Islamic history is full of powerful women who defying all odds became queens and rulers, shaping their own destiny and the fortune of their realms
For original twitter thread: https://twitter.com/aaolomi/status/1382398811218264066
The Queen of Sheba- Mentioned in the Qur’an, The Queen of Sheba is a legendary monarch found in East African, Yemeni, and Biblical narratives. The brilliant @TheLadyImam (amina wadud) in her Qur’an and Woman astutely points out she is one of the few monarchs mentioned in the Qur’an who does not oppose a prophet.
She writes, “On the contrary, the Qur’anic story of Bilqis celebrates both her political and religious practices” (pg 40). The Queen of Sheba would go on to become the prototypical ruler. She would inspire later queens.
Sayyadiah bint Ahmed- also known as Arwa bint Ahmed al-Sulayhi was a 11th century Yemeni Queen known as the “Little Queen of Sheba.” She began her reign as co-ruler with her husband before eventually ruling on her own.
She avenged the death of her father-in-law by luring his murderer into a military trap. She was the first woman given the title of Hujjah and under her direction spread Ismailism in as far as India. She built a great mosque at Jibla where she was buried upon her death.
Asma Bint Shihab– was the aunt and mother-in-law of Sayyadiah bint Ahmed. She took in the young Sayyadiah when her parents died and raised her in the palace. She was the recognized co-ruler of her husband, Ali al-Sulayhi.
An acclaimed poetess she was renowned through the land for her verses. Her husband was killed in a raid and she was taken prisoner. Her husband’s head was left with her for over a year until she spirited a message out of her jail to her allies.
Her son came to her rescue.
Eventually because her son was paralyzed, she reigned as co-ruler with her daughter-in-law. Both Asmba bint Shibab and Sayyadiah bint Ahmed were known as the Little Queens of Sheba.
Al Khayzuran- The 8th century, Al Khayzuran was wife of Caliph al-Madhi and the ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate. Despite it being illegal to enslave a Muslim, she was taken as a war captive and sold to Al-Mahdi.
In the harem she trained herself in religious law and convinced al-Mahdi to free her and marry her. She supplanted his first wife and his first born with her own children.
Her husband spent his time hunting and sporting and so governing fell to Al Khayzuran who commanded the court, built her own bureaucracy, and even minted coins in her name. Upon her husband’s death she secured the allegiance of the city guard and army corp, but her son Hadi refused to share power, believing a woman had no place in politics.
He tried to sequester her and perhaps even kill her and his brother. Al Khayzuran had him killed and replaced him with his brother Harun al Rashid.
Sayyida Rasad- The 11th century Sayyida Rasad was the Sudanese queen of the Fatimid caliphate. When her young son succeeded the throne, Sayyida Rasad became the de facto queen mother.
Relying on a network of patronage, she appointed favorable allies and played officials against one another ensuring her influence. She maintained international influence as a royal diplomat and had relations with Queen Sayyadiah bint Ahmed.
Shajar al-Durr- A century after Sayyida Rasad, Egypt would once more be ruled by a queen, the famed Shajar al-Durr. Wife of the last Ayubid ruler, she concealed his death and used blank paper he had signed to issue edicts and commands in the midst of the 7th Crusade.
Her armies defeated the Crusaders and took King Louis IX captive.
The son of the late sultan, Turanshah attempted to sideline Shajar al Durr, demanding arrogantly she hand over his father’s jewels. He also had a reputation of getting drunk and abusing the household women.
The Mamluk soldiers were outraged at the treatment of Shajar al Durr so they assassinated him, ending the Ayubid dynasty and naming Shajar al Durr, Malikat al-Muslimin, or “Queen of the Muslims.”
Shajar al Durr married Izz al Din Ayabak, who historian Levanoni says was her emir, or commanders of the army and thus began the Mamluk dynasty. Eventually Aybak betrayed her and she had him killed in his bathtub, only to be arrest and executed by his successor.
Tandu Khatun- The 15th Century Tandu Khatun was also related to the Mamluks. A princess of the Mongol-Persian Jalairid dynasty, she visited Egypt in her youth. The Mamluk sultan fell deeply in love with her and they were married.
According to historian Mernissi she eventually she returned to Iraq and married Jalayir and upon her husband’s death ruled the dynasty for 8 years.
Sayyida al Hurra- The legendary Sayyida al Hurra was the 16th century pirate queen of Tetouan in Morocco. She was born in a changing world, her family was forced to flee the Reconquista and settled in North Africa.
Though she would eventually marry the sultan of Morocco (her second husband) she was known truly as the pirate queen, coming to dominate the western Mediterranean.
Seeking vengeance for the experience of the Reconquista she would earn a formidable and fearsome reputation among the Spanish. She would go on to rule for 30 years and historian Mernissi mentions her as one of the most consequential queens of the Islamic world.
Razia Sultana- In India, Razia Sultana of the 13th century was the first Muslim woman ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. An immensely competent ruler, she came to power through an internal family struggle.
Her half brother Ruknuddin Firuz was an incompetent ruler and left most of the governance to his mother, Shah Turkan another immensely powerful Queen Mother. Shah Turkan used the opportunity to settle personal grudges leading to great discontent. She even planned to have Raiza killed. Razia Sultana used the prayer pulpit to rally the people to her side who deposed mother and son and installed Razia.
She would go on to rule for 4 years until the squabbling of nobles would supplant her.
Nur Jahan- Finally there was Nur Jan, the 16th century wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. After being widowed the emperor fell in love with her and married her. She became his co-ruler, holding imperial court, and managing his royal seal.
A deeply learned woman, she became the real power behind the throne with her husband relying almost entirely on her, calling her “Nur Mahal” or “the light of the palace.” She even joined her husband on tiger hunts, being immensely skilled with the bow.
Her niece would be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.
The power and prestige women rulers held was often wrested out of the hands of a patriarchal society and they often struggled against subjects who resisted the idea of a woman ruler. Yet their lives were a testimony to the competence, skill, and power they possessed.
It’s also important to note the complex relationship of power and slavery in the Islamic world. Some of those who would wind up as queens started their life enslaved to the ruler. While slavery in the Islamic world differed from the chattel slavery of the trans-Atlantic world, these women were still enslaved and overcame a violently oppressive system to become rulers of vast dynasties. A testimony to their sheer force of will.