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EUNUCHS AND Moreover, they were always of servile

status, as the holy law demanded. In

CONCUBINES IN THE Southeast Asia, in contrast, concubines
HISTORY OF ISLAMIC (gundik) were sometimes free, and
SOUTHEAST ASIA eunuchs (sida-sida) mysteriously dis-
appeared around 1700.
William Gervase Clarence- Unfortunately, the nature of these
Smith practices in Islamic Southeast Asia is hard
to unravel, as they are covered by a veil of
silence. Servitude itself is seen as highly
Abstract embarrassing (Salman 2001). 'Sexual
aberrations' merely compound the
In the early 17th century, male servant embarrassment, and outsiders writing
eunuchs were common, notably at the about such matters easily attract
Persianised Acehnese court of Iskandar accusations of 'Orientalism' and
Muda. By mid-century, the castration of 'voyeurism.' This is unfortunate, because a
male slaves mysteriously disappeared. study of these topics helps to illuminate
Concubinage, however, lasted much historical specificities pertaining to both
longer. While there were sporadic Islam and sexuality in the region.
attempts to stamp out abuses, for example
sexual relations with pre-pubescent slave Concubinage in Islam
girls, and possibly, clitoridectomy, a
reasoned rejection of the institution of Across Islamdom, the ulama accepted that
concubinage on religious grounds failed a man could have an unlimited number of
to emerge. This paper discusses the sexual servile concubines. Quranic references to
treatment of slaves across Islamic 'those whom your right hand possesses'
Southeast Asia, a subject which sheds seemed to justify the institution, and the
important light on historical specificities Prophet himself was believed to have
pertaining to both Islam and sexuality in owned two concubines in the latter stages
the region, yet which continues to be of his life (Ruthven 2000: 57, 62-3, Awde
treated with silence, embarrassment or 2000: 10, Zaidi 1935). Concubinage also
even scholarly condemnation. eased conversion, overcoming the 'four
wives barrier' to embracing Islam (Hughes
1885: 600). The ownership of concubines
Southeast Asian Islam was characterised certainly became widespread, extending to
by a peculiar prominence of adat, or men of quite modest means (Hodgson
customary law, and qanun, or statute law 1974: II, 65, 144).
(Hooker 1988). In the Middle East and
South Asia, where the sharia was better A concubine could rise high in the social
established, eunuchs and concubines were scale, although this was exceptional. If she
widespread up to modern times. bore a son for a mighty ruler, she wielded
great influence, especially after her
1 master's death (Peirce 1993, Babaie et al.
Professor, Department of History, School of
Oriental and African Studies, University of
2004). However, enforced sexual
London continence was the lot of discarded and
Eunuchs and Concubines in the History of Islamic Southeast Asia

