Al-Khayzuran bint Atta (Arabic: الخيزران بنت عطاء)
(died 789) was the wife of the
Al-Mahdi and mother of
Al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid. She is known for the great
influence in state affairs she wielded during the reign of both her
spouse and that of her sons, from 775 until 789.
1.1 Reign of Al-Mahdi
1.2 Reign of Al-Hadi
1.3 Reign of Harun al-Rashid
3 See also
Al-Khayzuran was from Jorash, near modern Bisha, Saudi Arabia. She was
kidnapped from her home by a
Bedouin who then sold her in a slave
Al-Mahdi during his pilgrimage. All sources are
nevertheless adamant that she was a slave, and this does seem not to
have been unusual in practice.
Reign of Al-Mahdi
Al-Khayzuran was described as beautiful, intelligent and gifted: at
that time, the woman slaves or Jawaris of the harem were famed for
educating themselves in music, singing, astrology, mathematics and
theology in order to keep their master's interest, and Al-Khayzuran
took regular lessons in fiqh by the most learned qadis. She
eventually became the favorite concubine of Al-Mahdi, called jarya or
jawari. Upon his succession as
Caliph in 775, she managed to convince
him to free her and marry her, depriving his first spouse, princess
Rayta, daughter of
Caliph Al-Saffah, of her privileges: she also
convinced him to deprive his son in his first marriage from the
position of heir to the throne, and instead name her sons as heirs,
despite the fact that the custom at that time did not allow for the
sons of a slave to be named heirs.
At the court, she was an ally of the Barmakids. During the reign of
Al-Khayzuran raised to an unusual position for a woman;
she was not secluded in the harem, but held audiences with generals,
politicians and officials in her chambers, mixing with men and
discussing state affairs. She recalled her mother, two sisters and
two brothers to court, married her sister Salsal to prince Ja'far and
named her brother Ghatrif governor of Yemen.
Except their two sons, the couple also had a daughter, Banuqa, who her
father loved so much that he dressed her up as a boy to be able to
bring with him during his travels: when she died young, her father
made a scandal by demanding public condolences, which was not seen
correct for a daughter.
Reign of Al-Hadi
Al-Mahdi died during an expedition with his son Harun, who
rushed back to Baghdad to inform her. Her two sons were also absent
from the city, and to secure the succession for her son, she called
upon the viziers and ordered them to pay the wages of the army to
secure order, and then had them swear allegiance to her son as their
Caliph in his absence.
Al-Khayzuran reportedly wished to continue to engage in politics
during the reign of her son: "Khayzuran wanted to dominate her son as
she had previously dominated his father, al-Mahdi." She continued
to give audiences in her chambers and discuss state affairs during the
reign of her son Al-Hadi: "She continued to monopolize decision-making
without consulting him [al-Hadi]. She behaved as she had before,
during the reign of al-Mahdi ... . People came and went through her
door." Al-Hadi, however, opposed her participation in state affairs
and attempted to exclude her from them, reportedly saying: "it is not
in the power of women to intervene .. . in matters of sovereignty.
Look to your prayers and your prayer beads." He disapproved of the
fact that his mother gave audiences to officials and generals and
conferred with them, thus mixing with men, which was not normal in a
culture were women were expected to live secluded in the harem, and he
publicly addressed the issue of his mothers public life by assembling
his generals and asked them: 'Who is the better among us, you or me?'
Caliph al-Hadi of his audience. '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 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?'
Despite his opposition,
Al-Hadi did not manage to disturb his mother's
power base, and she refused to retire from politics into the harem.
The conflict was finally exposed in public when she interceded in
favor of a supplicant, Abdallah ibn Malik, and publicly demanded a
reply from her son, who lost his temper and openly yelled at her and
said: "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."
Al-Khayzuran is rumored to have had her eldest son
after this incident. One reason given is that she learned that he
was planning to kill his brother Harun al-Rashid, another that he
attempted to poison her himself, which she discovered after first
allowing her dog to eat of the dish he had sent to her. One version
claims that she gave the task of killing him to one of his slave
concubines, or jawari, to suffocate him with cushions.
Reign of Harun al-Rashid
Her second son,
Caliph Harun al-Rashid, in contrast to his brother,
did not oppose to his mother participating in the affairs of state,
but instead openly acknowledged her political ability and publicly
trusted her advice, and governed the realm by her side. He was
proud to point out that there was no reason for him to be ashamed of
sharing his power with a woman, if she had such ability and brilliance
as Al-Khayzuran. Though it is difficult to say exactly in which
issues she pressed her policy, it is nevertheless acknowledged that
she participated in the decision making that formed the policy of the
"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 civic
When she died in 789, her son broke the rules which demanded that he
show no sorrow, and instead publicly demonstrated his sorrow and
participated in her funeral, which attracted much attention.
Al-Khayzuran and her strong personality is believed by many literary
historians to be a key influence on Scheherazade, the
main character in One Thousand and One Nights. Many of the stories
were influenced by
Harun al-Rashid and his fabulous court.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Mernissi, Fatima; Mary Jo
Lakeland (2003). The forgotten queens of Islam. Oxford University
Press. ISBN 978-0-19-579868-5.
^ Verde, Tom. 2016. "Malik I: Khayzuran & Zubayda". Saudi Aramco
World. January–February 2016. Vol. 67, no. 1, page 44.
Ibn Kathir, Al Bidayah wa al-Nihayah
Al-Thahbi, Sirat Alam al-nubala
Ahmad Khalil Juma, Nesaa min al-tarikh
Verde, Tom. 2016. "Malik I: Khayzuran & Zubayda". Saudi Aramco
World. January–February 2016. Vol. 67, no. 1, pages 42-45.
Zaynab Husayan, Majaam A