Consorts of the Caliphs

Women and the Court of Baghdad

272 pages

4 maps

May, 2015

ISBN: 9781479850983



Also available in



Part of the Library of Arabic Literature series


Ibn al-Sa'i (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.

All books by Ibn al-Sa'i

Shawkat M. Toorawa is Professor of Arabic literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at Yale University, where he teaches classical Arabic, the Arabic humanities, and literatures of the world.

All books by Shawkat M. Toorawa

All books by The Editors of the Library of Arabic Literature

Julia Bray became the Abdulaziz Saud AlBabtain Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford and a fellow of St. John’s College in 2012, having previously taught at the universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Paris 8-Vincennes—Saint-Denis. She writes on medieval to early modern Arabic literature, life-writing, and social history. She has contributed to the New Cambridge History of Islam (2010), to Essays in Arabic Literary Biography 1350-1850 (2009), and to cross-cultural studies such as Approaches to the Byzantine Family (2013) and edited Writing and Representation in Medieval Islam (2006). With Wen-chin Ouyang, she edits the monograph series Edinburgh Studies in Classical Arabic Literature. With Helen Blatherwick, she is editing a special issue of the journal Cultural History on the history of emotions in Arabic.

All books by Julia Bray

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.

All books by Marina Warner

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-Sa'i (d. 674 H/1276 AD). Ibn al-Sa'i 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-Sa'i 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 'Arib and Fadl, who bested the male poets and singers of their day. From times closer to Ibn al-Sa'i’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.


  • “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 collection of thirty-nine short, biographical entries offering delightful glimpses of moments in women’s lives at the Abbasid courts.” 
    "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." 

    Reading Religion (AAR)

  • "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

  • “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