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).
While asexuality as an identity is inclusive of sexual activity, libido, sex-favorability, desire for sex, and sexual fantasy and masturbation (indeed, the majority of aces have at least one of these characteristics), aces who have low sexual desire and who are not interested in sex are the most likely to appear different from the norm and thus to be “visible” or distinct when looking at sexuality (the Asexuality Identification Scale developed by sex researchers appears to take the same approach).
For this reason, I believe that using lack of sexual desire or lack of interest in sex as a proxy for asexuality is a good starting place when looking to identify potentially asexual individuals, especially in pre-modern times. More work may be needed to locate potentially asexual people who were sex-favorable.
Letting potentially asexual people speak for themselves
When looking at historical figures (or fictional characters, for that matter), it can be tempting to consider anybody who does not seem to have married or had relationships as potentially asexual. Perhaps many of them were.
However, I believe that we should let potentially asexual people speak for themselves whenever possible. For this reason, my study focuses on two women who made statements to others which were recorded for posterity that they did not did not have sexual feelings for others, or did not experience sexual desire, or were not interested in sex.
Yes, such statements have been recorded in source texts on early Islam. The potential of asexuality is there in history when you know to look for it. Let’s look at the evidence for each of the two women in question.
Sawda bint Zam’a
Sawda lived in the 7th century CE in what is now Saudi Arabia. Her birth date is unknown but she was probably born in Mecca. She died in Medina in 674 CE. She is best known as one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. She had been married previously then was widowed. After the Prophet was widowed as well, he sought a new wife to help him take care of his four young daughters, and this was how he married Sawda. They subsequently migrated from Mecca to Medina, where Sawda lived the rest of her life.
Because of her position as a wife of the Prophet, Sawda’s life is recorded in a number of sources. The evidence we will consider here is from Kitab at-Tabiqat al-Kubra, by Muhammad ibn Sa’d (784-845 CE), which is the earliest surviving collection of biographies of the Prophet and of the early generations of Muslims. Book Eight of this text features biographies of female companions of the Prophet, including Sawda. These biographies have been translated into English by Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani and Laleh Bakhtiar and presented in Encyclopedia of Muhammad’s Women Companions and the Traditions They Related.
A discussion of Sawda’s sexuality appears in several reports listed on page 411 of Encyclopedia of Muhammad’s Women Companions. There are three reports which are very similar to each other and describe the same incident.
Numan ibn Tahbit at-Taymi relates that the Messenger of God said to Sawda bint Zam’a, “Begin a waiting period.” She waited for him on his way in the night and said to him that she did not have any desire for men, but she wanted to be raised up among his wives, so for him to reconsider and take her back. The Messenger of God took her back.
Mamar relates that he heard that the Messenger wanted to divorce Sawda. She spoke to him about it, saying that she had no urge for a husband, but that she wanted God to raise her up as his wife on the Day of Judgment.
The reference to the waiting period in the first report is an indication that the Prophet wished to divorce Sawda, which is made explicit in the second report. The third report adds a bit of detail that has important consequences in Islamic jurisprudence.
Qasim ibn Bazza relates that the Prophet sent to Sawda about divorcing her. When he came to her, she waited on his way by Aisha’s room. When she saw him, she asked why he wanted to divorce her. She thought that perhaps he had ill feelings towards her. The Messenger said that this was not so. She then begged him not to divorce her. She said she knew she was old and had no need of men, but she wanted to be raised up among his wives on the Day of Judgment. The Messenger took her back. She said to him that she had given her day and night to Aisha.
The mention of “her day and night” refers to the way that the Prophet balanced his time among his multiple wives. He would rotate among the wives, spending a day and a night with each one in turn. Sawda giving her day and night to another wife means that she and the Prophet would no longer have a sexual relationship but that he could turn to another of his wives to satisfy his sexual needs.
This same incident has been reported in several other sources. The most authoritative of these is a hadith in the collection of Tirmidhi:
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: Sawda feared that the Prophet was going to divorce her, so she said: “Do not divorce me, but keep me and give my day to Aisha.” So he did so, and the following was revealed: “Then there is no sin on them both if they make terms of peace between themselves, and making peace is better” (4:128). So whatever they agree to make peace in something then it is permissible.
This hadith reports the basic facts of the situation and also explains why its history has been preserved - it is connected with a verse of the Quran and helps to explains its meaning. In this context, it is permissible for a married couple to discontinue their sexual relationship if this makes peace between them.
