Medieval Islamic Society

"Tales from the Thousand and One Nights" is a collection of short stories that were written somewhere around 8th century C.E. in the Middle East. The book is fiction, however this work of fiction can be used to prove assumptions of what medieval islamic culture might have looked like during this time period. A particularly striking assumption about medieval islamic society that can be drawn from the literary works in the novel is how men viewed women in their culture. In medieval islamic society, men viewed women as objects of beauty, who use their charisma to manipulate men, and do not have much more worth than a common slave.

For example, women from the time period were depicted as objects of beauty to be won as a prize by a man. In The Tale of the Second Dervish , the daughter of the King Iphitamus is locked away in a hidden palace. King Iphitamus's daughter is described as "a young woman more beautiful than a priceless pearl and as radiant as the sun; her lips were scarlet, her cheeks fresh and smooth, and her breasts round and shapely."(pg. 266). Jerjees the Jinnee had stolen her away from her newly wedded husband on her bridal night and imprisoned her in a hidden underground palace. This princess signifies a trophy that was won by a man and stolen away by a more powerful type of man, a jinnee. The men in medieval islamic society feared that a more powerful man might come along to steal their priceless prized possessions. This gave men the sense that they had to selfishly keep their women locked up in order to keep them safe from any possible thieves who might be plotting to snatch their prized possessions. Similarly, when Aladdin saw the Princess Badr-al-Budur in the story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, Aladdin saw that "her face shone like the radiant sun, or a brilliant pearl."(pg. 183) and shortly thereafter Aladdin said "I shall know no rest until I have won her in marriage from her father the Sultan."(pg. 184). Aladdin saw the beauty of Badr-al-Budur and immediately related her to a piece of fine jewelry. This shows how women were similar in value to that of jewelry, based upon the beauty of the woman. Aladdin made it his utmost goal to win Badr-al-Budur over from her father. Most of the story of Aladdin revolves around winning the princess Badr-al-Budur. This signifies how men treated women as a prize to be won and she was such a grand prize that Aladdin had to use the power of an almighty jinnee to aid him in his goal of acquiring the princess. A beautiful woman such as Badr-al-Budur was not a person, she was targeted as the highest goal that could only be achieved by the most powerful of men in society. This goes to show how the men viewed the women in medieval islamic society as objects of beauty who's only real purpose was to serve a man. Women were not seen as humans that were equal to their male counterpart. Women were seen as objects that held value to their owners in terms of how beautiful they were.

Additionally, women were not only viewed as beautiful, but they used their beauty and charisma to manipulate men to their will. The Tale of The Enchanted King is about an honest king who appears just and fair, but overhears two of his slaves, saying "How unfortunate is the young King our master, Massoudah, and how pitiful it is that he should have married our mistress, that shameless woman, that black-souled whore!"(pg. 99) Massoudah learns how "every night she (his wife) mixes in his cup a potent drug which so benumbs his senses that he sleeps like the dead till morning,"(pg. 99) whilst she is "This harlot who revels away her nights in the beds of thieves and cut-throats"(pg. 99) This shows that men believed women were willing to drug their husbands every night while they went off to enjoy the pleasures of others. A man that believed in such atrocities must have always kept a close eye what his wife does with her time and who she interacts with. In the story The Young Woman and her Five Lovers, the young woman tricked five men into giving her what she wanted by flaunting them with her bodily features. She accomplishes these tasks within quick succession of one another, which shows how easily a woman can manipulate a man. The young woman was never described as being beautiful, thus this signifies that a woman did not necessarily have to be beautiful in order to manipulate men. In The Tale of Bakbook The Barber's First Brother, Bakbook is described as a man "who, alas, knew nothing of women and their cunning"(pg. 49). The men in medieval islamic society viewed all women as cunning and deceitful, but the men had to learn about a woman's cunning nature through trial and tribulation in interactions with women. In The Prologue, the King Shahriyar and his brother, King Shahzaman came upon "a beautiful young girl, radiant as the sun."(pg. 18) whom had forced the two brothers "to mount her in turn."(pg. 19). Afterwards the brothers learned from the beautiful young woman that she was imprisoned by a jinnee, but the jinnee "little knew how cunning we women are."(pg. 19) and the jinnee himself was acting on the will of the beautiful young woman. To this the brothers said to each other "If such a thing could happen to a mighty jinnee, then our own misfortune is light indeed."(pg. 19) This signifies that women who are beautiful have such an extreme level of cunning that they contain the power to imprison a mighty jinnee to do their bidding. Men in medieval islamic society were terrified of women. Men thought of themselves as honest and honourable gentlemen, whilst the women around them were constantly trying to deceive them in some way. The level of deceit a women was capable of was tied directly to how attractive they were, where the older, less attractive women were still able to deceive men, the young beautiful women had such high levels of deceit that they were able to deceive the mightiest of men.

