Is Harem Haram?


We know Haram to be any act that is forbidden or off-limits as outlined by Allah, but where did it come from?

This was my initial task: explore Haram– but while meandering through the etymology of “Haram”, I quickly found myself in the thick of texts detailing “Harem,” which were, (am I reading this correctly?)  “communities of women deemed ‘off-limits’ to the vast majority of men–save for the sultan of the current empire, whose sexual desire is not easily appeased.”

I see the connection of both the women and a certain deed being “off-limits.” But in my experience, the women in harems always appeared so lavish and lustful, how could the often chaste realization of Haram possibly be related to these Harem girls?

And then another realization of the word to really shake things up a bit: In Zoology, a harem consists of 1 or 2 males and several adult females and their offspring, where the male exerts dominance and control over all involved. Many animals make polygynous groups such as these, including various baboons, the Red Deer and the Bengal Tiger.

Then, I asked my friend from Saudi Arabia his two-cents. He said Harem is the plural word for women while Huma or Hurmah is singular.

As for the harems in Middle Eastern history, various sources have attempted to make clear that in these secluded palaces for young concubines, called saraglios, the women were not alone. In Istanbul, the Turkish Capital, there could be hundreds of women, some concubines, some wives (only four could be legal under Islam), but also the sultan’s mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs, or castrated slaves and slave girls to serve the previously mentioned women.

It’s hard to dilute history. Remarkably beautiful young girls were nipped from the human sex slave market, sent to the sultan’s women for inspection, and if the young girl passed, she was immediately converted to Islam and taught writing, rhetoric, protocol and music. If she flourished in her studies and was exceedingly physically pleasing to the sultan, she was promoted to the title of “Has Odalisque“, “Ikbal“, or “Gozde” meaning favorite. It was through this vein did some women gain affluence in Turkish society, not directly, as the women were always isolated from the actual society, but indirectly, though being able to dissuade the king. The sultan’s favorites and the sultan’s wives are among the most powerful women in the history of the Ottoman Empire, the sultan’s mom weighing in as “most influential” over the sultan.

Yet media representations in America gloss over this dimension of harem women.  Media tends to remove the less exciting but more human elements out of their living arrangement, like sisterhood and solidarity, because sisterhood and solidarity is not their product. Sex is their product. Thus, their attention is usually on the sensual and erotic. Typical scenes in movies would be dances for the sultan performed in groups (usually supplied with ill-fitting contemporary choreography) or grooming each other, things that are sensual. Turns out, slavery can be a source of sexual arousal.

While searching for additional American interpretations of the word harem, I even uncovered the use of the word in the lyrics of a song called The Rep Growz Bigga, by a hip-hop duo from New York called Gang Starr. I’m sure I don’t need to point out hip-hop’s notorious reputation for the brute hypersexualization of women, but I do bring it up in light of this certain hip-hop group’s use of the word Harem.

I see parallelism between these lyrics and the social structure of the Harems in the Ottoman Empire I just described. However, as is the essence with all art, it will never be answered as to whether this was the artists’ true intention.

 “Your fame has gotten larger than your life…”

Firstly, as a sultan, public recognition is part of the gig, and secondly, it’s not a part time job: it’s something that is life encompassing because you are born into it.

“…You’ve got a harem of bitches…”

Also, you have guaranteed access to a variety of the most beautiful, young slave women plucked freshly from the slave trade.

“…And killer niggas that’s hype…”

Of course, as a sultan you still need a few close buds to really retain control of all aspects of sultan duties—and that’s pretty cool.


“…They got your back, but you so fly you don’t need em”

No, the only person a Sultan really need is his mother, who made you and thus qualifies as making you “fly.” Historically, the mother of the Sultan held a uniquely  powerful position in the Ottoman Empire by taking on the role of informing her son and guiding him through political decisions. Valide Sultan (literally meaning sultan mother) is the title of the mother of whoever is the ruling sultan during that time.

My question is: Does Gang Starr realize his flow is being retroactively influenced by a huge empire structure, centuries dead?

All joking aside, isn’t the etymology of words fascinating? In this episode we have seen how  animalistic, evolutionary descriptive phenomena played out historically, and how its effects have been realized in 2014, transatlantically, on tv sets and on the net. Maybe America’s obsession with  sex is best made clear in over representation of sex-slave Harem girls in media? Do you know of an Arabic word that has been appropriated to American culture? If you comment with your suggestion, as an eager Linguistics student, I may write about its etymology, or any point of interest. 

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One thought on “Is Harem Haram?

  1. This was a very interesting topic. I learned a lot from reading this blog. I never knew there were so many different ways to use that word and the historical significance behind it as well.

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