth century. In 2002, a survey of the homoerotic practices in Persian literature, Shāhid Bāzī dar Adabīyāt-i Fārsī (‘Sodomy: Based on Persian Literature’), was published in Tehran by Sirus Shamīsā, a professor at the University of Tehran. A comprehensive compilation of literary instances that speak to some sort of same-sex attachment from the nascent stages of Persian literature until contemporary times, the book was tabooed in the Islamic Republic and soon disappeared from bookstores, although it continues to be available online. Several contemporary scholars have contributed to the study of male love in Persian literature by concentrating on particular themes, poets or historical windows. Mention should be made of a special volume of Iranian Studies (2009) entitled ‘Love and Desire in Pre-Modern Persian Poetry and Prose’, with all its contributions except for one dealing with homoerotic love.

Yarshater's historical reasons for the adoption of same-sex affections in Persianate cultures have been enhanced by additional philosophical and intellectual factors. It is known today that the concept of the male beloved was inherited by the Islamicate cultures from the Hellenistic era, when Muslim philosophers, most importantly Avicenna (d. 1037), embraced Plato's elaboration on love in his Symposium. The word shāhid, literally ‘witness’, used in reference to the young sweetheart, itself attests to the theosophical idea that the beauteous beloved is a living testimony to the divine beauty and is expected to result in a contemplation of the divine. The love of the male youth extolled in Persian literature as a means to divine love could thus be traced back to the Platonic idea of the ‘ladder of love’, according to which sensual affections are considered the first steps leading humans to advance towards intellectual beauty. ‘I know not any greater blessing to a young man’, Plato (2000: 6) writes, ‘than a virtuous lover, or to the lover than a beloved youth’. For Plato, and consequently for Muslim philosophers, heterosexual love is driven by no more than lust and results therefore in no more than reproduction.

It should be noted that in Plato's philosophy, the very admiration of a beautiful youth, without physical attachment, results in the perfection of one's soul, hence the phrase ‘Platonic love’. Although the homoerotic theories and practices found in premodern Persianate literature do not always abide by Platonic limitations, they do not ‘normally’ involve physical experiences (Katouzian 2006: 45–46). The meagre bodily aspect of literary homoerotic love is among the factors that set it apart from the common Western concept of homosexuality, even though both are described with similar designations. Regardless of the extent to which various genres of literature mirror the love theoretics, an acquaintance with the theosophical foundations of homoerotic desires tentatively sheds light on the appearance of such sentiments. The following pages shall review some methodological inadequacies of the studies that homogeneously treat the question of love in Persian literature while neglecting the theoretical approach to the male love and the male representation of the beloved.

Only One Beloved?

A homoerotic interpretation of Persian poetry as a whole results in a generalised classification of many poems, at times with scant evidence, in reference to a male beloved. When considering declarations such as ‘As a rule, the beloved is not a woman’ by Yarshater (1986: 973), or ‘Persian lyrical literature is basically a homoerotic literature in a sense’ by Shamīsā (2002/3: 10), one finds that they are not easy to substantiate, particularly when it comes to the ghazal tradition, wherein the poetic language reaches its utmost abstraction and ambiguity. As a corollary to this overgeneralisation, the fluctuation of the language between literal and metaphorical during the course of literary developments is disregarded to assume that the beloved is homogeneously similar in all forms and genres. In order to justify why the purportedly obvious and general ‘homoeroticism’ is not known to every reader, poetic intricacy and the European translations of Persian poetry have been blamed: ‘These ghazals are delicate to the extent that no one assumes today that the beloved is male’, writes Shamīsā (ibid.: 163). Similarly, it is averred that a heterophilic perception of poetic language stems from the translations of classical literature in the nineteenth century by individuals such as A. J. Arberry and Gertrude Bell, who, either from personal impulse or societal pressure, rendered the non-differentiated gender of the original Persian pronouns as feminine (Shay 2012: 170). The Persian third-person singular pronouns – subjective ‘ū’ and possessive ‘ash’ – are the same for both genders; however, since the English language lacks any non-gendered pronouns for third-person singular, early translators inevitably demystified the ambiguity of the original Persian by translating it as ‘she’.

The generalised approach to rendering the corpus of Persian poetry homoerotic wholesale, even when ample evidence is lacking, necessitates that scholars base their male-dominant readings on the so-called ‘hidden indicators’ (qarā'in-i khafī) (Shamīsā 2002/3: 163). The samples presented to exemplify the ‘hidden indicators’, however, rarely include definite clues to the beloved's gender, unless with a stretch of the imagination, one assumes that holding a cup of wine in one's hand, as for instance in the following ghazal by Sa‘dī (d. 1291) (2006/7: 846), indicates masculinity:

An intoxicated idol, intricate, and pure / Holding in hand a cup of wine,
In the festive gathering of the drinkers / Has fastened the belt and unwrapped the robe,
O my! What a gracious angel / Has descended from the heavens
(Sar-mast butī latīf u sādih / Dar dast giriftih jām-i bādih
Dar majlis-i bazm-i bādih nūshān / Bastih kamar u qabā gushādih
Vah vah chih buzurgvār hūrīst / Az ruzan-i jannat ūftādih)

In the absence of any immediate hints to the male gender of the ‘intoxicated idol’, the poem ironically suggests the beloved's femininity, for the word ‘ḥūr’, mentioned in the Quran (55:72; 56:22) as a paradisiacal reward for believers, is often interpreted to refer to female beauties, although some exegetes also consider the word to incorporate the male. Regardless of the Quranic interpretations, the application of ‘ḥūr’ in Persian, meaning ‘angel’, is feminine, hence the girls’ names ‘ḥūr’, ‘ḥūrī’ and ‘ḥūrīyyih’.

