A Muslim RuPaul At The Dawn Of Islam: Tuwais and the Mukhannathun

A mukhannath who had dyed his hands and feet with henna was brought to the Prophet. He asked: What is the matter with this man? He was told: Apostle of Allah! He affects women’s get-up. So he ordered regarding him, and he was banished to an-Naqi’. The people said: Apostle of Allah! Should we not kill him? He said: I have been prohibited from killing people who pray. Abu Usamah said: Naqi’ is a region near Medina and not a Baqi (in other words not referring toJannat al-Baqi’ cemetery.) 

Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 41, Number 4910: Narrated (by) Abu Hurayrah

In the translated news services from the Muslim world, there are periodic reports of mass arrests of LGBTQ people. Some of these reports refer to “gay men,” others say “gay men and trans women.” Sometimes, buried deep, is the word “mukhannathun.”

Mukhannathun – and singular mukhannath – has been translated as “gay,” “queer,” even “third gender,” and none of these are wrong, per se. However, there’s a history behind the word that’s much richer.

It all starts with hadith.

Part I: The Hadith

So, Islam 101: Muslims are commanded to follow both Allah (Arabic for “the God”) and the Prophet Muhammad (P)*. Easy enough when someone’s alive, but how do you follow someone after their death? That’s when you turn to hadith.

A hadith, simply put, is an account of something the Prophet Muhammad (P) did , said, or approved/disapproved of. It can be anywhere from a single sentence or several pages. I’ve even included one at the top of the article.

Oh, and the plural of hadith is hadith. So, it’s “a hadith” singular, “these hadith” plural, etc.

Like the Gospels, only the Book of Luke is several volumes long and grouped by subject matter. (via wordyou.ru)

Anyway – while these hadith were initially circulated by word-of-mouth (as was the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran), over time, they were collected and written down. Scholars would spend decades travelling across the Muslim world, listening to as many hadith as they could, before finally writing them down. There are literally dozens of these collections. Each one contains thousands of hadith.

These collections aren’t monolithic, either. Some are considered more reliable than others (same goes for individual hadith). Also, some sects of Islam will only follow certain collections.

But, together, these collections make up the backbone of Muslim law. Just about all opinions by scholars rely on hadith in one form or another.

It’s almost impossible not to, considering their breadth and scope. While hadith are tightly focused, they cover a broad range of subjects. In these collections you see accounts of the Final Days, milestones in Islamic history, even snippets of the day to day like of Muslims at the time.

You also see mukhannathun.

Part II: Takan/Mukhannath/Mukhannathun

The word mukhannathun is tricky. It translates, roughly, to ‘men with the qualities of women.’ Conversely, you can refer to the ‘quality’ itself, and say someone has takan (think ‘swag’). And, to answer your question, its FAAB equivalent is mutarijjalun: women with the qualities of men. It’s commonly translated as ‘tomboy’.

This of course, raises more questions than answers. How do you define men? Women? Qualities? For Muslims, these aren’t thought exercises. As I said before, hadith are the backbone of Muslim law. Even a single word can drastically change opinions and attitudes.

It’s also difficult to interpret the Prophet’s (P) opinion of them. The hadith I quoted is a perfect example. I‘ve heard Muslims cite it as proof of Prophet Muhammad (P) ridding Islam of gay influence. Other Muslims claim it shows the Prophet Muhammad (P) saving the life of a queer Muslim while setting up a safe space.

Sigh. There are entire universities that do nothing but debate and interpret hadith. At this point, your interpretation will only say more about your own biases than those of the Prophet (P).

Instead of looking at intentions, it’s much more useful to look at the effects. For example: whether or not an-Naqi’ was intended as a safe haven, it sure functioned as one. It allowed mukhannathun to live and work without fear of reprisal.

Also, according to hadith, falsely accusations are a punishable offense. This includes mukhannathun.

