Al-Khayzuran: Muslim woman wielding state power

Famous Nilanjan Hajra
Photo : Muslim Heritage

The story of Al-Khayzuran bin Atta is yet another story in the history of Muslim women attaining the pinnacle of state power. It gives a lie to the idea that Islam restricts women from wielding socio-political authority. True, for centuries men have largely controlled the reins of state and social power. However, that is true of all religions, societies, and states across the globe. Islam as a religion has little to do with the formation and sustenance of the male chauvinistic world that continues to this day. On the contrary, many Muslim women have, over centuries, played historical roles in running the affairs of the state. Al-Khayzuran was among the first among them.

She was the wife of a major caliph and joined her husband often in his court. She was also the mother of the two most important caliphs of the Abbasid caliphate. Al-Khayzuran was the first among Muslim women to have gold coins minted in her name. She had her own bureaucracy, had the authority to accept petitions and advise state officials. She traded independently with other caliphates, and in the process became one of the wealthiest Muslim women of her time.

Life and times of Al-Khayzuran

Al-Khayzuran’s life is no less strange than fiction. She was born in the modern-day Jorash region of Saudi Arabia. Her year of birth is not known. In her teens, she was kidnapped and sold in the slave market to then Al-Mahdi, who was later to become the third caliph of the Abbasid caliphate.

On entering Al-Mahdi’s harem Al-Khayzuran concentrated on becoming trained in various arts and sciences. By dint of her merit and hard work the beautiful lady soon became proficient in music, astrology, mathematics, and theology. When Al-Mahdi ascended the throne in 775 CE, he freed Al-Khayzuran, by then one of the most remarkable Muslim women of her time, and married her. Not only did she become the queen, but soon she accompanied the caliph to the court, conferenced with the ministers, and took an active part in state affairs.

Role as a Queen and Mother 

As a queen Al-Khayzuran created a revolution of sorts by breaking the seclusion of the harem. She liberally mixed with important position-holders of the caliphate, including generals and politicians. And she discussed with them important matters of the state, offering her valued opinions. She also brought to the Baghdad court many of her close relatives. These included her mother and two sisters. Further, she arranged to marry her sister Salsal to prince Jafar, made her brother Ghatrif the governor of Yemen.

After Al-Mahdi suddenly died in 785, Al-Khayzuran promptly ensured that her first son, Al-Hadi, became the next caliph. However, on assuming power her eldest son wished to disassociate her from all affairs of the state. This led to a fairly long conflict between the two. While Al-Hadi was able to limit her daily interference in the court, he was unable to totally erase her vast influence over the bureaucracy.

On Al-Hadi’s untimely death only a year after his ascending the throne, his brother Harun al-Rashid became the caliph. Unlike his brother, Harun was not averse to his mother taking part in state affairs. On the contrary, the new Caliph publicly accepted her mother as almost an equal partner in running the Caliphate.

Finally. when Al-Khayzuran passed away in 789, the caliph broke all convention to mourn her death publicly. And he even took part in the funeral procession of her mother, one of the most remarkable Muslim women in history.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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