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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, "Of course!"

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 passive one."

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,

And pregnancy.

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

In paradise,

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 cheeks;'

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.

And again:

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, xxiv. 165]

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 poet:

Men turning to the butts of boys is idiocy;

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 <>

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