Matthew Gordon, Kathryn A. Hain. Concubines and Courtesans: Women and Slavery in Islamic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 368 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-062218-3.
Reviewed by Christina Chatzitheodorou (King's College London)
Published on H-Slavery (October, 2022)
Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)
This edited volume examines a variety of topics through a variety of different times and regional contexts. Slavery, gender, social networking, cultural creation (music, poetry, and dance), sexuality, Islamic family law, and religion are all themes explored in Concubines and Courtesans. The essays in this edited volume span over a thousand years of Islamic history, from the early, formative period (seventh to tenth century CE), through the late Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal periods (sixteenth to eighteenth century CE), as well as territories ranging from al-Andalus (the Muslim area of the Iberian Peninsula) to Central Asia (Timurid Iran). This excellent volume provides a thorough representation of the lives of female slaves in early Islamic society. Slavery in Islam is a topic well researched in the scholarship. However, this volume concerns the focus on a “specialized” labor of female slaves: concubines and courtesans. The edited volume consists of fifteen chapters (excluding the introduction and the epilogue), where different representations of concubines and courtesans are explored by several authors, each one of them an expert on their topic, era, and region.
The focus on the story of concubines and courtesans in early Islamic history not only provides a distinct (gendered) point of view, moving Islamic and Near Eastern history toward a new direction, but it also focuses on a topic largely absent from the scholarship: female agency in a patriarchal society were slavery and ownership consistently surrounded women. As scholarship has shown on these topics, slave women endured the dual hardships of being both slaves and women. Women frequently adapted to achieve more autonomy within the constraints of their sex-based oppression. However, different types of oppression need tailor-made handling by expert historians; the specific characteristics of patriarchy across civilizations and cultures result in different reactions, which may also vary by class, caste, and ethnicity within a society.
In early Islamic history, women’s subordination to men, both as free women and as slaves, provided the context upon which both their agency manifested itself and resistance emerged. The constraints that existed in early Islamic societies had an impact on both the potential for and particular forms of active or passive resistance by women against their oppression. These forms of agency are illustrated in many articles within the book: Joselyn Sharlet’s article examines the practice of gift exchange of elite slave women. Through two examples, Utba and Inan, Sharlet shows both the objectification of female slaves that sees women as material objects that could be bought and sold, and their existing, yet limited, subjectivity to this practice of gift exchange. Objectification and subjectivity interact with each other in these cases, as the gift exchange practice was infused with the agency of the female slaves who were given as a gift.
The authors in this edited volume use a mix of primary and secondary sources to transfer readers to the early Islamic society and narrate the story of the concubines and courtesans who lived through that time. The volume draws information from a variety of primary sources, from the Quran and hadith to legal sources, personal memoirs, and poem collections. For instance, there are several references to al-Isbahani's Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs). An inherent disadvantage of primary Arabic sources produced in early Islam is associated with the authorship of these sources. The narration of events that demonstrate the agency of these women is largely written by men. Nevertheless, Lisa Nielson’s article on the “music girls” (qiyan, sing. qayna) in the early Islamicate courts (661-950 BCE) demonstrates that despite any drawbacks, these women’s accounts remain important in offering a glimpse into the past and their lives. Engagement with primary Arabic-language sources is crucial to understanding the limitations that exist when it comes to translating notions from different eras and places. Literary systems should always be understood within the cultural settings where they emerge. Cristina de la Puente’s article provides a thorough analysis of the difficulties posed when engaging with Arabic sources of early Islam, particularly identifying the ethnic origins of female slaves in al-Andalus. Previous readings regarding the ethnic origins of female slaves, in instances, result in an a posteriori reading, influenced by our existing bias and our (historically constructed) understanding of reality. Lisa Nielson’s article also pays attention to the “ideological bargaining” that comes along with translating Arabic notions with Western words, which hinders the ability of the reader to understand the significant differences that existed, a sort of translation gap, where meanings can be lost in translation.
