|Ulayya bint al-Mahdi |
عُلَيّة بنت المهدي
|Spouse||Musa ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Hashimi|
|Relatives||Al-Hadi (brother) |
Harun al-Rashid (brother)
‘Ulayya was one of the daughters of the third Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi bi-'llah (r. 775–85), who reigned from 775 to his death in 785, and was noted for promoting poetry and music in his realm. Her mother was a singer and concubine called Maknūna (herself the jāriya of one al-Marwānīya). It appears that, with her father dying early in her life, ‘Ulayya was brought up by her half-brother Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809).
‘Ulayya was a princess, and, like her half-brother Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi (779–839), a noted musician, and poet. It has been claimed that she surpassed her brother in skills and while 'not the only princess known to have composed poetry and songs', nonetheless 'the most gifted'. 'Much of her poetry consists of short pieces designed to be sung; in the muḥdath style, it treats of love, friendship and longing for home, but also includes praise of Hārūn, the caliph, celebration of wine and sharp attacks on enemies.'
The main source for ‘Ulayya's life is the tenth-century Kitāb al-Aghānī of Abū ’l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī. This and other sources tend to portray ‘Ulayya as an accomplished woman who could readily hold her own in court society, but who tended to shy from too prominent a role in public life. She was wealthy and clearly possessed slave-girls, and had an intimate relationship with her powerful brothers; although there is little evidence of her communing with religious scholars, 'various reports in ‘Ulayya's tarājim refer to her piety and adherence to ritual obligations'.: 66–68, 74
‘Ulayya was married to an ‘Abbāsid prince, but 'love-poems of her addressed to two slaves have been preserved'. One of the best known anecdotes about her concerns
her relationship with a member of al-Rashīd's palace staff, a khādim named Ṭall, with whom she would correspond in verse. When al-Rashīd forbids her from uttering his name, she follows his order to the letter even when it precludes her from uttering a line of Sūrat al-Baqara in which the term ṭall occurs. When the caliph learns of this, he is swayed and presents Ṭall to her as a gift. In this case, her piety become the means to winning a quite worldly reward.: 77
Similar to other free Arab women known for their musical ability, Ulayya bint al-Mahdi only performed in private, chaperoned family only functions to avoid any potential impropriety, such as to be compared to the slave-qiyan, jawaris or mughanniyat, but she was referred to as a qayna as a tribute to her musical ability. She once performed a duet with her brother Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi. She also composed love poems for her sister-in-law Zubaidah bint Ja`far, which was allegedly performed by 2000 slave women singers for her brother Harun al-Rashid. 
Ulayya married Musa ibn Isa, a prominent member of a cadet branch of the Abbasid dynasty. He had an extended relation with Abbasid dynasty, Musa was a great-nephew of its first two caliphs al-Saffah (r. 750–754) and al-Mansur (r. 754–775); he was also connected to the ruling line by his marriage to Ulayya, daughter of the third caliph al-Mahdi.
As example of ‘Ulayya's poetry is: