The names of Sultan Mahmud’s nine wives, dozens of concubines, and more than fifty children are largely lost to history. Not so the name of Ayaz, his slave and male lover. The love between the two is often given as an example of ‘ishq, or desire that is so intense that it overwhelms the ego. Thus it has long been a staple of writers praising selfless love. Of the many legendary love stories in India, theirs is alone in being between two males, and in having a happy ending. Mahmud, an Afghan Turkish king who reigned between 997 and 1030, is notorious for his genocidal slaughter of Indians, destruction of temples and cities, pillaging of unimaginable wealth, and forced conversion to Islam of entire regions. Oddly, he is also famed as a man whose love made him a slave to his slave. Ayaz, his slave, was for a thousand years a paragon of faithfulness and devotion.
Apart from the histories, their relationship has been enshrined by the poets into a series of anecdotes that may or may not be historical, and that characterize it as one that is consistent with the Qur’anic teachings, in other words one that includes desire but is not sodomitical, or to use Islamic terminology, one that does not include liwat (In Islam, copulation between males is associated with the Biblical Lot, the inhabitant of Sodom). One particular anecdote addresses that topic:
The love borne by Mahmúd Yamínu’d-Dawla to Ayáz the Turk is well known and famous. It is related that Ayáz was not remarkably handsome, but had several good points. Of sweet expression and olive complexion, symmetrically formed, graceful in his movements, sensible and deliberate in action, he was mightily endowed with all the arts of courtiership, in which respect, indeed, he had few rivals in his time. Now these are all qualities which excite love and give permanence to friendship.
Now Mahmúd was a pious and God-fearing man, and he wrestled with his love for Ayáz so that he did not diverge by so much as a single step from the Path of the Law and the Way of Chivalry. One night, however, at a carousal, when the wine had begun to affect him and love to stir within him, he looked at the curls of Ayáz, and saw, as it were, ambergris rolling over the face of the moon, hyacinths twisted about the visage of the sun, ringlet upon ringlet like a coat of mail; link upon link like a chain; in every ringlet a thousand hearts and under every lock a hundred thousand souls. Thereupon love plucked the reins of self-restraint from the hands of his endurance, and lover-like he drew him to himself. But the watchman of “Hath not God forbidden you to transgress against Him?” thrust forth his head from the collar of the Law, stood before Mahmúd, and said: “O Mahmúd, mingle not sin with love, nor mix the false with the true, for such a slip will raise the Realm of Love in revolt against thee, and thou wilt fall like thy first father from Love’s Paradise, and remain afflicted in the world of Sin.”
The ear of his fortunate nature being quick to hear, he hearkened to this announcement, and the tongue of his faith cried from his innermost soul, “We believe and we affirm.” Then, again, he feared lest the army of his self-control might be unable to withstand the evolutions of the locks of Ayáz, so, drawing a knife, he placed it in the hands of Ayáz, bidding him take it and cut off his curls. Ayáz took the knife from his hands with an obeisance, and, having enquired where he should cut them, was bidden to cut them in the middle. He therefore doubled back his locks to get the measurement, executed the King’s command, and laid the two tresses before Mahmúd.
The exact nature of the physical relations between Mahmud and Ayaz is beyond our ken, and we would be naive to take this anecdote at its word. On the other hand we would be foolish to ignore what it says to us about the culture in which it arose, and which propagated it. It was compiled in the mid-1100s by Nizami Aruzi. He was a student of another wise lover of males, Omar Khayyam, the author of the Rubayyat made famous by FitzGerald, whose rendition of one quatrain,
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
has been endlessly and inanely pictured as a man’s utterance to a girl. Yet, in the style of much Persian and Turkic literature of the time, as well as before and since, it was a boy Khayyam was speaking to. Likewise, the culture that gave rise to – and preserved for nine hundred years – Nizami’s anecdote is one that praised the love between two males as long as one of them was still a beardless youth, and that love was of a chaste nature, in other words a non-penetrative sexuality. That much is apparent if we read between the lines of Nizami’s anecdote, where we discover such a love ascribed to Sultan Mahmud, one of the heroes that culture most admired.
Mahmud was the son of Sabuk Tigin, (tigin means “prince” in Turkic) the ruler and governor of Khorasan, who is said by many sources to have been the “son” of Alp Tigin, the previous governor. In reality Sabuk Tigin had been a slave of Alp Tigin. He was bought at either Nishapur or Bokhara at the age of fifteen together with 29 other pages. Styled a ghulam (“mignon,” in Turkish, with all the sexual connotations the Anglo-French word implies) by historians, he quickly entered Alp Tigin’s favor and presumably his bed chamber. In time he was raised to the rank of general, awarded the hand of one of Alp Tigin’s daughters, and eventually succeeded him to the rulership. This pattern, of a man taking a young male lover and then making him an official part of the family by marrying him to a daughter is a timeless one, seen in history from the days of Carthage (Hamilcar and Hasdrubal) to modern Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It bears mention here that Alp Tigin himself had been originally a slave who rose to the throne on the basis of his abilities. Thus the apparent inequality between Sultan Mahmud and Ayaz is tenuous and fluid in a number of ways. Mahmud himself is one of a series of slaves or sons of slaves who rose to the rank of ruler. His love for Ayaz turns the tables of power relations and places Ayaz in a dominant position. Ayaz is also said to have been a boy at the time of their meeting, but the relationship was long lasting, so that after their successful encounter as man and boy, they were able to encounter and love each other as man and man. Finally, Mahmud raises Ayaz to the rank of king of Lahore, demonstrating in the eyes of the world the fundamental equality between the two apparently unequal lovers, and the equalizing power of love.