03 June 2016

Slaves and Servants: Concubines in the Islamic World

By Lisa J. Yarde

The 19th-century Orientalist period in art history, and the accounts of the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey,  once influenced knowledge on the life of concubines in the Islamic world.  I'm particularly fond of the artwork, much of which I've used in the debut covers of my Sultana series, but a common theme among the portrayals is often the image of a beleaguered woman trapped in uncertain circumstances and awaiting cruel fate. The terrified slave girl, shamefaced and paraded naked before strangers who prod and poke her to determine her suitability for sale or as a gift. Equally represented is the idle, languid slave laying around the harem or household with nothing better to do than await the summons of her master. Just as fanciful was the idea that the concubines engaged in nightly orgies with their master, blessed to have easy access to nothing but gorgeous women at his disposal. The truth about concubines in harems from Spain to the Middle East indicates a different lifestyle, governed by strict rules and offering other possible outcomes for ambitious slaves. For the most fortunate among such women, even those who began their career as captives, their lovers and eventual husbands, sons and brothers gave them access to power that might have seemed unimaginable upon their introduction into a new life.

From the Moorish era, there are the best-known examples of Subh who lived in 10th-century Cordoba, and the bitter rivals, Butayna and Maryem in 14th-century Granada. But how did women become concubines in the Islamic world? Religious customs allowed the conquerors to makes slaves of any person captured in warfare so that by the first century of the Moorish period in Spain at least 20% of the population lived in bondage. Slavery did not bar these women from conversion to Islam or manumission in the future. As the Arabs and Berbers went westward across North Africa and into Spain, they seized captives of every age. Pirates, particularly from the North African coast known as the Barbary also raided across the Mediterranean Sea, attacking France and Italy, and as far north as the English and Irish coastlines up through the 17th-century. Black slaves came from eastern and Western Africa across the Sahara. In 14th-century Morocco the ruler Abu Inan Faris, whose mother was described as a black woman, supposedly had a favored concubine, an English woman renamed Shams ed-Duna. 

Women became part of the tribute demanded by Moorish rulers, slaves prized for more than their beauty or potential sexual partners, as singers, dancers, and poets. The base price for most of the Islamic world seems to have been 1,000 gold coins or dinars for European slaves; very beautiful or skilled women commanded much higher prices. Most importantly for such concubines, the children they bore for their masters were considered free from their birth and the legitimate heirs of their fathers, or in the case of royal concubines, their sons might become future rulers.  In the 10th-century, Ramiro II of Leon, Garcia Sanchez I of Navarre and Count Fernan Gozalez of Castile each had the obligation to provide the first caliph of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman III with sixty young women as tribute. Perhaps that means allowed Subh's entry into the harem of Abd ar-Rahman's son and successor, Al-Hakam.

Although no one knows her Christian birth name, Subh received her new name, which meant  'dawn' in Arabic, after her abduction from Navarre. She must have became part of the household of Al-Hakam by at least 965 based on the birth of her child. Sources indicate that it's almost a miracle she attracted the caliph's interest because he had been a homosexual for most of his life and had a male harem. Supposedly, Subh overcame this difficulty because her hair had been  cut short like a young man's and she wore trousers. Subh bore Al-Hakam's son Hisham in 966.  Ten years later, he ascended the throne as the third caliph after his father's illness, despite the attempts of one of Al-Hakam's brothers to rule. One of two official regents, Subh advanced the career of a minister from Algeciras, Al-Mansur ibn Abi Amir, who dominated Hisham's rule. There is also speculation that Subh took Al-Mansur as her lover. She might have come to regret this choice when Al-Mansur effectively robbed Hisham of power in 997 for the next five years. Nothing is certain about Subh's eventual fate afterward.

Of  the concubines Butayna and Maryam, there are other uncertainties. Each has been called concubine or wife interchangeably in the sources - if married, it's likely they would have converted to Islam. Both were born as Christians, but there's no indication of where these women came from or when they became part of the harem of Sultan Yusuf I of Granada. He had come to the throne at the age of fifteen in 1333 upon the assassination of his elder brother Muhammad IV at eighteen, himself a successor of a murdered father, Ismail I. As with Subh, the dates of the women's entries into Yusuf's household can only be assumed by the births of their respective first sons. Butayna, whose name meant 'one who possesses a young and tender body' bore her first son Muhammad on January 4, 1338, so she would have been part of the harem by the previous year at least. Later, she also had a daughter Aisha and possibly another son called Ahmad. Maryem, whose possible alternate name of Rim might have been transposed incorrectly from the original sources, had her son Ismail on October 2, 1338. This tiny detail about Yusuf's sons being born ten months apart led me to imagine a deadly rivalry existed between Butayna and Maryem in the third novel of the Sultana series. Latter events also suggest the vicious nature of their relationship.

Most of the sources agree that Yusuf favored Maryem over Butayna, as supposedly evidenced by Maryem's seven children as compared to Butayna's two or three. In addition to Ismail, Maryem became the mother of another son called Qays, and five daughters named Fatima, Mumina, Khadija, Shams, and Zaynab; while the eldest of these princesses isn't specified she becomes important in subsequent history. Most of the court ministers favored Muhammad as Yusuf's eventual successor, but there are indications that he would have preferred Ismail to rule Granada upon his death. Yusuf's end on October 19, 1354, occurred suddenly and as brutally as that of his elder brother and father; a slave stabbed him to death in the main mosque near Alhambra palace. Muhammad V ascended the throne, married his cousin and had a young son. In the interim, Maryem and Yusuf's eldest daughter had married her cousin. On August 21, 1359, over one hundred conspirators in support of Maryem and her son-in-law scaled the palace walls and overthrew Muhammad who fled into an eventual exile in Morocco. Not all the sources agree Butayna was with her son at the time, but none mentions her death during this tumultuous period. Maryem's eldest son became the ruler of Granada, but Ismail II suffered, too. Almost a year later, Maryem's son-in-law overthrew Ismail, executing him with his brother Qays and possibly Maryem.

Image result for magnificent century

Other examples of famous concubines who became the power behind in the throne of Islamic societies can be found in my 2010 UH article, Women Did It Better: The Reign of Women, which explored how the 16th and 17th-century concubines Hurrem, Nurbanu, Safiye, Kosem, and Turhan influenced the reigns of their lovers and husbands, brothers, and sons. Georgians and Circassians were the most common among Ottoman concubines, but Hurrem was likely Polish, her daughter-in-law Nurbanu came from Venice, and Nubanu's daughter-in-law Safiye was either Venitian also or Albanian. Kosem was born in the Greek isles and her daughter-in-law Turhan came from the Ukraine or Russia. Turkey is enjoying a resurgence of interest in the lives and loves of those women as concubines or eventual wives within the Ottoman royal harems through the production of two series, Magnificent Century and Magnificent Century: Kosem. Both are well-done and entertaining, more than historical figures in fancy dress, illustrating the roles of concubines who became more than they might have once dreamed. 


All images are public domain, royalty-free. All data from numerous sources researched during the writing of the Sultana series.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.