Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Zaat al-Khaal

The very earliest of the Umayyads did not keep harems of jawari (or slave women, if I can translate roughly for a moment), but instead a woman’s power was rightfully her own, and her nobility was measured by her defiance. Among the women who demonstrate this are Sakina bint al-Hussain and A’isha bint Talha, both of who rejected the veil and polygamy, and whose “disobedience” were encapsulated into their power—and celebrated.

However, aristocrats of the later Umayyad period, much longer after the Prophet had passed, and infamously of course the Abbasid period, preferred jawari, because a jariya’s duty was to obey. That was why she was “purchased.” This began with the Muawiyah, who violently seized power and manifested this leadership by making its transmission dynastic, against the desire of the Prophet. During this period there was a fascination with power and everything it rendered—ownership and wealth, and the jariya is a demonstration of this obsession with absolute power.

Let me pause here for a moment and explain what jariya means, because this will be conveyed (a little) in the story of Zaat al-Khaal, whose story is, of course, not representative of all jawari of her time, but nonetheless comments expansively on the political philosophy of this period. The word jariya itself, its roots, means something in movement. It is the wind, or the vessel that follows on flowing waters, something to which one is directed, secret in nature—and something that is to be owned as a symbol of power.

Zaat al-Khaal was at first the jariya of the great artist Ibrahim al-Mawsili, who taught her poetry and music. She was extraordinarily beautiful (it is actually even in her name), and extremely talented—enough for Harun al-Rashid to become so jealous that he wished to acquire her, and so he “purchased” her from Ibrahim al-Mawsili. During a night of impassioned intimacy, seized in the throes of desire, he asked the question that had been tormenting him from the beginning: whether she had relations with her former master, Ibrahim al-Mawsili, who taught her the arts of music and poetry.

Although she feared punishment (even though such a thing had been within Ibrahim’s “rights”) Zaat al-Khaal replied with the truth: yes, only once.

Harun al-Rashid was devastated and overwhelmed with jealousy. He rejected Zaat al-Khaal, and to punish her gave her to Hamawiya, his slave. But one day, Harun al-Rashid was seized with the longing to see her again, and asked Hamawiya if he might hear her sing. Hamawiya replied that they would come tomorrow, and, to prepare for the visit, borrowed from the jeweler so that Zaat al-Khaal would be adorned with what she was once accustomed to wearing.

Seeing her again, Harun al-Rashid was once more overtaken by her beauty, but noticed the exquisite jewels that adorned her and became immediately jealous that his slave was capable of providing such things for her. He asked Hamawiya how he had managed to acquire the jewels when (sarcastically) “I haven’t yet appointed you governor.” Fearful, Hamawiya admitted the jewels were a loan.

Reassured of Hamawiya’s decency—and, for al-Rashid’s ego, of Hamawiya’s poverty rendering him inferior—Harun al-Rashid called the jeweler and purchased all the jewels Zaat al-Khaal had worn so that she may keep them, and right then and there promised to grant her any wish.

She wished for Hamawiya to be appointed governor of Persia. And so al-Rashid did.

Although she could no longer be her own protector, Zaat al-Khaal profitably made her protector the governor of the most powerful nation of the Empire, and did so within the acknowledgements of the system in which she was imprisoned, because the impulse of seeking power and wealth was within the framework of al-Rashid’s leadership.

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