Similarly to the general treatment of love, the traits of the beloved in the nexus of Persian literature are often connected by way of generalisation to the Turkic slave boys serving in courts. Although such presence does explain some features of the literary beloved (such as the military career of the Turks which, as Yarshater (1986: 973) shows, convincingly explains the depiction of the beloved with weaponry5), not every standardised characteristic of the beloved could be accounted for through analogy with Turk boys. For instance, the lover's typical patience in accepting all sufferings of love is not easily attributable to such a historical source, despite the attempts made to this end. Shamīsā (2002/3: 156) postulates that the occasional audacity of the slaves in addressing their masters is crystallised in literature as the beloved's classical cruelty. In contrast to this claim, the oppression (jafā) on the part of the beloved and their heedlessness to the perishing of the desperate lover, which is indispensable in classical Persian love dynamics, hardly align with the typical traits of the boys serving rulers or affluent denizens. After all, these boys should generally have been loyal to their patrons. The discrepancy between the literary and its purported historical source challenges the accuracy of such a correspondence.

One possible origin for the beloved's characteristic disloyalty might be sought in the theological and philosophical debates of the premodern Islamic period. Divine justice has long been a controversial question, intensely debated by different theological schools. As opposed to the rational-minded Mu‘tazilites, the Ash‘arites insisted that divine justice is beyond human understanding and that all divine actions are supremely ‘just’, even though they may seem otherwise6 (Dādbih and Pākatchī 1988/89: 740). A philosophical notion that views every divine act as legitimate and just might underlie the literary description of the transcendental beloved, whose loyalty is only optional; whatever He does is perfectly sweet, hence the lines by the famed mystic poet Rumi (d. 1273), ‘Faithfulness is not obliged on the king of the beautiful’ (Bar shāh-i khūb-rūyān vājib vafā nabāshad) and ‘Whatever that king does, [he] does it sweetly’ (Har chih ān khusraw kunad shīrīn kunad) (Balkhī 2009/10: 745, 495).

The Literary, the Historical

The general treatment of the homoerotic desires in Persian literature mostly from a historical standpoint resulted in an overt fluctuation between the literary and the historical, and an excessive interpretation of the rhetorical in correspondence with a presumed sociohistorical reality. However, such a correspondence is not always the case. Sunil Sharma (2009: 765–779) shows the remoteness from historical reality of the relations narrated in Persianate Mughal literature. Sharma argues that two cases of scandalous (or ‘forbidden’, to use his term) amorous relationships (one homoerotic and the other heteroerotic) between Indian patrons and Persian poets related in sixteenth and seventeenth-century texts were but reflections of the tension between Persian émigrés to the subcontinent and the Mughals, in which the norms of gender and sexuality derive from the power dynamics at the Mughal court (ibid.: 779). Yet it is not uncommon for studies to interpret a literary description of an affectionate longing for a beloved, with minimum gender evidence, as proof of a real homosexual desire.

The high frequency of literary terms and idioms that are associated with masculinity is often presented as evidence of the beloved's male gender. Such reasoning, if seemingly convincing at first, appears rather problematic to a readership that is already acquainted with the conventional, non-literal language of Persian lyric poetry. For instance, the following lines from a ghazal by Hafiz of Shiraz (d. 1390) (2004: 35) are typically deemed representative of homoerotic emotions (Yarshater 1986: 974; Shamīsā 2002/3: 48; De Bruijn 2019: 6), even though the textual description of the beloved is not completely irreconcilable with a non-human or non-male figure:

Hair dishevelled, sweating, laughter on his/her lips, and drunk,
His/her shirt torn, singing ghazals, and a jug of wine in hand,
His/her narcissus-like eyes eager for a brawl, and mockery on his/her lips,
He/she came to me in the middle of the night and sat by my side7
(Zulf āshuftih u khuy kardih u khandān lab u mast
Piruhan chāk-u ghazal-khān u surāhī dar dast
Nargis-ash ‘arbadih-jūy u lab-ash afsūs-kunān
Nīmshab dūsh bih bālīn-i man āmad binishast)

Presenting these lines as exemplary evidence of the beloved's male gender is based on the premise that the poem realistically describes the beloved's visit to the poet's bedside in the middle of the night, drunk, sweating, and laughingly singing and mocking. It is with this assumption that Shamīsā (2002/3: 48) writes, ‘the beloved who goes to the lover in the middle of the night, with his robe ripped, a cup in hand and singing, is undoubtedly a man, not a woman, who would not be able to safely walk the paths of the medieval cities at sunset [let alone in the middle of the night]’. De Bruijn (2019: 5), too, describes the above poem as ‘a scene that might very well be realistic’. However, such readings contradict the classical tradition of portraying the beloved as a conventional ‘type’ without giving an impression of the actual ‘individual’. ‘In Persian lyrics’, Yarshater (1986: 973) asserts: ‘The beloved is a personalised concept, not a person’. It remains questionable then why the above poetic description by Hafiz is analysed as if mirroring a real occasion. The specifics of the poetry of Hafiz, after all, further problematise this assumption, for his ghazals have never ceased to be the subject of controversial debates over whether they refer to a worldly or otherworldly beloved, let alone a male or female one.

