Under the Umayyads the Arabs constituted a ruling aristocracy, and enjoyed a stipend from the state; in return for these privileges, all able-bodied Arab males were subject at any time to military service. As conquerors they were proud of their supposedly unmixed blood and pure speech. With keen genealogical consciousness the Arab added his father’s name to his own, as in Abdallah ibn (son of) Zobeir; sometimes he added his tribe and place of origin, and made a biography of a name, as in Abu Bekr Ahmad ibn Jarir al-Azdi. Purity of blood became a myth as the conquerors took conquered women as concubines, and reckoned their offspring as Arabs; but pride of blood and rank remained. The higher class of Arabs moved about on horseback, clothed in white silk and a sword; the commoner walked in baggy trousers, convoluted turban, and pointed shoes; the Bedouin kept his flowing gown, head shawl and band. Long drawers were prohibited by the Prophet, but some Arabs ventured into them. All classes affected jewelry. Women stimulated the male fancy with tight bodices, bright girdles, loose and colorful skirts. They wore their hair in bangs at the front, curls at the side, braids at the back; sometimes they filled it out with black silk threads; often they adorned it with gems or flowers. Increasingly after the year 715, when out of doors, they veiled the face below the eyes; in this way every woman could be romantic, for at any age the eyes of Arab women are perilously beautiful. Women matured at twelve and were old at forty; in the interval they inspired most of Arabic poetry, and maintained the race.
The Moslem had no respect for celibacy, and never dreamed of perpetual continence as an ideal state; most Moslem saints married and had children. Perhaps Islam erred in the opposite direction, and carried marriage to an extreme. It gave the sexual appetite so many outlets within the law that prostitution diminished for a time under Mohammed and the Successors; but exhaustion requires stimulation, and dancing girls soon played a prominent role in the life of even the most married Moslem male. Moslem literature, being intended only for male eyes and ears, was sometimes as loose as male conversation in a Christian land; it contained a superabundance of deliberately erotic books; and Moslem medical works gave much attention to aphrodisiacs.42 In strict Mohammedan law fornication and pederasty were to be punished with death; but the growth of wealth brought an easier ethic, punished fornication with thirty strokes, and winked at the spread of homosexual love.43 A class of professional homosexuals (mukhannath) arose who imitated the costume and conduct of women, plaited their hair, dyed their nails with henna, and performed obscene dances.44 The Caliph Suleiman ordered the mukhannath of Mecca castrated; and the Caliph al-Hadi, coming upon two women attendants in Lesbian relations, beheaded them on the spot.45 Despite such discouragement homosexualism made rapid progress; a few years after al-Hadi it was prevalent at Harun’s court, and in the songs of his favorite poet Abu Nuwas. The Moslem male, separated from women before marriage by purdah, and surfeited with them after marriage by the harem, fell into irregular relations; and women, secluded from all men but relatives, slipped into similar perversions.
The contact with Persia promoted both pederasty and purdah in Islam. The Arabs had always feared, as well as admired, woman’s charms, and had revenged themselves for instinctive subjection to them by the usual male doubts about her virtue and intelligence. “Consult women,” said Omar I, “and do the contrary of what they advise.”46 But the Moslems of Mohammed’s century had not secluded their women; the two sexes exchanged visits, moved indiscriminately through the streets, and prayed together in the mosque.47When Musab ibn al-Zobeir asked his wife Aisha why she never veiled her face, she answered: “Since Allah, may He remain blessed and exalted, hath put upon me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view that beauty, and thereby recognize His grace unto them.”48 Under Walid II (743–4), however, the harem-and-eunuch system took form, and purdah developed with it. Harim, like haram, meant forbidden, sacred; the seclusion of women was originally due to their being tabu because of menstruation or childbirth; the harem was a sanctuary. The Moslem husband knew the passionate temper of the Oriental, felt a need to protect his women, and saw no escape from their adultery except through their incarceration. It became reprehensible for women to walk in the streets except for short distances and veiled; they could visit one another, but usually they traveled in curtained litters; and they were never to be seen abroad at night. They were separated from the men in the mosque by a screen or railing or gallery; finally they were excluded altogether;49 and religion, which in Latin Christendom has been described as a secondary sexual characteristic of the female, became in Islam, as public worship, a prerogative of the male. Even more cruelly, women were forbidden the pleasure of shopping; they sent out for what they needed; and pedlars, usually women, came to spread their wares on the harem floor. Rarely, except in the lower classes, did the women sit at table with their husbands. It was unlawful for a Moslem to see the face of any woman except his wives, slaves, and near relatives. A physician was allowed to see only the afflicted part of a woman patient. The man found the system very convenient; it gave him at home a maximum of opportunity, and outside the home full freedom from surveillance or surprise. As for the women themselves, until the nineteenth century, there is no evidence that they objected to purdah or the veil. They enjoyed the privacy, security, and comforts of the zenana, or women’s quarters; they resented as an insult any negligence of the husband in maintaining their seclusion;50 and from their apparent prison the legal wives still played a lively part in history. Khaizuran, Harun’s mother, and Zobaida, his wife, rivaled in the eighth and ninth centuries the influence and audacity of Aisha in the seventh, and enjoyed a magnificence hardly dreamed of by Mohammed’s wives.
