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The Erasure of History and Sexual Identity of the Poet Ibn Waki’ al-Tanisi

This pride month we remember the queers who are forgotten in history; this article on one of Egypt’s queer historical figures who influenced the course of history and impacted Egypt’s rich literature as a poet and a critic—Ibn Al Waki’ Al Tinnisi. While this article aims to present a glimpse of the life and literary works of Ibn Al Waki’ Al Tinnisi, it simultaneously aims to highlight how his sexuality was deliberately erased from works written about him in Arabic either by not explaining the poems that discussed it or by ignoring the existence of such poems. It seemed that the whole Arab world had collectively agreed to ignore his poems that eloquently express his truthful identity by creating a new world that is purposefully designed for another Arab “world”.

Ibn Waki’ Al Tinnisi’s real name was Abu Muhammad Al-Hassan bin Ali bin Ahmed bin Muhammad bin Khalaf bin Hayyan bin Sadaqa bin Ziyad Al-Dabbi. His nickname is derived from a village called Tinnis in Damietta where he was born. He was born during the Abbasid Caliphate and died in 1003. He wrote several books and poems such as Al-Munsif Fi Al Dalalat ‘alá Sariqat Al Mutanabbi, Diwan Al Ḥasan Ibn ‘Ali Al Ḍabbi Al Shahir bi-Ibn Wakī’ Al Tinnisi and Al Nozha Fi Al Ikhwan.[1] While this brief introduction tells us a snippet of who Ibn Waki’ was, it, nonetheless, does not tell us what he was like. In order to know what Ibn  Waki’ was like we need to tell two kinds of stories: the story that is usually told and the one that is usually silenced. The former is usually written in Arabic by Arab scholars and for an Arab audience while the latter is usually told in English by English scholars and for a non-Arab audience. The two stories are not, however, coinciding but rather complementary of each other.

The First Story

Works in Arabic that tackles Al Tinnisi’s books and poems mostly focus on his critique of Al Mutanabbi and Abu Nawwas in particular and his style of criticism in general. In his criticism of both Al Mutanabbi and Abu Nawas, Ibn Waki’ focused on their deviance from religion on three accounts: exaggeration in praising which violated religious teachings (whether towards themselves or towards others), injustice and lastly mendacity without context or need. First, he criticized using a type of praise towards rulers that is only suitable for prophets. Second, not only did he censure Al Mutanabbi for using unsuitable praise but also for using unjust judgments. For instance, saying that people would be indiscriminately killed while Ibn Waki’ thinks that he should have specified that only those who commit wrongdoings would be subjected to this kind of fate by citing Quranic verses that support his argument. Third, he was critical of both Abu Nawas and Al Mutanabbi’s exaggeration and mendacity as he thought that while poetry should not always be truthful, it should at least follow reality. [2]

From his critiques, one can then deduce that Al Tinnisi was a religious and just man. However, this story only represents half of the truth.

The Second Story

This second story only exists in the literature written about him in English except for Abu Mansour Al Thalabi’s Yatimat Ahl Al Dahr. Al Thalabi was an Arab historian who lived during Al Tinnis’s time.[3] Most literature in English, by non-Arabs, discusses his homoerotic poems which some scholars say were inspired by Abu Nawas.[4]

In this story, Ibn Waki’ was said to struggle between his religiosity, guilt and his love for drinking. This struggle transcends to his sexuality where he feels guilty for falling in love. One of his poems showcases the struggle between his beliefs that endorse heteronormativity and his queerness. He explains that he cannot hide either his feelings or his truth and that hiding his feelings would result in him living a dull and miserable life—which is something that he opposes as he firmly believes that life should be enjoyed. After a long struggle filled with other people’s warnings of eternal suffering in the afterlife, he reaches a point that comforts him. This point depicts acknowledgment of the eternal suffering but believing in the mercifulness of God. The poem goes as follows: 

(لَا تَأْمُرنِي بالتستر فِي الْهوى … فالعيش أجمع فِي ركُوب الْعَار)

 (إِن التوقر للحياة مكدر … والعيش فَهُوَ تهتك الأستار)

(خوفتني بالنَّار جهدك دائبا … ولججت فِي الإرهاب والإنذار)

[5](خوفي كخوفك غير أَنِّي واثق … بجميل عَفْو الْوَاحِد القهار)


Another poem tells the story of him falling in love with a Christian man. The poem starts with him describing his beauty and how it cannot be attributed to humans. He went even further by saying that if his beauty were an infinite number of blessings, it would have run out long ago.


