The Debate Between the Learned Woman and the Sage
Said a certain man of learning:
I never saw among woman-kind any wittier, wiser, or better read
than a preacher of the people from Baghdad, by the name of Sitt
al-Mashaykh (Lady of the Elders). It so happened that she came
to the city of Hamah in the year of the Flight from Mecca 561
(1166 ce) and there took up a teaching chair and preached to
the populace. A number of students of religion and learned men
used to visit her and discuss the finer points of the doctrine.
I too went to her one day with a friend of mine, a man of years
and education; and when we had taken our seats she had dishes
of fruit brought out for us, and seated herself behind a curtain.
She had a brother, a handsome youth, who stood behind us to serve
us. When we had eaten we began to debate matters of religion.
I proposed to her a theological theory bearing upon a contradiction
between the Imams, the Founders of the Four Schools. She proceeded
to speak in answer while I listened; but all the while my friend
fell to looking upon her brother's face and admiring his beauties
without paying any heed to what she was saying. As she was watching
him from behind the curtain, when she had made an end to her
speech she turned to him and said, "It seems to me you are
one of those men who prefer men to women." He replied, "Without
a doubt." "And why is that?" she asked. "Because
Allah has made the male worthier than the female," he answered,
"and I like the better and dislike the bested." She
laughed and then said, "Will you deal fairly with me if
I battle the matter with you in debate?" and he rejoined,
The she said: "What evidence is there that the male is superior
to the female?" "It is of two kinds," he answered,
"the first kind comes from tradition, and the second from
common sense. The first we find in the Qur'an, and the teachings
of the Apostle [Mohammed]. The very words of Almighty Allah say
that Men shall come before women, because of those advantages
by which Allah has made one better than the other.' [Qur'an,
iv. 38]; and again, when witnesses are needed, If there be not
two men, let there be a man and two women.' [Qur'an, ii. 282];
and again, when dealing with inheritance, If there are brothers
and sisters, let a man have as much as the portion of two women.'
[Qur'an, iv. 175]
Thus Allah (praised and exalted be He!), has in these places
preferred the male over the female, and teaches that a woman
is worth only half as much as a man. As for the Sunnah-traditions,
is it not reported of the Prophet (whom Allah save and bless)
that he decreed the blood money for a woman to be half that for
a man? And as for the evidence of common sense, the male is the
doer and the active one, and the female is the receiver and the
When my friend grew silent she rejoined, "You have spoken
well, O my lord, but by Allah, you have proved my contention
with your own lips, and you have brought evidence that works
against you, and not for you. And here it is: Allah (praised
and exalted be He!), preferred the male above the female on the
basis of his inherent condition and essential quality of masculinity,
and here we are in perfect agreement. Now this quality of maleness
is common to the child, the boy, the youth, the adult, and the
old man; nor is there any distinction between them in this. If
then the excellence of the male belongs to him solely by virtue
of his manhood, then your heart should incline and your soul
should delight in the graybeard as well as the boy, seeing that
there is no distinction among them in degree of superiority.
But the disagreement between you and me turns upon the chance
qualities that govern the pleasure of intercourse and its enjoyment;
and you have presented no proof of the superiority of the youth
over the maiden in this matter of non-essentials."
He answered, "O, revered lady, don't you know that quality
which graces only the youth with limber limbs, and rosy cheeks,
and pleasant smile, and sweet speech? Youths are in this respect
superior to women; and the proof of this is what they tell about
the Prophet (whom Allah bless and preserve!), who is reputed
to have said, Rest not your gaze upon the beardless, for it is
like a momentary glimpse of the black-eyed girls of paradise.'
Nor indeed is the superiority of the lad over the lass hidden
to any of man-kind, and how well says the poet Abu Nuwas:
His least quality is being free
From monthly flows,
Even other poets quote him:
Said our Imam, Abu Nuwas, renowned
For sexy feasts, that daring hound:
'Lay in supplies,
O tribe that loves boys,
Of pleasures not found
For all its vaunted joys.'