Now, we can go back and forth about whether this constitutes a ban on homophobia or proof that takan is so bad it’s not to be taken lightly. But it is interesting how these words have developed as opposed to say, ‘gay’ or ‘queer’. While the latter have been used to derisively against all forms of deviance and non-conformity, mukhannath only refers to someone male-assigned and feminine. It’s certainly used derisively, but it’s a very specific insult.

“Out of smokes? That’s so takhan.” – said no one ever. (via iappsofts.com)

As we’ll see, this has had a dramatic impact on trans* rights throughout Muslim history. In fact, you can see these effects only a generation later.

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Maryam has written 6 articles for us.


  1. This was a very interesting article. I have to say I have learned a lot. Thank you, Miriam

  2. I don’t know who picks those things but the picture for this article on the autostraddle tumblr is a photo of a stone relief from Persepolis which is from ancient Persia and has nothing to do with Islam.

    I appreciate that autostraddle tries to be less monocultural about stuff, but maybe don’t lump all non North American things together?

    • Also I usually just avoid most articles that try and ~reconcile~ religion (especially Islam) with queerness. I mean, more power to you, I’m all support, but I have so many issues and terrible experiences directly linked with growing up Muslim that personally I want to distance myself from religion in all forms as much as possible.

      (For isntance, do you know how fun it is to hear this -http://sunnah.com/abudawud/34/79- hadith as a 9 year old girl who still has faith and has worn boy’s clothes ever since she could choose them herself? You can argue about interpretation and context, but what I got from it was that god hated me because I was wrong and weird.)

      I’m sorry, I’m not trying to start a whole… thing. It’s late and I shouldn’t comment on things when I’m tired and feelings-y.

      • “do you know how fun it is to hear this -http://sunnah.com/abudawud/34/79- hadith as a 9 year old”

        Yes, I do. It’s a big part of the reason I didn’t transition earlier.

        I’m not trying to “reconcile” faith and queerness (or trans*ness in this case). There’s nothing to reconcile: this is how Allah created me. What I wanted to show is how early Muslims applied these teachings when dealing with gender variant people.

        For instance, did you know that the Prophet didn’t curse the mukhannathun until one offered to play matchmaker to the brother of one of the Prophet’s wives?


        Not to mention, another version of the story makes reference to the Qu’ran, and implies that mukhannathun are allowed in women’s spaces under certain circumstances.


        Of course, that doesn’t get brought up when mentioning gender variance in the Islamic tradition. It complicates the picture of mukhannathun being constantly persecuted by the Prophet (P) and his descendants.

        The actual picture is a lot more complex, and that complexity needs to get discussed, especially in relation to queer and trans* Muslims today.

  3. Woow this will be a long reply, but not now. It is 4 am where I live and looking at my present state, I will surely be asleep in less than a minute . However, I couldn’t but read, twice, your article. To put it in an overly stark request: can you please list and re-consider your references? Especially when it comes to the Arabic words as you are referring to a language most readers here are completely unfamiliar with. Trust.

    To start with the most banal, the least problematic :
    “Hadīth/ḥadīṯ” Does have a plural form, and it is “aḥādīth”.

    I will continue tomorrow. I wish finding an Arabic word for “queer” was as simple as that.

    P.S. : I am a queer native Arabic speaker with a BA in Comparative Linguistics

    • Hello,

      My references are included as links in the essay itself. My main reference is “The Effeminates of Early Medina” by Everett K. Rowson, it’s supplemented by other English language accounts of early Islamic music.

      As for “hadith”: I based that on how I’ve heard it used colloquially in my surrounding environment. My understanding was that “aḥādīth” translated to “the hadith”, so in English, you’d still say “the hadith”, “these hadith”, etc.

      Thanks for your reply. I’m interested to hear the rest. Sweet dreams!

  4. This was super interesting, thanks Miriam! My education was so damn eurocentric, I wish I could go back and focus on a wider variety of cultural histories. Also had no idea about the high number of GRS done in Iran.

