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Shariyya (b. around 815)

Shariyya (b. around 815)

Arabian singer, one of the best known of her time, who is famous in Arabian history and folklore. Born in Basra (now Iraq) around 815.

One has only to possess a superficial knowledge of Arabian history to recognize how valued "songstresses" were. The film stars of their era, they commanded the highest respect and salaries, and wealthy, powerful men vied to have them in their courts and homes. Shariyya, one of the most famous Arabian singers, was born in Basra (now Iraq) around 815. Her father, who may have been from the Banu Sama ibn Lu'ai tribe, would not recognize his illegitimate daughter. Her mother was a slave. In some versions of her life story, Shariyya was stolen from her parents, sold into slavery, and taught the art of singing by a woman who later sold her in Baghdad. In other versions, the woman who sold her was her mother who came from the Banu Zuhra tribe. Whatever the truth, Shariyya must have shown exceptional talent at age seven because Ishaq al-Mausili and Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, the two most significant musicians of that period, attended the auction and attempted to purchase her. (This is an indication of just how valuable a commodity a potential songstress could be, for few other females were so sought after.) Finally, Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi bought the young girl, freed her, and married her so that she could not be taken from him. Some said this was a marriage in name only.

Caliph al-Mutasim offered 70,000 dinars for Shariyya, but Ibrahim refused the money. When Ibrahim died, Shariyya learned that she had not legally been married to him, and so her status as a slave had not actually changed. She was then sold to a succession of caliphs—al-Mutasim (r. 833–842), al-Watiq (r. 842–847), al-Mutawakki (r. 847–862), al-Muntasir (r. 861–862), al-Mustain (r. 862–866), Al-Mutazz (r. 866–869), and al Mutamid (r. 870–892). Throughout her career, Shariyya grew more famous and more powerful. During the caliphate of al-Mutawakki, a great rivalry developed between Shariyya and Oraib , another famous songstress. Oraib represented the classical Arabian tradition, while Shariyya was famous for singing in the more romantic Persian style. Both women sang before devoted fans who cheered one or the other wildly.

Shariyya set Caliph al-Mutamid's poems to music, for which she was richly rewarded. By this time, when she was over 60, she had established a singing school, and she also sold several of the slaves she had personally trained to him. Shariyya performed during a brilliant epoch in Arab culture, occupying one of its most prominent places and consequently has been celebrated for centuries. Few, if any, European prima donnas enjoyed the loyalty and prestige singers like Shariyya and Oraib commanded during their lifetimes.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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