Forgotten Queen in Islam

Farah Shahin Female Space

When the Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988, Nawaz Sharif and other opposition leaders alleged blasphemy and created the havoc that women have never governed a Muslim state.

However, contrary to the above belief, there was several women ruler in the Muslim world. Although many queens were erased from the pages of history. They were the ones, who constantly fought battles with sultans for the thrones or sometimes opposed the Caliphs. In one or two cases, women also assumed the role of Caliph. However, there is no word equivalent to Caliph and Imam for the female head. Therefore, the number of feminist scholars used ‘queen’ or other titles for them. Even in the Quran, the word ‘queen’ is used for a woman ruler of Sheba. Moreover, there is no objection for the female head in Islam. In the Quran, chapter 26, the- Ant (Al- Naml), 20 verses are regarding Queen of Sheba (Verses 23-43). Quran does not say her name in these verses. However, the queen of Sheba was shown as a strong leader and was loved by her people. They used to worship the sun. When she received a Prophet Suleiman message to worship Allah, she decided to test him, if he is a Prophet or not. In the Quran, she is praised as a ruler and also for her intelligence. Moreover, the Quran does not consider her a lesser ruler because of her gender. Feminists scholar such as Fatima Mernissi also raised the issue that some historians cannot digest her capability as a female ruler. They suggest that politics should not be women’s arena and raised doubt about the Queen of Sheba or Bilqis. According to them, Bilqis was not a common human being, for example, Masudi (died in 346 hijri) referred to the doubt regarding the lineage of the queen of Sheba by stating that her father was a human, but her mother was among the jinns. She was a praised ruler, and everyone considered her superior. Otherwise, in the patriarchal opinion, a mere woman cannot rule. Moreover, Masudi argued, because of her extraordinary potential that she could not be entirely a human. Nevertheless, feminist scholars highlighted that the Quran did not consider worthy to mention the parental genealogy of the Queen of Sheba or Bilqis. Masudi’s personal opinion or weakness was that he could not bear that a woman was accepted as a ruler, even in the Quran. So, very diplomatically, he attacked her lineage and tried to deliver a message that a woman is not worthy to rule.

Many women ruled directly or under the name of their close relatives such as brother, husband or son. Women also exercised the political authority, but their contributions, unfortunately, have been erased from history and popular consciousness. To enjoy her right, a woman does not have to be perfect, superb or having extraordinary intelligence. It is a patriarchal idea that women have to be exceptional to be equal to men. Not all the female rulers were perfect, and they had defects, just like all other human beings. They also made mistakes. However, they had been very ambitious. The criteria and eligibility for being a Caliph have been set–as an Arab male. However, non-Arab people have repeatedly challenged the criteria of ethnicity. Some of them died while defending the idea that any Muslim can become a Caliph. Over the period, no one ever challenged the idea that only a male can be a Caliph. No one even contended that relating the position of Caliph only to the maleness is also violating the principle of equality. Associating the word Caliph and women seems blasphemous. Moreover, Caliphs always opposed women’s power as mulk or sultana. However, some women managed to get power and ruled.

Fatima Mernissi took up the challenge and devoted her book Forgotten Queens of Islam to the women rulers. She analysed the history of Muslim rule and left no stone unturned in praising women’s great power. Apart from the Prophet’s wives and female members, she detailed women rulers who marked Islamic history with their courage and intelligence. One of the first women who ruled Muslim was Turkan Khatun, wife of the Malikshah, a Seljuk Sultan who challenged Baghdad’s Caliph. Mahmud, the son of Malikshah, was only four years old when Caliph Malikshah died, so his wife Turkan Khatun tried to get power. However, in order to defend the succession of Malikshah, approval of Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadi (r1070-1094). Turkan Khatun kept her husband’s death a secret and started negotiating with the Caliph. The Caliph was not ready to give a child the power because a child is not entrusted with Islam’s throne. However, Turkan Khatun managed a fatwa (decree) saying a child can be in power under the guardianship. Hence she was able to claim the throne.

Another woman, Shajarat-al-Durr, the wife of Malik al- Salih Naim al-Din Ayyub, faced opposition from Abbasid Caliph, Al- Mustasim. Shajarat-al-Durr succeeded her husband after his death in 1250. She won the military victory against the crusaders and captured the King of France Louis X. At that time, Egypt was under Baghdad’s control, and then Caliph Al-Mustasim refused to recognise her as the head of the state.

