Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Interdisciplinary Program


Michael Grillo

Second Committee Member

Anatole Wieck

Third Committee Member

Jane Smith


Prior to the rise of Islam in Arabia and the Middle East, women for millennia worked in all areas of society as professional musicians.¹ The document and archeological record as far back as ancient Sumer (ca. 3,000BCE), as well as those of Egypt, Palestine, Babylon and Assyria, carries numerous textual and visual references to women making music in a variety of settings. Music performance and instrumentation was frequently gendered as well, with certain instruments considered "women's" instruments. With the advent of Islam, these roles did not substantially change as women musicians were assimilated into the Islamic dynasty where they created new niches in the musical culture and remained a staple of musical life in the Islamic courts for centuries.² Referred to as "singing girls" (Arabic qayna, pi. qiyāri), women musicians who worked in a professional capacity were a special class of slaves trained in music, poetry and courtly etiquette, commanding astronomical prices on the open market. Because of the exclusivity of their trade, their ownership and patronage was primarily available only to the caliph, nobility and status-seekers from the middle class. The term qayna could also be use to refer to musically talented noble women of the courts. Free women and women of high status were prohibited from performing in public and those who happened to be qiyāri took care to be perceived as amateurs. By the 10th century, singing girls are seen more and more as signs, representations or euphemisms. They are the most real in the work of al-Isbahani, but he was unique in his approach to music history. Outside his careful detail, singing girls were distanced from their reality. Aside from the purpose or intent behind their inclusion in a given text, the sources are agreed in that qiyan were undeniably fascinating. The combination of their visibility, whether sought or utilized, along with their function as musicians and the dangers of passive audition, ultimately became the most common tropes in the symbolic representation of the singing girl. They increasingly become tools not only for discussing actual music performance, but the nature of music, what was heard, and the social context as well. Though there has recently been more scholarly interest into the lives and roles of singing girls, further research needs to be done. How their image was carried into the visual arts is one area that begs exploration, especially in Persian and Mughal representations of court scenes. In addition, there remains a great deal of anecdotal evidence in familiar texts, such as the Kitab al-Aghani, that requires exploration, not to mention the number of manuscripts that have yet to be studied. As we uncover their names, stories of origins, and connections to fellow musicians and entertainers, more insights into their position in society will be found. It is my hope that over time more studies such as this one will add to our understanding not only of the role of Islamic singing slave girls, but of women musicians in other cultural and historic contexts.

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