This post explores the stories of two potentially asexual women from early Muslim history, Sawda bint Zam’a (d. 674 CE) and Rabi’a bint Isma’il (probably lived before 845 CE). I discuss how one might identify potentially asexual people who lived before modern ideas of sexual orientation, then present each of the two women, her history, and the evidence for her potential asexuality. I conclude by looking at common themes in these two stories and and at the untapped potential for finding asexual history in Islamic biographical collections.
Identifying Potentially Asexual People
Asexuality as an identity has only existed since around the start of the 21st century; however, it is likely that people who are asexual by orientation (i.e., who do not experience sexual attraction) have always existed. I myself did not know that asexuality was a thing until I was 31, but I existed as asexual without a label long before that. I use the term “potentially asexual” to refer to people who may meet the definition of asexuality but who do not identify as asexual.
How can we identify potentially asexual people who lived earlier in history? This can be especially difficult if the people lived before modern concepts of sexual orientation (which primarily developed during the 1800s in Europe and America). They would not likely have used modern terminology to describe their sexuality, and might not appear to meet the technical definition of asexuality - for instance, if they don’t talk about sexual attraction as a defining characteristic (many people seem even today conflate it with either sexual desire or romantic attraction/love).