(من كف طبي من بني النَّصَارَى … ألبابنا فِي حسنه حيارى)

(إِذا بدا جماله لذِي النّظر … قَالَ تَعَالَى الله مَا هَذَا بشر)

[6](يُبْدِي جمالا جلّ عَن أَن يوصفا … لَو أَنه رزق حَرِيص لاكتفى)


Additionally, he mentions how he often steals a kiss from his lover while being cautious in doing so. He then proceeds to describe how this kiss was better than cloudy mornings and cold breezes.  

(ظَفرت بقبلة مِنْهُ اختلاسا … وَكنت من الرَّقِيب على حذار)

[7] (ألذ من الصبوح على غمام … وَمن برد النسيم على خمار)

Furthermore, Ibn Waki’ criticizes those who have not seen his lover before because once they do, they would have to apologize and admit that they understand his love for him. In the end, he asserts that those who prohibited his love before are the ones who are permitting it now. 


(أبصره عاذلي عَلَيْهِ … وَلم يكن قبل ذَا رَآهُ)

(فَقَالَ لي لَو هويت هَذَا … مَا لامك النَّاس فِي هَوَاهُ)

(قل لي إِلَى إِلَى من عدلت عَنهُ … فَلَيْسَ أهل الْهوى سواهُ)

 [8](فظل من حَيْثُ لَيْسَ يدْرِي … يَأْمر بالحب من نَهَاهُ)


Moreover, Al Tinnisi was a cheerful and ascetic man who loved and enjoyed life. He often mixed between his ascetic ideals and his sexuality. This is apparent in one of his poems in which he advised others to follow the ascetic ideals mentioned in Islam resembling the act of not following these ideals with the world abstaining from him the same way his queer lover abstains from him.

(ازهد إِذا الدُّنْيَا أنالتك المنى … فهناك زهدك من شُرُوط الدّين)

[9](فالزهد فِي الدُّنْيَا إِذا مَا رمتها … فَأَبت عَلَيْك كعفة الْعنين)


Remembering the Silenced Parts

Silencing the second story is problematic not only because it falsifies the past but also because it falsifies the present, especially with the ongoing view of seeing homosexuality as an intruding Westernization of the Arab identity. The story of Al Tinnisi clearly demonstrates that the truth is otherwise. That queerness had existed in the Arab World long before any foreign occupation, whether cultural, political or economic, had ever taken place. Resisting the erasure of the second story depends on retelling and continuously remembering our erased queer history. Telling complete stories gives those historical figures a sense of ownership of their stories and subsequently their sexuality.

[1] 1. أسامة اختيار،”ابن وكيع التنيسي،” الموسوعة العربية،

[2] حمود حسين يونس، الاتجاه الديني والأخلاقي في نقد ابن وكيع التنيسي، اتحاد الكتاب العرب، ٢٠١٨

[3]1. Bruce William Dunne, Sexuality and the “Civilizing Process” in Modern Egypt (Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI, 1996). 

[4] Julia Ashtiany et al., Abbasid Belles Lettres (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[5]أبو منصور  الثعالبي، يتيمة الدَّهر في محاسن أهل العصـر (الجزء الأول)، ٤٥٤،  (دار الكتب العلميَّة، بيروت 1983م).

[6] أبو منصور  الثعالبي، يتيمة الدَّهر في محاسن أهل العصـر (الجزء الأول)،  ٤٤٧، (دار الكتب العلميَّة، بيروت 1983م).

[7] أبو منصور  الثعالبي، يتيمة الدَّهر في محاسن أهل العصـر (الجزء الأول)،  ٤٥٩، (دار الكتب العلميَّة، بيروت 1983م).

[8]أبو منصور  الثعالبي، يتيمة الدَّهر في محاسن أهل العصـر (الجزء الأول)، ٤٦٠، (دار الكتب العلميَّة، بيروت 1983م).

[9] أبو منصور  الثعالبي، يتيمة الدَّهر في محاسن أهل العصـر (الجزء الأول)،  ٤٦٢، (دار الكتب العلميَّة، بيروت 1983م).


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