Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad.

Author:Van Berkel, Maaike
Position:Book review
 
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Ibn al-Sa'i, Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad. Edited by SHAWKAT M. TOORAWA, translated by Editors of LAL. Library of Arabic Literature. New York: NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xlv + 226. $30.

Sources describing the vicissitudes of the Abbasid court are generally not very admiring of powerful women or rulers who listen to these women. Mothers, sisters, concubines, and harem managers (sg. qahramana) who wielded power and let their voices be heard at meetings were often presented as founts of despair and destruction. Several contemporaries and near-contemporaries chronicling the reign of the eighteenth Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 295-320/908-32), for example, consider the caliph's soft-heartedness and his dependence on the women at his court to be one of the reasons for the demise of the caliphate during his reign. The tenth-century Iraqi literatteur and judge al-Tanukhi included in his Nishwar al-muhadara (ed. 'A. al-Shaliji, 8 vols. [Beirut: Dar al-Sadir, 1971-73], 1: 287-88) an anecdote about the young prince Ja'far (the later caliph al-Muqtadir) that foretold the problems he would face: Seeing his son share grapes fairly with his playfellows, his father, the caliph al-Mu'tadid (r. 279-89/892-902), is said to have exclaimed, "I should kill that child today. [...] He will become caliph [...] so the women will wield power over him." And according to the tenth-century chronicler al-Miskawayh in Tajarib al-umam, the highest military leader under al-Muqtadir wrote to the latter that "the army had complained bitterly of the amount of money and land wasted upon the eunuchs and women of the court, and of their participation in the administration, and demanded their dismissal and removal from the palace, with seizure of their possessions" (see H. F. Amedroz and D. S. Margoliouth, eds. and trs., The Eclipse of the Abbasid Caliphate, 6 vols. [Oxford and London: Basil Blackwell, 1920-21] 1: 189).

In his K. Jihat al-a'imma al-khulafa' min al-hara'ir wa-l-ima', Ibn al-Sa'i (d. 674/1276) approaches the women at the Abbasid court from a completely different angle. His consorts are witty, entertaining, and pious. Ibn al-Sa'i praises their good works, their maternal virtues, their generosity, and their poetic and musical talents. 'Inan, slave of al-Natifi (fl. second/eighth century), "was a poet and woman of wit," he narrates. "She was the most gifted poet of her generation" (p. 11). Fadl al-Sha'ira al-Yamamiyya, slave of...

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