Eunuchs were castrated slaves. They were almost always first-generation slaves who had been mutilated by slave traders as young children, before puberty. The ta’ifa of the eunuchs is the only category of people in the Mu‘īd whose ta’ifa and waẓīfas are, quite literally, inscribed on their bodies. A jamdār or cupbearer might be given a different office and thus join a different ta’ifa. A eunuch could never leave the ta’ifa of the eunuchs.

Al-Subkī does not place the eunuchs where they belong in his book, at the top of the political hierarchy in the Cairo Citadel, the Mamluk imperial center. Instead, he places them after the jamdārs and the “odious” cupbearers. Al-Subkī’s imagined eunuch bears no resemblance to the powerful, respected and often pious historical eunuchs we find represented in chronicles and  biographical dictionaries. But some of the tropes in al-Subkī’s polemic against the ta’ifa of the eunuchs do resonate with representations of eunuchs in Medieval Arabic literature, especially in satirical writings and in gendered polemics. Al-Subkī’s eunuch is a polemicized version of the “literary” eunuch, a type rather than a historical individual,  

Al-Subkī only mentions two of the many offices held by eunuchs in the Cairo Citadel. It is perhaps not a coincidence that al-Subkī chose the two offices that he could best represent as sexualized. He makes no reference to the eunuch supervisor of the Sultan’s treasury, to the eunuch head of the jamdārs, or to the Shaykh of the “eunuchs of the prophet,” the wealthy and much venerated eunuchs who served as ritual guardians of the Prophet Muḥammad’s tomb in Madina. Al-Subkī certainly knew respected, well-educated eunuchs and was aware of the multiple roles they played in the Cairo Citadel, in provincial capitals, in the sanctuary of Madina and in civilian households, including the homes of Islamic jurists and scholars. But he chose not to represent these individuals.

Translated from the Arabic by Shaun Marmon. Tāj al-Dīn Abū al-Naṣr ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Subkī, Kitāb Mu‘īd an-Ni‘am wa-Mubīd an-Niqam, The Restorer of Favours and the Restrainer of Chastisements, edited by David W. Myhrman (London: Luzac, 1908), 54-56. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Know that the mamsūḥ is the one whose two testicles and penis have been completely removed. Most of our colleagues are inclined to the permissibility of his looking on the ajnabiyya woman[1] But there is another opinion, from the school of Abu Hanīfa and Aḥmad [Ibn Ḥanbal], may God have mercy on them both, that this is ḥarām [absolutely forbidden]. The Shaykh the Imām [al-Shāfi‘ī], may God have mercy on him, chose this [opinion]. As for the khaṣīy, he is the one whose testicles have been removed, but not his penis; and the majbūb is he whose penis has been removed, but not his testicles.[2] And the correct opinion is that it is not permissible for either one of these two to look at the ajnabiyya. This is all there is about the gaze of the ṭawāshī on the ajnabiyya. As for his gazing upon his mistress, most of our colleagues agree that the gaze of the slave, even if he has penis and testicles, on his mistress is permitted.[3] This is what al-Rāf‘ī and al-Nūrī were inclined to and in this matter the gaze of the ṭawāshī [as opposed to intact slaves] is more permissible.

But the correct opinion according to the Shaykh the Imām [al-Shāfi‘ī] and to many jurists is that the gaze of the intact slave on his mistress is ḥarām. This is the truth. For how can it be allowed that handsome mamlūks, who inflame passion with their beauty, gaze upon their mistresses? For women are deficient in reason and religion. But if he [the slave] is both a ṭawāshī and a slave in the ownership of his mistress, this is closer to permissible than is the gaze of one who does not combine these two qualities. For that matter, Mālik permitted the gaze of  a woman on a ṭawāshī if he were her slave or her husband’s. He [Mālik] prohibited it [her gaze] if this were not the case.

