“In an age where all our movements and words are tracked, and in which internet call-out culture and aggressive trolls make it difficult for any would-be dissident to express viewpoints that fall outside of party lines, it seems timely to be reminded of the poetry of Al-Andalus and in particular that of arguably its most saucey knave.”
From Slippery Elm
When the young prince arrived perched atop his thoroughbred steed, with his mouth of ambergris and his teeth a string of pearls curled into a smile, and began to unbutton his fine linen sūsīya shirt just so, and to expose the moon coloured upper reaches of his shank, just above where it was bronzed by sunbeams or henna—the poet Ibn Quzmān had fallen in love. Oh, if it wasn’t for fear of the lad’s father, the powerful noble, Abū Bakr!
The images with which I open this piece are drawn directly from a poem by the notorious andalusī poet Ibn Quzmān (d. 1160). It is a curious poem, this. Formally a zajal, yet with some features that make it closer to a muwashshah, it is a mock panegyric which becomes a mock satire which becomes a mock panegyric and on and on, allowing the poet to satirize his ‘patron’ and subvert his authority right under his nose, and still end up getting paid for it.
Ibn Quzmān is famous for his expertise at composing poems in the zajal form, a type of sung strophic poem written in a ‘popular’ or colloquial vernacular of Arabic that often included loan words from Romance, and whose content frequently dealt with the taboo themes of wine, love, and sex. He is also famous for seeming to take delight in subverting the authorities of his day at every chance he could get, for his intense love of wine and for gleefully boasting of his sexual adventures with all manner of women and men, regardless of their class, ethnic, or religious background. While scholars have their theories, exactly how he was able to go about his drunken weaving way through the streets of Córdoba and Sevilla singing his wine-soaked songs on corners and in the marketplace during the reign of the Almoravids without getting his head lopped off continues to amaze us.
As many contributors to Gods and Radicals are poets not only dedicated to the multiplication of beauty in the world, but to employing the satirical register to curse our enemies—the high priests of capitalism and their pseudo-religious puppets—we can learn a lot from Ibn Quzmān, a true master of the subtleties of satire. In an age where all our movements and words are tracked, and in which internet call-out culture and aggressive trolls make it difficult for any would-be dissident to express viewpoints that fall outside of party lines, it seems timely to be reminded of the poetry of Al-Andalus and in particular that of arguably its most saucey knave.
In addition to a discussion of some of Ibn Quzmān’s poetry, this piece is intended to be a work of banishing, to dispel some of the misconceptions that have been sold to us about Al-Andalus in particular and classical Islamic civilization in general. A further intention will be revealed toward the end of this inanna-dance of rent illusions, as the misconceptions finish their fall to the ground around us garment by garment.
Ibn Quzmān has been referred to by some researchers as ‘a prince of disorder’. He often boasted of his great appetites for love and wine, his masterful poetic prowess, his blond hair and dashing good looks. His literary idol was that other great saucey knave of Arabic literature, a poet both simultaneously hated and loved—Abū Nuwās. It would certainly be reasonable to award Ibn Quzmān the title of ‘Abū Nuwās of the West’.
Citing a few verses from the poem which the anthologists title “Zajal no. 90” would be a fitting way to introduce this colourful character to a pagan and pagan friendly audience.
For me to repent would indeed be absurd,
And my survival without a wee drink would be a mistake.
Wine! Wine! Ignore what others say.
In my view, it would be folly to give up depravity!
Hey, let us clink glasses together in a toast!
Drunkenness! Drunkenness! What is soberness to us?
And, whenever you wish to take a morning drink,
Wake me up at dawn’s early light.
Take my cash, and spend it on wine,
And my clothes, and divide them up among whores,
And assure me that my approach is correct;
I have never gone wrong in doing this!
And when I die, my style of burial
Will be to lie neath a vine in the vineyard,
While you gather grape-leaves over me as a shroud,
And on my head let there be a turban of tendrils.