Apart from the engagement with Arabic primary and secondary sources, a variety of methodologies are applied for the accumulation of data in many of the chapters of Concubines and Courtesans. Majied Robinson’s chapter provides a thorough statistical analysis of the rise of concubinage in early Islamic history, well before the Abbasid era. Robinson follows a quantitative analysis of the parental records in a ninth-century genealogical text. The genealogical text (Nasab Quraysh of al-Zubayri, d.c. 850) contains the maternal records of three thousand Quraysh. In order to overcome the methodological inaccuracies that emerge from this approach, he also uses “basic prosopographical and statistical techniques” (p. 11). Through the expansion of prosopography of maternal origins to comprise hundreds of Quraysh, it is shown that concubinage was popular from the early Arab conquests and there is little evidence to suggest that discrimination against these unions was the norm. In accordance with the traditional narrative, Robinson argues that from Mohammed’s grandfather's generation up until Mohammed’s generation, concubinage remained uncommon in the pre-Islamic Arabian society and this change was a result of the first military conquests and the expansion of the “Islamic” borders.
The conquests were directly linked both with the increase in concubinage and the change of attitude toward slave-born children’s bid for the caliphate. The accumulated wealth due to the conquests made apparent certain disadvantages of marriage with an Arab free woman: the high expense of dowries; the divided loyalties of women; and the possibility that these tribal marriages could upset the balance of power among clans. In this new situation, at the end of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), a century after Muhammad, Muslim male elites went to the “safest” and most obedient women they could find, their cousins and concubines. Eventually, the changing social context that emerged with the military conquests had an impact on the marriage patterns, which also paved the way for concubine-born caliphs to come to power.
Elizabeth Urban’s chapter explores the debate around the right of children born to slave women to make their bid for the caliphate through the invocations of Hajar and Mariya. This debate was rather important given that it shaped early Arab identity. Urban explains that by accepting a born slave child as a noble and hence able to attain the caliphate, the Arab lineage that mattered was the male one only; a new form of Arabism emerged where the mother’s identity, slave or free woman, was not equally important and the child should be considered as a full Arab only by considering his male lineage (pp. 228-234). In most cases, the female line was silenced, and mothers appear as nothing more than a womb. Usman Hamid’s essay, however, shows that there were exceptions to the widespread practice: in Timurid Iran, concubinage was comprised of free women instead of slaves. The inclusion of free women as royal concubines was associated with both dynastic continuity and legitimacy to a prince’s claim to power in a highly competitive environment. Royal concubines were used as a means for forming an alliance and a network of close supporters (p. 192).
Marina A. Tolmacheva’s chapter provides interesting and valuable information regarding the different expectations and obligations between free and slave women; particularly, concubines were used as a substitute for wives as the law was more flexible toward them. Tolmacheva provides us with a glance at the different sexuality of slaves and free women: slave women were not under the same obligations regarding modesty and purity as the Arab free women, who had the burden of tradition. This allowed concubines more flexibility in providing sexual pleasure to their masters. However, Pernylla Myrne’s chapter shows, through the life of the slave (jariya, pl. jawari) poet Inan al-Natifi, both the vulnerabilities and opportunities inherent in the life of jawari. Slave women, unlike free women, were subject to mistreatment by their masters. As Myrne argues, the whip is what distinguished a free Arab woman from a slave—even if the slave was among those considered part of the talented/privileged class.
Despite the different expectations of slave and free women and their treatment by men, the free/slave dichotomy interacted with established gender norms and practices. Myrne’s chapter demonstrates that the dividing line between marriage with a free woman and concubinage was thin since marriage was seen as a form of ownership of a woman by a man in the same pattern of ownership of a slave by her master. Julia Bray has previously mentioned this unfreedom of free women as quasi slavery, and Kecia Ali has also argued that slavery was rather inseparable from ideas about marriage. The society was undoubtedly hierarchical, where men stood over women, regardless of their status. This was also a result of the rise of concubinage in the early Abbasid era that had an impact on the influence of free women; having previously enjoyed a form of political independence, the gradual preference for concubines altered their position significantly, to the extent that the dividing line between a hurra (free woman) and a jariya was blurred. Myrne’s concludes that in certain cases, concubines were “freer” than Arab free women (p. 64).