Among the ṭawāshiyya is the zimām. He is the one who specializes in women. It is his right to cast his eye on what concerns them; and to advise the master of the house and let him know of any suspicious thing that he [the eunuch] is unable to remedy. He must prohibit the agents of debauchery, such as old women and others, from visiting the women [under his care].[4]

Among them [the ṭawāshiyya] is the muqaddam and he is the one who is responsible for the adolescent boys. [5] It is not permissible for him to have immoral relations with them. And he must not permit one of them to cuddle up with another in the same bed. Pimping  for their master and for others is very common in this ṭa‘ifa.

Similarly, in regard to the zimām, pimping is very common among them. That is because of the nature of the ṭawāshī: [their] lack of intelligence and their resemblance to women. It is even said: a ṭawāshī does not mix with women without telling himself that he is a man; and not with men without telling himself that he is a woman. It is said: The ṭawāshiyya are the harshest of people in their jealousy and the most inclined to corrupting and pimping those under their charge, whether woman or mamlūk.

In the Ḥanafī books it is makrūḥ [disapproved but not forbidden] to take eunuchs into service, because it encourages castration which is forbidden.[6]

[1] In other words, a woman with whom a man does not have a relationship of blood, fosterage, kinship of marriage (i.e. father in law) that would establish a legal and moral barrier to sexual relations. The existence of such a barrier meant that men and women did not have to observe rules of modesty that prevented unmediated exchanges. Since the eunuch, as an enslaved person, was deemed to have no family and no relationships created by fosterage or marriage, all women were theoretically ajnabiyya to him.

[2] These seem to be largely theoretical categories. We do not know the degree of mutilation suffered by enslaved eunuchs. We do know that eunuchs, enslaved and manumitted, had free access to the interiors of homes and to women. In practice, no one except jurists seem to have paid much attention to this taxonomy of mutilation.

[3] Qur’ān 24:31 allows women to unveil in the presence of their male and female slaves and to their male “followers who have no sexual desire.” The Qur’ān, however, makes no reference to eunuchs. “Male followers” was interpreted to mean indigent old men who depended on women for charity. The divine permission for intact male slaves to look on their mistresses was a moral and legal headache for many Muslim jurists like al-Subkī. However, as he acknowledges, most of his colleagues held to the Qur’ānic dictum.

[4] Al-Subkī is not unique in his fear that old women, itinerant peddlers, might  convey messages from lovers or arrange secret rendezvous for secluded women. 

[5] Al-Subkī uses the abbreviated forms of the offices of Zimāmdār and Muqaddam al-Mamalīk. These were two of the most powerful and respected positions in the Cairo Citadel, the capital of the Mamluk Sultanate. The Sultan’s minor military slaves, while they were in training, lived in relative seclusion, as did the women and children of his household. In both cases, eunuchs played important roles as guardians, go-betweens and tutors. Given the assumptions that male erotic desire for young boys was both natural and dangerous, eunuchs were often responsible for protecting boys from adult male sexuality.

[6] Castration of human beings is prohibited in Islamic law but most Muslim jurists had no objection to purchasing eunuch slaves or to employing manumitted eunuchs. Contrary to a popular belief, children were not castrated on the borders of Islamic lands, in supposed compliance with Islamic law. Enslaved boys were castrated in Islamic territories.

Discussion Questions

1. Why does al-Subkī begin this section with a physical description of mutilated bodies? What is the purpose of this largely theoretical taxonomy of mutilation?

3. Eunuchs were seen in al-Subkī’s society as the guardians of moral boundaries. In what ways does al-Subkī present them, not as guardians, but as disruptors of morality?

4. What role does gender play in al-Subkī’s deep antipathy towards eunuchs?

5. Does physical castration, in al-Subkī’s eyes, equal moral mutilation? If so, does al-Subkī hold enslaved children responsible for their own forcible castration?

6. Al-Subkī’s claim that eunuchs were pimps who sexually exploit their charges is not supported by existing sources. What rhetorical purpose does this accusation serve?

Related Primary Sources