The average American is inundated with headlines and articles about the nature of Islam practically on a daily basis. Despite the fact that many Americans don’t even have a Muslim as a close, personal friend, they often believe they have a pretty good handle on Islamic culture. One of the most common misconceptions non-Muslims have about Islamic culture is how women are perceived and treated. That is one reason the gringa, who has a Muslim daughter that enjoys a liberated life, higher education and career in medicine, would like the American public to become better informed. Let’s start with some notable Islamic women and their achievements as recorded in history.
Hinduism may be most commonly associated with India, but, once upon a time, a brave Muslim warrior became India’s first female Muslim ruler. Her name was Raziya, the daughter of a Turkish slave, Iltutmish Raziya, who achieved final greatness as the Sultan of Delhi, paving the way for his daughter’s future acclaim.
The year is 1236 in India when Raziya Sultan, birth name Jalalat-Al-Din Raziya, took the throne as the first female Sultan of Delhi. Her older brother, Nasiruddin, governor of Bengal, had died. Her younger brothers were too young to rule. So, when her father, the reigning Sultan, died, his legacy passed to the next capable heir according to the law of “qabliyat”. That was Raziya.
What determined her legally “qabliyat”, or, capable, of ruling a nation? While her father was Sultan, Raziya had acquired many years of experience as a trusted minister and regent when her father, the Sultan, was away on state business. Formally educated in the Qu’ran, she was also trained in the martial arts and became a skilled mounted warrior, be it on horseback or commanding an elephant.
As she carried herself with dignity and exhibited noble accomplishments, her father confided to the ulama, the religious law scholars, that he saw in his daughter “signs of power and bravery”. He expressed his preference for her over his sons with these words:
“My sons are devoted to the pleasures of youth, and not one of them is qualified to be king… After my death, you will find that there is none more competent to guide the state than my daughter.”
Many noblemen within the kingdom resented the idea of a female Sultan. But Raziya was clever and rendered their opposition powerless. She sowed seeds of discontent among them, making it possible to win over enough that she soon had a majority supporting her. As support for her leadership solidified, she was able to manage all the affairs of state through the loyalty of appointed maliks (lesser kings) and amirs (state governors).
Her accomplishments include building public schools, expanding academic opportunity, opening medical and science research centers, and public libraries for everyone to have access to religious texts related to Islam and Hinduism. She oversaw an extensive infrastructure project that created a sophisticated roadway system. This strengthened the kingdom’s economy and security, connecting remote villages and military outposts. And, contrary to many modern Americans who view Islam as intolerant, Sultan Raziya established the law of religious tolerance and equality between Hindus and Muslims.
It is interesting to note that she claimed the official title of Raziya Sultan rather than the feminine version, Raziya Sultana. This was by design to communicate to all that she was, indeed, the sovereign and rightful ruler of Delhi. She also set aside traditional female attire, opting for the masculine fashion of tunics and turbans. When she boldly rode out in public on horseback or elephant, she did not wear a purdah, the customary veil associated with Muslim women of that era.
Much to the dismay of the nobles who continued to refuse to accept a woman ruling over them, Raziya, secure in her power, made it clear that she did not need their approval. She signaled her independence by appointing a trusted slave to the strategic position of commander of her army. Even more shocking to the discontented nobles was that the new army commander was not even a Turk. He was Jamaluddin Yakut, an Ethiopian. His official new title was Amir-i-Akhur which literally means Intendent of the Royal Stables. The horses and elephants maintained in the stables were, in essence, the kingdom’s war machines. So he was, indeed, Commander of the Army.
The antagonistic noblemen were so incensed they conspired to overthrow their Sultan. They hoped a bit of romantic intrigue might result in a jealous rivalry that could end in assassination. You see, dear readers, at one time a nobleman, Malik Ikhtiyauddin Mirza Altunia, who had been a good friend to Raziya’s father, had proposed marriage to the new female Sultan. She turned him down, citing her responsibilities as head of state. She did, however, reward him with a governorship of Tabarhinda (today’s Bhatinda). The troublemaking noblemen began to gossip to Altunia, telling him lies about an affair between Raziya Sultan and the new Commander of the Army, Yakut. Altunia reacted as expected and joined the rebellion.
The rebellion consisted of small pockets of resistance cropping up in remote areas. Yakut had to send the army here and there, squashing fires and skirmishes as they popped up. Eventually, with his army scattered and tired, Yakut was killed in battle. His disheartened soldiers surrendered to Altunia. This led to Raziya Sultan’s forces turning on her, taking her prisoner.
The noblemen who started all of this trouble appointed Raziya’s step-brother as the new Sultan. It turned out that he was a drunk who oppressed the people and slaughtered all who criticized him. As the disaster of his leadership was fully realized, Altunia once again softened his heart for his old love. Raziya saw the strategic advantage of the alliance and the two were married.
Although Raziya Sultan did gain her freedom and, ultimately, her throne because of this marriage, the bloom on the rose faded quickly. One particular nobleman, Bahram Shah, could not let go of his hatred for her. He continued to stir up resistance. Raziya Sultan often took to the battlefield. The exact details of her death are unknown but the gringa will share the legend that is most often told:
Engaged valiantly in battle, Raziya Sultan was struck with an arrow. She fled the battlefield, looking for a place to restore her strength. A man discovered her and offered her food and a place of concealment where she could rest, unaware of who she was and thinking that she was a male soldier. While asleep she shifted her position. This revealed to her rescuer a glimpse of a golden tunic with expert needlework and pearl embellishments. Enraged when he realized that this was a woman disguised as a man, the rescuer turned murderer, later selling her valuables at market.
Legend recounts that the murderer buried Raziya Sultan. However, if you travel to Delhi you can find a tomb designated as this famous woman’s tomb. In fact, you might find several! Who really knows where Raziya Sultan lies today?!
If you don’t like this kind of ending to the fantastic account of Raziya Sultan’s life, you can see any number of fanciful and romantic endings in the many dramatic re-enactments on stage or in film that tell her amazing tale. And the next time you hear someone stereotype Muslims as not respecting their women, oppressing them and affording them no power, you will know what they don’t know. That Muslims are people like everyone else. Some good, some bad. And within every religion there are those who abuse the opportunity to use religion as a means of power over others while there are those who understand the true meaning of their religion: to serve all of mankind with kindness and humility, regardless of gender.
Image Credit: Alchetron