My last post outlined what we know about Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer who is the eponymous hero of Omar Khayyam (aka The Lifes, Loves, and Adventures of Omar Khayyam, 1957, dir. William Dieterle). So what did the film do with him?
(Note that this poster calls Khayyam a “military leader so great an army of assassins fell before his genius!” That’s what we historians technically call “bullshit.”)
The film opens with a long voice-over. “A thousand years ago, the Persian Empire stretched all the way from the Mediterranean Sea to India and down to Egypt. This great empire was ruled by a warrior shah. He had the absolute power of life and death. Even the most exalted bent at his feet. Yet this mighty ruler would now be forgotten but for the work of a man who among the humblest of his subjects: Omar Khayyam. He was a happy man with friends among both the lowly and the great in the ancient city of Nishapur. The motto of those dangerous and exciting days was ‘think as your master thinks’, but Omar Khayyam thought for himself. He was a lover of life and wisdom, a poet when the mood was upon him and a mathematician when it was not. He was a student of the stars and of those things written in the stars. Omar Khayyam had an understanding of human nature and a philosophy which has conquered the hearts of men and of women.”
The first half of that intro has some serious problems with it. First, Khayyam lived more like 850 years before the film, but what’s a century and a half between movie-goers? Second, there was no such thing as the Persian Empire in the medieval period; the warrior-shah referred to, Malik Shah, was actually a Turk, because the Seljuk Turks had conquered a big chunk of territory stretching from modern Turkey east through parts of Iraq into Western Persia. But it certainly didn’t include Egypt, and it can’t really be called ‘Persian’. But the film gets a lot of worse things wrong, so let’s just put all that aside, shall we?
The second half of the intro makes a reasonable stab at describing the historical Khayyam. After reading Khayyam’s poetry and a bit about his intellectual activity, you might well describe him as a lover of life and wisdom, especially if you’re thinking of Khayyam the Skeptic, which this movie clearly is. There isn’t a hint of Sufi about him, or indeed any explicit discussion or depiction of Islam at all.
And over the course of the film, Khayyam (Cornel Wilde) does a lot of things Khayyam actually did. He periodically tosses off quatrains (in FitzGerald’s translation) about life, rulers, drinking, and so on. Malik Shah makes him the court astronomer and he offers to reform the calendar, which actually becomes a plot point of sorts later in the film. He drinks a good deal of wine, without anyone commenting that Islam forbids alcohol . And he loves women.
Well, he loves one women, Sharain (Debra Paget), who loves him in return. But when Malik Shah decides to marry her as his fourth wife, this becomes A Love That Cannot Be, so the two of them spend the rest of the film pining for each other. He’s given a slave girl Yaffa (Joan Taylor, in her last film role), who falls in love with him. And Malik’s first wife, Queen Zarada (Margaret Hayes) puts the moves on him at one point, because she’s an evil, treacherous queen who’s plotting against her husband. Oh, and in case you couldn’t guess, NONE OF THESE WOMEN EVER ACTUALLY EXISTED.
Medieval Islamic Households in Reality and in Khayyam
The film’s treatment of all this is very 1950s Hollywood. Medieval Muslims could legally take up to four wives, and they could have as many concubines as they wished; while Islamic law had fairly strict rules protecting the rights of wives, it had virtually none addressing concubines, who could be acquired and disposed of more or less at will.
Medieval (and to some extent modern) Islamic society approaches relationships between the sexes according to the principle of mahram, which means any person closely enough related to not be an acceptable marriage partner; sex between two mahram people is incest. It’s generally described from the man’s perspective: my mother and her female ancestors, my mother’s sisters, my sisters, my daughters, and all of their female descendants are mahram to me, as are any women descended from them. Additionally, any woman directly related to my wife is mahram as well, as are my father’s wives, and anyone that my mother has breast-fed. Just about everyone else is ghayr mahram, a potential legitimate sex partner and spouse.
Polygyny and concubinage were particular characteristics of the elites. Rulers maintained large households, usually termed ‘royal harems’, which were off-limits to all men except the ruler and those who were mahram to the women inside (‘harem’ and mahram are etymologically related; both meaning something forbidden). Female slaves and male eunuchs were permitted access, because neither posed a risk of having sex with the women within. Those who were ghayr mahram should not be allowed unguarded access to a particular woman. (In other words, if I can legally marry and have sex with a woman, I should not have free access to her.) The Western notion of Islamic harems being pleasure-palaces filled with women waiting to have sex with men is significantly exaggerated, but not utterly untrue if we picture royal harems, whose members were reserved for the sexual enjoyment of the ruler. These women were typically confined to the harem and its grounds and generally did not have free access to the outside world.