Only if this ghazal is literally interpreted and every poetic topos and idiom are imagined to have a corresponding reality – an assumption that remains unwarranted – would it be reasonable to assume that the midnight wanderer is a male character, even though there is little reason to reject the possibility of a premodern woman being described with the words ‘hair dishevelled, sweating, laughter on her lips, and drunk’.

The attempts to read the above, as well as other poems, exclusively as expressions of same-sex desire tend to reduce their meaning by focusing on the source of inspiration for the imagery (i.e. the presence of Turks in Persianate courts) and neglecting their historical hermeneutics. Although it is highly probable, and indeed enlightening to know, that the beloved's description, in terms of physical appearance (being unkempt), emotional state (laughing) and actions (serving wine), is inspired by the historical presence of adolescent Turks in courts, one additionally needs to consider the vast corpus of the lyrico-mystical tradition, in which bodily beauty is used to evoke an esoteric significance, in order to fully perceive the semantics of the poem. Premodern manuals were written to assist readers with deciphering the purported symbolism between material and spiritual beauty. Regarding the above poem, though one cannot and perhaps should not dissolve the poetic ambiguity by interpreting it as referring to an exclusively human or divine beloved, it shall not go unnoticed that according to the Mir'āt al-Ma‘ānī (‘Mirror of the Meanings’), a fifteenth or sixteenth-century composition of more than eight hundred verses by Hāmid Jamālī Dihlavī (d. 1535) on the mystical meanings of Sufi poetry, a cupbearer connotes the perfect master (murshid), the cup signifies the soul that is filled with the wine of love and the state of smiling symbolises divine mercy (Jamālī Dihlavī 2005/6: 44, 60). Viewed through the lens of the Mir'āt al-Ma‘ānī, then, the laughing cupbearer of the above poem is understandable as the messenger of divine mercy.

In contrast to literal understandings of the poem, Sufi hermeneutics makes possible an ‘allegorical’ interpretation of the poetic event and its beloved/wine server. Pourjavady (2014: 140), who notes that Hafiz's poem responds in metre, form and rhyme to a ghazal by Nazārī of Qahistān (d. c.1320), contends that both poems illustrate a similar mystical experience and evoke a shared mythical scene.8 The appearance of an angelic presence by the mystic/poet's side in the middle of the night, in this reading, foreshadows the lover–beloved vow, and receiving wine from the beloved's hand symbolises the allegiance to the primordial covenant (‘Ahd-i Alast) between the human soul and the divine, mentioned in the Quran (7:172). Approaching the poem through the perspective of mystical hermeneutics, then, proves that the poem illustrates an imaginary scene, which changes the question of the beloved's gender altogether.

Patron or Beloved? Who Has a Beard?

Like Sharma's case study, in which the affectionate literary liaison is a transformed reflection of a relationship other than love (that is, the unpleasant feelings of the Mughals confronted with the high rank of Persian poets in court), amorous desires towards a man in Persian literature might well be the rhetorical expression of either an admiration of a patron or ruler or a quest for the spiritual beloved. It is a convention in the Persianate literary world that the utmost esteem for a patron or ruler, who is almost always male, be expressed using romantic language, thus appearing similar to same-sex sentiments. Indeed, the position of the poets in the premodern Persianate courts is known to be analogous to that of lovers, which, in combination with the ambiguous language of the ghazal, allows for the dual reading of poems as hyperbolically addressing a patron or a beloved (Meisami 1987: 275). This rhetorical vicinity, exemplified in phrases such as shāh-i butān (‘king of idols’) and mīr-i khūbān (‘prince of the noble’) (ibid.), offers a case in which ostensible yearning for a man is not symptomatic of a homosexual desire.

The description of facial hair was a standard characteristic of the beloved in Persian classical literature, considered (in an overtly generalised manner) to be ‘a common theme in all traditional lyrical poetry’ (Yarshater 1986: 973). The poetic sensitivity to the beloved's facial hair is partly due to the changes in the appearance caused by the growth of the hair, as well as to the character's puberty and the development of reason marked by it. Plato appears to be the first to deal with this issue, when he asserts that the best beloved is the one who has just started to grow a beard. True lovers, according to Plato (2000: 8), ‘love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow’. In contrast to the philosopher's positive attitude to budding beards, early Persian poets under the Samanids (819–999) and the Ghaznavids (977–1156) often complain of the growth of the sweetheart's beard, commonly likening it to newly grown grass or dark clouds that cover the moon of the beloved's face. Farrukhī of Sīstān (d. 1037/8), the royal poet at the Ghaznavid court, mourns in the taghazzul section of a qaṣīdih that he can no longer kiss his now-bearded beloved's face (Farrukhī 1957: 359):

My jasmine-faced blackened the sideburns,
And raised two dark nights from both sides of the moon,
His age has not yet passed fifteen or sixteen,
Now how could one view that silver face [to be] dim?
The [passing of] time did whatever it pleased to that countenance,
[And] disrupted in cruelty the place of my kisses
(Ān saman ‘āriż-i man kard banāgūsh sīyāh / du shab-i tīrih bar āvard z-i du gūshih-yi māh
Sāl-ash az pānzdah u shānzdah nagzashtih hanūz / chūn tavān dīdan ān ‘āriż-i chun sīm sīyāh
Ruzgār ānchih tavānist bar ān rūy bikard / bih sitam jāygah-i būsih-yi man kard tabāh)

Descriptions of facial hair endured in Persian literature as an established element of conventional beauty, and as the following examples show, they became associated with not only the beloved male youth, but also with patrons, the divine and even female characters.

