Naming Eunuchs in Islamicate Societies

Tolino, Serena (1 October 2020). Naming Eunuchs in Islamicate Societies (Unpublished). In: Slavery and Other Forms of Strong Asymmetrical Dependencies: Semantics, Lexical Fields and Narratives. Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies (BCDSS); University of Bonn. 01-02 October 2020.

During the pre-modern and the early modern period, eunuchs held a central position in the Courts of different Islamic dynasties, notwithstanding being castration unanimously prohibited in Islamic Law and even subject to the law of retaliation.
From a biological point of view, a man, when castrated, lost something which was considered to be fundamental for the contemporary understanding of masculinity. Still, eunuchs were considered for some aspects men: for example, they were assigned offices like army commanders, governors, caliphs’ counselors. However, for other aspects they were not considered ‘completely’ men. This allowed them to have access to the harem, playing one of their main roles in Islamic history, that of harem guardians. Moreover, having access to both the feminine and the masculine world, they had an important key to power.
From the perspective of Islamic Law eunuchs were slaves and property of their masters. However, sources also tell us that they hold a central position in court politics in many pre-modern Islamicate Courts. If we stick to a dichotomy slavery/freedom, we certainly fail to properly situate their relevance in the socio-political context. In order to problematize this dichotomy, a useful approach, as proposed for example by Hanß and Schiel (2014), has been semantics of slavery. Looking at how slaves were named in different sources, in different historical periods and in different regional contexts can allow us to obtain a more nuanced picture of how slavery (and other forms of coerced labor) worked in the pre-modern period.
This paper aims at contributing to this debate. After an introduction on eunuchs in Islamicate Courts, and an overview of the available research on that, the paper will provide a first mapping of the most relevant terms that were used in different typologies of sources to name eunuchs in the pre-modern period (in particular from the 10th to 12th century), reflecting on the meaning but also for the reasons behind the choice of a given term in a given source.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

UniBE Contributor:

Tolino, Serena


200 Religion > 290 Other religions
900 History
900 History > 950 History of Asia
900 History > 960 History of Africa




Serena Tolino

Date Deposited:

25 Feb 2021 15:58

Last Modified:

25 Feb 2021 15:58

Additional Information:

Online via Zoom: 11:10–11:50 AM – SEMANTICS II

Uncontrolled Keywords:

slavery, eunuchs, islamicate societies, semantics of slavery


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