The histories do not detail Khayzuran’s political achievements, but coins were struck in her name, palaces were named for her, and the cemetery in which subsequent Abbasid rulers were laid to rest carries her name, all testifying not only to status but also to a civic largesse.Tom Verde, Malika I: Khayzuran & Zubayda, Aramco World.
History often eludes us in our moments of curiosity. In a world where Muslim women are told that leadership positions are forbidden for women, we may like to pack our bags and embark upon a journey back in time to the Abbasid period to witness the powerful reign of a determined woman who used her wit and power to rise from rags to riches, captivity to sovereignty, slave to Queen. This woman was no other than Al-Khayzuran bint Atta.
Born in the middle of the eighth century in a village called Jorash, near modern Bisha in the southwestern part of the Arabian peninsula, Al-Khayzuran was kidnapped from her home as a girl by a Bedouin who sold her in a slave market near Mecca. Al-Mansur, the caliph at that time, bought her while he was on a pilgrimage and took her to Baghdad. Although it was illegal for Muslims to enslave other Muslims, Al-Khayzuran was nevertheless sold into slavery by her fellow Muslim man. She was raised in the Abbasid court and was placed in the household of Al-Mahdi, the future caliph, who would also happen to be her future husband. Al-Khayzuran was described as strikingly beautiful, Intelligent beyond her years and gifted in the arts.
At the time, the women slaves, otherwise known as Jawaris of the harem used to educate themselves in music, singing, astrology, mathematics and theology to sustain the interests of the master. While in the Abbasid court, Al-Khayzuran took regular lessons in fiqh by the most learned Qadis. According to historian Nabia Abbott, in her book, Two Queens of Baghdad; Mother and Wife of Harun Al-Rashid, Al-Khayzuran hardly relied on beauty alone for her success. She was intelligent, freely quoted poetry and studied the Qur’an, hadith and law at the feet of leading scholars. A combination of her knowledge and beauty made her beloved to Al-Mahdi, who eventually made her his concubine. Their love affair produced three children; two sons, Musa Al-Hadi and Harun Al-Rashid and a daughter, Banuqa.
Upon becoming the caliph in the year 775, Al-Khayzuran who knew the workings of Al-Mahdi’s heart managed to convince him to free her, marry her and make her the queen. Al-Mahdi agreed to this, depriving his first spouse, Princess Rayta, the daughter of Caliph Al-Saffah, of her privileges. She also convinced him to make her children the heirs to the throne instead of his son from his first marriage. Al-Mahdi also agreed to this, ignoring the custom that stated that the sons of a slave woman cannot be named heirs. From that moment, Al-Khayzuran became the most powerful and influential woman in the court.
Rather than being secluded in a harem, Al-Khayzuran sat on tribunals and held audiences with generals, politicians and officials in her chambers and discussed state affairs. She met with foreign ambassadors and signed official papers for the administration of the empire. At the time, the positions she occupied were unheard of. They were considered culturally inappropriate for a woman, yet these positions emphasised her influential and powerful position in the empire. Al-Khayzuran brought her mother, two sisters and brothers to the palace. She married one of her sisters to Prince Ja’far and appointed her brother, Ghatrif as governor of Yemen.
Al-Khayzuran’s daughter, Banuqa was much loved by her father. To take her along on his official travels, he dressed her up as a boy. And when Banuqa died at the age of sixteen, her father declared public condolence, which at that time was unheard of for a daughter.
As a queen, Al-Khayzuran improved the condition of women. She was committed to removing the harmful structures that prevented women from living their full lives. She was also very charitable, especially to women. On one occasion, while she was relaxing in her apartment, in the midst of other imperial women, her servant notified her of the presence of Muznah, the widow of Marwan II, the last Umayyad Caliph. She had been abandoned by the caliphate and made to live a life of poverty. Her story of grace to grass touched Al-Khayzuran so much that she arranged for her to be taken care of perpetually as a royal. She also ensured that Muznah’s business enjoyed royal patronage until her death. When Al-Mahdi, the caliph, heard what happened, he praised Al-Khayzuran for being kind-hearted and charitable and extolled her virtues.
