Beginning of the Harem System Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

By the late eighth century, the rights of Muslim women during the ՙAbbāsid Dynasty had been suppressed, combined with the start of the harem system. This repression was caused in part by an increase in urbanization, social stratification, the influx of other cultures, and a growing rigidity in the development of Islamic law.

Summary of Event

Leila Ahmed has written that women in ՙAbbāsid ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] society were explicitly excluded from the public life of the dynasty by being made absent. “In the records relating to this period,” she continues, “they are not to be found, as they were in the previous era, either on battlefield or in mosques, nor are they described as participants in or key contributors to the cultural life and productions of their society.” So, Ahmed concludes, “women of the elite and bourgeois classes would live out their lives in seclusion, guarded by eunuchs if wealthy.” Women;Muslim [kw]Beginning of the Harem System (780) [kw]Harem System, Beginning of the (780) Harem System Iraq;780: Beginning of the Harem System[0720] Cultural and intellectual history;780: Beginning of the Harem System[0720] Laws, acts, and legal history;780: Beginning of the Harem System[0720]

The ՙAbbāsid caliphate was an Islamic state centered in Baghdad; it succeeded the Damascus-based Umayyad Umayyad caliphate caliphate in 749 and lasted until the Mongols sacked Baghdad and killed the caliph in 1258, although ՙAbbāsid caliphs continued to lead as figureheads in Cairo until the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The ՙAbbāsid rulers adopted a different style of government than the Umayyads, a dynasty whose downfall was due largely to its rulers’s harshness and unpopularity. The ՙAbbāsid caliphate, named after an uncle of the Prophet Muḥammad, was characterized by the inclusion of Persian traditions; a more cosmopolitan atmosphere; numerous achievements in the sciences, art, literature, and medicine; urban revival; economic prosperity; and much more decentralized rule (particularly beginning in the tenth century). The new rulers presented themselves as the rightful heirs of the Prophet and as rulers who would wash away the impiety and improper practices of their predecessors.

Despite the fact that the new ՙAbbāsid caliphs claimed to be purifying the Muslim community, their style of rule was not consistent with the simplicity of the first four caliphs, or successors to Muḥammad, who had preceded the Umayyad caliphate. Rather, their rule was more despotic and more in the style of the shahs of Persia than it was reflective of the early years of Islam in Arabia. This is particularly true with respect to the status of women.

During the time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, women were held in high esteem. The Prophet consulted women and sought their advice, and they contributed to the compilation of the Qur՚ān, added to the Hadith reports, prayed in mosques alongside men, and were involved in religious affairs. Women were educators and students, were market officials and were engaged in economic activities, participated in caliphal rulings, made independent oaths, and were not segregated from men. Women had a broad range of rights and freedoms under Islam, but as time progressed, as the Muslim community was transformed into centralized states, as the society became more urbanized, and as other customs, cultures, and peoples were absorbed into those states, women’s status began to change.

As Islamic expansion continued into the Byzantine Empire and Iran, Muslims came into contact with societies where the veiling and seclusion of women of the urban upper classes was practiced; this practice was then adopted by Muslims. While some argue that the veiling and seclusion of women is religiously required by the Qur՚ān, the interpretation of the verses addressing this issue is disputed, and many historians stress the changing economic, political, and social circumstances of the Muslim community as the cause of the development of these practices in the Islamic context.

Conquests, political expansion, and military victories brought vast wealth and huge numbers of slaves to the ruling elite. Expansion also meant that the population of the state became much more diverse ethnically, culturally, and religiously; some caliphs assimilated the Sāsānid Persian custom of rulers having hundreds or thousands of concubines. By the late Umayyad and early ՙAbbāsid period, elite men had the economic resources to buy as many concubines and slaves as they desired—an option often much more attractive than marriage to a woman of equal social status, who would insist on her rights in the marriage contract.

Slaves, concubines, and wives of the elite were kept within the harem, defined both as a place of seclusion and as the group of women secluded, wherein each woman generally sought to improve her position vis-à-vis the others. Children born to slaves or concubines were free, but if a woman bore the child of the master, she could not be sold. She also could be elevated to the position of wife. Therefore, it was in the interest of harem women to bear children for their masters; likewise, it was in the interest of the master to prevent such births (because it negated his economic investment), and it was in the interest of the wives of the master to prevent them as well (because the slave or concubine could become a rival wife and because additional children became rivals to the wives’s children as potential inheritors and successors to their father).

This vast increase in wealth and the adoption of local customs resulted in a significant decline of the status of women during the ՙAbbāsid period. The buying and selling of women, primarily for sexual “use,” became common and accepted practice. This reality, so different from that of the time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, influenced the development of Islamic law and the interpretation of religious texts. Practices that were permitted in Islam, such as polygamy (designed to make provision for remarriage for women whose husbands had died in battle) and male-initiated divorce, were thus interpreted and legislated in a historical context in which women were seen as property and sexual slaves. Orthodox Islam under the ՙAbbāsids thus developed to endorse the prevailing view of women; others interpreted the same religious texts very differently, in ways that prohibited practices such as concubinage and child marriage. Among other things, such sects stressed what the developing ՙAbbāsid orthodoxy did not—the equality of all believers and the fair and equitable treatment of women.


During the ՙAbbāsid period, the government formally recognized the four developing Sunni schools of legal thought, sponsored them, and adopted their doctrines as legitimate interpretations of the law. By the tenth century, the legal thought developed in the four Sunni schools was considered to be authoritative; henceforth, legal decisions were to be based on precedent.

Enshrined within the authoritative Sunni legal code is the orthodox view of women developed within the context of the ՙAbbāsid period. Thus, the rapid expansion of the ՙAbbāsid state, the vast increase in wealth and access to slaves and concubines, and the contact with other societies and their traditions of veiling, seclusion, and views of women as sexual objects combined not only to decrease the status of women in ՙAbbāsid culture significantly, but also to color the interpretations given to the emerging body of Islamic law, including the portions of law that apply to women’s rights and status.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. This book discusses the changing roles and norms of Muslim women throughout history, from the pre-Islamic Middle East to the modern period. One of the most important works of its kind.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur՚ān. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. This work explores different ways in which one can read the Qur՚ān: to stress either the subordinate position of women or the equality of believers. It is useful particularly for those interested in doctrinal issues. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1994. This book discusses the religion of Islam and its history, including different sects’s views of women and the change in those views over time. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keddie, Nikki R., and Beth Baron, eds. Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Chapters 1-4 of this volume will be most useful for the reader, as they explore sources on the topic and discuss the early Islamic centuries. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Hugh. The Early ՙAbbāsid Caliphate: A Political History. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1981. A good source for information on the caliphate and its political affairs. Gives the reader a good background in the politics of the time period. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lassner, Jacob. The Shaping of ՙAbbāsid Rule. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Excellent source for information on the politics and government of the ՙAbbāsid period, including discussion of the role religion played therein. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roded, Ruth, ed. Women in Islam and the Middle East: A Reader. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999. Provides a collection of original sources on women in Islam in the Middle East, from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century. Looks at the legal, cultural, political, religious, and domestic contexts of women’s experience in a discussion of the Qur՚ān, the foundations of Islam, and the selective quotation of the Prophet’s words. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wadud, Amina. Qur՚ān and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. The author’s unique reading of the Qur՚ān sheds light on the role of women and relations between women and men presented in the book of Islam. Chapters explore the biases of earlier interpretations and their effects on tradition and Islamic culture and society, equality between men and women, and more. Includes a list of women mentioned in the Qur՚ān, a bibliography, and an index.

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