Let the Evil One summon all my dear friends there.
Commend me to Him at all moments,
And whoever eats a bunch of grapes,
Let him plant the stem on my grave!
I’ll pour Your [i.e. the Evil One’s] great gift of joy from the krater itself:
Take Your glass, raise it high, and empty it.
How good is that gift of joy with which You favoured us!
Whatever You command, will be done by me!
After the request is made to his companions to perform this rather devilish, bacchic ritual on the poet’s grave after he dies, he then goes on to describe a night of rollicking sex he had with a Berber lass, and the food fight and brawl with her husband and family that ensues the morning after. Here I will spare the reader the graphic descriptions the poet gives of their genitals when aroused, or the precise ‘honey-sweet’ manner in which he claims they fucked. Interested readers can look for this poem themselves in Arabic or in Spanish (trans. by F. Corriente) or the English version I’ve drawn upon here, translated by Monroe. Any pursuer of Ibn Quzmān’s dīwān however will discover that he wrote plenty more poems similar to this one.
The astonishing thing is that what at first seems a tasteless macho boast about his night of love, if we scratch below the surface, with the help of Monroe’s detailed analysis of all the poem’s contradictions and ins and outs, we see how while ostensibly trying to poke fun at the Berbers, the aims of the poet are actually to subtly criticize the anti-Berber sentiments and prejudices commonplace among his andalusī contemporaries. The poem is a ruse, and though it might have been based on some real events, in this case the poet’s misadventure likely never took place, at least in the way he relates it. It was crafted with a political purpose in mind.
Written in an age when the Christian crowns to the North were becoming increasingly aggressive, our poet is making a plea to the diverse ethnicities and followers of different religions that made up andalusī society to put aside their differences and unite against the advances of what at this point in the history of Al-Andalus was mostly a common enemy. It’s true the Almoravids in some ways did not do good service to the cultural achievements and ‘religious tolerance’ of the Umayyad and taifa sovereigns that reigned in Al-Andalus before them (i.e. by burning books, destroying ornate palaces, and massacring groups of people who weren’t like them) but in painting a more nuanced picture of these veiled invaders (the Almoravid men were famous for covering their faces with veils) the poet is actually way ahead of his time. Arabic philology is still to some extent plagued by the prejudices of last century and earlier. That Arab culture is the high and the exquisite, and that andalusī arabized culture especially is tolerant and more ‘Western’ compared to the ‘barbaric’ ways of the African Berbers. Naturally there is much more complexity to this and as the new generation of philologists starts to come into its own I predict there will be more studies that come out challenging this overly simplified dialectic.
While for those who are dedicated to studying these things it’s become normal, our daily bread and olive oil per se, some readers are likely surprised to hear about so much wine and illicit sex (illicit from a hardline religious perspective) in a primarily Muslim society, or to hear that this society had a very diverse ethnic make up.
Our enemies have sold us an imaginary line in the sand with ‘light-skinned’ Christians to the North and ‘dark’ Muslims to the South, as if both of these societies were totally homogenous, when nothing could be farther from the truth. In Al-Andalus, while culturally and politically dominant, ethnic Arabs who had come from the East were a minority (and even within this minority alone there were tribal differences and different regions of origin and so on). The majority of the population were the same old mix of Iberian peoples (with all the influences from all the various peoples and civilizations that had come through the Iberian peninsula and left their mark, Iberian, Ibero-Celtic, Phoenician, Jewish, Roman, Visigoth, Byzantine, Berber, Arab etc) who had at this point in history become arabized in culture, customs, and language. Some were muwalladūn (s. muwallad), arabized Iberians (often Goths or Hispano-Romans) who had converted to Islam. Others were what has come to be called mozarabs, arabized Christians. Others were arabized Jews or arabized Berbers (or non-arabized Berbers in the case of the Almoravids). Others still were sub-saharan Africans or arabized Nordic or Slavic peoples.
