On Eunuchs: An Italian Medical Doctor’s View (Cairo, 1902)

On Eunuchs: An Italian Medical Doctor’s View (Cairo, 1902)

Serena Tolino is Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and co-director of the Institute for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Societies at the University of Bern, where she also leads the project TraSIS.
We recommend that readers explore our other blog contributions which are linked here.


The subject of this month’s blog post is not a “typical” source for our project, as it is not properly legal. It is a paper presented by an Italian medical doctor on eunuchs in Cairo in 1902 containing a denunciation of the practice of castration. By featuring sources of this kind on the TraSIS project blog, we aim to highlight the importance of Islamic law beyond the boundaries of Muslim jurists’ discourse. But why would an Italian medical doctor invoke Islamic law? 

In December 1902, during the khedivate of ʿAbbās Hilmī II (r. 1892–1914, d. 1944), the first Egyptian Medical Congress took place in Cairo.[1] During this Congress, the Italian doctor Onofrio Abbate Pasha (d. 1915) spoke passionately against castration. The paper was published in pamphlet form in 1903 with the title L’eunuchisme: notes physiologiques pour aider a son abolition complete. A few years later, in 1909, it was republished as an appendix to his collected writings on Egypt, titled Aegyptiaca-Miṣriyyāt, printed in Cairo by F. Votta (totalling around 670 pages). Onofrio Abbate referred to an older publication of his in the course of his speech, namely his “Riproduzioni di errori dopo 50 secoli nella medicina,” printed in Naples by the Tipografia De Angelis-Bellisario in 1894. 

Onofrio Abbate Pasha: A Short Biography

Onofrio Abbate Pasha was born in Palermo in 1824. He studied medicine in the same city, specialising in ophthalmology, and then migrated to Egypt in 1845 during the autumn years of Muḥammad ʿAlī (r. 1805–1848). This period was characterised by the burgeoning European presence in Egypt, a presence closely linked to the privileges afforded to European migrants by the Capitulations.[2] Initially, the Ottomans had granted the Capitulations — a series of favourable terms of residence (including tax breaks) — to European merchants to stimulate long-distance trade, but by the modern period these agreements were widely resented as bestowing inordinate privileges on Europeans and non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The most resented of all these concessions was extraterritoriality, which meant that those privileged few were not subject to the ordinary jurisdiction of Ottoman (and in this case, Egyptian) courts. 

After having made Egypt his home as a young man, Abbate Pasha remained in the country for seventy years, and was highly esteemed for his medical knowledge and contacts with the khedival family. In 1855, at the height of the Crimean War (1853–1856), Abbate Pasha was appointed chief physician to the Egyptian fleet dispatched by Saʿīd Pasha (r. 1854–63) to support the Ottomans. He also accompanied Saʿīd Pasha personally on his expedition to Sudan. On his return, he was appointed physician to the khedive’s harem (a function he also retained under Ismāʿīl, r. 1867–1879). He also served as khedive’s personal physician, and later as consulting physician to khedive Ismāʿīl’s son and successor, Tawfīq (r. 1879–1892). He held this post until 1887, when political events forced him to resign.[3]

Besides his longstanding relationship with the khedival household, Onofrio Abbate Pasha was appointed Director of the government hospital at Alexandria. In 1859 he became a member of the Institut d’Égypte, the prestigious learned society for Egyptology founded by Napoleon, becoming its Vice-President in 1881. In 1881 he was one of the founding members of the Khedival Geographical Society and became its President in 1890. In 1882 he obtained the title of Pasha. He died in 1915 in Cairo at the age of ninety.[4]

What makes Abbate Pasha’s writings on eunuchs particularly worthy of attention is his clear and eminently well-informed understanding of the medical consequences of castration: as a court physician, he not only examined many eunuchs himself, but also conducted autopsies on them. He was staunchly opposed to castration on medical grounds: it caused terrible damage to the bodies of those subject to the procedure. Though at the first Egyptian Medical Congress he spoke to an audience comprised mostly of medical doctors, he felt the need to articulate his anti-castration argument in terms that would be appreciated by Muslim jurists. 

L’eunuchisme: notes physiologiques pour aider a son abolition complete

Abbate Pasha begins his speech by mentioning the difficulties he encountered when first pursuing his research in 1870, when he was employed in the khedival harem. Referring to this period, he states that “eunuchs were very reluctant to be put under observation or to be photographed.”[5]

He makes clear from the outset that he wants to demonstrate is that “eunuchism […] is forbidden by Islamic law itself, and constitutes a permanent danger for the women of the harem, from both a moral perspective, and for the terrible effects it has on also on the female person.”[6] He alludes here to what he will explain later, namely to the fact that, contrary to common belief, eunuchs were able to experience libidinal urges (and therefore would not be appropriate guardians of royal womenfolk). He explains his interest in addressing this topic with the observation that “Science should not only aim at healing illnesses but should also announce its reprobation for all the misfortunes that afflict the human being.”[7]  

Following short discussions of the etymology of “eunuch” and the references to eunuchs in the Bible, Abbate Pasha states that “Islamic law strictly prohibits castration of animals, unless there are practical advantages whose usefulness cannot be contested.”[8] He then points out that the Qurʾān contains no references to this “barbarous and infamous institution.”[9] He was very aware of the view of Muslim jurists on the issue, stating that they “ are unanimous in declaring this custom contrary to Islam, its principles and its morals,”[10] underlining that they do so on the basis of the Qurʾān, the Sunna and the most important treatises of Islamic law.

