Zubaida Khatoon was born in 148 A.H. (766CE) few months after Haroon Al-Rasheed. She was very pretty and so her grandfather Caliph Mansur named her Zubaida (a cup of cream).
Her actual name was Amatul Aziz (like Abdul Aziz for boys). She was daughter of Jaafer, brother of Caliph Mahdi and her mother Salsal was the sister of Khaizran, wife of Caliph Mahdi. Thus, she was connected to Haroon Al-Rasheed from her mother as well as father's side. She was very brilliant, beautiful and fond of learning. She learned the Holy Qur'an, Hadith and Arabic literature with due interest. She also showed great interest in literature and science and allocated funds inviting tens of poets, scientists and literary figures to Baghdad. It is said that her palace “sounded like a beehive” as she employed one hundred women maids who recited the Holy Qur'an day and night. Wherever she went in the palace the verses of Holy Qur'an were echoing.
She sponsored a group of Ulema for promoting Islamic learning. She lived during and after the time of Imam Al-Shafe'i. She was married to Haroon Al-Rasheed in 165 AH (781 AD), who was the fifth Abbasid Caliph and ruled for 23 years (786-809). Queen Zubaida was a very devout Muslim and never missed a prayer. She also performed Haj many times, often making the 900-mile trip from Baghdad to Makkah on foot with her husband.
Zubaida got a son named Mohammed Al Amin. He was six month younger to his step brother Ali Al-Mamoun whose mother was a concubine named Marajel. Zubaida pleaded for the nomination of her son Amin as the crown prince though Caliph Haroon preferred Mamoun because of his intelligence and scholarship. Finally, Haroon decided not to infuriate his wife and appointed her son as crown prince and Al Mamoun as crown prince to the new crown prince, and also appointed his third son Al Kassim as a third crown prince.
As expected, Al Amin started to mess things up from his first days in power, after the death of his father. Eventually, his conflict with his brother escalated and it ended after fierce battle, in which he was killed. His mother overcame her sorrow and tragedy and wrote to Al Mamoun “I congratulate you as the new caliph. I have lost a son, but he was replaced by the son that I did not give birth to.”
These words moved the new caliph as Mamoun was also raised by Zubaida when his mother died after three days of his birth. He rushed to her and swore that he did not order the killing of his brother. Zubaida lived for 22 years after the death of her husband. Caliph Mamoun gave her full respect and comfort and consulted her in important matters. She died at the age of 67 in 216 A.H.
Her biggest achievement was the planning and execution of a road project from Baghdad to Makkah. There was a path that existed before but she saw the pilgrims dying with thirst and losing the way because of desert and sandstorms. To solve this problem, Zubaida planned to build a well-demarcated route with buildup walls and shelters to protect the travelers from shifting sands and harsh weather conditions. Her engineers moved in the direction of Qibla and drew a map of over 1200 km. The road was divided into more than 40 stations for shelter of huge caravans of pilgrims with their animals. Deep wells, water pools, guest houses, mosques and police posts were erected to provide comfort and security to the pilgrims. High minarets were raised to locate the place and in the night towers were lit with fire to guide the caravans to the right direction.
All these structures were so strong that they remained intact for centuries. The result was that Darb Zubaida served for more than 1,000 years for million of pilgrims from Iraq, Fares, Khorasan and Kurdistan. Though about 1,300 years have passed, some of the wells and pools of this route can still be identified.
Darb Zubaida started from Baghdad and passing through Kufa, Najaf, Qadsiya, Mughiatha, Thalabia, Feedh and Samera reached Naqra where it bifurcated for Madina through Al-Akhakia. The main route to Makkah continued through Mughaith, Beir-Ghifari, Al-Saleelah, Birka-Zabda and reached Mahad Dhahab (Gold mines). Later crossing through Safinah, Ghamrah, it reached Meeqat named Zat-Irq, and later passing through Bustan reached Makkah.
