The Rise of Al-Khayzuran: A Story of a Strong Woman and the Man Beside Her

Although the subject of strong women in history is always fascinating, it is a widely recognized but often forgotten fact that the greatness of a queen could not have occurred without the positive support of the male population, just as the king’s power could be maintained only because women also supported them. No power would survive for long against the apathy or opposition of half of the population. Therefore, although sons, brothers and grandsons were the only ones with an officially recognized right to inherit power, the ancient East also knew many female leaders who were successful rulers of kingdoms. In fact, Islamic history is riddled with crises that threatened to destroy a number of dynasties had it not been for the intervention of women.

None of the women of the Abbasid caliphate have gone down in history quite like Al-Khayzuran bint Atta. She was a slave who captured the heart of the Caliph Al-Mahdi who proceeded to break all conventions of the Abbasid dynasty by freeing her and making her his wife. Al-Khayzuran was then known for the visible role she played in various aspects of running the caliphate both through her own intelligence and supported by her husband′s high regard for her. 

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Abbasid Caliphate. temp. Al-Mahdi. AH 158-169 / AD 775-785 (By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 2.5,)

The story of Al-Khayzuran is one of rags to riches. We do not know much about her early life except that she was born in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula around the middle of the eighth century, only a little more than 100 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. It was possible that Al-Khayzuran was sold by her family into slavery, either as a mean of reducing the financial burden on the family or to pay familial debts. Al-Khayzuran became the slave of an unnamed Arab who purchased her from the Yemen region and sold her to the ruling caliph Al-Mansur for his son Al-Mahdi during his pilgrimage to Mecca. Conflicting accounts were made of Al-Khayzuran’s ethicity – one stated al-Khayzuran was a Berber from North Africa while another stated she was a Greek from the city of Jerash. Al-Khayzuran’s ethnicity was important at the slave market in Mecca as slave women were characterized by the regions from which they came.

The seventh-century Umayyad Caliph Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwan (646 – 705 CE) once stated that certain qualities valued in slave women were associated with their place of origin – Berbers for procreation, Greeks for their service, and Persians for their good behavior. Later, Ibn Butlan, a physician who was active in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, went so far as to provide characteristics of slave women from various regions – Berber women were characterized for their dark complexions, obedience and spirit, Yemeni women were similarly obedient with the addition of attractive faces, and Byzantine women were characterized as having straight blonde hair. Therefore, Al-Khayzuran would have been promoted, displayed and sold for her physical attributes. Even the name for which she became remembered in history is a physical description of her body – the word khayzuran means “reed”. Al-Khayzuran was desired not only for her physical features but also due to her not having any familial ties. At the time of her purchase, Al-Mansur questioned Al-Khayzuran about her living relatives to which she lied and said that she had none. Al-Mansur’s inquiry into the living relatives of Al-Khayzuran served to protect his dynasty from her male relatives who could potentially threaten his dynasty.  

Oil painting by Henriette Browne, 1860, depicting the harem interior. Exhibited in Paris 1861.

The rise of Al-Khayzuran: from the harem to the throne

In many societies in the late antiquities, such as those of Byzantium and the Abbasids, dwellings were separated into women’s and men’s quarters. The women’s quarters (the harem) was described as a private and sacred space, whereas the more public space occupied by men was considered to be a profane space closely identified with war – it was where visitors were received, where politics were to be conducted, and where the government was run. In large palaces such as those occupied by Al-Mahdi, the harem would have been extensive and occupied by numerous women who were either family or staff. This harem were eventually controlled and run by Al-Khayzuran. Al-Khayzuran first exercised her power within the women’s quarters as a concubine and wife, and later outside of the women’s quarters as a ruler.

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Woman on a birthing chair, 1793 miniature from Huban-name ve Zenan-name by Husein Fazil bin Tahir Enderuni.

