Singing Slave Women in the Medieval Islamic Court (Topical Guide)

Singing Slave Women in the Medieval Islamic Court (Topical Guide)

Lisa Nielson

Case Western Reserve University


Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University, offers H-Slavery the second of a series of topical guides concerning the study of slavery. The goal of this post is to provide a concise introduction to the major themes and works within this field with the hope of fostering more dialogue on the topic. Full references to works mentioned in the text appear in the bibliography below.

The author is grateful for the helpful feedback from the H-Slavery list, H-Slavery Editor David Prior (University of New Mexico) for suggesting I contribute a topic summary, guidance, and keen editing, and to Kathryn Hain (University of Utah) and Carl Davila (SUNY-Brockport) for sharing their thoughts and work. A special note of gratitude goes to Pernilla Myrne (University of Göteborg, Sweden) for her close reading, suggestions, and corrections.


This guide offers a brief overview of the importance of slave women in the early Islamicate courts (661-1,000CE).  To date, there have been few studies of slavery in the medieval Middle East, let alone one examining the intersections of slavery, music, and gender in the various Islamicate courts.  Due to the fluidity of how slavery was defined and understood in the Islamicate world, it is easier to refer to Islamicate slavery as united by some similarities as a system but with practices varying greatly across time and region.  For example, while Islamicate slavery most often revolved around the household, civil service, and artistic roles, some Islamicate regimes utilized gang and agricultural labor as well as slave armies. (See especially Marmon, ed., Slavery in the Islamic Middle East [1999], Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery [2006], and Toledano, As If Silent and Absent [2007].) One commonality shared by Islamicate slave systems was the use of slave women as musicians, concubines, and courtesans.  Although scholarship has too often relegated slave women to the status of oppressed, often silent members of the women’s quarters, free and un-free women were essential to the development of literature and music in the Islamicate world.

According to the extant documentary record, slavery was a fact of life in the urban and nomadic cultures of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean beginning around 3,000BCE. To be a slave was a legal and economic status and anyone could become enslaved. Slaves were acknowledged as human and not entirely bereft of rights. The advent of Islam in Arabia in the 7th century did not bring about the abolition of slavery, just as the advent of other Abrahamic religions did not, but it did establish rules for good treatment and manumission of slaves.  To free a slave was a means of gaining favor with God, and slaves could earn money, buy their freedom, and had certain rights under the law. (See Hodgson, The Venture of Islam [1974].)

The Islamicate courts primarily utilized slaves for domestic work; a loose category which encompassed everything from civil service to agricultural labor to entertainment. (For the complication of the term “domestic” in the context of Islamicate slavery, see Clarence-Smith, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery [2006]. I am indebted to Pernilla Myrne for this essential point.) The courts adopted the practice of using eunuchs as civil servants from Persia, and at first used captives of war, slave raids, and diplomatic exchanges of prisoners to staff their corps of artists, soldiers, guards, entertainers, and concubines. One well-documented example of gang labor was the use of black African slaves, referred to as the Zanj. During the 9th century under Abbasid rule, gangs of black Africans were put to work draining the salt marshes and reclaiming flooded farmlands in what is now southern Iraq.

The Zanj were nomadic and rural people from East Africa in the region called the Dar al-Aswad, or Land of the Blacks (forming part of today’s Sudan, which derives from the Arabic word for black). They were enslaved not just because of the color of their skin, but due to their being perceived as not being civilized. In 869CE, the Zanj staged a fearsome rebellion and established a stronghold which they held for ten years. (On these points, see Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East [1990], Davis, Slavery and Human Progress [1984], and Hodgson [1974] for an overview of the Zanj rebellion. For a contemporary account, see al-Tabari The Histories [multiple editions].)

