Consorts of the Caliphs

Women and the Court of Baghdad

272 pages

4 maps

May, 2015

ISBN: 9781479850983

$30

Cloth

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Authors

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.
 

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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.

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Julia Bray is currently the Laudian Professor of Arabic in the University of Oxford, and a fellow of St. John’s College. She has written the chapter on medieval to early modern Arabic literature for the New Cambridge History of Islam (Cambridge, 2010), and a survey of gender in medieval Arabic writing and modern historical scholarship for L. Brubaker and J.M.H. Smith, Gender in the Early Medieval World (Cambridge, 2004). 

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Marina Warner is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy. Her most recent book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, as well as the 2013 Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

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Consorts of the Caliphs is a seventh/thirteenth-century compilation of anecdotes about thirty-eight women who were, as the title suggests, consorts to those in power, most of them concubines of the early Abbasid caliphs and wives of latter-day caliphs and sultans. This slim but illuminating volume is one of the few surviving texts by Ibn al-Saʿi (d. 674 H/1276 AD). Ibn al-Saʿi was a prolific Baghdadi scholar who chronicled the academic and political elites of his city, and whose career straddled the final years of the Abbasid dynasty and the period following the cataclysmic Mongol invasion of 656 H/1258 AD.                                                                                                                   

In this work, Ibn al-Saʿi is keen to forge a connection between the munificent wives of his time and the storied lovers of the so-called golden age of Baghdad. Thus, from the earlier period, we find Harun al-Rashid pining for his brother’s beautiful slave, Ghadir, and the artistry of such musical and literary celebrities as ʿArib and Fadl, who bested the male poets and singers of their day. From times closer to Ibn al-Saʿi’s own—when Abbasid authority was trying to reassert itself and Baghdad was again a major center of intellectual and religious activity—we meet women such as Banafsha, who endowed law colleges, had bridges built, and provisioned pilgrims bound for Mecca; slave women whose funeral services were led by caliphs; and noble Saljuq princesses from Afghanistan.

Informed by the author’s own sources, his insider knowledge, and well-known literary materials, these singular biographical sketches, though delivered episodically, bring the belletristic culture of the Baghdad court to life, particularly in the personal narratives and poetry of culture heroines otherwise lost to history.

Reviews

  • “A rare and unusual book providing glimpses into the lives of influential Muslim women who often pulled the strings from behind the scene… Indispensable for the study of medieval Muslim culture and society.”

    The Muslim News

  • “A unique text… Offers the pleasure of reading about the highs and lows of women’s often hidden lives at the Abbasid court.”

    Times Literary Supplement

  • "A meticulously edited translation…The rich variety of experiences related here shakes our preconceived notions and can help towards a better understanding, not just of female slaves, but also of women generally in this period and environment.”

    Journal of Islamic Studies