These last three groups mainly came to be in Al-Andalus due to the slave trade (reminder, the English word ‘slave’ comes from Slav). Many were kept as eunuchs but the arabized Slavs did come to power for a time in the taifa of Almería. It has even been postulated that Ibn Quzmān’s name is an arabization of the germanic surname Guttman (which might explain his alleged blond hair, although I’m not entirely convinced by this theory).
Even in the Christian crowns to the North that were not arabized, various kings and popes at different times tried to enforce members of each religion to wear special clothing to distinguish them from one another (people didn’t always go along with this). The idea was that rather than there being clear dividing lines between light and dark, everyone pretty much looked, dressed, and acted the same, hence the need for other items of clothing to enable the political and religious authorities to detect those differences between people and in so doing, profit off of them.
Some apologist researchers today (usually with right-wing orientations or orthodox religious affiliations) claim that all of the erotic poetry and especially the homoerotic poetry that was written in Al-Andalus, and indeed the wider Islamic world, was all just make believe, or just jokes, or that the male pronouns are masks for lovers who were actually female. It is true in some cases that male pronouns were used to disguise a female beloved, but in other cases this argument becomes futile when descriptions of the beloveds are made that include explicitly male attributes like beards or phalluses, or when the beloveds are compared to well known male cultural figures like Moses or David.
It is true that we should be cautious about taking every poem as autobiographical reality (as we noted in the case above) but the existence of wine parties, homoerotic relationships and other types of taboo sex in Al-Andalus (and classical Islamic civilization in general) are thoroughly documented in a wealth of sources besides the poetry, such as in anecdotes, and works by the historians of the day among others (i.e. al-Maqqari). I do not mean to insinuate that Al-Andalus was a drunken fuck fest, but to dispel the common misconception about classical Islamic societies being strictly puritanical and/or ‘homophobic’.
When islamophobic (and often right-wing) historians draw on the widespread homoerotic motifs in Arabic literature as a way to degrade Islamic civilization, they ought to take a closer look at the Greeks and Romans whom they idolize, with their famous love for ephebes and ganymedes…
The same goes for when islamophobes and ‘anti-arab’ writers insist that all of the cultural and scientific advances of classical Islamic civilization were made by thinkers who weren’t ‘ethnically’ Arab (for example, Persians). It is true that many ‘non-ethnic’ Arabs produced great works of science and philosophy, but just because they were born outside of the Arabian peninsula or were of a different ‘ethnicity’ is irrelevant. For better or for worse they were arabized, Arabic speaking, and belonged to the same cultural milieu. How many luminaries of Greek or Roman civilization were actually from Anatolia, Syria or Northern Africa? Plenty! Or even, as in the case of Seneca, from places as far afield as Córdoba? The same place, strangely, where Ibn Quzmān would be born centuries later… No one who fetishizes ‘Western’ civilization would ever question the ‘romanness’ of their idols. And for good reason, while from disparate places, they were all romanized, and part of the greater Roman world.
Some left-oriented writers could also benefit from getting over a few too-often touted exaggerations of their own. For example, that Al-Andalus was a cultural and ethnic utopia and a place where women were ‘liberated’ more so than they were in the East. This is simply untrue. We are talking about a period of about 800 years. Different regimes came and went. Under some, different ethnic groups got along better; under others, less so.
Similar to other Mediterranean societies of the time, at least “officially” the society of Al-Andalus was undoubtably a ‘man’s world’ in which sexual hierarchies rotated around an axis of ‘politics of penetration’. However, there are of course many nuances to this, plenty of exceptions, and a noteworthy number of women (many of them poets) who defied these norms. It might be untrue to say that women were better off in Al-Andalus compared to the eastern regions of the Islamic world at the time (not to mention we’d have to define what ‘better off’ means in the first place), but the relatively high number of woman poets and women in positions of power in Al-Andalus compared to other Islamic societies contemporary to it should at least give us reason for pause.
