Shams Tabriz, a 13th century Persian mystic and thinker, wrote the biography of his contemporary and fellow mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi. In it, Rumi is quoted as saying something quite shocking by orthodox Islamic standards: “Bravo, oh champions (Prostitutes)! If it was not for you bearing the burden, who would have subdued so many censorious, headstrong carnal souls, and how would the chase chastity of women ever have appeared?”
Rumi’s praise for sex workers is found in other passages of the biography, as well: “There was a prostitute who was extremely beautiful. One day Mawlana (Rumi) passed by there (walked past the brothel she worked in). This woman came running towards him and, lowered her head, she fell at Khudavandgar (The holy one’s) feet and displayed humility and self-abasement. Mawlana exclaimed: ‘Oh Rabi’a, Rabi’a, Rabi’a!’ Other prostitutes ran out and also fell to his feet and bowed their heads.”
While none of the passages indicate whether Rumi himself frequented prostitutes, deciding to call one of them Rabi’a, the name of a great 8th century female Sufi mystics, displays a profound respect for the profession. Indeed, there are many examples of greatly admired prostitutes in other works from this period, including the figure of the courtesan, Scheherazade, in the 1001 Arabian Nights.
While current orthodox Islamic thinking treats prostitution as immoral, these stories indicate that pre-modern Middle Eastern and Muslim societies had a different attitude towards the world’s oldest profession. Dr Gary Leiser, a retired civil servant and academic writer who specializes in medieval Islamic history, recounts these perspectives in his new book, “Prostitution in the Eastern Mediterranean World: The Economies of Sex in the Late Antique and Medieval Middle East,” published by I.B. Tauris. Leiser takes the reader from 300 C.E. to 1500 C.E., and argues that prostitution enjoyed wide social acceptance in both Muslim and Christian societies in the Middle East.
From Byzantine to Islamic rule
Rumi’s praise for prostitutes was about recognizing the humanity of people who do difficult, but necessary, work. As Leiser demonstrates, Rumi saw prostitution as a necessary outlet for society. Because it created space for people to explore their sexual desires, it allowed ordinary people to function better. If people were sexual and more fulfilled they would be happier and less likely to cause social unrest, harass and assault women, and more likely to be economically more productive as a happier worker is a better one, it was believed.
Prostitution as necessary evil is a theme found in Christian attitudes towards prostitution, as well. As recounted in the book, the Christian philosopher, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), argued that, if prostitution did not exist, then people would be lustful and pollute everything in their lives and society with their unused desire, causing society to grind to a halt.
This uncanny consistency between Christian and Muslim (and Roman) approaches and attitudes toward sex work is a central theme of Leiser’s book. Though prostitution became a legally legitimate and taxable profession during the time of pre-Christian Roman emperor, Caligula, it was the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor and Christian ruler, Justinian I, who cultivated permissive attitudes towards prostitution among Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean. Muslims would later adopt many of these positions.
Justinian was a legal reformer. One of his biggest achievements was to re-write, simplify, expand, and codify Roman law. In the process, Justinian strengthened the rights of prostitutes and passed laws designed to protect them from harm and exploitation. For example, Justinian law made controlling, procuring, and selling prostitutes (i.e. “pimping”) illegal, but gave women the right to freely sell their sexual services.
Thanks to Justinian’s efforts, prostitutes became heavily integrated into the socio-economics of the Middle East. When Muslims came to rule the region, this situation was a challenging one. While many early Islamic scholars were opposed to prostitution morally, they chose, for two reasons, not to oppose it legally. First, the Qu’ran does not directly forbid prostitution; since prostitutes live outside traditional family structures, Islamic family law does not apply to them. Second, because of the economic importance of sex work, any effort to forbid prostitution would have received strong social-resistance. Indeed, there is no record of a prostitute ever being prosecuted for Zina or punished for being a prostitute in the Middle East during the Middle Ages.
Prostitution as a State Enterprise
During the Middle Ages, red light districts, brothels, taverns and private houses of prostitution existed across Arabia, greater Syria, Anatolia, and Egypt. They were typically found along trade routes, places of religious pilgrimage, and areas where large groups of men otherwise, typically congregated. Various types of women worked in the sex industry, including slaves, free women, business women, musicians, singers, married women, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, and Europeans. Some sex workers became very wealthy and were important business figures, financing public endeavors, like building projects, religious endowments, and military campaigns.
Indeed, as Leiser argues, in Egypt, “prostitution became a state enterprise,” as “there was too much money to be gained by the ruling authorities.” Through the entire period covered in the book, prostitution was heavily taxed by Egypt’s rulers. During the Mamluk era (1250-1517), prostitutes registered with local authorities, were routinely taxed, and received police protection. This tax money was an important source of state revenue and was likely used to fund al-Zahir Baibars (Mamluk Sultan of Egypt 1223-1277) campaign against the Christian Crusaders.
The state was not the only beneficiary of prostitution in Egypt; an entire subsection of the economy was also dependent on the industry. Prostitutes needed places to work out of, so inns, hotels and private properties were essential. These landlords made significant profits from renting to sex workers. Prostitutes needed clothes, jewelry, perfume, shoes, makeup and other accessories. As such, they were frequent customers of jewelers, dress makers, and perfumers, similarly intertwining these industries with prostitution.
Local economies in Egypt benefited in other ways, as well. Areas where prostitutes worked attracted large number of customers, boosting the trade of local businesses. Prostitutes formed their own guilds and trade unions to better protect their rights and help with various local community projects. Some of these guilds invested in religious endowments and helped with the financing of construction and maintenance of religious shrines and places of worship. According to Leiser, the Sufi shrine of Ahmad al Badawi (1200-1276) in Tanta, Egypt received a considerable amount of its maintenance income from local prostitution guilds.
Despite the social and economic importance of prostitution, whenever there was a new ruler of Egypt, bans on the trade would be enforced for a short period of time as a way for the new ruler to assert moral authority and gain legitimacy. After the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, Sultan Selim I (1470-1520) was adamant to be seen to bring in a stricter moral code based on the Qu’ranic principle, “Enjoying what is right and forbidding what is wrong.”
He sent an unnamed army judge (Qadi ‘L-Askar) to Cairo to administer a new moral code, which not only included ban on the sex trade, but also included banning women from going to the market outright unless they were elderly. Harsh punishments were enacted against women who broke with the prohibition of going to the market including tying their hair to the tail of a horse and dragging them across Cairo. Local Egyptians were resentful of the judge, but he only lasted in his position for one year before being sent off to Mecca, and upon hearing of his departure, women joyously ran into the market and sang, “Let’s go! Let’s prostitute ourselves and defile ourselves (to spite him)! The qadi ‘l-askar has departed,” according to a contemporary writer and chronicler Ibn Iyas. It was business as usual shortly after that.
Re-conceptualizing Prostitution in Christian and Islamic History
Leiser’s book is an invaluable resource for understanding how religious attitudes toward prostitution have changed over time. By encouraging the reader to question the relationship between religion, sex, and morality, the book challenges popular, contemporary views on prostitution. It also explores a largely neglected aspect of medieval economic and social history.
Nevertheless, Leiser’s work does have some drawbacks. The sourcing is, for example, uneven. While the chapter on Egypt is extensive, discussions of prostitution in Arabia, Greater Syria, and southern Turkey are more shallow, an ostensible result of a lack of sources for these areas. There is also an absence of firsthand narratives from prostitutes themselves. Without knowing how prostitutes themselves viewed the profession, it is impossible to truly appreciate what the practice meant to the people most affected by it.
Even with these shortcomings, however, Leiser’s book is an invaluable contribution to debates about the world’s oldest profession.