Described as “slender and graceful as a reed,” Al-Khayzuran was also intelligent and well-read. She used her time in the harem to freely study the Qur’an, hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) and law with the guidance of leading scholars. She is also said to have enjoyed practical jokes and shared Al-Mahdi’s sense of humor, such as privately mocking Caliph Al-Mansur’s flashes of temper. Quickly becoming a favorite of Al-Mahdi, Al-Khayzuran used her position as a concubine within the imperial harem to develop her own power and influence until she  eventually became more powerful and influential than Al-Mahdi’s first wife Raytah who, unlike Al-Khayzuran, came from a noble lineage. Raytah was the daughter of Al-Mansur’s brother Al-Saffah, the first Abbasid Caliph. Al-Khayzuran became al-Mahdi’s concubine in 758 CE, approximately three years before he married Raytah in 761 CE. Raytah was Al-Mahdi’s first wife, and his only wife, from around 761 – 775 CE. She bore Al-Mahdi two sons, Ubaidallah and Ali – none of whom was his designated heir.

In contrast, as a concubine, Al-Khayzuran bore Al-Mahdi four children – a daughter named Al-Banuqah and three sons named Al-Hadi, Al-Rashid, and Isa. Al-Hadi and Al-Rashid would later become Caliphs. Little is known of Al-Banuqah and Isa except that Al-Mahdi favored them, along with Al-Hadi and Al-Rashid, over his other children. Al-Khayzuran’s two eldest sons were made heirs possibly because they were older than Raytah’s sons, or because Al-Khayzuran was favored over Raytah. However, despite her favored status even above Raytah, Al-Khayzuran remained Al-Mahdi’s slave and concubine for approximately eighteen years before she was manumitted and became his second wife in 775 CE according to Persian scholar Al-Tabari’s ninth-century History of the Prophets and Kings. At a time when caliphs were expected to marry fellow members of the aristocracy, elevating Al-Khayzuran to queen was a bold break from convention. And not unsurprisingly, although history provides no evidence of direct tension between Raytah and Al-Khayzuran, medieval Arab chronicles describe this as a beginning of court intrigues.

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Tombs and funerary complexes in the Northern Cemetery, Cairo, taken from the 19th century collection of architectural images photographed by A. D. White

It was not until she was eventually manumitted after giving birth to male children that Al-Khayzuran confessed to Al-Mahdi that she had a family who resided in Jerash – a mother, two sisters, and at least one brother. Evidently, Al-Mahdi did not share his father’s fear of Al-Khayzuran’s male relatives as, after the death of Al-Mansur, Al-Khayzuran managed to advance her brother Ghitrif to a political appointment as the governor of Yemen. She also arranged a marriage between her older sister Salsal and Jafar, Al-Mahdi’s half-brother. Al-Khayzuran maneuvered these events from within the harem before she married Al-Mahdi, thus ensuring the future welfare of her family and her sons through their inclusion in the royal bloodline of the caliphate whether Al-Mahdi legally married her or not. Later, Al-Khayzuran also made two of her nieces her daughters-in-law, positioning her family to produce even more possible heirs to the Abbasid caliphate. She also formed other political alliances from within the harem and ensured the legitimacy of her two sons’ claims to the caliphate as well as her own political power.  

Al-Mahdi and his attitude towards women

Although we admire Al-Khayzuran for her resourcefulness in advancing herself and her family, it is also important to recognize the man who made her advancement possible – as Caliph, of course, Al-Mahdi would have been able to easily stopped his concubine’s plans if he wanted to do so. Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Mansur, better known by his regnal name Al-Mahdi (“He who is guided by God”) was the son of Al-Mansur who became the second Abbasid Caliph when Al-Mahdi was ten years old. When he was 15 years old, Al-Mahdi was sent to defeat the uprising of Abdur Rahman bin Abdul Jabbar Azdi in Greater Khorasan. After Al-Mansur’s death, the throne then passed peacefully to Al-Mansur’s chosen successor, his own son Al-Mahdi.

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Franz Hermann, Hans Gemminger, Valentin Mueller – A Scene from the Turkish Harem

The city of Baghdad blossomed during Al-Mahdi’s reign and attracted immigrants from Arabia, Iraq, Persia, and Spain among many others. In addition to the Muslim population, the city was also home to Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians and Hindus. Al-Mahdi continued to expand the Abbasid administration, creating new diwans (departments) for the army, the chancery, and taxation. He also appointed Qadis (judges) and canceled many laws  against non-Arabs.

