4 Forgotten Queens of the Arab World
Women who changed their Arab communities forever
Few are the women who truly ruled in the history of the Arab and Arabized world, from Morocco to Oman. But those who did it did so with extreme grace and a sharp political genius, often outsmarting even the canniest male contenders. Yet, very rare are the books that tell their stories and celebrate their successes.
To understand why Arab women, even those from the purest lines, were excluded from our History and why we hear no mention of them, one must understand how the gears of power function in the Arab world. To do that, we need to keep in mind that the concept of power in the Arab community derives all of its meaning from religious authority.
According to Moroccan historian Fatima Mernissi, one of the main reasons for such exclusion is merely the fact that women weren't allowed to hold any religious power or authority during all of the Arab world's history. In fact, the one position mixing earthly and divine powers in Islam, that of the caliph, requires its contenders to be males. That is, of course, not the only reason, but it is one of the most important factors.
The caliphate doesn't matter
A caliph deputizes the prophet of Islam and acts as the shadow of God on Earth (as the Ottomans put it when they appropriated the title in the mid-16th century).
He is the highest authority figure in the state. Moreover, two criteria need to be present in any caliph at any given time: he must be a male, and he must be of Arab descent (with the only exception being the Ottomans for a limited time).
Yet, very few people have been caliphs in the history of the Arab world, even fewer rulers hold it at the moment (the kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia for example). If women are to be excluded from History because there has never been a female caliph, says Fatima Mernissi, are we also to exclude any male ruler who didn't hold the title too?
If not, then female queens of the Arab world should be equally celebrated and remembered. Otherwise, more than three-quarters of Arab rulers would see their reigns simply nullified.
Female titles of power
Women didn't have the right to be caliphs, but again so was the case for many men.
So, just like there were kings and sultans, there was always a female counterpart present in the Arab world. The titles women held are different and very meaningful.
Naturally, there were queens and sultanas in history, deriving their authority either from noble descent or military prowess. But women, especially in Andalusia and North Africa, held two other distinct titles: Al Hurrah and Sayyida.
Both have almost the same definition, Al Hurrah meaning 'the Free' and Sayyida meaning 'the Lady', as they served as a clear differentiation between these women and other slaves and concubines in the harem. One other title, also meaning 'Lady', and specially used in Egypt, is Sitt.
The Forgotten Queens of the Arab World
1. Queen Zaynab Nafzawiyyah (Morocco, Almoravid Dynasty)
Zaynab Nafzawiyyah was an Amazigh (indigenous people of North Africa) and the widow of the last prince of the tiny city-state of Aghmat, on the northern side of the High Atlas plateau in current Morocco. When Abu Bakr bin (son of) Omar, founder of the Almoravid Dynasty of Morocco, led his men deep into the plains and conquered the city of Aghmat in 1058, he married Zaynab but was not yet king.
The beautiful widow had prophesied that she would only marry a man who could conquer all of Morocco. So, when Abu Bakr presented his suit, she took him blindfolded into a deep cavern, showed him the huge wealth that was her dowry to him, then took him out blindfolded again before marrying him. Their marriage did not last.
Soon after they became husband and wife, Abu Bakr began the conquest foretold by his wife, founding a military base called Marrakech at the same site where the city stands today. Before he left for the desert to silence tribal rebellions, he delegated command to his cousin, Yusuf bin Tachfine. He even divorced the beautiful Zaynab and married her to him, which was a common practice of Arab men leaving for wars or pilgrimages.
Zaynab would never remarry Abu Bakr, and the king she made her prophecy about was indeed Yusuf bin Tachfine. Under their rule, their empire stretched from the deserts of Morocco to Spain and Portugal in the north and Algeria in the east.
Yet, in that power duo, historians make it clear Zaynab was the true ruler of the empire. One of her surnames, which was widely popular at the time, is "al-qaima bi mulkih" (Arabic for, literally, the one in charge of her husband's reign). She was also so expert at conducting negotiations that she was nicknamed "the Magician".
As she assisted in the building of the Almoravid Empire and its customs, her example is very important and crucial in this list. By actively presenting herself as an equal counterpart to her husband (she was indeed called Queen, a title not given to any monarch's wife before), she managed to establish a pattern throughout the life of the empire.
Women prospered during the Almoravid reign, to the extent where the context of the time allowed it. Not only were princesses allowed to participate in stately affairs, but women's education, in general, was widely accepted, a few stories even mention women in the military ranks of the Almoravids. Her fight was one of equality, without being called so.
2. Sultana Shajarat al-Durr (Egypt, Ayyubid Dynasty)
Historians don't always agree on her origins. Shajarat al-Durr was either an Armenian or Turkish slave of the Ayyubid sultan Ayyub as-Salih, the very last ruler of his dynasty, before becoming his concubine.
She is said to have been an extremely pious, intelligent, and beautiful woman. Upon his ascension to the throne and becoming the sultan in 1240, she gave Ayyub a son and was soon married to him.
Her role as a fine strategist and a natural leader would be revealed a few years later, in 1249. In April of that year, her husband was taken by an illness in Syria and, when the news of the seventh French crusade struck Egypt, he had to urgently go back home.
The French king Louis IX was assembling his troops on the nearby island of Cyprus for his deadliest attack ever. He launched it in June on the city of Damietta, where Ayyub was recovering. The sultan was instantly moved to the city of Mansourah where he died in November of the same year.
Upon his death, Shajarat al-Durr gathered her advisors and decided to keep the passing of the sultan a secret. For many months, the populace didn't suspect anything, nor did the highest-ranking officials in the army or the government. The sultan having signed many blank papers before his death, the sultana used those to issue decrees and sultanic orders, concealing the demise of her husband even more.
The date that Shajarat al-Durr is perhaps most known for is the 6th of April 1250. A few days earlier, news of sultan Ayyub's death reached king Louis IX, and the latter decided to march on Cairo without wasting any time.
In the battle that came to be known as the battle of Fariskur, the sultana (with the help of her advisors, the mamluks) launched the nastiest counter-attack in the history of the Ayyubid Dynasty. Not only did she manage to crush the 7th crusade once and for all, but she also captured king Louis IX in a defeat the French never forgot, and forcefully established herself as one of the finest strategists of the Arab world.
3. Aisha al-Hurra (Kingdom of Granada, Nasrid Dynasty)
One of the most influential characters in the late middle ages in the Iberian Peninsula was perhaps queen Aisha al-Hurra. Spouse of Abou (father of) Hassan Ali (king of Granada) and mother of Mohammed XII (his successor), she was also born into a secondary branch of the Nasrid ruling dynasty and owned multiple palaces and properties around the kingdom.
Her role in the conservation of the kingdom of Granada in the face of the Christian Reconquista under the command of Ferdinand and Isabella is one no historian can deny. She was the main reason why her husband, king Hassan, was deposed and replaced by his son Mohammed XII.
Her tumultuous story started when the king married a slave concubine from Christian origins with whom he fell in love. Isabel de Solis was originally from the kingdom of Castile and was a master of seduction. She converted to Islam under the name of Zoraya and later became the consort of the king. Soon after, queen Aisha and her sons were exiled to a different palace, and the royal court saw itself divided into two distinct parts: the supporters of Aisha, and those of Zoraya.
In 1482, ten years before the fall of Granada, Aisha al-Hurra allied herself with strong and influential families in Granada who were openly against king Hassan, deposing him soon after and replacing him with her son. The queen was extremely politically active during the reign of Mohammed XII and is said to be the true brain behind the operation.
In 1483, when her son was held captive in Castille, she personally presided over the negotiations for his release. Her role inside the court was so important that she became the pivotal pillar of Granadan politics, not only holding off the forces of the Reconquista at bay but also the spies and traitors inside the kingdom.
After standing against the Christian armies for nearly ten years, Granada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella after king Mohammed XII surrendered in an event the Arabs will never forget.
A famous legend says that, after the fall of the kingdom, the king looked back and wept, to which queen Aisha responded: "You weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man."
Her patriotism is extremely obvious through her actions and history, having pushed even women and children to battle when the Granadan armies were defeated.
The kingdom held out for so many years thanks to her and her involvement in state affairs. She is forever known as the last defender of Andalusia.