Darb Zubaida also mobilized the cultural and commercial activity in the region. Pilgrims exchanged their ideas, delivered sermons, told historical stories and reached commercial dealing during the night halts. This route remained active for six months every year for Haj traffic and for the rest period served the locals and traders. It is said that Zubaida spent 1,700,000 mithqaal on this project which is equal to 5,950 kg of pure gold costing billions of dollars today.
Apart from Darb Zubaida that mobilized the cultural and commercial activities in the region and provided pilgrims a platform to exchange their ideas and reach commercial dealings, her another achievement was the canal named Ain Zubaida.
Few sites remaining as her monuments can still be seen at Birkah Al Areesh located 70km north and Birka Al Bidaa, located 20 km northeast of Turbat Hayel. Another site is Birka Al-Jumaima, 14 km east of Rafha and Birkat Zarood, 50 km northeast of Buqaa.
Zubaida's another milestone achievement was the canal named Ain Zubaida. After her husband's death in 193 A.H., Zubaida went for Haj. She noticed great scarcity of drinking water in Arafat, Mina and Makkah. Pilgrims were suffering with thirst and the cost of water had risen to one dinar a bottle. She was so distressed and moved by the situation that she decided to build a canal. She enlisted the services of the best engineers to build a canal that could provide free water to the pilgrims throughout all areas of Makkah. Ibn Al Jawzi recorded that Zubaida ordered engineers to conduct an urgent study to bring water to Makkah. After a survey, they reported to her that it would be an extremely difficult job, since it requires digging tunnels under massive rocks and building tunnels along slopes for over 10 miles. The report also concluded that it would be a very costly project.
"After surveying the entire area they decided to bring the canal from Hunain valley where water springs from the mountains provided water to the residents and for irrigation. The valley of Hunain was the place where the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) had won Ghazwa-e-Hunain. The area was rocky, the land was barren and dry and the weather very hot. It was very difficult to sustain a canal on the surface of the earth, so the engineers planned to make a subterranean canal in the form of a tunnel (aqueduct), with water stations raised above the ground at different intervals, wherefrom people could meet their water needs."
On the orders of Zubaida, the entire area of Hunain valley, which contained springs and other sources of water, was bought by paying a huge amount of money. To bring water through the mountains was a Herculean task, which required a large number of manpower, enormous funds and expertise for cutting the mountains and digging the barren and rocky hills. But nothing could frustrate Zubaida's determination. "For each stroke of spade and shovel, I'm ready to give a dirham if needed", she said and the work was launched. The whole project took three years and cost the equivalent of billions of dollars of our time, which she paid from her own money.
After several years of hard work, the canal was eventually brought all the way down to Jabal-e-Rahma in Arafat, and then to Mina and Muzdalifah. The spring water from Hunain valley and whatever water sources found on the way were converged into the canal. The water supply through this canal brought great relief to the pilgrims as well as to the residents of Makkah for more than thousand years. The remains of this historical canal can still be seen on the side of Mount Arafat.
On a historic day, a crowd had gathered outside the beautiful palace of Queen Zubaida, waiting for her audience. The queen appeared in the balcony and very gracefully addressed the crowd: “Today I close all the account books on the Makkah Canal. Those who owe me any money need not pay back. And those whom I owe any, will be paid immediately and double the amount.” Saying this, she ordered that all the account books be thrown into the river and said: “My reward is with Allah.”
Sheikh Abdullah bin Mubarak narrated that he saw Queen Zubaida in a dream and asked her. What Almighty Allah did with you? She said, My Lord granted me forgiveness on the first stroke of the shovel on Makkah route.
This is an interesting contrast. If austerity elevated the name of Rabia Basri, the wealth raised the name of Queen Zubaida. Today we have thousands of Muslim women who are millionaires and Muslims are facing enormous difficulties, let them get inspiration from Queen Zubaida. May Allah grant her the best reward