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Eunuchs and Concubines in the History of Islamic Southeast Asia

Eunuchs and Concubines in the History of Islamic Southeast Asia

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Published by Amir Muhammad

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Published by: Amir Muhammad on Sep 03, 2010
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William Gervase Clarence-Smith
 In the early 17th century, male servant eunuchs were common, notably at thePersianised Acehnese court of Iskandar  Muda. By mid-century, the castration of male slaves mysteriously disappeared.Concubinage, however, lasted muchlonger. While there were sporadicattempts to stamp out abuses, for examplesexual relations with pre-pubescent slavegirls, and possibly, clitoridectomy, areasoned rejection of the institution of concubinage on religious grounds failed to emerge. This paper discusses the sexualtreatment of slaves across IslamicSoutheast Asia, a subject which shedsimportant light on historical specificities pertaining to both Islam and sexuality inthe region, yet which continues to betreated with silence, embarrassment or even scholarly condemnation.
Southeast Asian Islam was characterisedby a peculiar prominence of 
, orcustomary law, and
, or statute law(Hooker 1988). In the Middle East andSouth Asia, where the
was betterestablished, eunuchs and concubines werewidespread up to modern times.
Professor, Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Moreover, they were always of servilestatus, as the holy law demanded. InSoutheast Asia, in contrast, concubines(
) were sometimes free, andeunuchs (
) mysteriously dis-appeared around 1700.Unfortunately, the nature of thesepractices in Islamic Southeast Asia is hardto unravel, as they are covered by a veil of silence. Servitude itself is seen as highlyembarrassing (Salman 2001). 'Sexualaberrations' merely compound theembarrassment, and outsiders writingabout such matters easily attractaccusations of 'Orientalism' and'voyeurism.' This is unfortunate, because astudy of these topics helps to illuminatehistorical specificities pertaining to bothIslam and sexuality in the region.
Concubinage in Islam
Across Islamdom, the
accepted thata man could have an unlimited number of servile concubines. Quranic references to'those whom your right hand possesses'seemed to justify the institution, and theProphet himself was believed to haveowned two concubines in the latter stagesof his life (Ruthven 2000: 57, 62-3, Awde2000: 10, Zaidi 1935). Concubinage alsoeased conversion, overcoming the 'fourwives barrier' to embracing Islam (Hughes1885: 600). The ownership of concubinescertainly became widespread, extending tomen of quite modest means (Hodgson1974: II, 65, 144).A concubine could rise high in the socialscale, although this was exceptional. If shebore a son for a mighty ruler, she wieldedgreat influence, especially after hermaster's death (Peirce 1993, Babaie et al.2004). However, enforced sexualcontinence was the lot of discarded and
 Eunuchs and Concubines in the History of Islamic Southeast Asia
neglected sexual partners in large harems,while the bondmaiden who attended totheir needs faced both celibacy anddrudgery (Peirce 1993: 138, 141-2).Concubines at times resisted their fate.Islamic law strictly prohibited the molest-ation of dependants, but subordination inthe protected sphere of the householdmade it hard to police transgressions(Hodgson 1974: I, 344).The
displayed persistent uneaseabout concubinage, discouraging excesses,protesting at abuses, and forbidding theholding of free concubines. The hugeharems of rulers and nobles floutedrepeated recommendations in the Qur'an totreat slaves and wives well, and not to beprodigal (Hodgson 1974: II, 143-4, Croneand Cook 1977: 148, Khan 1972: 35-9).Canonical stories of Hagar, Ibrahim's ill-treated concubine, introduced a note of uncertainty. These were reinforced by folktraditions that elaborated on Hagar'stribulations in the desert with her youngson Isma'il, believed to be the ancestor of the Arabs (Crone and Cook 1977, Awde2000: 143, Ruthven 2000: 13-18).The
thus attempted to mitigate theevils of the institution from an early date.They insisted that children of concubineswere free, and of equal social status tochildren of free wives, as long as thefather recognised paternity. The mother of such children was also to be freed at thedeath of her master (Brunschvig 1960).More radical measures againstconcubinage were rare, came late, andremained contested. The Druzes of Greater Syria formed an unusual except-ion, banning slavery, concubinage, andpolygyny from the eleventh century, butthey were marginalised by their sectarianbeliefs (Abu-Izzedin 1984: 122, 230).Muslims of Sri Lanka and parts of Indiaestablished a rather generous customaryupper limit of forty concubines per man(Bevan Jones 1941: 209). A general andreasoned rejection of concubinage onreligious grounds only emerged from the1870s, beginning in South Asia andspreading to Egypt (Ali 1883, Hourani1970: 164-70). Such revisionism wasresisted by literalist thinkers, however,such as Mawlana Sayyid Abul A'laMawdudi (1903-79) in South Asia. Stillinfluential today, Mawdudi proclaimed theharem to be 'the last place of refuge whereIslam guards its civilisation and culture'(Khan 1972: 38). He also taught that theProphet had owned at least one concubine(Sarwar Qureshi 1983: 28-32).
