slave girl Bid’ah lifted up despondent caliph al-Mu’tadid

12th-century Abbasid bracelet with Arabic lettering

Bid’ah al-Kabirah grew up as a slave in the ninth–century Abbasid caliphate. But she wasn’t a slave like slave men laboring in rags at dirty, dangerous jobs. She was the slave of ‘Arib al-Ma’muniyyah, a fabulously rich and famous ninth-century woman musician.[1] Bid’ah lived with ‘Arib in the household of the caliph. Bid’ah was a beautiful woman and an excellent singer. Most importantly, she knew how to lift up despondent men.

In the year 900 GC, the caliph al-Mut’adid returned to Baghdad from a difficult but successful military campaign in Syria. Bid’ah greeted him the first day he held court upon his return. Al-Mut’adid, perhaps not up to his usual sexual performance, lamented to her his aging: “Can’t you see how my beard and hair blaze white?” Bid’ah responded:

My lord, may God give you eternal life, and let you see your grandsons’ hair turn white! By God, your silvery hair is more beautiful than the moon. [2]

Bid’ah, who was no unlettered whore, then quickly composed and declaimed a relevant poem:

White hair has done you no harm
your beauty has only increased.
Time has polished you
and you are without flaw.
Flourish and be happy,
set your mind at rest.
With every day that passes,
your good fortune grows
In blessings and contentment —
your star is ascendant.

Al-Mut’adid responded to that poem by giving Bid’ah magnificent gifts. He then sent her home.

The account of Bid’ah cheering the despondent caliph al-Mu’tadid has been transmitted with an alternate report. In that alternate report, Bid’ah said to the caliph:

God, how this expedition has aged you, Sire!

Many men dislike the experience of growing old, especially when their difficult lives contribute to their sense of aging. The battle-weary caliph responded to the highly privileged slave girl:

Lesser things have turned a man’s hair white.

Bid’ah then quickly responded by composing and singing a poem lifting up al-Mu’tadid:

Ruler of all the world, though you’ve aged and matured
through all the hardships you’ve endured
White hair makes you fairer —
wisdom’s sign, perfected in the bearer.
May you live twice as long again
in ease and plenty, in might and main!

Women’s beautiful bodies and lovely voices please men. So too do their sympathetic, encouraging, and praising words.

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[1] ‘Arib al-Ma’muniyya was the most famous woman musician in the ninth century in the Abbasid caliphate. The caliph Harun al-Rashid’s boatmaster bought ‘Arib from a slave-trader. She claimed to be the daughter of Ja’far ibn Yahya, a Barmakid. She rose to prominence and had sexual affairs with numerous caliphs. She died in 890 GC. Toorawa (2015) p. 162 (Glossary of Names).

In Arabic, the word “bid’ah” means innovation or novelty, while al-Kabirah means “the elder.” The latter epithet may be ironic. A man proposed to buy Bid’ah from ‘Arib for 100,000 dinars (an enormous amount of money). Arib asked Bid’ah if she consented to being sold. Bid’ah refused to be sold. Arib then freed her. When Bid’ah died in 915 GC, the son of the caliph al-Muhtaki led her funeral prayers. Toorawa (2015) p. 33, 37.

[2] Ibn al-Sāʿī , Consorts of the Caliphs, entry for Bid’ah al-Kabirah, from Arabic Toorawa (2015) p. 33. Subsequent quotes are from id. p. 35.

[image] Bracelet from Abbasid caliphate, twelfth century. Freer Gallery of Art, item F1950.21. Image available for non-commercial use thanks to Open F|S.


Toorawa, Shawkat M., ed. 2015. Ibn al-Sāʿī . Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad. New York, London: Library of Arabic Literature.

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