According to Islamic law, one was not supposed to enslave co-religionists, so medieval slavers from the Middle East ranged east and west. As Islamic states expanded, slaves were brought or purchased from as far away as what are now France and China.  Documentary sources show slaves being ranked according to the level of their civilization and “national character” based on their geographic region. People from Europe and equatorial Africa were considered uncivilized and best used for labor, while people from Persia, India, Byzantium, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and other highly cultured regions were desired. Women from such civilized places, along with those from North Africa, were prized for their beauty and cultural background.

Among the most visible – and notorious – slaves in the Umayyad (661-750CE) and Abbasid (750-1258CE) courts were “singing slave women” (Arabic qayna, pl. qiyān). Qiyān were a special class of slaves trained in music, poetry, and courtly etiquette who commanded astronomical prices on the open market. Because of their need to be fluent in Arabic, singing slave women were either purchased as children or born to slave parents. Ownership and patronage were primarily available only to the caliph, nobility, and wealthy status-seekers from the middle class. The term qayna could also be used to refer to musically talented free women. However, free women of high status were socially prohibited from performing in public out of propriety and those free women who were qiyān took care to be perceived as amateurs.

In early Arabic literature, qiyān are often, though not always, differentiated from other types of female slaves, such as the more generic jariya (pl. jawārī). This distinction suggests that terms for slave women were also used to indicate skill and status, differentiating elite courtesans (qiyān) from musical concubines (jawārī). Even though they were not technically free, qiyān had higher status than other slaves and could earn their freedom through skill, money, or bearing their owner’s children (umm walad). (On these points, see Caswell, The Slave Girls of Baghdad [2011], Myrne, Narrative, Gender and Authority in Abbasid Literature on Women [2010], Nielson, “Gender and the Politics of Music in the Early Islamic Courts” [2012], all listed works by M. Gordon, and Sawa, Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era [1989]. For slaves in the social fabric of early Islam, see also Ahsan, Social Life under the Abbasids [1979] and Lindsay, Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World [2005].)

References to singing girls, along with professional mourners, are found in pre-Islamic poetry and remain ubiquitous in Arabic literature from the 7th well into the 14th century. Depending on the perspective the primary source, they were viewed as symbols of excess, musical excellence, or delightful wickedness. They are credited with writing books of poetry, establishing their own musical traditions, and wielding considerable political power. (See Myrne, [2010], Sharlet, Patronage and Poetry in the Islamic World [2011], Caswell [2011], and Gordon, all.) Regretfully, there are no books extant by singing slave women; surviving historical records are authored by men. Singing slave women performed and competed for favor along with men and a class of cross-gendered entertainers called mukhannathūn. By the late 8th and early 9th centuries, music became essential to court functions, though this change in aesthetic neither fully legitimized music as an honorable profession nor displaced women musicians.  Rather, men and women, free and unfree, performed in the same events, often together, and contributed equally to the development of art music in the Middle East. (For slave musicians and Islamicate musical culture, see Farmer, A History of Arabian Music to the 13th Century [1929], Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of Songs [2003], Meyers-Sawa, “The Role of Women in Musical Life” [1987] and “Historical Issues of Gender and Music” [2002], Neubaur, Musiker Am Hof Der Fruhen Abbasiden [1960], Nielson [2012], and Sawa [1989].)

The bibliography provides a brief selection of primary and secondary sources, several of which are good supplements for undergraduate courses.  For example, the Epistle on the Singing Girls by al-Jahiz, the two articles by Suzanne Meyers-Sawa, and short essays on the singing girl ‘Arib by Matthew Gordon provide helpful background into the status of slave women and their complex role in the culture. The bibliography is brief not only because there are relatively few studies on Islamicate slave women and medieval Islamicate slavery, but because many sources have not (yet) been translated. That being said, there is a growing body of information about manumission, the extent of the medieval Islamic slave trade, the roles and uses for elite slaves, and the contributions of slaves to Islamicate cultures. Five years ago, a small working group of scholars examining slavery and concubinage in the medieval Islamicate world formed in the hopes of expanding our knowledge through collaboration. Members of the group are associated with H-Medieval Middle East (MEM) and share ideas via a list maintained by Kathryn Hain at the University of Utah. New members are always welcome. The group presents work and organizes panels in several disciplines, including medieval history, Iberian studies, Middle East-North Africa (MENA) studies, and musicology. In addition, the new Library of Arabic Literature series through NYU is providing valuable translations of medieval Arabic texts and pedagogical tools, though further scholarship is needed. For example, there is rich territory for interdisciplinary collaboration into the intersection of the medieval Islamic slave trade and that of medieval Europe; how gender and culture played into the roles and perceptions of slaves; economics and material culture; and slave contributions to music, art, and literature.



