Consorts of the Caliphs

Women and the Court of Baghdad

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Ibn al-Saʿi
Shawkat M. Toorawa
Library of Arabic Literature
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Consorts of the Caliphs is a collection of thirty-nine short, biographical entries offering delightful glimpses of moments in women’s lives at the Abbasid courts. The women whose lives are described in this book are wives, concubines, or slaves of caliphs, viziers, and military commanders in the period between 136 AH [754 CE] and 652 AH [1254-55 CE]. The thirteenth-century historian who produced the original Arabic text was Taj Al-Din ‘Ali ibn Anjab Ibn al-Sa’i, known as a Baghdadi librarian and poet. He includes basic details about these women’s lives along with witty dialogue and poetry.

This biographer rarely provides a full picture of the women’s lives, focusing instead on the prominent men who owned or married them. For example, we learn nothing about the wife of caliph Al-Mansur, Hammadah bint Isa, in the entry about her—the entire entry recounts a joke that a poet makes at her burial (5). Ibn Al-Sa’i tells us more about the slave of the caliph Al-Hadi; Ghadir had a beautiful face and voice, and she married her husband’s brother after Al-Hadi died. Most notable about her entry is the account of a dream she had of her dead husband before she herself died. In the dream Al-Hadi rebukes her for marrying his brother, and curses her new love in verse.

The slave poets ‘Inan and Fadl, and the wife of the caliph Al-Ma’mun, Buran, have the longest entries. Buran’s entry—like the entries of other wives—leaves us with little information about her life, but Ibn Al-Sa’i does provide the date of her wedding to Al-Ma’mun and the date of the consummation of the marriage, but says little more about Buran herself. On the other hand, the biography of the slave ‘Inan includes far more detail. For example, Ibn Al-Sa’i mentions ‘Inan’s price at different points in her life—the caliph Al-Rashid paid one hundred thousand silver dirhams. Al-Rashid returned ‘Inan to her owner after a period, and following his death, she was sold again for two hundred thousand dirhams. When that new owner died, ‘Inan was freed, and she left for Egypt, where she died in the year 226 AH [840 or 841 CE]. From the anecdotes recounted in this entry, we get a sense of ‘Inan’s attitude—anything but servile—and some of her feelings.

With the entry on Fadl it is clear that some things don’t change over the span of a thousand years. One of the accounts about her life runs thus:

“Few in God’s creation could match Fadl the Poetess in elegance of handwriting, clarity of style, eloquence of expression and in her ability to turn a phrase. One day I said to Sa’id ibn Humayd, “I think you’ve been writing Fadl’s letters for her. Not to mention tutoring her and giving her tips on composition. That’s why she sounds like you!”

“A nice thought!” he replied with a laugh. “If only she were getting it from me. No, in fact, I’m the one who’s been imitating her style, cribbing from her letters. My friend, if the most talented and senior state secretaries were to imitate her, by God, it would set a whole new standard!” (71)

The pattern of these biographies seems to indicate that the author has access to information about slaves but not about caliphs’ wives, or that he chooses not to include details about the wives of the caliphs. In fact, most biographical dictionaries from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries include entries for the prophet’s wives and companions, for women who transmitted hadith, and for some important Sufi figures, but the wives of caliphs are shielded from public view. Ibn Al-Sa’i’s biographical work, then, departs from the usual biographical dictionary in its scope, even though it, too, does not delve into any detail. While many of the women whose biographies appear in this work were slave poets or singers, many were also “public figures with political clout” (xxi); and, in fact, some even had political influence. For example, Terken Khatun was in command of the state and the military after her husband died and while her son was too young to perform the duties of caliph.

The Arabic text is based on the only extant manuscript of Jihat al-a’immah al-khulafa’ min al-hara’ir wa-l-ima’, which was copied in 900 AH [1495 CE] and is now held in the Veliyyuddin Library in Istanbul. With a forword by Marina Warner, this volume boasts a long list of distinguished contributors. The Arabic critical edition was prepared by Shawkat M. Toorawa and the translation was a collaborative effort between nine editors of the Library of Arabic Literature: Julia Bray, Michael Cooperson, Philip Kennedy, Joseph Lowry, James Montgomery, Tahera Qutbuddin, Devin Stewart, Shawkat Toorawa, and Chip Rossetti.

Bray’s introduction presents the historical backdrop for the work, and the events that would have shaped and influenced the life of Ibn Al-Sa’i, who wrote this work after the murder of the last Abbasid caliph Al-Musta’sim. The maps, genealogical tables for the Abbasid dynasty and early Saljuqs, and the glossaries of names, places, and realia in this volume are excellent resources. The book also includes an index of the Qur’anic verses and poetry featured in this book.

Paired with Kitab al-ima al-shawa’ir by Abu Al-Faraj Al-Isfahani—which has not yet been translated—this edition of Ibn Al-Sa’i’s work, and its eminently readable translation, will pave the way for much needed studies of Arabic poetry written by women in the Abbasid period. Scholarship on the subject is limited; the bibliography of Consorts of the Caliphs does not include a section for works on female poets in the Abbasid period or on women’s poetry in Arabic. These works exist, and one such title, Abdul-Kareem Al-Heitty’s The Role of the Poetess at the ‘Abbasid Court (132-247 A.H./750-861 A.D.), is listed in the general bibliography. With access to this Library of Arabic Literature volume, scholars will be able to build on the works of Wajda Al-Atraqji, Abdullah Al-Udhari, Hilary Kilpatrick, Marla Segol, and others as the histories of female poets in the pre-modern period begin to be written.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shatha Almutawa is assistant professor of religious studies at Willamette University.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ibn al-Saʿi (d. 674 H/1276 AD) was a historian, law librarian, and prolific author from Baghdad. His considerable scholarly output included treatises on hadith, literary commentaries, histories of the caliphs, and biographical collections, though little has survived.

Shawkat M. Toorawa is Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, where he teaches Arabic, comparative, Near Eastern, and world literature. He writes and thinks about Arabic belles-lettres, the Qurʾan, Abbasid Baghdad, and modern literature generally.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.