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Qiyān (Arabic: قِيان, Arabic: [qi'jæːn]; singular qayna, Arabic: قَينة, Arabic: ['qɑjnæh]) were a social class of women, trained as entertainers, which existed in the pre-modern Islamic world. The term has been used for both non-free women and free, including some of which came from the nobility. It has been suggested that "the geisha of Japan are perhaps the most comparable form of socially institutionalized female companionship and entertainment for male patrons, although, of course, the differences are also myriad".
Historically, the qiyān flourished under the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate, and in Al-Andalus.
Qiyān is often rendered in English as 'singing girls' or 'singing slave girls', but these translations do not reflect the fact that qiyān might be of any age, and were skilled entertainers whose training extended well beyond singing, including for example dancing, composing music and verse, reciting historical or literary anecdotes (akhbar), calligraphy, or shadow-puppetry. Other translations include courtesan, "musical concubines", or simply "women musicians".
In some sources, qiyān were a subset of jawāri ('female slaves', جَوار; s. jāriya, جارِية), and often more specifically a subset of imā’ ('slave girls', اِماء; s. ama, اَمة). Qiyān are thus at times referred to as imā’ shawā‘ir ('slave-girl poets', اِماء شَوَاعِر) or as mughanniyāt ('songstresses', مُغَنِّيات; s. mughanniyyah, مغنية). Many qiyan were free women. One of them was even an Abbasid princess.
The term originates as a feminine form of pre-Islamic qayn (قين), whose meaning was 'blacksmith, craftsman'. The meaning of qayn extended to include manual labourers generally, and then focused more specifically on people paid for their work, and then more specifically again 'to anyone engaged in an artistic performance for reward'. From here, its feminine form came to have the sense discussed in this article.
Like other slaves in the Islamicate world, qiyān were legally sexually available to their owners. They were often associated in literature with licentiousness, and sexuality was an important part of their appeal, but they do not seem to have been prostitutes.
However, there were also common qiyans who performed for the public in common qiyan-houses, and these houses were in some cases often brothels.
It is not clear how early the institution of the qiyān emerged, but qiyān certainly flourished during the ‘Abbasid period; according to Matthew S. Gordon, 'it is not yet clear to what extent courtesans graced regional courts and elite households at other points of Islamic history'. Ibrahim al-Mawsili (742-804 CE) is reported to have claimed that his father was the first to train light-skinned, beautiful girls as qiyān, raising their price, whereas previously qiyān had been drawn from among girls viewed as less beautiful, and with darker skin, though it is not certain that these claims were accurate. One social phenomenon that can be seen as a successor to the qiyan is the Egyptian Almeh, courtesans or female entertainers in Arab Egypt, educated to sing and recite classical poetry and to discourse wittily.
Because of their social prominence, qiyān comprise one of the most richly recorded sections of pre-modern Islamicate female society, particularly female slaves, making them important to the history of slavery in the Muslim world. Moreover, a significant proportion of medieval Arabic female poets whose work survives today were qiyān. For a few qiyān, it is possible to give quite a full biography. Important medieval sources of qiyān include a treatise by al-Jahiz (776–868/869 CE), al-Washsha's Kitab al-Muwashsha (The Brocaded Book), and anecdotes included in sources such as the Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs) and al-Ima al-shawa‘ir (The Slave Poetesses) by al-Isbahani (897–967 CE), Nisa al-khulafa (The Consorts of the Caliphs) by Ibn al-Sa‘i, and al-Mustazraf min akhbar al-jawari (Choice Anecdotes from the Accounts of Concubines) by al-Suyuti (c. 1445–1505 CE). Many of these sources recount the repartee of prominent qiyān, though there are hints that qiyān in less wealthy households were used by their owners to attract gifts. In the ‘Abbasid period, qiyān were often educated in the cities of Basra, Ta’if, and Medina.
It seems that for the first century or so of Arab culture in Al-Andalus, qiyān were brought west after being trained in Medina or Baghdad, or were trained by artists from the east. It seems that by the eleventh century, with the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba, qiyān tended to be trained in Cordoba rather than imported after training. It seems that while female singers still existed, enslaved ones were no longer found in Al-Andalus in the fourteenth century CE.
The institution of qiyan declined with the waning fortunes of the Abbasid Caliphate. The initial fracture of the Abbasids did not have immediate impact. The qiyan did not take sides in political disputes. But political instability led to fiscal mismanagement. During the Abbasids' heyday, the finances were mismanaged. Further, the new class of Turkish soldiers demanded better pay. This led to the emptying of the treasury. Austerity meant artistic activity could not flourish as before. In addition, soldiers extorted money from citizens perceived as rich. This made ostentatious behavior risky.