(Quoth a certain man of learning) I never saw a woman sharper-witted, more intelligent, better furnished in learning, more excellent of faculties or more pleasant of ingredients than a female preacher of the people of Baghdad, by name Sitt el Meshayikh. (177) It chanced that she came to the city of Hemah in the year [of the Hegira] 561 (178) and there delivered salutary exhortations to the folk from the pulpits. Now there used to visit her house a number of students of divinity and [other] persons of learning and culture, who would argue with her upon questions of theology and discuss controversial points with her. I went to her one day, with a friend of mine, a man of education; and when we had taken our seats, she set before us a dish of fruit and seated herself behind a curtain. Now she had a [young] brother, a handsome youth, who stood by us, to serve us.

When we had eaten, we fell to disputing upon points of divinity, and I propounded to her a theological question, bearing upon a difference between the Imams. (179) She proceeded to speak in answer, whilst I listened; but my friend fell the while to looking upon her brother's face and considering his charms, without paying any heed to what she said. Now she was watching him from behind the curtain; so, when she had made an end of her exposition, she turned to him and said, "Meseems thou art of those that give men the preference over women!" "Assuredly," answered he. "And why so?" asked she. "Because," replied he, "God hath preferred the male over the female; and I love that which excels and mislike that which is excelled." She laughed and said, "Wilt thou deal fairly with me in argument, if I argue the matter with thee?" "I will," answered he. Then said she, "What is the evidence of the superiority of the male to the female?" "It is of two kinds," answered he, "that which is founded on authority and that which is founded on reason. The authoritative part derives from the Koran and the Sunneh [Traditions of the Prophet]. As for the former, quoth God the Most High, 'Men stand above women, in that God hath given these the preference over those;' (180) and again, 'If there be not two men, then [call] one man and two women;' (181) and again, when treating of the law of inheritance, '[If there be brothers and sisters,] let each male have the like of the portion of two females.' (182) Thus God, blessed and exalted be He, hath in these places preferred the male over the female and teaches that a woman is as the half of a man, for that he is worthier than she. As for the Sunneh, is it not reported of the Prophet (whom God bless and preserve) that he appointed the blood-wit for a woman to be half that of a man? As for the evidence of reason, the male is the agent and the female the patient."

"Thou hast said well, O my lord," rejoined she; "but, by Allah, thou hast proved my contention with thine own lips and hast advanced arguments that tell against thee, and not for thee. Thus: God (blessed and exalted be He) preferred the male above the female, solely because of the quality of masculinity; and in this, there is no difference between us. Now this quality [of masculinity] is common to the child, the boy, the youth, the adult and the graybeard; nor is there any distinction between them in this. Since, then, the superior excellence of man enures to him solely by virtue of the quality of masculinity, it behoves that thy heart incline to the graybeard and thy soul delight in him, equally with the boy, seeing that there is no distinction between them, in point of masculinity. But the difference between thee and me turns upon the qualities that are sought as constituting excellence of intercourse and delight of usance; and thou hast adduced no proof of the superiority of the male over the female in this."

"O my lady," answered he, "knowest thou not that which is proper to the boy of symmetry of shape and rosy cheeks and pleasant smile and sweetness of speech? Boys are, in these respects, superior to women; and the proof of this is what is reported of the Prophet, that he said, 'Stay not thy gaze upon the beardless boys, for in them is the similitude (183) of the black-eyed girls of Paradise. Nor indeed is the superiority of the boy over the girl hidden to any, and how well saith Abou Nuwas:

      The least of his virtues it is that thou'rt free From uncleanness with him nor with child can he be.

And what another poet says:

      Quoth th' Iman Abou Nuwas, past-master sure was he In every canon of debauch and jolly knavery,
      "O ye that love the downy cheeks of younglings, take your fill Of a delight, in Paradise that will not founden be."

So if one enlarge in praise of a girl and wish to enhance her value by the mention of her charms, he likens her to a boy, because of the illustrious qualities that belong to the latter, even as saith the poet:

      Boylike of buttocks, to and fro, in amorous dalliance, She sways as sway the nodding canes that in the north wind dance.