neglected sexual partners in large harems, Muslims of Sri Lanka and parts of India
while the bondmaiden who attended to established a rather generous customary
their needs faced both celibacy and upper limit of forty concubines per man
drudgery (Peirce 1993: 138, 141-2). (Bevan Jones 1941: 209). A general and
Concubines at times resisted their fate. reasoned rejection of concubinage on
Islamic law strictly prohibited the molest- religious grounds only emerged from the
ation of dependants, but subordination in 1870s, beginning in South Asia and
the protected sphere of the household spreading to Egypt (Ali 1883, Hourani
made it hard to police transgressions 1970: 164-70). Such revisionism was
(Hodgson 1974: I, 344). resisted by literalist thinkers, however,
such as Mawlana Sayyid Abul A'la
The ulama displayed persistent unease Mawdudi (1903-79) in South Asia. Still
about concubinage, discouraging excesses, influential today, Mawdudi proclaimed the
protesting at abuses, and forbidding the harem to be 'the last place of refuge where
holding of free concubines. The huge Islam guards its civilisation and culture'
harems of rulers and nobles flouted (Khan 1972: 38). He also taught that the
repeated recommendations in the Qur'an to Prophet had owned at least one concubine
treat slaves and wives well, and not to be (Sarwar Qureshi 1983: 28-32).
prodigal (Hodgson 1974: II, 143-4, Crone
and Cook 1977: 148, Khan 1972: 35-9). Concubinage in Islamic Southeast
Canonical stories of Hagar, Ibrahim's ill- Asia
treated concubine, introduced a note of
uncertainty. These were reinforced by folk A particular advantage of holding
traditions that elaborated on Hagar's concubines under custom was that it could
tribulations in the desert with her young extend to free women, to the horror of
son Isma'il, believed to be the ancestor of pious ulama (Winstedt 1981: 54, Linehan
the Arabs (Crone and Cook 1977, Awde 1973: 129). This flagrant breach of the
2000: 143, Ruthven 2000: 13-18). sharia was still reported in North Sumatra
as late as the 1890s (Jacobs 1894: I, 78).
The ulama thus attempted to mitigate the The nobles of central and eastern Java
evils of the institution from an early date. were most infamous for obliging free
They insisted that children of concubines women to cohabit with them, without
were free, and of equal social status to reducing them to slavery. In contrast, the
children of free wives, as long as the more sharia-minded grandees of Banten,
father recognised paternity. The mother of in West Java, took concubines only from
such children was also to be freed at the 'those villages which during the period of
death of her master (Brunschvig 1960). Islamisation had refused to embrace the
new religion, and had thereupon been
More radical measures against declared to be slaves' (Kumar 1997: 62).
concubinage were rare, came late, and However, the collective and hereditary
remained contested. The Druzes of slavery of whole villages was itself
Greater Syria formed an unusual except- contrary to the spirit of the sharia.
ion, banning slavery, concubinage, and
polygyny from the eleventh century, but Adding insult to injury, the children of
they were marginalised by their sectarian free concubines were considered to be
beliefs (Abu-Izzedin 1984: 122, 230). inferior to those of free wives (Snouck

MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, Special Issue No.14, 2007

Hurgronje 1906: I, 360). Prince siblings in a special adat ceremony, and

Dipanagara was passed over for the throne even then they were not completely equal
of Yogyakarta in the early nineteenth (Djajadiningrat 1929: 90). Among the
century as the son of a concubine, possibly Alas of North Sumatra, adoption,
contributing to the outbreak of the great prohibited in the sharia, was employed to
Java War of 1825-30 (Adas 1987: 94, 96). clear the 'stain' of slave descent (Iwabuchi
Although it is not stated clearly whether 1994: 130, 158).
his mother was free or slave, the habits of
the central Javanese nobility make it quite However, Muslims in Southeast Asia
likely that she was a free concubine. might also turn to the sharia in dealing
with matters of concubinage. This is clear
Even in the case of servile concubines, from a 1892 collection of Meccan fatwas
Southeast Asian men tended to dislike for Southeast Asian believers. Fatwa 34
Islamic legal provisions, preferring to hold explained why the child of a female slave,
such women under adat (Lasker 1950: 32- born as the result of illicit sexual relations
3). The numerous debt slaves of the region with her owner, inherited the mother's
were especially prone to being possessed servile status. Had the mother been a
under customary arrangements, as this legitimate concubine, the child would
category of servility found no place in the have been born free. Fatwa 96 stressed
sharia (Clifford 1913: 122-3, Maxwell that a master had to free a slave if he
1890: 247-8, Thosibo 2002, Ruibing wished to marry her, rather than merely
1937). Moreover, the recourse to custom have her as a concubine (Kaptein 1997:
may have helped in selling concubines to 195).
single non-Muslim Chinese men, which
became big business from the eighteenth In addition, servile concubinage shared
century, as numbers of Chinese certain features typical of Islamdom as a
immigrants swelled (Reid 1983: 27). whole. In late seventeenth century South
Under the sharia such sales would have Sulawesi, jealous free wives whipped their
been frowned upon. Indeed, they would husbands' concubines, or even went so far
technically have been prohibited if the as to murder them. At the same time, by
female slaves in question were Muslims. maintaining inflated harems, masters
denied a family life to unwanted partners
Southeast Asian Muslims also invoked (Gervaise 1971: 83-5, 115-16). Sultans
customary law to evade sharia provisions were especially likely to have excessively
that imposed an equal status on children of large harems, as in Aceh in the sixteenth
concubines (Lasker 1950: 32-3). In Aceh, and seventeenth centuries (Hadi 2004:
where considerable stress was placed on 100). That said, concubines possessed
the maternal line, descendants of their own slaves in northern Borneo in the
concubines retained the 'taint' of slavery 1840s, and were considered to be fairly
for several generations. To avoid this, socially privileged (Low 1968: 144).
people practised birth control or
infanticide, both of which violated the Concubinage survived the imposition of
holy law (Snouck Hurgronje 1906: I, 21-2, colonial rule. Raja Ali, ruler of Riau,
359, Loeb 1972: 230-1). In Lampung, mentioned concubines at least twice in his
South Sumatra, children of concubines extensive correspondence with the Dutch
had to be recognised by their free half- authorities. In 1872, he lamented that his

