Sex, Wine, and Animals: The Caprices of the Caliphs

Sex, Wine, and Animals: The Caprices of the Caliphs

According to Muslim scholars, “If the caliph is to become utterly mad after being installed, the legitimacy for his leadership shall be null and void.” In other words, there is only one ground on which a caliph in Islam may be impeached, namely, “utter madness.”

Islamic history is replete with the stories of caliphs whose lives and habits are not considered righteous according to Islam itself. But since Islam forbids rebellion against caliphs, we see that some of them followed their whims and desires to the fullest extent. After Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi installed himself as the new caliph of the Muslims, it is worthwhile to recall the “caprices” of some of the ancient Muslim caliphs. We hope this may help us predict what Baghdadi might have in mind after he has consolidated his power.

These stories are insightful despite the question marks surrounding their authenticity and credibility. Sources have been crosschecked with their printed counterparts, without delving into the historical disagreements regarding the reliability of their content or their narrators.

Yazid bin Muawiya – 647-683 CE

One of the most controversial caliphs in Islamic history, Yazid was the son of the first Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah bin Abi Sufian. He is at the center of many disputes among most denominations of Islam, including the Sunnis, who avoid discussing his legacy. Yazid has been accused of killing Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, and laying siege to Ibn al-Zubayr, in addition to many other incidents at the beginning of the Umayyad period. But his political history is not what is at issue here.

Yazid was known for having kept monkeys, dogs, and leopards. In fact, one of his monkeys was called Abu Qays. The caliph was also an alcoholic drunkard. When the people of Medina rebelled against him and elected another, he attacked the Kaaba, the holiest place for Muslims, with a catapult. It was also said that singing and various kinds of entertainment had first spread in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina during his reign. Yazid wrote one of the most famous Arabic love poems, “Avenge my blood from the scarfed lady,” which sums up his whims and desires. Some of its verses include:

Were it not for my fear of God
I would have embraced her
Between the holy places
I would have kissed her
Ninety-nine kisses
I would have taken her hand in mine
And would have kissed her lips
I would have become hers
And she mine, even if it were forbidden

Walid bin Yazid – 706-744 CE

Walid bin Yazid was the twelfth Umayyad caliph. Walid differs from Yazid in that he completely defied both divine and secular powers, and had boundless desires. In addition to his love for drinking, singing, and music, he explicitly engaged in “sin.”

Many stories are told about him. Once, it is told, he wanted to perform the pilgrimage only so he can get drunk near the Kaaba. It is also said that he lured his brother to sin.

Walid did not have respect for anything, not even for the sacred. Stories told about him are almost unbelievable. However, they cannot all be dismissed. One time, he allegedly asked a concubine to get into disguise and lead people in prayer. In another story he made a pool of wine and swam in it. He even composed poems questioning Mohammad as a prophet.

Al-Amin – 787-813 CE

The Abbasid Caliph al-Amin descends from a long line of caliphs. Both his father Harun al-Rashid and brother al-Maamun were caliphs. Despite his dispute with the latter, and al-Maamun’s siege and eventual slaying of al-Amin, he still managed to lead an unusual life, relatively to his predecessors.

Again, there are many stories about Harun al-Rashid and al-Maamun and the events that took place in their time. However, what sets Caliph al-Amin apart are the several accounts of his homosexual tendencies. In the stories about al-Amin, for example, he is known for his liaisons with a man named Kawthar, about whom the caliph composed poems, including the verse:

[…]
Kawthar is my life and afterlife
My ailment and my medicine
[…]

It is said that when al-Maamun laid siege to Baghdad to overthrow his brother al-Amin, Kawthar was wounded in his face. The caliph rushed to tend to his wounds, crying: “They struck the apple of my eye for my sake. May God avenge my heart from the people who burned him.”

Al-Amin could not escape from the lewd Abbasid poet Abu Nawas. One story has the two men swimming together in a pool after drinking wine. Al-Amin wanted to kill Abu Nawas, but the poet plead with him with a poem:

Killer of innocent men
Seizer of kings’ glory
What is the way to kiss you?
God knows that I am fond of you
That I desire you
Though I evade you
[…]

Al-Mu'tadid – 854-902 CE

Al-Mu’tatid is one of the most brutal Abbasid caliphs. He cemented the foundations of the Abbasid state and fought the Qarmatians. His policies were particularly brutal however. He was a bold man taking part in many wars. His biography is one of a statesman who preserved his country, for which he earned the title of the “Lion of the Caliphs.”

Yet, al-Mu’tatid was also known for a habit that would be the cause of his death. There are accounts about his pathological obsession with sex, and his famous love for a concubine named Dureira, to whom he gifted an orchard for her to play and sing in, though he would later order it to be destroyed. It is said that he died because of his overindulgence in carnal pleasures and unhealthy eating habits, with one story claiming that he would only eat fish and olives before his death.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – 2014-present

The first caliph of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” had split from al-Qaeda. Now, he is working on expanding his state in the region. Little is known about Baghdadi’s personal life given how recently his “reign” had begun, but what we can infer from his fatwas so far is his odd relationship with animals. One fatwa issued by his state requires cows’ udders to be covered. In addition, it seems that the caliph is fond of stylishness and luxury timepieces.

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