Consorts of the Caliphs

Women and the Court of Baghdad

176 pages

September, 2017

ISBN: 9781479866793



Add to Cart Available: 8/1/2017

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Arabic Literature

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.

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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.

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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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Accounts of remarkable women at the world's most powerful court

Consorts of the Caliphs is a seventh/thirteenth-century compilation of anecdotes about thirty-eight women who were 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 the prolific Baghdadi scholar Ibn al-Sa'i, who chronicled the academic and political elites of his city in 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, 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 bring the belletristic culture of the Baghdad court to life, particularly in the personal narratives and poetry of culture heroines otherwise lost to history.



  • “Yet another wonderful collaborative project of the Library of Arabic Literature… Clear from this volume’s pages is that there was great appreciation of the original text and the entire process of editing and translating was a labor of love; the reader—specialist or non-specialist—reaps these fruits by getting to know another great text of Arabic classical literature.”

    Journal of the American Oriental Society