A ghazal by Hafiz (2004: 236) exemplifies a poetic admiration of the moustache or khaṭ (literally ‘line’) to encomiastic ends. Hafiz's ghazal welcomes a poem by his Muzaffarid patron, Shāh Shujā‘ (d. 1384). In the second line, Hafiz praises the moustache around the lips of his beloved/patron, comparing it to the ants circling around the heavenly fountain of Salsabīl:

The green-robed of your khaṭ around the lips / Are like ants around the Salsabīl
(Sabz-pūshān-i khaṭ-at bar gird-i lab / hamchū mūrān-and gird-i salsabīl)

Describing the moustache as ‘sabz-pūshān-i khaṭ’, Hafiz plays on the combination ‘sabz shudan’ (‘to grow’), ‘sabzih’ (‘grass’) and ‘sabz’ (‘green’, also the colour of the residents of heaven according to the Quranic scripture), to imply the budding condition of the hair, as well as its supernatural origin. The khaṭ is imagined to be watered by Salsabīl, the repeating rhyme of the poem, which the Quran (78:18) mentions as a source of heavenly wine. While the line by itself can be understood as addressing a handsome youth, the overall aura of the poem underlines its eulogising concerns, culminating in the final line, which names the ‘shāh’ (‘king’):

May Shāh of the world enjoy persistence, grace, and flirtation,
And every other thing from this category
(Shāh-i ‘ālam rā baqā u ‘iz u nāz / bād u har chīzī kih bāshad z-īn qabīl)

The juxtaposition of eulogy, physical masculinity and spiritual sensitivity in the above ghazal highlights the complications that stem from approaching the khaṭ as a mere indicator of the male beloved and as symptomatic of homosexuality.

Spiritual Beloved with a Beard?

The beloved's khaṭ represents a standard for appreciation for not only humans (whether a young sweetheart or a patron) but also the spiritual beloved. In the following lines, Hafiz's (2004: 280) allusion to the beloved's ‘khaṭ-i sabz’ (‘green line’) resists any interpretation but a spiritual one:

Having seen the meadow of your khaṭ, from the garden of heaven,
We have come to yearn for that love plant
(Sabzih-yi khaṭ-i tu dīdīm u z-i bustān-i bihisht
Bih havā-khvahi-yi ān mihr-i gīyāh āmadih'īm)9

Prioritising the beloved's thin line of a moustache over the gardens of heaven, Hafiz attributes the human's descent on earth to their love for the Divine, a concept alluded to in his other poems as well. The phrase ‘sabzih-yi khaṭ’ (‘the verdant line’), which semantically matches the juxtaposed words ‘heaven’ and ‘plant’, is interpreted as the forbidden fruit that deceives humans with the illusion of becoming omniscient or eternal (Khurramshāhī 2001/2: 1024). ‘Even [in a] more mystical [reading]’, Khurramshāhī writes, ‘whatever is related to yār [friend], even His sabzih-yi khaṭ is miraculous and beyond all blessings of heaven, therefore we [humans] made a profitable decision to trade them in hope of uniting with the Friend’. The human love for the divine as such is manifested in none other than His ‘sabzih-yi khaṭ’, that is, a physical attribute typically associated with masculinity.

Mystical readings of lyric poetry expanded to an overly ambitious extent in the course of Persian literary developments. The over-growth in the metaphorical semantics of erotic vocabulary is attested by the treatises written to provide mystical (‘irfānī) readings of otherwise erotic poetry, such as the Mir'āt al-Ma‘ānī mentioned above. Some of these treatises register the meanings attributed to physical traits of the beloved, including the characteristics that are deemed masculine. A seventeenth-century glossary titled ‘The Idioms of the Ahl-i ‘Irfān’, attached to a commentary on Hafiz's poetry by Muhammad b. Muhammad ad-Dārābī (d. c.1718), provides a rather convoluted definition for what seems to be the beloved's budding moustache. Dārābī, himself a mystic, poet and biographer, writes under the entry ‘Khaṭ-i sabz va khaṭ-i naw damīdih’ (‘The verdant line and the newly blossoming line’): ‘The khaṭ distinguishes between the sun and hellfire, which is the limbo’ (khaṭ kih mīyān-i āftāb va dūzakh ḥā'il ast kih barzakh-ast’) (Ad-Dārābī 1979: 140). Barzakh, literally limbo or transition, is referred to in the Islamic tradition as the realm in which one's soul dwells after death and before resurrection. Interpreting the ‘khaṭ’ to symbolise the barzakh is not restricted to Dārābī, who offers a radically Shi'i and mystical interpretation of Hafiz's poetry; similar definitions are also registered in other glossaries of gnostic terms. A contemporary compilation of the mystical idioms, for instance, defines ‘khaṭ’ as a ‘manifestation of the truth in the appearances of spirituality’ and ‘khaṭ-i sabz’ as ‘barzakh’ (Rizāyī Tihrānī 2014: 766). While assimilating ‘khaṭ’ to the barzakh makes sense (for it by definition provides a boundary to differentiate between two entities), such a far-fetched, metaphysical interpretation of a physical beauty-feature reiterates the semantic complexities involved in the crafting and uncrafting of Persian poetry, which portrays worldly and otherworldly concepts while drawing on the same lexical repertoire.

