Like her mother-in-law and aunt al-Khayzuran before her, Zubaidah bint Ja’far has all but disappeared from history. Her birthdate is unknown, though she was at least one year younger than her future husband, Harun al-Rashid. Her birth year is estimated to be around 766. Zubaidah was the daughter of Ja’far, a half-brother of al-Mahdi, the third Abbasid caliph, whose favourite wife was Khayzuran, and Salsal, Khayzuran’s elder sister. Her future husband Harun was the son of Mahdi and Khayzuran – making them first cousins.
Around 781/782, Zubaidah became the legal wife of Harun. As was the custom, he had a harem of concubines and several other legal wives. In one instance, Zubaidah herself presented her husband with ten slave girls by way of an apology. Zubaidah remained childless for several years. In 786, Harun succeeded his brother as the 5th Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate. During that same night, one of the slave girls gave birth to a son, and she died shortly after. Zubaidah reportedly helped to raise the boy – named al-Ma’mun. By then, she was also finally pregnant herself, and she gave birth to her only child, a son named al-Amin, in 787. Because of Amin’s double royal background, he was in a better position than the elder al-Ma’mun. Despite the women in the harem that came and went, Zubaidah had a special place with Harun.
In addition to the harem, Zubaidah had a large retinue of eunuchs and girls, and she devoted her time to training them. She reportedly had over 100 slave girls who were experts at chanting the Qu’ran and the hum continuously echoed from her palace. Zubaidah also had a pet monkey, which wore a girdle and sword, and which had 30 men to wait on him. She required all those who came to court to pay homage to her to also kiss the monkey’s hand. This went on until one particular General was outraged at the demand and he cut the monkey in half with his sword. Though the General was not punished by Harun, Zubaidah was heartbroken.
When Zubaidah’s son was five years old, he was officially nominated as Harun’s heir, but some thought him to be too young to be considered at this time. Despite this, he became the heir and his education, and that of his half-brother, became Zubaidah’s major concern. Tutors were carefully selected, and punishments were not uncommon if the boys misbehaved. Once when Ma’mun was late to the lesson, he received seven strokes of the whip. As the years progressed, the rivalry between the two brothers grew, and Zubaidah became more and more involved in this. Ma’mun was eventually nominated as the second heir after Amin, and Harun even contemplated making him the first heir – much to Zubaidah’s concern. The situation was not helped by the presence of a third son – younger than the elder two by three or four years – by the name of Qasim. He was nominated as third in the line of succession in 802.
On 24 March 809, Harun died after an illness. Zubaidah’s son Amin had been preparing for his father’s death for around eight months, so it’s possible that he was ill for quite some time. Together they had prepared letters of instructions for the event of Harun’s death. Upon receiving the news of her husband’s death, Zubaidah gathered all the daughters of all the caliphs and all the Hashimite women for a session of public mourning. Zubaidah’s 22-year-old son Amin succeeded his father as the 6th Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate. His brothers were later excluded as heir in favour of his own son Musa, leading to a deteriorating relationship. Zubaidah remained somewhat out of the records during this time, but she was listed as being present to comfort him after the death of his favourite concubine – the mother of Musa. Amin soon began to withdraw from the company of his harem and his family and spent more and more time with the eunuchs. His behaviour was soon the talk of the empire.
Zubaidah attempted to distract him from the eunuchs by presenting him with the most gifted and beautiful women whom she dressed in costumes of page boys, and the costumed women soon became quite the hit. However, Ma’mun was soon in open rebellion, and Amin responded by taking his wife and two sons hostage. During the following war, Zubaidah and Amin’s two young sons were also taken as hostages. The rebels managed to depose Amin and declared for Ma’mun, and they eventually took the city of Baghdad. The story goes that Amin was on a boat that capsized and that he was discovered as he swam to shore. He was decapitated, and his head was displayed on a spear at the city gates.
Zubaidah went into deep mourning for her son, wearing clothes made of black cloth of hair. She wrote long verses of poetry and one of these reached Ma’mun who wrote back to her with promises to be a real son to her. Zubaidah eventually returned to the capital, but we don’t know when this happened exactly. Her properties were restored to her, and Ma’mun did not insist on her joining him. For six years, the records remain silent on Zubaidah. Upon her first meeting with Ma’mun, he claimed not to be responsible for Amin’s death, and she told him, “There is a day on which you two will meet again, and I pray Allah that he will forgive both of you.”1 A somewhat cordial relationship developed between them over time. She probably saw little of her grandsons. Musa died in 823, while the younger Abdallah lived to carry on her line.
Zubaidah became well-known for her philanthropy, which stretched far and wide. She famously made a water source available along the road to Mecca for the pilgrims and even went on five pilgrimages to Mecca herself. She had at least two establishments in Mecca. Providing the water sources had not been easy because the terrain was mountainous and hard rock and ended up costing almost 2 million dinars.
Zubaidah died on 10 July 831 during the reign of Ma’mun. Unfortunately, he was away from the capital at the time, and the chief mourner at her funeral was possibly her surviving grandson Abdallah. A cause of death has not been recorded, nor the place of her burial.2