If boys, then, were not superior to girls, why should the latter be likened to them? And know also, may God the Most High preserve thee, that a boy is easy to be led, adapting himself to the wish, pleasant of commerce and manners, inclining to assent rather than difference, especially when the down on his face creeps lightly and the hair darkens on his lips and the vermilion of early youth runs in his cheeks, so that he is like the full moon; and how goodly is the saying of Abou Temmam: (184)

      "The whiskers on his cheek appear;" the slanderers said to me; Quoth I, "That's none of his defect; so give me no more prate."
      What time he came of age to bear buttocks that here and there Pulled him and over beads of pearl his lips' hair darkened late
      And eke the rose a solemn oath, full fast and binding, swore Its ruddy marvels from his cheek should never separate,
      I with my eyelids spoke to him, without the need of speech, And for reply thereto was what his eyebrows answered straight.
      His goodliness still goodlier is than that thou knewst of yore, And the hair guardeth him from those his charms would violate.
      Brighter and sweeter are his charms, now on his cheek the down Shows and the hair upon his lips grows dark and delicate;
      And those who chide me for the love of him, when they take up Their parable of him and me, say evermore, "His mate."

And quoth El Heriri (185) and saith well:

      My censors say, "What is this love and doting upon him? Seest not the hair upon his cheeks that sprouts? Where is thy wit?"
      Quoth I, "By Allah, an ye chide at me, I rede you note The exposition of the truth that in his eyes is writ.
      But for the blackness of the down, that veils his chin and cheeks, Upon the brightness of his face no mortal gaze might sit.
      A man who sojourns in a land, wherein no herbage is, Whenas the very Spring arrives, shall he depart from it?

And quoth another:

      "He is consoled," say the censors of me; but, by heaven, they lie! For solace and comfort come hardly to those for longing that sigh.
      When the rose of his cheek stood blooming alone, I was not consoled; So how should I now find solace, that basil has sprung thereby?

And again:

      A slender one, whose glances and the down upon his cheeks Each other, in the slaying of folk, abet and aid.
      A sabre of narcissus (186) withal, he sheddeth blood, The hangers (187) of its scabbard of very myrtle made.

And again:

      Not with his wine I'm drunken, but with his tresses bright, That make all creatures drunken, yea, all beneath the sky.
      Each of his charms doth envy the others; ay, and each To be the down so silky upon his cheek doth sigh.

These are the excellences of the boy, that women do not possess, and these suffice and more to give boys the preference in grace and glory over women."

"God give thee health!" cried she. "Verily, thou hast imposed the discussion upon thyself; and thou hast spoken and hast not stinted and hast adduced these arguments, in support of thy contention. But now is the truth made manifest; (188) so swerve thou not from the path thereof; and if thou be not content with a summary of proof, I will set it out to thee in detail. God on thee, where is the boy beside the girl and who shall liken the kid to the wild cow? The girl is soft of speech, fair of shape, like a stalk of sweet basil, with teeth like chamomile-petals and hair like halters. Her cheeks are like blood-red anemones and her face like an apple; she hath lips like wine and breasts like double pomegranates and a shape flexile as a willow-wand. Her body is rounded and well-formed: she hath a nose like the point of a shining sword and a forehead brilliant with whiteness and joined eyebrows and black and melting eyes. If she speak, fresh pearls are scattered from her mouth and all hearts are ravished by the daintiness of her charms; when she smiles, thou wouldst think the moon shone out from between her lips and when she gazes, swords flash from her eyes. In her all beauties have their term, and she is the centre of attraction of traveller and stay-at-home. She hath two red lips softer than cream and sweeter of taste than honey, and a bosom, as it were a way between two hills, wherein are a pair of breasts like globes of ivory; likewise, a smooth belly, soft of flanks as palm-flowers (189) and creased with folds and dimples that overlap one another, and luxuriant thighs, like columns of pearl, and buttocks, that beat together like seas of crystal or mountains of light, and two slender feet and hands like ingot of virgin gold. So, O wretched fellow, where are mortal men besides the Jinn? Knowest thou not that mighty kings and captains and noble princes still submit themselves humbly to women and depend on them for delight? Verily, they [women] say, 'We rule over [all] necks and captivate [all] hearts.' How many a rich man have they not made poor, how many a powerful one have they not humbled and how many a noble have they not reduced to servitude! Indeed, they seduce the learned and bring the pious to shame and make poor the rich and plunge the favoured of fortune into misery. Yet, for all this, the wise but redouble in love and honour of them, nor do they count this oppression or dishonour. How many a man for them hath transgressed against his Lord and called down on himself the wrath of his father and mother! And all this because of the preponderance of the love of them over hearts. Knowest thou not, O wretched fellow, that for them are palaces built and slave-girls bought, and over them curtains are let down, that for them do tears flow and for them armies levied and pleasure-houses raised up and riches gathered and heads smitten off? And indeed he spoke sooth who said, 'The world is a commentary (190) upon women.'

