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Dirham issued by ‘Ulayya's half-brother ar-Rashid, 170 AH

‘Ulayya bint al-Mahdī (160-210 AH/777-825 CE) was an Abbasid princess, noted for her legacy as a poet and musician.



‘Ulayya was one of the daughters of the third Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi bi-'llah (r. 775–85), who reigned from 775 to his death in 785, and was noted for promoting poetry and music in his realm.[1] Her mother was a singer and concubine called Maknūna (herself the jāriya of one al-Marwānīya). It appears that, with her father dying early in her life, ‘Ulayya was brought up by her half-brother Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809).

‘Ulayya was a princess, and, like her half-brother Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (779–839), a noted musician, and poet. It has been claimed that she surpassed her brother in skills and while 'not the only princess known to have composed poetry and songs', nonetheless 'the most gifted'.[2] 'Much of her poetry consists of short pieces designed to be sung; in the muḥdath style, it treats of love, friendship and longing for home, but also includes praise of Hārūn, the caliph, celebration of wine and sharp attacks on enemies.'[2]

The main source for ‘Ulayya's life is the tenth-century Kitāb al-Aghānī of Abū ’l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī.[3] This and other sources tend to portray ‘Ulayya as an accomplished woman who could readily hold her own in court society, but who tended to shy from too prominent a role in public life. She was wealthy and clearly possessed slave-girls, and had an intimate relationship with her powerful brothers; although there is little evidence of her communing with religious scholars, 'various reports in ‘Ulayya's tarājim refer to her piety and adherence to ritual obligations'.[4]:66–68, 74

‘Ulayya was married to an ‘Abbāsid prince, but 'love-poems of her addressed to two slaves have been preserved'.[2] One of the best known anecdotes about her concerns

her relationship with a member of al-Rashīd's palace staff, a khādim named Ṭall, with whom she would correspond in verse. When al-Rashīd forbids her from uttering his name, she follows his order to the letter even when it precludes her from uttering a line of Sūrat al-Baqara in which the term ṭall occurs. When the caliph learns of this, he is swayed and presents Ṭall to her as a gift. In this case, her piety become the means to winning a quite worldly reward.[4]:77


As example of ‘Ulayya's poetry is:

I held back my love's name and kept repeating it to myself.
Oh how I long for an empty space to call out the name I love.[5]


  • al-Ṣūlī, Abū Bakr, Ash‘ār awlād al-khulafā’ wa-akhbāruhum, ed. by J. Heyworth Dunne, 3rd edn (Beirut: Dār al-Masīra, 1401/1982), pp. 64–76.


  1. ^ Kilpatrick, Hilary (2005). "Mawālī and Music". In Monique Bernards; John Nawas (eds.). Patronate and Patronage in Early and Classical Islam. Leiden: Brill. pp. 326–48.
  2. ^ a b c Kilpatrick, Hilary (1998). "'Ulayya bint al-Mahdī (160-210/777-825)". In Julie Scott Meisami; Paul Starkey (eds.). Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature. II. London: Routledge. p. 791.
  3. ^ al-Iṣfahīnī, Abu l-Faraj, Kitāb al-aghānī, Dār al-Fikr, 21 parts and Index in 9 vols., equivalent to the edition Kairo 1322/1905–5.
  4. ^ a b Gordon, Matthew S. (2004). Montgomery, James E. (ed.). "The Place of Competition: The Careers of 'Arīb al-Ma'mūnīya and 'Ulayya bint al-Mahdī, Sisters in Song". ‘Abbasid Studies: Occasional Papers of the School of ‘Abbasid Studies, Cambridge, 6–10 July 2002. Leuven: Peeters: 61–81.
  5. ^ Abdullah al-Udhari, Classical Poems by Arab Women (London: Saqi, 1999), p. 110.