Does it make our arguments any less strong if we are realistic, say, about the number of books in al-Hakam II’s library? (The previously oft-cited 60,000 is probably closer to 600). Doing the best we can to get our history right can only make our arguments stronger. Even if it was only 600 books, it still likely would have been one of the biggest (if not the biggest) and most important libraries on the European continent at that time.
Another misconception is that, although there might have been ethnic diversity in Al-Andalus, the different ethnicities did not mix or interact with one another. This is utter nonsense. How many right wing or orthodox Jews and Christians, for example, continue to paint the illustrious andalusī Hebrew poet Yehuda Ha-Levi as some sort of ‘proto-zionist’ and yet totally ignore, censure, or deny the great wealth of wine and love poetry (in which figure both male and female beloveds) that he dedicated to his fellow Muslim courtly courtiers at court? Does this make him any less of a Jew? Does this mean he loved Zion less?
These things continue to be denied at all costs by some because it would in many ways nullify their political rhetoric and rattle their religious and ethnic identities. Even Isabel the Catholic, who, with Ferdinand, is famous for finally taking control of the last remaining corner of Al-Andalus—The Nasrid Kingdom of Granada—and for eventually expelling the Jews from the Iberian peninsula, had a Jewish gynaecologist in her personal employ.
Furthermore, the numerous normative texts left behind by the religious and political authorities from each of the three Abrahamic religions are proof that romantic relations across ethnic and religious divides were a widespread and significant problem (in their eyes, of course), such that they were kept busy writing laws and making decrees to try and keep it under control. Strangely, these same authorities were fine with their male coreligionists keeping concubines belonging to one of the other two religions (from which many an ‘illegitimate’ child was born), while attempting to guard their female coreligionists from contact with men of the other two religions at all costs.
Having now been acquainted with Ibn Quzmān and (hopefully) having dispelled a few misconceptions regarding Al-Andalus let us return to the striptease with which we began.
In premodern Islamic civilization there was no word for ‘homosexual’ hence my choice to use homoerotic here. Although it was religiously proscribed and could be punishable by death, desire from a man toward another man was not considered psychopathic (as in Christianity) but natural, derivative of or comparable to the same desire a man might feel toward a woman. However, the permissibility (or not) of sexual relations rotated around an axis of a politics of penetration. This is to say that in male-male sex, the penetratee would have been more severely punished than the penetrator. Likewise in female-female sex, the penetrator (if any) would have been punished more than the penetratee for upsetting gender norms. Furthermore, men of higher class could usually get away with penetrating younger men or men of lower classes without it being frowned upon.
In saying that Abū Bakr’s son is a flirt and a dandy with whom he wants to romance (not to mention one of a higher class), Ibn Quzmān is indirectly satirizing his father. Yet he is also turning the politics of penetration on its head by offering himself as sex object to the whims of this younger man.
In his excellent essay “The Striptease That Was Blamed on Abū Bakr’s Naughty Son: Was Father Being Shamed or Was the Poet Having Fun?” Monroe gives the following commentary:
By couching his rebellion in the form of a pseudo-panegyric that is, in reality, a satire against a member of the ruling class, the voice speaking in Ibn Quzmān’s poem carries its rebellion one step closer to total anarchy, attempting through subversion of the genre to disrupt the entire social order. However, the speaker’s program is presented from the very outset as unsuccessful. He is doomed to failure in his attempt to win the boy’s favours because of his prudent, pusillanimous, and decidedly unheroic fear of Abū Bakr, if for no other reason. Thus it may be concluded that the speaker’s anarchic program is being presented ironically, as one of which the implied author heartily disapproves. In this sense, Ibn Quzmān’s Zajal No. 133 seems to validate the eternal truth contained in the Qur’ān, to be far less licentious than a preliminary reading might suggest. Paradoxically, licentiousness, insofar as it is presented as being unsuccessful, may in certain cases have the ritual function of reaffirming the very values it seems to flout.