As for thy citation from the Holy Traditions, it is an argument against thee and not for thee; for the Prophet (whom God bless and preserve) compares boys to the houris of Paradise. Now, without doubt, the subject of comparison is more worthy than the object compared with it; so, except women be the worthier and the goodlier, wherefore should other than they be likened to them? As for thy saying that girls are likened to boys, it is not so, but the contrary: boys are likened to girls; for folk say, 'Yonder boy is like a girl.' As for that thou quotest from the poets, the verses in question were the product of an unnatural complexion in this respect; and as for the confirmed sodomists and debauchees, that sin against religion, whom God hath condemned in His Holy Book, wherein He denounceth their filthy practices, saying, "Do ye betake you to males from the four corners of the world and forsake that which your Lord hath created for you of your wives? Nay, but ye are a froward folk.' (191) These it is that liken girls to boys, of their exceeding profligacy and frowardness and inclination to follow the devil and their own lusts, so that they say, 'She is apt for two men;' and these are all wanderers from the path of right. Quoth their chief Abou Nuwas:

      A slender one, boyish of waist and of wit, For wencher as well as for sodomite fit.

As for what thou sayest of a boy's whiskers and moustaches and how they add to his beauty and grace, by Allah, thou wanderest from the right path and sayest that which is other than the truth; for whiskers change the charms of the comely into ugliness; even as saith the poet:

      The whiskers, that sprout on the cheek of the wight, His lovers avenge, if he 've done them unright.
      I see not on 's face what is like unto smoke, Except that his curls are as coals to the sight.
      If the most of his paper (192) thus blackened be, where Is there room, deemest thou, for the pen to indite?
      If any prefer him another above, 'Tis ignorance makes them thus turn from the light.

Glory be to God", continued she, "how is it hidden from thee that the perfection of delight is in women and that abiding pleasure is not to be found but with them? Seeing that God (blessed and exalted be He) hath promised His prophets and saints black-eyed damsels in Paradise and hath appointed them for a recompense of their pious works: and had God the Most High known that the supreme delight was in the possession of other than women, He had rewarded them therewith and promised it to them. And quoth he whom God bless and preserve, 'The things in which I most delight of [the things of] your world are three: women and perfume and the solace of my eyes in prayer.' Verily, God hath appointed boys to serve His prophets and saints in Paradise, because Paradise is the abode of delight and pleasance, which could not be complete without the service of boys; but, as to the use of them for aught but service, it is sin and corruption. How well saith the poet:

      Men's turning unto boys is very frowardness; Who noble (193) women loves is noble (194) none the less.
      What difference 'twixt the lewd and him whose bedfellow A houri is, for looks a very sorceress.
      He rises from her couch and she hath given him scent; He perfumes all the house therewith and each recess.
      No boy, indeed, is worth to be compared with her: Shall aloes evened be with what not filthiness?"

Then said she, "O folk, ye have made me overpass the bounds of modesty and the province of free-born women and indulge in idle talk and freedoms of speech, that beseem not people of learning. But the breasts of the noble are the tombs of secrets, and conversations of this kind are in confidence. Moreover, actions are according to intents, and I ask pardon of God for myself and you and all Muslims, seeing that He is forgiving and merciful."

With this she held her peace and thereafter would answer us of nought; so we went our way, rejoicing in that we had profited by her discourses and sorrowing to part from her.