Eunuchs and Concubines in the History of Islamic Southeast Asia

sex drive was weakening just as he had Even the rank sexual exploitation of
acquired a pretty young gundik (Putten servile women through prostitution was
and Al-Azhar 1995: 41, 115). In the fairly common in Islamic Southeast Asia,
neighbouring Lampung Districts of South although it flouted the strictures of sharia
Sumatra, concubinage was still reported adat, and qanun alike. Thus, servile
during the First World War (Broersma prostitution, “not sanctioned by law or
1916: 76). custom,” flourished in the Malay
Peninsula (Sullivan 1982: 56; see also
Many concubines were imported. Non- Gullick 1958: 103). The same problem
Muslim Chinese girls, mui tsai or anak arose across the straits in Sumatra
beli, were common in Aceh around 1900 (Andaya 1993: 96). Fatwa 127 of the 1892
(Snouck Hurgronje 1906: I, 21). Chinese Meccan collection stressed that female
girls were still being obtained as slaves were not to be sold for fornication
concubines in the interwar years, and were (Kaptein 1997: 204). This was probably to
even re-exported to Arabia (Ingrams 1970: block the common ruse of short-term
26-7; Miers 2003: 268-70). ‘Adoption’ sales, followed by repurchase, which
was frequently used to evade colonial allowed both pimp and customer to remain
legislation restricting this “modern slave within the letter of the holy law (Erdem
trade” (Lasker 1950: 53-5). Indeed 1996: 34-5).
Chinese anak beli continued to be
“adopted” by Muslims in Singapore in the The reform of concubinage in
1950s. They were almost always girls, Islamic Southeast Asia
even if concubinage was no longer
specifically mentioned (Djamour 1965: Authors may have begun to denounce
93, 99-100). concubinage from the early to the mid-
nineteenth century. However, it is not easy
Not all female slaves enjoyed the to interpret tales of immoral concubines
relatively elevated status of concubines, or dating from this period. Such exemplary
even that of household servants. Datu stories had a long pedigree in Islamic
Mandi, of the southwestern Philippines, literature, dating back at least to 'Amr b.
explained to his new American colonial Bahr al-Jahiz of Basra (776-869), and did
masters in 1901 that it was women's not necessarily entail objections to the
agricultural skills that accounted for their institution as such. Over time, though,
high price, not their sexual role (Salman poets and novelists writing in Malay did
2001: 90-1). In seventeenth century South come to reject not only concubinage, but
Sumatra, strong young men for the pepper also polygyny itself, even if the timing of
gardens were most in demand, and female 3
this remains to be established.
slaves were purchased for both sexual and
productive tasks (Andaya 1993: 95-7). In More specifically Islamic strands of
1916, things had not changed much in the reform became evident from the late
Lampung Districts (Broersma 1916: 73-5). nineteenth century, reflecting
developments in the Middle East. A
Batavia fatwa of the 1880s answered a
My thanks are due to Mulaika Hijjas for
drawing my attention to this text.
Mulaika Hijjas, personal communication.

MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, Special Issue No.14, 2007

query about the legality of purchasing Tjokroaminoto, who read English but not
under-age Chinese girls as concubines Arabic, was probably more influenced by
from Chinese dealers in Singapore. The South Asian reformers than by those of the
mufti stressed that concubinage was only Middle East. He was close to Lahori
valid with a pubescent woman, who was a Ahmadi missionaries, who entered Java
Muslim, or a “person of the book.” No from South Asia in 1924, preaching a
under-age child could legally convert to sectarian form of Islam. They had
Islam by making the profession of the resolutely opposed servile concubinage
faith. As for marriage to a pre-pubescent since 1914, although it is not certain how
girl, it was only valid if the child was much of their material was published in
already a Muslim, and the father or legal Indonesia, as they were strenuously
guardian authorised it. A slave trader opposed by the local ulama (Noer 1973:
could not stand in as such (Snouck 103 (n. 3), 150-1).
Hurgronje 1923-24: II, 276-9). The author
of this fatwa was almost certainly Sayyid When and why opinion finally turned
'Uthman b. 'Abdallah b. 'Aqil b. Yahya against concubinage in Islamic Southeast
(1822-1931). Of mixed Hadhrami and Asia is far from certain, but the break may
Egyptian parentage, he had been have been caused more by secular than by
appointed chief mufti of Indonesia by the religious developments. Europeans often
Dutch (Stauth 1992: 74-5). blamed polygyny and concubinage as
major reasons for the moral decline and
The Middle Eastern connection seems to political failure of Islamic societies across
have been important in a growing Islamic the world. Christian missionaries and their
condemnation of concubinage. A letter allies bracketed these 'social ills' with
from Singapore in 1922, addressed to the female seclusion and ease of divorce
Egyptian reformist journal al-Manar, (Hardy 1972: 99). The drift into
inquired whether it was legitimate to buy monogamy seems to have been most
Chinese girls as concubines from their precocious among Southeast Asia's secular
families. Rashid Rida, the editor, elites.
answered in the negative (Ghazal 2003).
Sexual mutilation in Islam
Haji Umar Said Tjokroaminoto (1882-
1934), a Javanese aristocrat who headed Islam displayed a strong and persistent
Indonesia's Sarekat Islam from the early bias against mutilating human beings,
1910s, also contributed to the debate as to including slaves. This was sometimes
the legitimacy of slavery and concubinage. justified by referring to 4:118 in the
He was unusual among Indonesia's Qur’an, condemning those who “cut off
political leaders in taking a modernist the cattle's ears ... and ... alter God's
stance against slavery, denounced in a creation.” However, some scholars
pamphlet first published in 1924, and restricted their interpretation of this verse
frequently republished thereafter to animals.
(Tjokroaminoto 1950: 32-3). In newspaper
articles of 1921 and 1929, he further Circumcision was the main exception to
reprimanded Javanese nobles for their not mutilating humans, but female
traditional practice of kidnapping “good- circumcision, or clitoridectomy, was
looking women of common stock.” patchily practised across Islamdom, and