Woman with a Beard?

While many scholars typically take the description of facial hair to denote the beloved's male gender, it often goes unnoticed that the sideburns on the faces of premodern ladies were similarly a subject of poetic admiration. It seems not uncommon for women to have an unshaven face; and therefore, given the genderlessness of Persian pronouns and verbs, the very existence of such literary descriptions does not demonstrate gender roles. A clarifying example is found in Salāmān va Absāl, by the poet, polymath and Naqshbandi Sufi master ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492). This story is particularly noteworthy for offering a window onto premodern gender conceptions and the philosophical and esoteric foundations based on which male homoeroticism is extolled in the Persian tradition. Furthermore, the invocation of male traits to render a female character in Jāmī's Salāmān va Absāl contributes to our understanding of the picture of the ‘masculine woman’ in Muslim societies, which remains understudied in contrast to the ‘effeminate man’, which has received some scholarly attention as a commonality among many Muslim-majority societies (Fortier 2019).

An old allegorical romance, Salāmān va Absāl is first related by Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 873), an influential physician and translator of Greek classics into Arabic. Another version of the story is alluded to by Avicenna and elaborated on by Nasīr ad-Dīn at-Tūsī (d. 1274). Two centuries later, in Herat, Jāmī retold Ḥunayn's version as the shortest of the seven masnavīs in his Haft Awrang (‘Seven Thrones’), while tinting it with Sufi ideas. The theme and the diction of Jāmī's story speak to the gender norms of around 1480, when the composition of Salāmān va Absāl is surmised to have been completed.

Salāmān is the son of a pious Greek king who yearns to have an heir. The king's wise vizier thinks of a solution: to fertilise the king's sperm outside of a female body, so that he can avoid the humility of approaching women. The prince is born without a biological mother, though in ultimate perfection:

The sage extracted the sperm from him with no lust,
Preserved it serene in a place other than the womb,
After nine months appeared from there
A perfect child, a flawless baby
(Nuṭfih rā bī shahvat az ṣulb-ash gushād / Dar maḥall-ī juz rahim ārām dād
Ba‘d-i nuh mah gasht paydā z-ān maḥal / Kūdakī bī ayb u ṭiflī bī khilal)

The baby prince is named ‘Salāmān’, literally ‘whole and healthy’, and is then entrusted to the best possible wet nurse, Absāl. Infatuated with Salāmān since infancy, Absāl begins to seduce him as he grows and admirably perfects in every aspect. Salāmān ultimately succumbs to the love of Absāl; only after efforts and plans on the part of the king and the wise vizier does Absāl perish in a conflagration, and the prince learns to purify his desires from a cardinal love, thus deserving to rule after his father.

Salāmān va Absāl is undoubtedly a metaphorical narrative, a point to which Jāmī draws attention multiple times. Like other long masnavīs, the main narrative is frequently punctuated by short anecdotal interludes, seemingly irrelevant to the story, in which the author deviates to emphasise a didactic lesson. In one such occurrence, Jāmī (1936: 32) insists that love might appear concealed in another form. According to the anecdote, a lover, sitting alone in a corner and whispering to himself about the moon, the sun, the petals of flowers and the height of a cypress tree, is accidentally heard by an ignorant, who complains of the ostensible nonsense that the lover is uttering. The lover's response highlights the esoteric language of love that is intelligible only to the initiated:

He said, ‘O you distant from the signs of the lovers!
You cannot comprehend the language of the lovers.
By the sun and the moon, I seek my beloved,
This secret is clear [only] to the witty.
When I said ‘flower’, I meant the grace of his/her face.
I mentioned hyacinth and wanted his/her hair.
Should you become conversant with my language,
You'll not hear from me aught but the narrative of love
(Guft k-ay dūr az nishān-i ‘āshiqān / Fahm natvānī zabān-i ‘āshiqān
Z-āftāb u mah gharaż yār-i man ast / Sirr-i in bar nuktih dānān rushan ast
Gul kih guftam luṭf-i rūy-ash khvāstam / Zikr-i sunbul raft u mūy-ash khvāstam
Gar tu vāqif az zabān-i man shavī / Juz hadīs-i ‘ishq-ash az man nashnavī)

Having warned the audience to ponder the hidden meanings of the story, Jāmī resumes the romance to reiterate, more explicitly, its metaphorical nature in the last two sections of the book by deciphering what is intended by the narrative elements.

