Sexual revolution

Excerpt from "Sexual Politics in Modern Iran"


Sexual revolution
by Janet Afary

Sexual Politics in Modern Iran
Cambridge University (2009)

Janet Afary is a native of Iran and a leading historian. Her work focuses on gender and sexuality and draws on her experience of growing up in Iran and her involvement with Iranian women of different ages and social strata. These observations, and a wealth of historical documents, form the kernel of this book, which charts the history of the nation's sexual revolution from the nineteenth century to today. What comes across is the extraordinary resilience of the Iranian people, who have drawn on a rich social and cultural heritage to defy the repression and hardship of the Islamist state and its predecessors. It is this resilience, the author concludes, which forms the basis of a sexual revolution taking place in Iran today, one that is promoting reforms in marriage and family laws, and demanding more egalitarian gender and sexual relations.

Excerpt from Chapter 3
Class and Status-Defined Homosexuality and Rituals of Courtship

One of the best-known examples of love and reciprocity in mystic circles appears in an account of the life of Rumi, the greatest Sufi poet in the Persian language, whose followers founded the Mevle known for its ritual whirling.  While living in Konya in 1244, Rumi forged an intense bond with Mawlana Shams Tabrizi, a mystic and accomplished teacher who claimed to have reached union with God. Theirs was a unique relationship since both were mature and renowned masters. Franklin Lewis writes that contemporaries defined their relationship as falling in love,  which Franklin qualifies as a “Platonic love of a disciple for his teacher.” Rumi took Shams home, “ where they lived happily for a year or two before the disciples of Rumi became to act on their jealousy” (Lewis 2001, 159). Various accounts have suggested that resentful disciples of Rumi stabbed Shams and threw his body into a nearby well. [1]  After the disappearance of Shams, Rumi’s mystical poetry continued and gave birth to some of the most beautiful poems in the Persian language. Rumi also used Shams’s name as a pen name in much of his poetry, signaling his unity with his beloved. Rumi had other mystical love relationships and eventually composed the epic poem Mathnavi, which has been called the “Persian Qur’an” (Schimmel 1975, 313–15).

Devotees of Sufi poetry have often denied its earthly and carnal dimensions. They have suggested that Sufi love poems were not literal expressions but symbolic representations of the concealed beauty of the divine. We may never know the true nature of the relationship between Shams and Rumi. We do know that many of their contemporaries considered the lack of a hierarchical relationship between the two most unusual. “They embraced each other and fell at each other’s feet, ‘so that one did not know who was lover and who was beloved.” (Schimmel1975, 313). Rumi celebrated moments when social formalities were abandoned in their lives “How sweet it is when there are no formalities between lover and beloved.  All these conventionalities are for strangers, [but for the lover and beloved], whatever is not love is forbidden to them (Cited in Lewis 2001, 181). But Shams lamented the lack of clear boundaries,  “I need it to be apparent how our life together is going to be. Is it brotherhood and friendship or shaykh-hood and discipleship? I don’t like this. Teacher to pupil? (Tabrizi 1990 cited in Lewis 2001, 163).

Many admirers of mystical poetry have pointed to the mystics’ break with orthodoxy and their exploration of a more intimate relationship with God. Others have celebrated the Sufi message of tolerance, especially their rejection of socially-imposed boundaries between different religions, and their belief that Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and Muslims were all created by God (Nasr 1977, 123). Can the homoeroticism of Persian mystical poetry be viewed as also a definite cultural theme, not just a break with religious orthodoxy, but a departure from the requirements of status-defined homosexuality in mainstream Iranian society?.  This is an intriguing question.  In this rigidly hierarchical society, as much so as the Greco-Roman world that preceded it, one of the most important social barriers was between the “active” lover and “passive” beloved. Yet it appears that some mystic poets such as Rumi may have aspired to a new and more reciprocal ethic of love within their small communities. When Rumi and his contemporaries insisted that in the most exulted state of love the distinction between the lover and beloved disappeared—noting in the accounts of Rumi and Shams that no one knew “who was lover and who beloved”—they may have been moving beyond status-defined homosexuality, beyond a relationship that always involved an implied “active” lover and a “passive” partner. In ultimate love, then, reciprocity and consent were essential.

* Also see excerpt from Chapter 9

[1] Lewis takes issue with this conventional reading of the disappearance of Shams (Lewis 2001,  187-193).


Recently by Janet AfaryCommentsDate
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more from Janet Afary

I had the pleasure of taking

by UCLA_GUY (not verified) on

I had the pleasure of taking DR. Afary's course on modern Iranian history at UCLA earlier this year. She was obviously very knowledgeable about the topics she discussed and gave her point of view not only as a scholar who has studied the modern history of our country but as someone who witnessed much of it. I highly recommend her book and if anyone has the opportunity to take a class being taught by her I would greatly advise taking advantage of the opportunity.



by AnonymousXYZ (not verified) on

this is amusing. Ms. Afary has apparently missed the (many) instances in Rumi's poetry where he chides the Khar-nafs for not being able to see beyond the bounds of the stable and the trough.

Water finds its own level: some at nearly celestial heights in an unspoiled mountain top pool; others at the muddy puddle where the animal attends to its bodily needs.

One is certain that Moalana would find the Afaryian response appropriate, revealing, and symptomatic, of the human condition. Why, after all, there are those like Shams and Rumi, who see in the Donya the 'Sign' of the Beloved, and then there are those who are forever blinded by their eyeballs of blood and tissue.

(and do note Ms. Afary: Sham Al Deen Tabrizi was not one to hold back. If he was a sodomite, you can be certain he would have said so openly.)



by Ali1234 (not verified) on

These orientalists are simply unable to see the world through any other perspective than their own. So in her narrow worldview of a liberal 21st century Western women, Molavi and Shams must have been "homosexuals" because Molavi talked about "love" for his spiritual teacher his poetry !! What a bunch of nonsense. And the worst part is than some "tazeh beh doran resideh" Iranians are actually cheering for her.

hamsade ghadimi


by hamsade ghadimi on

thanks for the excerpt of your book (and also for the previous post).  i found your book intriguing in the way it fully takes on subjects that are considered taboo in our society.  even if rumi and shams were not homosexuals, i persume from their philosophy that they would be tolerant toward it.  even ahmadinejad might say "it's not the same as homosexuals in america."  it seems that our medieval ages were more enlightened than today.  there are many old paintings that i see where lovers are picnicing while a young male servant is filling the lovers' cups (and while the man is fondling the young servant).  nowadays we see pictures of young lovers hanging from cranes in the streets of iran.


Thank you

by bgs (not verified) on

I would like to thank you, for being so brave in opening this discussion. I have been studying about rumi and shams, after my trip to Konya. The more I read, the more fasinated I got about the nature of their relationship. Every time I brought up the subject of the nature of their relationship, by simply asking questions, I was brushed aside as a novice. I was told, I am not capable of understanding the depth of love they had for each other etc, etc,.To me it was very simple, Obviously they had a homosexual relationship.why is it, that we think by implying this, we are disrespectful and undermining what mevlana, has done for Iranian literature!?? come on everybody, lighten up. Think about it!!

Niloufar Parsi

superb read

by Niloufar Parsi on

had never come across this fascinating perspective before. briliant ending:

In ultimate love, then, reciprocity and consent were essential.

can change the 'were' to 'are'.

thanks Janet