4. Sitt Al-Mulk (Egypt, Fatimid Dynasty)
One year before her birth in the ancient kingdom of Ifriqya (current Tunisia), the Fatimid armies conquered Egypt and built a new capital there in 669 AD: Cairo. Soon, at the age of three, Sitt Al-Mulk left her ancestral home in Al-Mansurya to live in Cairo, where she spent a beautiful childhood in the majestic Qasr Al-Bahr (the sea castle) on the shores of the Nil.
She was a very happy and spoiled child. Born to the great prince Aziz Billah (the fifth Fatimid caliph), she was her father's favorite and became very wealthy from a very young age thanks to his various gifts and presents. From palaces to jewels and slaves, she had it all and amassed a huge power from her newfound wealth. Her father even put a military unit at her full disposal and under her command.
During the reign of the caliph Aziz Billah, Sitt Al-Mulk had a huge influence on him. She mediated many times between men of power and the caliph, often softening the latter and getting paid huge sums of money from the solicitors. She was, then, heavily involved in the palace and state affairs, and was extremely aware politically speaking.
Aziz Billah suddenly died in 996 AD, leaving a huge question mark around the intricacies of his succession. His son and Sitt Al-Mulk's younger brother, al-Mansur, was only eleven years old and was in no way fit to rule. The young princess instantly supported another candidate for the caliphate, an unknown cousin she had never met (hoping she would marry him and thus secure the throne for herself).
Naturally, Sitt al-Mulk hurried back to Cairo to secure the palace for her candidate, but was sadly welcomed with shocking news; the palace's eunuch and al-Mansur's tutor had already put the crown on the little boy's head, thus declaring him caliph and placing the princess under house arrest.
Nonetheless, the relationship between the two siblings appears to have been amicable at the time, especially after the death of the eunuch in 1000 AD. One historical episode even reports that due to the ignorance of the young caliph when it comes to state affairs, it was the sister who informed her brother of a palace conspiracy aiming to murder him. Her brother trusted her, and her exclusion from power didn't seem to discourage her from making her family a priority.
But al-Mansur's reign soon drifted into erratic governance, one that was defined by very eerie prohibitions ranging from food and singing to dogs and baths. In the height of his arrogance, the caliph went as far as to accept the divine status accorded to him by some imams (highest religious figures).
As a result, the siblings drifted apart more than ever before, especially when the caliph, in 1013 AD, designated a cousin as his heir instead of his son. Sitt al-Mulk, expressing her disapproval, hosted her nephew and his mother in her palace to shield them from the erratic caliph.
On the night of the 13th of February 1021, the caliph disappeared. Days later, evidence of his murder was found and he was officially declared dead. Among the three contemporary historians who related these events, two raise the possibility of Sitt al-Mulk's involvement in the murder of her brother; a position reinforced by the fact she executed many state officials who, according to her, conspired in that sordid affair.
As soon as the sixth Fatimid caliph was declared dead, the princess turned regent queen moved rapidly to take control over the court. Al-Mansur's son, Ali, who had been under her care for many years, was quickly raised to the throne. Her regency had a very financial aspect to it; she redistributed money to court dignitaries and government officials and removed many of the estate grants and salaries that her brother previously offered his favorites.
In her position as the de-facto ruler of the state, she reversed many of the previous caliph's policies. She restored the custom duties that were abolished during his reign, women were once again allowed to leave their houses, music could be heard in the streets of Cairo, and wine drinking was illegal no more.
According to the historian Yaacov Lev, two main factors helped her secure her regency: first, her extreme wealth and the extent to which her father included her in politics gave her an edge over any other Fatimid at the time; second, the tumultuous reign of her brother in his last years pushed the ruling elite to quickly accept her leadership. It is safe to say Sitt al-Mulk was not only an extremely intelligent woman, but she knew how to make full use of all the cards at her disposal.
Contrary to common belief, the Arab community wasn't as reticent to accept female leaders as it is today. A man was indeed more likely to rule than a woman, as was the case in most of the world, but people were easily inclined to accept a female ruler if she showed true ambition and offered clear solutions to what hurt them the most.
Yet, we notice a blatant exclusion of these powerful female figures from History. Now that the fight for women's rights is at a tense point, especially in the Arab world, isn't it time to reopen our history books and learn more about those who started the fight hundreds of years ago?