The traditional commentary on Quran 4:128 again features Sawda’s story but presents it in a different light. In his commentary, ibn Kathir (d. 1373 CE) writes:
In the first case, when the wife fears that her husband is steering away from her or deserting her, she is allowed to forfeit all or part of her rights, such as provisions, clothing, dwelling, and so forth, and the husband is allowed to accept such concessions from her... [I]t refers to, "A man who is married to an old woman, and he does not desire her and wants to divorce her. So she says, `I forfeit my right on you.'...
What is most striking to me here is that Sawda’s story is now presented entirely from a male point of view and some rather sweeping rules derived from it.
Taken by itself, 4:128 could mean that any kind of negotiated agreement that brings peace between two spouses is acceptable. The reports in ibn Sa’d suggest that the cause of the dispute, and of the Prophet’s inclination to divorce Sawda, was her lack of interest in sex. In talking to him, she acknowledges this and indicates that it will not change. She offers a solution that gives him what he wants (i.e., sex) through another means.
By contrast, ibn Kathir seems to imply that the Prophet wished to divorce Sawda for no reason at all, or because he didn’t find her attractive, and that she “bought him off” by surrendering something that she is entitled to (i.e., sex). Having limited 4:128 to this very narrow interpretation, ibn Kathir then claims that “making peace” consists entirely and only of a woman giving up her rights, including to things she would need like food, clothing, and housing, to “appease” her husband. None of this is supported by Sawda’s story.
This is a perfect example of how patriarchal interpretations of Islamic textual sources limit women’s rights in ways that the original texts did not do.
It is also worth noting that the traditional commentary reflects a patriarchal assumption that women have non-autonomous sexuality. If the husband wants sex, then she willingly participates, but if he doesn’t, then she is assumed not to have any feelings or needs of her own. Here, the question is Sawda’s age.
Two of the three reports in ibn Sa’d do not indicate any reason for Sawda’s lack of sexual desire. The third mentions her age with the implication that her lack of desire is due to her post-menopausal state. Yet ibn Kathir presents her as being undesirable to men due to her advanced age and he seems to assume that if she is not desirable to others, she experiences no desire herself. Her own emotions and lived experiences become irrelevant (for more on this, see here and here).
The reports in ibn Sa’d, which are among the earliest sources we have available on Sawda’s life, help us to recover an understanding of Sawda as an autonomous woman with agency. Rather than the patriarchal vision of elderly women as disposable, we see Sawda taking the initiative to renegotiate the terms of her marriage in a way that works better for her given her unique circumstances.
Was Sawda potentially asexual? It would seem that she may at least have experienced a fluid asexuality during a later period of her life. What may be more important is that, whatever the reason for her lack of interest in sex, she can serve as a model for asexual Muslim women who are married or who seek marriage but who are not interested in sex. (In fact, I have already used her as an example of this in my own writings.)
Rabi’a bint Isma’il
Rabi’a probably lived in the late 8th century and early 9th century CE. Neither her birth date nor her death date are known, but we know that her husband, Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari, died in 845 CE so we can guess that she lived around that time. She lived in Damascus in what is now Syria. Rabi’a was a Sufi mystic who had learned this path from Hukayma of Damascus. Hukayma and Rabi’a seem to have been part of a larger circle or school of female Sufis who lived in Damascus at this time and who held gatherings for discussion and teaching. Rabi’a was independently wealthy. After marrying Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari, who was a prominent Sufi master in Damascus, she supported him and his students with her money and served as their patron. Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari is the source for most of the information we have about the Sufi women of early Damascus.
Rabi’a’s story appears in two biographical collections of Sufi women, Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta’abbidat as-Sufiyyat by Abu Abd ar-Rahman as-Sulami (d. 1021 CE) and Sifat as-Safwa by Abu’l-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1201 CE). The evidence we will explore here is taken from Sifat as-Safwa, which is based on Dhikr an-Niswa but with additional information taken from sources we no longer have access to. The entire text of Dhikr an-Niswa along with selected biographies from Sifat as-Safwa have been translated into English by Rkia E. Cornell and presented in Early Sufi Women.
A discussion of Rabi’a’s sexuality appears in several reports listed on page 316 of Early Sufi Women.
Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari [d. 845 CE] said... She said to me: “I do not love you in the way that married couples do; instead, I love you [with] the love of siblings...”
Here, Rabi’a explains her own feelings. The reference to love could be taken to mean that she was aromantic, but the other reports suggest that what she wanted to avoid was sex.
Ahmad said... She also said to me: “It it not lawful for me to forbid you from myself or another. So go ahead and get married to another woman.” He said: So I married three times.
