Romance of the Beautiful Slave and the Rebellious Ruler: Al-Khayzuran and Al-Mahdi
Arabian Nights conjure up images of romantic love stories of slave girls’ rags to riches journeys of the heart. We celebrate Valentine’s Day with the real love story of such a slave girl. It was not only Al-Khayzuran’s physical beauty - slender and graceful as a reed - but also her intelligence, wit and sense of humor that conquered the heart and mind of Caliph Al-Mahdi in the mid-8th century.
The Harem Bath by Rudolph Ernst (1854-1931) (Public Domain)
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 a king’s power could be maintained only because women also supported him. 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 experienced 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 Caliph Al-Mahdi (744 to 785), 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.
The Abbasid caliphate in the late 8th century (CC BY-SA 3.0)
From Slave to Favorite Concubine
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 south-western part of the Arabian Peninsula around the middle of the 8th century, only a little more than a hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. It was possible that Al-Khayzuran was sold by her family into slavery, either as a means of reducing the financial burden on the family or to pay familial debts.
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Top Image: Arabian Nights by Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845 – 1902) (Public Domain)