In the following part of his speech, he embarks on a short historical excursus, arguing that this institution was already known in antiquity to the Greeks and Romans, and then spread to Byzantium and later to Islamdom, where it proliferated notwithstanding the religious prohibition.[11]

Following this excursus, Abbate Pasha addresses some legal questions, summarising the juristic discussion of a eunuch’s looking at an unrelated woman, and the possibility of attributing paternity to a castrated man.[12]

Abbate Pasha presents a historical overview of the introduction of eunuchs into Islamdom, a process whose beginnings he attributes to Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān (r. 661–680).[13] Following this overview, he addresses the Qurʾān[14] and the Sunna, underlining once more that they prohibit “altering God’s creation” (Ar. taghyīr khalq Allāh).[15] In concluding this part, Abbate Pasha notes “the formal prohibition in Ḥanafī law against Muslims buying eunuchs, so as not to encourage this trade (which is undertaken by Muslims) and to let this abominable custom fall into disuse.”[16]

The following part of his address is devoted to the medical dimensions of castration. In this part, Abbate Pasha’s aim is not only to demonstrate its physiological damage, but “to bring to light certain false opinions about the value of eunuchs as unalterable guardians of women, and as incapable of feeling, because of their mutilation, the erotic impulses and desires that are typical of the reproductive system of man.”[17] Abbate Pasha explains how the operation was performed by the “djellabs” (Ar. jallāb, a term referring to slave dealers), who “make the incision and do the ligature with a particularly strong constriction to guarantee haemostasis. This ligature has the advantage of simultaneously closing the veins that sometimes cause serious haemorrhages.”[18] Interestingly enough, this is one of the two methods of castration mentioned by the polymath al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868) more than a millennium previously – an observation that may point to longstanding continuities in the process of castration in Islamdom. This cannot, however, be assumed with absolute certainty.   

When referring to the autopsies he performed on the bodies of eunuchs, Abbate Pasha notes his surprise at the abnormal development of the seminal vesicles: in some cases, these continue to secrete seminal fluid internally, and in others the seminal vesicles atrophy completely.[19] Though this would not mean eunuchs were capable of reproduction, it would not rule out “a certain instinct and an indistinct, vague, confused, indeterminate passion that would be produced by frequenting, conversing and contact with women.”[20]

In the following part, Abbate Pasha turns to another aspect of his knowledge of eunuchs. In the khedival court, “the eunuchs are all black or Ethiopian. In China, Japan, the islands of the Indian Ocean, they are either natives or blacks. There is always very lucrative smuggling and speculation [in eunuchs] among Muslim populations. I have been assured that there are cases among the Turkmen ‘races’ in Lazistan, Circassia and they are then brought to Constantinople or elsewhere. I cannot say whether this is true, nor whether they are real eunuchs or spadones.”[21] The fact that he included such observations in his paper indicates that he was familiar with the topic not only from a medical and, as we have seen, legal perspective, but that he was interested in the wider background and impact of the phenomenon of castration in and beyond the society in which he lived. Also, one may infer from his comments that ṣaqāliba[22] eunuchs were no longer common in Egypt in this period.

Abbate Pasha mentions a firmān (imperial rescript) of the Ottoman Sultan Maḥmūd II (r. 1808–1839) issued for Muḥammad ʿAlī,[23] in which the Sultan ordered the ruler of Egypt to instruct his soldiers to prevent castration. Abbate Pasha also cites relevant treaty stipulations from the Anglo-Egyptian Slave Trade Convention of 1877 (prohibiting the sale and purchase of slaves in the Sudan) and the Anglo-Egyptian Convention for the Suppression of Slavery and Slave Trade of 1895.[24]

In the final part of his paper, Abbate Pasha calls for the suppression of slavery and eunuchism.[25] He states that the moral future of Muslim countries should be based on the religious laws of Islam, aided by the sympathies of the (European) Powers. 

Abbate Pasha thus stresses the importance that the “religious laws of Islam” should have in the modernisation of the Muslim world.