Finally, men viewed a woman's position in society as slightly above that of a slave. Women were seen as servants to their husbands or fathers if they were not yet married. This is exemplified in the way King Shams-al-Dowlah describes his daughter, the Princess Asiah, as a slave "My daughter is a slave in his (Judar) service."(pg. 369). If women were free persons, then King Shams-al-Dowlah would not have spoken of his daughter in this way, nor would he have the legal right to marry her off to whomever he chooses. This shows that men in medieval islamic society believed their daughters were already slaves in their own household prior to being married off to another man. In The Tale of the Second Dervish, Jerjees the Jinnee suspected his wife of adultery so he tortured her and eventually struck off her head "because I (Jerjees) found her unfaithful: even if it was only with her eyes."(pg. 270) This signifies that a woman could be put to death by her husband for simply looking at another man with lustful eyes. If a powerful man had the power to sentence his wife to death only for looking at another man then surely the common man had the power to put his wife to death for a more sinful act of defiance towards her husband. Further proof of how men viewed their wives is exemplified in King Shahzamans reaction when he "found his wife lying on the couch in the arms of a black slave"(pg. 15). King Shahzaman killed both his wife and his slave on the spot, and immediately went on about his business as though the murders he had committed was the fault of his wife. This signifies that a man would not give any more attention to the thought of killing his own wife as he would to the thought of killing one of his slaves. Women and slaves were treated similarly in medieval islamic society, they must have been fairly close to one another, so perhaps these sorts of affairs happened more often than one would think. A final and probably the best example is shown in the following quoted text, "King Shahriyar put his wife to death… Thenceforth he made it his custom to take a virgin in marriage to his bed each night, and kill her the next morning."(pg. 19). These examples show that women were disposed of when they outlived their usefulness or were deemed unfaithful by their owner. A wealthy and powerful man in medieval islamic society had the power to obtain a new virgin wife every night and kill her every morning as though she were a common slave. A woman's value in medieval islamic society was virtually identical to that of a female slave. A woman was more valuable and sought after if she was more beautiful and young, as a woman aged and became less beautiful she would become worth less. A common man thought it was his right to discard his old wife and purchase another younger wife through an endowment to his fellow man.

In summary, the men in Medieval islamic society had the utmost control and authority over the others that lived alongside them. Women were seen as objects of beauty to be ruled over. The men were scared of a woman's ability to use their cunning, charisma and beauty to manipulate men, therefore the men ruled their world with an iron fist. Despite women have much beauty and cunning, men were in control and valued their wives similarly to the way they viewed their slaves. The men would ruthlessly cut down their prized possessions if they had the slightest suspicion of any foul play. In some ways women are viewed in the same way in the current modern civilization. Yes, there have been attempts to raise women to the same level of men, but the remnants of the dark medieval past are absolutely still alive all around. This can be shown in a few short examples such as the use of the term trophy wife, how women are paid less than men for the same job and how men believe most women to be deceitful. In studying women in medieval muslim society, the current society can learn from that past and use it as a template for how not to behave. The modern society likes to believe that it has evolved so much since its medieval past, but the reality is that society has advanced nominally in terms of how women are viewed.


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