Now that the appearance of the story is complete / You must benefit from its meaning.
(Ṣūrat-i īn qiṣṣih chun itmām yāft / Bāyad-at az ma‘nī-yi ān rāh yāft)

According to Jāmī (1936: 59), the king in the text stands for the intellect as the influential force in nature; the sage represents the divine blessing (fayż) that flows in the world through the intermediary of the king; Salāmān stands for the pure soul, who is born from the intellect with no bodily intervention but whose survival is contingent upon the body, that is, Absāl, and who thus would not abandon her except by coercion. Jāmī (ibid.: 60) clarifies that Absāl, the attractive yet deceiving woman whose role is vital for the prince's growth, symbolises lustful bodily desires:

Who is Absāl? This lustful body / [Who is] lowered under the laws of nature
(kīst Absāl? īn tan-i shahvat-parast / zīr-i aḥkām-i ṭabī‘at gashtih past)

Notwithstanding the story's symbolism, its plot abounds with a myriad of incidents that one might, from a modern sensibility, call misogynistic. For one, Salāmān's birth is a manifestation of the contempt imagined to follow a relationship with women, at least by the wisest strata of the society, represented by the vizier. Throughout the story and on several occasions, the vizier admonishes the king and the prince to avoid such liaisons altogether (Jāmī 1936: 21–22). Women are rendered seductive and their love none other than the greatest barrier that repulses man's realisation of his virtues and spiritual capacities. The attribution to men of physical and spiritual superiority is not unprecedented in Persian literature: three centuries earlier, masculine values were expressed to be normative and natural in the works of ‘Attar of Nishapur (d. 1221), in which unmanning and emasculation convey a character's spiritual lassitude (Lewis 2009: 694). Aside from the inner metaphorical layer of Salāmān va Absāl, the outer rhetorical layer also furnishes a glance into premodern gender aesthetics, particularly visible in Absāl's corporeal attributes. Recounting the selection of Absāl as the worthiest prospect to nurture the prince, Jāmī (1936: 26) depicts her physical attractions in detail:

Since he [Salāmān] was severed of his mother's milk/ They selected a wet nurse for him,
A sweetheart as beautiful as the full moon / Less than twenty in age, named Absāl,
Her delicate body from head to toe / Every part was charmingly perfect,
Her hair hanging down her back / Hundred calamities hanging from every strand,
Her stature [was like] a cypress from the garden of moderation / The crown of the kings trodden on her way,
Her eyes were drunken, smouldering / Laying on flowers under the umbrella of pure musk,
Her ears harkening from both sides / [like] shells to the pearl of utterance
(Chun nabud az shīr-i mādar bahrih-mand / Dāyih-i kardand bahr-i ū pasand
Dilbar-i dar nīkuvī māh-i tamām / Sal-i ū az bīst kam absāl nām
Nāzuk andām-ī kih az sar tā bih pāy / Juzv Juzv-ash khūb būd u dil-rubāy
Gīsu-yash bud az qafā āvīkhtih / Z-ū bih har mū ṣad balā āvīkhtih
Qāmat-ash sarv-ī zi bāgh-i i‘tidāl / Afsar-i shāhan bih rāh-ash pāymāl
Chashm-i ū mast-ī kih kardih nīmkhvāb / Tikyih bar gul zīr-i chatr-i mushk-i nāb
Gūsh-hā-yash khush nīyūsh az har ṭaraf / Guhar-i guftār rā sīmīn ṣadaf)

Among Absāl's many beautiful attributes is her ‘izār, defined in the dictionary as ‘rastangāh-i khaṭ-i rīsh’ (‘where the line of the beard grows’) (Mu‘īn 2002/3: 1055). Jāmī described her ‘izār as being as rejuvenating to Absāl's face as the Nile to Egypt:

On her ‘izār [was] an alluring cerulean line / Splendour like the Nile to the Egypt of her beauty
(Bar ‘izār-ash nīlgūn khaṭī jamīl / Runaq-i miṣr-i jamāl-ash hamchu nīl)

The portrayal of women in Jāmī's Salāmān va Absāl as guileful and seductive, with their sideburns considered attestations to their physical beauty, exemplifies premodern conceptions of gender in the Persianate world. On the one hand, effeminacy signifies the worldly desires that should be avoided, and on the other hand, all virtues, including wisdom, beauty and love, are represented as masculine traits. This theosophical basis elucidates why the female beloved is absent as a type from Persian lyrical literature, despite the presence therein of female characters, and why the typical characterisation of the beloved, whether patron, divine or human of whatever gender, either tends to conceal the gender of the beloved (which is facilitated by the genderless language of Persian) or is introduced with masculine features.

Jāmī's Salāmān va Absāl makes it clear that not all of the standard masculine attributes of the beloved point to the character's male gender, but rather to the male-dominated aesthetics of the premodern milieu, which are exemplified by the literary description of the beloved's facial hair. In contrast to the assumption that female characters should have shaved faces – itself a consequence of the ahistorical projection to premodern women of modern aesthetic criteria – female beauty is extolled in classical Persianate literature by portraying the beard line. The surviving illustrations also corroborate the divergence of premodern gender aesthetics from contemporary norms. These delicate pictures, also known as Persian painting, adorn the folios of medieval manuscripts and provide a pictorial narrative adjacent to the text that the reader encounters while turning the manuscript's pages. Although the illustrations do not mirror the texts in every detail, they are, like Persian literature, conventional and unrealistic (Grabar 2000: 132). Persian paintings especially share with literature an idealistic aesthetics and similar standards of beauty. Human figures are depicted in illustrations with elongated, svelte bodies, thin waists, half-closed eyes – as if intoxicated – and bow-like eyebrows, akin to what the literary word describes. It is noteworthy that like the literary tendency to portray types rather than individuals, the pictures also include figures with similar attire, gestures and looks, whose individual identities are not easily distinguishable.