  5. Very informative article! I’ve always found the intersection of religion and queer issues to be really interesting.

    And also, on a completely unrelated note, when reading the about the author blurb at the very end, I misread “bios” as “bois.” Multiple times. Whelp, that’s not super queer or anything haha.

    • Same, I read bios as bois. wishful thinking and all that. Thanks for posting this, its inspiring to know that there have been communities alive and feisty despite being part of a society which has fundamentalist and liberal groups to it. I appreciate you showing me the connections of queer rebels in the past. Kewl.

  6. Wow, this was one of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a long time. Are there any good books on Tuwais? I’d really love to hear more about this subject and I love reading all of your articles.

  7. Really nice to read this! (I signed up just to comment.) Wondered if you ever read Afsaneh Najmabadi? She wrote “Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity” which is I thought was well-awesome. Also has a new book out soon, “Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran”.

    Selam from Berlin.

  8. Brain too sunburned for eloquence, so: I really enjoyed this, and also am filing it away for Writing Reference.

    Also also, this article really makes the case for using actual numbered footnotes and not doing the asterisk mambo.

  9. So confused as to why historical gender-variant people are being described as transmisogynist drag queens in the title.

    • It’s only transmisogynist to refer to someone as a drag queen when they identify as female. Tuwais, the RuPaul in question, identified as male.

      • Ru Paul is a widely known transmisogynist. I asked why Tuwais was being referred to as someone who is a transmisogynist, not a drag queen in general.

    • also at this point it is moot. whether one uses a critically obsolete device of thought correctly or not has zero practical relevance, only academic. And someone academically interested in that bit of history would know ‘dq’ is oversimplification. Meanwhile someone interested in practicalities of life is better off using contemporary conceptual apparatus, that of the hegemony – which has outclassed all historical/alternative options by powers of 10 in every parameter – precision, degrees of freedom, individual approach…

      one can hate me for defending global civilisation and hegemony – but it is not like i think that without reason. The pivotal moment for me was learning about Thailand – one of the historically and traditionally most ‘advanced’ places. Now tell me this – in a window of time (90s) when medical technology there surpassed technology of surveillance and records (they had no electronic citizen database, only their analogue of parish books) why did many women, notably countryside women with no Western influences at all, seize the moment and without a second thought immediately choose the path we generally consider ‘Western’, one of medical technology coupled with information management – and a binary understanding of themselves? Coincidence? Magic?

  10. Issues of Mukhannis in Science & Islam
    Some Muslim scholars have written about the division of gender in Islam in four groups:
    3.Hermaphrodites (khunsa) and
    4.Mukhannis or Mukhannas.
    Mukhannis are biological males who identify as female and want a change of their biological sex.
    Mukhannas are biological males who (would like to) assume a female gender role but do not wanr a change of their biological sex (Teh). The terms khunsa, mukhannis or mukhannas are not mentioned in the Qur’an.
    Now Mukhannis are those biological males who identify as female and want a change of their biological sex.
    Most of the ulmmas said that kahunas (Hermaphrodite) are allowed to get sex change operation because they have visible both sexual organs of male and female but again they can chose anyone according to their orientation i.e., if their brain say that they are females they are allowed to get rid of their male sex organ and vice versa. But according to ulmas Mukhannis are not allowed for sex change because they don’t have visible both sex organs but now it is proved At PRINCE HENRY’S INSTITUTE in a genetic study on male-to-female transsexuals i.e., Mukhannis . The scientist identified a genetic association between the certain polymorphisms in the androgen receptor gene and male-to-female transsexualism.

  11. I know this comment is a few years late, but I think that the bit about the combination of meter and rhythm has to do with Arabic prosody. Classical Arabic poetry has a number of well-defined meters (based on the length of the syllables, not the stress), and when read or recited each tends to have a recognizable rhythm. So matching a song in a certain meter with a rhythm that doesn’t already go with it would indeed be a skill! I hope this answers your question.

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