Al-Khayzuran bint Atta had been born in Jurash in modern-day Saudi Arabia before she was kidnapped from her home to be sold as a slave. She was presented to the caliph Al-Mansur, who was the 2nd Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate from 754 to 775, and she would eventually become the favourite concubine of his son Al-Mahdi.
The dating of her early years in the harem and the births of her sons Musa al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid is rather unclear. Mahdi not only had concubines, but he also had a legal wife of royal birth, Raitah, who also gave him two sons, Abuaidalllah and Ali. Despite their royal mother, they were never considered for the caliphate, and it does not appear that Raitah was an active rival for Khayzuran. The only one Khayzuran had feared was a woman named Maknuna, who was a renowned singer. Mahdi had paid so much for her that he kept the price a secret from his father, who would surely have disapproved of the extravagance. He became so captivated by her that Khayzuran later stated, “I never had such fear of another woman as I had of her.”1
Sometime after the births of her sons, Hadi and Harun, Khayzuran told Mahdi of her family in Jurash despite originally claiming she had been an only child. Mahdi ordered that they – her mother, two sisters and at least one brother – would be brought to him, and their newfound royal connections brought them much favour. Her elder sister Salsal became the concubine of Mahdi’s half-brother and became the mother of Zubaidah bint Ja’far who would one day become the wife of Harun. Her younger sister Asma was briefly a concubine of Mahdi as well but remained mostly out of the spotlight.
In addition to her two surviving sons, Khayzuran also gave birth to a third son named Isa, of whom little is known, and a daughter named Banuqah or Banujah, who died young. It is known that she had her own palace and that she sometimes went along on trips with her father. She was also known to have worn the disguise of a page on these trips to avoid wagging tongues. Mahdi was quite grieved by the death of his “Little Lady,” and he mourned her publically, something that was almost unheard of at the time, especially for the death of a girl.
Mahdi succeeded his father as the 3rd caliph in 775, and until then, Raitah had been his only legal wife. He could have up to four legal wives and began taking steps to make Khayzuran his second legal wife, which would also help to secure the succession of her sons, rather than Raitah’s sons. They probably married that year or the following year. He also married a noble Arab woman named Umm Abdallah and a woman named Uthmanid Ruquiyah. Little information about his third and fourth wives exists, but they were probably political alliances. Khayzuran remained his favourite wife and mistress of the harem. She remained in this position, despite the heavy competition, and was of great influence on Mahdi and, through him, on his empire.
References to what kind of influence she had remained somewhat general and often date from the reign of her son Hadi. One account stated, “Khayzuran in the first part of Hadi’s reign used to settle his affairs and to deal with him as she had dealt with his father before him in assuming absolute power to command and forbid.”2 One case of her known political influence involved the imprisonment of Yahya, the son of Khalid the Barmakid, who was imprisoned en fined for the misuse of power in the province of Fars. Khayzuran pleaded with Mahdi on his behalf on the basis of a foster-brotherhood3 that existed between Yahya and Harun, and Mahdi released him and had him reinstated.