The illustration relevant to this article's purpose is included in the manuscript of Jāmī's Haft Awrang (‘Seven Thrones’), known as the Freer Jāmī for its preservation in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution (accession number 46.12). Produced nearly a century after the composition of the text, the Safavid prince Ibrahim Mirza (1540–1577) commissioned this exquisite manuscript to be produced by the royal artists (Simpson 1998). Folio 194b of the manuscript contains the full-page painting ‘Salāmān and Absāl Repose on the Happy Isle’, with Absāl's depiction showcasing noticeable sideburns. The painting illustrates the episode in which the lovers, weary of the king's advice to separate, flee to an island to enjoy each other's company with no disturbance. Every pictorial element in the splendid painting – the colourful fauna and flora (real and imaginary creatures) and the two characters – are depicted as serene and joyful. Absāl is shown in green garments, lying back on a piece of rock with a hand pointing upwards. The lovers’ bodies and faces, like typical human figures in Persian painting, look very similar, although compared to the hairless face of Salāmān, Absāl's facial hair is more highlighted: she has heavier eyebrows and eyelashes, and two stripes of hair visibly hang from both sides of her face, echoing what the text describes as her ‘izār. The painting contradicts the deduction by scholars who take the literary description of ‘izār to denote the ‘rīsh-i ma‘shūq’ (‘the beloved's beard’) and consequently their male gender (Shamīsā 2002/3: 51). Instead, the picture clarifies that at the time of its creation in the sixteenth century, the ‘izār was a non-gender-specific aesthetic feature depicted in Persian painting and poetry alike – a feature which continues to be depicted up to the nineteenth century, when a shift in gendered marking of beauty occurs (Najmabadi 2001: 92).

A brief mention of two other works created around the same time as the Salāmān va Absāl – Jāmī's Yūsuf va Zulaykhā and the anonymous Majālis al-‘Ushshāq – helps to illustrate the gender norms and practices of the period. The Quranic story of Yūsuf, the biblical Joseph, was the subject of many premodern Persian romances and paintings. The character of Yūsuf in Persian literature embodies a physical charm that cannot be easily designated as male beauty. Rather, Yūsuf's unearthly beauty is established using terminology, concepts and beauty criteria that are shared between men and women, to an extent that gives him an appearance sometimes described as ‘queer’ (Yaghoobi 2016). Yaghoobi (ibid.: 246) shows that in the famous Yūsuf va Zulaykhā (‘Yūsuf and Zulaykhā’) by Jāmī, Yūsuf is depicted in an androgynous manner, as a passive recipient of the feminine gaze of Zulaykhā, Potifar's wife. What appears ‘queer’ to the modern viewer in the portrayal of Yūsuf does not suggest that he, who is considered to be an infallible prophet in the Islamic tradition, engaged in homosexual practices forbidden in Islamic law; rather, the unisexual rendition of Yūsuf further clarifies that modern gender attributes are far from applicable to the characters of premodern Persianate literature.

It should not be assumed, however, that homosexual sentiments and practices are missing from classical literature in general and Jāmī's time in particular. The book entitled Majālis al-‘Ushshāq (‘Gatherings of the Lovers’), written in the first half of the sixteenth century, contains numerous accounts of such practices attributed to figures of great religious, cultural and political status. The text of the book attributes it to Sultan Hussayn Bayqara (r. 1469–1506), while contemporary writings, notably by Babur the Mughal emperor (1483–1530), refer to a companion of Sultan Hussayn named Gāzurgāhī; however, the question of authorship remains unsolved to this day (Futūhi 2016: 49). The very existence of the book nonetheless speaks to the prevalence of homoerotic sentiments in the sixteenth-century milieu, and at the same time attests to contemporary attempts to legitimise and celebrate such liaisons as spiritual.

Finally, to further stress the diachronic transformation of sexual norms from the premodern to the modern era, it is fruitful to note that numerous extant photos from the Qajar period (1785–1925) portray women as far from what we consider female beauty today, that is, very plump, with unshaved faces and even thick moustaches.10 The bizarre photos, it is proposed, reflect the personal taste of Nāsir ad-Dīn shah (d. 1896), who tentatively recorded for his own pleasure the life of the harem with a set of cameras he received as a 15-year-old prince from Queen Victoria. Whether this proposition is true or not, the pictures portray a sexual taste that diverges from modern norms and reiterates that the presence of facial hair, or absence thereof, cannot indicate gender differentiation.