In the year 785, Al-Mahdi died in an expedition he had embarked upon with his son, Harun. The latter was quick to return to Baghdad to inform Al-Khayzuran of what had happened. She gathered the viziers and ordered them to pay the wages of the army to secure order, and then had them swear allegiance to her son, Al-Hadi, as their new Caliph in his absence. According to Fatima Mernissi, in her book, the forgotten queens of Islam, “Al-Khayzuran wanted to dominate her son as she had previously dominated his father, Al-Mahdi. She continued to monopolize decision-making without consulting her son, She became the most powerful figure in the empire during Al-Hadi’s reign. She behaved as she had before, during the reign of al-Mahdi … . People came and went through her door.“
Her son, however, was displeased with the situation. He opposed her participation in state affairs and attempted to exclude her. According to him, “It is not in the power of women to intervene .. . in matters of sovereignty. Look to your prayers and your prayer beads.” He publicly disapproved of the fact that his mother gave audiences to officials and generals and conferred with them and thus “mixed with men“. One day, he assembled his generals and asked them publicly:
‘Who is the better among us, you or me?’
‘Obviously, you are the better, Commander of the Faithful,’ the assembly replied.
‘And whose mother is the better, mine or yours?’ continued the caliph.
‘Your mother is the better, Commander of the Faithful.
”Who among you’, continued al-Hadi, ‘would like to have men spreading the news about your mother?”
No one likes to have his mother talked about,’ responded those present.
‘Then why do men go to my mother to speak to her?’
During this period, Muslim women had not yet been fully secluded by society. This event was recorded to have been the catalyst for the institutionalisation of the Harem system under the Abbasid dynasty. Al-Khayzuran however, refused to retire from politics into the harem. This conflict escalated publicly the day Al-Khayzuran interceded for a man named Abdallah bin Malik, who had come to ask the caliph for some favours. Al-Khayzuran demanded a reply from her son who got inflamed at her refusal to step down from politics and yelled loudly at her:
“Wait a moment and listen well to my words … . Whoever from among my entourage – my generals, my servants – comes to you with a petition will have his head cut off and his property confiscated. What is the meaning of those retinues that throng around your door every day? Don’t you have a spindle to keep you busy, a Koran for praying, a residence in which to hide from those besieging you? Watch yourself, and woe to you if you open your mouth in favour of anyone at all.“
After this incident, Al-Khayzuran received some intel that her son, the caliph was planning to have his brother Harun murdered. She also discovered that he had planned to poison her, after first allowing her dog to eat the dish he had sent to her. Rumours have it that Al-Khayzuran had her son, Al-Hadi murdered after this incident.
Upon Al-Hadi’s death, Al-Khayzuran’s second son, Harun Rashid, became the caliph. Harun Rashid openly acknowledged his mother’s political abilities and publicly trusted her advice, governing the empire by her side. He was quick to admit that there was nothing wrong with a woman being in power, as long as she possessed such ability and brilliance. And at this time, Al-Khayzuran became the most powerful, took on all the powers and ruled the empire instead of the caliph. According to Fatima Mernissi, When she died in 789, her son broke the rules which demanded that he show no sorrow, publicly demonstrated his sorrow and participated in her funeral by helping to shoulder her bier, barefoot, through the mud, which attracted much attention. The 10th-century historian, Al-Masudi tells us that “Al-Khayzuran’s personal wealth at the time of her death made her “undoubtedly, next to her son Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the richest person in the Moslem world of her day.”
- Malika I: Khayzuran & Zubayda – AramcoWorld
- Fatima Mernissi; The forgotten queens of Islam, Mary Jo Lakeland (2003). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-579868-5.
- Nabia Abbott, Two Queens of Baghdad: Mother and Wife of Harun al-Rashid, Al Saqi, 1986. ISBN 0863561195, 9780863561191
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.