And yet, this is all part of the plan. Monroe continues:
A mock panegyric, such as Zajal No. 133, has the potential to become a satire…But if, as in this case, the satire is also undercut, what does it become?—a mock satire with the potential to become a true panegyric? Since that panegyric is also undercut, the poem becomes a satire that is a panegyric that is a satire that is a panegyric that is a satire that is a panegyric, with no amen. Thus the poet has found a unique way to circumscribe his patron with a vicious circle from which he cannot escape and within which he is rendered utterly neutral and helpless. The poem is therefore an instrument for patronly entrapment: having been roundly insulted, the patron must now graciously pay the poet for his efforts while secretly remaining thankful that matters have gone no further. In this sense, the poem illustrates the poet’s superiority over the patron, based upon the poet’s unique mastery of words. But when a superior poet praises an inferior patron, the genre of panegyric has been totally inverted.
Ibn Quzmān has cast a binding spell. And like any good magician, he has also used his wits and a dash of trickery to neutralize his adversary. By the time Abū Bakr realizes what’s going on, it’s too late. Our poet has effectively snared his ‘patron’ in a lyric brocade and has him at his mercy.
In proposing we can learn from Ibn Quzmān, I don’t mean to imply we have to go out and peddle our poetry to this ‘patron’ or that, although studying his work would of course be helpful to any recalcitrant poet who ekes out a living with her craft yet at the same time will never compromise her poetic principles.
More so, what I want to draw our attention to are some of the techniques he uses. Ring composition, unsaying away his satire and his panegyric ad infinitum, and the potent mix of inversion, wine, and taboo sex to undermine authority. This is beginning to sound a lot like witchcraft.
Wine, poetry, and ‘illegitimate’ sex are all proscribed in the Qur’ān. Not least of the reasons why being that they are strongly associated with the pagan rituals of the jāhilīya (lit. ignorance: Age of Ignorance; pre-Islamic Arabia). Many of the poetic forms most typical of Arabic poetry—like the qasīda for example—actually arose out of whole ritual frameworks and poetics of gesture and movement. Anyone who’s read the sūra known as al-Shu’arā’ or ‘The Poets’ knows that the Qur’ān makes poets out to be liars and cheats. The common pre-Islamic image of the poet in the Arabian peninsula was that of a wandering sage or magician, sputtering out poems and prophecies, who’s powers of eloquence and strength of vision were said to have been bestowed upon him or her due to undergoing possession by jinn.
Which brings me to the historic moment we’re at now. It appears we’re experiencing a turning point in magic (which of course, therefore, has potent political implications as well!) accentuated by the forthcoming publication of Rain al-Alim’s Jinn Sorcery slated for release on Scarlet Imprint sometime this Spring.
I imagine many ‘Western’ readers will discover that something that has been made out to be so foreign is really much more familiar than we think. For truly, the jinn are all around us. Whether in the form of stray dogs, hot eddies of wind, or waiting in line right next to you to buy goods at a market stall. For I have heard say in the Maghreb that at every market 2/3 people that are there are actually jinn in disguise.
To illustrate this further I will make a somewhat picaresque confession: I have watched a significant portion of The Fellowship of the Ring in Arabic. It was fascinating to note that the word the translators used in this particular version to denote ‘elf’ (i.e. Legolas) was jinn. The idea that the elves and fairies of the ‘West’ are the same as, or are at least related to, the jinn is not some fantastical orientalist cut-and-paste job, but something affirmed by the very cultures to which the jinn belong. I am not saying that a jinn is identical to a fairy. However, the parallels are too striking to overlook and are certainly worthy of prolonged reflection.