The education of girls, in most ranks of the population, seldom went beyond learning their prayers, a few chapters of the Koran, and the arts of the home. In the upper classes women received considerable instruction, usually by private tutors, but sometimes in schools and colleges;51 they learned poetry, music, and many varieties of needlework; some became scholars, even teachers. Several were famous for enlightened philanthropy. They were taught a brand of modesty adapted to their customs; surprised at the bath, they would cover their faces first; they marveled at the immodesty of European women who bared half their bosoms at a ball and embraced divers men in a dance; and they admired the forbearance of a God who did not strike such sinners dead.52
As in most civilized countries, marriages were usually arranged by the parents. The father might marry his daughter to whomever he wished before she became of age; after that she might choose. Girls were usually married by the age of twelve, and were mothers at thirteen or fourteen; some married at nine or ten; men married as early as fifteen. The betrothal, or marriage contract, pledged the groom to give her a dowry; this remained her property through marriage and divorce. The groom was rarely allowed to see the face of his bride before marriage. The wedding followed eight or ten days after the betrothal; it required no priest, but was accompanied by brief prayers; it involved music, feasting, a “shower” of gifts, and a gay illumination of the bridegroom’s street and house. After many ceremonies the husband, in the privacy of the bridal chamber, drew aside the veil of his wife, and said, “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful.”53
If this belated examination left the groom dissatisfied, he might at once send the wife back to her parents with her dowry. Polygamy in Islam was more often successive than simultaneous; only the rich could afford plural wives.54 Facility of divorce made it possible for a Moslem to have almost any number of successive mates; Ali had 200;55 Ibn al-Teiyib, a dyer of Baghdad who lived to be eighty-five, is reported to have married 900 wives.56 In addition to wives a Moslem might have any number of concubines; Harun contented himself with 200, but al-Mutawakkil, we are told, had 4000, each of whom shared his bed for a night.57 Some slave merchants trained female slaves in music, song, and sexual seduction, and then sold them as concubines for as much as 100,000 dirhems ($80,000).58 But we must not think of the usual harem as a private brothel. In most cases the concubines became mothers, and prided themselves on the number and gender of their children; and there were many instances of tender affection between master and concubine. Legal wives accepted concubinage as a matter of course. Zobaida, wife of Harun, presented him with ten concubines.59 In this way a man’s household might contain as many children as an American suburb. A son of Walid I had sixty sons and an unrecorded number of daughters. Eunuchs, forbidden by the Koran, became a necessary appendage to the harem; Christians and Jews participated in importing or manufacturing them; caliphs, viziers, and magnates paid high prices for them; and soon these cunningcastrati subjected many phases of Moslem government to their narrow competence. In the early centuries after the conquest this harem system prevented the Arabs from being ethnically absorbed by the conquered population, and multiplied them to a number needed to rule their spreading realm. Possibly it had some eugenic effect from the free fertility of the ablest men; but after Mamun polygamy became a source of moral and physical deterioration, and—as mouths grew faster than food—of increasing poverty and discontent.
The position of woman within marriage was one of sacred subjection. She could have only one husband at a time, and could divorce him only at considerable cost. The infidelities of her husband were quite beyond her ken, and were accounted morally negligible; her own infidelity was punishable with death. It is remarkable how many adulteries she managed to commit despite her handicaps. She was reviled and revered, belittled and suppressed, and in most cases was loved with passion and tenderness. “For my wife,” said Abu’l Atiyya, “I will gladly renounce all the prizes of life and all the wealth of the world”;60 such professions were frequent, and sometimes sincere. In one matter the Moslem wife was favored as compared with some European women. Whatever property she received was wholly at her disposal, not subject to any claim of her husband or his creditors. Within the security of the zenana she spun, wove, sewed, managed the household and the children, played games, ate sweets, gossiped and intrigued. She was expected to bear many children, as economic assets in an agricultural and patriarchal society; the estimation in which she was held depended chiefly upon her fertility; “a piece of old matting lying in a corner,” said Mohammed, “is better than a barren wife.”61 Nevertheless abortion and contraception were widely practiced in the harem. Midwives transmitted ancient techniques, and physicians offered new ones. Al-Razi (d. 924) included in his Quintessence of Experience a section “on the means of preventing conception,” and listed twenty-four, mechanical or chemical.62 Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980–1037), in his famous Qanun, gave twenty contraceptive recipes.