So if anyone holds forth in praise of a
slave-girl, and wishes to enhance her value by pointing out her
loveliness, he compares her to a youth, because of the outstanding
qualities that adorn the male. If youths were not better and
fairer than girls, why then are girls compared to them? And know
also (Almighty Allah preserve you!) that a youth is easily guided,
adapting himself to every request, pleasant of manners and conversation,
more likely to agree than to disagree, especially when his cheeks
grow downy and his upper lip begins to darken, and the blush
of his tender years is upon his face, so that he outshines even
the full moon. How well says the poet Abu Tammam:
Slanderers said There's hair upon his
Said I Let's not make haste, where is the harm
When he so sweetly sways his slender hips,
And white teeth glint beneath his downy charm?
A solemn promise pledged the rose
His tender cheek always to clothe.
My eyelids spoke wordless desire
His fluent eyebrows shot back fire.
Since you last saw him, he's seven times as fair,
Downy cheeks guard him from those who'd overdare.
Brighter and sweeter have become his charms,
Now that velvet adorns what once was bare.'
Those who blame when I take Him in my arms,
When Him they see, exclaim, He's past compare!'
And says al-Hariri, and says most well:
My censors say, This is a love untimely!
Can you not see his whiskers overflowing?'
By Allah, you who think I'm balmy,
Look at the truth in those fine eyes a-glowing!
Were it not for the down that veils his grace
Blinded you'd be by this muchacho's face.
Those who travel only in growth-less land,
What will they do when growth will be at hand?
And says another:
My blamers say of me He was consoled,' but lie!
No consolation comes to those who pine and sigh.
I had no solace when Rose bloomed alone on cheek,
Now Basil blooms thereon, and now consoled am I.
If I am drunk, it's not with his young wine
But with those curls, which make my head spin.
Each of his graces vies my heart entwine
But pale before the silky down of his chin.
Such are the excellent qualities of the
youth, which women do not own, and they are more than enough
to win the contest for the former over the latter."
She replied, "Allah give you health. Truly you have brought
this debate down upon your own head. You have spoken, and have
not given in, and have brought proofs to support every claim.
But, to quote the Prophet, 'Now is the truth become manifest,'
so stay the course, and take it like a man! Since you are not
content with a summary of the evidence, I will be glad to set
it before you in full detail.
Allah upon you, what is a skinny youth compared to a full-fleshed
maiden, and who will compare a goat kid with a wild cow?!? The
girl is soft of speech and fair of form, like a sprig of basil,
with teeth like chamomile petals and hair like the grasses of
the plains, therein to lose your heart. Her cheeks are like blood-red
anemones, and her face is like the sun, she has lips like wine
and her breasts are like pomegranates, and she is supple like
a reed. Her body is well-formed, with gently sloping shoulders.
Her nose is like the edge of a sword shining bright, her forehead
sparkling white, her eyebrows like an archer's bow curve and
meet in the middle, and her eyes have been dyed by Nature's hand
black as night.
If she speaks, fresh young pearls are scattered from her lips,
and all hearts are broken by the gentleness of her spirit; when
she smiles you would think the moon was shining from her lips,
and when she eyes you, sword blades flash from the pupils of
her eyes. In her all beauties to conclusion come, and she is
the center of attraction to both traveler and home-body. She
has two lips of crimson coral, smoother than rich cream and sweeter
than bee honey. Her breasts are like two globes of ivory, her
stomach is smooth, her flanks are soft and dimpled, her thighs
are generous, like two pearly columns, her bottom rolls and sways
like the waves of the sea, and her delicate hands and feet are
like ingots of virgin gold.
Your comparison, O miserable one! is like putting mortal men
besides the Jinn! Don't you know that strong princes and powerful
kings before their women ever humbly bend, and on them for delight
depend? These women! How many a rich man have they not paupered,
how many a powerful man have they not bent down, and how many
a nobleman have they not enslaved? Indeed, they reduce the sage
to folly, and cause the saint to sin in shame, and bring the
wealthy to ruin and plunge the fortune-favored into poverty.
Yet for all this, wise men only redouble in affection for them,
and respect, nor do they count this as oppression or dishonor.
