The Pleasure Principles

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.”

 Yumna Al-Arashi - All Rights Reserved, 2018