Sex Manuals, Islam

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Sex Manuals, Islam

Despite the image that many contemporaries wish to cultivate, premodern Islam was open and frank on questions of sexuality. This included discussions in anecdotal collections and, of course The Arabian Nights. But the most important sources of material on sexual practices were the ubiquitous sex manuals. Far from being marginal (or being considered pornographic), such manuals were frequently written by educated individuals, such as North-African jurist Ahmad al-Tîfâshî (d. 1253).

The situation at the turn of the twenty-first century is in many ways different. The neopuritanical strain that is so prominent in the late-twentieth, early twenty-first-century Islamic revival (and especially in its political wing, the Islamists) has combined with the remains of a Victorian prudery that developed under European colonial influence. The result has been to largely drive these sex manuals underground. As the majority of these sex manuals are censored in the Arab lands of the Middle East and North Africa, it has been left up to Arab exiles in European capitals with large Arab populations, such as London, to make them available. This is presently the case for the famous works by Tîfâshî, al-Tijânî (d. after 1309), and Umar Ibn Muhammad Nafzâwî (d. after 1324).

A diligent search will, however, turn up local editions of classical sex manuals. In Morocco in the 1990s, manuals were on sale in a market in Taroudant, and an edition of the famous sex manual (old, worn, and in Arabic), Ruju' al-Shaykh ilâ Sibah [The return of the old man to his youth] by Ibn Kâmâl Bâshâ was available at the well-known and colorful market in the Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh. Probably not coincidentally, the edition listed no place or date of publication. Despite its title, The Return of the Old Man to His Youth is actually a comprehensive sex manual. The range of clandestine availability and the integration into social practices is indicated by the fact that a Christian Palestinian told this author that in the Mediterranean village that was his hometown, the men possessed one copy of the book that was handed from one young man to the next when it was time for their marriage.

The sex manuals combined practical information with anecdotes or stories that were both illustrative of the variety of sexual behaviors (including between women) and entertaining. The practical material included sexual positions (for oral as well as vaginal sex) and advice on foods or medicines that could promote or support sexual activity. Advice was also available on practices or products to induce or reduce the chances of conception.

Many of these works were translated into European languages and diffused in those countries in the nineteenth century. As Jamâl Jum'a makes clear in his introduction to his edition of Nafzâwî's The Perfumed Garden, this sexual manual (as was others) was published secretly in the Islamic world with no indication of the date of publication or the publisher, even though its translation into European languages ran the gamut from English through German and Danish to French.


al-Nafzâwî. 1990. Al-Rawd al-'Atir, ed. Jamâl Jum'a. London: Riad El-Rayyes Books.

Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. 1985. Sexuality in Islam, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ibn Kamâl Bâshâ. Ruju' al-Shaykh ilâ Sibah [The return of the old man to his youth].

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 1991. Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 2001. "Tribadism/Lesbianism and the Sexualized Body in Medieval Arabo-Islamic Narratives." In Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, eds. Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn. New York: Palgrave.

                                        Fedwa Malti-Douglas