Concubinage in Islamic SoutheastAsia
A particular advantage of holdingconcubines under custom was that it couldextend to free women, to the horror of pious
(Winstedt 1981: 54, Linehan1973: 129). This flagrant breach of the
was still reported in North Sumatraas late as the 1890s (Jacobs 1894: I, 78).The nobles of central and eastern Javawere most infamous for obliging freewomen to cohabit with them, withoutreducing them to slavery. In contrast, themore
-minded grandees of Banten,in West Java, took concubines only from'those villages which during the period of Islamisation had refused to embrace thenew religion, and had thereupon beendeclared to be slaves' (Kumar 1997: 62).However, the collective and hereditaryslavery of whole villages was itself contrary to the spirit of the
.Adding insult to injury, the children of free concubines were considered to beinferior to those of free wives (Snouck
 MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, Special Issue No.14, 2007 
Hurgronje 1906: I, 360). PrinceDipanagara was passed over for the throneof Yogyakarta in the early nineteenthcentury as the son of a concubine, possiblycontributing to the outbreak of the greatJava War of 1825-30 (Adas 1987: 94, 96).Although it is not stated clearly whetherhis mother was free or slave, the habits of the central Javanese nobility make it quitelikely that she was a free concubine.Even in the case of servile concubines,Southeast Asian men tended to dislikeIslamic legal provisions, preferring to holdsuch women under
(Lasker 1950: 32-3
. The numerous debt slaves of the regionwere especially prone to being possessedunder customary arrangements, as thiscategory of servility found no place in the
(Clifford 1913: 122-3, Maxwell1890: 247-8, Thosibo 2002, Ruibing1937). Moreover, the recourse to custommay have helped in selling concubines tosingle non-Muslim Chinese men, whichbecame big business from the eighteenthcentury, as numbers of Chineseimmigrants swelled (Reid 1983: 27).Under the
such sales would havebeen frowned upon. Indeed, they wouldtechnically have been prohibited if thefemale slaves in question were Muslims.Southeast Asian Muslims also invokedcustomary law to evade
provisionsthat imposed an equal status on children of concubines (Lasker 1950: 32-3). In Aceh,where considerable stress was placed onthe maternal line, descendants of concubines retained the 'taint' of slaveryfor several generations. To avoid this,people practised birth control orinfanticide, both of which violated theholy law (Snouck Hurgronje 1906: I, 21-2,359, Loeb 1972: 230-1). In Lampung,South Sumatra, children of concubineshad to be recognised by their free half-siblings in a special
ceremony, andeven then they were not completely equal(Djajadiningrat 1929: 90). Among theAlas of North Sumatra, adoption,prohibited in the
, was employed toclear the 'stain' of slave descent (Iwabuchi1994: 130, 158).However, Muslims in Southeast Asiamight also turn to the
in dealingwith matters of concubinage. This is clearfrom a 1892 collection of Meccan
for Southeast Asian believers.
34explained why the child of a female slave,born as the result of illicit sexual relationswith her owner, inherited the mother'sservile status. Had the mother been alegitimate concubine, the child wouldhave been born free.
96 stressedthat a master had to free a slave if hewished to marry her, rather than merelyhave her as a concubine (Kaptein 1997:195).In addition, servile concubinage sharedcertain features typical of Islamdom as awhole. In late seventeenth century SouthSulawesi, jealous free wives whipped theirhusbands' concubines, or even went so faras to murder them. At the same time, bymaintaining inflated harems, mastersdenied a family life to unwanted partners(Gervaise 1971: 83-5, 115-16). Sultanswere especially likely to have excessivelylarge harems, as in Aceh in the sixteenthand seventeenth centuries (Hadi 2004:100). That said, concubines possessedtheir own slaves in northern Borneo in the1840s, and were considered to be fairlysocially privileged (Low 1968: 144).Concubinage survived the imposition of colonial rule. Raja Ali, ruler of Riau,mentioned concubines at least twice in hisextensive correspondence with the Dutchauthorities. In 1872, he lamented that his

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