Eunuchs and Concubines in the History of Islamic Southeast Asia

had little scriptural backing. It was not Nevertheless, Caliph Mu'awiya (r. 661-
mentioned in the Qur'an, and the traditions 680) was said to have allowed the keeping
cited in its favour were weak and suspect of eunuchs (Ayalon 1999: 66). This
(Awde 2000: 126, 192, 199, Netton 1992: apparent contradiction resulted from a
147). It was custom that underpinned loophole in the holy law. No canonical
female circumcision, including in the text clearly forbade the purchase of infidel
Arabian Peninsula, so that “the more slaves emasculated by infidels, especially
careful legists could not regard it as fully those who dwelled beyond the limits of
binding” (Hodgson 1974: I, 324). the abode of Islam. Whereas a Muslim
Infibulation was even less common. emasculating a believer remained strictly
Moreover, there was no particular mention prohibited, obtaining infidel servile
of slaves in regard to either of these eunuchs by purchase and tribute was
customs. generally held to be licit (Brunschvig
1960: 26, 33).
Removing the foreskin of the penis was
clearly much more securely established in Like concubines, eunuchs could rise high
Islamic tradition. Although it found no in the social order. They were trusted as
mention in the Qur’an, male circumcision officials, because they could have no heirs
became a major marker of Muslim status, (Juynboll 1912, Meinardus 1969, Hambly
and reliable traditions took it back to 1974, Marmon 1995). Originally
Ibrahim or Abraham (Netton 1992: 147). employed to watch over harems, they
From the Jewish Torah came not only the became involved in palace administration,
divine command to circumcise free males, and in turn came to run many Muslim
but also the order to extend the practice to states (Toledano 1984). Caliph al-Amin
the slaves of the household, both believing also created three corps of military
and unbelieving. eunuchs, on Chinese lines, in the early
ninth century, but his successors did not
In contrast, the much more serious follow his example (Pipes 1981: 142,
operation of cutting off the male scrotum, 145).
with or without the penis, was clearly
prohibited, at least when free believers One particularly exalted group of eunuchs
were the victims of such an operation. The guarded the holiest locations of Islam
dire consequences of the process told from the eighth century, the Prophet's
against it. For every successfully castrated tomb in Medina and the great mosque of
male, up to nine others died, and survivors Mecca. This was because they could deal
endured complex physical and mental with both male and female pilgrims,
consequences for the rest of their lives without fear of the consequences of sexual
(Hogendorn 2000; Meinardus 1969; mixing (Marmon 1995). However, Jalal
Millant 1908). Traditions told of the al-Din al-Suyuti (d.1505), a great Egyptian
Prophet teaching that, “he is not of my scholar, inveighed against employing
people who makes another a eunuch or eunuchs in the sacred places of Islam,
becomes so himself,” and that, “whoever considering that this was an unauthorised
castrates a slave, him also shall we innovation (Tounsy 1845: 269-70).
castrate” (Hunwick 1992: 21; Hughes
1885: 110; Juynboll 1912: 584). Sharia-minded distaste for emasculation
was heightened by the homosexual abuse

MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, Special Issue No.14, 2007

of slaves, for castration served to preserve with hardly any knowledge of the faith
a “boyish and beardless appearance” in could claim to be Muslims on these
youths (Sourdel at al. 1965: 1082; grounds. Female circumcision was less
Hodgson 1974: II, 145-6). Despite a common, but Dayak slave girls from the
flagrant breach of holy law, sexual interior of Borneo were routinely
relations with slave boys, whether eunuchs circumcised, as part of their conversion to
or not, were often tolerated in Islamdom. Islam (Low 1968:119).
Indeed, some Barbary corsairs in North
Africa kept veritable harems of 'male Europeans reported eunuchs as numerous
concubines' (Clissold 1977: 42-3). Even in Southeast Asia, using the Portuguese
the prostitution of eunuchs was denounced term capados. However, they did not
in Lucknow in 1855 (Millant 1908: 205). make it clear where these eunuchs came
from, or who did the emasculation. In
As with concubines, outright opposition particular, early sixteenth century Java
was slow to emerge, even if pious ulama contained many of these gelded men
and reforming monarchs tried to restrict (Hambly 1974: 125-6).
the phenomenon within a strict
interpretation of the law (Winter 1992: 43- The most notorious example of the use of
4, Hambly 1974, Hodgson 1974: II, 144). eunuchs came from Aceh's court in the
Around 1900, Arabs keen to shake off sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which
Ottoman rule blamed their Turkish was heavily influenced by Persian and
masters: 'The eunuch is contrary to Islam, Mughal models. The palace alone was
its principles, and its ethics. Did our thought to contain 150 in 1607 (Siegel
blessed Prophet need eunuchs? ... But who 1978: 38). Beaulieu, in Aceh in 1619-22,
ignores that the Turks have long since estimated the total number at around 500,
wandered from the straight path of Islam though he noted that Aceh was not typical
to follow a tortuous trail which will of Malay courts in this respect. In 1637,
eventually make them, if they are not Aceh even boasted a corps of horsed
careful, blind schismatics, unworthy of the eunuch guards (Lombard 1967: 81, 97,
religious and political preponderance that 138, 148, 230). The power of eunuchs
they have desired to exercise over the sons came from their ability to penetrate the
of Islam?' (Millant 1908: 203). A congress harem, and their employment by sultans as
of Islamic scholars, held in Egypt in 1908, trusted officials and traders. Under the
pronounced that the sharia prohibited not famous four queens of Aceh, reigning up
only the making but also the owning of to 1699, the administrative role of eunuchs
eunuchs, although this ruling was continued to be noted by European visitors
contested (Zambaco 1911: 36-8). (Hadi 2004: 99-101; Andaya 2001: 55-9).