Conclusion

This article does not aim to question the existence of homosexual theories and practices in premodern Persianate cultures; rather, it suggests that the presence of masculine traits in literary works, which is often interpreted as evidence of anthropological and historical homosexual realities, cannot be studied detached from the norms and conventions of the literary context in which it originated. A failure to recognise the diversion of premodern standards of beauty from contemporary criteria, and particularly the dominant presence of male aesthetics in classical Persian literature, has led to the assumption that the beloved in classical Persian lyrics is by default male. This confusion is made possible by non-gender-specific pronouns and verbal forms in the Persian language and by the shared terminological and conceptual repertoire used for encomiastic, mystical and romantic purposes alike. As a result, the retrospective scholarly lens applied to the study of homoeroticism in Persian literature at times approaches the question ahistorically, disregarding that the purported masculine traits of the beloved might indeed refer to the Divine, patrons or female characters, all of whom are described with the male characteristics that were deemed the worthiest in the premodern milieu.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank my colleague Ahmad Rashid Salim, who took time to patiently read, edit and comment on this article.

Notes

1

The physical significance of ‘‘ishq’ in the first centuries after Islam is attested by the use of the term in medical treatises, such as ‘Aṭf al-Alif al-Ma‘lūf ‘alā al-Lām al-Ma‘ṭūf by Abul-Hassan Daylamī (d. 491/1098), in which love is treated as a bodily ailment.

2

The ulema are experts in Islamic religion and law, and are considered a source of authority in Muslim societies.

3

The term ‘Turkic’ refers to a wide family of languages, including Turkish, and the people speaking these languages.

4

The Persian qaṣīdih, inspired by its Arabic precursor, is generally a poem of the panegyric mode intended to praise a patron, a description of nature and/or serving didactic purposes.

5

The most common arms mentioned in association with the beloved are swords (tīgh), daggers (Khanjar), bows (kamān) and arrows (tīr).

6

Ash‘arism, named after Abul-Hassan al-Ash‘arī (873–935), refers to a dominant school of theology in the Muslim world, characterised by orthodox beliefs and a denial of human free will, against the more rational Mu‘tazilism.

7

To do justice to the non-gender-specific pronouns of the original Persian, I include both feminine and masculine pronouns in the translation. Yarshater, however, translated using solely masculine pronouns.

8

Pourjavady (2014: 142) notes that immediately after describing the cupbearer filling the cup, both poems directly point to the Quranic covenant.

9

Mihr-i gīyāh is believed to be from the mandragora family, which was mythologically said to have an effect on the couple's affections and power to unite.

10

Valuable documents concerning the women of Qajar are archived at: http://www.qajarwomen.org (accessed 7 September 2021).

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Contributor Notes

Fateme Montazeri is a PhD candidate in Persian at the University of California, Berkeley. She received a master's degree from the University of Tehran and a second master's degree from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. With a background in art history, illustrated Persian manuscripts and Persian literature, her research interests concern the cultural history of the Persianate world. Email: montazeri@berkeley.edu

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  • Ad-Dārābī, M. b. M (1979), Laṭīfih-i Ghaybī [Invisible intricacy] (Shiraz: Ahmadī).

  • Balkhī, J. (2009/10), Ghazalīyyāt-i Shams-i Tabrīz, vols. 1 and 2, (intr.) Muhammd Reza Shafi‘ī Kadkanī (Tehran: Sukhan).

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Bruijn, J. T. P. (2019), ‘The Ghazal in Medieval Persian Poetry’, in Persian Lyrical Poetry in the Classical Era, 800–1500: Ghazals, Panegyrics and Quatrains, (ed.) Ehsan Yarshater (London: I.B. Tauris), 315487.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Farrukhī Sīstānī, A. (1957), Dīvān-i Hakīm Farrukhī Sīstānī, (ed.) Muhammad Dabīr Sīyāqī (Tehran: Shirkat-i Hāj Iqbāl va Shurakā).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fortier, C. (2019) ‘Sexualities: Transsexualities: Middle East, North Africa, West Africa’, in Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, (eds) Suad Joseph and Zeina Zaatari (Leiden: Brill), http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1872-5309_ewic_COM_002185.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Futūhī Rūd-Ma‘janī, M. (2016), ‘The Mystery of the Authorship of the Majālis al-‘Ushshāq’, Āyinih-i Mīrās 14, no. 59: 3551.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ghazzālī, A. [2009] (2012/13), Savānih, (ed.) Ahmad Kashkūlī (Tehran: Nashr-i Sālis).

  • Grabar, O. (2000), Mostly Miniatures: An Introduction to Persian Painting (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

  • Hafiz (2004), Dīvān-i Hāfiz, (eds) Muhammad Qazvīnī and Qāsim Ghanī (Tehran: Zarrīn va Sīmīn).

  • Jamālī Dihlavī, H. (2005/6), Mir'āt al-Ma‘ānī [Mirror of meanings], (ed.) Nasrullah Pourjavadi (Tehran: Haqīqat).

  • Jāmī, ‘A. (1936), Salāmān va Absāl, (ed.) ‘A. Sarfaraz (Bombay: Sharafuddin & Sons).

  • Katouzian, H. (2006), Sa‘di: The Poet of Life, Love, and Compassion (Oxford: Oneworld)

  • Khurramshāhī, B. [1987-8] (2001-2), Hāfiz-Nāmih: A Selective Commentary on Hafiz's Ghazals, vol. 2 (Tehran: Surūsh & Intishārāt-i ‘Ilmī-Farhangī).

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