By Adam Ali
Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), arguably one of the greatest of the Abbasid caliphs, is well known to many historians and history enthusiasts for his deeds and for presiding over the “golden age” of the Abbasid caliphate. However, his mother, Khayzuran, does not lay as much claim to fame as her illustrious son, despite the fact that she was the power behind his throne (while she lived) and that of his father and brother before him. During her life and career Khayzuran rose from the status of slave to becoming the caliph, al-Mahdi’s (r. 775-785), favorite concubine, and then his legal wife and a queen in her own right who wielded an immense amount of political power and whose wealth was second only to that of her husband’s in the entire caliphate. This feat was impressive not only because Khayzuran was able to elevate herself from slavery to royalty, but also because she did it during an era when social mobility, for both men and women, was very limited or in most cases impossible.
Little is known about Khayzuran’s early life and ethnic background. The sources first mention her in Jurash in Yemen. Most of the sources state that she was Yemeni and born a free Muslim, who was captured by Thaqafi Arab tribesmen and enslaved. Other sources claim she may have been a Berber from North Africa. One source even states she was Greek, although this is highly unlikely and in her book, Two Queens of Baghdad, Nabia Abbott states that this was a misreading or misinterpretation of one of the sources. Generally, there is a majority consensus stating her Yemeni Arab background. Furthermore, she had a family that she left behind in Yemen consisting of a mother, two sisters and one or two brothers.
What we do know about Khayzuran is that she was physically attractive, which given by the meaning and implication of her name (which was probably not her real name), which means “bamboo” (according to Fatima Mernissi) and implies that she was “slender and graceful as a reed” (according to Nabia Abbott). Mernissi goes on to state that the bamboo plant symbolizes both beauty and suppleness and also a deceptive fragility. To this day, in some parts of Morocco, men compliment a beautiful woman who passes them by murmuring to one another that she is “like a stem of bamboo.” Khayzuran was also a very ambitious and intelligent woman, as we will see she became the power behind the men who ruled one of the most powerful empires of the time.
After her capture, the sources next mention Khayzuran standing before the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur (r.754-775). After questioning her and being impressed with her intelligence, wit, and beauty, the caliph purchased her for his son, al-Mahdi. It is unclear whether her Thaqafi master sold her of his own according or whether she was able to convince him to sell her to the caliph through dream interpretation. Either way, Khayzuran ended up as one of the concubines in the harem of al-Mahdi, the crown prince.
A small digression is necessary here to briefly talk about the idea or concept of the harem in Islamic history. Our image of the harem has become stereotyped and turned “timeless” by Orientalism and Orientalist writings and art. Such writings and art created an image of the Orientalist fantasy harem as a secluded space of free sexual license, pleasure, and idleness. Citing and quoting Apter in her article on Abbasid harems, Nadia Maria El Cheikh states that he “describes how the polygamous harem continued to be exploited in Orientalist paintings and colonial fiction as a means of evoking every possible venue of erotic fantasy. Thus, abduction, exhibitionism, voyeurism, bestiality, sapphism, onanism, and masochism constituted a mosaic of ‘aberrant’ sexual preferences to be grouped under the rubric harem.”
These images of the harem continue to infuse the western imagination when trying to imagine the ‘exotic’ east. In 21st century popular culture, this can be best exemplified by the 2006 movie, 300. Although it is a depiction of the ancient Persian Empire (to which the Abbasid caliphate was an inheritor both politically and in many ways culturally) in a movie based on a graphic novel and loosely based on the history of the time, it is still adheres to and transmits the Orientalist imaginations of the “otherness” of the exotic east and the over-sexualized harem fantasy. The scene in the movie depicting Xerxes’s harem evokes these orientalist descriptions of this very ‘exotic’ and sexualized orient mentioned above. The scene merges the sensual and sexual, with the grotesque and bestial and the bizarre, and of course with lots of idleness. So much idleness, that in fact all the motions, when they do move, of the scantily clad and sexualized harem girls are deliberately slow, lazy, and make the viewer feel that he/she is witnessing an exotic drug-induced otherworldly vision of licentiousness. The power of the Orientalist obsession with fantasizing about the forbidden confines of the harem was so strong, that representations and descriptions of Muslim women outside the harem was almost non-existent even into the early parts of the modern era.
