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.

Part III: Tuwais

While the hadith were being collected by various scholars, others were writing other histories about the Prophet (P) and his Companions (P). These were collected in much the same way. Travelling to different parts of the Muslim world and collecting different accounts. However, unlike Hadith, there was less rigor in what was included. These works are apt to include legends, hearsay, and myths.

As such, they’re not considered a reliable source for Islamic law.

However, they do provide accounts of the mukhannathun, living in Medina and working as street musicians. Unlike the hyper-focus of the hadith, these accounts have more details on the mukhannathun themselves. From them, a picture emerges of a vibrant community with a diverse range of orientations and gender identities.

And at the top of it all was Tuwais.

It’s really hard to describe Tuwais without getting a little wide eyed. He comes off as a mixture of David Bowie and RuPaul.** He was a freed slave of Arwa, mother of Uthman, the Third Caliph. (It’s said he was born the day the Prophet (P) upon him died. Which was the origin of the phrase “unluckier than Tuwais.” Legends.) Sometime in his career, he took a nickname, something only female singers did, changing his name to Tuwais, or ‘little peacock.’

As a singer, Tuwais became renown in Medina and throughout the Gulf. He created a genre of music called, I kid you not, “Perfect Singing,” distinguished by its unique combination of rhythm, melody, and verse.*** He tutored Ibn Surayj, who became famous as the first Muslim singer to successfully combine Persian and Hijaz music. (For what it’s worth, Tuwais was Persian).

And then there was the way he dealt with his detractors. Usually, it was through a mixture of comebacks and humor, entertaining his detractors’ peers while cutting them down. It’s similar to how comedians deal with hecklers today. This didn’t erase his discrimination. At one point, the local governor placed a bounty on his head. Tuwais simply expressed his disappointment at how low it was.

And no one bothered to carry it out. A year later, the governor was replaced by Aban bin Uthman bin Affan, the first biographer of the Prophet (P), and a hadith narrator. He was also tolerant of the mukhannathun, as long as they were practicing Muslims (which, by all accounts, they were). Within a short time, Tuwais had several followers, with their own colorful names: “Morning Nap,” “Shade,” “Candy,” and al-Dalal (translation not found), who had a reputation for mischief.

So who were they? Effeminate men? Trans women? Drag queens/crossdressers? They certainly didn’t have a shared sexuality. Al-Dalal was said to be completely attracted to men. Tuwais, on the other hand, married and had children.

That also might be why Tuwais identified as male. It’s hard to say exactly what caused him to identify one way or another. There’s no one way to be a “male” or “female” so there’s no one way to deviate from that path. Even broad terms like “gender identity” miss the ways in which our own identity is shaped by the culture around us. This is why we have umbrella terms like trans*, and why those terms cover people who don’t “identify” a certain way.

It does no good to try and analyze them with our cultural biases. Plus, I’d like to think they’d scoff at being put in a box.

Part IV: Downfall and Aftermath

The end came under the ruler Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik. **** Some say he was jealous of their attention. Others say the final straw came when al-Dalal seduced both a bride and groom on their wedding night (incidentally, he’d set the couple up).

Regardless, al-Malik called all the mukhannathun to his palace, and ordered their genitals removed.

Their response was a hail of jokes. They dubbed their fate “the Great Circumcision,” held a mock debate about whether it made them “real” women, and laughed about how they weren’t using it anyways. They even gained the sympathy of al-Malik. He eventually called back al-Dalal to personally apologize, and even made him a singer in the royal court.

But the mukhannathun never recovered. And, what’s more, they were seemingly stripped from music. There are no future accounts of mukhannathun as musicians. Their contributions are, for the most part, lost.

In the wake of their demise, Muslims tried to piece together just who they were. Some interpretations made mentions of “innate” gender variance, and even established that mukhannathun could have different orientations.

But many others simply relied on heterosexist notions of gender. Being a woman meant liking men. It meant passive sex. This is why gay men are associated with it.

However, despite these interpretations Muslims were unable to agree on whether or not it was a sin. And, when Muslim armies invaded a land, gender variant cultures were allowed to continue. Some of these cultures exist today, with waria in Indonesia and the hijra in India and Pakistan. Many of them work as street musicians.

And then there’s Iran. Since the 1980s Iranian clerics declared it permissible for ‘diagnosed transsexuals’ to receive gender reassignment. Today, Iran has more gender reassignment surgeries than any country but Thailand. The state will pay half the cost, and create a new birth certificate. There are even clerics to defend it.

But Iran is not progressive on trans* issues. There is a strong correlation between gender identity and sexuality, especially in regards to trans* people. In fact, trans* people still face a lot of discrimination in many of these societies. As they do here and pretty much everywhere else.

But this isn’t another rehash of the troubles our community faces. This is about how people rose above it. The people who, with only a sliver of tolerance, were able to thrive; and the lasting legacy they’ve had around the world.

It’s hard not to feel a sense of familiarity with them. From little birds and candy to rainbows and unicorns. There’s something elementally familiar about the non-normative experience. There’s a joy, a sheer spontaneous joy that comes from finding out who you are, and finding others just like you. I wonder if, as queerness becomes normalized, that joy will be lost.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a worthy trade off. But, until that time, we’re left with a lot unanswered. So we search, for who and what we are. We search for a shared community. We search history for small threads can connect us to our forbearers. Sometimes, those threads go back centuries, spanning across cultures and the globe. The mukhannathun make up one of those threads. I’ll never get over the fact that someone might’ve actually said ‘Haay!’ to the Prophet Muhammad {P}. And that the Prophet {P} would’ve said ‘Salaam’ in return.

The mukhannathun are an inspiration for queer Muslims, and queer non-Muslims alike. They’ve certainly inspired me. One of my first forays into transition involved getting henna to my elbows. Other Muslims offered compliments, oblivious. Somewhere, Tuwais is smiling.

*Muslims (like the author), hold a great amount of respect for the Prophet Muhammed (P). Because of this, whenever we say his proper name or proper title, many of us include the phrase “peace be upon him.” This is shortened to (PBUH) or (P) in written form. My exception to this rule is when I am quoting a source that doesn’t have it.
**Tuwais, despite being “renowned” for his takan, still seemed to identify as male.
*** The exact description is “the application of a rhythm to the melody of the song that was independent of the meter in the song’s verse.” I don’t know what that means. But I’d be really interested to hear what it would sound like.
**** Real talk: Tuwais was said to have been born in 632, and lived 82 years, placing his death in 714. al-Malik ruled from 715- to 716. As rich as these stories are, they need to be taken with a grain of salt.

About the author: Miriam lives and works in Texas, and currently blogs for I Am Not Haraam. She’s not very good with bios.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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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