The umm walad, especially of the elite society, can also be characterized as freer. The topic and notion of umm walad are extensively researched in the volume through different eras, social classes, and places. In practice, giving birth to the child of a free master transformed the concubine’s legal status. From a simple concubine, she became an umm walad, “the mother of the master’s child” (p. 4). Younus Y. Mirza’s essay focuses on the debate concerning the obligations toward the umm walad and examines the treatise of umm walad through the writings of Ibn Kathir, the great hadith scholar; the latter provided a comprehensive discussion of the topic and the debate around the rights and wrongs concerning the sale of an umm walad, a debate that emerged as early as the generation after the Prophet’s death. Another special concern of the book is how an umm walad managed to gain a higher social status, which in most cases was interrelated with the fortunes of their (male) offspring. Betül İpşirli Argıt chapter delves into the involvement of women in the political realm, particularly the influence of valide sultans, questioning the overall assumption that “the sultanate of women” (p. 207) lasted until Koprulu Mehmed Pasha’s ascendance to the throne. Contrary to conventional scholarship, Argit, by using the example of Rabia Gulnus Emetullah, demonstrates that the influence of the queen mother did not stop with Koprulu Mehmed Pasha’s ascendance. Additionally, Michael Dann’s article further investigates the different rights and privileges of an umm walad versus a simple concubine. It particularly focuses on the different representations of Hasan al-Askari’s mother, Hudayth, an umm walad, and his slave concubine, named (most likely) Saqil, who might even have been pregnant with his child. The relative freedom of the umm walad was in sharp contrast to Saqil’s total lack of agency.
An additional problem identified in regard to the scholarship of concubinage is associated with the overrepresentation of elite slaves. This leads to a biased accumulated sample within the historiography of female slavery, which hinders our understanding in regard to slaves from a broader spectrum of society. Moving away from elite slaves, Heather J. Empey focuses on these lesser-known women who were taken as spoils of war during the rise of the Almohad dynasty. These women, just like Saqil, remain silenced in comparison with their elite counterparts. These lesser-known voices of women (through the narration of events by men) provide valuable information regarding the reign of Abd al Mu’min ibn Ali al-Kumi. The latter conquered vast territories in the name of Almohadism; the interesting part concerns the use of Muslim women as spoils of war as a punishment for disobedience and resistance to Abd al-Mu’min conquests, particularly given that the enslavement of Muslim women was forbidden by Islamic law.
Moreover, Concubines and Courtesans also focus on a special type of female slave who also had more freedom for maneuver: courtesans. The latter worked as singers, musicians, and poets at royal and princely courts, as well as in other roles in affluent houses. The fostering of second-generation slaves in Arabic-speaking households paved the way for their advanced training in singing and dancing, which allowed them some social advancement. Mathew Gordon’s chapter examines the social uprising of courtesans in major urban centers in the first Abbasid period. Training young women, courtesans in the making, in linguistic arts, musical performance, and maybe sexual competence served as a passport to social mobility in the rising economies of Medina, Basra, and other similar cities during the first Abbassid period (c. 750-900). In turn, this highest appreciation provided these women with more freedom, which they took advantage of to protest and speak out against mistreatment and what they perceived as unfair.
Qiyan occupied the highest level of social mobility for courtesans. Nielson shows that the boundaries between slave and slaver were continually challenged to the extent that a slave qayna could gain an advantage over her patron as a result of her expertise and high value. Nonetheless, she continued to retain the social status of a slave despite some ability to maneuver (p. 89). Dwight E. Reynolds further examines qiyan, but he provides an analysis of qiyan in al-Andalus. Nerina Rustomji’s essay focuses on houris; the latter can be described as a special kind of qiyan. Qiyan and houris share similar characteristics as they both serve men, providing them with entertainment and pleasure. Their most striking difference concerns their “spiritual purity” (p. 270); the houris represent purity, both moral and sexual (virginity), contrary to the qiyan, who are seen as “morally suspect” (p. 270). Our understanding of houris is inextricably linked to our comprehension of the earthly world and how we know it. However, contrary to the qayna of the earth, as heavenly beings, the houri is not bound by social and cosmological expectations in the same way as earthly beings. This makes our understanding of them limited as they only exist in the divine realm. By reading these essays, the reader has the ability to identify the different limitations of the music girls between two different geographical contexts and compare Islamic practices and ideas about concubinage in the West and the East, in both the earthly and divine realms.