The reality of the harems is that they were not timeless and they differed in the way they were organized and operated in the various periods of Islamic history and also depending on whether they were the harems of rulers (i.e. sultans or caliphs), the socio-political elite, or notable merchants and other wealthy members of society. It was only the members of the very top echelons of Muslim society who were able to afford to maintain harems with multiple wives and concubines and all the other servants necessary for them to function. Furthermore, many of the women in the harems were very politically active and wealthy. Although the women inhabiting the harems did engage in sexual relations with the head of the patrimonial household, that was not their sole function. Prominent women had their own apartments and wings, their own servants, slaves, and agents. They had allowances and some of them even ran their own businesses and enterprises from within the harem through agents. Some of them rose to high positions at court; most notable among these was the position of qahramana (stewardess), in the Abbasid period. The qahramanas ran the household and had the power to execute financial and managerial decisions and also had the freedom to come and goes as they pleased passing seamlessly between the private world of the harem and the more public spheres of society.
Additionally, most of the women who ended up in the harems of the elite were, as mentioned above, not only sexual objects. They were well-educated, many of them attended special schools where they learned to read and write, recite and compose poetry, music, dancing, history, religion, and in some cases even philosophy, arithmetic, and science. They picked up other skills at court and through their interactions in the harem. This made them unparalleled in education in comparison to most men and women in the Muslim world, the west and beyond at the time. It, thus, should not be a wonder that women like Khayzuran rose to the top and amassed such a vast amount of wealth and power during an era when most women, slaves or free, had little power or authority both in the caliphate and its counterparts in the west and the east.
Khayzuran quickly became al-Mahdi’s favorite concubine. She had a huge amount of influence on him and she was not afraid to use it both for political purposes and in personal rivalries with other members of the harem. In fact, she was able to convince him to name her sons Musa al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid as his heirs and to exclude all the other sons that he had, including the two older sons whom he had fathered with his freeborn and noble wife, Raita. In medieval and early modern Islamic societies, the children fathered by free men and their concubines were born free. They were not considered “bastards” despite being born out of wedlock and to concubines and slave girls and they were recognized as the legitimate children of their father with equal rights to succession and inheritance to the ‘legitimate’ children from a legal marriage. In fact, of the 39 Abbasid caliphs who ruled between 750 and the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258, 36 were the sons of slave mothers. The Umayyad rulers of al-Andalus were all the sons of slave girls. Likewise, most of the Ottoman sultans were also born to mothers who were concubines and consorts in the imperial harem. It is quite a juxtaposition in comparison to medieval Europe where being a “bastard” was for the most part stigmatized and where the bastard children of the nobility and royalty rarely succeeded their fathers. If they did, great lengths were taken to legitimize them formally or they seized power by brute force and overcame the challenges linked to their illegitimacy as was the case of William the Bastard, the duke of Normandy (r. 1035-1087) and the King of England (r. 1066-1087) aka William the Conqueror.
Another major triumph for Khayzuran was her ability to convince al-Mahdi to manumit her and then to marry her making her his legitimate wife and further cementing her position and power in the caliphal court. She even had her family brought to court after her position there was secure. She arranged lucrative marriages for her sisters and her brother was awarded governorships included that of Khurasan and Yemen.
Khayzuran’s wealth is attested to in the sources on multiple occasions. For example, when she was pregnant with her first son, she very richly rewarded both the apothecary and the physician who confirmed her pregnancy. She also manumitted several slaves in gratitude to God for the good tidings. Khayzuran, after informing al-Mahdi, also secured positions at court for both the physician and the apothecary who had confirmed her pregnancy.
Al-Tabari mentions an episode when al-Mahdi and Khayzuran quarrelled, and al-Mahdi left his beloved wife’s quarters in a fit of rage. This did not faze Khayzuran. In fact, she was not afraid to confront and oppose al-Mahdi, which she did on multiple occasions. It was one of al-Mahdi’s advisors, al-Waqidi, who smoothed things over between them and the grateful caliph rewarded him with 2000 dinars, a very hefty sum for the time. Khayzuran also showed her gratitude by sending one of her servants to al-Waqidi with fabrics and 1990 dinars, ten dinars short of al-Mahdi’s gift because she did not wish to match or compete with the caliph’s gift.
Khayzuran also ran a number of enterprises and factories through agents who reported directly to her. One example is a factory in Kufa that produced cloth and embroidery. One of these agents, who happened to be a Christian, was given full authority by Khayzuran in Kufa, which he used to the utmost degree to maximize production in her factory, which included pressing artisan and craftsmen into forced labor. This agent got into some legal trouble with the local judge, Sharik, who had him publicly flogged. The sources omit the immediate aftermath of this episode and how Khayzuran reacted upon hearing of the way her agent had been treated. But we do know that later on al-Mahdi threatened Sharik with the accusation of heresy, which carried with it a heavy punishment, often death. Later, during the reign of al-Hadi, Khayzuran’s older son, Sharik lost his judgeship. One can only wonder if Khayzuran had a hand in the difficulties that this judge faced in the aftermath of his treatment of her agent.