Select primary sources

al-Isbahani, Abu al-Faraj. Kitab al-Aghani. 24 vols. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub, 1927-1974.

al-Jahiz. The Epistle on the Singing Girls. Translated by A.F.L. Beeston. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, Ltd., 1980.

al-Mas'udi. Muruj al-Dhahab wa Ma'adin al-Jawhar. 4 vols. Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1965-66.

———. The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids Translated by Paul and Caroline Stone Lunde.

London: Kegan Paul, International, Ltd., 1989.

al-Nadim. The Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim:  A 10th Century Survey of Muslim Culture. Translated by

Bayard Dodge. Edited by Bayard Dodge. 2 vols, Records of Civilization, Sources and Titles. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

al-Tabari. The Histories. Various editions in multiple volumes.

al-Tanūkhi, al-Muhassin ibn Ali. Table Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge. Translated by D.S.

Margoliouth. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1922.

_____. Nishwar al-muhadarah. Vol. 2. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub, 2004.

Ibn al-Sa’i. Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad. Edited by Shawkat Toorawa. Translated by The Editors of the Library of Arabic Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Ibn al-Washsha, Abu Tayib ibn Muhammad ibn Ishaq. Al-Muwashsha, or a-Zarfu wa’l-Zarfa. Beirut: Dar Sadr, 1960.

French translation: Le Livre De Brocart (The Book of Brocades). Translated by Siham Bouhlal. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2004.


Secondary sources

Medieval Islamicate Culture:

Ahsan, Muhammad Manazir. Social Life under the Abbasids. London: Longman Group, Ltd., 1979.

Hambly, Gavin R.G., ed. Women in the Medieval Islamic World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Hodgson, Marshall GS. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, vol. 1 & 2. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1974.

Lindsay, James. Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2005.

Shoshan, Boaz. "High Culture and Popular Culture in Medieval Islam." Studia Islamica 73 (1991): 67-107.


Islamic slave systems:

Clarence-Smith, William. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Marmon, Shaun ed. Slavery in the Islamic Middle East. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999.

Savage, E. "Berbers and Blacks: Ibadi Slave Traffic in Eighth-Century North Africa." The Journal of African History 33, no. 3 (1992): 351-68.

Schneider, Irene. “Freedom and Slavery in Early Islamic Time (1st/7th and 2th/8th Centuries), Al-Qantara, 28, no. 2 (2007): 353-382.

Toledano, Ehud. As If Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.


Slave women:

Abbott, Nabia. "Women and the State in Early Islam." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1, no. 3 (1942): 341-68.

———. "Women and the State on the Eve of Islam." The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 58, no. 3 (1941): 259-84.

al-Heitty, Abd al-Kareem. "The Contrasting Spheres of Free Women and Jawari in the Literary Life of the Early Abbasid Caliphate." Al-Masaq 3 (1990): 31-51.

Caswell, F. Matthew. The Slave Girls of Baghdad. London & New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd., 2011.

El-Cheikh, Nadia Maria.  "Revisiting the Abbasid Harems." Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 1, no. 3 (2005): 1-19.

Gordon, Matthew. “Arib al-Ma’muniyah,” in Michael Cooperson and Shawkat Toorawa, eds. Arabic Literary Culture, 500-925, 85-90. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale Publishing, 2004.