In sum, Concubines and Courtesans is an excellent amalgam of different representations of women’s agency and subjectivity in a patriarchal setting that frames their (limited) resistance within the boundaries of their sex-based oppression. The edition is empirically and methodologically rich work for audiences interested in early Islamic history or, more broadly, gender and Islam, and contributes significantly to our understanding of women’s agency and maneuvering in a patriarchal setting. Scholars engaged with early Islamic history will find this edited volume particularly useful and interesting due to the detailed examination in which every author engages with a different era and place. This representation of different times and regions provides a broader and more thorough representation of concubinage in early Islamic history, making a valuable addition to the scholarship.
. Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Jonathan A. C. Brown, Slavery and Islam (London: Oneworld Academic, 2019); David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Chouki El Hamel, “‘Race,’ Slavery and Islam in Maghribi Mediterranean Thought: The Question of the Haratin in Morocco,” Journal of North African Studies 7, no. 3 (2002): 29-52.
. Ahmad A. Sikainga, “The Paradox of the Female Slave Body in the Islamic Legal System: The Cases of Morocco and Sudan,” Hawwa 9, no. 1-2 (2011): 215-33, esp. 216.
. Deniz Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” Gender and Society 2, no. 3 (1988): 274-90, esp. 275.
. Mary Ann Fay provides a thorough analysis of how Shawikar Qadin, a former slave concubine, managed to act within these patriarchal limits in Egypt in the seventeenth century and rise from a slave concubine to a wealthy free widow. See Mary Ann Fay, “From Concubines to Capitalists: Women, Property, and Power in Eighteenth-Century Cairo,” Journal of Women's History 10, no. 3 (Autumn 1998): 118-40.
. Identifying emotions, including disapproval and displeasure, and differentiating between how they are depicted and how individuals really felt and acted upon them is a difficult task due to the manner in which Arabic literature of this time interacted with and functioned in real life. See Julia Bray, “Codes of Emotion in Ninth- and Tenth-Century Baghdad: Slave Concubines in Literature and Life-Writing,” Cultural History 8, no. 2 (2019): 184-85.
. Shlomo Berger, Translation between Language and Culture (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 6.
. In the same pattern, Marek Jankowiak’s article focuses on the “Saqaliba” (Slavic slaves) in early Islam. See Jankowiak, “What does the Slave Trade in the Saqaliba Tell Us about Early Islamic Slavery?” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49, no. 1 (2017): 169-172.
. Urban also delves into race-thinking in regard to slavery in Islamic history, which shows the interactions and contestations between gender, race and slavery in Islam. See Elizabeth Urban, Race, “Gender and Slavery in Early Islamicate History,” History Compass 20, no. 5 (2022): 1-11.
. Julia Bray, “Toward an Abbasid History of Emotions: The Case of Slavery,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49, no. 1 (2017): 143-44. For more on marriage in early Islam, see Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam.
. Some elite concubines were able to accumulate considerable wealth. Nasser Ibrahim, for example, demonstrates how Nafisa Khatun al-Muradiyya (d. 1816), a concubine of Mamluk Ali Bey al-Kabir, accumulated considerable wealth despite the death of her master. Nafisa married Murad Bey, who ruled Egypt, along with Ibrahim Bey. Her wealth becomes evident from her opulent home on Cairo’s Al-Azbakiyya Lake and demonstrates that she was among the wealthiest Mamluk women. Nasser A. Ibrahim, “A Concubine in Early-Modern Egypt,” Hawwa 14, no. 3 (2016): 252.
. For more about houris and their feminine beauty, see Nerina Rustomji, The Beauty of the Houri: Heavenly Virgins, Feminine Ideals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
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Christina Chatzitheodorou. Review of Gordon, Matthew; Hain, Kathryn A., Concubines and Courtesans: Women and Slavery in Islamic History.
H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews.
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