By Allah, I’m made for high positions and I walk with grace and style– Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi
In the last three centuries, western representations of Muslim women have been in terms of “veiled”, “secluded”, “submissive” and “oppressed”. Isn’t it interesting to know that these descriptions stand in stark contrast to western representations of Muslim women in medieval and renaissance times when writers from Europe depicted Muslim women as forceful queens of wanton and intimidating sexuality? Perhaps, you may love to travel with us through time to witness a vivid example of the latter description of Muslim women, as we visit the 11th-century spirited poetry-spouting princess of Cordoba who lived an audacious life, defied the gender norms of her society and crushed her cheating lover with her genius slam poetry.
Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi was born in 1001, in the Andalusian city of Cordoba. She was the daughter of Muhammad III of Cordoba who came to power in 1024. She was also a descendant of Abd-al Rahman Al-Mustakfi, the Umayyad prince who fled to Cordoba after the Umayyads had been deposed. Upon fleeing to Cordoba in the year 761, Abd-al Rahman discovered that the locals had taken advantage of the Umayyads’ deposition to declare independence for themselves. He thereafter conquered them and welded them together into the independent Emirate of Córdoba. By the time Wallada was born, Cordoba had become one of the most advanced cities in Europe and the descendants of Abd-al Rahman had declared themselves caliphs, thus making Wallada a princess.
Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi’s early childhood was during the high period of the Caliphate of Córdoba, under the rule of Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir. Her adolescent years came during the tumultuous period following the eventual succession of Aamir’s son, Sanchuelo, who in his attempts to seize power from Hisham II, plunged the caliphate into civil war. Her father, Muhammad III, was assassinated in 1025, two years after he became the caliph of Cordoba. And because he had no male heir, Wallada inherited his properties, and used them to open a palace and literary hall in Córdoba.
Even though she was a descendant of Abd-al Rahman, Wallada did not fit any stereotypical idea of a “Moorish princess”. She was strikingly beautiful and free-spirited and inspired some of the greatest poetry in eleventh-century Andalusia. The city’s tradition of religious freedom meant that they could not force her to conform. She was famous for going out in public without a veil and for wearing ostentatious dresses that were popular in Arabia at the time. However, the most conservative Cordoban traditional scholars were handicapped by the city’s policy of religious freedom, and hence, could not condemn her. In defiance, Wallada had embroidered one of her poetry verses on her tunics; “By Allah, I’m made for high positions and I walk with grace and style. I blow kisses to anyone but reserve my cheeks for my man.“
Wallada hosted mixed-gender gatherings where she read and performed her own bold work and she was considered one of the three most important poets of her time. Poetry was a very important part of cordoban culture at the time and those who were eloquent and could express themselves in verse were elevated to the elite class. With her wealth, Wallada set up a poetry school for women and girls where she taught poetry and the art of love to women of all classes. Her teachings helped many from the lower and middle classes to elevate themselves. This caused her to become very popular amongst the women of Cordoba. Many men rejected the verses in her poems because they were not “womanly” but this pushed her to write even more. She was a woman who took criticism as a tool to come back stronger, making her poems passionately vivid and influential.
Wallada’s financial independence afforded her the luxury of not getting married. Although she was reported to have courted Ibn Zaydun, his infidelity led to the end of their courtship. She had met him at one of Cordoba’s poetry competitions where she was competing against the male poets of the city. Ibn Zaydun, like Wallada, was a member of the noble class whose family were political opponents of hers. Their relationship began in the year 1032, when the Caliphate of Córdoba finally collapsed, breaking apart into several smaller independent principalities, known as taifas. The last caliph fled the city, and rulership of the taifa of Córdoba fell to the leader of the city’s most powerful family – Abu ‘l Hazm of the Banu Jawahr, who established a Roman-style republic with a council of ministers, called wazirs to advise him. Ibn Zaydun was one of those appointed to the council of ministers.
Consequently, Wallada’s status fell in the eyes of the people. She represented the glories of the past while Ibn Zaydun was the face of the future. During their courtship, Wallada and Ibn Zaydun communicated through poetry, causing the entire city to gossip about the relationship between the dashing young wazir and the beautiful princess. But this was not to last. Some reports mentioned that the breakdown of their courtship was due to Ibn Zaydun’s jealous criticism of Wallada’s poetry. Other reports stated that Wallada had caught him having sex with one of her slaves. This incident was said to have given rise to one of her poems, rebuking him:
If you did justice to our love, you would not desire nor prefer my slave girl.
Nor would you forsake a fertile branch, in its beauty, and turn to a branch devoid of fruit.
You know that I am the Moon in the sky, but burn, to my chagrin, for Jupiter.– Princess Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi
Ibn Zaydun communicated back through poetry, acknowledging his sin and declaring his faithfulness to her. But Wallada observed a lack of sincerity in his words and ended the relationship. The feud between the two ended when Ibn Zaydun was imprisoned by the Cordoban ruler and exiled for many years.
Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi continued to thrive as a poet, running her school and living audaciously. Through this school, she took on a protégée, Muhja bint al-Tiynanni, the daughter of a fig-seller. Muhja also became a writer of profane and outspoken poetry, reflecting her patron’s style. After a life dedicated to teaching and writing poetry, Wallada died in 1091 – the same year that Córdoba was conquered by invaders from far-off Marrakesh. Both the city and the princess fell the same day.
Her poetry found little favour in the centuries after her death. Islamic and Catholic scholars, who recorded the history of Cordoba had little time for a woman so assertive, and so unwilling to show “proper virtue”. However, the existence of her poetry and her strong themes are evidence that women in Andalusian society had a high level of freedom and independence, especially compared with Muslim women after her period. Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi was a very controversial woman, but she remains an early example of feminine strength in a Muslim society.
- Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, Poetic Princess – HeadStuff
- Mourtada-Sabbah, Nada and Adrian Gully. “‘I am, by God, fit for high positions’ On the political role of women in al-Andalus.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2003, pp. 183-209.
- Courtly Culture and Gender Poetics: Wallada bint al-Mustakfi and Christine de Pizan, Iman Said Darwish
TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.