Two Competing Narratives of Slave Prostitutes in Early Islam

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:50 AM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Elizabeth Urban, West Chester University
 This paper investigates two slave-prostitutes who lived in Arabia during the advent of Islam: Muʿ‚dha, the slave of ʿAbdall‚h ibn Ubayy in Medina, and Sumayya, the slave of al-Ḥ‚rith ibn Kalada in Ṭ‚ʾif. I analyze a variety of early Islamic sources—Quranic exegeses, biographical dictionaries, and annals—to recover the stories of these women. Doing so sheds invaluable light on the practice of prostitution in Arabia, as well as early Islamic conceptions of individual agency, social justice, and female sexuality. 

 Muʿ‚dha appears in exegeses of Quranic verse 24:33, "...But do not force your female slaves into prostitution when they desire chastity...." The exegetes recount how Muʿ‚dha converted to Islam and affirmed control over her body. In contrast, Sumayya is presented as a lascivious woman who "does not repel a groping hand." The narrative histories associate her with infamy and paternity battles concerning her children. However, her children may have benefited from her foreign background, as they seem to have been bilingual and thus to have secured government positions as the Islamic empire spread into non-Arab lands.

 Taken together, these women paint a nuanced picture of early Islamic society. While some sources champion the agency of the individual slave-prostitute, giving remarkable voice to a lowly element of society, they do not challenge the institution of slave-prostitution itself. Discourses about slave-prostitution are also bound up with ideas about motherhood: fears of confused paternity and hopes of forging cross-cultural connections. By analyzing the stories of Muʿ‚dha and Sumayya, we can better understand early Islamic gender ideologies and appreciate how these ideologies changed to meet the needs of an expanding community.