In nonsexual morals the Mohammedan did not differ appreciably from the Christian. The Koran more definitely denounced gambling and intoxication (v, 90); but some gambling and much drinking continued in both civilizations. Corruption in government and judiciary flourished in Islam as in Christendom. In general the Moslem seems to have excelled the Christian in commercial morality,63 fidelity to his word, and loyalty to treaties signed;64 Saladin was by common consent the best gentleman of the Crusades. The Moslems were honest about lying; they allowed a lie to save a life, to patch up a quarrel, to please a wife, to deceive in war the enemies of the faith.65 Moslem manners were both formal and genial, and Moslem speech was heavy with compliments and polite hyperbole. Like the Jews, the Moslems greeted one another with a solemn bow and salutation: “Peace [salaam] be with you”; and the proper reply of every Moslem was, “On you be peace, and the mercy and blessings of God.” Hospitality was universal and generous. Cleanliness was a function of income; the poor were neglected and encrusted, the well-to-do were scrubbed, manicured, and perfumed. Circumcision, though not mentioned in the Koran, was taken for granted as a precaution of hygiene; boys underwent the operation at five or six.66 Private baths were a luxury of the rich, but public bathhouses were numerous; Baghdad in the tenth century, we are told, had 27,000.67 Perfumes and incense were popular with men as well as with women. Arabia was famous of old for its frankin cense and myrrh; Persia for its oil of roses or violets or jasmine. Gardens of shrubs, flowers, and fruit trees were attached to many homes; and flowers were loved, above all in Persia, as the very fragrance of life.
How did these people amuse themselves? Largely with feasting, venery in both senses, flirtation, poetry, music, and song; to which the lower orders added cockfights, ropedancers, jugglers, magicians, puppets…. We find from Avicenna’s Qanun that the Moslems of the tenth century had nearly all the sports and physical foibles of our time: boxing, wrestling, running, archery, throwing the javelin, gymnastics, fencing, riding, polo, croquet, weight lifting and ball playing with mallet, hockey stick, or bat.68 Games of chance being forbidden, cards and dice were not much used; backgammon was popular; chess was allowed, though Mohammed had denounced the carving of the pieces in the likeness of men. Horse racing was popular, and was patronized by the caliphs; in one program, we are informed, 4000 horses took part. Hunting remained the most aristocratic of sports, less violent than in Sasanian times, and often subsiding into falconry. Captured animals were sometimes used as pets; some families had dogs, others monkeys; some caliphs kept lions or tigers to awe subjects and ambassadors.
When the Arabs conquered Syria they were still half-barbarous tribes, recklessly brave, violent, sensual, passionate, superstitious, and skeptical. Islam softened some of these qualities, but most of them survived. Probably the cruelties recorded of the caliphs were no worse in total than those of contemporary Christian kings, Byzantine, Merovingian, or Norse; but they were a disgrace to any civilization. In 717 Suleiman, on pilgrimage to Mecca, invited his courtiers to try their swords on 400 Greeks recently captured in war; the invitation was accepted and the 400 men were beheaded in merry sport as the Caliph looked on.69 Al-Mutawakkil, enthroned, cast into prison a vizier who had, some years before, treated him with indignity; for weeks the prisoner was kept awake to the point of insanity; then he was allowed to sleep for twenty-four hours; so strengthened, he was placed between boards lined with spikes, which prevented his moving without self-laceration; so he lay in agony for days till he died.70 Such savagery, of course, was exceptional; normally the Moslem was the soul of courtesy, humanity, and tolerance. He was, if we may describe the mythical average, quick of apprehension and wit; excitable and lazy, easily amused and readily cheerful; finding content in simplicity, bearing misfortune calmly, accepting all events with patience, dignity, and pride. Starting on a long journey, the Moslem took his grave linen with him, prepared at any time to meet the Great Scavenger; overcome in the desert by exhaustion or disease, he would bid the others go on, would perform his final ablutions, hollow out a pit for his grave, wrap himself in his winding sheet, lie down in the trench, and wait for the coming of death, and a natural burial by the wind-blown sands.71