How many a man for them has offended his Maker, and called down
on himself the wrath of his father and mother! And all this because
of the conquest of their love over men's hearts. Do you not know,
O wretched one, that for them pavilions are built, hordes enslaved,
floods of tears spilled, jewels of price and ambergris and aromatic
musk collected; armies are arrayed, peace treaties made, wealth
heaped up, and heads lopped off. And truly did he speak who said,
Who says world means woman.'
Now as for your citation from the Holy Traditions [The Hadiths],
it is an argument against you and not for you, that the Prophet
(whom Allah bless and preserve!) compares the beardless with
the black-eyed girls of Paradise. Certainly the subject of comparison
is worthier than the object compared with it, so if women were
not worthier and greater in quality why would those who are not
women be compared to them? As for your saying that girls are
compared to boys, it is not so but the other way round: boys
are compared to girls, for folks say Yonder boy is like a girl.'
As for what proof you quote from the poets, those verses were
the product of unnatural impulses, and as for those habitual
sodomites and catamites, offenders against religion, Almighty
Allah has condemned them in His Holy Book, where He denounces
their filthy practices, saying, What! Of all creatures do ye
come onto the males, And leave your wives which your Lord has
created for you? Nay, but ye are a folk who go too far!' [Qur'an,
These cloddish profligates that liken girls to boys follow only
the Devil, and their own lusts; so too when they say about a
girl that She is apt for two tricks,' and these are all wanderers
from the way of the right and the righteous. It is all to clear
from the words of their chief, Abu Nuwas:
A slim waist and boyish wits delight
The Wencher, just like the Sodomite.
As for what you say of a youth's first
hair on cheek and lips and how they add to his beauty and loveliness,
by Allah, you stray from the straight path of truth and say that
which is other than the truth; for whiskers change the charm
of the comely into ugliness; witness these couplets:
That sprouting hair upon his cheek
Wreaked havoc, like the vengeance of a lover.
His face, upon a time so sleek
Smoke colored curly wisps now smother.
If thus his paper is with charcoal writ,
Where d'you suppose the pen can leave an ode?
If any still his beauty laud
Than only proves that they are weak of wit.
Praise be to Allah Almighty! How is it
that it is hid from you that the perfect pleasure is in women
and that abiding blessings are not to be found but with them,
seeing that Allah (extolled and exalted be He) has promised His
prophets and saints black-eyed damsels in Paradise and has appointed
these as recompense for their good deeds? Had the Almighty known
that the joy supreme was in the possession of other than women,
He would have rewarded them with it and promised it to them.
And says he [Mohammed](whom Allah bless and preserve!), The things
I hold dearest of the things of your world are three: women and
perfume, and the solace of my eyes in prayer.' It is true Allah
has also appointed boys to serve his prophets and saints in Paradise,
because Paradise is the abode of joy and delight, which could
not be complete without the service of youths; but as far as
the use of them for anything other than servers, it is filth
from Hell, and corruption and degradation. How well says the
Men turning to the butts of boys is
Those who love noble women show true chivalry!
How many fellows passed the night,
In boyish buttocks looking for delight,
Only to wake wallowing in mire,
Their garments stained by their own desire?
Walking about besmirched with dung,
To everyone their shame proclaiming,
Who can deny the charge when they are such a mess
That in plain daylight they have shit-stains on their dress?
Compare them to the man who passed a joyous night
And with a black-eyed maid of Paradise took flight.
He rises wrapped in her delightful incense,
Which fills the house with whiffs of perfumed scents.
No boy compared to her should be,
No more than the night-pot to a sandalwood tree."
Then said she, "O folk, you have made
me break the bounds of modesty and leave the circle of free-born
women, and led me to indulge in talk of things lusty and
depraved, which is not becoming of people of learning. But the
breasts of free people are like graves when it comes to secrets,
and such conversations are in confidence. Moreover, actions should
be judged by their intentions, and I crave pardon of Allah for
myself and you and all Moslems, seeing that He is the Pardoner
and the Compassionate One." Then she held her peace and
would not answer us; so we went our way rejoicing that we had
been granted her company, and also sorrowing to have to part from her.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Eternal Debate", The Debate Between the Learned Woman and the Sage, 2000 <http://www.gay-art-history.org/gay-history/gay-literature/homosexuality-debate/arabian-nights-homosexuality-debate/arabian-nights-homosexuality-debate.html>