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The Harem - part 2
(By Ariadne La Noire as appeared in the September/October 1999 Bolt)

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Perhaps a better way to have started this article would have been to give you a description of what Islam is. (But what's done is done!) I will give you a very brief definition of Islam, and encourage you to explore further if you like. Islam is a religion begun in 7th Century Arabia by a man named Muhammad, or as Muslims would call him, the Prophet. In the year 610, Muhammad was said to have been visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who instructed him to proclaim the word of the one true god, Allah. (Before this time, Arabia was populated with polytheists, as well as Jews and Christians.)

Through military conquest and campaigning Muhammad was able to convert local populations in the Hijaz to his cause, which paved the way for the future Islamic Empire, that would someday stretch from Spain to Central and Southeast Asia. Muslims allowed conquered peoples two different options. Monotheists such as Christians, Jews, and later Zoroastrians (in Persia) were allowed to retain their own religious tenants and pay taxes to the ruling Muslims, while polytheists and pagans were slaughtered. At first converting to Islam was not encouraged, but later became tolerated and almost mandatory for those who wished to retain status and power in some conquered areas (Sabini, 31-35, Goode).

    Muhammad was the spiritual and political leader of his people. He made the decisions on religious doctrine as well as on the workings of everyday life. However, upon his death Muhammad had not named a successor to act in his place and lead his people. Trouble, of course, resulted from this lack of a central power. A caliph, or spiritual leader was elected from the followers of the Prophet, but there was hardly ever a common consensus as to who should take the place of Muhammad. After the first four elected Caliphs, (known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs or the Wise Caliphs) the post of Caliph or "Caliphate" became a hereditary line under different family dynasties. There were also schisms within the religion itself, because of disagreements about to whom the position of the Caliph should fall, or because of different takes on religious doctrine. This led to the creation of different sects, each of which had a Caliph or Imam (also a spiritual leader or governor) during the same period of time (Sabini, 51-57, Goode). (The two largest and most powerful sects being the Sunni and the Shi'ite.)

    The Caliph was required to be a man who was not infirm or blind, but whole in mind, body, and spirit. These men at first retained absolute authority over the doctrine of heaven and the people of earth. But, as time wore on, Caliphs eventually had to bow to the will of powerful nobles or kings who commanded armies. However, since Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life, the Caliph was always respected since he maintained jurisdiction of the holy. Caliphs were able to stay safe and in existence as long as they gave heavenly sanction to rulers who sought to gain the support of pious populations. But, the earthly dynasties were not always successful in maintaining power, as history shows families rise and fall, and for various reasons (Goode).

    Because Caliphates are the some of the first major political and religious institutions of the Islamic Empire, I feel this is a fitting place to begin our look at royal women. How did they live? Were they really as subjugated as some history would have us believe? Did the harem really hold these women back?


    The Abbasid Dynasty of Islam lasted nearly five hundred years, from the fall of the Umayyad Dynasty in 750 to the Mongol take over in 1258. Much information is unavailable on the Umayyad Dynasty, mainly because the conquering Abbasids consciously sought to wipe out records of their existence. There was however, an Umayyad Dynasty in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) following the fall of their power in the Middle East. There was a great interest in Persian arts, writing and culture in the Middle East during the early centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate. Because of this the royal household was surrounded by this trendy lifestyle, (though geographically the Caliph was in Arabia-Baghdad) we see some of the cultural practices of the Sassanids (A Persian Dynasty) coming into play. I have already mentioned that Persians had established the inferiority of women due to old Mesopotamian influences in their culture, and this became expressed in the harems of the Caliphate (Tucker, 8). Scholars during this time, ranging from Nizam al-Mulk, al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Ibn Battuta, wrote only about how a woman should be perceived socially, and not necessarily what roles they played in society. Nizam al-Mulk denounced the decision making skills of women, while al-Ghazali wrote about the mental insufficiencies of all women (Peirce, 268-269). Both of these men advocated the inability of women to be rulers, which also shows how the reputations and sway of elite women in the royal household were increasingly being repressed in public view. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar and qadi (expert or judge in Muslim religious doctrine.) who travelled throughout the Muslim Empire in the 14th Century, also denounced the ability of women to rule. So, in period documents left by these men we see a plethora of subjugation as well as a lack of information on the daily lives of women. We can conclude that because these historians considered women incompetent and unimportant, they saw little reason to write about their lives, other than to delineate their place in society. These ideas of feminine inferiority would be passed from dynasty to dynasty because of these Abbasid views. But we must look and ask ourselves why there was such a vast amount of this female denunciation. Did the high ranking women of this time give these experts a reason to try to keep women in their place?

(Also during this time, the Abbasid Caliphate made an important decision that would affect all later Dynasties and harems: It allowed a child from a royal concubine to have a legitimate chance for the crown (Peirce, 30). Because of this action, there was no reason for a man to limit the births of children, either by wife or concubine, which again, is an act that perpetuated the existence of the harem. However, this rule would also cause turmoil for women in the harem. Because not just the wives could produce heirs, internal fighting to determine future rulers resulted. Thus, such actions of the Abbasid Caliphate on the harem affected all future harems in the Islamic World. More on this later.)

 Page last updated 02/02/00