ibn al-Rumi shows dangers of singing slave-girls

Highly trained singing slave-girls captured the hearts of men in the ancient Islamic world.  A highly sophisticated author writing in Baghdad early in the ninth century warned alluringly:

Passion for singing-girls is dangerous, in view of their manifold excellencies and the satisfaction one’s soul finds in them.  They provide a man with a combination of pleasures such as nothing else on the face of the earth does. [1]

Ibn al-Rumi, a poet in ninth-century Baghdad, wrote a poem entitled, “Wahid, the Singing Slave-Girl of ‘Amhamah.”  Ibn al-Rumi’s poem began:

O my two friends, Wahid has enslaved me,
Till my heart is tormented and broken by love. [2]

Lovesickness was a recognized biological illness in the ancient Islamic world.  At the same time, Islamic authors drew upon conventions of Roman love elegy and Hellenistic myth in depicting lovesickness. Ibn al-Rumi’s poem about the singing slave-girl Wahid figured her as the Hellenistic god Cupid:

She does not shoot at hearts with her love
Without hitting her prey wherever she wants.
A lute-string in her hands is like
The bowstring of an army in which a sharp arrow is set. [3]

Ibn al-Rumi having sex with Wahid, the singing slave-girl of ‘Amhamah, would be illicit under Islamic law.  Ibn al-Rumi described obstacles:

Wherever I leave her, I find a companion in passion for her,
Wherever she alights, a guardian over her.
To my right, to my left, in front of me and behind,
How can I get around him? [4]

This sense of other men as obstacles to approaching the singing slave-girl implicitly references and re-writes a sense of god like that in St. Patrick’s breastplate:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left. [5]

Idolatry wasn’t a religious concern in Greco-Roman culture. Hence Roman love elegy couldn’t figure erotic desire as idolatry.  Islamic love poetry could.  With the potent cultural resource of one god, Islamic love poetry burned hotter.

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[1] Al-Jahiz, Risalat al-qiyan, trans. Beeston (1980) (“Epistle on Singing Girls”) para. 47, pp. 30-1.  Music is the food of love, and singing slave-girls played on:

It is said in {Islamic} Tradition, “Beware of gazing {on women}, for it sows carnal desire in the heart, and that is a most grievous temptation for one who experiences it.”  How much the more will this be the case with gazing and carnal desire, when they are accompanied by music and helped along with flirting.


[2] Ode 593 in Diwan ibn al-Rumi, l. 1, trans. Motoyoshi (2001) p. 5.  The more widely known Rumi was a thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet.

[3] Id. ll. 25-6.

[4] Id. ll 39-40.

[5] Here’s St. Patrick’s Breastplate in the original Irish and a literal translation into English.  Scholars think that the prayer was written in the eighth century.  Jews in Kaifeng, China, in the fifteenth century expressed similarly the omnipresence of God:

In movement, he {the praying Jew} examines his conduct, and by vocal praise he honours the Way, for that which should not be substituted for is Heaven.  The worshiper recedes three paces, and immediately (the Way) is behind him, and in consequence he honours the Way which is behind him.  He advances five steps, and perceives (the Way) before him, and in consequence he honours the Way which is before him.  Turning to the left he bends his body to honour the Way, which is good, for the Way is then on his left. Turning to the right he bends his body to honour the Way, which is not so good, for the Way is then on his right.  He uplifts his head to honour the Way, and the Way is above him; he lowers his head to honour the Way, and the Way is near him.  Finally he worships the Way, and It is honoured in this act of worship.

From the 1489 Kaifeng stone inscriptions, trans White (1966) p. 10.  Ninth-century Muslims probably had a similar expression of God’s presence or practice of prayer.


Beeston, Alfred Felix Landon, trans. 1980.  ‘Amr ibn Baḥr al-Gāḥiẓ. The epistle on singing-girls of Jāḥiẓ (Risālat al-qiyān). Warminster: Aris & Phillips.

Motoyoshi, Akiko. 2001. “Sensibility and Synaesthesia: Ibn Al-Rūmī’s Singing Slave-Girl.” Journal of Arabic Literature. 32 (1): 1-29.

White, William Charles. 1966. Chinese Jews: A Complication of Matters Relating to the Jews of K’ai-Feng Fu, 2nd ed. New York: Paragon Book Reprint.

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