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Harems |

Harems is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 162, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Despite attempts to prevent intermingling, Arab armies acquired a flood of females, breeding away the raw aggression of the desert and generating a new, less vigorous people

Harems - ‘Chastity had become too hard’

Harems – ‘Chastity had become too hard’
A wealthy Muslim and his harem (above) in a rare photograph taken in Cairo, Egypt, in 1880. The harems of some of the early Muslim conquerors were said to have numbered in the thousands.

Muhammad himself confirmed Muslim rules of conduct towards captured females, in 626, during a campaign against several Bedouin tribes. In a raid against the Banu al-Mustalik, the spoils of victory had been substantial: two thousand camels, five thousand sheep and goats–and two hundred women. One warrior later recalled: “We were lusting after women, and chastity had become too hard for us.” How would Islam’s founder react to his followers’ proposed rape en masse of their helpless prisoners?

The Prophet ruled that his men could force immediate intercourse upon the captive females. When asked by the soldiers if they should practice coitus interruptus to help prevent pregnancy of women who might later be ransomed back to their tribe, Muhammad said the precaution was not necessary.1 It is debatable whether even Muhammad could have imposed restraint on a menfolk long accustomed to copulating with females who fell into their hands. Rabbi Nathan, a Talmudic writer of the time, complained in exasperated exaggeration, “Nowhere in the world is there such a propensity towards fornication as among the Arabs,” adding, “If all the sexual license in the world were divided into ten parts, then nine would be distributed among the Arabs and the tenth would be enough for all the other races.”

Hyperbole aside, Byzantine soldiers may well have raped captives on occasion. Generation upon generation of men in the Roman world continued to own concubines. But Christians behaving this way were clearly in disobedience to both their religion and their civil law. The Justinian Code, adopted in the sixth century, deemed rape a capital offense, prohibited forced prostitution, and enabled women to inherit property. The Church vigorously condemned concubinage. Within Christendom, loose sexual conduct became increasingly shrouded by shame.

Very different laws evolved across the realm of Islam. Following instruction from the angel Gabriel, the Prophet decreed that Muslims could have as many as four wives. The Qur’an’s Sura 4:3, for example, states that men may “marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice [between them], then [marry] only one or what your right hands possess. . . .” A husband could divorce any wife by simply uttering, “I divorce thee.” In that event, a woman had no right to marital property or financial support beyond the return of her family’s original dowry.

The Qur’an has explicit rules governing women whom men possess “by their right hands.” The phrase traditionally referred to females captured in war or purchased as slaves. A man could marry a female slave if he wished, and could not sell a woman after she bore a child whom he acknowledged as his own. In that case, she would be freed upon his death, and the child enjoyed the same hereditary rights as the child of a wife.

But a female prisoner could be sold, abandoned, given away, or killed at the master’s whim. All of her possessions were his, including her body. She did not count toward the legal limit of four wives. Muslim warriors commonly raped women on the battlefield within view of their husbands and fathers, a compelling display of dominance.2

When the Arabs conquered Persia, Syria and Egypt, they began acquiring a flood of females. Huge harems developed. Al-Mutawakkil is said to have had four thousand concubines. Musa ibn Nusair’s haul reportedly included three hundred thousand captives from Africa, plus thirty thousand virgins in Spain. Whatever their numbers actually were, slaves living in one of these gigantic harems led, for the most part, an idle existence. Damsels would sing and play music for their master while he and his guests reclined on a diwan–a sofa bordering three sides of a room. Elaborate feasts would include the finest quality game, rich sweets and rare fruits, all served on trays of precious metals and wood inlaid with rare ebony and tortoiseshell. Privileged Muslims in this pre-tobacco period smoked perfumed spices while the more dissolute drank prohibited wine.

Despite their impediments, some slave-girls gained impressive educations, as well as significant influence over their masters. The beautiful Tawaddud, for example, impressed the caliph al-Rashid with her knowledge of medicine, law, astronomy, philosophy, music, mathematics, grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and the Qur’an. On occasion, a woman held by the right hand used feminine wiles and graceful wit to acquire wealth in her own right. Others gratefully accepted a legitimate marriage with a poor man who might lack the financial resources to otherwise obtain a wife.

Following the earliest conquests, Arab leaders initially attempted to prevent intermingling between their people and conquered races. For this reason, the caliphs established exclusively Arab garrison cities in Iraq (Kufa, Basra), Egypt (Fustat), and North Africa (Qayrawan). But infidel women, imported into the garrison communities, produced thousands of mixed-heritage children, virtually all recognized as legitimate under generous Muslim precepts toward progeny. In 744, Yazid III became the first caliph born of a slave mother, soon followed by others of similar antecedents. Thus the raw aggression of the desert almost immediately diluted itself, generating the new, less vigorous civilization of Islam. n

1. The following Hadith is cited by the Muslim historian Bukhari (volume 9, book 93, number 506), quoting the eyewitness Abu Said al-Khudri: That during the battle with Banu al-Mustalik, they (Muslims) captured some females and intended to have sexual relations with them without impregnating them. So they asked the Prophet about coitus interruptus. The Prophet said, “It is better that you should not do it, for Allah has written whom he is going to create till the Day of Resurrection.”

2. In his Annals of the Early Caliphate, William Muir writes of how “Persian ladies, both maids and matrons, ‘taken captive by the right hand,’ were forthwith, without stint of number, lawful to the conqueror’s embrace; and in the enjoyment of this privilege, they were nothing loath to execute upon the heathen ‘the judgment written.’” The historian recounts how the well-known Muslim leader Muthanna once captured a Persian princess and left his brother Moanna to “besiege her” in the middle of the battle. The great Arab general Khalid, Muir says, once forced himself upon a young maiden as another battle wore to a close, ordering her father: “Man, give me your daughter!”

This is the end of the Harems category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 162, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Harems from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at