By all accounts a woman of strong intellect and deep compassion, Zubaidah bint Ja’far (766- 831) used the enormous wealth and power derived from her position as the wife of the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (786-809), to serve others as well as to promote Islam.
The Abbasid Caliphate was the third Islamic caliphate, and lasted from 750 to 1258, claiming a blooming and bustling Baghdad as its capital city. This period is commonly referred to as the “Islamic Golden Age,” due to the sheer number of scientific, literary, philosophical, and technological contributions that emerged from the Muslim community during this period. It was in this environment of intense, society-wide respect for knowledge that Zubaidah bint Ja’far had the privilege of growing up — an experience which was reinforced by her own family’s emphasis on her education.
Thanks to her access to learning opportunities as well as a powerful intelligence, Zubaidah was well versed in the Holy Quran and Hadith. She is even thought to have put her money to use creating jobs for female reciters of the Quran within her living quarters so that she could hear the words that were so close to her heart. Some sources even describe her apartments as having sounded “like a beehive,” due to the murmur of constant recitation of the holy book.
In addition to this considerable religious knowledge and devotion, Zubaidah was an avid patron of the arts and sciences. She wrote several well-known poems herself and was always keen for opportunities of discussion and further learning. She and her husband, Caliph Harun, were even featured in several stories that Scheherazade told the King in “One Thousand and One Nights!”
Perhaps her greatest and most well-known feat from both an engineering and social service perspective was the design and implementation of a water well system along the path from Zufah in present day Iraq to Mecca. Disturbed by the difficulties facing her fellow Muslims when they made Hajj, Zubaidah set out to ease the journey for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Hiring a team of skilled engineers and putting her wealth at their disposal, the devout Zubaidah stopped at nothing, ensuring that Muslims would travel in greater comfort along Darb Zubaidah (“Zubaidah’s” Way) for centuries to come. Indeed, the route along which she had commissioned the creation of this well system soon become essential to regional trade and the remains of an aqueduct dating from that period and known as “Zubaidah’s River” can still be seen today near Mount Arafat, east of Mecca.
Finally, alongside all of these social works, Zubaidah was a devoted wife and mother. She was thought to have been highly respected by the Caliph who frequently sought her opinion on matters of importance within the caliphate. She also successfully advocated for her own son Mohammed Al Amin’s appointment as Crown Prince. He went on to rule the Caliphate for a short time before dying in battle against his half-brother Mamoun who, like his father, also deferred to Zubaidah as a consultant in matters of the Caliphate.