The Pleasure Principles

New erotic visions inspired by the ancient Arab world.

In 1886, the Orientalist adventurer and translator Sir Richard Francis Burton introduced the English-speaking world to The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, a 15th-century work of erotic literature by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Nafzawi, who was born in what is now Tunisia. The book aimed to teach readers about the art of flirtation, the names of the sexual organs, impotence, pregnancy, and abortion—but most of all it provided instruction for and lavished praise on the simple enjoyment of sex.

Burton was impressed with what he found to be the Arab world’s focus on pleasing the senses and enjoying the delights of humanity, not just the physicality of sex but everything from incense and music to beautiful textiles. He specifically stated that without the influence of culture from the East, the West would be stuck in the dark ages when it came to women. “The legal status of womankind in Al-Islam is exceptionally high, a fact of which Europe has often been assured although, the truth has not even yet penetrated into the popular brain,” he wrote in an essay accompanying his 1885 translation of The Arabian Nights. “Moslems and Easterns in general,” he added, “study and intelligently study the art and mystery of satisfying the physical woman.”

In this story, London-based photographer Yumna Al-Arashi looks at ways Muslim women have been fetishized and demonized in Western portrayals, from depictions of women in harems as mere concubines, to Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin, to images that sexualize refugees to make them more digestible to a Western audience. In recent decades, Arab movements toward conservatism have left women who wish to speak for their own bodies either too scared to do so or censored completely.

But many of the earliest texts from the Muslim world are celebrations of erotic potential, heterosexual and homosexual stories of love and lust, and sex manuals that emphasize not just male pleasure, but female pleasure as well. (The al-Mughni, an early text of Islamic law, states that a woman may legally leave her husband if he does not sexually please her.) Al-Arashi explains that she wanted to create a body of work that would breathe new life into these texts—to resurface them for those who may have forgotten the importance of sexuality and erotica in Muslim culture.


“My goal is to remind everyone that our culture and religion praises the importance of sexuality, in all its forms,” she says. “Islam holds sex as a sacred act which brings one closer to God. It insists that sex is a vital part of a relationship—not just to procreate, but also for pleasure.”


Written for a member of the court of the sultan of Tunis, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Nafzawi’s 15th-century text has been described as a sex guide for married Muslim men, where coitus is often referred to as a religious act. And while the book does describe an ideal woman’s figure—“with cheek of perfect oval, she will have an elegant nose and a graceful mouth; lips and tongue vermillion; her breath will be of pleasant odor, her throat long, her neck strong, her bust and her belly large; her breasts must be full and firm”—al-Nafzawi also suggests that female sexual satisfaction is as important as male pleasure.

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“Praise be given to God, who has placed man’s greatest pleasure in the natural parts of woman, and has destined the natural parts of man to afford the greatest enjoyment to woman.”


In this ninth-century collection of 50 tales by the scholar al-Ḥarīrī, the narrator recounts several meetings with a con artist and traveler—resembling al-Ḥarīrī himself—who impresses everyone with his wit and poetry wherever he goes. The manuscript includes an illustration of a farewell greeting between the two men as they appear to kiss while astride two camels.

Spending time in the Middle East or North Africa, it doesn’t take long to notice that the touching of noses is a form of respectful greeting between men, who are also known to hold hands with their peers while in public. The image from al-Ḥarīrī’s manuscript has been interpreted by some scholars to be one among several images in the Arabic canon that reference a homoerotic lifestyle, while others see it as little more than a simple greeting.

“Thereupon he bade me farewell, and went away, making me send after him more than one glance of loving affection.”


One of the leading scientists of his time, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī was a 13th-century astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher in the court of Hülegü Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. Al-Tusi would write approximately 150 books in his lifetime, and this relatively short work is devoted to aphrodisiacs and sexual ailments, as well as sexual practices and positions. Readers can find instruction on herbs and mixtures that arouse the desire for coitus and enhance sexual potency, and advice is given to men and to women in pursuit of increased pleasure, including female ejaculation.

“Take one dirham of cinnamon bark, half a dirham of pellitory and one qirat of cardamom, and pound everything as finely as dust. Afterwards, mix it with Raziqi grape juice and rub the preparation onto the whole penis. Wait one hour and wash the penis with hot water. Put half a dirham of Chinese cinnamon in your mouth and chew it. Take some of the saliva and rub it on the penis before engaging in coitus. Both the man and woman will experience wondrous rapture.”


The poet and writer Ahmad al-Tifashi compiled this 13th-century collection of stories and poems about love, which often touch on homosexual themes. The French translation, titled Les délices des coeurs, was first published in 1971, and the first English translation was published in 1988 as The Delight of Hearts: Or What You Will Not Find in Any Book.

“Lovers always carry a sign that shows their secret feelings to everyone who knows. Look, I’m at your orders; I am like a slave offering to his master all he has to give.”


Little is known about the author of The Encyclopedia of Pleasure, Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib, aside from the fact that he wrote from Baghdad in the late 10th or early 11th century. Chapter by chapter, the book goes through nearly all conceivable sexual practices in great detail, while retaining great humor throughout.

“A woman’s orgasm comes down from her head whereas a man’s orgasm comes down from his back ... She was asked which finds greater pleasure in sexual union: a man or woman? And she answered: We, women, find such pleasure ...”
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