Apart from his attitude towards diversity, Al-Mahdi’s attitude towards women was also significant. When Arab historian Al-Masudi described the pious deed of Al-Khayzuran toward a former Umayyad princess Munza, it was Al-Mahdi who instructed Al-Khayzuran to watch and observe Zainab, one of the daughters of the fourth caliph and the first Shia imam Ali and his first wife Fatimah – daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Masudi described the interaction between Zainab and the former Umayyad princess Munza, which were observed by Al-Khayzuran. In tattered clothing, Munza pleaded with Zainab to show pity on her as she was afraid for her life out in the public streets.

Zainab refused to help the former Umayyad princess as she reminded Munza of a similar situation, “I had come to beg you for the body of my father in law, the imam Ibrahim. You refused me and had me turned out.” Al-Khayzuran witnessed this interaction and assisted the powerless Umayyad princess with clothing and an apartment. Later, Al-Mahdi himself invited Munza to sit by him and gave her a place of above that of Zainab. Consequently, Al-Khayzuran’s own status was elevated within the harem of Al-Mahdi due to her pity towards the former Umayyad princess.

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An Istanbul lady, 1793 miniature from Huban-name ve Zenan-name by Husein Fazil bin Tahir Enderuni.

Al-Mahdi and the intelligent women in his family

Al-Mahdi’s feelings towards Al-Khayzuran did not mean that he neglected other women in his life. Although Raytah, Al-Mahdi’s first wife, was not the most favored by her husband, she was still trusted and respected by both Al-Mansur and Al-Mahdi himself – Al-Mansur even left the keys to the treasury in her possession when he went on pilgrimage to Mecca. However, despite the respect and prestige Raytah held as Al-Mahdi’s wife, al-Khayzuran’s primary competition within the harem was not Raytah, but rather various singing girls, such as the singer Maknunah who was purchased by Al-Mahdi at a very high cost and soon found herself in good favor with the Caliph.

Al-Mahdi was fond of music and poetry. During his caliphate, he supported musical expression and poetry across his dominion. Accordingly, his daughter from Maknunah, Ulayya bint Al-Mahdi (777 – 825 CE) was both a noted poet and musician. It was also a testament of the rather peaceful existence of the royal family that, with her father dying early in her life, Ulayya was brought up by her half-brother Al-Rashid – son of Al-Khayzuran. Just as Al-Mahdi gave his mother many opportunities to study, Al-Rashid seemed to have done the same to his half-sister. The main source for Ulayya’s life is the tenth-century Kitab al-Aghani of Abu ‘l-Faraj Al-Isfahani portrays Ulayya as an accomplished woman who could readily hold her own in court society although she tended to shy away from too prominent a role in public life.

Al-Khayzuran’s only daughter, Al-Banuqah, travelled with her father Al-Mahdi dressed as a young page boy in a black cloak with a sword attached to her hip to disguise her gender. The only other reference Al-Tabari made to Al-Banuqah was how Al-Mahdi was inconsolable at Al-Banuqah’s untimely death, showing “grief the like of which has never been heard of.” Al-Tabari’s account provides more insight into the close relationship between Al-Mahdi and the women in his family and his willingness to let a woman dear to him cross gender boundaries when necessary.

Although the historical record concerning the power and influence of Al-Khayzuran during the reign of her husband is limited, after Al-Mahdi’s death, Al-Khayzuran’s power came from her role as queen mother to her two sons and future caliphs, Al-Hadi and Al-Rashid, and her own political savvy. By the time of her death in 789 CE, Al-Khayzuran’s annual income had reached 160 million dirhams which, according to Al-Masudi, was roughly half of the entire state revenue. When his mother died, the Caliph Al-Rashid displayed the depths of his grief and devotion by helping to shoulder her bier barefoot through the mud.

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