I hope this present piece, and other installments of my little rasā’il (s. risāla) series lend a wind toward the conjuration of the coming sandstorm. And may that storm erode the outworn bars that have kept us prisoner from each other for far too long, that have kept us from seeking intimacy and companionship instead of strife and distraction, while our enemies are free to profit off our fear and hate unopposed; the iron bars and barbed-wire walls that uphold the edifice of empire, greed, and burning disdain for all of life—both human and non-human.
Now that it’s time to part, we will do so in the same way we have met. With a striptease.
In a famous anecdote about al-Mu’taman, one of the Hūdī kings of Zaragoza during the taifa period, the sovereign and his poet-courtiers are out wandering in the meadows looking for an ideal place to have a drinking party. His charming young Cupbearer (who happens to be a Christian in this case) finds the perfect place and in exchange al-Mu’taman orders all of the revellers to obey him. He himself declares himself the lad’s slave, and is totally smitten with love for him (another topsy turvy subversion of the pecking order, typical in taifa court culture).
For Ibn Quzmān the employment of taboo topoi in his poems was about political subversion, and yet at the same time about something more. However, for these taifa poet-courtiers, these borderline-heretic devotees of the cult of pleasure and religion of love, these topoi were also about political subversion, and yet at the same time about something more. While the Qur’ān proscribes wine and beautiful virgins (both male and female) in this world, both wine and virgins are available in bountiful supply in the world to come, where wine flows in a river and ephebes dressed in emerald gowns are available to attend to the delights of the faithful who have made it in to Heaven. Therefore, the taifa drinking party also had a subversive mystical element: it was about invoking paradise in the here and now, which through the magic of poetry, is transformed into the nowhere and always.
On with the anecdote. The Cupbearer, now revealed to be a bestower of immortality, begins to remove his armour and garments.
The authors of this anecdote use a curious string of religious symbolism when referring to him, not least of which using the word zāhir (exterior) to refer to his clothes, and bātin (interior) to refer to his body. You might recognize these words as also referring to two schools of Qur’anic exegesis, the zāhirī (or exoteric) which takes things at face value, and the bātinī (or esoteric) which searches for hidden meanings beyond the veil of the text.
This anecdote touches on something that witches will no doubt find familiar. Wine, that red spirit of sex and war captured in a goblet, effects the soul, not the body. Like those of sex, the pleasures of wine are primarily spiritual, not physical. For if wine were to solely effect the flesh and not the spirit, it would be contradicting its own raison d’etre.
The striptease in the sense of shedding exoteric religious identity in search of a deeper truth is something common to mystics the world over. Particularly in those who employ an apophatic discourse. In keeping with our andalusī theme, we will turn to Ibn ‘Arabī, who seems to ask:
When the fetters and trappings of religious identities and customs fall away, if only temporarily, what’s left? What are the common jewels that shine there at the heart, often obscured by so many layers of cultural and political filigree?
May his immortal words ring out in the olive groves:
Marvel, a garden among the flames.
My heart has become receptive of every form.
It is a meadow for gazelles, a monastery for monks,
An abode of idols, the Ka’ba of the pilgrim
The tables of the Torah, the book of the Qur’ān
My religion is love. Wherever its camel mounts turn
That is my belief, my faith.
We have a model in Bishr, Hind, and her sister,
In Qays [aka Majnūn] and Layla, Mayya and Ghaylan.
So let us be like wild eyed Majnūn (whose name is often translated as ‘crazy’; but literally means be-jinned; bewitched), and ever be consumed by the spirit of love; oh cooling flood, oh black fistful of loam, oh fire that casts no smoke!
Slippery Elm’s poetry and prose in English and Spanish have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies in both Europe and North America. He has performed as a part of flamenco groups in Europe, Africa, and North America, in courtly settings, as well as in the streets, by hearth corner, and under leaf. He is the editor and translator of the poetry anthology Your Death Full of Flowers and the author of two pocket poetry books. He compliments his poetry and dance by studying Arabic and Hebrew philologies.