Mukhannath

Mukhannath is classical Arabic for “man who resembles a woman”. Were they gay men, trans women, intersex or something else?

It seems they were classified by others rather than themselves. A hadith, or recorded saying of Mohammed, says A mukhannath who had dyed his hands and feet with henna was brought to the Prophet. He asked: What is the matter with this man? He was told: Apostle of Allah! he affects women’s get-up. So he ordered regarding him and he was banished to an-Naqi’. The people said: Apostle of Allah! should we not kill him? He said: I have been prohibited from killing people who pray. AbuUsamah said: Naqi’ is a region near Medina and not al-Baqi. I note al-Baqi was the Medina cemetery.

Men find something they do not understand, and seek the judgment of their prophet. Why could they not see she was harmless? Because their own masculinity was fragile, perhaps. They doubted their own manhood. I have had my hands henna painted, because it is pretty. It lasts a few days. It was a lovely experience, being groomed in that way.

“Should we not kill him?” There is nothing new in transphobia.

Aisha’s marriage to Mohammed was consummated when she was nine or ten, according to the Hadith. She reports, A mukhannath used to enter upon the wives of Prophet. They (the people) counted him among those who were free of physical needs. One day the Prophet entered upon us when he was with one of his wives, and was describing the qualities of a woman, saying: When she comes forward, she comes forward with four (folds of her stomach), and when she goes backward, she goes backward with eight (folds of her stomach). The Prophet said: Do I not see that this one knows what here lies. Then they (the wives) observed veil from him.

They refer to the person with male pronouns. “This one knows what here lies” may mean he desires women. “Free of physical needs” may mean he does not, but when the wives veiled themselves they were not taking chances.

If a Mukhannath was seen as effeminate, or as less than a man, the men might not care whether s/he was gay, trans, intersex or something else. It is enough that s/he is less.

Al-Nawawi, a collector of hadith who lived in the sixth century after Mohammed wrote, A mukhannath is the one (“male”) who carries in his movements, in his appearance and in his language the characteristics of a woman. There are two types; the first is the one in whom these characteristics are innate, he did not put them on by himself, and therein is no guilt, no blame and no shame, as long as he does not perform any (illicit) act or exploit it for money (prostitution etc.). The second type acts like a woman out of immoral purposes and he is the sinner and blameworthy. That could be a camp gay man, or a trans woman; but I don’t understand the distinction between innate characteristics and acting for immoral purposes. No-one can act against their nature, or it would not be their nature.

The Sultan Suleiman, who reigned a century after Mohammed, ordered all the Mukhannath to be castrated. They responded with jokes:

Ṭuways: “This is simply a circumcision which we must undergo again.”
al-Dalal: “Or rather the Greater Circumcision!”
Nasim al-Sahar: “With castration I have become a mukhannath in truth!”
Nawmat al-Duha: “Or rather we have become women in truth!”
Bard al-Puad: “We have been spared the trouble of carrying around a spout for urine.”
Zill al-Shajar: “What would we do with an unused weapon anyway?”

Trans women now often seek out genital surgery, but I consider this story and wonder if the originator wrote with disgust, sympathy or understanding.

Many Mukhannath were actors and singers. Some were matchmakers: they could get to know a woman without threatening her chastity, and then describe her to potential suitors. The Mukhannath Tuways had a wife, and was a singer, dancer and actor. Tuways wore henna, but it is not reported whether s/he dressed as a woman.

4 thoughts on “Mukhannath

  1. Gender classifications – do I mean sexuality? Sorry, I’m not up on the differences around that – are not as inevitable as we would like to make them; and indigenous societies typically look less at the way one expresses oneself, and more at whether that expression is benign, or less so. Interesting, that as the west became more ‘civilised’ we tended to do the opposite, so much so that it has taken legislative intervention in a host of personal arenas to assist us in reasserting a more helpful and benign toleration. But that trend is now firmly established, so I have more hope for us all, than I have ever had, despite the doomsayers.

    XXXX

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    • I really have no idea of the cultural context. They were living in a harsh environment, but Mohammed was a merchant, with the wealth of his first, older, wife. It seems to me these Mukhannathun are seen as “less than manly”. That is a bad thing. They are categorised from outside. Unmanly things they do, such as not be attracted to women, being attracted to men, painting themselves with henna or otherwise behaving in womanish ways, or dancing and singing for the entertainment of others, are examples of Unmanliness rather than categories showing different ways of being. It is all merely Yuck. Whether anyone in the long transmission of these stories thought, “Oh, that’s interesting, that’s a different human response, it takes all sorts to make a world”- well, possibly, not all the stories seem completely hostile. The story of folds in the stomach, whatever that means, is an observation that not all Unmanly ones are necessarily not attracted to women- so you can’t trust them in a harem even though they are Mukhannathun- which shows some understanding, but concomitant suspicion.

      It has to be us doing the describing- this is who I am, this is what I want, this is what I love- before anyone can begin to value our differences.

      Gender is who I am, sexuality is whom I am attracted to, though I heard a gay man saying his sexuality was his whole character, which enabled him to be a good nurse to old people, to empathise and be close to them. He identified his sexuality and his femininity as all part of one character.

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