Rabi’a’s comment “it is not lawful for me to forbid you from myself” refers to the fact that it is considered an act of recalcitrance that needs to be corrected for a wife to refuse sex from her husband. Like Sawda, Rabi’a sought to find another way for her husband to meet his sexual needs, and polygyny is again the solution.
Ahmad said... If I wanted to have sex with her during the day, she would say: “I implore you in the name of God not to make me break my fast today.” And if I wanted her during the night, she would say: “I implore you in the name of God to grant me this night for God’s sake.”
Here we see Rabi’a employing other methods to refuse sex with her husband. In Islam, a fast involves refraining from not only food and drink but also from sex. According to traditional fiqh, a wife is not allowed to engage in voluntary fasts without her husband’s permission as this might potentially deny him from sex (see discussion here). It would appear that Rabi’a did not wait for permission.
It seems that even though Rabi’a had asked her husband to seek sexual satisfaction from other wives, he continued to pursue her for sex, forcing her to actively refuse him through citing her religious observance. He does not seem to have taken any action about her “recalcitrance”, however.
What we primarily understand from Rabi’a’s story is that she was averse to sex and sought to avoid it; however, her comment that she did not have romantic and/or sexual feelings for her husband suggests that she may have been asexual.
Celibacy in general is discouraged in Islam and marriage is strongly preferred. Celibacy in women has never been considered an ideal; while virginity may be prized, this is only prior to marriage. The ideal Muslim woman has always been understood as a wife, and a wife is expected to be sexually available to her husband at all times.
While Rabi’a’s lack of interest in sex could be seen as reflecting that she loved God more than any human being (this is clearly how she chose to present it), her refusal of sex with her husband goes so strongly against how Muslim women are expected to behave that it can hardly have been intended to serve as a model for other women. I would argue that these stories would only have been preserved if they were true.
Was Rabi’a potentially asexual? It seems very likely to me that she was. While Sawda’s story illustrates patriarchal distortions of Islam, Rabi’a’s story highlights the difficulties faced by asexual wives if their husbands are not willing to accept their asexuality. The difference between the Prophet and Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari is rather telling. The Prophet respected his wife’s decision to refrain from sex, Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari did not.
While one should be cautious in drawing generalizations from a sample size of two, the stories of Sawda and Rabi’a highlight that most potentially asexual women in pre-modern times were likely married. In a patriarchal society, it is very difficult for a woman to live independently without male support. If we only look for potential asexuals among those who never married or never had relationships (i.e., were celibate), we may be missing an important part of the story.
At the same time, marriage can be difficult to navigate for an asexual woman due to expectations of a wife’s sexual availability and to the husband’s greater power in the marriage. Polyamory (polygyny in the context of Islam) may be one workable solution, but much still depends on the husband’s character and willingness to respect his wife’s autonomy.
Modern asexual Muslim women (such as myself) may find it safer to remain celibate, thanks to the greater financial independence that women in some cultures can now enjoy. However, for asexual Muslim women who wish to marry, or who have no choice but to do so, the stories of Sawda and Rabi’a may provide useful models.
Biographical collections as a source for Muslim women’s history
Despite the relative brevity of the reports describing Sawda’s and Rabi’a’s sexuality, we have been able to learn quite a lot about each woman’s circumstances - in her own words - and about the context of asexuality in Islam.
The biographical collection (a genre called tabaqat in Arabic) is distinctive to the classical Islamic civilization. It originated from the field of hadith science, allowing scholars to judge the character and truthfulness of narrators who transmitted reports about the Prophet Muhammad. Over time, it seems to have spread to other intellectual disciplines, even mysticism.
These biographical dictionaries have proved to be a surprisingly good source for the history of women in Islam, and contemporary researchers have discovered literally thousands of female scholars and religious authorities whose lives had otherwise been forgotten.
The research detailed in this post suggests that biographical collections may also provide insight into the daily lives of notable Muslim women, even to issues of sexuality. I did not set out to look for potentially asexual woman. Rather I was reading Encyclopedia of Muhammad’s Women Companions and Early Sufi Women out of a general interest in women in Islam and happened to find these reports suggesting the potential of asexuality. Who knows what other reports may still be awaiting rediscovery?
Cornell, Rkia E. Early Sufi Women. Fons Vitae, 1999. Print.
Kabbani, Shakyh Muhammad Hisham, and Laleh Bakthiar. Encyclopedia of Muhammad’s Women Companions and the Traditions they Narrated. ABC International Group, 1998. Print.
Laura (ace-muslim). “Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife.” 2014. Web.
Laura (ace-muslim). “My ‘no’ is not a passive ‘yes’: Patriarchy and the conflation of non-autonomous sexuality with non-sexuality.” 2014. Web.