Sexual mutilation in Islamic Europeans no longer reported on eunuchs

Southeast Asia after this time, however, and this absence
seems to have been general across all of
Male circumcision was universally Islamic Southeast Asia. Eighteenth-
practiced in Southeast Asia from the century Malay texts did still on occasion
earliest times. Indeed, together with refer to sida-sida, but these allusions had
abstinence from pork, this became the apparently become formulaic, with the
main outward sign of conversion. Peoples

Eunuchs and Concubines in the History of Islamic Southeast Asia

term coming to mean court officials rather Conclusion

than eunuchs (Andaya 2001: 57).
Much work remains to be done to
The reasons for this atypically early understand how Islamic attitudes to
abandoning of eunuchs remain to be sexuality and slavery evolved, especially
unearthed. The withering away of in the mutilation and sexual exploitation
castration may have reflected a resurgence of slaves. Indonesian Muslim intellectuals
of Hindu beliefs, notably in Java, with a took up the issue of slavery from the
horror of mutilating the body and 1970s, as part of a more general set of
circumscribing human sexuality. reflections on the nature of freedom under
Moreover, slavery as a whole declined in the autocratic Suharto regime. However,
Java from the seventeenth century, their writings demonstrated three striking
although the same could not be said of the characteristics. Firstly, the main authors,
Outer Islands. all men, ignored the sexual aspects of
slavery. Secondly, their examples of
Alternatively, Southeast Asia maintained servitude were never drawn from the
privileged religious connections with the region itself, but from the Middle East or
Arab world, where a dislike for eunuchs South Asia. Thirdly, there was no mention
gradually developed, contrasting with the of predecessors in the region criticizing
Turkic, Persian and African cultural zones. the servile estate. Indeed, there was a
Occasional prohibitions of castration by surprisingly abstract and theoretical tone
Ottoman and Mughal emperors may have to this whole debate, conducted on the
found an echo, although it remains to be level of religious and philosophical
explained why Southeast Asians might investigation, rather than historical
have been so much more rigorous in awareness (Abdillah 1997, Maarif 1985:
enforcing such bans, and why they might 168-70).
have refused to import ready-made
eunuchs from unbelievers. Most intriguing is the precocious
disappearance of eunuchs. This was
The disappearance of castrated slaves probably unique in the annals of
certainly did not imply the ending of the Islamdom, with the possible exception of
homosexual exploitation of slave boys and Hui Muslims in China, and yet it was
youths. Aceh was especially notorious for apparently not the result of any fatwa or
these practices, with Nias dancing boys, clearly reasoned religious objection.
aged from 8 to 12 at purchase, highly Moreover, while the case of Aceh in the
prized (Snouck Hurgronje 1906: I, 21, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has
361; Tholson 1880: 47-8). In the initial attracted much attention, far less is known
stages of the Aceh War of 1873 against about eunuchs in other areas. Even in the
the Dutch, “paederasty” was one of the case of Aceh, the origins of eunuchs, and
deeply rooted abuses of the holy law that how they came to be castrated, remain to
Habib Abdurrahman Zahir, a Hadhrami be elucidated.
Arab Islamic reformer, attempted to stamp
out (Snouck Hurgronje 1906: I, 161). Opposition to concubinage did surface
here and there in Islamic Southeast Asia,
but how and why this occurred is still
rather shadowy. In particular, the role of

MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, Special Issue No.14, 2007

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