_____.  “The Place of Competition: The Careers of Arib al-Ma’muniya and Ulayya bint

al-Mahdi, Sisters in Song,” in James Montgomery, ed. Occasional Papers of the School of Abbasid Studies. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, no. 135, 61-81. Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2004.

_____. “Arib al-Ma’muniya: A Third/Ninth Century Abbasid Courtesan.” in Neguin

Yavari, et. al., eds. Views from the Edge: Essays in Honor of Richard W. Bulliet, 86-100. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

_____. “Yearning and Disquiet: al-Jahiz and the Risalat al-Qiyan,” in Armin Heinemann, et al, eds. Al-Jahiz: A Muslim Humanist for our Time, 253-268. Wurzburg: Ergon-Verlag, 2009.

Pellat, Charles. “Kayna,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol. 4, 820-824. Leiden: Brill, 1976.


Slaves as musicians:

Davila, Carl. “Fixing a Misbegotten Biography: Ziryāb in the Mediterranean World.”  al-Masāq 21, no. 2 (2009): 121-136

Farmer, Henry George.  A History of Arabian Music to the 13th Century. London: Luzac & Co., Ltd., 1929, Reprint, 1995.

Kilpatrick, Hilary. Making the Great Book of Songs: Compilation and the Author's Craft in Abu’l Faraj al-Isbahani's “Kitab al-Aghani.” London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Meyers-Sawa, Suzanne. "Historical Issues of Gender and Music." in The Garland Encyclopedia of Music: The Middle East, ed. Virginia Danielson, et al, 293-98. New York: Routledge, 2002.

———. "The Role of Women in Musical Life: The Medieval Arabo-Islamic Courts." Canadian Women's Studies 8, no. 2 (1987): 93-95.

Neubauer, Eckhard. Musiker Am Hof Der Fruhen Abbasiden. Frankfurt am Main: JW Goethe-Universitat, 1965.

Nielson, Lisa.  “Gender and the Politics of Music in the Early Islamic Courts,” Early Music History 31 (2012): 233-259.

Reynolds, Dwight. “Arab Musical Influence on Medieval Europe: A reassessment,” in A Sea of

Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, ed., Suzanne

Conklin Akbari & Karla Mallette, 182-198. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013

Sawa, George. Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era, 132-32-AH/750-932AD. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1989.

———. "Musical Humor in the Kitab al-Aghani." in Logos Islamikos: Studia Islamica in Honorem Georgii Michaelis Wickens, ed. Rodger Savery and Dionisius Agius, 35-50. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1984.

———. "The Status and Roles of the Secular Musicians in the Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs) of Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani (D.356AH/967AD)." Asian Music 17, no. 1 (1985): 69-82.

———. "The Survival of Some Aspects of Medieval Arabic Performance Practice." Ethnomusicology 25, no. 1 (1981): 73-86.

Shehadi, Fadlou. Philosophies of Music in Medieval Islam. New York: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Shiloah, Amnon. "Music and Religion in Islam." Acta Musicologica 69, no. 2 (1997): 143-55.

———. Music in the World of Islam: A Socio-Cultural Study. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

Stigelbauer, Michael. “Die Sangerinnen Am Abbasidenhof Um Die Zeit Des Kalifen al-Mutawakkil Nach Dem Kitab al-Aghani Des Abu’l Farag al-Isbahani and Anderen Quellen Dargestellt.” Ph.D. Diss., Universitat Wien, 1975.

Wright, O. "Music and Verse." in Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period,

ed. A.F.L. Beeston, et. al., 433-50. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

_____. “Musiki,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, 681-688, Vol. 7. Leiden: Brill, 1992.



Myrne, Pernilla. Narrative, Gender and Authority in Abbasid Literature on Women. Orientalia et Africana Gothoburgensia, no. 22. Goteburg, Sweden: Edita Vastra, 2010. Open Access:

Sharlet, Jocelyn. Patronage and Poetry in the Islamic World: Social Mobility and Status in the Medieval Middle East and Central Asia. London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011.