Return to Born Eunuchs Library

Syed Ameer Ali versus Malcolm Canon MacColl

The following is a synopsis of a dispute that arose in London journals in the fall of 1895, on the question of whether Islam tolerates homosexuality.

A footnote in a hostile review of Syed Ameer Ali's The Spirit of Islam (the review was published anonymously by Malcolm Canon MacColl):

... * "The docrines of the law are in unanimous agreement on the obligation to conform one's actions to what is indicated in the traditions attributed to the Prophet." (Ibn Khaldun, vol. xx, p. 465) No wonder that ibn Khaldun noted, as a characteristic of Mohammedan cities, "the manners of indulging the carnal appetites: fornication was introduced as well as pederasty." (Ibid. p. 305) ...

- Article X, Quarterly Review, Vol. 182 No. 363, July 1895, p. 248 footnote.

From Syed Ameer Ali's reply "Islam and its Critics" (Sept. 1895)

... In considering the reviewer's charge of immorality among some Muslim communities, analogous conditions of life in Christendom must not be ignored. Nineteen centuries of spiritual ministration, with all the assistance of established Churches, with the entire power of the most powerful theocratic organizations the world has ever known, have failed to kill the terrible moral cancer which first found its origin in Greece, thence spread to Rome, and has never ceased to exist since then in Christian countries.[1] ...

[1] It may be said that crimes of this kind are not unknown in Muslim communities, but the horror they inspire is testified to by the penalty of death. The law by its severity may defeat its own purpose, but it serve, [sic] to indicate that the moral sense of the communities regards the crimes as capital.


From "Islam and its Critics: A Rejoinder" written by the "Quarterly Reviewer" (Malcolm Canon MacColl) and appearing in October 1895:

... In my Quarterly article I referred in passing to one of the crying sins of Musulman countries, and quoted an illustrative passage from Ibn Khaldun, in which that distinguished Mohamedan writer and traveller notes, as a characteristic of Musulman cities, "the manners of indulging the carnal appetites: fornication was introduced as well as pederasty." Mr. Ameer Ali retorts with one of his usual tu quoques, and says that "the horror such sins inspire is testified to in Musulman countries by the penalty of death." It is true that some Musulman authorities say that those sins deserve death. It is not true that this is the generally received doctrine, or that it is operative in practice. How could it consistently with the following verse in the Korân? -
"And if two of you commit the like wickedness, punish them both; but if they repent and amend, let them both alone; for God is easy to be reconciled and merciful."

Moreover, if Mr. Ameer Ali will look at the Hedâya,[2] he will see that under the technical name of "the Act of Azil," the sin is actually sanctioned in one of its most revolting forms by the highest authorities in the Musulman world. If, in addition, he will visit the museum in Stamboul, in which wax effigies of different sultans are kept, he will see, as I have seen, a delicate-looking boy by the side of each, with his infamous occupation printed in Turkish on a tablet behind him. So little shame does this fashionable vice excite. I need not pursue the subject further.

[2] Vol. I., p. 167; vol. iv., p. 202. (First edition of Colonel Hamilton's authorised translation.)

Signed "The 'Quarterly Reviewer,'" Fortnightly Review, Vol. 64 No. 346, October 1, 1895, p. 638.

From Syed Ameer Ali's renewed answer "Islam and Canon MacColl" (Nov. 1895)

... The article in the Fortnightly more than suggests that the laws and religion of Islam countenance the most unspeakable vices. It is impossible for me to do more than refute in general terms the broad innuendos contained in the Fortnightly. The writer may have been taught to read the verses of the Quran quoted by him in the sense he suggests. Suffice for me to say that I have never come across an Islamist who placed such a grossly prurient construction upon those words.

However disinclined I am to refer to such distasteful and unsavoury subjects, justice requires that I should give another instance of the writer's animus. In the Hedaya, the word 'izl is used with reference to a certain Malthusian practice. Hamilton erroneously transcribes it as azil,[1] and in his ignorance of the technicalities of Muslim law puts, in a parenthetical sentence, a gross construction on the word. An impartial inquirer having regard to the context would have tried to ascertain the true meaning from some one versed in Muslim law. But our critic, with characteristic uncharitableness, prefers at once a vulgar and disgraceful charge. Honi soit qui mal y pense. Those who wish to know the real signification of the expression will find it in a note in Baillie's Digest. Vol. ii. p. 43, and in my Muhammadan Law Vol. ii. [These sources show the meaning of the word as withdrawal before ejaculation. F.M.]

I have read Ibn Khaldun in the original, but do not remember any such passage as that referred to in the Fortnightly. It is possible, however, it may have escaped my notice. [There is a section of Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah that alleges that homosexual practice develops in sedentary cultures in general when they reach a certain level of comfort, as part of their degeneration. F.M.] I trust that the disgusting matters with which the English press was flooded during the course of a now notorious trial and the universally known prevalence of certain kinds of immorality in Southern Europe, Russia, and generally among Eastern Christians, may not lead any Muslim fanatic to suggest that Christianity countenances such crimes.

I assert again that for certain offences the recognised punishment is death. The difference to which the writer refers as appearing in the Hedaya relates to a wholly different matter, nor does he seem to be aware of the distinction between hadd and ta'zir. ...

[1] There is no such word as azil in the Arabic language; azl, with an aliph, means eternity.


Syed Ameer Ali quoted from a collection of his essays entitled Islamic History and Culture. Delhi: Amar Prakashan, 1981. pp. 28-29, 46-47.