The paper that Abbate Pasha delivered at the Egyptian Medial Congress was only one aspect of his campaign for the prohibition of castration. In addition to his paper, Abbate Pasha addressed a memorandum to the “Great International Powers”[26] and a letter to the Ottoman Grand Vizier Mehmed Kâmil Pasha (in office 1885–1891) in which he invoked the Qurʾān, the “sacred law of Islam” and the views of Muslim jurists to demand the abolition of this practice.[27]

In the text discussed here, we see how Abbate Pasha tried to bolster the argument against castration by invoking multiple forms of authority: not only did he appeal to modern notions of legality and individual rights, but he also argued that the practice was inimical to Islamic law. We can assume that this line of argument would have been compelling to both contemporaneous Egyptian reformists and to more conservative strata of society. Abbate Pasha’s pamphlet confirms that, though slavery had been abolished and castration prohibited in late nineteenth century Egypt, eunuchs were still present in Cairo in the later part of his life. Slavery, far from being an exclusively premodern phenomenon, remained an important element of elite household structure into the twentieth century.  

I would like to thank all team members for their comments and feedback, and in particular Omar Anchassi for his suggestions and for his careful language editing. 

[1] For a contemporaneous view of the Congress, see Anon., “The First Egyptian Medical Congress,” The British Medical Journal vol. 1, no. 2192 (Jan. 3, 1903), 29-30; vol. 1, no. 2193 (Jan. 10, 1903), 102-103; vol. 1, no. 2195 (Jan. 24, 1903), 206-208. Abbate Pasha’s paper merits a very brief mention in the summary: “H.E. Dr. Abbate Pacha read an interesting paper on eunuchism.” See ibid., vol. 1, no. 2195 (Jan. 24, 1903), 208.

[2] On the Capitulations see, e.g., Edhem Eldem, “Capitulations and Western Trade,” in The Cambridge History of Turkey: Volume 3, The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603–1839, ed. Suraiya N. Faroqhi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 283–335.

[3] See Francesco Brancato, “Abbate, Onofrio,” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1960), vol. 1, online at https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/onofrio-abbate_%28Dizionario-Biografico%29/ (accessed 20 February 2023).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Onofrio Abbate, “L’eunuchisme: notes physiologiques pour aider a son abolition complete,” in Aegyptiaca-Miṣriyyāt (Cairo: F. Votta, 1909), 633–653, (at 634).

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Ibid., 635.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 636. 

[11] Ibid., 637–638. On eunuchs in Islamicate culture, see for example Jane Hathaway, “Eunuchs,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam 3, ed. Kate Fleet et al., online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_COM_27821 (accessed 27 February 2023). For eunuchs in Islamic legal sources see Serena Tolino, “Eunuchs in the Sunnī Legal Discourse: Reflections on the Gender of Castrated Men,” Studi Magrebini 20 (2022): 117–136.

[12] Abbate, L’eunuchisme, 638–639.

[13] Ibid., 639. 

[14] Ibid., 640. Abbate Pasha mistakenly refers to Q. 4:18, intending Q. 4:119: “I shall lead them astray and beguile them with false hopes. I shall command them to slit the ears of cattle, and I shall command them to alter God’s creation; and whoever takes Satan as a friend besides God has made a manifest loss.”

[15] Abbate, L’eunuchisme, 641. 

[16] Ibid., 642. Abbate Pasha refers to Ḥanafī norms specifically as the pluralistic legal system of the Mamluks saw waves of Ḥanafisation in Egypt during the Ottoman period. See e.g. James E. Baldwin, Islamic Law and Empire in Ottoman Cairo (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 141–142. This culminated in complete Ḥanafisation of qāḍī court norms by the late nineteenth century, on which see Kenneth M. Cuno, Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Egypt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015), 123–157.

[17] Abbate, L’eunuchisme, 642.

[18] Ibid., 644.

[19] Ibid., 646. 

[20] Ibid., 647. 

[21] Ibid., 647. This passage is in Italian and not in French, as Abbate Pasha cites his previous publication on the subject. The term spadones in Latin refers to different sub-types of men that were considered asexual. 

[22] The major scholarly debate on the meaning of the term ṣaqāliba will not be addressed here. For a discussion, see e.g., Marek Jankowiak, “What Does the Slave Trade in the Saqaliba Tell Us about Early Islamic Slavery?” IJMES 49 (2017), 169–172 (at 169). See also, generally, Peter Golden, C.E. Bosworth, P. Guichard, and Mohamed Meouak, “al-Ṣaḳāliba,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam: Second Edition, ed. Peri Bearman et al., online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1573-3912_islam_COM_0978 (accessed 27 February 2023).

[23] Abbate, L’eunuchisme, 641.

[24] Ibid., 651. On attempts to suppress slavery and the slave trade in nineteenth century Egypt, see e.g. Reda Mowafi, Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts in Egypt and the Sudan 1820–1882 (Lund: Lund University Press, 1981).

[25] Abbate, L’eunuchisme, 653. 

[26] The memorandum is reprinted in Onofrio Abbate, Aegyptiaca-Miṣriyyāt (Cairo: F. Votta, 1909), 654–656. Abbate Pasha writes of “Powers” and “Great Powers.” Considering his historical context and his reference to “The Great Powers with an interest in the Near and Far East” (ibid., 654), one assumes he refers here to Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Elsewhere, he mentions the signatories to the Brussels Conference Act of 1890. 

[27] Ibid., 657.

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