Other men maintained harems as well, but these ‘domestic harems’ were quite different.They were not filled with women lounging everywhere for male sexual pleasure.Rather, a typical harem housed a man, his wife, and their children, and perhaps a slave or two. In some cases, brothers might maintain a joint harem, dividing the domestic space between the families, all of whom were mahram to each other. Because polygyny was not widely practiced among the lower classes, these spaces had little in common with royal harems except the basic principle that a family’s domestic space was largely forbidden to non-relatives. Just as in many modern households, casual visitors to the house wouldn’t expect to be given access to the family bedrooms, so in Islamic society (then and now), non-family were not given access to the private portion of the house, but would be entertained in a space meant for receiving guests (a bit the way nicer 19th century houses had a ‘parlor’ for receiving visitors). In a strictly maintained domestic harem, the women were not permitted to leave, but in practice, most lower-class women left at least to conduct business, such as selling the products of their spindles and looms and buying new supplies.
The film is clearly trying to represent Islamic family practice, but can’t figure out how any of it actually worked. Malik Shah has three wives at the start of the film, and decides to take Sharain as his fourth. But the marriage ceremony is clearly modeled on something a mid-20th century American would recognize. She’s asked three times if she agrees to take the shah as her husband. In reality, Islamic marriage ceremonies in this period were conducted between the groom and the father-in-law, with the bride usually sitting in another room. Her consent was generally subsumed under her father’s consent. So the bride would not be asked for her consent, because that consent has already been arranged when the marriage contract was agreed to between her father and her future husband.
Khayyam twices sneaks into the domestic harem of Sharain’s father by sneaking over the wall into his garden in order to see her. The film presents this as mildly naughty, like holding hands behind her father’s back, when it fact it was a fairly serious offense. On the second occasion, he’s pursued by a bunch of other men, who invade the harem with no sense that this is inappropriate.
The shah clearly has an imperial harem, because there are a couple of scenes in which Sharain and Zarada are just hanging out sniping at one another amidst a crowd of other women while slave girls wander around swinging incense everywhere. But being in a harem doesn’t stop anyone from interacting with these women; there’s virtually no sense of the division between mahram and ghayr mahram men. In several scenes, when the shah is holding court, his wives and concubines are just wandering around chatting with people. Omar and Sharain manage to find opportunities to talk private with each other. And late in the film, Zarada just leaves town without anyone apparently noticing. As harems go, it’s a pretty permeable one. Allowing the shah’s women to circulate freely completely violates the whole point of having a harem, and would have suggested that the shah was willing to let other men sleep with his wives and concubines.
Additionally, the film doesn’t understand the dynamics of medieval Islamic states; instead it consistently treats them as being just like medieval European states. Zarada is the shah’s ‘queen’ and her son, Ahmud (because the film can’t bother to spell ‘Ahmed’ properly) talks about how he is the rightful heir because he is the shsh’s first-born son.
That’s complete nonsense. Polygyny and concubinage had a profound impact on medieval Islamic politics. Islam insists on the father’s paternity, so it has no legal concept of an illegitimate child; all sons have a claim on a share of their father’s property, regardless of who their mother is. Any son a ruler had, either by wife or concubine, was a potential heir to the throne. Whereas Western Europe eventually developed the system of primogeniture, in which the oldest son inherits the kingdom, the Islamic world never developed anything comparable. Because of this, there was little functional difference between a wife and a concubine, except that Islamic law restricted how a man could treat his wife and how many he could have at one time. Consequently, many medieval Islamic rulers never bothered taking wives at all and simply had concubines. When rulers did take wives, they were not accorded any special political function; they were not queens in any formal sense, and would not have had a formal function at court, the way the wife of a European king would. It’s only been in the 20th century that Middle Eastern rulers have begun to designate wives as queens, in imitation of European monarchy.
Instead of a distinction between legal wives and extra-legal concubines, the dividing line in an imperial harem was between women who had children and women who didn’t, because the ones with sons were potentially the mother of the next ruler, and thus possessed political clout with the next ruler. And when one of those sons became the next ruler, his mother rose in social standing and political power, because she had influence with her son (since she was his link to the previous ruler) and because he could trust her to have his best interests at heart (because her status was dependent entirely on him being the ruler). Political factions emerged within royal harems, as the childless women built political alliances with one of the women who did have children; these factions might vie with each other to help sway the ruler’s choice of his heir.
As a result, the film’s depiction of domestic politics at the court is fairly off. Zarada is jealous of Sharain because she fears that her rival will displace her as queen, whereas in reality Zarada’s fear would have been that Sharain might have a child to displace her son. She decides to plot against the shah because he’s not giving Ahmud his proper place as the heir. Mothers plotting for their sons to inherit was certainly something that happened in imperial harems, but the competition seems to have usually been mother against mother, not wife against husband.
Want to Know More?
There aren’t a ton of good books on women in medieval Islam. The place to start is with Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam, which is a study of the historical position of women in Islamic societies, not just medieval women. But there’s also Fatima Mernissi’s The Forgotten Queens of Islam, which looks at the largely unknown tradition of female rulers in Islamic history. Finally, you could also look at Delia Cortese and Simonetta Calderini’s Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam, which looks at the role of women specifically in 10th and 11th century Egypt.