Another example of Khayzuran’s political power is her intervention on behalf of the imprisoned Yahya al-Barmaki, who was a member of the illustrious Barmakid family of wazirs (viziers). Al-Mahdi had had him arrested for the misuse of power and authority in the province of Fars. However, he was released upon Khayzuran’s championing his case before her husband.
Khayzuran went on pilgrimage to Mecca on two occasions in 776 and 788. In the latter pilgrimage some of her activities are documented in detail. Aside from being liberally charitable with all the poor along the way, she also purchased the house in which the prophet was born and turned it into a mosque. She also bought the house where the early Muslims secretly gathered to pray and listen to the revelations and maintained this structure that was sacred to many Muslims, which for a while afterwards was known as Khayzuran’s house, according to al-Tabari. Khayzuran is also credited with having wells dug and drinking fountains set up in Mecca and along the pilgrimage routes. Finally, al-Khayzuran held her own court in the harem and in her quarters where she met petitioners, both men and women, who asked her for favors or to intercede on their behalf with her husband, the caliph. These petitioners included court officials, military officers, nobles, and merchants.
At al-Mahdi’s untimely death, Khayzuran took control of the situation and ensured a smooth transition of power to her older son Musa al-Hadi. She took control of the government along with her allies, stopped a military mutiny by paying the restive soldiers their overdue salaries from the royal treasury, had all the dignitaries, military officers, and court officials swear allegiance to her son in absentia, and held everything together until al-Hadi, who was governing one of the provinces returned to Baghdad.
Despite all that she had done for her son, Khayzuran and al-Hadi had a falling out shortly after he assumed power. The new young caliph did not want to be controlled by his mother and tried to limit her power and to confine her away from the public sphere. He publicly humiliated her and threatened to have any petitioners who went to her court executed. Al-Tabari records her son’s angry retort when Khayzruan demanded he grant one of her petitioners what she had promised him:
“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.”
He also threatened to execute his younger brother, Harun, who also happened to be Khayzuran’s favorite. Al-Hadi’s reign lasted a little over a year. He died at the age of 24 and several historians believe that it was a frustrated and fearful Khayzuran who was the architect of his death. Some accounts state that she had some of her pretty female slaves smother al-Hadi with cushions while sitting on them. Al-Tabari aslo claims that al-Hadi tried to have his mother killed by sending her poisoned food and that Khayzuran’s actions were retaliatory.
Harun al-Rashid was the next caliph on the throne. Being his mother’s favorite, he was more than happy to share the power with her. Khayzuran was at the peak of her power during the early part of Harun’s reign and the last part of her life. At her death, Harun mourned her publicly and without shame, when he, as the caliph, was supposed to show restraint and moderation in such matters. The greatest of the Abbasid caliphs had shown no shame for sharing power and seeking counsel from his mother during the first half of his reign and now he would not feel any shame mourning her either. As great and mighty a man as he was, he nevertheless accompanied his mother’s casket barefoot to the burial site. He then said the funeral prayer and went down into her tomb one more time to pay his respect and say his farewell before leaving the cemetery.
Khayzuran was an exceptional and extraordinary woman. She rose from the status of slave to that of queen mother through her strong will, determination, intelligence, wisdom, perseverance, and ruthlessness. She was the power behind the throne of three caliphs and had a major, albeit hidden, impact on the politics of the caliphate as well as the private affairs of the court. The only factor limiting her was the fact that she had to exercise her will and power through men and could not seize the throne for herself and rule in her own right, an act that other female rulers such as Shajarat al Durr and Raziya of Delhi would accomplish centuries later in Egypt and India respectively.
Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.
Mernissi, Fatima. The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993.
Ibn al-Sāʿī. Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad. Edited by Shawkat M. Toorawa. Translated by The Editors of the Library of Arabic Literature New York: New York University Press, 2015.
El Cheikh, Nadia Maria. “Revisiting the Abbasid Harems.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Fall, 2005), pp. 1-19.
Richardson, Kristina. “Singing Slave Girls (Qiyan) of the ‘Abbasid Court in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries.” In Children in Slavery through the Ages. Edited by Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, Joseph C. Miller. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Abbott, Nabia. Two Queens of Baghdad: Mother and Wife of Harun al-Rashid. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.
Top Image: Harun al-Rashid was the caliph about whom the Thousand and one nights was composed – Illustration by Leon Carre from 1001 Arabian Nights