However, the case of Radiya Sultan(r 1236-1240) was different. She did not face refusal from the Caliph. she faced opposition from her countrymen or family members. The Sultan Iltutmish, who was the father of Radiya Sultan, made her the heir, even though he had three sons. Even the religious leaders, who were very near Sultan and very influential in the country, did not keep Radiya from accepting the power. Their rivals led the opposition in the name of God during her reign. It can be noted that in the cases of Shajarat al-Durr and Radiya Sultan, the Caliph’s reactions were very contradictory. The Egyptian ruler faced opposition from the Caliph while later was supported by religious authority.

Moreover, the people of Yemen were very accommodative of the idea of women’s rule. They took pride in their history (Queen of Sheba, belonged to them) and matriarchal nature of their society before Islam. In Yemen, several queens bear the title of “Malika”, Asma and Arwa were among them. They ruled over San’a near the end of the 11th century.

Arwa ruled beside her husband, Ali Muhammad al-Sulayhi. He was the founder of the Sulayhi dynasty. After that Asma, the daughter in law of Arwa has ruled the state until she died in 1138. These two queens had the same royal title “al-sayyidaal-hurra”. Being a shia ruler, she needed the approval from Fatimid, the Shia Caliph, who was the sole person in a position to recognise her. Asma shared power with her husband, but after the death of Mukarram, his wife Arwa faced opposition from Caliph al-Mustansir.

The local and cultural dimensions, especially in Yemen, is critical. They accepted women as their leader because of their traditions. However, politics in Islam changes its ‘colours’ according to the circumstances. The later Caliphs and qadis were mere politicians. They used to bend risala of Islam (message of Prophet Muhammad in Hadith and the Quran) to suit their interest. Shias legitimated their rule through the succession by women (Khadija and Fatima, wife and daughter of the Prophet respectively) and their religious authorities set to work to prove it. While in Sunni tradition, the Caliph of Baghdad needed to contradict women as the transmitters of legitimacy so they sought help from the hadith, which can be interpreted according to their interest. They use hadith because it is challenging for religious authorities always to get what they need through interpreting the Quran. However, the positions which were taken by Fatimid Caliphs concerning women and politics were contradictory. On the one hand, they accepted Fatima (a woman) as their foremother to legitimise their rule, but on the other hand, they refused the presence of women as partners in politicsin the case of women rulers of Yemen as mentioned earlier, Asma and Arwa.

Sitt al-Mulk(970–1023), assumed the position of Caliph to fulfil the duties for four months was extraordinary. In the year 1020 Caliph, Imam al-Hakim Ibn’ Arnri Allah, who declared himself as God, had disappeared mysteriously. The story of Sitt al-Mulk was fascinating and exemplary. It is the story of a woman, who was forced by the circumstances to claim a Caliph’s place to save the Shia believers’ millions. The rule of Sitt al-Mulk was an exceptional case, in which a woman had managed to assumed the Caliph’s throne. She was in the position of Caliph for four months. However, the Patriarchy’s duality can not be ruled out because they have completely refused to accept Sitt al- Mulk’s existence. The double standard of the patriarchal system can also be found in the example of the other female rulers of Spain who were titled as Al-Hurra. One of them was Ayesha al-Hurra. She was known as one of the most unique and fashions in history of Spain. Ayesha played a very heroic role in overthrowing her husband and replaced him with their son Abu Abdullah. She did it on the call of Andalusia who was very concerned about their future because the then Sultan, Husband of Ayesha married a war captured Catholic slave Isabella. After Isabella had born Sultan a child, she started strengthening her position, used her ascendancy over the Sultan and started favouring her people. So, at this time, the Granada elite decided to overthrow the Sultan with the help favoured From the examples of Al- Hurra, women scholars have raised the issue of Muslim historian biases towards the women. Ayesha al- Hurra and another ruler of Spain, Sayyida al- Hurra, were neglected in the Arab sources while they got their place in the Spanish and Portages historians’ writings and documents. Therefore one can say that several women ruled Muslims such as Radiya Sultana (r. 1236–1240, Delhi), Shajarat al-Darr (r. 1250–1257, Egypt), ʿAʾisha al-Hurayra (who ruled through her son, r. 1483–1492, Spain), Sitt al-Mulk (r. 1021–1023) and many others. Even the Quran does not oppose the queen of Sheba, nor did it consider women rulers as inferior or incapable. So, by saying, Islam does not allow women to be in politics is a distorted truth; it is just Muslim leaders for their interest are opposed to women’s rule.


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